Random Polemical Musings, Uncategorized

Capitalism and the Language of Morality

Yesterday was the last day of Politicon, a two day-long event that featured debates and discussions among popular social and political commentators of our time. In the last day of Politicon 2018, the progressive political commentator Cenk Uygur of the Young Turks and the conservative news host Tucker Carlson engaged in a debate on immigration.


Based on what I watched from the debate, both sides said what could be described as pretty standard talking points from either side (granted, I was pleasently surprised that it was less adversarial than I expected, considering today’s polarized public discourse). The Catholic view is well-established, and I hope to make a video on it myself in the near future. Yet, there is one thing I would like to focus in on in particular that was said over the course of the debate.


A little under nine minutes into the debate, Tucker Carlson responded to the claim that many immigrants coming to the United State are poor and in need of political, social and financial assistance. Carlson claimed that this is not an excuse to let in immigrants indefinitely, since the full political and social ramifications of this are unknown, and possibly negative. The American government has a duty to be selective about which immigrants it lets in and how many immigrants it lets in because the American government does not have any intrinsic moral obligation to foreigners, but only to its own citizens. We are not called to be the world’s policemen or philanthropists. The American government should concern itself solely with the good of its own citizens first and foremost. If the government has any obligation to help the poor, it is the poor within this country. The poor from other parts of the world are not intrinsically entitled to the benefits and opportunities of this country.


I’m not here to critique or support this particular viewpoint. I am rather here to deal with what Carlson says immediately after this, to clarify that he is not supporting a sense of cold moral indifference: “Again, I think people of good will have a lot they can do to help those people.” Note what he says: “there is a lot they can do.” The overwhelming point he is trying to make is that the government has no obligation to help foreigners. It seems that here he is advocating for the notion that if the government were to help the large numbers of poor immigrants who enter into this country, the political, social and economic ramifications would be negative and far-reaching. The helping of the poor in other countries is something that should be done more by the private realm than by the public or governmental realm.


Again, I’m not debating this point as such. I’m not even making any claims on Carlson’s moral character. But, what I am saying is the way in which Carlson says what he says is very telling. And very problematic. Conservatives who read what I am about to say will accuse me of being a liberal, or that, at the very least, of taking a liberal stance on the issue of immigration. I do not. Liberals will use what I just said to accuse me of being a conservative, which I also am not. But, I think Carlson’s words show the moral limits of the whole “small government, free market” mentality.


Carlson’s view seems to be this: You are free to use your own resources to help the poor migrants, and in fact that is a noble thing to do, just don’t use my tax dollars to do so. You feel empathy towards the marginalized? You want to help them? Fine, go ahead; whatever floats your boat. If this is a misrepresentation of Carlson’s thought, or if it is not as nuanced as it could be, I hope someone corrects my thought so I can recant. Yet, helping the poor is not something that you can do; it is something that you must do. It is not something we are free to do as we please, it is something we are obliged to do. Tucker Carlson’s point is distinct from saying that people have different capabilities (mental, emotional, psychological, physical, financial, etc.), and we are only called to help one another to the extent that we are capable; or from the point that your first obligation is to care for those immediately under your protection (family, close friends, local community, etc.). It is a nuanced difference, but an important one. It is incumbent upon all of us to be our brother’s keeper, particularly with regard to the poor and the marginalized. See Matthew 25:34-46, Proverbs 31:8-9, Proverbs 11:25, Psalm 72:3-4, Psalm 140:12, and Isaiah 1:17. I would agree with Carlson that no one can be forced to fulfill their moral obligations. It is not a sign of charity if the government must force you to help the poor. Yet, one recurring theme that I’ve noticed is that, in some circles, things that we must do are often relegated to the status of things that we should or can do. This is an ethical slight of hand taken by conservatives, people who claim to be champions of both a Judeo-Christian worldview and of limiting the authority of the government. How do we recognize that people have objective moral obligations without concluding that we should be forced to do so as a result of more government regulation? Say what Carlson said. Unlike people on the left, I’m not accusing conservatives of being heartless money-grubbers who only care about their own immediate safety and well-being. But, your fear of too much government regulation or unsound immigration policies shouldn’t lead you to the notion that helping the poor and the marginalized is simply something you should do in your free time if you feel like it. It is a responsibility that is incumbent on individuals and societies.


This showcases the moral limits of classical liberal thought. In the free market system, no one has any intrinsic moral obligations to anyone else. The only rights people have are negative rights – that is, the right to not be hurt, the right to not be oppressed, the right to not have your free speech infringed, the right to not have your property stolen. The only moral obligations that people have is to not do anything that would hurt others. The only positive obligations I have are the ones I willingly and freely take upon myself in something approximating to a contractual agreement. This is altogether different than saying that people inherently have moral responsibilities towards their fellow man – beyond simply “let everyone else be and don’t hurt them” – and because we have free will we have it within our power to chose whether or not to act upon these obligations (that is, whether or not we fail to act as we ought if the result of our own choices).


You see this with Ben Shapiro’s speech at Politicon. He states that negative rights are rights that people intrinsically have simply on account being an individual with a God-given dignity and self-worth; positive rights are those bestowed onto us by the government. He further goes on to say:


Now the way you can tell the difference between a negative right and a positive right, just in practice, is whether a right that is articulated requires somebody else’s time or labor in order to effectuate. So, I have the right to bear arms. That doesn’t require anything of you. I have the right to self-defense, freedom of speech. I have the right to my own property. These require nothing of you other than you do not get to invade that right. A right to housing, by contrast, suggests that I have to provide you housing. A right to healthcare suggests I have to provide you healthcare. And that if I am unwilling to provide you these things, then I have violated the social compact and I can be forced to at the point of gun. 


No, Ben; the notion that people have a right to housing or healthcare, from a purely ethical perspective, does NOT mean that you can be forced by the government to give it to them. Yes, as a Catholic I admit that the government cannot force you to help your fellow man. As a Catholic I also admit that we are called to help our fellow man only to the extent to which we are capable of acting upon these obligations. And, in some sense, we are speaking past each other: I am speaking of moral responsibility, he is speaking of government policy (not to imply that these things are totally separable in all of their aspects). Nonetheless, Mr. Shapiro’s view, like that of Mr. Carlson, limits itself to speaking of what the government can and cannot force you to do, or which policies are the most politically or economically prudent. It does not, from a purely ethical or spiritual perspective, take into account the fact that we have certain duties to our fellow man. To speak in a manner that would hit close to home for both me and Mr. Shapiro: look to the prophets. What does Isaiah say? “Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow.” (Isaiah 1:17) What is expressed here is not merely the notion of not hurting them, but the positive duty to help them, to stand up for them. Look at the Law. The Law presents both the obligation to not violate the rights of others – and thus negative rights – as well as positive obligations to help the poor. Deuteronomy 24:14 says, “Do not oppress the hired man who is poor and needy…” This could easily be interpreted in the sense that Mr. Shapiro is saying: people have dignity, and thus have the right to freedom from having that dignity oppressed. Yet, Leviticus 19:9-10 also outlines certain means by which the people of Israel are to provide for the needs of the poor, and it was expected that all people would follow this. Hence, we don’t just have the duty to not oppress the poor, but also the duty to actively help them.


Here, I’m not implying by any means that Mr. Shapiro is a cold-hearted man who doesn’t feel empathy for the poor. I hope I’ve made that abundantly clear over the course of the article. And my use of Bible verses is not me saying the classical comeback that “Bible Christians” love to say – “Hey, why don’t you try reading your Bible some time?” What I do mean to do is import some nuance into the thought of the conservative movement, just as the moral presuppositions of the left also need some nuance added to them. Mr. Shapiro’s chief concern here seems to be that people have the right to own their labor and the fruits of their labor, and thus cannot be forced by government mandate to give the fruits of their labor to another. I, as a Catholic, can in good conscience admit that much. Carlson’s chief concern is that a government should only let in as many immigrants as it can handle, and should only let in those who it knows will be able to contribute the most to society. Not really a controversial opinion. But as a Catholic I would also say that all of this is incomplete. Helping the poor, the needy, or foreigners does not need to occur by way of government mandate or overly-lenient immigration policies. But, stepping outside of the realm of what the government has the authority to make you do, or what is politically prudent, it completely overlooks the fact that people, and even societies, have positive duties, and not just the duty to not hurt others or violate their rights. Before the judgment seat of God, the excuse, “It’s my labor, I can do whatever I want with it” won’t work.


I’m not saying that this represents capitalism in the fullness of its philosophical nuance. What I am saying is that this is the mindset held by more capitalist-leaning libertarians/anarchists and run-of-the-mill conservatives. The problem is when this perspective takes precedence over all else. Now, I’m not asserting that programs to help the poor shouldn’t also be economically prudent. I’m also not asserting that the United States should blindly let any immigrant into the country. What I am saying is that the mindset I just descried is one manifestation of what happens when rights are held up over duties and responsibilities. Just as identity politics and the “entitlement” attitude is how it is manifested in leftist politics, what I have been just describing is how it is manifested on the right.


And whereas liberals have left aside Christian or Biblical values a long time ago, conservatives today are suffering from what can only be seen as a split personality. Paul Ryan, for example, is reported to be a big fan of Ayn Rand. He said he first became interested in politics and economics upon reading the works of Ayn Rand, and is still influenced by her thought today. He once said that he gave out copies of Ayn Rand’s books at Christmas parties, and tries to get his interns to read her books. You know, Ayn Rand, the same woman who said, “He cannot demand that others give up their lives to make him happy, nor should he wish to sacrifice himself for the happiness of others.” The same woman who said that a love for our fellow man that places the good of the other above ones own self-interest is both immoral and impossible. Paul Ryan is also a Catholic, which thus means that he sees as a Divine utterance such words as, “Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Philippians 2:4), and “Greater love no man has than this, that you lay down your life for your friends” (John 15:13), and “Do nothing out of rivalry or conceit, but in humility consider others more significant than yourselves” (Philippians 2:3). Is selfishness a virtue, and empathy something noble but not required, as the ethics of Ayn Rand states, or is self-giving, self-emptying love at the core of what ethically and spiritually constitutes the good life, as Jesus said? You can’t have it both ways.


What I ask conservatives to do is, well, make up your mind.

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