Friday, January 14, 2011

Paul Krugman on the Two Moralities of Contemporary American Culture: How to Move Forward

In contrast to David Brooks' moralizing analysis of the current state of affairs (political and cultural) in the U.S. about which I've just blogged, Paul Krugman's essay in the same issue of the New York Times about the two moralities that compete for our attention as we analyze our present malaise is enlightening.  Where Brooks' essay seeks to capture exclusive moral ground for the powerful and privileged of our society, while blaming everyone else for our current problems, Krugman sees two radically different understandings of morality competing for attention in our cultural and political life.

And as Krugman rightly notes, there is no real middle ground between these two competing visions of what it means to be a moral nation.  Here's his analysis of what's at stake:

One side of American politics considers the modern welfare state — a private-enterprise economy, but one in which society’s winners are taxed to pay for a social safety net — morally superior to the capitalism red in tooth and claw we had before the New Deal. It’s only right, this side believes, for the affluent to help the less fortunate.

The other side believes that people have a right to keep what they earn, and that taxing them to support others, no matter how needy, amounts to theft. That’s what lies behind the modern right’s fondness for violent rhetoric: many activists on the right really do see taxes and regulation as tyrannical impositions on their liberty.

There’s no middle ground between these views. One side saw health reform, with its subsidized extension of coverage to the uninsured, as fulfilling a moral imperative: wealthy nations, it believed, have an obligation to provide all their citizens with essential care. The other side saw the same reform as a moral outrage, an assault on the right of Americans to spend their money as they choose.

The problem, Krugman rightly notes, is how to find some way between two radically different ways of framing the moral question of what it means to be a viable participatory democracy at this point in history.  And how to talk about the fundamental differences implied by these radically different ways of understanding morality short of violent confrontation . . . .

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