The Dangers of Political Moralizing

A protester holds a placard reading 'I am Syriza' during a demonstration in support of the Greek people on February 15, 2015
A protester holds a placard reading 'I am Syriza' during a demonstration in support of the Greek people on February 15, 2015 in Paris. At least 2,000 people marched through the streets of Paris on February 15 heeding the call from unions and far-left organisations to voice their support for Greece and its new leftist anti-austerity government. AFP PHOTO / LOIC VENANCE (Photo credit should read LOIC VENANCE/AFP/Getty Images)

Now that Greece has passed a series of reform measures demanded by its creditors, formal negotiations over the terms of it third bailout are beginning. The success of those negotiations is likely to depend on whether both sides can avoid the moralizing that characterized the bargaining process through the spring and early summer.

Moralizing in politics may be inevitable, but it is rarely useful. The failure of Syriza's negotiating strategy suggests that this may be especially true for the left, which tends toward romanticism in its political engagements. In part, this is a function of the youthful constituency of the left: the young are moved by the righteousness of their cause. In part, it is a function of a genuine concern for the suffering of others.

The left attributes that suffering to the injustices of those with economic or political power. However admirable these sentiments may be, in the game of political moralizing, conservatives have a huge advantage. On this point, American politics has something to teach European politics.

Anyone following the debt crisis knows by now of the difference between an economic down-turn in a small region of the Eurozone and in a small region of the United States. Greece has an economy about the same size as that of greater Miami. When Miami suffers an economic set-back, our system automatically moves resources to support a recovery.

Some of that aid is in social and structural assistance; some in loan assistance; some in the direct transfer of funds; some in compensatory tax policies. And, of course, Miami retains access to national credit markets and even to the possibility of a judicially supervised bankruptcy. To Greece's detriment, none of these systems are in place in the Eurozone.

The problem, however, is deeper than simply a poorly designed financial system. For even the aid that Greece does receive requires a political decision by the other Eurozone countries. Accordingly, the Europeans are constantly confronting the kind of issue that we avoid when aid starts flowing to a depressed region.

We do not have to address politically the question of what we should do for Miami, but the Europeans have been struggling for five years with the question of what should be done for Greece. Answering that question, both the Greeks and their creditors have been captured by the tendency to moralize.

The American parallel to this is not a hypothetical financial crisis in Miami, but the economic collapse of many of our minority communities. Here, we do ask what should be done for the poor, whether blacks and Latinos, the populations of our urban ghettos, or the rural poor. We do no better answering these questions than the Europeans do with the Greek question.

We too are captured by the same tendency to moralize. The left claims that the poor are victims of injustice -- intentional and systemic. Politicians on the right respond by arguing that poverty is a matter of character. The poor, they claim, prefer welfare to work or fail as responsible parents.

Of course, we know better. We know that the child growing up in a broken family without economic resources has little chance of escaping the conditions that are molding him. We know that upward mobility is more myth than fact. We know that social collapse is not the cause, but the consequence of economic collapse. So too the Europeans know that the more than 50 percent of Greek youth that are unemployed had nothing to do with the financial and regulatory policies of previous Greek governments.

They know that the European banks are more responsible for the Greek debt than is the population bearing the burden of austerity, and they know that these external demands are more likely to lead to social collapse than to character formation. Yet, they allow themselves to be captured by a moralizing tendency: the Greeks are lazy, irresponsible, corrupt, and recalcitrant. Like the charge against the "welfare queen" here, politicians argue that the Greeks are not to be trusted with other people's money. Such is the danger of political moralizing.

In both Europe and the United States, a moralizing politics shifts the terrain of conflict to the advantage of conservatives. Moralizing on the left requires the creation of solidarity, while moralizing on the right requires only righteousness on the part of the privileged. Outside of the presence of an external threat, ordinary politics lacks the ability to create solidarity, which has traditionally been the work of religious and nationalist movements. The moralizing tendencies of politics move in the opposite direction: distrust is easier to create than solidarity. It is always easier to hold on to what one has than to share it with others.

Americans may step up to assist Miami when it is hit by a hurricane, but they are not anywhere near as willing to help Miami solve its long-term problems of poverty and unemployment. No doubt aid would be flooding into Greece were it hit by an earthquake, but then there is no moral tale to be told about natural disaster.

A successful politics on the left must eschew moralizing. Germans are not going to find themselves in solidarity with suffering Greek citizens any more than well-off Americans are going to support increasing their taxes out of solidarity with the poor. A successful strategy must make the case that the interests of all are at stake.

A suffering Greece is hurting all of Europe; a suffering minority community here is hurting the economic well-being of everyone. The welfare state succeeds when it works behind the backs of the politicians, whether of the right or the left. Think, for example, of the way in which social security automatically extends its protections to all.

To ask the left to give up its moralizing rhetoric is to ask a lot, for there is genuine anger about the victims of today's neoliberal order. But a politics driven by morality will look like the Occupy Movement here and Syriza in Greece. Both tried to make politics into a moral battle of good and evil; both lost the moral battles they brought on.