Politicians have lately turned to bragging that some plan of theirs to give someone a new benefit is “fully paid for,” in contrast to a rival’s plan. Then they act as if that gives them some moral superiority as a result. However, revealing who and how much someone intends to take from some to benefit others does not establish that a plan is either ethical or effective.
“Paid for” plans are arguably more honest than spending and not identifying who will pay. However, any ethical superiority is limited to risking some political disadvantage, because telling those you intend to harm in the process creates a group who would oppose it, in contrast to leaving that harm more uncertain and ambiguous by leaving the cost to unnamed future taxpayers. It does nothing to make the inherent theft involved any more ethical, however.
Theft is theft; naming who will be plundered does nothing to justify theft as moral or ethical — a slightly more forthcoming thief is still a thief. Besides, any political risk is tempered by hurting unpopular groups (e.g., Big Tobacco, Big Oil) and those unlikely to vote the “right” way in any event.
Politicians who have some “paid for” plans also have a multitude of other plans that are not, so any moral high ground in one case cannot justify the moral low ground they adopt in others. Being supposedly ethical some of the time is not a very high standard for a “public servant.”
“Paid for” plans, like so many central plans, are also paid for only in the planners’ imagination. Politicians don’t actually know what will happen or how effective a plan will be (if they did know that precisely, they would broadcast the details to everyone to claim credit and improve their sales pitch, and the fact that those details aren’t forthcoming means either they don’t know or they know and they aren’t revealing them, both of which are strong reasons to discount any claims). And assumptions are frequently preposterous (e.g., comprehensive health insurance will reduce fraud, when it eliminates any incentive for patients — the only ones who know what was actually done — to monitor fraud). Further, lying as well as stealing is even less ethical defensible for someone who is to advance the general welfare of Americans. And by the time things are implemented and enough time has passed to start evaluating results, effective punishment for misguided policies is far too little, too late.
In markets, benefits are always paid for, because voluntary transactions have no power to harm others. As a result, saying a plan is paid for is never a reason to supersede markets, where arrangement plans are not just paid for in an accounting sense but actually beneficial to all participants.
Many “paid for” programs are actually funded only for a limited time period, and introduce huge future liabilities as the costs spiral out of control (e.g., Medicare and Social Security) and tax revenues fall over time (unless rates are raised in unadvertised ways) as people find progressively more ways to avoid the burdens over time.
“Paid for” is far from the primary question — will government do more good for those involved than the private sector. When income redistribution is the primary motive, that answer can be yes for some only if still greater harm is imposed on others.