Moral Legitimacy and the US Government

by J.B. Shurk

Consider these three statements:

  1. I will judge others not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.
  2. I will treat others as I would have others treat me.
  3. I will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States.

The first moral statement comes from Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963.  The second is the Golden Rule, articulated, in one form or another, by every major religion on Earth.  The last is part of the presidential oath of office, meant to elevate official duties to moral obligations before God.

Now ask yourself how many elected or unelected members of the American government could honestly affirm all three moral propositions today.  Can you name anyone?  What if I were instead to ask you to list every member of the American government who intentionally disregards all three of these moral principles?  Would you ever be able to complete your list?

In a hundred or so words and with three simple moral duties as our guide, we’ve gone a long way to showing why the American government has lost its legitimacy and why it has begun resorting to increasingly hostile and threatening rhetoric against its citizens.  When the government elevates race above all else that defines a person, the government is overtly racist.

When the government uses the criminal justice system to target its political enemies while protecting its political allies, the government denies its citizens’ impartial justice and equality before the law.  When the president of the United States and other government agents bound to uphold the Constitution instead condone viewpoint discriminationstate-sponsored censorship, and the criminalization of gun rights, then the government intentionally breaches its duty to protect the Bill of Rights.

It is much easier for Joint Chiefs chairman General Milley to pin America’s problems on “white rage” than to consider that America’s leadership has fundamentally failed to hold up its end of the social contract.  It is much easier for the White House to initiate a “domestic terrorism” strategy that uses PATRIOT Act surveillance and Homeland Security muscle to target its political enemies than to protect Americans’ free speech and freedom of association from government coercion.

It is much easier for (p)Resident Biden to argue that the Second Amendment is meaningless due to the government’s superior firepower over the average gun owner in the forms of F-15s and tactical nuclear weapons than it is for him to remember, as Lincoln did, that “it is not the Constitution as I would like to have it, but as it is, that is to be defended.”  Choosing the easier path today, however, is ensuring a combustible American future.

Think of America as a dish broken into pieces on the wood floor.  Now, it is possible to grab some friends and exert enough force on all the pieces in tandem so that the plate is momentarily made whole.  But as soon as one set of hands twitches or loses strength, the broken plate crumbles back onto the floor.  The sounder, more permanent solution is to grab the super-glue and bond all those strewn pieces together as one.

When America has broken in the past from war and upheaval, it has also exercised the collective judgment to refashion peace through the glue of social cohesion and common purpose rather than through the permanent imposition of brute government force.  Trading the glue of national unity for the threat of punishment and violence turns any society into a ticking time bomb.

When government abandons any pretense for moral legitimacy, force becomes its one indispensable tool for controlling the citizenry.  Then it’s just a question of how many hands the government can afford to pay to keep the social plate from falling back into pieces onto the ground.  A government that depends entirely on force for its existence is a government with a shelf life.

The social psychologists Jonathan Haidt, Jesse Graham, and Craig Joseph advanced a theory of moral foundations some years back that attempted to explain moral variations across cultures as stemming from the relative accentuation of different innate intuitions “programmed” in the human mind.  All humans, they have argued, are predisposed to balance: (1) care / harm, (2) fairness / cheating, (3) loyalty / betrayal, (4) authority / subversion, (5) sanctity / degradation, and (6) liberty / oppression.

It is the way in which human tribes and societies magnify one or more of these moral foundations over others that lead to seemingly widely divergent human cultures.  In short order, this instinctual understanding of morality led to various attempts to explain how political groups could maintain such varied worldviews, even when their members exist in the same society.

In The Righteous Mind, Haidt answered this question by arguing that members of distinct political groups tend to value certain moral foundations over others.  The political left is most concerned with the care and fairness foundations.  Libertarians, not surprisingly, are inclined to value liberty over all else, while conservatives seem equally sensitive to all six moral foundations.

What happens when the governing institutions of a society function in a way that countermands each of these primal moral foundations at once?  Or rather, what happens when the government routinely causes harm, cheats and betrays its citizens, abuses its authority, and mocks the pious and religiously faithful?  It seems to me that the first five moral foundations immediately become wrapped into Haidt’s sixth: the natural disposition of humans to struggle for liberty over oppression outweighs everything else.

Because the other moral foundations are denied breathing room in a closed and authoritarian society, the innate human drive for liberty explodes forth to reclaim them all at once.  When those passions take hold, the “animating contest of freedom” becomes the natural spring for all other moral considerations.  And between a people seeking moral legitimacy and a government that is seen to have none, things fall apart quickly.

Hat tip to Candor7 and the Freepers.

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