The upcoming election brings into clear view two of the strongest and most contradictory features of our American tradition. First is the democratic character of our politics—the fact that we, in principle if not wholly in fact, govern ourselves through the consent of the people. In doing so, we express faith that democracy brings justice. The second feature is the strength of self-interest, the insistent tendency within people to seek through political power not what is good for all but best for themselves. But, as theologian Reinhold Niebuhr once warned, we can only have the former, if we don’t cast a blind eye to the latter.
This election occurs when there has never been less trust in government. To be sure, Americans have long been suspicious of it of it. Early settlers fled the oppression of kings. But the struggle for American independence was not a fight against government per se, but against an unjust one. James Madison’s argument for our new republic was that elected representatives would be more likely to serve justice for all, rather than the goals self-interested factions.
Reality, however, has fallen short of his vision. Many of the powerful elite now governing our country—those millionaires supported by billionaires—seem more interested in convincing us that self-interest is in the best interest of our country.
The latest major policy offering is Republican Paul Ryan’s budget proposal, supported by Montana Representative Steve Daines. Sold as a way to enhance general prosperity and keep government debt off our backs, it takes food from our stomachs instead. It cuts $3.3 trillion dollars over ten years from programs that serve people of limited means, while the wealthy get more tax cuts. These gifts to the rich would cost our treasury $5 trillion dollars in revenue that could be spent on minimizing inequality of opportunity through better health care, education, and job training for low-income Americans. But less government, the sales pitch goes, is attitude we should have.
In fact, less government mostly serves them. The wealth of the richest Americans has doubled since 2000. Corporate profits are at a record high. Income for the bottom 90 percent, meanwhile, has been declining since 1992. One in four American children now live in poverty.
While economic inequality has risen faster historically under Republican administrations, Democrats are not without fault. As columnist Thomas Edsall notes, pro-wealth forces in the Democratic Party also strongly oppose policies that promote greater economic equality.
It was Niebuhr, the most politically influential theologian of the twentieth century, who perhaps best saw that the justice enabled by democracy is most threatened by ignoring the shrewdness of those who would coopt it only for self-interest. An elite class always rules us. Our task, he believed, is to be awake to insidious attempts to sell freedom and democracy as covers for enhancing the wealth and power of the few.
Niebuhr argues that this should be one of the functions of religion in society. The prophetic tradition in Judaism and Christianity, for example, is represented by those who are critical of government when it tramples on the poor, while ignoring higher values.
The more philosophically minded might recall the words of Socrates when sentenced to death for exposing the pretensions of Athens’ rulers. Cause the same kind of grief to my sons, he said, “if you think they care for money or anything else more than they care for virtue.”
So as we face another election, the critical attitude toward government should not be a question of more or less, but of just or unjust. The highest ideals of our tradition are meant to foster justice. That impulse we must preserve. But we Americans are also well schooled in self-interest. We must therefore be suspicious not of government per se, but, as Niebuhr warned, of those who try to sell us a version of our common good that sees no moral value higher than self-interest.
This is Mark Hanson, guest commentator for the Mansfield Program in Ethics and Public Affairs at the University of Montana.