(This is the fourth in a series of four posts which discuss Tea Party “Political Fundamentalism”, comprised of the unholy trinity of “Constitutional Idolatry”, Liberty Idolatry, and Small Government Idolatry.)

To recap briefly, “Political Fundamentalism” is the mutation of christian fundamentalism that allows it to appeal more broadly to the highly secularized by equally dogma-reliant anti-intellectual populism that permeates our culture. Whereas there has long been cause for some concern about the fanaticism and cooptation by the Republican Party of right-wing evangelicals, I had always maintained that dogmatic ideology rather than merely religious fanaticism was the real problem, and that religious fanaticism in our highly secularized society could only go so far. This mutation into a secular fanaticism, equally rigid and dysfunctional, equally tyrannical, and equally anti-intellectual, is far greater cause for concern.

Political Fundamentalism is the continuation of the Inquisition, adapting to a changing world in an attempt to prevent the world itself from adapting to changing circumstances and insights, creating an obstruction to the continuation of the growth and application of the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment. Political Fundamentalism can be found all over the political ideological spectrum, just as religious fundamentalism can be found all over the religious spectrum, and, in both cases, the differences in ideological particulars are less compelling than the similarities in attitude. But the currently most dangerous form of Political Fundamentalism in America is the right-wing version, comprised of the three elements already named.

“Constitutional Idolatry,” the first element I wrote about, is the conversion of an historical document meant to provide a somewhat flexible legal doctrine and framework into a sacred text the caricature of which must be rigidly adhered to according to some non-existent and impossible literal interpretation. And “Liberty Idolatry,” the second element I wrote about, is the reduction of the concept of “liberty” to one divorced from consideration of interdependence and mutual responsibility, defending freedoms independently of consideration of the harm they may inflict on others or on all.

The third element in the unholy trinity of Political Fundamentalism is Small Government Idolatry. It is a fixed belief that smaller government is always better, that lower taxes and less spending are always better, that “government is the problem” (as Ronald Reagan famously proclaimed, ushering in a movement that will long be the bane of our attempts at designing and implementing reasonable proactive policies and public investments). Like its strongly intertwined fellow travelers, Constitutional Idolatry and Liberty Idolatry, it is a fixed belief, impervious to reason and evidence, insulated from compelling counterarguments or sensible attempts to achieve balance and moderation. It is a force for the contraction of the human mind, opposition to reason and knowledge, and obstruction of progress, at a very real and tragic cost in increased human suffering and decreased human welfare.

An argument against Small Government Idolatry is not an argument for big government (just as an argument against Constitutional Idolatry is not an argument against the Constitution, and an argument against Liberty Idolatry is not an argument against liberty). It is an argument in favor of doing the analysis, in favor of applying our principles knowledgeably and rationally in the context of a complex and subtle world, on a case-by-case basis. It is an argument for facing the responsibilities we have to one another and to future generations, utilizing authentic economic analyses rather than ideological pseudo-economic platitudes to balances the demands imposing themselves on government against the real economic and fiscal constraints that must discipline how these demands are met.

A blind commitment to “small government” is both humanly and fiscally irresponsible, for most economists, other social scientists, and lawyers recognize the inevitably large role that modern governments must play in modern economies, even independently of the demands that a commitment to social justice and improved equity impose on them. I’ve frequently referenced the role of information asymmetries in creating an absolute imperative that we continue to develop our regulatory infrastructure to keep pace with the opportunities to play the market system to individual advantage at sometimes catastrophic public expense. We’ve seen examples in the Enron-engineered California energy crisis of 2000-2001, and the financial sector collapse that nearly catalized a second Great Depression in 2008. Designing, implementing, and enforcing functional rules of the game for our complex market economy is an essential function of government, and one which already destroys the notion that a government too small too meet that need is preferable to one large enough to do so.

It is also fiscally, as well as humanly, irresponsible to let the problems of extreme poverty, child abuse and neglect, frequently unsuccessful public schools, high rates of violent crime, poor public health and inadequate healthcare for many, and other similar and related social problems, all of which form a mutually reinforcing matrix of dysfunctionality and growing problems that both undermine the safety and welfare of us all, and end up costing us far more to react to (with astronomical rates of very expensive incarceration, and other costs of dependency and predation) than it would have cost us to proactively address.

The fiscal concerns that the Political Fundamentalists identify are not to be disregarded, or treated as irrelevant, but rather are one set of considerations among many, to be included in a complete analysis rather than treated as always and forever dispositive independently of any application of reason or knowledge to the question of whether it is actually dispositive or not. The challenge of self-governance requires utilizing our fully developed and focused cognitive capacities, applied to all available information, in pursuit of intelligent and well-conceived policies. It is undermined by the imposition of an a priori set of fixed certainties that are impervious to both knowledge and reason.

We need, in our political discourse, less fundamentalism and more analysis, less idolatry and more (and better) methodology, less false certainty and more foundational humility. We need less deference to fixed and static beliefs, and more to our process by which we test our beliefs and improve upon them. We need less commitment to ideologies, and more commitment to working together as reasonable people of goodwill, doing the best we can to confront the challenges and opportunities of a complex and subtle world.

No sooner did I write two posts on the hypocrisy of the far right, which both claims that it’s “Constitutional Idolatry” demonstrates a superior respect for the historical document they are inadverantly mocking, and simultaneously prosecutes a theocratic agenda in direct opposition to the First Amendment (inspiring my post just this morning: Why the Establishment and Free Exercise Clauses Are So Vital), then our non-witch friend was accommodating enough to explicitly, publicly deny that the First Amendment embodies any such principle as “separation of church and state” ( (My other very recent post on the subject, yesterday afternoon, was about how the proponents of Amendment 62 in Colorado, defining life as beginning at conception, used an outright deception trying to trick voters very probably opposed to it to vote for it, thinking that it is something else entirely, in a blatant expression of contempt for the concept of democracy and constitutionalism: Zealots Trying To Undermine Democracy).

Ms. O’Donnell is wrong on the law. Though the First Amendment doesn’t use the phrase “Separation of Church and State,” the combined effect of the Establishment Clause and Free Exercise Clause is very clearly to create just such a separation, at least in every sense that anyone might be politically or religiously motivated to object to: The state can neither favor nor disfavor any religion. Since it can neither favor nor disfavor, it is separated from those religions by the imposition of neutrality. That is precisely what the phrase “separation of church and state” refers to, and precisely what right-wing antagonists to constitutional democracy like O’Donnell want to undermine.

The state is, in fact, not separated from religion within the context of neutrality to all religions. It can, and does, partner with religious institutions to achieve secular ends. It can, and does, accommodate religious institutions, equitably and without favoritism, in a variety of ways (tax breaks, for instance, and access to public buildings for religious purposes, such as religious clubs in school). But the Christine O’Donnells of the world are not concerned with the lack of separation as long as no religion is favored or disfavored; rather, they are eager to find a way to dismantle precisely the kind of separation that the First Amendment imposes, the kind that acts as a bulwark against the theocratic impulses of the modern conservative movement in America, the most anti-constitutional, and to some extent anti-democratic, movement we’ve seen in a long time in this country.

Everyone who advocates any political or social position, and who claims to do so because it serves interests other than merely their own, acknowledges, either implicitly or explicitly, that we are in a shared enterprise. Some think the public interest is best served by an absolutist commitment to “less government,” and some by doing the analysis and making the determination, in each instance, in the light of the specific relevant facts. But regardless of what we value, what we believe, what we insist upon, if we are valuing it, believing it, and insisting upon it in a public forum in an attempt to persuade others that it is the right thing to value, believe, or insist upon, then we believe that we have some shared fate, and some common interest in governing and organizing ourselves wisely. That is the human enterprise.

First, let’s dispense with the artificial distinction above between “governing” and “organizing” ourselves. Those who believe that churches and community organizations and voluntary associations of various kinds are useful, but that government is an impediment to our individual and/or collective welfare (the latter simply being an aggregation of our individual welfare, according to some set of values held by the individual advocating a particular position), are in effect saying that they favor one form of government over another. If government were eliminated or reduced, but voluntary organizations were left to fill the void, then the latter would become governments, and would be subject to many of the same issues, debates, and concerns that current governments are subject to. So, the debate is always over what form and function of government we advocate.

I assume that we can all agree, that in any conflict of ideologies, generally speaking, we are acting on the assumption that some are more useful than others. The logically possible alternatives are that conflicting ideologies are not actually incompatible, or, if they are incompatible, that the public interest is unaffected by the choice between them, in both of which cases there should be no conflict. The existence of conflict demonstrates the belief that some ideologies, some positions, better serve the public interest than others.

I further assume that we can all agree that the purpose of our political process, of our public debate over which ideas to implement, is based on conflicting beliefs over which ideas best serve the public interest. We should all acknowledge that we are engaged in a process the purpose of which is to select those ideas which best serve the public interest, however it is defined.

There are really, implicitly, two interrelated debates taking place under that one rubric: What is “the public interest,” and how is it best served? In other words, there is a debate over how to define the goal, and over the means for achieving it. We routinely conflate these two debates, arguing over means to differently conceived goals without debating the relative merits of the goals themselves, because we are in conflict over policies which, by their nature, are based on particular resolutions of both aspects of this contested terrain.

The first thing we need to do, in service to the human enterprise that we all implicitly acknowledge we are in, is to engage explicitly in the debate over what defines “the public interest,” without leaping to the debate about how it’s best served. This pre-empts the error of various idolatries, including “Constitutional Idolatry” (the treatment of adherence to a particular reductionist interpretation of the U.S. Constitution as the necessary and sufficient justification for all policy positions), by requiring attention to the end that is being served, rather than merely advocacy of a particular means for serving it. It requires, in other words, that the argument be made, rather than merely the dogma invoked.

Having to “make the case” is an essential procedural cornerstone of engaging in the human enterprise most effectively. We resolve legal disputes by “making the case” in court, which looks for adherence to a particular set of procedures and rules to best ensure the accuracy and reliability of the information presented. We resolve scientific and academic disputes by “making the case” in peer-reviewed journals, which look for adherence to a particular methodology which maximizes the reliability of data and of the analysis applied to it. We need to learn how to submit political disputes to the same discipline, to a methodology which maximizes reliability of information and of the analysis applied. The starting point for developing such a discipline is the requirement that political positions prevail to the extent that the case for them prevails in a court-like or academy-like procedural crucible, rather than to the extent that they manage to exploit unexamined emotional responses and predispositions (the same predecessor to modern legal and scientific procedures which gave us throwing witches into lakes to determine guilt or innocence, and basing knowledge of nature’s subtleties almost exclusively on popular superstitions).

When we subject the fundamental political conflict over how to define “the public interest” to this constraint, we discover that one set of positions is based on a refusal to make the case, rather than on how well the case was made. The Tea Party and its fellow travelers, invoking the “Constitutional Idolatry” mentioned above, claim that we have an authoritative document that tells us exactly how to pursue the public interest, without requiring any consideration of what the public interest being pursued is. It jumps to advocacy of a methodology for pursuing the public interest (i.e., adherence to a particular interpretation of the Constitution), assuming that the public interest is thus served. It may be, but the case needs to be made, explicitly, to determine if the argument should prevail under a sound methodology applied to political disputes.

Currently, there isn’t really any debate over what the public interest is. There is, rather, a conflict between those who think we should pursue it, and those who think we shouldn’t, the latter, essentially, arguing that the public interest is best served by being disregarded. This latter group is rooted, for instance, in a belief in the justice of inequity, that what each has is what each deserves, and that any attempt to “redistribute” wealth, or to refine property rights in ways which result in the redistribution of wealth, is an injustice against those from whom it is redistributed.

But this position is detached from reality. It doesn’t recognize that current property rights are a legal and political artifact, no more inherent to nature than alternative sets of property rights, and are a particular kind of distribution, not the absence of one. Modifications in these laws are less “redistributions” than “alternative distributions.” All that distinguishes them from the current system of distribution of wealth is that they are more or less efficient (contributing more or less robustly to the production of wealth), more or less fair (distributing wealth and opportunity with less regard for the chances of birth), and more or less sustainable (establishing a stable pattern of rights and responsibilities).

This position that defends strictly defined and inviolate private property rights is detached from history, in which the distribution of wealth extant today is rooted in violence and exploitation, and that the distribution of opportunity today is affected by that historical legacy. It is detached from empathy, in which the injustice of being born into poverty and suffering its effects is a social problem to be addressed rather than someone else’s problem to be disregarded. It us detached from pragmatism and economics, in which our current extreme economic inequality diminishes economic robustness and social mobility, decreasing both aggregate wealth and increasing persistent, long-term social costs imposed on all of us. But most of all, it is detached from consideration of what “the public interest” means, because the economically, socially, and morally dysfunctional commitment to current inequities can only be defended in blindness, for only as long one refuses to face the question of what “the public interest” means. It crumbles under scrutiny as soon as that question is addressed.

The Human Enterprise requires that we address both the question of what defines “the public interest,” and what means (i.e., public policies) best serve it. And it requires that we do so according to a methodology that maximizes the reliabilitiy of information and analyses employed, and minimizes the role of prejudice (i.e., emotional predispositions). It’s time for all of us to engage in that enterprise together.