On our “divergent beliefs over what constitutes justice”

Paul Krugman’s column today beautifully anticipates the struggles of the new Congress based on what we’ve experienced the past two years. It also gives us a sense of the direction for his future columns. Referring to the President’s speech at the memorial service in Tuscon, Krugman writes:

For the great divide in our politics isn’t really about pragmatic issues, about which policies work best; it’s about differences in those very moral imaginations Mr. Obama urges us to expand, about divergent beliefs over what constitutes justice.

He continues to discuss the Right’s perspective on taxation (that it’s theft and somehow a hindrance to personal liberties) and the ways this view impacts not only the way we can expect the GOP to run the House of Representatives, but also the way this belief fuels the vitriol and anger that (perhaps) manifested in the attack on Rep. Gabby Giffords.

I’d like to propose a different starting point for this discussion than Dr. Krugman’s. I’d like to point out that many of these same folks who despise taxes are also financially secure…to say the least. I wonder if they see how problematic it is that they connect their freedom to money. What does this mean, I wonder, for those who do not have or have less money? Also, what does the connection between money and freedom mean for those who are poor, and, therefore, do not have the same freedom? Based on the view that taxation is tyranny, can we then tie the amount of freedom we deserve to some inherent flaw in personal character in the same way it blames a person’s shitty circumstances on their personal shortcomings?

Put another way, I think a more productive means of appealing to those who hold the mistaken belief that taxation is theft, is to question why they think their ability to hold on to their money (when they typically have so much more of it) is some metric of their personal liberty. Sure, they can navigate the world a little more easily- you can drive to the store, you can buy food, you can buy clothes and a place to live, all the necessities for survival that we should all have access to anyways (…right?). But if you tie your freedom to the amount of money you have, you make a moral judgment on those who don’t have as much as you- that somehow, the poor are less worthy of the freedom the rich take for granted as theirs “to own.”

I’m not sure how logically sound this argument is. However, the folks I know who hold this view are not bad people (although they do support some highly questionable politicians). I think that’s our “in,” if you will. I’d like to chip away at this sense of material entitlement that has become imbricated to something as intangible as “freedom.” I agree with Krugman, in the sense that divergent political moralities drive Democrats and Republicans. But, in order to construct a practical politics (which I am intellectually out of shape to do these days) so that we can reveal to the right the unethical and amoral basis of their position, I think we need to conjure a different vocabulary that, ironically, appeals directly to that same sense of ethics and morality.

This might not work for all, but I think we can begin to bridge the seemingly yawning gap between our “divergent beliefs over what constitutes justice” by appealing to the very best in our ideological nemeses. To use some baking terminology, I think we can sift out the ugly little lumps and bumps in our political flour (can you see how domesticated I’ve become the last six months?). At the same time as we seek to close one gap, we on the left can begin to demarcate another: that between those of us who are working to forge a righteous path of justice for all (and not just those with the worldly means to buy it) and the atrocious, unproductive venom that has atrophied our political discourse in the U.S.

If President Obama’s speech the other night is any indication, where he appealed to the very best in all of us, I fervently hope that this path is still passable.

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2 thoughts on “On our “divergent beliefs over what constitutes justice”

  1. Look at you getting all Marxist up in here.

    The sad thing about taxes is that everyone working or purchasing gets taxed. Poor people on food stamps can be led to believe that taxes are problematic because they see it taken from their checks as well.

    You are absolutely spot on with the fact that rich people are given more freedom. This is a capitalist system. This system automatically tilts everything in favor of the haves. Some poor and middle class workers can’t afford to take two weeks off for vacation because they don’t have paid leave. Many of us, including myself, have paid leave, we just cant afford to go anywhere. Freedom my ass. But look at how many vacations our elected officials take. And then complain about an additional 3% missing from their checks… The American ego has had a history of looking at it this way – if I have it, I earned it. I’m entitled to more. No matter where it came from.

    I think people don’t realize the value of the taxes they pay. All walks of life ask their government to do something – whether it’s feed the poor or “defend our borders from brown people”, it all costs money. And as Americans, I guess we feel entitled to all that, so it should be free, right?

  2. I think the next step in the argument is, if you think freedom is measured by what you can buy, do you realize how shallow your freedom is? It seems that’s something people could relate to…or not. But I think that’s a direction to take progressive politics that might persuade people that this obsession with taxation as theft is superficial AND unethical.

    I’m not sure I’m up to snuff on that level of philosophizing. Pretty out of shape intellectually all around. Thanks for weighing in, Anthony.

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