Tuesday, December 28, 2010

At Christmastime, thoughts about moral authority (Part I).

moral busybodies [who] torment us for our own good will torment us without end, for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.

--C.S. Lewis

Politics is about power. Ideology justifies grabbing and holding onto power. We fight for power in the name of some greater good. Without moral authority, it becomes difficult to impossible for any elite to impose its will on the population.

Republicans are a shadow elite, a leadership group out of power. The party has a bad name as a result of past corruption, troubles in Iraq, Hurricane Katrina, deficits and debt, and the Great Recession that began on its watch. Today Republicans prefer to call themselves conservatives and speak of lower taxes, less government spending, less regulation of the private sector, and opposition to government-run health care.

Republicans believe a strong economy lifts all ships, that it’s better to grow the pie than to fight over how to cut it, and that individuals make wiser decisions affecting their own lives than do bureaucrats in Washington. Republicans believe in freedom, the modern word for the Declaration of Independence’s “liberty,” as in “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

Because Republicans seek to decentralize power to each individual, they are opponents of today’s elite. According to Democrats who are today’s elite, Republican ideology sets up a situation leaving the rich free to lord it over the masses of unrich. We need government to correct capitalism’s imbalance.

The French Revolution, which followed ours by six years, paid lip service to “liberty,” but also honored “equality” (re-cutting the pie into more equal pieces) and “fraternity” (governing for the collective good)—two words that can override “liberty.” Isaiah Berlin in the mid-20th Century modernized the contradiction between freedom on the one hand, and equality and collective good on the other, in his seminal essay on “Two Concepts of Liberty”—positive and negative liberty.

Karl Marx was a scholar of the rise of capitalism who called for transferring power over the economy from the capitalist class to the people. While Marx believed history’s law made the transformation inevitable, as workers conscious of their rising power seized the means of production, decades later Vladimir Lenin believed that for revolution to take place, an intellectual elite, a “vanguard of the proletariat” must act on behalf of the people. The resulting bloodstained, tumultuous, and ultimately failed history of Lenin’s experiment, the Soviet Union (1917-1991), discredited the elite Leninist road to a better world.

Democrats are not Leninists. But they share a Socialist concern about capitalist concentration of wealth and power at the expense of the people, and believe government exists in part to correct wealth’s misdistribution. Democrats scorn Republicans as defenders of the rich. In the 20th Century, under Woodrow Wilson and every subsequent Democratic president, the party set about to rebalance the country away from business and toward the people. That drive provides Democrats their ideology, their moral authority.

No comments: