Sunday, March 08, 2009

Three American Values, and David Brooks

Some time ago (quite possibly two or three years ago) on an episode of the Observations Podcast, the Q and O guys pontificated about what they considered to be the three American values: Justice, Liberty, and Equality. Their discussion has stuck with me.

These three values are are displayed with prominence in the Declaration of Independence:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, ...

In fact, beyond simply showing up as words, the values resonate through out that paragraph (and the rest of the Declaration for that matter). The securing of rights deals further with Justice, their unalienable status with Liberty, our right to life with Equality.

The values of Liberty and Justice also appear in the Pledge of Allegiance ("with liberty and justice for all"), and Equality was considered as being added to these before the pledge was finalized.

Each of these three values resonates through the American ethic today and has since our country's founding. But the three necessarily interfere with one another.

Before I get too far discussing the tensions between the three I should define what I happen to mean by each, because each is fairly nebulous with many options for interpretation.


By Justice, I mean "maintenance or administration ... by the impartial adjustment of conflicting claims or the assignment of merited rewards or punishments" if I can borrow part of a Merriam-Webster definition.

An instance I would consider to be within the realm of Justice would include if you are promised some amount of compensation for some amount of work, and you complete the work, that you are properly compensated, and that others then can't also lay claim to your compensation. Or, in another instance, that others are prohibited from causing you physical harm, and if do so, receive a suitable punishment.

I should mention that as a socially concerned Evangelical, I often hear the term "social justice" bandied about. "Social justice" has nothing to do with the Justice I am talking about here (and, I think, little to do with what our Founding Fathers were talking about in the Declaration.) That's to not say that "social justice" proponents have goals I disagree with - but I do dislike their terminology (and often I also dislike the means they propose to achieved their desired ends). So called "social justice" deals with what the Catholic Encyclopedia terms a "claim in charity" as opposed to a "claim in justice" (or likewise, "charity leads us to help our neighbour in his need out of our own stores, while justice teaches us to give to another what belongs to him.")

Again, charity is important, but it is not Justice as I'm defining it for the purpose of this post.


To explain what I mean by liberty, I'll again cherry pick from M-W: "the quality or state of being free", "the power to do as one pleases", "the positive enjoyment of various ... rights and privileges".

This is all about being able do that which you desire without impediment by others, to "be free". If you want to paint your house red, and you have the means to do so, you can paint your house red. If you want to engage in an open market exchange, you are able to do so. If you want to share your wealth out of charity, you can do so. Etc, etc, etc.


I mean two related but perhaps slightly different concepts by Equality.

The first deals with impartiality. We should be impartial about things beyond someone's control and which aren't relevant when making decisions. So, one should not be able to able to discriminate based on race or ethnicity or creed because that violates equality in terms of impartiality. In this sense we are all "equal" in that we all, by virtue of being human, have access to the same set of unalienable rights.

The second deals with egalitarianism. This incorporates both the desire to provide equal privileges to all and to address the "gap" of "inequality" between individuals. We educate all children in this country out of this egalitarianism, so all persons have some degree of "equality of opportunity." Our progressive tax code is also based on this egalitarianism such that those with much are taxed more to give aid to those without (this is an attempt to achieve "equality of results/ends").

Now that you hopefully have some sense of what I mean by these concepts, I can get into how they conflict. Justice necessarily requires the State (or whomever is administering Justice) to be able to violate one's Liberty. Locking someone in jail clearly violates their Liberty, but punishing those who commit crimes is Just. Equality also conflicts with Liberty. Anti-discrimination laws violate a person's Liberty to discriminate on various criteria to achieve the goal of Equality in terms of impartiality.

Equality and Justice can also conflict. Progressive taxation, for example (and - to come back to my previous point on "social justice," which often involves calls for progressive taxation), takes away the merited rewards that should be protected by Justice for the sake of achieving the egalitarian ends of Equality.

Within the conflicting tensions between these values is where different political philosophies pop up. Referencing back to the Q and O podcast, the participants discussed how (typically) Liberals emphasize Equality above the other two, whereas Conservatives broadly champion Justice, and conservatives who would identify as Libertarians primarily care about Liberty.

Hopefully by this point you've come away from this post with something to think about, but I'm really just setting up the framework of these values for the purpose of evaluating a recent New York Times article by David Brooks - his Feb. 19 piece, "Money for Idiots". Keeping in mind that Brooks described himself as a "conservative moderate" on March 3 in his later article "A Moderate Manifesto", and he's the token conservative on PBS's NewsHour, let's consider exactly how "moderate" and exactly how "conservative" Brooks is.

"Money for Idiots" starts:

Our moral and economic system is based on individual responsibility. It's based on the idea that people have to live with the consequences of their decisions. This makes them more careful deciders. This means that society tends toward justice — people get what they deserve as much as possible.

So far so good. That's conservative red meat. It's Liberty (make your own decisions) and Justice (live with your decisions) all over the place.


Over the last few months, we've made a hash of all that. The Bush and Obama administrations have compensated foolishness and irresponsibility. The financial bailouts reward bankers who took insane risks. The auto bailouts subsidize companies and unions that made self-indulgent decisions a few decades ago that drove their industry into the ground.

The stimulus package handed tens of billions of dollars to states that spent profligately during the prosperity years. The Obama housing plan will force people who bought sensible homes to subsidize the mortgages of people who bought houses they could not afford. It will almost certainly force people who were honest on their loan forms to subsidize people who were dishonest on theirs.

These injustices are stoking anger across the country, lustily expressed by Rick Santelli on CNBC Thursday morning. "The government is promoting bad behavior!" Santelli cried as Chicago traders cheered him on. "The president ... should put up a Web site ... to have people vote ... to see if they want to subsidize losers' mortgages!"

After reading just the intro, I started thinking "Hey - Brooks is back!" After all his Palin bashing and what seemed to be his secret glee over the Obama win, I was hoping to be breathing a fresh breath of Brooks by the time I made it that far through the article — individual responsibility, apparent sneers at bailouts and the stimulus, Liberty. Justice. And, low on egalitarian Equality. He's a conservative again!

But, wait! Unfortunately, there's more:

Well, in some cases we probably do [have to subsidize irresponsible people's mortgages]. That's because government isn't fundamentally in the Last Judgment business, making sure everybody serves penance for their sins. In times like these, government is fundamentally in the business of stabilizing the economic system as a whole.

Sigh. He's back to his liberalism. He just chucked Liberty and Justice out the window to welcome in egalitarian Equality.

It's more anti-Justice, anti-Liberty through the rest of the article and Brooks concludes:

The nation's economy is not just the sum of its individuals. It is an interwoven context that we all share. To stabilize that communal landscape, sometimes you have to shower money upon those who have been foolish or self-indulgent. The greedy idiots may be greedy idiots, but they are our countrymen. And at some level, we're all in this together. If their lives don't stabilize, then our lives don't stabilize.

Which, is basically a more elaborate way for Brooks to make a bad parody out of Patrick Henry's famous quote ... changing it to: "The government needs to give egalitarian Equality to the entire economy, or you get death."

David Brooks doesn't share a common outlook on these three American values with conservatives. He's willing to do away with the conservative push for Justice and Liberty for a little Equality. That's not the balance of a conservative, it's the balance of a liberal. Now if only the mainstream media would bring Brooks on their programs under the right label.

1. Bruce McQuain makes similar points to the above over at Q and O.
2. Brooks wins the "2009 Beclownment in Journalism Award". (H/T The Other McCain).
3. David Brooks: insane. Count me stuck on Reagan. (Also, H/T The Other McCain).

Update, 3/11: Michael Wade over at Q and O critiques the latest nonsense to come out of David Brooks which is continued criticism of faux capitalism from a faux conservative.


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