Take Back Values
Market ideology holds that inequality is actually a good thing, motivating people to work harder. Conservatives have seen no reason to respond to rising income gaps over the past quarter-century. "If you drive a Mercedes and I have to walk, that's a radical difference in lifestyle," comments Dinesh D'Souza of the Hoover Institution. "But is it a big deal if you drive a Mercedes and I drive a Hyundai?"
In fact, inequality is an obvious moral corrosive. As the economist Robert Frank and others have pointed out, people tend to judge their well-being in relative rather than absolute terms. There is no reason that a .285 hitter making $700,000 a year should be dissatisfied and turn to risky steroids to hit better-- except, perhaps, that he has to work with guys making ten times as much money. Conservatives are right in saying that even the poor in America are pretty well off compared with people in the Third World. The problem is that Americans don't compare themselves with Bengalis. They compare themselves with other Americans.
The new inequality has made envy among the most dominant emotions in American life. The celebrity-obsessed media pump this toxin around the clock, as does a $250 billion advertising industry that portrays six-figure lifestyles as the norm. You don't need to read the Bible to know that all this is a recipe for bad behavior. Nor does it require a sociology degree to predict that a society ever more stratified along economic lines will be one where people trust each other less and may be more likely to live by the commandment "Do unto others before they do unto you."
Small government is another laissez-faire virtue that doesn't go well with strong ethics. Conservatives like to caricature government as an enemy of prosperity and as a breeder of social pathology. "I believe that government has played a big role in allowing values to erode," wrote Ben Wattenberg of the American Enterprise Institute in his 1995 book, Values Matter Most. The rap against big government put out by Wattenberg and others is that it has usurped the role of civil society institutions like religion and promoted a "something for nothing" ethos.
Yet these days it is weak government that should concern moralists of every ideological stripe. Two decades of downsizing and demeaning government have unleashed a flood of wrongdoing by people who judge, correctly, that they can get away with it. Tax cheats go unpunished because the IRS has been starved of resources over the past decade, even as the quantity and complexity of tax returns has risen dramatically. Investors in the stock market have been repeatedly deceived and ripped off in recent years as the Securities and Exchange Commission--politically sabotaged over two decades--did nothing. Elsewhere, in law and medicine, lax government oversight of licensing has made a mockery of disciplinary safeguards designed to root out professionals who abuse the trust of clients and patients.
Thanks to weak government, a great many Americans are living in a temptation nation. When watchdogs sleep, it is all too easy to follow our worst instincts--whether to cheat on taxes or overbill clients or rent out a firetrap apartment in the attic.
Many Americans already understand that a culture obsessed with money and saturated with envy is a morally perilous place. We understand that people will behave badly in an economy that rewards cutthroat competition and where no one enforces the rules. We fear for our own moral well-being, and even more so for that of our children.What is needed now is a political message that addresses these anxieties and links them to a public policy agenda. Boiled down to its essence, such a message should be about the broken social contract in America. Too many people who play by the rules end up as losers--or feel compelled to become cheaters just to stay afloat. Too many people who break the rules end up as winners--and learn that crime pays. Two core pillars of the American idea, optimism and egalitarianism, are being eroded. Taking their place is the cynicism of an Anxious Class that believes, rightly, that the rules aren't fair; and the hubris of a Winning Class that lives by its own rules.
America's busted social contract is already being discussed on the presidential campaign trail, most notably by Howard Dean, who gave a major policy speech on December 18 on this theme. But Dean barely mentioned the word "values" as he outlined his New Social Contract. America's crisis of ethics offers a way to preach a social contract message that is centered more heavily on virtue, now a Republican-owned franchise with a great many customers in the US electorate. Progressives must offer both a compelling story of moral decline and the way to redemption.
Beyond this, the actual policy agenda for fixing a broken social contract is hardly extraordinary. First, there must be new investments in education, healthcare, childcare and other things to insure that ordinary people who play by the rules can succeed with integrity in a postindustrial economy. Second, we need to beef up the government agencies that enforce the rules of fair play in economic life and stop indulging cheaters in the Winning Class. Third, it's long past time we declared a cease-fire in "the war against the poor," as part of a broader effort to insure that rule-breakers across all income groups stand as equals before the law. Fourth, we need major reforms to open up the democratic system to insure that more Americans have a genuine say in how society's rules are made. And fifth, there must be new initiatives to reduce income inequality and foster greater trust across the chasms of class, race and geography.
That extreme capitalism fosters moral corrosion is not a new message. Teddy Roosevelt said as much a century ago. But, packaged right--as a defense of the American way, not an attack on it--this is a message that could redefine the values debate in US politics and change the electoral map for decades to come.