Book Reviews: The Submerged State and the Righteous Mind

by Suzanne Mettler


by Jonathan Haidt

It doesn't take a pundit to know that American politics are screwed up beyond measure. Congress is stuck in gridlock, the economy is stalled, elections are decided by culture war attack ads, and politics itself is derided as a pursuit for liars and hustlers. Suzanne Mettler explains why we’ve become disenchanted with political solutions to our problems, while Jonathan Haidt looks at the deeper moral differences between liberals and conservatives.

The key issue is not the government we see, but the government we don't, the vast tangle of tax breaks, public-private partnerships, and incentives that Mettler deems 'the submerged state'. The size of the submerged state is astounding, 8% of the GDP, and fully half the size of the visible state: Medicare, Social Security, Medicaid, defense, servicing the debt, and the relatively minuscule discretionary funding that covers everything else the government does, from welfare to transportation to education to NASA and foreign aid.

Mettler deploys economic and social statistics to show that for all its expense, the submerged state is a failure on every level. Whatever your politics, there is something to despise about the submerged state. It represents a transfer of wealth from the poor to the wealthy, when most Americans abstractly support reducing inequality. It is a distortionary government influence on the workings of the free market, without the relativity clarity of direct provision of services or regulations. It fails to accomplish its stated policy goals of improving access to education, healthcare, and housing. It leads to civic disengagement, as those who benefit fail to see how the government has helped them, or how they can meaningfully impact politics through voting. And above all, it institutionalizes corruption, as broad public participation is replaced by the lobbying of narrowly constituted interests groups.

This book is not perfect. Mettler is a political scientist, and she has the biases of her profession: that conservatives are responsible for much of what's gone wrong with America over the past 30 years (disclosure: I agree), and that citizens would vote 'better' if they were just better informed. This book doesn't fatally harpoon the submerged state, but Mettler has marked the target for future scholars and politicians. The submerged state is a powerful lens for seeing many divergent policies as part of a broad trend towards political disengagement, and government that is not smaller, but rather inflexible and unresponsive.

In a just and sensible world, the 2012 Presidential race would be decided by the candidate’s aggressiveness in tackling the submerged state. Unfortunately, last I checked, we’re still on Earth. Democracy isn't just about the boring but necessary business of deciding who keeps the sewers running and collects the taxes, but is also about the type of society that we wish to live in. Voters don’t vote on “rational” economic grounds, but rather on the basis of shared values and aspirations.

Jonathan Haidt draws broadly from research in psychology, anthropology, and biology to develop a six-factor basis for morality (Care/Harm, Liberty/Oppression, Fairness/Cheating, Loyalty/Betrayal, Authority/Subversion, Sanctity/Degradation), and show that moral judgment is an innate intuitive ability accompanied by post-hoc justifications. He argues that morality serves to bind non-related groups together, and moral skills have been favored by biological and social evolutionary mechanisms over human history.

In practical political terms, the Enlightenment morality embodied by Liberalism draws from only the first three moral factors while Conservatism draws from all six. This explains both the differences between liberal and conservative values, and why conservatives beat the stuffing out of liberals at the polls. Drawing on more complex moral framework, they are able to make more convincing arguments in favor of their preferred policies.

However, Haidt is unwilling to follow his theory to its ultimate question: Can a democratic political system that privileges the rights of minorities sustain decision-making based on all six moral factors? Care/Harm, Liberty/Oppression, and Fairness/Cheating are universal factors; everybody uses them, and aside philosophical paradoxes like the famous Trolley Problem, we agree on when they are upheld or violated. Loyalty/Betrayal, Authority/Subversion, and Sanctity/Degradation are provincial factors; they're different for every culture and every individual.

A moral order for a pluralistic society which takes the latter three factors seriously must either force people to uphold a morality they do not believe in, or segregate people based on their different interpretations of morality. Perhaps I'm sensitive to such concerns because of my secular Jewish culture, but forcing people to profess beliefs not their own, or requiring them to live in communities of only like-minded individuals is profoundly unjust, and practically impossible.

Conservatism struggles with the reality that we no longer live in separated communities. We have one global economy, one atmosphere, one water cycle, one planetary oil supply, one nuclear Armageddon, etc. Haidt faults liberalism for damaging American moral capital in the 60s and 70s, but he doesn't explain how conservative politics can govern effectively without infringing on liberty, or coalescing to gridlock.

Imagine trying to get conservatives in America, China, and the Middle East to reach an agreement about freedom of speech, the role of religion in the public sphere, or the proper authority of the state. Value conflicts would impede the necessary daily work of trade and treaties, peace and prosperity, and a shared and sustainable future. It might be a more moral world, but it would not be a better a one.

As Benjamin Franklin said, “We must hang together; else, we shall most assuredly hang separately." Liberals across the world may disagree on the details, but can broadly agree on the framework for approaching continental-scale and international policy problems. We all have the right to vote according to our values, but we should take responsibility in recognizing the limited power of law to enforce those values in others.

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