A return to first principles: The argument from morality

President Obama, in my opinion, long ago decided that our recent troubles are the consequence of our old principles – that it’s time to set aside childish dreams of individualism, and embrace the European approach to government.

He hopes to renovate the moral tenor of our public life – from the top down.  I heartily endorse the goal of a renovation of morals, but this can only be achieved by the people, never the government, and thus requires a return to Jeffersonian, democratic, bottom-up principles.  The president’s alternative obeys a logic which demands the impoverishment and ultimately the denial of moral life.

Let me explain why.

Morality consists of the struggle to drive behavior toward some ideal.  The ideal is largely public and shared; the struggle, on the other hand, is painfully private and personal.  Good and evil contend on the darkling plain that is every human heart:  in that shadowy conflict is formed the thief and the murderer, but also the good spouse, the good parent, the good employer and employee – and the good citizen.

In our system of government, the citizen is sovereign.  Democracy can endure only so long as he embodies the virtues of freedom:  self-rule, self-reliance, public-mindedness, tolerance.  The “individualism” in our way of life is simply a wide open space around the private struggle – an act of faith that the individual, who is sovereign, will triumph.

The European model favored by President Obama takes it for granted that individual behavior is shaped by powerful social forces rather than moral constraints.  The people are thus helpless and childlike – pawns in the hands of self-seeking elements.  The role of government is to protect the citizen from his own behavior, and to manipulate the social forces toward productive rather than destructive ends.

This requires government to be minutely intrusive, though not necessarily strong.  Hence the tangle of European laws and regulations which, for example, preserve labor from laboring, children from parents, gays and immigrants from “hate” speech.  Moral wrecks of the kind chronicled by Theodore Dalrymple, on the other hand, are housed and provided for by a studiously nonjudgmental government:  they are not responsible.

A faith in blind forces guides President Obama’s actions and policies.  In a 1995 interview in which he mocked “that old individualistic bootstrap myth,” the young Obama observed:  “Right now we have a society that talks about the irresponsibility of teens getting pregnant, not the irresponsibility of a society that fails to educate them to aspire for more.”

The struggle, on this account, isn’t between good and evil within every human heart.  It’s between a wise government and the Darwinian forces of society – the “narrow interests” President Obama attacked in his inaugural address.

This being the case, we shouldn’t be surprised that the president’s legislation treats the people like mildly retarded children.  The law for the “protection of credit cardholders,” for example, assumes the consumer is unable to grasp what a payment deadline is.  The 2000-page health care package inserts the government deep into every individual’s decision touching a key aspect of his welfare.  EPA’s carbon regulations will dictate which type of vehicles we are allowed to purchase.

Even the bailout of financial institutions and automakers flows from the same premise.  There can be no moral hazard when the government alone has moral agency.  The rest of us must be either victims or victimizers.  In the place of morality, we find sociology.

It may be wondered what moral principles appeal to such a pervasive government.  The question can be quickly disposed of:  belief in impersonal forces is an old rationalist superstition, and we can be sure that the brahmins of the Obama administration, like the Euro-elites, are rationalist to the core.

I presume these people to be decent and well-intentioned, by my standards.  But they define their jobs in terms of universally desired states – full employment, total access to health care – which only the techniques of a masterful government can bring about.  Those who disagree are neither good nor evil, but ignorant.

Rationalist politics, like mathematics, admits of only one right answer.  The result is a growing public silence and a narrowing of possibilities.  In Europe, governments are elected, but elections offer few alternatives and those elected immediately isolate themselves from their sociologically-driven compatriots.

The argument from morality, in the end, is really about freedom.  For the citizen to remain sovereign, he must partake of human dignity.  Dignity, in turn, must be forged in the heat of that private struggle which delivers good and evil alike.  The sovereign citizen must be a moral adult, a political animal:  a free individual in a community of equally free individuals.

The way forward leads paradoxically to our founding principles.  The president’s way asks for civic abdication, childishness, and constraint; sooner or later, on good rationalist principles, we will be censoring our own thoughts.

I don’t see a middle ground between the two ideals.


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