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Sunday, March 4, 2012

A Moral Sense

In an excellent article in the Washington Post honoring the late James Q. Wilson, George Will reflects on Wilson’s views of freedom, the role of government, and the importance of encouraging a ‘moral sense’.


New Deal liberalism, Wilson said, was concerned with who got what, when, where and how; since the 1960s, liberalism has been concerned with who thinks what, who acts when, who lives where and who feels how: “Once politics was about only a few things; today, it is about nearly everything.” Until the 1960s, “the chief issue in any congressional argument over new policies was whether it was legitimate for the federal government to do something at all.” But since the “legitimacy barrier” fell, “no program is any longer ‘new’ — it is seen, rather, as an extension, a modification, or an enlargement of something the government is already doing.”

Libertarianism today reflects the same discourse of the pre-1960s to which Wilson refers – ‘[Is it] legitimate for the federal government to do something at all’; that is, before automatically assuming that government has a role to play, exclude all other possibilities first.  Libertarians do not dismiss the role of government, but only insist that legislators take a good, hard look at whether or not public investment can produce the intended result better, cheaper, more quickly, and more efficiently than private.

As Wilson and Will state, after 1960 the diametric opposite was true – assume that government should be interested in every sphere of American life. Because of this assumption government has continued to grow, and no Administration, whether Republican or Democrat has been able to slow it.  Once the ‘legitimacy barrier’ fell – that is the barrier of critical review and analysis regarding the nature of public vs. private investment – there was no stopping the growth of government.

Despite the heated rhetoric on both sides of the political aisle, the debate going on regarding the role of government and the desire to balance the budget is fundamental and long overdue.  By scrutinizing every government program to determine whether or not every dollar of investment is producing at least a dollar of return, unnecessary programs can be eliminated and government spending can be reduced.  Although Congress may never arrive at the best decision put forth – an across-the-board cut – it may be forced to, and by so doing require this critical review of spending.

This logical and measured approach avoids the incendiary and contentious debates over the role of government.  It is not philosophical, and does not take sides on this structural issue.  It simply argues for a rational approach to determining the size and nature of public intervention, not whether it should exist at all.

The normal dynamic of politics, Wilson warned, is a process of addition, candidates promising to add to government’s menu of benefits. Hence today’s problem of collective choice: Can Washington, acknowledging no limit to its scope and responding to clamorous factions that proliferate because of its hyperactivity, make difficult choices? With government no longer constrained by either the old constitutional understanding of its limits or by the old stigma against deficit spending, hard choices can be deferred, and are.

Will addresses this problem by suggesting that Congressional decisions are made by elites, far removed from the needs and desires of the populace:

Try, Wilson wrote, to think “of a human want or difficulty that is not now defined as a ‘public policy problem.’ ” The defining is done by elites to whose ideas the political system has become so open that changes of policy often result not from changes of public opinion but from changes in the way elites think. Liberal elites define problems as amenable to government engineering of new social structures.

This is no more true than in the field of education where liberal elites insist on engineering social changes in the classroom by ignoring natural and expected differences among students to focus on inclusivity and cooperation to the detriment of talented learners. 

Largely because of genetic factors and partly because of advantages of nurturing that cannot be redistributed by government, people differ in aptitudes. Society tends to reward useful aptitudes

Perhaps most compelling of Wilson’s arguments is for a ‘moral sense’:

Wilson warned that we should be careful about what we think we are, lest we become that. Human nature, he said, is not infinitely plastic; we cannot be socialized to accept anything. We do not recoil from Auschwitz only because our culture has so disposed us. Children, Wilson thought, are intuitive moralists, but instincts founded in nature must be nurtured in families. The fact that much of modern life, from family disintegration to scabrous entertainment, is shocking is evidence for, not against, the moral sense, which is what is shocked. And the highest purpose of politics is to encourage the flourishing of a culture that nurtures rather than weakens the promptings of the moral sense. [Italics are mine].

Will stops here and does not specifically state what he would do to effect this nurturing; but one can infer that it is to return moral choice to the people, and remove the debate from the elites.  This, more than any arguments for deficit reduction or reconfiguring government, is the most radical assumption made by Will, for it seems to argue for a return to populism.  Conservatives have always argued that most social issues should be resolved by the people and not by the courts.  Issues of abortion, civil rights, marriage, execution, prayer should not be adjudicated – the Constitution does not guarantee these specific rights and their status of ‘right’ has only been interpreted. The proper way to determine public policy is through the more decentralized and democratic electoral system.

While this argument has salience, it is hard to see how civil rights could have been achieved or at least made universal without judicial decisions; and one can only assume that if the individual states had been allowed to determine the pace of civil rights in the 60s, how long segregation would have lasted.  Will assumes that eventually the moral sense of the Southern states would have been outraged, that they would have caught up to others which demonstrated the justice and economic wisdom of integration; but would the additional time have been worth it.  Abortion is a trickier issue since ‘life’ is as much a religious and philosophical one as it is a scientific or political one.  Many people’s moral sense is outraged by what they consider killing a person; others’ is equally outraged by the abrogation of individual rights inherent in a woman’s right to choose. 

George Will has long espoused conservative views in a usually intelligent and reasoned way; but behind the academic thinking is a man who believes that government really is the problem; and that he goes far beyond the Libertarian argument.  Government should be limited to the very basic necessities (e.g. defense) not because of wasteful spending, but because it restricts individual expression and the ability of individuals to exercise their moral sense.

This argument has historical roots – our country was founded on 18th century religious and philosophical principles, and democracy above all was the ideal political system for allowing each individual to relate to God in his/her own way.  Communism was such an anathema not because it eliminated free markets and democracy, but because it eliminated religious expression.  Calvinists believed that in a predestined world, your selection as one of the saved could be discerned by your material success – your wealth; thus further strengthening the link between religion, philosophy, and political philosophy.

This article, and the work of Wilson are particularly important because the elucidate the real reasons behind conservative arguments for small government; and demonstrate how the political divisions are nothing compared to the philosophical and religious ones.

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