The “Evils of Entitlement“

The Evils of Entitlement

(Photo: Eldar_ / Flickr)

I've often thought of creating a socialist Monopoly game. I never have, because the word “socialist” connects to product decidedly less effectively than, say, women like Sarah Palin and Michelle Bachmann tie to politics, or Fox's Playboy-like centerfold “news” commentators tie to TV journalism, or vampires tie to marketing to the millennial generation. I'll hold off until I can make the word “socialist” sexy.

I've also been deterred because I'd want to create a “democratic” socialist game, which is as difficult to manifest on a game board as it would be on reality television … I mean, real life. Nevertheless, I often think of that game board right now, when Republican presidential candidates are competing over who's more Christ-like and bellowing about the “evils of entitlements,” and Rep. Peter King (R-New York) is holding McCarthy-like witch hunts to uncover Communist subversives … I mean, Arab terrorists. But I am, even after so many years, in no way ready to put the rules of that game together, even if Parker Brothers (surely owned by Comcast by now?) were to send me an urgent message: “Rush game: one million first run: one million cash advance -Bros.”

However, I do play the game mentally, making moves that correspond, but are invariably quite different from, the ones we play on our real-life political game board. That board can be described as part chessboard, divided among rival factions, but the game is played the way Lewis Carroll played it, not the way Bobby Fischer did: part zero-sum,winner-take-all Monopoly and part bullshit, as the philosopher Harry Frankfurt described it. In Frankfurt's view, the liar needs to know what the truth is in order to fabricate a functional lie, whereas the bullshitter has no need of truth-seeking, truth and falsehood both overcome by … bullshit.

I'm focused on the moral dimensions of chess and Monopoly because, as odd as it may seem, we seem once again seem to be living in a period in which economics appear more pressing than moral issues. But I am being “rational” in an old-fashioned way, whereas rationality is now frequently confined to chess moves that maximize personal advantage. In a 2012 presidential run against Obama, some, or perhaps all, Republicans may have decided that the best battleground to take Obama on was the moral battleground. What's the game strategy here? Huckabee's bellowing about Obama's Muslim upbringing in Kenya and his sympathy with Mau Mau “terrorists” manages to make some sense in the battle of who's moral and who isn't.

Here's the context necessary for it to be called “sense”: the tragedy of September 11, a radical Islamic creation, is the Tar Baby of evil. In the new King view, every Muslim needs to prove he or she hasn't touched it. The tactic here is to position Obama in the moral chasm of both Islam and 9/11. His moral integrity remains questionable as long as questions regarding his Islamic origin remain – questions that, it seems, cannot be answered conclusively to the satisfaction of the so-called birthers, whose numbers will remain considerable for as long as the jury is out. Republicans back up their hope that the issue remains viral by doing what they can to keep it that way. Impugning Obama's moral integrity is a means to an end the Republicans have clearly enounced: to limit Obama's presidency to one term. A kind of instrumental reasoning anchors the tactic as well as guides it, but it is an amoral reasoning, one that troubles neither with virtue nor a lack of it. More precisely, it is a reasoning that has absorbed the moral into itself as they both serve the same end: maximizing Republican advantage in 2012.

I'll leave the continuance of that game with Obama to the game theorists and their mathematical modeling, which, supposedly, will reveal how moves are to be played out. For my part, I prefer to extend the cheap moral game to a more elevated level on my imaginary game board and look at the ethics out of which our moral valuations derive. From the perspective of the game I am playing on my “democratic” socialist board, I can glance over at the game the Republicans are playing and see how a neoliberal economics of unbridled market free play shapes the morals of advantage.

My judgment that Republicans' game is cheap may be comparative, but it also derives from their own rules. In those rules, moral considerations, and especially ethical disciplines behind those considerations, have no place. They have, in short, been pre-empted by an “ethics” of capitalist economics, which elevates personal advantage in any situation, and regarding any goal, as the highest good. Within this ethics and its attendant “rationality,” all individuals seek to maximize a personal advantage that manifests itself in economic terms. To maximize one's personal advantage, one maximizes one's profits. Cost-effective strategies are moral strategies, insofar as moral valuation and worth have been replaced by monetary worth. If you're profitable, you're moral. If you're not, you are soon to be brought under moral review by the new, Tea Party-inspired terrorist/moral review board.

Capitalist success as a sign of moral worth and probable salvation has deep American roots, but Reagan was the energetic spokesman of a new morality replacement – that is, a democracy's legislative stake in admitting the economic success of the wealthy as the highest good. As Republicans began a campaign to dismantle what they viewed as liberal morality (or what Nietzsche called slave morality), all losers were set up for a moral rebuke. Both liberals and the economically disenfranchised were rebuked for seeking to impose the standards of the losers upon the winners; the losers were “haters” of winners' strength and independence.

Nietzchean will is being used to power the ethics of both the axiomatic drive of capitalism to compete and dominate, and of a Republican ethic that is, on the bullshit level, Sermon-on-the-Mount-Christian, but in reality, is no more nor less than a Nietzschean master morality. Winners are the strong men entitled to a personal sense of moral worth. We – and I mean some 80 percent on the loser pile – don't want to intrude. Or, we are reluctant to intrude, but if Bernie Madoff, who was making off with everyone's money for ages, is finally caught under the spotlight, a sop must be paid to what remains of a more social, Aristotelian moral sense.

Wayward celebrities – recently Charlie Sheen – come under moral review, another temporary nod to our sense that, as Americans, we really don't credit financial success as proof of a person's morality. But that pretense may disappear as all ethics become winner/loser ethics. I think the reaction divide between the analog generation and the millennials over the portrayal of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg in “The Social Network” – is he morally despicable or, forget all that, just a winner? – indicates that, like much else, the moral bullshit curtain will fall and, those vestiges of social morals I just spoke of will be extinct. What the future promises you is that, if you're not collecting dividend checks (and Oprah says you can just will to receive them), you're probably immoral.

The belief that moral valuation is a personal determination of no consequence to others, apart from perhaps a person's friends, is not a moral position that the media, at this time, allows a presidential candidate. The belief that moral valuation is beside the point – which is to maximize personal advantage without considering that mission's worthiness – is a moral position a candidate adopts publicly at his or her peril. Gingrich and fellow presidential candidates (would-be and bona fide alike) know this, so, depending on the audience, they will instead the bellow like Biblical prophets that God's power is sovereign. They know how to maximize their advantage by adopting and adapting winning strategies. In other words, when your speech at Ralph Reed's Faith and Freedom Coalition makes you sound as if Nietzsche is your moral guide, you will not win votes. And because one's real moral sense is one's own, there is no moral demand that it be revealed publicly. Revealing one's cards is not a way to secure advantage.

There is much track-switching going on right now, from addressing the evils of a national debt to those of Obamacare, from attacking the evils of unions and collective bargaining to those of entitlement programs, unemployment benefits and minimum wage, not to mention the evils of the liberals themselves ,who have turned away from God by standing behind all these evils. Far better to help those needing such evil assistance by adopting the moral maxim of tough love, abandoning them and forcing them to help themselves.

The free market game of scrutiny for advantage, of what Dickens referred to as “scrunch or be scrunched,” fits what I will call the assertive Nietzchean morality of the masters, of a will to power in the moral game as well as in the economic one. The business of morality is not service, but domination. The politics of morality is a search for advantage, for a win. The morality of politics is in the winning; the immorality is in the losing. The only hazard one faces here is not losing one's soul, but losing the power to create values, to incentivize, to dominate. One loses this and falls into a herd morality which is weak and powerless, which adopts the values of a slave and not a master. The moral hazard that neoliberals speak of is not, therefore, a hazard that threatens the losers, but themselves. To stretch a hand out to accept entitlements of any kind is to turn oneself into a slave. This repeatedly persuasive moral hazard argument is replete with the same amount of morality as that of Nietzsche's master morality.

This brand of morality replaces moral and political hypocrisy and bullshit with unapologetic defiance. Hypocrisy and bullshit, however, bear no moral weight of any kind for the new neoliberal moralists. The way to play the moral game to advantage in the 21st century, post-9/11, post-2008 Great Recession United States is to announce a rational impulse behind our morals, a morality to our politics and a combined moral rationality to unbridled globalized capitalism. This hypocrisy conceals the damage loot-and-run capitalism has done to both our democratic politics and our moral sense. Witness how the arrant injustice of imposing austerity measures on those who did not cause the 2008 Great Recession, did not launch a preemptive war on false grounds and swell the national debt, and did not dole out tax rebates to the wealthy and swell the national debt, resounds in the American moral imaginary like a mosquito in the room.

Perhaps empowered by the fighting spirit of the Tea Party, but most certainly by the audacity of its moral hypocrisy to succeed thus far, the right is now set to follow through on a moral understanding of the world derived from the reckless, Wild West globalized economics that led to the Great Recession of 2008. Liberals and losers are not just political opponents and competitive failures, but morally reprehensible, vacuous at best, a vacuum that Islam could fill. That's a moral valuation that the right has been making of liberals since Reagan. You can witness its success in just this one rallying cry: “We must end the evils of entitlement!”