Wednesday, July 30, 2008

the Reaganite fallacy

A revelation that I wish people would talk about: John McCain has been touring the country in $500 Italian leather shoes. Not that I care that he wears expensive shoes, but because it proves a current media double standard. Imagine, after all, if a Democrat were caught making an intemperate purchase. That, ultimately, brings up another question: if John McCain is guilty of intemperate spending, and John Edwards is guilty of hypocrisy for engaging in intemperate spending while arguing that poor people aren't getting a fair shake, then the inevitable logical conclusion is either:

a) John McCain thinks poor people are getting what they deserve, or

b) John McCain is also guilty of hypocrisy.

If no one with a microphone is going to point out the greater truth that it's not hypocritical to be rich and yet want to help poor people, then will someone at least point out that the rules should apply to McCain as well?

This is an example of the kind of moral corruption I like to call "free market fundamentalism." It goes back, in some form or another, all the way through history, but it's most recent and bizarre manifestation was popularized by Reagan's gospel of wealth, or the "fuck it: if you got it, flaunt it!" approach to the ethics of wealth.

We Americans have always had a tense relationship to wealth. It all goes back to the ol' Protestant work ethic and the Calvinist belief in predestination: strong work ethic, which is a sign of salvation, generates wealth. Therefore, wealthy people are more likely to be part of the elect than the poor. On the other hand, conspicuous consumption is a sign of greed, which is a sin, or Catholicism, which is even worse. Thus for much of American history the goal was to be rich, but not too rich. A 5th or 6th bathroom is probably okay, but don't put any gold in it! Complicated, intricate jewelry is beautiful; just not too much of it! You don't want to look like you're from New Orleans or some other gaudy place. A limo is fine, but no jets! Who are we, the Pope? Even to this day, no one, no matter what their income, is willing to refer to themselves as either "rich" or "poor."

Then Reagan came in with a compelling message. There's nothing wrong with being rich, said St. Ronnie; in fact, being rich is just a sign that you work hard and God has blessed your home! See, "the market" is a sort of crucible of work that elevates the diligent and destroys the lazy; it does God's work! That's why all you good, God-fearing white people in the suburbs are wealthy, and why the good ol' US of A is the richest nation on earth. That, of course, can only mean that poor people are poor because the market/God has chosen not to bless them, obviously because they're lazy and decadent. After all, do you really think it's a coincidence that Protestant countries are richer than Catholic ones? And if you're not rich, just work hard and God/the market will make you rich, because people who work hard make money in a free market. Unless, of course, the government takes Godly people's money away and hands it to those "other" people, those who didn't work for it (and of course, we know they didn't work for it because they don't already have money. Are you keeping up?). Luckily, the only people who want to do that are the poor themselves and rich people who got their money without work, who are "less familiar with the rigors of the marketplace" as one douchebag I found put it.

It is because of this moral fallacy that we implicitly accept the argument that it is hypocritical-- and, ergo, immoral-- to be rich and advocate for the poor, but it is not immoral to be rich and ignore the poor.

I think on some level Edwards' stance on the poor throws the weakness and decadence of the morality of free market fundamentalism into sharp relief, and that's why otherwise intelligent people are all too happy to resort to the "hypocrisy" claptrap even despite a logic that is both clearly flawed and entirely self-serving. The market must be fair. If it is not, then this entire moral universe, within which dwell the ethics of taxation, government spending, immigration, regulation, environmentalism, and workers' rights careens off its axis.

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