On so-called bureaucrats in Washington and the morality of capitalism

Every time I hear the word ‘bureaucrat’ used to make a point for or against government’s role in the economy, I cringe. I see this label as unfair and dehumanizing.

I grew up in Washington , D.C. where my parents and their friends rose through the ranks of government, often to the very managerial positions which are being used to characterize government employees as bureaucrats. So I have a lot of insight into what goes on in and around Washington that affects the decisions made by these so-called bureaucrats.

I bring this up because of my recent post “Why you won’t hear me using the word bankster” in which I talked about a similar rhetorical tool used to label bankers. I see these labels as cheap, underhanded tactics meant to elicit an emotional response rather than a logical one and bias the reader against one’s preferred whipping boy. It is akin to invoking Adolf Hitler as an analogy in any debate – something sure to elicit a reptilian response instead of a well-reasoned one.

The question I was actually looking to have answered with the bankster post was more of a philosophical one: should we assign collective guilt when we see ‘moral’ or system-wide failures of the sort we have just witnessed in the financial services industry? It is the sort of question that I am asking myself due to the five recent posts here related to greed and morality in our capitalist system.

Here are the questions I have been asking myself: Is “individual greed but collective progress” the underpinnings of laissez-faire ideology? Is greed ever good? Are bankers greedy? If so, should government cap their pay or is that a violation of their liberty? Is market failure a sign of collective guilt?

I think these are fundamental philosophical, political, even moral questions that cannot be divorced from the conversation about economics and markets. They go to the core of our value system and, hence, to the fundamental nature of how we want our system of capitalism to function. It seems to me it is a major cop-out to say in effect “these issues are irrelevant because individual decisions of morality are swamped by the collective whole. Large systems are inherently amoral and thus we individually can be as well.” That’s what extreme forms of laissez-faire capitalism suggest.

As far as collective guilt goes, Wikipedia has a workable definition:

Collective guilt, like guilt, is the unpleasant emotional reaction that results among a group of individuals when it is perceived that the group illegitimately harmed members of another group. It is often the result of “sharing a social identity with others whose actions represent a threat to the positivity of that identity”.[5] Different intergroup inequalities can result in collective guilt, such as receiving unearned benefits and privileges or inflicting more extreme forms of harm on an outgroup (including genocide). Individuals are generally motivated to avoid collective guilt in order to maintain a positive social identity. There are many ways of decreasing collective guilt, such as denying harm or justifying actions. Collective guilt can also lead to positive outcomes, such as promoting intergroup reconciliation and reducing negative attitudes towards the outgroup.

The WaMu example I cited is a good one to think about:

The White House is pushing for a new consumer regulatory agency to end these sorts of abuses, but the banking lobby and even federal banking regulators are opposed. Banks say more regulation would kill innovation.

"I hated that loan," said Mary Kay Morse, a 20-year veteran at WaMu whose job was to persuade independent brokers to make option ARM loans. "It’s just not a good loan. It wasn’t good for the borrower."

That loan affected her opinion of WaMu.

"I always felt like I worked for a really honest industry that cared for the borrowers they dealt with," she said. The corporate culture changed to: "We just want to do the most we can to make money for the bank."

What blame could/should an individual like this bear for alleged predatory lending at Washington Mutual (I hate to pick on the employee in this example as her instincts seem to be in the right place)? If we individually make the wrong moral decisions, do we collectively risk a market failure like the one we saw in the recent spate of predatory lending?  I think the answer is yes. But I also think it is difficult for one individual to make a difference in a system where the incentives go against doing the right thing. This is a major argument in favor of regulation.

I would love to hear your comments on these issues as I have made mine.

As for the terms ‘bankster’ and ‘bureaucrat,’ I am looking to bring a bit more civility and logic to the debate about government, regulation, the banking industry and their roles in our capitalist system. Cheap shots and emotional pandering have no role in a mature discourse about these important topics.

  1. LavrentiBeria says

    What’s of concern here is the agonizing over a question the basis for an answer to which should have been aquired by adolescence, I would think. What is encouraging is that this question still makes its claims on conscience in adulthood during an era in which the very existence of human conscience is under assault from the priests of the regnant religion of scientific reason, the psychological establishment.

    First, some essentials. Any question of morality first bears on who it is that is to be considered the subject thereof, the “agent” so called. Only human persons are appropriately considered moral agents. Further, moral agency is organic. Sociological constructs, political structures, economic realities and the like simply don’t qualify for moral agency, they operate more as definable contexts than anything else. And they are not living things.

    Given the immediately preceeding, one answers the question of whether capitalism is intrinsically immoral with the inquiry, is capitalism in and of itself personal? Any child would have to answer “no”, and with obvious implications for the marxist who erroneously considers structures as moral agents and libertarians who see the state in exactly the same way.

    Now, can individual capitalists or public servants be considered immoral and thus taint the contexts in which they operate? Indeed they can. They can even despoil the free operation of these contexts but, even then, they cannot come to define them. Structures, because they are impersonal, are immune to such definition. One can permissibly say that certain capitalists are morally miscreant, even that at times capitalism has become innurred to moral influences, but one can never say in truth that capitalism is intrinsically evil.

    So you can bring an end to the agonizing, Ed. What you and many others with similar questions debate ad naseum, Sister Mary Margaret could have resolved in a minute’s time given a certain minimum of humility. But Sister Mary Margaret doesn’t get questions like this anymore. Only the “experts” do, “experts” who know absolutely nothing of the West’s 5000 year old history of moral theology and of its accompanying theological anthopology and whose confusion forces them to stumble about here and there in search of certainty.

    1. Edward Harrison says


      I am not agonizing one iota. I am subtly — perhaps too subtly — saying that we live in a society in which greed is glorified (something antithetical to thousands of years of Indo-European moral attitudes). You are one of the few who acknowledges this and acknowledges this as a major reason we are in the fix we are today. The fact that there have been no other comments on this is telling.

      1. LavrentiBeria says

        It seems to me that the whole energy behind objections to the unholy alliance of “bankster”, on the one hand, and “political contribution whore” on the other is moral. It certainly can’t be
        questions of legality that principally inform the complaints – God knows, law in this country is almost the antithesis of morality – although legal questions may be involved coincidentally. Rather the responses go to an innate perception of right and wrong that is written on one’s heart, something that faith identifies as “conscience”. It is here that one grasps the propriety of the use of the term “bankster” or “filth” when referring to politicians that sell their votes for political contributions. And that because these scum, acting as they almost habitually do precisely as banksters and filth, make of themselves and ARE banksters and filth. One might properly even think of the matter ontologically, I suppose; one is what one does. Frankly, I think you’d benefit feeling free enough to call a spade a spade in this connection, Ed. If it smell like a bankster and it looks like a bankster, be sure, its a bankster.

  2. Anonymous says

    We’ve lost the distinction between self interest and greed. Self interest is what I always pursue and to do so am concerned about the consequences of my actions for others. Unintended consequences affect my long term self interest. Greed is never good, it is the expression of my infantile want unalloyed by what knowledge or wisdom I may have gleaned by consideration of my fellow may.

    Free market orthodoxy assumes that the vast underpinnings of trust that make markets, in fact make money itself possible are somehow a part of nature rather than a creation of humanity that like all of humanities other creations requires maintenance. If trust were a force of nature maybe greed could be good, but trust lives in competition with cynicism and suspicion and where these latter two achieve preponderance trust dissolves and markets become ineffective and government corrupt. Perhaps this where we are and I’m just too much the idealist to accept it.

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