On Winning And Values


No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon. – Matthew 6:24

President Richard Nixon once observed, “Flexibility is the first principle of politics.” But that brings up something I notice about some right-wing antagonists: how lithe they are in debate.

It is behavior progressive talk show hosts know well, particularly when it comes to hot-button social issues. Right-wing callers dial in hoping to score a few on-air points against the liberal. If one tack isn’t working, they quickly pivot and launch into another argument they hope will get more traction – the first was disposable. And then another, almost as if they are getting paid by the talking point. These exercises are not about the truth, or even about being right. This is about winning.

There is something else that enhances their flexibility: the unholy marriage of Christianity, libertarianism and Austrian economics. What the latter two have to do with Jesus is beyond me, but the order of argument depends on the particular bent of the person doing the arguing. It goes something like this:

When it is convenient to argue from Christian morality, they argue morality. If that isn’t scoring points, they change the subject and argue personal freedom. And if that isn’t getting traction, they switch to free-market economics. And if that isn’t working, it is back to morality, or else cry socialism. This is the rock-paper-scissors of right-wing rhetoric.

I got into an online debate with a tea party supporter over the proposed Arizona law allowing employers with moral objections to opt out of offering employee insurance plans that include contraception coverage. I asked, as an employer, how it is any of my business how employees spend the compensation they’ve earned and, in a contractual arrangement, I agreed to pay? Well, first it was about freedom, then it was about morality (and hair-splitting about whether employer or employee buys coverage with the employee’s earnings), then it was about how the government offering employer tax benefits distorts the free market.

For all the moral posturing, why is it that economics dominates right-wing debates about values?

As a businessman, I am also free today not to have any employees or to offer any benefits besides cash if my morality is that big an issue. Just because there is a tax advantage doesn’t mean the government is holding a gun to my head to take it. If I have moral qualms and will lose sleep over it, I am free to drop the health benefit altogether – and if I am a free market supplicant, let the free market have its ever-lovin’ undistorted way with me. But by my choices people will know which I value more, my morals or my money.

That sort of world exists, you know. The Amish eschew electricity and automobiles out of their sense of morality. They freely choose to limit interactions with the rest of society and with the government, and that’s just fine by them. And they freely accept the consequences for their lifestyle and their bottom line. They don’t need to spout off about their values on TV and talk radio because they are too busy living them and letting the “English” live theirs. They refuse to compromise their beliefs to improve their social status, or to gain political power, or to impose their views on others, or to build their portfolios and boost the bottom line. Because their beliefs are their bottom line.

So, you want a society as free as possible from government interference – a real one, not a fictional one? (And with less anarchy than Somalia?) Where families are stable, where everybody looks like you and shares your Christian faith, where peer pressure, not law, keeps people in line, and where the government pretty much stays out of your business? Well, there it is, not in some Randian fantasy, but in Lancaster County, PA and Holmes County, Ohio.

Go for it. Show us all what you really value.

And that’s my sermon.


  1. Davyne Dial says:

    But, those Amish are notorious puppy millers. So I reckon they’re not against cruelty to helpless animals for profit.

  2. Sullivan: All that craft beer and old whiskey hasn’t dulled your senses one bit, it would seem.

    Brilliant — as always.


  3. Diogenes says:

    having just done some reading about Amish communities, my understanding is there is no broad standard amongst those who identify as Amish, each individual community may and does set its own code of conduct. Some use electricity, some do not. Some have telephones, some do not. Etc. What’s done in Lancaster, PA may not be done in Ohio or even in different parts of Lancaster county or Ohio. Each community makes its own rules. Full members of each community must agree to live by those rules or face excommunication.

    bickering between communities, over rules and standards of conduct, beliefs and practices does go on, it’s not a universally happy family the Amish.

    withdrawing from society and starting up an insulated group or community may sound good at first, but human nature being what it is, harmony seldom prevails for long.

    isn’t it a far better aspiration to devise a system of governance where the principle of ‘live and let live’ or the Golden Rule determines governance and administration?

    can’t we just learn to get along>

  4. Diogenes says:

    Tom Sullivan, you may find this interesting.

    “Why doesn’t the other side listen to reason?

    We were never designed to listen to reason. When you ask people moral questions, time their responses and scan their brains, their answers and brain activation patterns indicate that they reach conclusions quickly and produce reasons later only to justify what they’ve decided.

    The funniest and most painful illustrations are: … Is it wrong to have sex with a dead chicken? How about with your sister? Is it O.K. to defecate in a urinal? If your dog dies, why not eat it? Under interrogation, most subjects in psychology experiments agree these things are wrong. But none can explain why.”

  5. Davyne Dial says:

    ” Is it wrong to have sex with a dead chicken? How about with your sister? Is it O.K. to defecate in a urinal? If your dog dies, why not eat it? Under interrogation, most subjects in psychology experiments agree these things are wrong. But none can explain why.”

    To this reasoning, I’d attribute evolution, and a gut feel for what is the “proper” thing to do. Unwritten rules might also apply. For those that step over the boundries above, I’d have to judge them as low on the evolutionary scale.

  6. Tom Sullivan says:

    That is the second piece from the NYT on Haidt this week. There’s also this.

    Is respecting authority a moral value or a personality trait? Haidt seems to conflate the two. Furthermore, he seems to use several contested concepts to compare liberals with conservatives. For example, conservatives want to save America. Liberals want to save America, too. But our definitions of America are not the same. Freedom and liberty are contested concepts the same way. We don’t mean the same thing when we use them. Plus, claiming values is not the same as acting on them, as I tried to point out in my “sermon.”

    A friend who knows Haidt’s system says he used to use purity rather than sanctity as a key value, and argues that sanctity is a narrower term that misses much of what liberals value. She argues that progressives value purity in food, air and water, and consider the earth sacred where conservatives see resources to exploit.

    Pink slime, anyone?

  7. Davyne Dial says:

    Tom, what I took from the first Haidt piece was propensity for either conservative or liberal is not a simple matter. Personally I’ve pondered this for years. I had reached a conclusion that it was not a rational choice, but was perhaps something deeply ingrained in DNA or ancestral memory, as it seems so strong. What Haidt’s observations clarified for me, is it taps into archetypes which dwell in us all. Conservatives seem to be governed by the Godlike (many of the first testament angry God type) whereas liberals seem to lean toward Savior archetypes (new Testament, kinder gentler savior type ). Either way, as Haidt, both think they are in the right.