"Moral hazard" is a phrase more of us know in this era of reckless trading on Wall Street, and now we can apply it to politics. Traders who use other people's money aren't exposed to the risk of losing their own money; therefore, they act less responsibly than someone who is fully exposed to the consequences of a risky decision -- that's the moral hazard. In politics, irresponsible behavior happens when there is little or no consequence to be felt, the only difference being that you play with someone else's life, not merely their money.
The latest example is over gay marriage. The rest of the country is watching to see if a ballot measure in California, Proposition 8, will ban gay marriage in that state. Since June California has legalized same-sex marriage, joining Massachusetts and Connecticut. The court decision that paved the way for this change outraged the usual groups. Social conservatives and various religious groups, including a massive influx of money from the Mormon Church in Utah, are campaigning heavily for Prop 8 to pass. One wonders what business it is of theirs. Marriage has its public side, but given the sharp decline in marriage since the Seventies, what precious institution are they protecting?
If the answer is that a sacrament is at stake, these religious groups have no business interjecting their beliefs into public policy. Various religions traditionally ban the eating of pork, shellfish, and meat on Friday, but we don't allow those strictures to govern policy. As for the condemnation of homosexuality by scripture, many of those same scriptures advocate polygamy. Trying to condemn homosexuality on religious grounds is a ship that has already sailed in every secular society, and the vast bulk of psychological research has already removed homosexual behavior out of the category of pathology.
What gives the anti-gay marriage forces their influence comes down to moral hazard. If you run no risk sticking your nose into someone else's bedroom, some people are weak enough to go ahead and do it. What gives them permission is a toxic tradition, deeply embedded in the right wing, of shameless intrusion. McCarthyism, the right to life movement, school prayer, anti-immigration, and a string of other rabble-rousing campaigns have been based on harming other people without risk to yourself. What makes these movements immoral is that the whole situation is upside down. In finance, you are supposed to take extra care of other people's money, not less, when you are entrusted with it. In a democracy, majority rule is based on respect for minority rights, the basic idea being that a bond of trust allows minorities to feel safe when they are outnumbered.
Popular democracy sorely tests the bond of trust. Therefore, we have certain bodies, such as courts and the Senate, where the tide of popular sentiment can be checked. In California, the system of ballot initiatives for changing the state constitution is pure democracy at work, without restraint of any kind. If half the citizenry favor a change, their whims override all checks and balances. Prop 8 is the latest in a long line of disturbing, misguided initiatives that amount to a roll of the dice. Will the majority decide to stamp on a newly fledged right of a gay minority? The contest is too close to call, but as an outsider who hopes that California voters will say no to Prop 8, they should think seriously about moral hazard and the trap it poses.
What You Can Do:
-- Support Deepak Chopra's Intent about Prop 8
-- Make a Donation to Vote No On PROP 8 (Referral Code 527)