Where Is Honor in America?

Common Good recently hosted a public discussion at which David Webb, co-founder of TeaParty365, and Will Marshall, head of the Progressive Policy Institute, agreed on at least two key points: First, that the outcome of the coming election is unlikely to have any significant effect on American policy, and second, that American government needs a major structural overhaul. As Marshall put it: "It's not true that bipartisanship is dead in Washington. There's a perfect bipartisan conspiracy to bankrupt the country."

My inbox is flooded with campaign emails in which the dominant messages can be summarized as either "no new taxes" or "no cutbacks on Medicare or other benefits." This morning's headlines are stories on the huge dollars pumped into the campaign by the Chamber of Commerce (New York Times) or the even larger amount of money pumped into the campaign by the public employees' union AFSCME (Wall Street Journal).

It's not news, I suppose, that American politics is dominated by the narrow self-interest of special interests. What is worth pondering, perhaps, is where this has led us. Many states and cities in America have been made terminally insolvent by promises made in past decades for short-term political gain--mainly in benefits to public employee unions. The poster children for these abuses are public employees who retire at age 40 or so, with benefits that exceed their salaries when working. Congress is not far behind, unwilling to adjust incentives to make Medicare and other programs affordable. Corporate America has jumped on the selfishness bandwagon, resisting any changes to subsidies that have stacked up over the decades. American citizens have been trained to think they have "rights" to get what they want from government. Ask any school principal about legal demands by parents.

The scene in America is not hard to imagine in visual terms: pretty much every organized interest, and many citizens, are grabbing at the common good as if it's a dead carcass. What makes this situation different than politics-as-usual is where it's progressed. Pretty soon the common good will be picked to the bone. If our political leaders were accountable the way business leaders are for keeping the books straight, they would all be in jail. The unfunded liabilities and ridiculous assumptions on investment returns render balance sheets of states like New York and California works of fiction. Most knowledgeable observers would not blanch at this conclusion: public accounting is a fraud.

The hardest problem is not coming up with a solution. Societies have clawed their way from far worse situations--for example, post-war recoveries. This month's Esquire contains a credible plan to balance the budget devised by retired Senators Bill Bradley, John Danforth, Gary Hart, and Bob Packwood.

The hard problem facing America is how to dislodge the politics of selfishness.

There's a new book out by Princeton philosopher Anthony Appiah, The Honor Code, in which he argues that immoral cultural habits change only when they become dishonorable. He uses the examples of dueling, the Atlantic slave trade, and binding the feet of Chinese women. He describes how reformers eventually convinced the public that those practices were dishonorable and should be ridiculed. At that point, even massive economic self-interest--such as that held by slave traders--could not block transition to what we would all consider more humane and moral social norms.

Perhaps what's needed to break the downward spiral of narrow selfishness in American politics--what Tocqueville might call "self-interest, wrongly understood"--is to embrace the language of honor and shame. Honor is powerful.

It is shameful that we lack the public discipline to live within our means, and will leave our children obligated to pay twice the taxes we do, for what we're spending today.

It is shameful that we've hijacked the language of rights, intended to preserve our common freedoms, in order to advance our own self-interest at the expense of everyone else in society.

When someone comes to the public table and demands their rights--public employees, corporate farmers, greedy litigators, you name it--we should no longer cower and dole out money we don't have. We should ask them which school programs, or health care benefits, or police protection, we should give up to pay for them.

I am under no illusion that our political system has the backbone to do this. Nor did the political establishment in any of the examples Appiah describes in The Honor Code. What's needed is a movement with leaders who aspire to moral authority, not political power. Everyone knows that our political system is leading us over a cliff. This is the challenge of the current pathetic state of things in America. The opportunity is to reclaim a vision of responsible leadership, and to find a vocabulary of honor and shame to discredit the current political game.