The debates in post-election Washington and the exhortations of conservative punditry seem focused almost entirely on economics. But if our politics is built around economic concerns alone, we see the world through the same lens as Marxists. Politics, like everything else in life, must be grounded in moral principles, but Marxists believe that morality is simply a function of economics: wealth, or rather the proper distribution of wealth, is superior to bourgeois ideas of integrity, decency, faith, and love.
That is profoundly different from the foundational ideals of America. The Founding Fathers did not risk their lives and their fortunes to get richer, although that is what Marxist professors teach our kids. Men like Washington hoped our new land would prosper over time, but their purpose in creating a new nation was liberty.
This liberty tends over time and over a large group people to produce general prosperity, but this is a very inexact process -- more like the messy statistical laws of physics in areas like thermodynamics rather than the clean results of arithmetic. Sometimes hardworking and thrifty people grow poor, and sometimes unsavory wastrels grow rich.
What is true of individuals in a free land like America is also true among the relatively free and unfree nations of the world. Free nations tend to become prosperous, and slave empires tend to slide into grinding poverty. But this is just a tendency, not an iron law of history.
Many cruel tyrannies from Rome to Nazi Germany have been prosperous and comfortable (though more often than not, slave regimes have been like the Soviet Union: poor and miserable). Culture, as much as liberty, seems to influence the wealth or poverty of nations, which is why the statist and socialist economies of Northern Europe are holding up better in the Eurozone crisis than the more chaotic, and slightly freer, economies of the Mediterranean regime. This also explains why East Germany, though much poorer than West Germany, was much richer than the Slavic Communist regimes.
When our interest in government is really an interest in prosperity, then we risk losing everything, including prosperity, although that is the slightest of the losses. We really don't need more stuff. Our greatest health problems today are not hunger or overwork, but rather overeating and boredom. The aching emptiness in our body politic is not material poverty, but a poverty of honor and moral purpose. Not only are we Americans not poor, but even relatively poor Americans live better today than affluent Americans did in 1950.
This does not mean that we are wrong for wanting the latest model car or the nicest home or the best new smartphone, but it does mean that the more we focus just on the financial impact of leftism, the more we will think like the very folks who are so horribly wrong. The horror of socialism is not that it hurts the economy. The horror of socialism is that it lusts for the wealth created by the productive and the demonization of these people as a prelude to confiscatory tax rates.
It is the same in much else of leftism. Conservatives love to point out that affirmative action programs actually hurt minorities and that feminism has hampered women. Yes, that is probably true, but it misses the moral point to score electoral points. Affirmative action programs and feminism are evil because both create notional classes of oppressors and oppressed, and both treat groups of individuals like cattle in a herd. Statist bigotry toward white people or men is as vile as statist bigotry toward black people or women.
Our republic was constructed around ideals out of which, on balance, many good things would probably follow, but vitally those ideals should be followed whatever the impact on society as a whole because these ideals are, per se, good and noble. This is even more imperative when our material wants are already largely sated. Our battle is not, and must not be, simply a battle for stuff. If it is, then we have lost the battle even when we win.