Most Americans who are in the slightest degree politically active or interested incline to one of the two chief political positions common in this country, what we call conservatism or liberalism. In fact, each of these blocs constitutes not only a political grouping, but a cultural group as well, each with its favorite publications and web sites, radio shows, almost its own distinct ways of dressing and eating. Although there is much that one could say about these two groups, I want to comment on one thing only about them. This is that each of them is conscious of the claims of the common good and firmly committed to restraint of human passions, backed up even by the authority of law, in one sphere or area of human life, and equally committed to a laissez-faire policy in another sphere. While each group seems to be aware of the dangers that unrestrained acquiescence in human weakness poses to the social good in one area, each is equally blind to those same dangers in another and equally crucial sphere of life. Before I discuss this further let me state that I am speaking, in regard to both liberals and conservatives, of their professed views and concerns. How far these square with their actual personal conduct or with the laws they enact when they are in power is not to the point here. Every group has its hypocrites, people who fail to live up to the standards they profess, either through succumbing to human weakness or on account of a conscious policy of duplicity. But such hypocrites and their failings are not my concern here.
What of liberals then? Liberals are very aware of the dangers that the unrestrained pursuit of wealth poses to society, of the potential power of wealth, especially concentrated wealth, to corrupt the political process and to skew public policy in its own favor. Liberals quite rightly point to the tremendous power of the rich to influence the political process, to shape tax policy, environmental and labor legislation, and many other kinds of laws and regulations, in their favor. They likewise realize that when society allows free play to the passion for economic gain, people in general will begin to look at every relationship and transaction with solely an eye for their own personal gain. The desire to gain tends to color the whole of the life of society.
Moreover, liberals are quite willing to employ the power of the law to ensure that the force of human greed does not violate the common good. A progressive rate of taxation on higher incomes, inheritance taxes, taxes on sales of stock, even a tax on net wealth are advocated by many liberals. Liberals realize that the mere fact of the existence of a desire for more money on the part of people does not give those individuals any right to pursue that desire at the expense of the common good of society.
But while laudably alarmed at the power of the rich and ready to take legal steps to curb that power, liberals suddenly embrace a free for-all-attitude when it comes to sex. Individuals want sexual pleasure, only repressed puritans and prudes want to prevent this. No matter how much the unrestrained pursuit of sexual pleasure may harm the common good—as in the effects of divorce or out-of-wedlock births on women and children, not to mention the actual children murdered before their births—none of this matters. From being zealous for the common good and ready to place all manner of restraints on human conduct in the economic realm, liberals run to the other extreme and embrace a policy of laissez-faire when it comes to sexual matters. It is hard to understand how liberals do not see, or profess not to see, that the unrestrained pursuit of sexual pleasure can do as much harm to the social fabric as the unrestrained and anti-social pursuit of money. But liberals do not see this. A disordered notion of freedom constitutes almost their entire approach to sexual morality.
But what of conservatives? Conservatives are very aware of the dangers that the unrestrained pursuit of sexual pleasure poses to society, of its power to create any number of social pathologies.
Conservatives quite rightly point to the stabilizing influence of intact families and to the many benefits such families bring to the whole social fabric. They rightly are concerned that the selfish pursuit of individual pleasure harms others, such as children and abandoned spouses, as well as society as a whole. They likewise realize that when society allows free play to the passion for unrestrained sexual pleasure, people in general will begin to look at every relationship and transaction with solely an eye for their own personal pleasure. The desire for erotic satisfaction tends to color the whole of the life of society.
Moreover, conservatives are quite willing to employ the power of the law to ensure that the pursuit of pleasure is kept within bounds. They advocate tax policies that favor families, laws preventing same-sex unions, making divorce and abortion more difficult, restrictions on the sale of contraceptives to minors, even harsh laws on teenage sex. Conservatives realize that the mere fact of the existence of a desire for a maximum of sexual pleasure on the part of individuals does not give those individuals any right to pursue that desire at the expense of the common good of society.
But while laudably alarmed at the potentially corrosive power of the unrestrained pursuit of sexual pleasure and ready to take legal steps to curb that power, conservatives suddenly embrace a free-for-all attitude when it comes to money. Individuals want to get rich, only envious liberals and socialists want to prevent this. No matter how much the unrestrained pursuit of wealth may harm the common good, none of this matters. The effects of wage stagnation on marriages and families, the devastation of neighborhoods and cities by companies moving abroad simply in order to get the highest return on their investment with no regard for society—none of this matters. From being zealous for the common good and ready to place all manner of restraints on human conduct in the sexual realm, conservatives run to the other extreme and embrace a policy of laissez-faire when it comes to money. They even invent an ideology that pretends that the pursuit of private wealth somehow redounds to the benefit of all, despite much experience showing the falsity of this. It is hard to understand how conservatives do not see, or profess not to see, that the unrestrained and anti-social pursuit of money can do as much harm to the social fabric as the unrestrained pursuit of sexual pleasure. But conservatives do not see this. A disordered notion of freedom constitutes almost their entire approach to economic morality.
This is the sad situation of the majority of politically conscious Americans today, a situation that both political blocs, with the willing cooperation of the media, are only too glad to maintain. About the only remedy I can suggest or hope for is that more and more individuals will see through this state of things and realize that there is no requirement to adhere to either the liberal or the conservative party line. Americans like to pride themselves on their freedom, but they exhibit little freedom of thought when it comes to politics. But if enough of us begin to think a little, then it is just possible that we might begin to have a little sanity in our political life. And who knows—it might even spread?