It is one of the great canards of American politics that leftists have gotten tarred as “utopian” dreamers. In conservatives’ hands, progressives and liberals alike are cowards who cannot make their own way in life and thus look to government to protect them from tragedy. These latter are weak-kneed social dependents who believe that conflict can be excised from the world by means of increasingly complex regulation.
The truth, however, is quite the contrary. The American Left is currently led by a man who is profoundly aware of the ineradicable presence of human pride, sin, and failure in community life. No other American political figure has as thoughtful and compelling a view of the permanence of human tragedy as Barack Obama.
Indeed, conservatism is now America’s regnant utopian ideology. There is no tragedy in free-market dreams—and there is certainly no sin. Witness George Will’s blithely tone deaf treatment of “market failure,” for example. He seems powerless to imagine that the creative destruction of capitalism often includes the destruction of human dignity or even life. Alternatively, witness Ron Paul’s hapless blustering in the face of genuine questions about the human suffering his proposed detonation of the federal government would cause. At best, he shrugs and promises that heretofore unforeseen human charity will pick up the slack. At worst, he just shrugs.
You see, through the laissez-faire rabbit hole, there is no tension between public goods—and hence, no tragedy. There is no question of balancing liberty against justice or equality or public health. This is because conservatives have taken Adam Smith’s famous “invisible hand” imagery more seriously than he ever dared. Once they realized the implications of Smith’s logic—that individual choices lead to optimal community outcomes through a sort of mysterious transformation—they gleefully assumed that all good public things went together. They come to politics with the certainty of true believers, and thus they bring only one tool: what Eugene Robinson calls their “free-market socket wrench.” If only sickly liberals would stop regulating our mercury emissions or funding NIH research or endowing public educational institutions, all would go well. If only we let the markets work, if only we let “job creators” do that thing they do…the state could just, well, wither away for lack of busybodying to do. (Though we’d retain the crusader gear and all the concomitant trappings, obviously.)
This isn’t just impractical or utopian. It’s deeply un-Christian. Ironically, the Right’s catechism largely draws upon the Old Testament. Conservative political theology rests (most of all) upon prohibitions from Leviticus and the like. Their Christianity is a faith of substantive moral rules: Don’t be gay. Don’t get divorced. Don’t eat shellfish when it’s raining and you have hotels on Boardwalk and Park Place. Conquer the Midianites. Spare the Klingons.
But ask conservatives about the “Prince of Peace” who loved the poor, challenged the proud, and repeatedly warned humans not to put their stock in material things—and they generally have only the thinnest of platitudes. Ask them why we should expect humans with enormous material wealth and power to be free from the trappings of original sin, and they are again stymied. Ask them to provide Christian reasons to ignore the sick and destitute and they tie themselves into tortuous logical knots (Cf. “Prosperity Theology”).
Christians who take original sin seriously know better. Reinhold Niebuhr certainly did.
Of course, one need not be a Christian to come up with reasonable grounds for suspicion about the trustworthiness or virtuousness of deregulated markets and the wealthy humans they empower. The only requirements are a pair of eyes, a working memory, and a basic level of common sense.
While we’re at it, though, there’s a related debate getting going in orbit of Andrew Sullivan’s cover story for Newsweek: “Christianity in Crisis.” David Sessions has a customarily smart response to Sullivan here.