Political Means Don't Achieve Moral Ends
It’s too early to predict where N.J. Governor Chris Christie’s “bridgegate” scandal will lead.
What did Christie know and when did he know it about actions of operatives in his administration who engineered the closing of key traffic lanes, leading onto the George Washington bridge outside Fort Lee, New Jersey, as political punishment for a Democratic mayor who did not endorse Christie’s reelection.
The lane closings caused horrendous traffic jams that might have caused the death of one elderly woman.
But whichever players in this horrible game of political vindictiveness are implicated, there is an important lesson.
Despite our obsession with political systems and processes, the quality of our lives ultimately flows from the behavior of individual human beings and not from any meticulously designed political system.
The best any political system can do is to assure political freedom. But it cannot assure what individuals choose to do with their freedom and the values that will define their lives.
The more we believe that politics alone can make our lives better, and that moral standards are just private matters with no import on the quality of our national life, the deeper we will dig the hole in which we are burying ourselves.
We just marked the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon Johnson’s declaration of “an unconditional war on poverty.”
But Johnson’s lofty political language about eradication of social injustice and poverty and who the man actually was and how he lived is a study in contrasts.
Johnson biographer Robert Caro, discussing his study of Johnson, said “I’m trying to explain how political power worked in America in the second half of the twentieth century, and here’s a guy who understood power and used it in a way that no one ever had. In the getting of that power he’s ruthless – ruthless to a degree that surprised even me, who thought he knew something about ruthlessness. But he also means it when he says that all his life he wanted to help poor people and people of color, and you see him using the ruthlessness, the savagery for wonderful ends.”
But is it possible? Is it possible for a ruthless, savagely vindictive, profane and immoral man to achieve political power and use that power to make the world better?
I think the “war on poverty” itself answers this question.
Johnson achieved the heights of political power and then, in the name of compassion, spent other people’s money to buy his vision of what the world should look like.
The end has been expenditures, by some estimates, of some $20 trillion dollars and a poverty rate today hardly different from where it was when Johnson declared his war 50 years ago.
About a year and half after Johnson made his “war on poverty” speech, he gave the commencement address at Howard University in Washington, DC and said:
“The family is the cornerstone of our society. More than any other force it shapes the attitude, the hopes, the ambitions, and the values of the child. And when the family collapses it is the children that are usually damaged. When it happens on a massive scale, the community itself is damaged.”
When Johnson spoke those words in 1965, about 70% of white adults were married compared to 55% today. About 60% of black adults were married, compared to 31% today. In 1965 25% of black babies and 5% of white babies were born to unwed mothers compared to 72% and 29% today.
Johnson’s promotion of government as the source of life’s answers, and his split between politics and personal morality, contributed mightily to the breakdown of the American family that he knew was vital to our society.
Politics and political rhetoric is no substitute for personal morality. Worth keeping in mind as we watch the scandal unfold in Chris Christie’s regime in New Jersey.