Public and Private Morality

rolling-diceMy Thoughts: I read this morning that there are now about 16 candidates from the right whose names are more or less officially in play for the Presidency in 2016. One of the defining characteristics of most of them is their focus on morality, theirs, mine and ours.

After reading these comments from Robert Reich, I now understand the need for a distinction between private morality and public morality. These two elements are not mutually exclusive, but quite different. As society evolved from roving bands of humans over the millennia, rules emerged that we define as moral rules, rules that support the survival of both individuals and the groups to which they belong.

In economics, we think of it as macro economic theory and micro economic theory. They tend to overlap but they are distinctly different. I suspect the same framework applies to questions about morality. I’m ok if the GOP candidates focus their energies on issues related to public morality, but I get annoyed when they attempt to impose their private morality issues on the rest of us. Or simply have no clue that there is a difference.

I’m not ready to endorse the elements below which are specific to Reich’s thoughts about public morality, but they are a better starting point for me than, say, Mike Huckabee’s.

By Robert Reich – May 3, 2015


I’m glad Bernie Sanders is describing America’s surging inequality as “a profound moral issue.” He’s right. For too many years, Democratic candidates have provided lists of policies while Republicans talk about morality. But Republican morality is about private personal decisions – to marry a gay partner, to have an abortion, to pray or seek redemption.

Democrats must talk about three fundamental principles of public morality that give context and meaning to key policies.

1. No American who works full time should be in poverty, nor should their families. This is why the minimum wage should be raised to $15 an hour, why the Earned Income Tax Credit should be expanded, why labor unions should be strengthened and expanded, and why we need a minimum basic income for all.

2. All Americans should be able to make the most of their intrinsic talents and abilities. This is why every child should have early-childhood education, free pre-K, a world-class K-12 school, and free access to public higher education. It’s also why all workers must be able to upgrade their skills throughout their lifetimes — with unemployment insurance linked to job training. And why all companies must devote at least 2% of their earnings to upgrading the skills of their hourly workers.

3. America must not have a privileged aristocracy. This is why the estate tax must be raised on inherited wealth at the top, why CEO pay over $1 million shouldn’t be deductible from corporate income taxes, why the biggest Wall Street banks must be must be busted up, and why the monopolies and oligopolies that dominate Big Oil, Big Pharma, military contractors, Internet Service Providers, Big Agriculture must be broken up as well. It’s also why we must get big money out of our politics.

These are not just economically sensible ideas. They are moral imperatives.

What do you think?