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The New Right-Wing Permissiveness

by Fred Block

Despite the Justice Department’s report that violent crime in the United States has been declining, two recent crime waves raise serious questions about our national morality in an era of right-wing dominance. One was the corporate crime spree that led to the collapse of ENRON and WorldCom in 2001 and 2002. The other is the abuse of prisoners at Abu Gharib prison in Iraq that produced those gruesome photographs. Both crime waves raise parallel questions: are these the acts of a few misguided individuals or do they reflect some deeper problems in our culture?

Right-wing commentators have insisted that in both cases the problem was caused by a few misguided and troubled individuals. No need for any further scrutiny; the only issue is to punish the bad guys. But this resort to the “bad apple” theory is actually the leading edge of “the new right-wing permissiveness”. Conservatives have long blamed the permissiveness of liberals for many of our society’s most intractable problems–crime, delinquency, and drug use. But the Right now has embraced a more insidious form of permissiveness that is creating an “anything goes” moral culture. The elements of this new permissiveness are the bad apple theory and the idea that reliance on a “higher authority” eliminates the need for moral judgments. Together these undermine a culture of moral responsibility.

The case of Wal-Mart is instructive on the bad apple theory. In the last year, there were allegations that Wal-Mart’s store managers were running their stores like sweatshops. Night shift workers were being locked in to avoid theft when they were unsupervised. Other employees were routinely required to work overtime without compensation. The firm’s public relations people insisted that if such abuses were occurring, they were the actions of a few rogue store managers. They didn’t mention that Wal-Mart sets extremely ambitious profit targets for its store managers who are then forced to squeeze labor costs to the bone since they have no control over other costs. In short, those at the top of organizations use the bad apple theory to hide their own responsibility for encouraging illegal actions. Whenever one hears the powerful talking about a few “bad apples,” one should immediately suspect “rot at the top” instead.

The other source of these crime waves is the right-wing’s belief that individual actions that are blessed by “higher authority” are always morally correct. Today's conservatives prefer this approach to the Nuremberg principle that those who were just following orders should be held responsible for their crimes. They act as though God is on our side in the “war on terrorism” so there is no need to worry about human laws that outlaw torture and nonjudicial imprisonment. They have insisted that U.S. soldiers be exempted from prosecution by the International Criminal Court, regardless of what crimes they might commit. In the war against terrorism, “anything goes” to defeat the enemy; there is no need for our soldiers to worry about whether their orders are lawful. In this poisoned moral climate, it is shocking that the abuse of prisoners at Abu Gharib has been blamed on a few low level enlistees.

The same dynamic is at work in the corporate scandals. Here, the higher authority is the market’s “invisible hand” that is supposed to transform the individual’s pursuit of wealth into the common good, turning the vice of greed into the greatest of virtues. But when people are told that becoming rich is glorious, they quickly find shortcuts to wealth that involve reaching into other people’s pockets. The alchemy of the invisible hand cannot convert stealing into the common good; theft in all its varieties destroys wealth. Hence, the right’s misguided celebration of greed produces an “anything goes” economy in which both individuals and firms increasingly take immoral and illegal shortcuts to riches. The indicted corporate criminals are not “bad apples” but the tip of the proverbial iceberg.

Reversing the moral decay produced by this right-wing permissiveness involves three steps. First, we have to rebuild a culture of individual responsibility in which following orders or responding to market signals is no longer an excuse for immorality. Second, we have to take collective responsibility for the workings of our institutions. When a crime spree is detected, we have to ask the hard questions about the kinds of incentives and organizational practices that encourage or tolerate the transgressions of individuals.

Finally, we have to acknowledge the grave threat to society posed by those deeply religious individuals who “know” that their actions are in accordance with a “higher authority”. Whether they are jihadist terrorists or Christian Fundamentalists, their absolutist certainty is an evasion of moral reasoning and the careful balancing of means and ends on which civilization depends.

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