22 January 2012

How to Argue About Politics

If you're a conservative, or a liberal, or have any belief in the reformability of the United States political system, you might want to read this New York Times article. Essentially, it argues something that I've tried to formulate a few times before, but it does it more straightforwardly - and, because it's the New York Times, you're far more likely to believe it than you are to believe me.

It's a short article, with four particularly relevant parts:

- A suggestion that Democrats approach key Republican positions generously.

- A generous recounting of those key Republican positions: free-market capitalism, small government, and Christian charity.

- An identification of the assumptions that lead to those positions.

- An identification of the key contradiction that holding those positions creates.

Now, I've talked about this contradiction before. When I did, I said some harsh things about contemporary American Christianity.

The essential point: Christianity as it exists in contemporary America is a sick, contradiction-riddled joke.

A philosophy of "love your neighbor as yourself" is fundamentally incompatible with a philosophy of "greed is good". At some point, "I got mine, so fuck all y'all" - or, perhaps, "I got mine, so God loves me," (health and wealth, anyone?) replaced "go and sell what thou hast, and give to the poor, and you shall have treasure in heaven" (pardon any imperfections in my quoting, I'm working from memory, but I think it's Matthew 19, the whole "eye of a needle" story).

Thomas Paine said of the fledgling USA that "our plan is commerce." That was the founding principle of the country, the justification for the whole project. It seems to be the primary reasoning behind religion these days. Remember "no man can serve two masters"?

Here, though, that point gets phrased a bit more nicely, and in a political rather than a religious context:

In particular, there is a basic tension between the two main elements of the conservative view: Christian ethical values and the free enterprise system. Christian morality is a matter of love for others and self-sacrifice on their behalf. A market economy assumes that all agents (employers, workers, buyers, sellers) act in their own selfish interests. The problem is evident in the New Testament’s unease with the wealthy and sympathy for the poor; see, for example, Matthew 13: 22, Mark 10: 23-25 and James 5: 1-3.

The standard response to this sort of moral objection is that the “invisible hand” of the market produces public goods out of private selfishness. If we all act for our own selfish ends, there will be far more material goods for us to share than there would be otherwise. But this is a utilitarian argument; that is, one that judges actions as moral because they increase our material happiness. Christian morality, however, denies that moral good and evil depend on what maximizes such happiness. Christian love and self-sacrifice, in particular, are moral goods in their own right, regardless of their consequences. Conversely, conservative Christian morality would not allow homosexuality or same-sex marriage, even if it turned out that doing so would increase material happiness.

Yup. All y'all have a good evening.

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