The Right’s Moral Trouble

The Right’s Moral Trouble

Thanks to corporate scandals, conservatives are finally on the defensive.


Over the last few weeks, the Bush Administration’s escalating threats against Iraq have pushed corporate scandals out of the headlines. This could well be deliberate, because the crisis in corporate America has the potential to shift the basic parameters of political debate in the United States. Ever since the late 1970s, a powerful alliance of economic and religious conservatives has set the political agenda. The views shared by the Christian Coalition and the Chamber of Commerce have dominated policy debates, even during Clinton’s two terms in the White House. But if we can avert a unilateral attack on Iraq and refocus the public’s attention on the corporate scandals, liberals and progressives might finally break the right’s dominance.

Seizing this opportunity requires that people on the left overcome their hesitancy to think and talk about morality. We often confuse morality with moralism and assume that they are both wholly owned subsidiaries of right-wing televangelists and ayatollahs. But morality is the very stuff of politics; it is how insurgent groups justify their demands. Both the right’s historical successes and its current vulnerabilities have much to do with moral categories and moral narratives. To end the right’s dominance, we have to learn to mobilize our own moral language and moral narratives.

The Tales Conservatives Tell

For this past quarter-century, the right has relied on a simple narrative that was made famous by Ronald Reagan and has been repeated ever since. It is the claim that the United States was once a great nation with people who lived by a moral creed that emphasized piety, hard work, thrift, sexual restraint and self-reliance, but there came a time in the 1960s when we abandoned those values. We came instead to rely on big government to solve our problems, to imagine that abortion, homosexuality and the pursuit of sexual pleasure were OK, and to believe that God had died and that religion should play no role in our public life. According to this narrative, only a systematic effort to restore the old values–to reduce the role of government, lower taxes, restore the central role of religion and piety in public life, and renew our commitment to sexual restraint and traditional morality–would make it possible for us to recapture our greatness as a people. This narrative seamlessly welds together the moral concerns of the Christian right and the free-market concerns of economic conservatives.

This narrative is supported by a strict-father morality–the belief that people behave only when they fear serious sanctions (this point is developed by George Lakoff in his book Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think). It is the childrearing principle enunciated in the maxim “Spare the rod and spoil the child.” As a political doctrine, it translates into support for capital punishment and other tough anticrime measures, opposition to welfare spending, reduced government taxation and economic regulation, and finally, a strong national defense so that any enemies can be punished appropriately. The right has learned to tie each of its campaigns to this moral vision. The battle against the inheritance tax is reframed as an assault on the “death tax” that unfairly confiscates wealth from those who have worked hard. George W. Bush refers to Al Qaeda as “the evildoers” to frame the war on terrorism as the strict fathers of his Administration meting out punishment to the guilty.

While many Americans have their doubts about both the Reaganite narrative and the underlying strict-father morality, it has settled in as the common sense of the society. Liberals and progressives have been forced into a long series of defensive battles because–up until now–we have lacked a persuasive alternative story line. That could change, because the corporate scandals have suddenly revealed that the Reaganite narrative rests on a strange and illegitimate trick that was used to unite social and economic conservatives.

Cutting an Illegitimate Deal

The political backstory to the rise of the Republican right over the past twenty-five years is familiar. American conservatives were in the political wilderness through much of the 1950s and 1960s; deep factional divisions made it difficult for economic and religious conservatives to make common cause. But starting in the 1960s and accelerating in the 1970s, conservative intellectuals worked to fashion a political ideology that would allow these divergent groups to coalesce under a single umbrella. The core of this ideology was vigorous defense of an economy based on self-regulating markets and the demonization of government “intervention” into the economic sphere.

In shaping this ideology, these intellectuals had to overcome the deep distrust between religious conservatives and economic conservatives. The historical relationship between religion and the rise of capitalism is complex and has gone through a number of different phases. But by the midpoint of the last century, things were tense. Religious conservatives were deeply suspicious of the materialistic pursuit of wealth; they saw it as simply another face of a destructive modernity. Moreover, some of the most important theorists of “free markets” were overtly hostile toward organized religion because of its insistence that there was something “higher” than the pursuit of material self-interest.

The trick that intellectuals used to reconcile these conflicting viewpoints was to treat “the market” as something like a divine force that always calls forth moral behavior. They took Adam Smith’s metaphor of the “invisible hand” and used it in an audacious way. “The market” became a natural force to which people had to accommodate. As long as individuals focused their energies on responding to the signals of the marketplace, their efforts would be rewarded. The poor–by definition–are people who have failed to respond to the signals of the market; their lack of self-discipline is the source of their difficulties. And liberalism and socialism were obviously in error because they were godless efforts to interfere with the natural and divine logic of the market.

This was a brilliant formulation because both sides could read into the argument exactly what they wanted. Religious conservatives could imagine that divine providence, working through market institutions, would compel individuals to follow the Ten Commandments. Economic conservatives could use this rhetoric to delegitimize government regulation of business and push for lower taxes. But as is now obvious, this idea of the market as a natural and providential sphere is mistaken–both as morality and as economics.

Rules of the Game

The moral flaws in this argument are now obvious. Responding to market signals and behaving morally are two completely different things. The firms that manipulated electricity prices in California to as much as fifty times their previous levels were responding to market signals, but this hardly made their activities morally correct. The ideology of the Republican right has, in effect, added an asterisk to the Ten Commandments. The new footnote says that the prohibition on stealing and on coveting one’s neighbor’s property must not be construed as a ban on sharp business practices, including lying and cheating, designed to gain that neighbor’s property for oneself.

Thinking that responding to market signals is enough is not just a moral disaster, it is also bad economics. Markets cannot exist without shared conceptions of how individuals should behave; a market transaction requires two people to have the same understanding of who owns what, what a contract is and how to honor its terms. These shared understandings have evolved historically and have been codified in laws of property and contract that are enforced by governmental action. Transactions that take place outside the purview of law tend to look like piracy or extortion rather than free contract.

In a word, market societies depend on morality not as some automatic emanation of the market but as a socially constructed set of rules that are ultimately enforced by government. This dependence is capitalism’s guilty secret. It’s a secret because acknowledging capitalism’s dependence on morality would disadvantage business interests in thousands of day-to-day battles. Imagine, for example, a corporate lobbyist whose assignment is to defeat more stringent environmental regulations being proposed in Congress. The lobbyist would never admit that corporate leaders are constantly making subtle distinctions between legitimate and illegitimate ways to strengthen the firm’s bottom line. The legislation’s supporters could then use the admission to argue that the new law makes only a small, but necessary, incremental shift in the moral and legal guideposts governing the corporation’s strategies. The lobbyist’s preferred rhetorical strategy is to insist that both the firm and the larger economy are delicate and complex systems that must be allowed to follow their own logic.

The false claim that the market is a natural arena helps business fend off new regulatory initiatives. But the false claim has become a dangerous cancer that threatens to destroy our economy’s vitality. At this point, we have no choice but to turn the guilty secret into a public truth–that our prosperity depends on imposing moral and legal restraints on the pursuit of self-interest.

The Moral of the Story

The punch line is that liberals and progressives now have a persuasive narrative of our own. It runs something like this: Starting with the New Deal and continuing into the 1960s, Americans realized that to have prosperity, they needed to place restraints on the pursuit of self-interest. The lesson of the stock-market boom in the 1920s and the crash and Depression that followed could not be clearer. When the market is left unregulated and the zealous pursuit of self-interest is elevated over everything, the results are catastrophic. But as memories of the 1930s faded, conservative intellectuals sought to expunge these important lessons from our collective memory. Religious and economic conservatives together sold Americans the snake-oil remedy of untrammeled free markets and the glorification of “greed is good.” Since Americans are a decent people, this dismal brew of bad morals and bad economics had little immediate effect. But over twenty-five years, the consequence has been a collapse of our business morality.

It is not just a few “bad apples,” as the Bush Administration continues to insist. “Infectious greed” has been institutionalized in the corporate suites. The excessive compensation, the manipulation of balance sheets, and the avoidance of taxes are by now all too familiar. At the same time, our regulatory institutions are in a state of disrepair because the free-market mantra insists that regulation is illegitimate and unnecessary.

The lesson is obvious. We must reject these false prophecies and recognize that our economy can only work if it is based on moral foundations. We must recognize that the pursuit of self-interest, whether to achieve fortune, fame, status or power, must always be constrained by respect for the needs of others. Once we do this, we can begin to change those public policies that were distorted by the decades of false prophecy. We can rewrite the tax code to make sure that once more both corporations and wealthy individuals pay their fair share. We can expand the resources that we provide to regulatory agencies so that we get full and honest financial disclosure from corporations, a reversal of environmental degradation and other vital public goods. We can revisit “welfare reform” to make sure that the promise that we “leave no child behind” isn’t just an empty campaign slogan.

But above all, we need to reaffirm the simple truth that service to others is the highest human calling. This was, after all, one of the key lessons of 9/11. The firefighters, the police and other emergency workers did not ask, “What is in it for me to rush into that building?” Instead, they put service ahead of self-interest. To honor their memory and to save our society, we must follow their example.

Thank you for reading The Nation!

We hope you enjoyed the story you just read. It’s just one of many examples of incisive, deeply-reported journalism we publish—journalism that shifts the needle on important issues, uncovers malfeasance and corruption, and uplifts voices and perspectives that often go unheard in mainstream media. For nearly 160 years, The Nation has spoken truth to power and shone a light on issues that would otherwise be swept under the rug.

In a critical election year as well as a time of media austerity, independent journalism needs your continued support. The best way to do this is with a recurring donation. This month, we are asking readers like you who value truth and democracy to step up and support The Nation with a monthly contribution. We call these monthly donors Sustainers, a small but mighty group of supporters who ensure our team of writers, editors, and fact-checkers have the resources they need to report on breaking news, investigative feature stories that often take weeks or months to report, and much more.

There’s a lot to talk about in the coming months, from the presidential election and Supreme Court battles to the fight for bodily autonomy. We’ll cover all these issues and more, but this is only made possible with support from sustaining donors. Donate today—any amount you can spare each month is appreciated, even just the price of a cup of coffee.

The Nation does not bow to the interests of a corporate owner or advertisers—we answer only to readers like you who make our work possible. Set up a recurring donation today and ensure we can continue to hold the powerful accountable.

Thank you for your generosity.

Ad Policy