A government budget expresses a deep vision accompanied by a corresponding scheme of ethical values. In America today, three visions rooted in different views about human nature and the good society offer distinct slants on budget priorities: the conservative, the liberal and the progressive.
The release of the Congressional Progressive Caucus budget last week brings up once again the familiar maxim that a budget is, or should be, a moral document. I believe, however, that this statement, although true, does not convey adequately the most salient significance of a budget. I would contend that budgets not only shed light on our schemes of moral values, but also, at a still more fundamental level, bring to manifestation our guiding visions, our deepest views about the meaning of human life and the type of society we should strive to create. Moral values frame choices and guide policy decisions, but these values in turn spring from panoramic perspectives that determine the allocation of resources and shape our social and economic institutions. One major way they do so is by their influence on government budgets. Behind the debates about spending priorities and pie-chart divisions lie conflicting world views, which function as the unspoken basis for decisions with far-reaching consequences.
Through the centuries, from Plato to the present, a vast array of visions has been proposed about the kind of society most conducive to human flourishing. A few have proven their worth, but many have left behind trails of blood and carnage. Over the past half century, three distinct visions of the ideal social order have been competing for dominance across the American political landscape: the conservative, the liberal and the progressive. These labels each comprise a range of secondary types, but the three may be taken as the primary categories. Each of these visions generates its own code of values, and, through these values, each exerts distinctive lines of pressure on budget priorities. Naturally, those who adhere to each vision claim that adopting their budget is the key to resolving the problems we face in pursuing our common destiny. But the conviction with which their proposals are advanced is not necessarily indicative of their validity.
As a matter of natural right, conservatives hold, a budget should serve elite interests, for the elite have earned this privilege by their drive and intelligence.
Prerogatives for Me, Austerity for Thee
To speak of a conservative vision today is a bit misleading. When we dig beneath the rhetoric of right-wing politicians and commentators, we can see that what modern American conservatism offers is not so much a vision as an ideological cover for a rapacious collusion of corporate, military and state interests seeking to advance a predatory agenda. Even the word “conservative” has become a misnomer for these people, because it now denotes not a preference for venerable traditions over untried theories but a radical neoliberal push for global hegemony. Nevertheless, as a concession to current usage, I will refer to a conservative vision as if it were a tenable world view rather than a pretext for transnational plutocracy.
Today’s conservative vision naturally finds favor among those aligned with the business and financial communities, but it also gains wide traction with a naïve, mainly white, rural population by exploiting their biases and anxieties. This vision emphasizes individual initiative as a core value. It considers people to be essentially solitary, thrown at birth into an implacable struggle to prevail in a world that can accommodate only a few winners. As we lock horns with our rivals in our bid for one of those favored places, we have little else to depend on other than our ambition, stamina and skill in gaming the system. In reality, of course, family, social and political connections often provide the conservative elite with a ladder to the upper echelons, but adherents of this vision downplay this discomfiting fact in favor of the ideal of the rugged individualist. The hero is thus the self-made multimillionaire or billionaire whose hard work and ingenuity have boosted them to positions of prominence.
In this vision, the prizes toward which we should aspire are wealth and power, which become the markers of success. Hard work is applauded – not because it enhances human dignity and enables one to contribute to the common good but because it pays off in greater dividends. To the victor belong the spoils, and those who triumph in the quest for power are justified in using it to their advantage. As a matter of natural right, conservatives hold, a budget should serve elite interests, for the elite have earned this privilege by their drive and intelligence. Along with tax cuts, subsidies and loopholes for themselves, the watchword of the conservative budget is austerity – but for others only. Those who lag behind must be made to swallow this medicine. If they find it bitter, they should recognize that it’s for their own good, an acrid incentive to work harder and show more initiative. If they still don’t succeed, they will have to accept the hardships that come their way, doing their best to get by with minimal complaints. They certainly should not expect government largesse, which would throw into disarray the benign workings of the free market. Hope will be their sustenance.
Liberalism shares with the conservatives a basically materialistic scheme of values and an individualistic orientation, one that assumes people are primarily motivated by concern for their own well-being.
This vision is not bereft of a moral framework, but the morality it endorses is that of the will to power, which sanctions special privileges for the masters of finance, commerce and industry. This is the real ethic of entitlement: the natural merits of the rich and powerful entitle them to stake out more of the nation’s wealth for themselves. It’s also the morality of the private atomistic self, a self that feels no obligations to others, but may still congratulate itself for being a job creator, one who raises the tide that lifts other boats. It’s a morality fixated on the present, dismissive of the long-term perspective that sees the present generation as merely a link in a long line reaching back into our ancestral past and extending far into the future. It is precisely this narrow focus on the present that allows the titans of the fossil fuel industries to raise clouds of doubt about the reality of climate change, that exonerates the chemical corporations that discharge toxic substances into our air, soil and water without paying the consequences. If their pursuit of larger profits is achieved at the expense of later generations, these fiscal sharks insist this is a problem for later generations to resolve. For the present, all that counts is the bottom line, the annual profit margin, the bonuses and perks, the new homes and fancy yachts.
Sharing the American Dream
An alternative vision is offered by the liberal establishment, which subscribes to a similar set of premises as conservatism but takes them in a different direction. Liberalism shares with the conservatives a basically materialistic scheme of values and an individualistic orientation, one that assumes people are primarily motivated by concern for their own well-being. It departs from the conservative vision by insisting that government has a responsibility to pry open the doors of opportunity a bit wider so that more people can slip past the threshold. Today, this aspiration is expressed by the dictum that we must give more people the chance to realize “the American dream,” the solace of moving up to middle-class status. If conservatives’ heroes are the corporate titans, the masters of industry and finance, liberals’ heroes are the middle-class householders of the towns and suburbs.
Those who hold this ideal still look upon material prosperity as the proper reward for diligent work; they still encourage each person to seek this prize for themselves. But as the name “liberal” implies, they are ready to dispense this reward more liberally than their conservative rivals. For this reason, the aim of the liberal budget is to expand opportunity by spending more public funds on social services. The vision thus assigns a more active role to the federal government in facilitating social mobility. Under the New Deal economy, this vision reached its maximum realization. The government boldly pushed for shared affluence, creating jobs, imposing regulations and spending generously to ensure the well-being of the citizenry. However, with the rightward shift of recent Democratic administrations, liberalism has acquired a conservative hue. Its proponents now hold that the common good can be achieved efficiently by outsourcing public services to private agencies bent on commercial profit. Hence the welfare state policies launched under the New Deal have given way to “public-private partnerships,” advanced as the new panacea for our social and economic ills.
From this perspective, happiness springs not from the naked pursuit of private ends at the expense of others, but from human fellowship, from wonder and understanding, from apprehension of the inconceivable web of interrelatedness that connects our own lives with all other human beings, with all other life forms on this planet and with the inconceivable mysteries of the cosmos.
Whereas the conservative vision seeks to restrict admission to the palace of prosperity to the chosen few, those committed to the liberal vision declare that they aim to make middle-class status available to the common folk, including those who start at the foot of the staircase. They see the American dream as fulfilled by securing a good job, a home in the suburbs, a well-stocked fridge and two cars in the garage, with two kids in college studying to become doctors, lawyers, engineers or business managers. But despite their intention to spread the blessings of affluence more widely than conservatives, mainstream liberals still share with their right-wing peers a similar moral platform. Its main planks are the convictions that we are all essentially in this game of life for ourselves; that material prosperity is the hallmark of success; and that we should work hard and question little so that we can attain our private goals.
Affirming Dignity and Solidarity
The third vision is the one labeled progressive. This label, however, covers a spectrum of views ranging from a stronger form of liberalism, with greater emphasis on income redistribution and institutional reform, to an audacious call for radical social and political transformation. I will be discussing the progressive vision in this latter sense. Such a vision is seldom spoken of in the mainstream media and thus receives little public exposure. Its proponents are permitted to advance their ideas as long as they keep within safe boundaries, but when they speak too eloquently and awaken more than minimal interest, the red lights begin to flash in the halls of power. At that point, the media either will squelch their proposals with silence or subject them to ridicule and contempt. If progressives succeed in mobilizing some degree of popular support, more drastic measures will be resorted to. They’ll be monitored, infiltrated, scandalized and forcefully crushed, as happened two years ago with the Occupy Movement. Below the radar, however, this vision percolates among receptive minds, spread by progressive web sites, alternative journals and courageous thinkers and writers. It also inspires a few rare politicians not beholden to corporate interests, who reject the platitudes, meek concessions and pragmatic compromises typical of their peers in the other two camps.
The progressive vision flows from a different set of insights than its two rivals. Central to this vision is the understanding that people are essentially social beings whose own good is intimately tied to the good of others. Society, from this perspective, is not a chance assemblage of discrete individuals, thrown together in a brute struggle for dominance. It is, rather, a vital organism in which people are the living, breathing cells. Like any organism, the social body comprises cells of diverse types, with their own functions and capacities, but it invariably thrives best when all thrive together. Greed and selfishness may be deeply rooted in human nature, but they do not define us, nor does their persistence require that we use them as the guidelines to budget priorities and national policies. Rather, in this vision, greed and selfishness are seen as deviations from our finer inclinations. They are obstructions to the realization of our full potential and causes of misery for ourselves and our fellow citizens.
If austerity is the watchword of the conservative budget and opportunity the watchword of the liberal budget, the watchword of the progressive budget would be human solidarity.
From this perspective, happiness springs not from the naked pursuit of private ends at the expense of others but from human fellowship, from wonder and understanding, from apprehension of the inconceivable web of interrelatedness that connects our own lives with all other human beings, with all other life forms on this planet and with the inconceivable mysteries of the cosmos. Our natural disposition, even our biology, tends not merely to competition, but toward care and empathy, impulses that should be awakened and nurtured. The measures of personal worth are not wealth and power but compassion, generosity and service. The most admirable people are those who devote their lives to their communities and the world, people in our own time, such as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the Dalai Lama and Sri Lankan peace activist A.T. Ariyaratne.
To translate its insights into policies, the progressive vision entails values that guide the design of a budget. A budget consonant with this vision would be one that combines compassionate policies for the less fortunate with an endeavor to provide everyone with maximum opportunities for personal development at multiple levels. Such a budget would treat economic security merely as a means and not as an end in itself, certainly not as a platform for the obscene accumulation of wealth and power. Economic security serves as a springboard for the pursuit of other ends, for realizing social, aesthetic, intellectual and spiritual goals capable of providing deeper meaning and more stable satisfaction than a surfeit of gadgets and commodities could ever offer.
A truly progressive budget should have the potential to initiate the kind of social transformation necessary for this more expansive vision of human life to flourish. If austerity is the watchword of the conservative budget and opportunity the watchword of the liberal budget, the watchword of the progressive budget would be human solidarity. The budget must be rooted in the insight that acute economic inequality is a blight on the social organism as a whole, with negative repercussions for all its members, the rich as well as the poor. Just as the heart and lungs do not escape when a cancer spreads through the colon, so flagrant class disparities create a dysfunctional society with high rates of physical and psychological ill-being that permeate all social strata, from top to bottom. A progressive budget must articulate a vision that affirms the essential equality of human beings; it must insist that all people merit a sustainable standard of living regardless of race, religion or gender and despite their chance differences in intellect, skills and earning capacities. While it should point people to higher ends, it must also promote material security for everyone, even when this means closing loopholes, readjusting tax rates, ending subsidies to lucrative corporations and reducing military spending.
The inward affirmation would insist on human dignity, holding that each person is a center of subjective experience and thereby possesses intrinsic dignity, a dignity that should not be trampled upon by heartless spending cuts and policies of austerity.
Such a budget is grounded in the insight that glaring disparities in income and wealth corrupt justice, undermine democracy and hamper human development. It rests on the conviction that we cannot condemn ever more people to lives beset by hunger, debt, unemployment, illness, homelessness, chemical toxicity and climate volatility. It treats each person as indispensable and thus tries to ensure that no one is dispensed with, that no one is cast out on their own with their only recourse the private and unpredictable charity of others. The budget must oppose the presumption that those with the most wealth are entitled to use their wealth to claim more privileges for themselves. Instead, it must insist that those who have benefited most from society, with all its supporting infrastructure, incur the most pressing obligations to improve the social order and provide others with the chance to fulfill their potentials.
A progressive budget, it must be noted, does not necessarily express a deeply progressive vision. Such a budget can stem from a strong liberal orientation, in which case it will be just a set of proposals – perhaps better, perhaps worse, than those advanced by mainstream liberals – to realize the liberal project of opening the gates of economic opportunity more widely to those who want to get ahead. Its intent would be pragmatic; its platform, materialistic and individualistic. However, to advocate a progressive budget in this way would be to fall short of the promise of the progressive vision. If a budget accords with a truly progressive vision, it should aim to promote the progress of humankind and that means it would seek to foster more than material prosperity, more than good-paying jobs and air-conditioned homes in the suburbs.
The progressive vision should make two major affirmations, one pointing inward to the depths of the individual, the other outward toward social bonds. The inward affirmation would insist on human dignity, holding that each person is a center of subjective experience and thereby possesses intrinsic dignity, a dignity that should not be trampled upon by heartless spending cuts and policies of austerity. The corresponding social affirmation would be a solemn endorsement of human solidarity. It would call for mutual respect instead of contempt as the proper relation between people; it would endorse collaboration instead of competition as the engine of social progress. By upholding cooperation, empathy and compassion as the building blocks of human coexistence, it would aspire to liberate all citizens from the burden of need, freeing them to pursue the goals that give their lives ultimate value and meaning.