President Obama’s speech last Monday laid out his case for raising the debt ceiling and used “fair” or “balanced” twelve times in less than 15 minutes. There is an obvious political reason for his choice of diction–painting House Republicans as enemies of moderation and disconnected from the reality of the moment–but it has an important intellectual and moral aspect as well.
Conservatives and libertarians quickly dismiss principles of “fairness” and “balance” as a cloak-and-dagger show for grinding, leveling equality. But this is to miss the point–the desire for “balance” doesn’t desire balance for the sake of equality but for the sake of solidarity–a desire to see a reflection of one’s own experience or values in the rest of society. Envy or jealousy might be sufficient for the desire for solidarity, but they don’t exhaust it. The desire for solidarity or a desire for belonging are more akin to a secularized religious instinct that seeks to fill out the spiritual inadequacy of individual experience. One way in which this desire might manifest, then, is by recognizing the values and qualities of our individual experiences in the lives of those around us. And so we have the desire for community.
In the United States, with our peculiar sense of exceptionalism and national destiny, community can be a vehicle for progressive as well as conservative values. The difference between the two is that described by Leo Strauss in his great essay “Progress or Return“, the difference between the progressive or conservative community turns on the community’s place in time: the progressive imagines the community of the future, while the conservative yearns for the community of the past.
But the liberal communitarian is not what she once was. The classical liberal community was one in which advanced through economic growth, ameliorating the condition of all in society and rewarding the Protestant virtues of thrift, industry, and perseverance. Yet now the liberal communitarians, in particular the greatest beneficiaries of an individualistic political order, envisage a community characterized instead by “shared sacrifice.” From growth, advancement, and progress, we’ve turned to sacrifice, sharing of burdens, and fairness.
It’s instructive to remember the uproar Wall Street bonuses met with after TARP and the Bush-Obama bailouts. As Michael Sandel keenly observed, the outrage wasn’t so much directed at size of the bonuses or their apparent brazenness as their purpose–these bonuses seemed to reward recipients for their incompetence and catastrophic miscalculations. They rewarded failure. In our ordinary experience with capitalist, meritocratic, individualist values, to each according to his ability. Yet here a different set of rules seemed to apply, not necessarily as a result of cronyism or outright corruption as mystery–we heard that the size of bonuses was necessary given the scale of business, and banks had done the best they can in the face of an overwhelming financial “tsunami” that no one could quite understand. One set of rules for Main Street, another, opaque set of rules for Wall Street.
Irving Kristol warned more than 30 years ago that the bureaucratization of the American economy risked alienating capitalism’s support among the American public by blurring the connection between achievement and virtue. The great promise of capitalism, like religion, has been the promise of equality–no matter your condition, high or low, if you work hard and play by the rules, you will find success in life. Belief in this equality, this fairness, is the basis for the solidarity upon which a dynamic, restless, market-based society depends. Subvert this equality and we will find instead a great hunger for “fairness” and “balance.”
Wall Street is of course right in the formal, positive sense that their bonuses are justified by the rules of the economic game it must play. But formal, positive justifications have and will never support political economies–they commend no loyalties, they do not inspire reverence, and they do not summon the people to defend them against their enemies. Capitalism must be grounded on sounder stuff, and friends of free, market-driven societies should take notice.