In Support of Capitalism, America Style (part 3 of 3)

If you've stuck with me through part 1 and part 2, then here comes the payoff.

With moral influence now privatized and shunted out of public life thanks to the prevalence of postmodern thinking, the law is the only place to turn to when we see the need to regulate human behavior. And this situation undermines the essence of what America's founders called "self government." Here's why.

The way self government was designed to work can understood by the continuum below.


On the left is license, or the freedom to do whatever one chooses. This is good, obviously, to some extent, but the freedom to do whatever I want must be checked or chaos and anarchy result. On the right is the law, or the government's authority brought to bear to limit the actions of citizens. Now the key insight: in between, and buffering the two, is morality -- our internal sense of what's right and wrong. Self government works the best when public morality is strong:

Here, the "license" segment is small, meaning people don't fly off and do a massive amount of crazy, destructive, chaotic things. There are always exceptions of course, but generally this situation results in peace and stability. However, the "law" segment is also relatively small. Since people usually do the right thing even though the law doesn't technically require it, there's not as much need for tons of laws. This is a free society in which the government doesn't intrude excessively into the lives of the citizens. And the key to it all is a strong sense of public morality -- a shared sense of what's right and what's wrong. To put it another way, the more people govern their own behavior the less the government has to. This is why John Adams famously said, "Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other." He wasn't saying everyone should be forced to go to church on Sunday. He was saying a society which doesn't t have a moral base cannot govern itself and will thus have to be governed from outside, which is tyranny. Morality is essential to self government, and this is at the heart of the American ideal.

But when morality becomes privatized it loses its public influence. The result looks something like this:

Here morality's public influence has shrunk, and notice what happens: both license and law expand to make up the difference. License increases, meaning more and more people feel free to do more and more of whatever they want; even things that were seen as shameful a generation or two ago. And at the same time laws multiply, becoming more detailed and increasingly intrusive, because the law is the only hedge left against chaos once public morality is taken off the table. This is the kind of substantial government power that America's founders sought to avoid.

So, my conclusions...

  1. The current economic crisis is not a failure of capitalism, and it is certainly not a failure of the American version of democratic capitalism. It is a failure of public morality.
  2. Because the problem is moral, government is not the solution. This is why the supporters of socialism (even European-style democratic socialism) are wrong when they denounce capitalism as a failure. Ceding more economic control and authority to government institutions (or quasi-government institutions like the Federal Reserve) will only result in what America's founders would call tyranny: the government sphere becoming too large and dominating the other two, upsetting the delicate balance at the core of our way of life.
  3. Finally, since the current economic crisis is at heart a moral one, the solution is also moral. While government always has a role to play in society as I've said previously, the fact is more laws and stronger regulation will not make better people. And without better people we won't face a better future.
And this is where I think our president, politicians, business leaders, and intellectuals (including church leaders) are mostly missing a huge opportunity. They should be calling us back from the brink of our irrational love affair with postmodernism and radical, atomistic individualism. What kind of impact would President Obama have, with his skill at oration and high approval ratings, if he were to urge Americans to get back to the lifestyle, worldview and morality that built such unprecedented wealth over the past 50 years? Instead he seems interested in the same thing most modern politicians are: tarring the other side and using his "political capital" make "his mark" on the nation.

And where are the church leaders? Largely silent, lost in the marginalized and privatized world too many of us have accepted. There are some notable exceptions: church leaders who are speaking about the failure of public morality and warning us against human and government saviors. Chuck Colson, who's been consistent in pointing to the moral roots of the problem, is one.

Well, for what it's worth let me add my meager voice to those who see the big picture, and who try to bring it out in the open even during difficult times when we tend want quick and easy answers. And the big picture is not several steps toward socialism. It is the need to return to a moral world: a world in which there is right & wrong, and where it's understood that violating that norm will have consequences. At root our current economic difficulties are symptoms of our own national worldview, and our insistence that clear standards of right and wrong are subjective, tyrannical, and have no place in public life.

The economic indicators that get so much press are like the harsh buzz of an alarm clock. I say, let's stay away from the snooze button. Time to wake up from our postmodern dream.

Or has it been a nightmare?

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

Hey Matt,
I've finally gotten around to reading these. I agree 100% I've always said (including under Bush) that the economy would work just fine if the government would stop trying to make it better. Every action has a reaction. This includes those egghead theorists who try to manipulate it.
Ooroo!

Matt Guerino said...

Bingo. That's the one thing about Bush that drove me nearly bonkers: all that silly borrowing and spending. The phony "rebate" checks a year or so ago did nothing but add to the national debt, and the TARP program is turning out to be an unmitigated disaster.

You get the gold star for actually reading all this though! I know I needed to say it, but I'm always impressed when people are willing to wrap their heads around some of this stuff.

Anonymous said...

Actually, I get too into politics and have to step back now and then and remember that nothing will work right until His return. Too many people running things for it to work right. I think alot of people go to Washington with great intentions and the longer they stay, the more compromised they become. I'm reminded of King George's calling George Washington a great man when he heard how Washington stepped down after his second term.

Ooroo!

Aaron said...

I keep thinking about this over and over again, discovering how right it is. As an example, I recently came across this: http://matthewyglesias.theatlantic.com/baggypants%201.jpg

It's government's way of enforcing what seems to me to be a moral issue of decency and modesty. The solution, I'm sure, is going to be a big disaster resulting in no change in people's modesty per se, but their increased rebellion and deceit.

Andrew said...

Hi Matt, Thanks for posting this, series. I'm glad you were able to articulate in an intelligent way what I've thought all along. While I would like to spend less time thinking about politics, it seems that things are spinning out of control and I find myself fretting over what kind of country my kids will inherit.

Matt Guerino said...

Thanks Aaron & Andrew! Somewhere there's a perfect balance between thinking clearly about our world so we're informed and can speak into it with rational voices, and yet leaving the results to God. Easy to say, hard to do. But I appreciate you both chiming in on my ruminations regarding this one area of "our world."

Blog Widget by LinkWithin