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Wall St. Wankers September 30, 2008

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Current Events, Dwight Furrow's Posts, Ethics, Political Philosophy.

For the past 40 years, and with tentacles reaching deep in our history, we have been gradually assimilated to a moral order that is collapsing before our eyes.


That moral order understands the strong, self-sufficient, aggressively competitive individual to be a moral ideal, and the Wall St. wankers who have made such a hash of things were the prime exemplars. This moral ideal was elaborated in the myth that the captains of industry and finance earned their fortunes because of their virtues–cunning, a powerful will, and their willingness to take great risks in order to reap great rewards explained their success. People like this don’t need an economic safety net. (That economic safety nets are only needed by the weak, ineffective, or stupid is a central belief of this moral paradigm.)


That such moral exemplars might be dishonest, vicious, and greedy was often grudgingly acknowledged, but as long as they voted for the Christian party (which was always spelled with an R) and mouthed platitudes about American Exceptionalism they were granted full moral authority.


And this is moral authority that flows from the top. The powerful and wealthy were justified in holding such moral authority because power, wealth, and self-sufficiency were the measure of virtue. (Yes, I know this is circular logic, but one should never accuse conservatives of committing the sin of logic.)


Of course, these Wall St. wankers, though cunning and strong willed, were not rugged, self-sufficient individuals—they are as dependent as the rest of us on infrastructure, social systems, and the largess of government–but the myth of self-sufficiency was an invisibility cloak that kept the truth from the incurious and distracted.


Increasingly, over the past few decades, the people elected and appointed to government have been proud brethren of this moral order, pledging obeisance to private industry while loathing government, their contempt made evident during the multiple catastrophes of the Bush Administration–Enron, Katrina, global warming denial, endless tax cuts, the evisceration of public education, and the corruption in every nook and cranny of government. To this craven bunch, only power and ideology matter. Win elections by any means necessary, and then govern with the conviction that government is irrelevant or harmful to the public interest. (McCain’s selection of Governor Palin is evidence that McCain is no different.)


 The downside of this is that, in the absence of government oversight, such a system really does depend on the virtue of the leaders of finance and industry. But there is no provision for building social conditions that give rise to virtue. Leaders are insulated from the consequences of their actions by political influence, enormous salaries, and golden parachutes even when they fail. They needn’t rely on the trust of the public and the public needn’t trust them. Their authority rests solely on their ability to give the people bread and circuses or the modern equivalent—high definition TV’s and expensive vacations


But because their moral virtue is a myth, this was bound to end badly and indeed it has.


The meltdown in the the financial markets is the direct result of right-wing economic philosophy and its belief that government regulations should be eviscerated in order that the vaunted “invisible hand” of market competition will make everyone better off. We discovered in the Great Depression of the 1930’s that this was nonsense—and it took liberals to bail us out of that jam. History appears to be repeating itself.


The current crisis completely undercuts the economic philosophy of contemporary conservatism. In the recent past, when the economy has suffered from high unemployment or the flight of jobs overseas, conservatives have always argued that cutting taxes and giving more money to the rich was the only answer because the wealth would trickle down and benefit ordinary people. The evidence is overwhelming that no such trickle ever took place. But there was a certain logic to it if you bought into the moral philosophy described above—give money to the virtuous rich and they will invest it in the great American worker. And that moral “kool aid” could be counted on to divert the public eyes when the dollars trickle out instead of down. But in this current crisis, they have no similar story to tell. Even in the fantasy world of conservative ideology, tax cuts cannot solve the credit crisis brought on by the deregulation policies that are central to right wing ideology, although this doesn’t stop them from mouthing the same tired platitudes since they have nothing else to sell.


As the economic order has collapsed, the moral order that supported the fantasy has been crushed by falling debris. The financial geniuses no longer look so smart or so self-sufficient.


To be replaced by what? The collapse of an economic theory is one thing; the collapse of a moral theory may be more serious. We can recapitalize banks, refurbish public coffers and dust off old ideas like infrastructure investment to goose the economy. But a loss of public trust cannot be so easily reconstituted.


As the public’s negative response to the Bush/Paulson bailout shows, the public is in a foul mood. For moral reasons, they are opposed to using public money to bail out the reckless behavior of Wall St. speculators–if they demanded their freedom to maximise profits on the way up, they should be free to lose them when the market collapses.

That is a sensible reaction except, if the financial system freezes up, it will be ordinary Americans, most who didn’t much benefit from the good times, who will lose their jobs, their pensions, and their homes. But they don’t trust government either because government has been systematically trashed by the people put in charge of it and they don’t trust economic experts because they seemed to be asleep at the wheel, themselves mesmorized by the sparkling virtue of wankers.


So the old “Randian” moral order has been replaced with a new one—everybody sucks.


But that doesn’t help much either. The lack of trust, which is a product of the old moral order’s authoritarianism, may prevent any new moral understanding from emerging since, without trust, morality cannot gain a foothold. The most serious question we must answer is: How can we rebuild that trust?


The new century will require a new America, but it is anyone’s guess what shape that will take.



1. Paul Moloney - October 1, 2008

This is why there is no such subject as business ethics. Ethics are not subordinated to business. No one has ever become ethical or virtuous for the sake of business.

2. Alan Catches The Vapors « Philosophy On The Mesa - October 30, 2008

[…] Political Philosophy. trackback Since the collapse of our financial markets, I have been ranting (here and here) about the “moral philosophy” of conservatism that assumes that the wealthy […]

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