A few things came to mind when I was reading Jonathan Haidt’s article on Tea Partiers’ desire for what he calls “karma.” If Haidt is correct that Tea Parties want a world in which the truly deserving prosper and wrongdoers are punished in their present lives, it is not really karma that they want. Speaking very generally, karma is a concept that tries to explain how the evidently unfair and unjust state of affairs that we see all around us can be reconciled with ideals of justice and moral responsibility. Yes, eventually unjust actions are supposed to lead to ruin, but this can take a very long time. Discontented Americans today are interested in a more immediate reckoning.

Karma is an idea intended to help those suffering from injustice cope with the reality that justice in this world is often elusive and abuses of power and wealth often seem to go unpunished. The Christian equivalent of this idea is not a work ethic, but rather the conviction that the righteous will receive their reward in the kingdom of heaven and that the wicked will suffer damnation. Both take it for granted that righteousness and rewards in this life very rarely go together. Let me go out on a limb to suggest that neither of these has much to do with Rick Santelli’s complaints. Santelli had no problem with the financial sector bailout, but vehemently complained about relief measures for debtors. To put it a bit crudely, it is the Santellis of the world who make people want to believe that there is some higher moral law or some divinely-instituted justice that holds everyone accountable, because in this world it is so very clear that there are two sets of rules: one for the powerful and wealthy, and another for the rest. Put another way, if the Tea Partiers desire fairness and a world in which reward depends on effort and talent, they shouldn’t have anything to do with Santelli, who cheered throwing their tax dollars at Wall Street and deeply resented far fewer tax dollars being directed towards relief for the middle class.

That doesn’t mean Haidt hasn’t identified a core grievance of Tea Partiers and many other Americans along with them, but he is misdescribing it. At its heart, Haidt has identified a strong desire for fairness and order. The financial sector bailout was profoundly offensive to most Americans because it so blatantly rewarded the powerful, the wealthy and the connected, and it happened because of their ruinous failure. It was even more offensive because it was sold as a dire emergency measure and dressed up as something being done for the benefit of all, when it was not necessary and was never used for its original purposes. The bailout mocked ideas of fairness and responsibility, and on top of that its defenders insulted the intelligence of everyone opposed to it by pretending that it was a vitally necessary program.

Update: I stand corrected. Santelli claims he never supported any of the bailouts. If that was true in 2008, I never saw it, but I’ll accept that I got this wrong. I regret the error.