Jonathan Haidt—What the Tea Partiers Really Want: Karma

I am a fan of Jonathan Haidt’s work. I learned a lot from his book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, and used those ideas in my column “Judging the Nations: Wealth and Happiness Are Not Enough.” I also quoted one of my favorite passages from The Righteous Mind in "God and Devil in the Marketplace.“

Jonathan wrote a very interesting piece in the Wall Street, October 16, 2010: ”What the Tea Partiers Really Want.“ Here is a key passage:

But the passion of the tea-party movement is, in fact, a moral passion. It can be summarized in one word: not liberty, but karma.

The notion of karma comes with lots of new-age baggage, but it is an old and very conservative idea. It is the Sanskrit word for "deed” or “action,” and the law of karma says that for every action, there is an equal and morally commensurate reaction. Kindness, honesty and hard work will (eventually) bring good fortune; cruelty, deceit and laziness will (eventually) bring suffering. No divine intervention is required; it’s just a law of the universe, like gravity.

Karma is not an exclusively Hindu idea. It combines the universal human desire that moral accounts should be balanced with a belief that, somehow or other, they will be balanced. In 1932, the great developmental psychologist Jean Piaget found that by the age of 6, children begin to believe that bad things that happen to them are punishments for bad things they have done.

To understand the anger of the tea-party movement, just imagine how you would feel if you learned that government physicists were building a particle accelerator that might, as a side effect of its experiments, nullify the law of gravity. Everything around us would float away, and the Earth itself would break apart. Now, instead of that scenario, suppose you learned that politicians were devising policies that might, as a side effect of their enactment, nullify the law of karma. Bad deeds would no longer lead to bad outcomes, and the fragile moral order of our nation would break apart. For tea partiers, this scenario is not science fiction. It is the last 80 years of American history.