Dionne: ‘Liberty depends on strong communities, energetic government and a concern for the common good’

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Benjamin Hoste | Staff Photographer
Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne speaks to a large Hall of Philosophy crowd for the Interfaith Lecture Series on Monday afternoon.

Is immunizing children against disease an investment in human capital? E.J. Dionne believes that it is. But he also believes that immunizing children is a moral issue, not something that should be understood in market language.

“I think distorting language in this way concedes what should not be conceded — that the market represents the one and only proper measure of public action,” he said.

Speaking at 2 p.m. Monday in the Hall of Philosophy, Dionne opened Week Four’s Interfaith Lecture Series on “Markets and Morals.” He is a columnist for The Washington Post, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a professor at Georgetown University. His most recent book is titled Our Divided Political Heart: The Battle for the American Idea in an Age of Discontent.

The problem with the United States, he argued, is that it has strayed from the traditional balances between markets and government and between individualism and community.

“We have not focused enough on how the liberty we prize depends upon our willingness to come to the defense of each other’s liberty,” Dionne said. “How liberty depends on strong communities, energetic government and a concern for the common good.”

The Declaration of Independence begins with an individualistic sentiment describing a person’s inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. However, in its conclusion, the founders pledge their lives, their fortunes and their honor to one another. This demonstrates for Dionne that the Founding Fathers understood they could not protect individual liberty without working together.

But the country’s traditional balances were replaced by “radical individualism” during the Gilded Age, Dionne said, the period between the end of the Civil War and the turn of the 20th century. The balances were later restored, with presidents like Woodrow Wilson, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman and John F. Kennedy supporting the idea that markets work only when subjected to moral limits. Dionne argued that this led to the success and prosperity of the U.S. in the 20th century.

“Government grew, but so did individual liberty,” he said. “The state assumed new roles, but individual opportunity expanded. New regulations … protected the air, the water, the integrity of food and drugs, the safety of workplaces and consumer products. And American capitalism flourished.”

Dionne said the language of today’s marketplace is dominating public discussion. This is a sign that the balance has once again shifted.

“We are at a point where any action that might seem good or wise on other grounds must nonetheless be defended in the market’s terms,” he said.

But Dionne doesn’t believe that every issue should be measured on the same scale. Returning to the example of immunizing children, he said doing so is good, whether a market analysis justifies its economic value or not.

Another problem with the shift to market language is that it delegitimizes moral arguments for action.

“Appeals to moral arguments are made to seem soft when compared to the supposedly hard-headed assessments of the market and the economist,” Dionne said. “As a result, advocates of a particular moral course gradually stop making moral arguments at all, or they make them apologetically.”

He thinks that it is actually soft-headed to abandon strong moral arguments in favor of whatever claims are in fashion. In this case, Dionne said, these are claims all about the market.

He wants to give morals a good name again.

“If someone says he or she is going to talk about morality, most people these days are certain they are going to hear a commentary on sexuality,” Dionne said.

But organized pay, leave time, health care and child care strongly affect the ability of families to cope economically and to stay together, he said. Thus, supporting families through these services is no less a moral question than the current issue of abortion.

“What needs to be opposed is not the market itself,” Dionne said, “but claims that the market can do things that it can’t.”

Those in the marketplace measure the potential for profit, and can only be expected to solve problems that will pay out. For example, if there is no reasonable expectation for profit to be earned from selling health insurance to poor Americans who cannot afford the premiums, market participants will move on to places where they can make money — probably to healthy and wealthy Americans who can afford health insurance.

Markets are insufficient, Dionne said. The market depends on the idea that there is such a thing as the public good, and requires the reinforcement of honesty and openness.

“As the philosopher Francis Fukuyama has said, [markets] depend on trust … And trust is built when actors in the marketplace know that they can deal with another whose values include virtues that existed long before capitalism became dominant,” Dionne said.

Trust is also built when fair rules govern a marketplace, he said. Those who act in the market need to understand that it serves public needs, not simply private ones.

“What I hope everyone will think about this week are these three propositions,” Dionne said.  “First, that capitalist society depends on non-capitalist values to hold together and to prosper; second, that a market economy depends on non-market values to function properly; and then, third, these values in many cases come from a long way back.”