I’m not often inspired by the speeches of politicians, and I can measure the gap between idealistic phrases and actual policy. Nonetheless, there was something about President Obama’s Sept. 9 health care speech that still resonates with me: his invocation of Senator Kennedy’s letter in which he said that, “At stake are not just the details of policy, but fundamental principles of social justice and the character of our country.”
It’s important, in other words, that we ask what kind of country we are, and what kind we want to be. This question doesn’t get asked in public very often, at least not in the mainstream, not in Washington. Whatever core beliefs are at work in the echelons of American power are revealed through actions that often belie official rhetoric. The central one, it seems to me, is to make money, and make as much of it as possible all the time. Politics is simply a way of aiding the “economy,” the modern term for business interests. On the face of it, this is a legitimate purpose or value, if you look at in the most simplistic terms: people need food, housing, the ability to fulfill various other needs and wants, and the means to raise and educate children. These are just the terms that are emphasized because they are at the end of the chain of power. Voters can understand that. But those aren’t the operative terms. Capitalism functions through the self-interest of the capitalist, not because of a socially desirable result.
Ask any CEO if there is any other motive that takes precedence over the profit motive in the operation of a company. If he’s honest, he’ll say no. That’s how it works, and within those terms, there’s nothing wrong with it. The problem is that this motive, this sole overriding principle in the operation of a business, became identified with the ultimate value of society. The “free market” ideologies, identified most purely with Republicans but permeating the thought of members from both major parties, are hostile to any principle that places itself above the profit motive. Politicians may say something different, but in practice the core value is profit above all else. And there are consequences to this regarding other human values—there are effects on our character.
The logic of “free market” values leads to deregulation, removing effective oversight from business, and to so-called “privatization,” the handing over of traditionally public functions to business. It also leads to the dismantling of social programs, which have no profit-centered logic, and therefore no reason for being. From the victory of the right wing under Reagan until now, the effect on the economic condition of the masses has been quite clear. The middle class has become increasingly less affluent, with wages stagnating and families forced to take two or more jobs in order to get by. At the same time, the poor became poorer, and more numerous with the addition of people falling from the middle into the lower class.
I never saw masses of homeless people on the streets before Reagan was President. Almost immediately after he took office, they became a permanent presence in our cities. The ideologues mounted a campaign to explain this fact away. The homeless deserved their plight: they were lazy, irresponsible people who often chose to be homeless. The same kinds of campaigns were waged against welfare and food stamp recipients. This wasn’t just a practical move on the part of the right—it was a conscious attempt to define the American character in a new, non-liberal way.
Which brings me back to Obama’s speech. Kennedy’s notion of “social justice and the character of our country” has its roots in the epochal founding events of modern American liberalism, the Depression and the New Deal. Such ideas had of course existed long before, but they gained power under FDR. Essentially what the New Deal said is that we as a nation have a stake in caring for the basic needs of people, and that this “caring” is in itself a principle independent of the profit motive. It was never that the profit motive should go away, or that there is something inherently wrong with making a profit—although the free marketers would always try to paint liberal thought in those terms. It was only that there were other worthy principles and values that people need to live by, besides making a profit. And that all these principles must be honored in order for a country to be well and justly governed.
Schooling children doesn’t really make a profit. People try to couch it in terms of the country needing to have well-educated children in order to be “competitive” in the world economy and so forth, which only goes to show how much the profit motive dominates the public discourse. But really, most parents don’t seek to educate their children for business reasons.
The same is true for having a police force, a fire department, public transport, traffic lights, driver’s licenses, and a host of other public institutions and functions. Communities have needs, and the need for businesses to make money is only one of those needs, not the only one or even the primary one. So when the “free market” ends up denying basic needs to people, such as food, shelter, and health care, the contradiction between the belief in the sacredness of the profit motive and the reality of most people’s lives becomes evident. In the case of health care, it has become insupportable, and yet the disciples of making the most money possible all of the time will fight tooth and nail to prevent health care from being recognized as a right, since they recognize no other good but profit.
The world in which profit has been elevated above compassion, caring, family, neighborhood, and friendship is very much like the world depicted in Charles Dickens’ novels, the world of predatory capitalism before regulation. If we can accept people living on the streets, ultimately we accept them dying from cold or starvation on the streets. From there, we can accept people dying because they can’t afford treatment for their health problems. If it weren’t for labor laws that were pushed through by liberals, we would be accepting children being worked to death in factories. In fact, corporations still accept it when they use sweatshops in other countries.
The point is, there is no possible moral or principled objection to such things in terms of the “free market.” In philosophical terms, human beings are replaceable objects in the profit system; if profit is the one organizing social principle, then there is no crime that is not excusable in the name of business. I’m not speaking of the future here, but of the present. The prisons are packed with poor, working class, and minority criminals. The so-called “white collar” criminals are, more often than not, given a slap on the wrist, or even acquitted, if they’re ever charged at all. This is an open secret in our society, and it follows from the valuing of profits over people.
What then is the character of our country? There is no simple answer. The masses of ordinary people, working day by day to get by, possess whatever variety and degree of character they have been able to cultivate. People still love their families and help out their neighbors. It’s a fact that the lower middle class gives proportionally more to charity than the rich or upper middle class. I don’t believe that self-centeredness is the only distinguishing trait of our society. I don’t think we could have survived this far if it were. But as a country, we are split. The economic system, and the government, is aligned with a callous and anti-humanist philosophy. By no means is there agreement on fundamental principles of social justice, or even that social justice is a good to be aimed at. For the country to realize a character greater than the examples of greed and power-seeking we have been shown so far will involve relegating the profit motive to its proper place in society. It will always participate, but it can no longer run the show.