The New York Times columnist and Nobel Prize winner in economics, Paul Krugman, developed a very interesting idea recently about how Americans really are divided in terms of how best to run the country. Krugman’s thesis is that the line of division is not between right and left, it is not between conservative and liberal, and it is certainly not merely between Republicans and Democrats. What separates the two major groups in the citizenry is the philosophical difference on the question of moral responsibility. Krugman’s differences run thusly:
One side of American politics considers the modern welfare state – a private-enterprise economy, but one in which society’s winners are taxed to pay for a social safety net – morally superior to the capitalism read in tooth and claw we had before the New Deal. It’s only right, this side believes, for the affluent to help the less fortunate.
The other side believes that people have a right to keep what they earn, and that taxing them to support others, no matter how needy, amounts to theft. That’s what lies behind the modern right’s fondness for violent rhetoric: many activists on the right really do see taxes and regulation as tyrannical impositions on their liberty.
This deep divide in American political reality is a relatively recent development.
On the issue of health reform, one side saw the extension of coverage to the uninsured as fulfilling a moral imperative. The other side saw the same reform as a moral outrage, an assault on the right of Americans to spend their money as they choose without responsibility to anyone else.
As free Americans, we can decide which side of that divide we sit but as Roman Catholics, with any knowledge at all of Catholic social theology, we would find it hard to claim that we do not have responsibility for each other. The greater our blessings and resources, the greater that responsibility.
Krugman promises to go into much greater depth on the subject and I look forward to following over the next few weeks.