Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Playing the "Morality Card"

“You know, I don’t know when, when they decided to make a virtue out of selfishness.”

After the campaign speech in which Barack Obama took this slap at Republicans who criticized his economic and tax proposals, Dr. Yaron Brook of ARI commented:

The Republicans were unable to respond. The very word “selfishness” seemed to paralyze the GOP candidates and their surrogates-there was no principled defense of an individual’s right to his life, liberty, property, and pursuit of happiness.

As I have emphasized repeatedly, the battle for capitalism and freedom is primarily a moral, not a political, battle. There is simply no way that one can uphold capitalism without upholding its basic premise, individual rights…or man’s right to exist for his own sake. Since the concept of individual rights is a moral one, one must defend capitalism on the proper grounds. Without defending the morality of capitalism and exposing the immorality of collectivism in all of its forms, the future of America will feature the continued slide toward totalitarian socialism.

Dr. Brook raised an interesting possibility. While it is unclear as to whether Obama was taking an indirect slap at Ayn Rand (I believe that he was), Brook said that by shifting the debate to the moral sphere, he was playing to Objectivism’s strength. This, he said, presents an extraordinary opportunity for Objectivists.

Being the only movement dedicated to a moral defense of capitalism, Objectivists can leverage their small numbers into a major cultural influence in the years ahead. There are signs that this is beginning to happen. Here is some anecdotal evidence that some on the Right are beginning to understand the fundamental nature of the battle.

On the Larry King Live show, Ann Coulter told guest host Joy Behar what she thought of Obama’s “stimulus” package:

" it's not creeping socialism, it's galloping socialism and it's -- it's theft. It's immoral.

This -- it's shocking, the stimulus bill..."

In “the dueling press conferences of the two leading contenders for the Republican nomination for governor” in New Jersey, the Star-Ledger Editorial Board writes of one of the candidates:

Next up was Steve Lonegan, the former Bogota mayor and perennial opponent of state borrowing. In contrast to [Chris] Christie's calls for reform, Lonegan called for revolution. First to lose his head would be the taxman. Lonegan proposed ending what he termed the "immoral" [N.J.] progressive income tax with rates up to 8.97 percent and replacing it with a flat tax of 2.9 percent.

When asked by a reporter whether his plan would mean a tax increase for the working poor, Lonegan replied that that was the whole point. He wants everyone, rich and poor, to pay the cost of government. Asked if that means giving a break to the wealthy, Lonegan again said that was his point, and it would keep rich taxpayers from fleeing the state. "Eight-point-nine percent of nothing is nothing," he said.


Then there is the now famous “rant” of CNBC’s Rick Santelli against President Obama’s home mortgage bailout scheme, in which he declared that the government was promoting bad behavior and punishing responsible folks who will be left to pay the tab. While not explicitly using the term “immoral” to describe Obama’s plan, the moral overtones of Santelli’s passionate and animated commentary was indisputable. “I'm an Ayn Rander”, he told interviewer Jeff Poor.

In addition, Mitt Romney used the term “dangerous and immoral” on Fox News to describe Obama’s stimulus bill.

The stimulus bill, the graduated income tax, and the mortgage bailout are indeed immoral. They are altruism in political action…the sacrifice of the successful, the competent, the productive, the prudent, the self-reliant, the strong-to the failures, the incompetent, the imprudent, the irresponsible, the weak.

I obviously don’t know the full views these four hold on ethics, so I am not insinuating any implied connection or similarity to Objectivism. There are some obvious inconsistencies. Coulter carries water for the Christian Right, a leading exponent of the altruist ethics and, thus, is burdened by a fundamental contradiction in her ethical beliefs. Romney carries the baggage of his imploding Massachusetts mandatory health insurance scheme, which some Democrats are using as a model for their national ambitions. But they are right here, as is Santelli and Lonegan. Wittingly or not, they are all helping to elevate morality into the public debate.

If the “morality card” continues to emerge as a basic part of the Right's unifying opposition to the Left (which gets plenty of mileage out of the ethics of altruism) and becomes a significant element in the debate over Obama’s policies and, more broadly, on the government’s role in America’s life, it is bound to significantly raise Objectivism’s public profile. Ayn Rand shook the philosophical status quo to its foundations with her 1957 novel Atlas Shrugged, which provided the first comprehensive moral defense and justification of Capitalism. Objectivist intellectuals at the Ayn Rand Institute should see expanded opportunities to speak out, including Dr. Onkar Ghate who called Atlas Shrugged "America’s second Declaration of Independence".

That this is a positive development cannot be overstated. With America’s slide toward fascist socialism gaining impetus under the current leadership, this debate shift to the moral plane (if it catches on) could not have come too soon. Ultimately, the battle between individualism and collectivism…and, thus, America’s future…will be decided on the moral battleground. As Objective Standard editor Craig Biddle eloquently puts it:

As the politics of self-interest, capitalism cannot be defended with the ethics of self-sacrifice—nor can it be defended apart from a moral foundation (e.g., via libertarianism or mere economics). We who wish to advocate capitalism must advocate it explicitly on moral grounds. We must unabashedly explain to our allies and potential allies (i.e., people who are willing to think) that human life requires rationally self-interested action; that each individual has a moral right to act on his own judgment for his own sake, so long as he does not violate the same rights of others; that capitalism is moral because it enables everyone to act in a rationally self-interested manner; and that a mixed economy—in which no one’s rights are fully protected, and everyone’s rights are partially violated—is immoral because it precludes people from acting fully as human life requires.

We who wish to advocate capitalism must take the moral high ground—which is ours by logical right—and we must never cede an inch to those who claim that self-sacrifice is a virtue. It is not. Self-interest is a virtue. Indeed, acting in one’s rational self-interest while respecting the rights of others to do the same is the basic requirement of human life. And capitalism is the only social system that fully legalizes it. Grounds do not get more moral than that.

Do Coulter, Lonegan, Santelli, and Romney signal, at last, the vanguard of an emerging right wing moral counterforce to the altruist/collectivist/socialist forces that Ayn Rand half a century ago saw as the only effective means of reversing America’s inexorable drift toward statism? Obviously, a mere passing swipe at the Left’s policies is not enough. Playing the “morality card” must be supported explicitly and on principle in the same nature as Biddle’s statement above. Nevertheless, we are beginning to see some anecdotal evidence for hope, but we shall see.

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