For decades, contemporary liberals have stopped conservatives dead in their tracks by claiming ownership of the moral high ground. The liberals are the self-declared defenders of the children, the poor, the infirmed, the handicapped, the aged. They want to give a hand up to the unfortunate and the victims of discrimination and greed. Liberals will change the era where the rich and powerful exploited the weak and powerless and give them hope. To oppose such lofty goals is to be stingy, greedy, corrupt, and just plain mean. And that is how they present conservatives and Republicans to the voters.
It works because many conservatives have accepted the premises that greed is bad and that “society” has a moral obligation to help the children, et al. Then they proceed to counter the liberals' political programs by arguing that liberals need to temper their idealism with fiscal responsibility and recognize that they could wreck the engine of prosperity by excessive taxation and deficit spending. They also argue that too much paternalism will destroy individual incentives to work hard and create taxable wealth. In other words, they concede that the liberals own the moral high ground but argue that they need to be practical.
The left will always own the high ground under these circumstances and the political battles will continue to be fought only over how to keep from killing the goose that lays golden eggs.
The Christian right argues that life, liberty and pursuit of happiness are God given rights recognized in the Declaration of Independence and because they come from God those rights have moral superiority over others. These rights include the exclusive right to the fruits of one's labors. However, their arguments are inconsistent with the religious ethics of self-sacrifice and selflessness, to which many Christians subscribe and which should make them eager to support altruistic government programs. And the notion that property rights is a principle that is morally superior to self-sacrifice is not necessarily seen by all Christians as sanctioned by God. Even the Pope is a socialist.
Libertarians (including some self-styled conservatives) have much better arguments about limited government, property rights and individual freedom, but they stop short of supporting “greed is good” with an ethical philosophy. They argue simply that the political principle of freedom allows people to be greedy as long as they to not coerce others. Libertarians lose the moral argument because they do not make it.
The opponents of the left will never own the moral high ground unless they win it on the merits of their moral arguments. And unless they own it, they will fail progressively to defend your right to earn as much as possible and to keep your property and the fruits of your labors.
How can they persuade the majority of voters that their moral and political positions are superior to those of the left? First of all, they need to subscribe to a morality that accepts rational self-interest as one of the foundations of ethics and morality. The logical consequences of a failure to do so will keep us on the road to serfdom and cede the political system to those who wish to pretend that it is moral to redistribute your wealth (i.e., to take your property and give it to their political favorites, whether they be poor people or Wall Street investment banks).
Libertarians and conservatives need to change attitudes and shine the light of day on the unstated false assumption that people who are less fortunate than you have a right to your property and your life. And that change starts with you. Changing popular understanding begins in your neighborhood, in your business circles and in your associations. It is a daunting undertaking, but it most certainly will not be accomplished if those who understand its importance shrink from the task or retreat into cynicism.
Here are some suggestions:
Start using the word “force” when referring to the government and its actions. Make a point of noting that whatever the government mandates involves coercion. Taxation, especially taxation to pay for something that could be accomplished by private individuals, is money extracted from you at the point of a gun that would not otherwise be given voluntarily. To understand what “point of a gun” means, consider what would happen if you did not pay your taxes or obey government mandates.
Because the government holds a legal monopoly over force in order to defend your individual rights to be free from force, taxation is one way to fund the police and military. But taxes should be a way to raise revenue to cover the cost of that legitimate function, not a way to achieve a social agenda. Social trends should be left to the spontaneity of free individuals.
Avoid collective, anonymous abstractions like “public” and “society” when you can communicate your message better with more specific words like “government” and “individuals” – as, for example, in government schools rather than public schools, “the individuals in charge of the government” instead of “government.” Always use the most specific term appropriate.
Point out that there is no positive morality where there is no choice. Even if one assumes that giving to the poor is an act of moral virtue, there is nothing virtuous about giving to the poor at the point of a gun. That is not sacrifice. It is being sacrificed. The morality of undertaking to be your brother’s keeper is irrelevant when you are forced to do it. So the left has no moral argument – none, none – upon which to base the government’s claim to your property to support the children, the poor, the sick, homeowners, the banks or anyone else.
Challenge the morality of redistribution of wealth. It is not some abstract notion. “Wealth” is not a natural resource owned by the government. Government “benefits” represent money taken from you and your neighbor’s children by force and given to someone else (or given back to you less a huge fee for administration). Rush Limbaugh has come close to making that argument -- but he does not go far enough and explain why our right to our own property is more than a political principle. Rights is a moral principle deriving from our nature as individual entities. (See, e.g., “Is there a Right to HealthCare?").
A complete challenge to the left requires an ability to debate the nature of morality because that is their claimed source of their power over you. And understanding the nature of morality is fundamental to the political system that you want. By what moral principle do they justify laying claim to the money that you earned to support yourself and your family? What are their premises – that you are the property of the state, that the unfortunate have a claim on your property merely because they are unfortunate? The burden of proof of their moral superiority ought to be on those who propose to take your earnings and property.
Make people define the term “greed” every time you hear it. Use their attempt at a definition (or their attempt to evade defining it) to initiate an argument about a person’s right to keep the fruits of his honest labors, no matter how intently he pursues them. Why, you should ask, is it wrong to seek to profit from a voluntary exchange – even a huge profit if the other party is willing? (Of course, if he is not willing, that is his choice. If he is not able, then there will not be a huge profit.)
Defend every person’s right to be self-interested, even greedy. Why are you complaining about executive salaries and bonuses (unless you are paying for them)? What business is it of yours what terms strangers have agreed to in their private transactions? Don’t allow the left to appeal to your envy of others to justify their efforts to take money from the wealthy. Envy is for losers – ambition is for winners.
Be ready to distinguish coercion from voluntary transactions. For example, the antitrust laws are justified in part using the theory that a seller can “force” a buyer to purchase something simply because the seller has it and the buyer wants it. That’s absurd. The government can "force" an exchange because it has the guns. A commercial seller can’t. This is a major left-wing argument: that economic power is the equivalent of a gun, that need gives someone a right to your property, that your refusal to turn it over is coercion and justifies the application of a superior force (more guns) to make you give it up at the price the needy want to pay. It is simply not true that someone who possesses goods and wants to charge his own price is the equivalent of a thug with a gun. The proponents should bear the burden of proving the morality of why need justifies the use of force.
Demonstrate the foolishness of the “but what about . . ., who is going to take care of . . .” argument: “But what about the retarded and mentally ill?” The answer is, well, what about them? “But who is going to take care of them?” The answer is, well, whom do you suggest – me? “No, the government will do it?” Then you mean me; you mean my tax money. What if I don’t want to? What if I refuse to pay? “But you can’t” And why is that? (Silence. Silence because the answer is “we will force you to.”) Don’t get me wrong. I have spent over 30 years working with private nonprofit organizations that take care of the retarded and mentally ill but I have done it voluntarily, and that is how it should be done. And there is a similar answer for every group of victims that the left wants to force you to support.
Stop advocating government solutions to social problems by suggesting that your neighbor needs to be coerced. "There ought to be a law" is a bad idea. There are already sufficient criminal laws. All other laws are suspect.
The foregoing certainly requires a change in perspective for most people. But unless the majority of people change their perspective, the politicians will continue to have the ability to fool them into believing that it is moral to exploit and victimize you and your neighbors.