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The Politics of Human Dignity

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

As much as I have been dismayed by his take on the current political scene, Michael Gerson's latest column in the Washington Post - which my local daily, the San Diego Union Tribune, headlined with "A  Politics of Dignity" - he is at least starting to think about some of the things that really matter.  Even if he is drawing all the wrong conclusions about them.

Mr. Gerson tries to define political conservatism by centering it on a defense of (among other things) human dignity.  This is good.  But it also requires we ask ourselves from where this dignity arises.  To throw out one of those $10 Latin-isms Mr. Gerson and I might have used in a seminary paper, human freedom is the sine qua non of human dignity (sine qua non meaning 'that without which').  Human dignity - especially in the public sense - then arises not from arrangements dictated by political society, but from those which arise freely and organically among civil society.  This is then to say there can be no human dignity in the public sphere to defend without human freedom.

And government is antithetical to freedom.  It always will be for the simple reason that despite our inherent dignity, we are not angels.  If we were, we would not need laws, lawyers, or government.

But since we are manifestly not angels, we need government.  But once we make such an arrangement we must fund it, so government is first and foremost the power to lay and collect taxes - to take from what is rightfully ours privately for public purposes.  Government also requires we employ people - who are, again, not angels - to implement these public purposes.  We thus arrange our government into departments and agencies, and allocate to each from those public funds.

The brokenness of our human nature quickly takes over.  Success in government service becomes a question not of how effectively those public funds have been deployed, but of whether or not your allocation of them has been increased.  Success and failure end up reduced to this: If your budget is increased, you are a success.  It is cut, you are a failure.

Mr. Gerson acknowledges that conservatism embraces limited government, but seems to forget why.  This inescapably human reduction of success and failure in government service guarantees that as the size of government multiplies, so do the disincentives to efficiency.  Capital which could otherwise be far better deployed gets sunk into the least efficient, least productive sector of the economy.

It is the ramifications of this which have brought us to a place where Mr. Gerson observes the "short supply" of a fundamental belief in human dignity and that the purpose of politics is to "honor the equal value of every life, beginning with the weakest and most vulnerable..."

I am not at all convinced this is in as short a supply as Mr. Gerson thinks.  I do believe, however, it  is struggling to dig itself out of the grave which big government has dug for it.  But to explain this, we need to back up and rescue the whole concept of 'dignity' from the political context of this election season and return it to its proper owner - the individual in whom inheres inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Dignity is experiential.  It is not something we can quantify or measure outside of human experience.  So how do we experience it?  For a wide swath of our electorate, dignity is experienced in meaningful work.  'Meaningful' is, of course, a rather abstract concept which can mean different things to different people.  For some it might mean serving a satisfied customer - and finding that dignity in the interpersonal exchanges arising from that service.

But for others it is experienced in being part of taking otherwise useless raw materials and turning them into useful things.  On the smallest scale, I saw this when my son brought home a vase as a gift for his mother on Mother's Day.  He had taken a lump of clay in his high school ceramics class and turned it into that vase.  I used that as a teachable moment to help him understand wealth.  If the lump of clay commands $0.50 in price, but the vase commands $5.00, what accounts for the extra $4.50 in value?  The answer is in making the lump of clay useful.  That extra $4.50 is the very definition of 'wealth' and was created by the work of his hands.

I see this on a much larger scale every time I walk onto one of our local shipyards.  I walk past rolls of steel being forged into various pieces which will then be welded together into a ship.  I have seen massive tankers built from the ground up by a finely tuned symphony of exactly the same instrument: human hands.  And in each and every pair of those hands is the experience of dignity born of meaningful work when that ship is launched into service.

Mr. Gerson desparately needs to push himself away from his keyboard and lace up some steel toe work boots, lay a pair of safety goggles on his nose, and don a hard hat.  He needs to visit what is left of our manufacturing sector and simply let the men and women who remain tell him about the dignity they find in meaningful work.  Then he might understand what has been lost.  He might also begin to understand why belief in human dignity seems in short supply.

At a Roman Catholic altar there is a light, which when on, tells you that the 'tabernacle' has consecrated hosts in it.  To the devout that light tells them to genuflect as they pass the altar.  The conservative liturgy requires genuflecting at the altar of free markets - and Mr. Gerson at least poses as a devout conservative.  But that light has been out, quite frankly, for more than 20 years; the tabernacle of the 'free' market has been emptied by decades of big government and its perennial deficits.

No plan actually exists to pay off the $20T of resulting debt.  This is the grave dug for human dignity by big government.  The only plan is to keep refinancing this debt by rolling over its constituent bonds.  And for this reason, interest rates must continue to decline.  Who, after all, has refinanced a debt at a higher rate?

This, then, demands monetary policy which makes truly 'free' trade agreements impossible.  What is gained over years of trade negotiations can be lost within a week's worth of movements on the currency markets.  We end up forced to ship overseas the very source of human dignity for a large swath of the American electorate - meaningful work actually taking raw materials and making useful things out of them.  And Donald Trump is now President of the United States.

By writing about human dignity, Mr. Gerson has at least put himself and his readers on the right track.  If belief in human dignity seems in short supply, it is because it has been buried in a grave of public debt and otherwise shipped overseas to allow the political/financial class to absolve themselves of their crimes against that same human dignity.

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