Belmont Club

For the Left, Morality Needs Muscle Behind It

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., with his wife Jane O'Meara Sanders, arrives to speak to supporters at a primary night election rally in Manchester, N.H., Tuesday, Feb. 11, 2020. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

Bernie Sanders described his plan to reject the “racist, right wing government of Israel and bring Palestinian and Jew, Iranian and Saudi together under the banner of justice,” which is a tall order. Even should it fail, his supporters may argue that “we have to try and keep trying. We owe it to the future not to give up,” as if trying were an end in itself. Bernie Sanders was asked by NBC  about the job loss his proposed fracking ban might cause.

“What do you tell those workers?” NBC moderator Chuck Todd asked.

“This is a moral issue, my friends,” Mr. Sanders said.

And there it is again: the higher value. Sanders’ rival, Michael Bloomberg, had his own ethical imperatives, though they were less lofty. “On December 5, 2006, New York City under Bloomberg became the first city in the United States to ban trans fat from all restaurants. … In 2012, the NYC Board of Health approved Bloomberg’s proposal to ban the sale of many sweetened drinks more than 16 ounces (473ml) in volume. … Bloomberg has been criticized for some of his policies which have been described by many as facilitating the creation of a nanny state.”

Nannies may yell at the kids, but they are more deferential toward the visiting aristocrat. Asked how Beijing could be forced to reduce carbon emissions, Bloomberg admitted the Chinese had to be nudged. “Well you’re not going to go to war with them,” he said.   The difference between nudges and regulation is this: “to count as a mere nudge, the intervention must be easy and cheap to avoid. Nudges are not mandates. Putting fruit at eye level counts as a nudge. Banning junk food does not.” Progressive Western politicians ban behaviors of their domestic populations — like the frackers or consumers of Big Gulp sodas — but they nudge foreign dictators. In 2009, Tom Friedman described how much better things would be if an enlightened American leadership could be as prescriptive as China.

(We need) people who can write the rules, set the taxes, incentives…people who are really committed to launching the ecosystem of green innovation. Government has a huge role…if the government is divided against itself – red states, blue states – we’re not going to get where we need to be. You detect the envy of someone who wants his own government to act democratically with the same effectiveness that China can do autocratically.

Morality needs muscle behind it. There may even be a thankfulness in certain quarters that China can meet the coronavirus emergency with an iron gauntlet. “As Chinese authorities struggle to contain the deadly Wuhan coronavirus, they are turning to a sophisticated authoritarian playbook honed over decades of crackdowns on dissidents and undesirables to enforce quarantines and lockdowns across the country.” The head of WHO, Dr. AG Tedros, frankly praised Beijing for saving the world. “We would have seen many more cases outside China by now, and probably deaths, if it were not for the government’s efforts and the progress they have made to protect their own people and the people of the world.”

The speed with which China detected the outbreak, isolated the virus, sequenced the genome and shared it with WHO and the world are very impressive, and beyond words. So is China’s commitment to transparency and to supporting other countries.

In many ways, China is actually setting a new standard for outbreak response. It’s not an exaggeration.

Could countries opposed to giant state bureaucracies have done that? Doubtful. Although such proclamations seem outwardly virtuous, there is in this ruthless idealism the danger of what St Augustine called the sin of angels. “It was pride that changed angels into devils; it is humility that makes men as angels.” Pride makes failure the world’s fault rather than a defect in the perfect plan. Pride removes the possibility of error under the guise of good intentions. While most doctors, engineers, or developers know that failure means a bug or flaw somewhere — and back to the drawing board. That’s not how ideology works. Ideology works by an imposition of the will legitimized by the purity of intention. A perfect plan is rejected only be because the public is unworthy of it.

Riding in a motorcade in Lima, Peru, shortly after the 2016 election, President Barack Obama was struggling to understand Donald J. Trump’s victory.

“What if we were wrong?” he asked aides riding with him in the armored presidential limousine.

He had read a column asserting that liberals had forgotten how important identity was to people and had promoted an empty cosmopolitan globalism that made many feel left behind. “Maybe we pushed too far,” Mr. Obama said. “Maybe people just want to fall back into their tribe.”

His aides reassured him that he still would have won had he been able to run for another term and that the next generation had more in common with him than with Mr. Trump. Mr. Obama, the first black man elected president, did not seem convinced. “Sometimes I wonder whether I was 10 or 20 years too early,” he said.

The only possibility of error was timing. With respect to the overall arc of history, how could that be wrong? With Brexit an accomplished fact, globalism under threat from a looming pandemic, and his own party in disarray, it might occur to Obama that his ideology was not 20 years too early so much as a hundred years too old. But it probably won’t. There is no refutation of  “this is a moral issue, my friends.”

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Loserthink: How Untrained Brains Are Ruining America, by Scott Adams. The creator of Dilbert has come up with a guide to spot and avoid mental habits trapping victims in their own bubbles of reality, such as the inability to get ego out of your decisions, thinking with words instead of reasons, failing to imagine alternative explanations, and making too much of coincidences.

Humanity in a Creative Universe, by Stuart A. Kauffman. Best known for his philosophy of evolutionary biology, Kauffman calls into question science’s ability to ever accurately and precisely predict the future development of biological features in organisms. He argues that our preoccupation to explain all things with scientific law has deadened our creative natures and concludes that the development of life on earth is not entirely predictable, because no theory could ever fully account for the limitless variations of evolution.

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