Column: Preaching from the congressional pulpit

By Kevin Hartung

A moralistic government is appealing but may not be plausible, unless you can conceive of a government without incongruities. Governments need to gauge what is fundamental to support wellbeing and what is an altruistic desire to support success.

Some believe that a government ‘by the people and for the people’ should provide equal outcomes for all its citizens. Their ambitions are the result of research that establishes the downtrodden are victims of injustices; the poor result from unfair labor practices and unequal educational systems that exist in our nation. These believers desire improvement in the circumstances of the disadvantaged.

Conversely, others believe that the blame for disadvantaged people lies on their own doorstep. The circumstances of indigents, they say, are the direct result of poor parental guidance due to broken homes or the result of their generational welfare attitudes. Research provided backs up their viewpoint that stronger work ethics among the needy would improve their condition. These challengers desire advances for the poor through work-incentive programs.

What appears obvious is that the homeless, those with disabilities, and needy families are increasing. The coronavirus proved that most Americans live one paycheck away from becoming impoverished. But the question is not ‘who to blame,’ but how to resolve a distressing failure of our society.

Perhaps the question that needs to be answered is the one that creates the immense division in Congress and the nation today. Is it our nation’s mandate to provide equal outcomes?

Thomas G. West’s book Vindicating the Founders: Race, Sex, Class, and Justice in the Origins of America, looks at how welfare historians define our nation’s early philosophy for indigents. Using the words of two of our founders, West reveals what our forefathers understood about poverty.

According to West, Benjamin Franklin wrote home while living in Britain, “I am for doing good to the poor, but I differ in opinion of the means. I think the best way of doing good to the poor, is not making them easy in poverty but leading or driving them out of it. …I observed in different countries, that the more public provisions were made for the poor, the less they provided for themselves, and of course, became poorer. And, on the contrary, the less was done for them, the more they did for themselves, and became richer.”

West says early American welfare policy can also be seen in Jefferson’s description. “A distinction between the deserving and undeserving poor is carefully observed. Able-bodied vagabonds get help, but they are required to work in institutions where they are disciplined. Children and the disabled, on the other hand, are provided for, not lavishly but without public shame. The homeless and beggars will not be abandoned, but neither will they populate the streets. They will be treated with toughness or mercy according to their circumstances.”

Our Founders believed that no person should be comfortable in poverty, that was not the American Dream. Pilgrimages to America were made to achieve both freedom and success. Therefore, a work ethic was expected and was largely the norm. By 1785, Virginia had transferred responsibility of the indigent from the church to county governments. Yet, not until the 19th Century did more merciful views of the poor develop, and a greater need was realized. Then with Woodrow Wilson’s presidency, government slants began to change.

Wilson was an extreme idealist. In 1919, Wilson set the moralistic tones and policies of our nation. Attempting to get the Treaty of Versailles passed, which met stiff opposition in Congress, he now asserted that WWI was not fought just to protect national interests but also as a moral crusade, His idealism was ‘peace without victory.’ He believed that responsibility for wars did not fall upon a nation’s people but should rest solely with the government. Instead, he felt earning the cooperation and loyalty of a nation’s people would help ensure enduring world peace. Wilson would accept no compromises on the Treaty of Versailles. He was adamant that it must be passed as written. This ultimately led to the defeat of the treaty and the failure of the League of Nations.

The inflexible attitude of Wilson tells us a great deal about moralistic politics. Moralistic politics cause stalemates, disagreement, and division because moralists are resistant to tradeoffs or compromise. The inherent nature of moralistic politics is not the same as politics that is oriented toward moral ends, that being the highest good for the highest number. Today, while moralistic political rhetoric intensifies, the capacity of elected officials to move toward moral ends is deteriorating.

Governing is not a passive activity. If congressmen oppose legislation on moral grounds, their strong ethical stance does not allow them to move towards conciliation, and an impasse occurs. We assume that a conscientious statesman will not purposefully pursue morally wrong policies. We do not know if his pursuit will be successful in promoting a path toward moral ends, but we believe his intention is to work toward that end for the betterment of everyone. However, the moralistic politician has one intention to promote at all costs justice for a specific, suppressed group.

Today, the moralistic trajectory of our government is taking liberties with the nation’s mandates. Elected officials have an arduous task. Societal outcomes through the passage of legislation or by allocating our nation’s tax dollars are passed or not by a majority. When no majority exists, nothing is accomplished. The mandate ‘to promote the general welfare’ presents a stumbling block, the debatable point on which altruistic endeavors and practical considerations clash. Congressional choices between prudent or pious concerns need to lead toward moral ends but should not result from moralistic viewpoints supporting a particular end. That only creates division or bankrupts our nation. Moral ends should result in the highest good for the highest number of people.

Moralists presume that all political problems have a ‘right’ decision, that the right choice is a moral one. However, the right decision should come from a balance between ethical and practical issues that supposes the decisions that will create betterment for all peoples. Doling out a greater or lesser share of the pot should not depend on making those determinations based on who one must appease. Moralists also assume that a ‘wrong’ solution has a name. The truth is that results affecting the nation are a composite of several responses and positions held by elected officials seeking a just and feasible path. If there is a name, it should be ‘compromise.’

The impasse between political parties today is created by opposing viewpoints, between moralists with a singular focus and an unwillingness to engage in trade-offs, and those conscientious politicians with a desire to negotiate and advance toward moral ends. The insistence by moralists on the righteousness of their cause elevates issues to a state of urgency. Clear-thinking politicians value all opinions and deliberate the pros and cons before deciding. The unwillingness of moralists to consider debatable often results in a loss for their cause or a stalemate in Congress. Their moral concerns have validity, yet their tiresome zeal and dog-eared determination destroy chances to achieve any ground for instituting change.

Congressional disagreements are a given. Insightful politicians recognize the value in most humanitarian endeavors. Their initial resistance to subsidizing moral goals is that the sustenance becomes unceasing. Moral endeavors should advance moral ends. Reluctance does not indicate skepticism but a gradual approach that relies on traditional or previous outcomes. While the moralist hides behind the righteousness of his crusade, the informed politician has the difficulty of advancing to moral ends while accommodating opposing viewpoints.

Supporters of moral endeavors have the high-ground, yet they need to practice the art of persuasion. A more willing and accepting attitude seeking enlightenment and conversion advance their cause. Abraham Lincoln was a man of virtue, yet he did not preach moralism. He worked between opposing values and the limitation of human weaknesses. He personified persuasion and reassurance and had a forgiving attitude toward those with differing opinions.

Moralizing politicians believe that practical politicians have no principles or do not exhibit any. Yet, educated politicians know that successful politics does not depend on the individual righteousness of a leader. Pious leaders have failed because of an unwillingness to play political games with their morality. Moralists instead are determined to play the blame game. When economic issues restrict humanitarian desires, time is wasted fighting over rather than resolving issues. Finger-pointing is useless and divisionary. There are moralists on both sides and enough blame to go around.

To calm the storms and move forward, we need rational and cooperative attitudes in Congress. Our focus should be on where our moral trajectory is leading. We have history to guide us. Societies collapse from a failure to lead their nations toward moral ends. Democracy means equal opportunities but does not guarantee equal outcomes. Our democratic society will fail if we forsake our history and our culture. We cannot tear down the foundations that built our nation. We must have a sensible way forward.

Elected officials need our support to survive the power structures in Washington, to foster unhindered economic growth, and to promote reforms for a unified, peaceful future that determines the trajectory of our nation towards moral ends.