Moral outrage, when it is not fatuous, is politically potent. Vivid examples of politicians and commentators in full-throated, red-faced attacks against malignant motives and vicious political acts come easily to mind for all but the most apolitical. In some cases these outbursts are reactions against assaults on how things are or have been—on the decent order of things as inherited. But any honest observer must acknowledge that the more successful production of moral outrage has issued from those seeking fundamental transformation.
Over the weekend Elizabeth Warren, the Senator from Massachusetts and a former professor at Harvard Law School, outlined eleven propositions, dubbed by the National Journal as “eleven commandments” for progressives. Warren is a very bright leader of today’s progressivism. Her propositions provide a window on the future trajectory of the Democratic party and its approach to law, three aspects of which seem particularly notable:
1.Opposition to crony capitalism. Warren wants government to make sure the banking system and Internet are run for the benefit of the people not big corporations.
2.Use of the regulatory system rather than tax system. Nowhere does Warren expressly call for higher taxes. But she does endorse a slew of regulatory interventions—a higher minimum wage, stronger protections for unions and “equal pay” provisions for women.
3. A relentless focus on equality. In marriage, in pay, and in access to higher education and contraceptives paid for by the government.
If these are the tenets of future progressivism, friends of liberty need to sharpen their critique.
1. They need to co-opt the attack on crony capitalism.
In a previous post, I asked what may strike some readers as an obtuse question. If our society is no longer grounded in Christianity, as it once was, or in the biblical tradition, and if the normative passion of our time– namely, equality– is a not an affirmative ideal or vision so much as a negative and parasitic one, then what sort of society do we live in now? How should we describe the affirmative convictions or commitments (if any) that give meaning and shape to our society?
World Cup 2014 competition resumes this week, with 32 teams in eight groups competing for 16 spots. Each group features four teams in a round-robin format, so every team will play three matches. The two top point-earning teams in each group will advance to the round of 16. (The Americans’ prospects for advancement appear somewhat but not altogether bleak.)
European football has always puzzled me in comparison to American sports. Europeans often pride themselves in advancing a more egalitarian society in which opportunities for success are widespread rather than concentrated. By contrast, the Americans, they argue, allow for great disparities and inequalities of income and wealth. (Some argue that the facts do not support this fulmination against income inequality, but leave that aside for purposes of this argument.)
The basic impulse of this criticism is a desire to promote equality of outcome, rather than greatness. If some at the top have to be moved down a notch or two, we may sacrifice magnificence at the top, but we will provide greater and more widespread opportunity overall.
The reason I find this puzzling is that, when applied to sports, Americans tend to prefer egalitarianism – known in sports as parity – when compared to their European counterparts. All joking about the Yankees and Lakers aside, championships are more widespread in American sports than in European football.
A recent study by Raj Chetty and several co-authors suggests that income mobility has not greatly changed over the last generation. It is still as easy to move up the income ladder as it once was, contrary to the premise of many politicians who want to justify new government programs to increase income mobility. But why should we care about the degree of income mobility in society? Would greater churning improve society, such that, in every generation, the children of the poor would become rich and the children of the rich would become poor? This merry-go-round would open up prospects for the current poor but could also mean more conflict, as the rich would redouble efforts to use the law to keep their children on top.
Perhaps the focus on income mobility serves as a proxy for concern about social structures that prevent people from rising to the heights their talents warrant. And certainly if such structures are backed by the force of law, they are very bad and should be eliminated. Titles of nobility, for instance, are to be condemned but fortunately the United States Constitution already forbids them. Other state-forged manacles impede the rise of the talented. For instance, lousy K-12 education supported by the taxpayer dollars hurts the poor in particular and is in urgent need of reform.
But changes in income mobility, even if they were demonstrated, are poor proxies for gauging the existence of such barriers, let alone their root causes.
A seemingly esoteric academic debate bursts forth in the Book Review of the Sunday New York Times that ought to turn us to the most significant political books of our times. The war between the West and East Coast Straussians, academics (and political players such as Bill Kristol) who have been influenced by the political philosopher Leo Strauss, involves no mere battle of the books but bears political consequences as well. His books and their interpretation and application are required reading for their wisdom about free and civilized societies. Strauss’s work encompasses grand themes of the West, including ancients and moderns, reason and revelation, natural right and history, and philosophy and poetry (in its root sense of creation). But in all this was saving the West Strauss’s intention? Was he instead a Machiavellian? A Nietzschean?[i]
Chaucer’s Wife of Bath entertains us with a tale about the question, What does every woman most desire? Plot spoiler: To rule her man. Shakespeare’s comedies respond to this desire.
His comedies portray cunning and attractive women who win the object of their desires and fend off evil that threatens their love (Portia in The Merchant of Venice). The plot could easily lead to tragedy (Romeo and Juliet), but instead powerful will, aided by chance, enables the perfect matches to take place (Midsummer Night’s Dream).
Early in one of the best sports movies, Knute Rockne, All-American, the immigrant kid Knute learns to play football with the neighborhood boys, including a black one. The logic of the movie, following the recognition of Catholics in higher education, is that the opportunities will open up for blacks, too. 42, another biopic of baseball star and civil rights pioneer Jackie Robinson, takes the next step from that classic.
Frankly proclaiming Robinson’s importance for America, Brooklyn Dodgers owner Branch Rickey opens the movie by declaring to his assistant, “I have a plan.” In fact Rickey and Robinson deserve comparison with Martin Luther King. Claiming to be interested in winning and thus in profits, Rickey’s signing of Robinson exemplifies Tocqueville’s observation that Americans say that they are interested in profit but in fact often have higher motives. He is Tocqueville’s American, a self-professed Methodist focused on acting righteously, doing good while doing well.
The death of Ronald Dworkin on February 14, 2013 provides an occasion to reflect not only on his contributions to legal philosophy, but to the entire enterprise of jurisprudential theory from the point of view of progressive thinkers.
By the time Dworkin collected a decade’s worth of his writings into Taking Rights Seriously in the late 1970s, he was responding to a deep need within the liberal intelligentsia. From the tumult of the 1960s and early 70s, liberals felt the need to substitute, once and for all, high principle for politics, yet at the same time not abandon the notion that all “truth”—and constitutional norms—must be time-bound, and permitted to grow as circumstances and progressive insight dictate.
Thinking about President Obama’s second inaugural address and the ubiquity of egalitarian political rhetoric is enough to make you wonder if anything can be preserved from the reach of government. Even philanthropy itself, the unique American contribution to civil society, made by possible by the overflows from prior gains in trade, might now have to account to government for its independent work. So what does equality mean in the American republic? The inability to speak in a grounded manner about this principle seems to doom attempts to limit the size of government, protect commerce from undue interference, and uphold a robust civil society, among other worthy goals.