|You could even girdle your selfishness in plaid, if you had the moral capital to pay for it. Image from Vintage Dancer.|
We dumped Brooks ("How to Repair Moral Capital") this morning just as he was throwing down the gauntlet personally to me, to get some names rectified:
It’s becoming ever clearer that the nation’s moral capital is being decimated, and the urgent challenge is to name that decimation and reverse it.I think I'll name it "Howard", after Howard Kurtz. Or maybe "Radical Islamic Terrorism".
But seriously, folks, before I jump into naming stuff, can I ask what "moral capital" is? Because it puts me in mind of a society in which most people are allotted just the amount of moral value they need to stay alive, while a fortunate few are able to accumulate tons of surplus moral value, which they can invest into creating still more.
And if you decimate it (from Latin decimatio, the practice of senior commanders in the army of the Roman Republic of punishing a unit for mass crimes like desertion by dividing it into groups of ten men and requiring each group to choose one of their number and club or stone him to death, thus cutting the unit's strength by a tenth) does that mean you're reducing the amount of moral capital by ten percent, or its value, or are those the same thing, or what?
And if this process is becoming ever clearer, how long will it take before I know what you're talking about?
Moral capital is the set of shared habits, norms, institutions and values that make common life possible.Oh, well, then, so it's what cultural anthropologists refer to as "culture"? Moral in the original etymological sense from Latin mores, referring to a society's particular traditional usages, rules governing kinship and marriage relations, social stratification, myth and ritual, music, dance, poetry and the like, and so on? Not "moral" as opposed to "immoral"?
And why call it "capital" if it's shared rather than hoarded and/or invested, and refers to the entire cultural patrimony rather than a surplus product? What exactly are you trying to convey about the concept with the choice of that word?
Left to our own, we human beings have an impressive capacity for selfishness.Left to our own what? ("Devices", I imagine. But maybe it's "left to our own inconsiderate and annoying family members".) And left by whom? (Dolphins and lab mice?) Now we're starting to get someplace. If my hypothesis about moral capital is correct, the theory would be that it isn't in fact shared, not equally at any rate, but monopolized by the moral capitalists, who would inevitably tend to hog it all to themselves, leaving the rest of us with this terrible short supply, thinking about no one but our vicious individual selves. Funny to think that we'd be the selfish ones in this scenario and not the capitalists.
Unadorned, the struggle for power has a tendency to become barbaric.Certainly backing up the concept of moral capital as a surplus, since it it is held to provide an "adornment", i.e., something decorous and superfluous, maybe even "lovely", to the struggle for power. I'm not sure what historical evidence Brooks has here for the way power struggles get barbaric without their moral hairdos and jewelry, but the basic picture is starting to get a little clearer.
So people in decent societies agree on a million informal restraints — codes of politeness, humility and mutual respect that girdle selfishness and steer us toward reconciliation.Moral hairdos, jewelry, and a girdle. With those garter clips, how morally sexy is that?
But there, I believe, you have it. Because who agrees on those million restraints? What Brooks really believes or wants to believe is that his moral bourgeoisie is exactly the same thing as the economic bourgeoisie, the class that controls the real capital doing double duty as the moral authority, setting the ton for everybody else, with its politeness and humility (except when you need to show some "contempt" as he praises Clinton for doing with Trump), a kind of moral trickle-down that will cancel the class war. What he hates Trump for is his letting the side down, having intolerable bad manners, violating the decencies of a decent society, being "unadorned".
Or, in simpler terms, putting it on display that the real economic bourgeoisie doesn't have a monopoly on surplus morality, far from it, but in fact richly rewards people who are every bit as gross and immoral as the worst welfare queen Ronald Reagan ever imagined, if Dad has the wherewithal to invest in them.
Brooks really tips his hand at the end, when he reveals his idea on what would make a good set of policy stances in a morally capitalistic one-party state:
it should be possible to be conservative on macroeconomics, liberal on immigration policy, traditionalist on moral and civic matters, Swedish on welfare state policies, and Reaganesque on America’s role in the world.And it should be possible to be Catholic on the idea of a centralized religious hierarchy, United Church of Christ on gay marriage, Southern Baptist on the concept of sin and grace, Buddhist on the existence of God, and Scientologist on the need to automate redemption because you just can't do enough of it with the old unproductive technology. I can't imagine why nobody ever came up with a religion like this before!
That list does a superb job of showing why Brooks is like the imaginary Hillary Clinton Brooks loves to criticize (passionless and giving you a laundry list instead of an inspiration). It also shows his invincible economic ignorance, in his imagining a "conservative" macroeconomic policy (assuming this means low and regressive taxation combined with deficit fear) coexisting with either a Swedish domestic spending policy or a Reagan foreign policy, let alone both.
But above all it shows the specific stupidity of the moral capital theory, in that the American-style "traditionalist" view of morals is focused on judgment and enforcement, and Swedish-style spending on refusing judgment and enforcement, and they can't be fitted together under any circumstances. The economic capitalist won't spend a dime on people he judges to be wanting, and the Swedish social democrat won't throw a crumb to pandits who believe poverty is your own fault, or your own fault if you're black or brown.
(And if you have some moral capital please don't put it all out on the market, because if the moral supply outstrips the moral demand you're going to see some serious moral inflation and a possible moral collapse. Don't say you weren't warned.)