The right eloquence needs no bell to call the people together and no constable to keep them. ~ Emerson

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Unclogging the Drain of Socialism (Part 1)

The Politics of Decency

I posted the other day about Joe Wurzelbacher (a.k.a. Joe the Plumber) and noted he has been receiving a lot of press scrutiny lately, most of it superficial to the real issues of this campaign.

I do not agree with those conservative pundits who insist media attacks on Joe are retribution because he dared ask Barack Obama a potentially embarrassing question. Obama freely admitted Joe’s taxes might rise under his plan (given the situation Joe described), attempted to defend why he felt that was necessary and proper, agreed to disagree with Joe, and thanked the man for his question.

No, the quasi-celebrity and subsequent inspection to which Wurzelbacher has been subjected is due solely to the fact that John McCain made reference to him no fewer than twenty-one times during the third Presidential debate and continues evoking him on the trail. McCain is putting forth Joe as an example of a middle-class, blue collar everyman whom Democrats will unfairly punish by inevitably raising his taxes.

The pundits I do agree with are those who maintain the relevant part of the interaction between Wurzelbacher and Obama is the following statement by Obama in defending his philosophy – “I think that when you spread the wealth around, it’s good for everybody.”

Just as Bill Ayers and the danger from domestic terrorists was the Republican attack message two weeks ago and ACORN and the danger from widespread voter fraud was the brainchild last week, this week the GOP campaign has finally found a boogeyman not in one of Obama’s associates but the candidate himself. It turns out he is a socialist.

Last week, Wurzelbacher appeared on the FOX News Channel, where he denounced Obama’s answer to him as “socialist.” He said that Obama “scared me” because he “wants to distribute wealth.”

Republican VP candidate, Sarah Palin, took up this theme during a campaign stop in Colorado Springs on Monday. “Our opponent’s plan to redistribute wealth will ultimately punish hard work and productively, it discourages productivity and it will stifle the entrepreneurial spirit that has made this country unique and has made it the greatest country on earth.”

The top of her ticket, John McCain, seems to enjoy attack politics less and cannot bring Palin’s natural fervor or perkiness to its application. However, when asked by FOX News whether Obama can be characterized as a socialist, McCain indicated Obama’s quote of spreading the wealth around, noting it as “one of the tenets of socialism.”

Steve Coll, writing in the current issue of the New Yorker magazine, points out that many Western capitalist economists would consider Obama’s remark as “unexceptional.” He singles out no less than Adam Smith – with his self-correcting hand of the free market – and a quote from Smith’s seminal work The Wealth of Nations.

“The necessaries of life occasion the great expense of the poor. . . . The luxuries and vanities of life occasion the principal expense of the rich and a magnificent house embellishes and sets off to the best advantage all the other luxuries and vanities which they possess. . . . It is not very unreasonable that the rich should contribute to the public expense, not only in proportion to their revenue, but something more than in that proportion.”

In another work, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Smith laments the historical lack of such altruism, holding that the relationship between a moral society and an affluent one is usually antonymic.

“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 unjustly bestowed upon poverty and weakness has been the complaint of moralists in all ages.”

Smith’s contemporary and fellow philosopher David Hume notes in Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, with his usual empirical insight of human nature, that far from being a source of universal gratification, wealth always functions as a dissatisfier, with individuals inclined to perpetually want more.

“Labor and poverty, so abhorred by everyone, are the certain lot of the far greater number. And those few privileged persons who enjoy ease and opulence never reach contentment or true felicity. All the goods of life united would not make a very happy man. But all the ills united would make a wretch indeed.”

The idea of the chief role of government as service toward the greater good is at least as old as Aristotle. In Politics, he writes, “Every community is an association of some kind and every community is established with a view to some good; for everyone always acts in order to obtain that which they think good. But if all communities aim at some good, the state or political community, which is the highest of all and which embraces all the rest, aims at good in a greater degree than any other and at the highest good.”

These ideas percolated down to the inception of our own nation. However, the Founding Fathers suffered profound division on how government could best serve the greater good.

Alexander Hamilton, representing the conservative viewpoint, believed the key was ensuring prosperity for all through capitalism. To that end, he saw the chief role of government as protecting property and believed it must rest in the hands of the affluent for that reason. Maximizing individual opportunity to pursue selfish interests maximized the common good in Hamilton’s worldview.

Thomas Jefferson, representing the liberal viewpoint, saw a more altruistic goal of maximizing individual liberties and minimizing needs for as many members of society as possible. To that end, he distrusted the zero-sum competitive aspects of capitalism. Serving the common good rather than individual selfish interest maximized individual opportunity in Jefferson’s worldview.

Yet Hume had understood a century earlier these two opposing ideologies did not represent a discrete binary choice. Altruism operates in human nature with much of the same perversity we commonly associate with baser emotions.

In A Treatise of Human Nature, Hume declares, “It is not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger. It is not contrary to reason for me to choose my total ruin to prevent the least uneasiness of a . . . person wholly unknown to me. It is as little contrary to reason to prefer even my own acknowledged lesser good to my greater and have a more ardent affection for the former than the latter.”

In the fledgling United States, Hamilton ended up winning the debate, creating much of our infrastructure according to his principles. This is for the best, as Jefferson’s romanticized agrarianism would have left us unprepared to handle most of the challenges of the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries. Yet through it all, something of Jefferson’s selfless greater good always managed to implant itself in the American character.

We tend to think of socialist-leaning policies in our more contemporary history as the work of Democrats, beginning with FDR’s New Deal and advancing forward through Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society. These were the types of programs and policies that the Reagan revolution dedicated itself to reversing and nullifying.

Yet thirty years before FDR, the progressives were Republicans, such as Theodore Roosevelt, the uncle of FDR’s wife, Eleanor, as well as Teddy’s successor, William Howard Taft.

Even after the Great Society, the vision of a utopian social order was not the sole province of Democratic politicians.

“To make this country be more than ever a land of opportunity – of equal opportunity, full opportunity for every American. To provide jobs for all who can work and generous help for those who cannot work [my emphasis]. To establish a climate of decency and civility, in which each person respects the feelings and the dignity and the God-given rights of his neighbor. To make this a land in which each person can dare to dream, can live his dreams – not in fear, but in hope – proud of his community, proud of his country, proud of what America has meant to himself and to the world.”

Would you be surprised to learn the above was part of a speech given by Richard Nixon in 1973, listing goals for his second term? I know I was.

Here is an equally surprising quote from Dwight Eisenhower in 1953. At the time, he was speaking to the Soviet Union following the death of Joseph Stalin. However, his words seem eerily relevant to our present situation.

“This has been the way of life forged by eight years of fear and force. Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children.

“We are prepared to reaffirm, with the most concrete evidence, our readiness to help build a world in which all peoples can be productive and prosperous. The peace we seek is founded upon decent trust and cooperative effort among nations. The monuments to this new peace will be roads and schools, hospitals and homes, food and health. We are ready, in short, to dedicate our strength to serving the needs rather than the fears of the world. I know of nothing I can add to make plainer the sincere purposes of the United States.”

I believe it was the realistic achievement of the hopes and ideas above that Teddy Roosevelt had in mind in 1901 when he addressed the scions of wealth and prestige from Harvard and Yale at his Long Island home, Sagamore Hill, and admonished them, “The most practical kind of politics is the politics of decency.” It was a warning that went unheeded by his audience’s generation. The greed, isolationism, and jingoistic patriotism that replaced the politics of decency led to the Great Depression.

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