It is one thing to rail against the evils and failures of liberalism and socialism, to decry the costs of the welfare state and list the crimes of the despots who claimed to be implementing the policies of equity only to revert to another class system. These arguments are so trite and careworn as to be reduced to the status of tropes. It is almost as if the pundits are taking cheap shots, shooting ducks in a barrel.
It is quite another tack to explore why the ideas of liberalism and socialism ever even emerged in a world made so perfect by the invisible hand of the free market. When conservative opinion writers suggest, even obliquely, that we should abandon policies such as Social Security and Medicare, I wonder how political orthodoxy can produce such mercilessness.
I was recently reminded by the writer John Crowley of a common lesson we both learned from nuns in Catholic school. One of the earliest moral lessons included the Corporal Works of Mercy, which include: feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, harbor the harborless, visit the sick, ransom the captive, and bury the dead. We were taught that these were admonitions required of every Christian who wished to attract the Grace of God. It was powerful stuff to a 10-year-old. I did not realize how much it affected my future political ideology until I read Crowley’s reference.
The New Testament also provides a damning and cynical judgment on the market when it reminds us that, “For ye have the poor always with you…,” as if it is beyond the capacity of humans to solve the problem of poverty. Thus, the Acts of Mercy, which admonish Christians to mitigate the inevitable effects of the market on the vast majority of the impoverished humans barely making it during their short, painful and brutish existence on the Earth.
Faced with pervasive poverty and an obvious disparity in wealth between the comfortable rich and the desperate poor, is it any wonder that people began to think about an economic and political system that would provide for a more equitable distribution of resources? Is it surprising that 2,000 years ago the Roman senator Cicero observed that the duty of the Roman Senate as “Ollis salus populi suprema lex esto” (They saw the welfare of the people to be the supreme law)?
The United States of America was founded on values enshrining the rights of every person to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Even among our rather privileged and wealthy Founding Fathers, it was recognized that every human (African-sourced slaves and Native Americans excepted) had the right to pursue happiness.
However, as we all know, the market does not automatically confer this right on all people equally. The market is not immoral, per se, as much as it is amoral. It does not care for the rights of all but rather caters to rights of those who control resources that have value to the market. The market does not care if you were born poor; if you martial a skill or a set of resources that have value, the market will make you rich.
It seems fair, but in practice, it is not really a fair system. Those born to resources, including those born to riches, those born with innate physical or mental abilities or those born to just plain good luck, are born to advantage. Such advantage creates and perpetuates disparity. Disparity leads, in most cases, to poverty and despair. At no time in history has the free market solved this problem. Based on history and whatever wisdom you want to ascribe to the New Testament, it is unlikely to do so any time soon.
Humans have experimented with many forms of economy and governance, including the despotic dictatorship of monarchy for many centuries. It appears as if democracy in its many forms has produced the greatest good for the greatest number of humans. There remains disparity in welfare in even the most equitable of modern and stable democracies. Humans continue to experiment with variations of different themes (keep an eye on China), yet history has not ended as some arrogantly projected. Some experiments have failed miserably, and I need not list them here; they are in the ash heap of history or are soon to be there.
It remains the responsibility of those of us who choose to comment on these matters to honestly consider history and keep our minds open to systems and policies that may improve the lot of all humans and not simply benefit the few. Perhaps we should keep in mind the admonitions of the Works of Mercy just to add a little humility and humanity to our political opinions.
Terry Dressler , Goleta