Friday, July 20, 2012

The "You didn't build that" Debate

In The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759), Adam Smith famously lamented that the "disposition to admire, and almost to worship, the rich and the powerful, and to despise, or, at least, to neglect persons of poor and mean condition ... is, at the same time, the great and most universal cause of the corruption of our moral sentiments. That wealth and greatness are often regarded with the respect and admiration which are due only to wisdom and virtue; and that the contempt, of which vice and folly are the only proper objects, is often most unjustly bestowed upon poverty and weakness, has been the complaint of moralists in all ages."

We see examples of this all the time. And we're seeing it now in what Jonathan Chait (New York Magazine), commenting on the rights's reaction to President Obama's "You didn't build that" speech, has called "the extraordinary hypersensitivity surrounding the egos of the rich in our current political culture." Chait correctly analogizes this to the familiar "touchiness surrounding race and gender" often found on the politically-correct left. Thus, Chait argues that, like the left, "conservatives have developed a whole terminology - i.e., 'class warfare' - to treat any discussion of subjects they prefer to avoid as a kind of hate speech."

Chait believes that  everybody really recognizes "that government contributes some measure toward the success of business owners," but that the President's opponents "feel angry that he would verbalize it." In other words, they are responding just as leftists do when something said seems "insensitive" according to current elite liberal fashions. There is certainly a large measure of truth to Chait's analysis. But it is also true, switching to the actual substance of the issue, that there is now loose in American society a hyper-individualist streak that really does devalue almost all government action and really is uncomfortable with the concept of community.

But not everyone - even on the right - is that far gone. So Chait gets it only partly correct. For surely part of the problem is on the other side. Part of the problem has surely been the left's increasing conflation of society with government (the end result of which is inevitably the emasculation of society in favor of the liberal Leviathan state).

So, for example, Charles Krauthammer (The Washington Post) readily concedes the formative influence of civil society on the individual, while categorically rejecting an equivalent role for government. Given the President's use of infrastructure spending as a prime example, Krauthammer readily recognizes the government's historical and proper role in regard to infrastructure, but argues that the real argument is "about what you do beyond infrastructure. It's about transfer payments and redistributionist taxation, about geometrically expanding entitlements, about tax breaks and subsidies to induce actions pleasing to central planners. It's about free contraceptives for privileged students and ... endless government handouts that, ironically, are crowding out necessary spending, yes, on infrastructure."

OK, but again the argument is overstated. Krauthammer conveniently employs negative language to describe a variety of policies. But surely it is possible to favor transfer payments and entitlements and simultaneously care about the deficit and recognize the limits and dangers of central planning. It is certainly possible to favor health insurance coverage for all Americans without also advocating free contraceptives. In short, surely is is possible to advocate - like Alexander Hamilton, for example - an energetic national government strong enoough to address our national problems without embracing policies aimed at the emasculation of family, religion, and other foudnaitons of civil society.

Where Krauthammer is correct, however, is in recognizing that this is the overal direction liberal statism is taking society. So he has fun lambasting the now notorious "Julia" Obama campaign ad. That may be a bit of a cheap shot, but surely "Julia" is indeed dangerously revealing of a certain mindset, which posits only isolated individuals, unencumbered by traditonal social bonds so as to be that much more totally dependent on the state.

Again, there is nothing new at all about these insights. The frontispiece of the 1651 edition of Thomas Hobbes's Leviathan  - one of the principal foundaitonal documents of modern liberalism - already said it all. The image is that of the sovereign as an awesome figure towering over a peaceful, propserous community. But the sovereign himself is formed by miniature figures of his subjects, each of whom retains his distinct indiviudality, each of whom stands in direct relaitonship with the sovereign, unmediated by any other social institutions of communal bonds.

The fact is that we do need an intelligent debate in our society about the optimal role of government. It is also a fact, however, that we are largely incapable of having such a debate. That is partly the case, of course, because of our dumbed-down style of politcs. But it is also because both sides share some of the same individualistic presuppositions. President Obama (and the liberal intellectual elites he identifies with) seem to see government as the protector of individuals from social institutions and communitarian bonds (family, religion, etc.) which are assumed to limit indiivudal liberty. His Republican rival (and the economic elites he represents) resist the statist implications of liberalism's individualism because of their devotion to market economics. But it was the radically individualistic and anti-communitarian character of the market and early modern political and economic theory designed to support a free-market society that created the context which set the stage for liberal statism. 

We really can't debate the optimal role of government apart from a logically prior debate about how we reconcile the simultaneously communitarian and indiviudalistic aspects of human nature.

1 comment:

  1. This is the best post that I have seen on this topic; thank you for such reasoned positions. I am not sure that I completely agree with everything you say, but largely everything that you say reflects the very sad state of our society.

    I have wanted to write about this, but in addition to lacking the language, I also lack the impetus. In the end, each side lines up simply wanting to fight with the other, short on facts, long on anger and self-righteousness and once again, the point is lost. My Facebook page and blog become scenes, people walk away angry and there seems to be even more division. I just don't know what to do any more.

    And as you say very well in the last sentence, we can't really have the conversation without discussing community and individualism.

    Yesterday I was driving and heard something on the radio, I wish I could remember exactly what it is and where I heard it now... It was something to the effect that Obama values collective well being more than individual accomplishment and there was no shortage of outrage around it.

    It made me think of something I saw on a very Catholic friend's Facebook page, about the value of individual work. It also made me very sad to think that about how this has crept into our American churches and "theology" as well. We don't save ourselves, Christ has saved us and we cooperate by loving and serving God... and one another. That is the most simple version, but that is where it all starts and ends for me.

    Sorry for the long rant... Thank you for this post.