We Can Do Better

It is easy enough to despair over political paralysis and animosity in Washington, and economic uncertainty here and abroad. Yet even when it comes to the often ugly business of secular politics, despair remains a sin.

Despair is also what the opponents of health-care reform and the return to the rule of law in the fight against terrorism are counting on. Will they win? Faux populists are seizing the moment to decry government as the cause of the nation’s problems—but they offer no serious solutions. Thankfully, they are not the only ones questioning whether the American political system is capable of reforming itself. Journalist James Fallows took up this widespread concern in the essay “How America Can Rise Again” in the January/February Atlantic. While not minimizing the severity of the economic and political situation, Fallows expresses a sober confidence that the United States will muddle through. Having spent years reporting from other countries, most recently China, Fallows reminds readers that the United States is still comparatively a very rich, dynamic, and stable society. Fallows has “seen enough of the world outside America to be sure that eventually a collapsing public life brings the private sector down with it.” As in the past, the way forward lies in a “mutually supportive combination of public and private development.”

Historian Tony Judt is more guarded in his assessment of the nation’s ability to summon the political and cultural resources needed to confront its problems. Writing in the New York Review of Books (“What Is Living and What Is Dead in Social Democracy?” December 17, 2009), Judt fears we are entering a “new age of insecurity.” In part, Judt’s essay is a comparison of the European and American models of the welfare state. Europe’s more comprehensive welfare systems have been more successful at establishing a basic level of economic and social equality. Judt points to the European commitment to affordable, and therefore subsidized, public transportation as an example of the state’s responsibility for providing a public good available to all citizens. Judt’s concerns are as much cultural as political. “We appear to have lost the capacity to question the present, much less offer alternatives to it,” he writes of the United States. “Why is it so beyond us to conceive of a different set of arrangements to our common advantage?”

Judt thinks that conceiving of a different and better future will depend on the recovery of a “moral narrative,” a narrative that will enable us to move beyond the narrowly economic measurement of value that has dominated American politics for two generations. “When asking ourselves whether we support a proposal or initiative, we have not asked, is it good or bad? Instead we inquire: Is it efficient? Is it productive?” Judt writes. “This propensity to avoid moral considerations, to restrict ourselves to issues of profit and loss—economic questions in the narrowest sense—is not an instinctive human condition. It is an acquired taste.”

In other words, man does not live by bread alone. Judt knows that recovering a moral narrative that will enable us to see the necessary role of “collective purposes and collective goods” will not be easy. He thinks the place to begin is with a critique of the “unrestricted market” and “the feckless state.” At the same time, we must be reminded of social democracy’s real achievements, which included lifting hundreds of millions out of poverty and ignorance while simultaneously bringing them the blessings of political liberty and social stability in the aftermath of the Great Depression and the two world wars.

As both Judt and Fallows urgently remind us, these achievements were the result of the private and public sectors working together. Neither Fallows nor Judt, however, is sufficiently attentive to the historical role played by Christianity as a source of the West’s moral narrative about social and economic justice. The achievements both writers celebrate were made possible in large part because religious leaders and their communities brought into the public square a sense that government must protect the rights of all while helping those who could not help themselves. Medical care as a right, assistance for those who cannot find work, broad access to educational and social services, especially for the poor—these social goods are also religious values, as is democracy’s bedrock principle of equality before the law.

One can of course be a good citizen without being a Christian, but one cannot be a good Christian in a democracy without also being a responsible citizen. Matters of national importance should not be ceded to the rich or the powerful.  As the Catholic bishops have often reminded us, political participation is a moral duty. Despair is not an option.

February 16, 2010

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