July 14, 2002
Stop me if you've heard this, but:
Al Gore says that if he runs for president in 2004, he'll "let the chips fall where they may." No more worrying about "the polls, the tactics, and all the rest," he recently told a group of supporters. "If I had it to do all over again, I'd just let it rip."
Actually, promising to be himself and "let it rip" is what Gore usually says when he talks about doing things differently.
"I've been quoting Janis Joplin -- freedom's just another word for nothin' left to lose," he told a group of Boston Globe editors and writers in October 1999, when his poll numbers were dropping. "Let's just let it rip, and put all the issues on the table, and roll up our sleeves."
That was around the time he moved his campaign headquarters from Washington to Nashville and started dressing in khakis and cowboy boots. "I'm throwing away the prepared text," he told reporters. "My attitude is, let it rip!"
In truth, there may be no politician in America more incapable of caution-to-the-winds spontaneity than Gore -- who is never more programmed and controlled than when he assures us that he is just letting it rip.
Crooked businessmen have been much in the news lately, and if some of them end up behind bars, I won't complain.
But the current business scandals should not be allowed to eclipse an important fact about the relationship between capitalism and moral virtue: They usually reinforce each other.
As a rule, it is not possible to make money in a market economy without providing a service to others. You benefit yourself when you benefit your customer; when he is rewarded, you are rewarded. Capitalist societies tend to be prosperous not only because of economic forces, but because of moral forces, too. Without honesty, sympathy, trust, cooperation, and concern for the needs of others, markets cannot work -- at least, not well.
Does that mean that all businessmen are ethical paragons? Of course not, no more than all politicians or journalists are. But the requirements of business tend to encourage exactly those traits that the moral order depends on. That is more than can be said for politics or journalism.
Antisemitism is frowned on in American politics. But it is showing its ugly face this year in suburban Detroit, where a state legislator named William Callahan is challenging US Representative Sander Levin in the Democratic primary. In an Associated Press interview, Callahan made the case for ousting Levin:
"I mean, the man has never owned a Christmas tree. He's not a Christian. And I'm thinking, 'Jeez, how can he represent me then?' "
When the Detroit Free Press asked Callahan about this, he confirmed the quote but said he meant no offense. Then he added: "I am a Catholic who is pro-life and of Irish, Polish, and German descent. He [Levin] is very much pro-choice and Hebrew. Enough said."
Well, there goes the B'nai B'rith endorsement. But all isn't lost. If any fans of Charles Coughlin still live in the district -- the Jew-hating "radio priest" used to broadcast from the Church of the Little Flower in Royal Oak -- Callahan's got their votes sewn up.
As they grapple with a budget crisis brought on by reckless overspending, Massachusetts lawmakers are weighing a proposal to reduce the amount of prize money paid out by the state lottery. How well that would work I don't know, but it is certainly a better idea than jacking up income taxes, which is invariably the Legislature's first choice.
But isn't there something outrageous about a government-run lottery in the first place? I am not morally opposed to gambling; I think it is a pleasure individuals should be free to indulge in if they wish. But I also recognize that lotteries are most attractive to those who can least afford to play them, and it is repugnant that the state makes hundreds of millions of dollars by exploiting the poor and the addicted. That the government "needs" the money is no answer. If it were, what objection could there be to state-owned bars or drug dens where you could drink or shoot up as much as you could pay for?
I welcomed President Bush's recent speech calling on Palestinians to "build a practicing democracy, based on tolerance and liberty." And I support his policy of promoting democracy for Cuba. But I wonder when he will deliver a speech calling on the Chinese to build a democracy based on tolerance and liberty. Or urging democratic reforms in Algeria. Or Vietnam. Or Burma. Or Syria. It isn't only Palestinians and Cubans who suffer from the lack of democracy and decent government. It would be no bad thing if the president of the United States occasionally pointed that out.