Why the politics as morality tale narrative blinds one to reality
By Jonathan Rosenblum
One of the working papers for the recent Jewish People Policy international conference, entitled "Jewish Identity and Identification: New Patterns, Meanings, and Network's," posed the question whether the Jewish community's altered material and political circumstance "entail a long-term shift from identification with the have-nots to identification with the haves." (A full session of the two-day Jewish identity track focused on whether political liberalism still serves as a source of Jewish identification.)
The authors of that particular paper happen to be very bright people; one is an internationally recognized legal theorist. But their implicit characterization of the divide between political liberalism and conservatism as one between good people who care about those less fortunate than themselves and bad people who don't strikes me as highly tendentious.
Why not characterize the liberal-conservative divide — admittedly no less tendentiously — as a debate over whether poor people are better served by government hand-outs that foster a culture of dependence (liberal) or by paying jobs that provide the skills and work ethic to escape poverty (conservative)? Or as a debate over whether it is more virtuous to give other people's money through income redistribution to the have-nots (liberal) or to give one's own money through private charity (conservative)?
The tendency of many contemporary liberals to view politics in terms of a Manichean struggle between good people and bad ones begets many pernicious consequences. Too frequently the goal of liberal politics becomes affirmation of one's essential goodness; it is a form of self-soothing. (Because conservatives emphasize the private realm over the public, they are less likely — though hardly immune — to equating politics with morality.)
The late firebrand Oriana Fallaci coined the term "Goodists" for those who employ politics as a means of self-congratulation. Goodists, writes Bret Stephens, put a higher premium on their moral intentions than the efficacy of their actions . . . . Above all, the Goodists are people who like to be seen to be good."
Goodism goes a long way to explaining contemporary liberal attitudes to Israel, especially among those who booed the mention of Jerusalem at the Democratic Convention. Once the Palestinians are identified as the "have-nots" and the Israelis as the "haves," the case is closed as far as Goodists are concerned. Nothing else matters.
The Jewish people's historical connection to the Land, the condition of the Holy Land prior to the Second Aliyah, the history of the conflict and the consistent Arab refusal to accept a sovereign state ruled by Jews in any boundaries — are all beside the point. For again, what is at stake is not finding a practical settlement between Israel and the Palestinans. It is the use of the Palestinians to enable those who advocate on their behalf a means to establish their goodness at no cost or risk to themselves.
THE NEGATIVE CONSEQUENCES of viewing politics as a morality play, a struggle between good and bad people, are many. For one thing, it makes the search for pragmatic, non-partisan solutions to problems almost impossible. As an example, every one acknowledges that the United States social security system, predicated on actuarial assumptions of the 1930s, when few workers lived much past 65, is no longer viable. In 1960, there were 5 workers for every beneficiary; today, the ratio is 2:1.
Paul Ryan proposed one plan for revamping social security on a fiscally sustainable basis. No doubt various experts would have much to argue against aspects of the plan. But once it becomes political, the plan can no longer serve as a starting point for discussion and further tinkering. Rather the author must be portrayed as seeking to push grandma off the cliff in a wheelchair. And so will it be with every such proposal, leaving the present unsustainable system in place.
The greater the extent to which political opinions are perceived as a choice between good and evil, the less finicky will the forces of "good" be about means, including the suppression of "bad" opposing opinions. A recent study of 800 social and personality psychologists by Yoel Inbar and Joris Lanners of Tilburg University showed that psychologists holding conservative views are prudent to hide those views. The willingness to discriminate in academic hiring or publication of academic papers correlated directly to liberal views — the more liberal the more willing to discriminate against colleagues.
That tendency goes a long way towards explaining how university campuses have become the near exclusive province of one side of the political spectrum. In a pre-election survey of Princeton University faculty and staff, those contributing to Obama outnumbered those contributing to Romney 155 to 2 (a visiting engineering professor and a janitor.)
THE POLITICS AS MORALITY TALE narrative blinds one to reality. Under thirty-year-old voters in the recent U.S. presidential election, preferred President Obama almost two-to-one. Yet the economic stagnation of the past four years has hit this cohort hardest, and the trillion dollar per year budgets of the first Obama term render their chances of retirement with cushy government entitlements nil. "Generation screwed" Newsweek calls them.
Unemployment among 18-to-29 year-olds is 12.7% — 16.7% if one counts those who have given up looking for jobs. A full quarter of 18-to-34 year olds have moved back to living with their parents to save money. In another survey, only 40% of college graduates say that they are performing work requiring a college degree. As Obamacare's penalties on employers who do not provide insurance for full-time workers take effect, many of those who currently have jobs will find themselves being transferred to part-time positions. It's already happening.
The youngest cohort of voters is doubly squeezed. Their present prospects stink, and the current generous senior entitlements — Social Security, Medicaid, and Medicare — will not await them at the other end. The U.S. will be bankrupt long before then. (Israeli social justice protestors take note.)
Nor are the reasons for the current economic stagnation hard to discern. The so-called "blue model" — high taxation, heavy regulation of business and labor markets, generous pensions for government workers — is everywhere defunct. The economic stagnation of the last four years in America has long characterized every "euro" country, except thrifty, hardworking Germany. Greece is but the worst basket case. The unemployment rate in Spain among youth 16-to-24 is now over 50%.
The three largest "blue states" in America — California, Illinois, and New York — which form the base of Democratic political support, are also in the worst fiscal shape. Chief Executive's annual ranking of the best and worst states to do business, the three deep-blue states nailed down the three worst rankings. Politicians in California and New York have saddled taxpayers with over $300 billion in debt. Per capita citizen debt in Illinois, President Obama's home state, is $9,624, topped only by New York's $13,840. Illinois has issued $58 billion in bonds to cover pension fund obligations. Still retired public workers will not collect: the estimated pension plan shortfall, even after that huge borrowing, is $85 billion.
President Obama is the great champion of "blue" governance. He once said that he prefers higher taxes on the wealthy as "more fair," even if it harms the economy. He has offered not a single proposal for deficit reduction other than higher taxes on those earning over $250,000. His proposed tax increases would barely make a dent in deficits, but by hitting small business owners hard, will again cost jobs. He has not passed a budget in three years, while wracking up annual deficits in excess of a trillion dollars. The last two budgets were unanimously rejected by the Democrat-controlled Senate.
FINALLY, THE USE OF POLITICS as a proof of one's goodness stunts character development and provides bad models. American voters concluded that President Obama cares more about the average Joe. I wonder. Even in the most admiring biographies of the President — he's brilliant, he's cool, he's handsome, he's unflappable — I have yet to read of one instance of his extending himself for another human being.
Such stories about Romney are legion — not just giving away $4 million in annual charitable contributions, but physically helping neighbors do home repairs and the like. He shut down evil Bain Capital for a week so that the whole staff could search for colleague's missing daughter. (She was found, just in time, through their efforts.) And the largest slice of his time since the election has been spent working data bases to help find jobs for 400 campaign workers.
As George Will once observed, values are cheap: anyone can proclaim hundreds of values. Virtue is much harder to attain. The acquisition of virtues requires hard work and self-denial. It cannot be achieved by pulling a voting lever or putting a Free Palestine bumper sticker on the car.