Monday, August 2, 2010

Moral Authority

Unless you are trying to figure out the impact of politics in our society, you probably don’t think about “moral authority.” The concept is more at home in the realm of religious studies.

However, religions don’t have an exclusive right to moral authority. Cultures throughout the world vest this power in political entities. Just as it is possible in Saudi Arabia to hold a conventional belief that people of the Jewish faith are inferior, so is it possible in the United States to hold an accepted belief that Republicans are “bad people.” The society in which we live gives us clues as to what is acceptable and what is controversial. We learn “the ropes.”

Paul Mirengoff, writing in the Power Line blog, touches on this idea when he contrasts the philosophical differences between liberals and libertarians: “liberals think their ideology makes them, above all, morally superior.” Combining moral superiority with politics is a powerful force, but there can be difficulties.

A sobering example was on display a few years back when Madeleine Albright proclaimed that she and her Democratic Party colleagues did everything that could be done to avert the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. Our culture took her at her word.

Why bring this up?

There are currently three significant areas of national policy that are being defined in moral terms by the Democratic Party. Using the language of moral authority, they are:

--Afghanistan is a good war.
--Human beings are not illegal.
--We must increase taxes on the rich.

Each of these national policies uses the power of moral authority to render profound judgments. Here is a quick evaluation:

The War in Afghanistan
The great religions of the world probably have this one right: War is never a good thing. When you get into the business of judging one war good and another bad, you are confusing moral issues with political ones. Wars have a way of testing every one of us. At some point, most of us find that we prefer not to engage in warfare. It truly needs to be a “last resort” kind of activity, without the attachment of a moral component.
Illegal Human Beings
This moral judgment confuses the actions of humans with the state of being a human. To exclude members of a certain demographic group from being responsible for their actions is a purely political move. It is similar to granting legal immunity to a group of foreign diplomats. It can be done (perhaps for reasons of reciprocity) but to many people, the practice seems unfair.
More Taxes on the Rich
This, in political terms, is what is called a “populist argument.” It goes hand-in-hand with promises of entitlement. We like to think that someone is looking out for us and taking advantage of others for our benefit.
But here’s the problem: “The Rich” derive their income from wealth. Most of the rest of us derive our income from labor. When income taxes are put in place, those who work for a living are “stuck.” We have no escape. We must work to survive, and the taxes are extracted.
If your income comes from wealth, you can relocate your wealth to avoid taxes. If you receive dividends and the government decides to raise taxes on those dividends, you can put your wealth into tax-free bonds. If the government decides to do away with tax-free bonds, you can move to a different governmental jurisdiction. You simply stay one step ahead of the taxation policies.
In each of these examples, we see a questionable policy being embellished with moral authority.

The upside of all this is that we are starting to see a national discussion over moral authority. Republicans seem to be fairly clear on this issue. They rely on the work of some very bright philosophers with names like Jefferson, Madison, Franklin, and Adams.

Independents are coming to the realization that the moral authority they see being exercised is not favored by a majority of those being governed. That is causing some anxiety.

A few Democrats are even questioning the moral authority being imposed. They have competing influences in their lives: family, religion, heritage, etc. They are feeling less content with simply doing whatever increases the power and authority of the Democratic Party.

This week, our Congress recesses for the summer. We will see Senators and Representatives in their home districts presenting arguments with intellectual authority and with moral authority. Which do you think will have the most impact?

I’m afraid the emotional arguments married with moral authority will carry the day.

Afghanistan is a war worth fighting!

Human beings are never illegal!

We must tax the rich!

And, oh yes…

Republicans are bad people!

Fasten your seatbelts.

UPDATE 6/28/2011:
A clear example of the righteousness of those who hold moral authority in their political beliefs is this comment via Real Clear Politics from Jay Carney, White House Press Secretary.  The mindset of "true believers" flourishes in the world of politics.

UPDATE 5/31/2012:
Daniel Henninger has a great column in The Wall Street Journal that highlights the difficulty encountered by a political body applying its moral authority on an established religion.  America was founded on the basis of religious freedom, and Americans may still not appreciate a political organization telling them what they must believe and how they must practice their religion.  

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