The consequences of the financial crisis are all around us: our friends who are unemployed, the “for sale” signs that sprout up like weeds in our neighborhood lawns and unlike weeds never seem to go away.
We think we have some idea of the costs of the financial crisis: the psychological anguish over job security, the declining retirement account, and the neighborhood buzz about falling property values.
There is yet another cost, one less obvious, one equally as threatening to our political system: the loss of civic virtue.
In a time of situational ethics and herd-oriented political opinions, the idea of civic virtue sounds not only irrelevant but anachronistic.
It isn’t. As Benjamin Franklin so insightfully noted, it takes a virtuous people to create a society based on freedom and liberty. Take away virtue, and freedom and liberty are not possible.
Civic virtue is inexorably linked to individual initiative and individual responsibility. Civic virtue means that we are responsible for our actions and their consequences.
No more. There is a new ethos in America. Look out for yourself, enhance your own short-term self interest, take irresponsible risks, and then expect everyone else to bail you out. We can now all be teenagers on a Saturday night with a bottle of whiskey in one hand, daddy’s car keys in the other, and our only concern need be whether we can remain sober long enough to get laid. We have developed the utmost threat to the republic; we have learned how to vote ourselves money and irresponsibility.
Not everyone wants it that way. CNBC correspondent Rick Santelli struck a responsive chord with people who still believe in hard work and individual initiative and who don’t want to be responsible for the puerile excesses of people who are milking the system. Santelli’s mail is running 98% in favor of his condemnation of President Obama’s multi-million dollar bailout of people who thought their homes were ATM machines absent declining balances.
The government rewriting mortgage contracts constitutes a greater threat to the viability of the political system than letting real estate values find a natural price point in the market place. A contract is a property right, and like it or not, before any society can remove itself from the state of nature and embrace human rights, there must be property rights. No society has ever had human rights in the absence of property rights. That is why the ineluctable outcome of socialism always has been and will be corruption and oppression.
Virtue can’t be created when you are exempt from the consequences of your economic decisions, and the government bails you out. A virtuous people are vital to the creation of a free society, and in turn a virtuous society is vital to the creation of a virtuous people.
The price of your virtue is your political freedom. There is no virtue in dependency and neither is there freedom or liberty in dependency.
The elimination of political virtue is insidious because it is not obvious. Oprah’s messiah has brought you the political culture of Chicago, not just one that is corrupt, but one that thrives on creating and sustaining a system of dependency through political patronage and favors. Chicago politics at its best is about meeting the needs and wants of people. And back in the day, ward committee men like Vito Marzullo were there when there was no place else for someone with a problem to turn. Marzullo, according to legend, never had to ask for anyone’s vote; people gave it freely, because he ran an efficient organization that took care of people’s needs.
But Vito Marzullo could never have contemplated an efficiently run political system that left more money in the hands of the taxpayer, a political system that fostered a vibrant private economy that resulted in far fewer people needing a handout, a political system that both thrived on and fostered political virtue.
The Chicago machine flourishes by dispensing favors and patronage jobs, but without people needing favors and patronage, the machine has no reason to exist. The machine sucks money out of the economy and returns it through the inefficient mechanics of government. While the old machine of Vito Marzullo and Richard J. Daley could boast a degree of political efficiency, the new machine finds itself mired in a web of inefficiency and a series of real estate development projects that sucked up money like a vacuum cleaner and produced subsidies and nepotism.
Obama’s immersion in Chicago’s political culture has well prepared him for the current economic crisis. Obama has no intention of letting market forces solve the current problem. Such thoughts are totally alien to his political socialization. Forget the mantra about not wanting to expand government. Obama can no more resist advocating the expansion of government than Milton Friedman could resist advocating its reduction.
And like Vladimir Putin, who offered the Russian people a way out of the chaos of both democracy and markets through a new social contract, Obama also offers most of us a way out of the current economic crisis based on a new social contract, one founded on the absolution of all responsibility at the price of individual civic virtue and the acceptance, as in Putin’s Russia, of a transfer of power to the state.
In Russia, this led to a new authoritarianism and the unfulfilled promise of a higher standard of living. In America, this is leading to an expansion of government unseen since the New Deal that will be rationalized by the unfulfilled promise of solving the current economic crisis.