Monday, March 16, 2009

Beckiples. Part II.

This post looks at the last five of the nine principles of Beckianism. Before I start on number five let me point out another neat trick that presenting the list and asking whether people agree with the principles does: It implicitly assumes that if you don't agree with what's written, then you agree with its opposite.

For example, to reject the principle #3, about striving to be ever more honest, doesn't mean that the reader doing the rejecting is intent on getting more and more dishonest day by day. But simplistic statements usually get their power from that invisible shadow side: the fear of appearing to agree to something unwholesome.

Keeping that in mind, here's the fifth Beckiple:

5. If you break the law you pay the penalty. Justice is blind and no one is above it.

The distinction between normative and positive statements is crucial when looking at these sentences. The statement is clearly a lie as a positive statement: The rich get away with softer punishments and so do white-collar criminals in general, while African-Americans are often punished out of proportion to the crimes they have committed.

It's a nice normative statement, on the whole (though I'd like to give justice some new eyeballs). But the Republican Party hasn't exactly fought for these principles in practice. Rather the opposite.

Beckiple number 6 is a beauty:

6. I have a right to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness, but there is no guarantee of equal results.

This normative statement is so deep that I need a diving bell to respond to it. Who is the "I" in the principle? Glenn Beck? Or his reader? Probably the latter. What does this 'right' consist of? How is it guaranteed to exist? Do all people have the same rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness?

For instance, suppose that a person is born with a handicap of such severity that she or he can never make an independent living. How do we guarantee the opportunitites of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness to this person? What do we do? Or rather, what should the government do? And if not the government, then who? Charity? How does that guarantee the right Beck argues to exist, given that charity is a fickle source of funding?

The point I'm trying to make (from a diving bell) is that people don't just 'have' the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, especially if this right is intended to be something more than lip service by the rich Beck. Some people will have much more of this right than other people, simply on the basis of luck, genetics, societal prejudices and so on. For this right to be meaningful, the starting line of this great capitalist race should be made the same for every person.

Beck doesn't mention that. I'm not even sure what he means by 'life, liberty and pursuit of happiness.' It could be something very minimalist, such as letting people who look like Glenn Beck be the winners in the race of life.

But of course I know what Beck is really trying to say with this principle, and it's all about unequal outcomes being just fine because they are caused by what people deserve. Rich people deserve to be rich because they worked hard. Poor people deserve to be poor because they were lazy. And so on. Never mind that some rich people are rich because they inherited their money or because they did something deeply unethical (if not illegal) in the market place, and never mind that many poor people are anything but lazy. Women, using the same argument, 'choose' to have children, and if this puts them at a disadvantage, well, it was their own 'choice' that made them trip on the hurdles in the race. Forget about the societal needs for the next generation; it's all a choice similar to picking an ice-cream flavor.

Now we move into the conservative bread-and-butter statement:

7. I work hard for what I have and I will share it with who I want to. Government cannot force me to be charitable.

The Axiom Of Greed. But is this statement a positive one or a normative one? It looks like a real mongrel. The second sentence is false as a positive statement, because the government can indeed force us to be charitable through its power to tax us. The first statement might also be intended to be a positive assertion, but then it might not be true for all readers, some of whom don't work at all or very hard. So that's one way of viewing the seventh principle: as a positive assertion which is mostly false.

But I think it's probably meant as a normative rule against income redistribution through the government, combined with a value judgment that the person agreeing to it is also a fantastically hard worker (and rather mean-spirited). Would it be OK for the government to force people to be charitable if those people didn't work very hard? I'm not sure.

Mmm. I'm turning all dry-and-academic here. Still, note the term 'charity' in this context and the very clear separation of the 'I (who works hard)' from 'the government'.

To call income redistribution 'charity' disguises some aspects of the former which distinguish it from charity. Beck sees the recipients of such redistribution as 'the others', the ones that he might support by throwing a quarter into a hat in the street. But income redistribution is much more than that. It's a social insurance system which might one day cover someone like Glenn Beck should his life fall apart. Or the grandchildren of Glenn Beck.

Income redistribution also has immediate benefits for those who are paying for it. A society with extreme income inequality can easily become a banana republic where the rich live in armed enclaves while the poor roam the streets. I don't want to live in that kind of America, but it probably would suit Beck just fine.

The Beckian world doesn't have a government which is 'of the people, for the people, by the people'. Instead, the horrible villain-government can come and try to force obligatory charity on hard-working people. That the government is elected by the people, as its representatives, doesn't enter the discussion at all.

I'm almost done with the Beckiples (and no, that wasn't so funny, after all). Only two more to go:

8. It is not un-American for me to disagree with authority or to share my personal opinion.

I sincerely hope you didn't die laughing after reading that one, given the last eight years of the conservatives telling us that criticizing the Bush administration amounted to treason! But I whole-heartedly agree with this new interpretation of the conservative dogma, and show it by trying to chew our Glenn into little pieces here. Metaphorically speaking, natch.

Finally, the last principle:

9. The government works for me. I do not answer to them, they answer to me.

I thought the government worked for me? And you. And you. And so on.

The government doesn't work just for Glenn Beck and it doesn't answer just to Glenn Beck, or to any one of the people reading through these principles. To the extent the government is 'of the people, for the people, by the people', any one of us can indeed be made to answer to it (such as in a court of law). But it's certainly true that the government is the servant of The People. However, 'The People' does not equal one conservative talk-show host or any one reader of his website.