Anarchists and libertarians fail to acknowledge the nature of collective action problems, and the ways in which various modalities (including hierarchical organization, of which government is one example) are used to address it. The trick is to most effectively blend these different modalities, not to reduce reality to a caricature that allows us to pretend that that challenge doesn’t really exist.
(There’s a famous example used in economic literature, of a barge-pullers guild in 19th century China, that hired overseers to whip slackers in order to eliminate the free-rider problem. In other words, the barge-pullers themselves chose to impose on themselves an overseer in their own collective interest. It’s a strange and complex world in which we live; we need first and foremost to face up to that fact before rendering judgment in broad brushstrokes that fails to acknowledge fundamental aspects of reality.)
The “problem” with government isn’t its existence or the fact that people rely on it for certain purposes, but what in economic, legal and managerial theory is called “the agency problem.” In a popular sovereignty, government is constituted as an agent of the people, its principal. This is in many ways a reversal of most ancient notions of sovereignty, which saw the people as “subjects” of the sovereign. The problem, or challenge, is the degree to which reality can be made to correspond to theory.
In one view, this reversal of theoretical roles occurred organically, because in the crucible of European internecine warfare the crown’s (particularly the English crown’s) need for revenue to finance such wars drove an ongoing liberalization of the political economy to generate such revenue, In other words, international competition drove sovereigns to empower ever-more ever-broadening swathes of their citizenry, since those that did so fared better in the wars among relatively small and easily swallowed states.
In the Glorious Revolution in England in 1688, this reversal was institutionally recognized, laying the groundwork for the American revolution’s clearer codification of that institutional shift in its break from Great Britain. The challenge then became aligning the agent’s action’s to the principal’s interests, a challenge compounded by the size and diffuseness of the principal in comparison to the agent. This is the ongoing challenge we face.
A centralized agent ostensibly working on behalf of a diffuse principal can always exploit the transaction costs facing the principal in its translation of some hypothetical “popular will” into a mandate to the agent in order to serve the agent’s interests at the expense of the principal’s. This is the challenge we must continually face. But to then leap from the reality of that challenge to the conclusion that the existence of the agent is a sign of our own self-enslavement neglects the real need we have for such an agent, the real function it performs, and the costs of choosing to “liberate” ourselves from any centralized agency through which to address the collective action problems that face us.
The bottom line is that we live in a complex and subtle world, and that our neat reductions of it, our caricatures of reality, do not serve us well. While it’s true that, historically, governments of large political states were established through military conquest and exploitation, it is also true that the benefits of civilization are a derivative of that brutality, and that there are indeed benefits (as well as costs) of civilization, of a large-scale division of labor which freed up some to do things other than produce food. Our challenge now is not to feed our emotionally gratifying sense of superiority to “the Sheeple” for “knowing” that government is our oppressor, but rather to face, intelligently and effectively, the real challenges and real enterprise of aligning the actions of our agent with the interests of its principal, of making government ever more something that serves the interests of the people in general and ever less something that serves the interests of the few who capture it for their own benefit.
And that is a complex challenge, a complex enterprise, best framed in precise, analytical ways. It is our task to work to maximize the robustness, fairness and sustainability of our political economy, by applying disciplined reason and imagination to methodically gathered and verified information in service to our shared humanity. Unfortunately, caricatures of reality like those popular among ideologues of all stripes do nothing to help us accomplish that, and do much to interfere with our ability to do so effectively.
Conservative blogger Kelly Maher posted an indignant indictment of Wisconsin Lt. Gubernatorial candidate Mahlon Mitchel for suggesting that voter registration laws can ever be used as a tool for voter suppression. Here’s my response to her:
Nice spin. If registration required you to, say, pass a literacy test, administered somewhat selectively, as was done in the Jim Crow south specifically to exclude the black vote, would THAT be voter suppression under the guise of voter registration?
Okay, now that we’ve established that your premise is bullshit, that registration CAN indeed be suppression, the real question is: Is it or isn’t it in the present context?
Empirically (you know, facts rather than just making shit up), we know two things: 1) There is no evidence of widespread voter fraud in America (http://www.truthaboutfraud.org/), and 2) the more obstacles you create to voting, the more effectively you weed out minority and poorer citizens who are legally entitled to vote (http://topics.nytimes.com/top/reference/timestopics/subjects/v/voter_registration_and_requirements/index.html). That, indeed, was the whole purpose of poll taxes and literacy tests.
It doesn’t seem so absurd to suggest that the same tactic, used by the party that is viewed as most antagonistic to the poor and to minorities and suffers at the polls in proportion to their voter turn-out, might be in play here given that there is no actual problem with voter fraud to address, but that the manner of addressing it (the requirement to produce a photo ID to vote; the removal of people from rolls of registered voters when they don’t vote in the previous election, etc.) does in reality suppress the vote of the poor and minorities, precisely those whom you want to be more free to continue to screw?
After all, that IS what “liberty” means in your lexicon, isn’t it? Up until the Civil War and emancipation, your “states’ rights,” anti-federal government argument was used predominately in defense of slavery and in opposition to the abolitionist movement. Antebellum southern statesman John C. Calhoun wrote “Union and Liberty,” about the need to protect southern slave owners’ “liberty” to own slaves.
After the Civil War, for the next 100 years, the same ideology was used predominately to oppose civil rights and to defend Jim Crow. Southern governors showed their commitment to “liberty” by defying the federal government in their (the southerners’) commitment to remain free to continue to discriminate against African Americans.
More recently, this same concept is used by folks such as you in much the same way, though a bit more sublimated. Just as those from the Civil War to Civil Rights period were not advocating for slavery, but rather discrimination, you are not advocating for discrimination, but rather suppression, both of the vote that threatens your power, and of our attempts to address the legacies of history that threaten your privileges. Your ideology, like its predecessors, is steeped in a historically and economically nonsensical mythology that wealth and opportunity are distributed primarily according to merit in the United States, and that those who don’t have it don’t deserve it, the exact same mythology that has been used to rationalize all of the historical forms of class privilege. (See The Presence of the Past)
You can (and undoubtedly will) keep telling yourselves that your current incarnation of that same historically infamous ideology isn’t really just another incarnation of that historically infamous ideology, but is “liberty” as the “founding fathers” meant it. Any suggestion that we should be concerned with economic inequality, with social justice, is just “socialist nonsense,” and an insult to our “founding fathers” and all that they stood for.
For instance, can you imagine that there are actually people so anti-American, so against what the “founding fathers” intended for us, that they would suggest that we should draft “Declarations of Rights” discouraging large holdings of property or concentrations of wealth as “a danger to the happiness of mankind”?! Oops, sorry. That was Benjamin Franklin, in 1776. (Walter Isaacson, page 315.)
Or can you imagine that there are people so un-American in our country today that they don’t believe that the federal government taking money away from those who earned it, and spending it for the benefit of others, including those who didn’t earn it, is a form of “creeping socialism”? Oops. My mistake again. That’s Art. I, Section 8, Clause i of the United States Constitution, which grants Congress unlimited and unqualified authority to tax and spend in the general welfare.Maybe Ben Franklin was a good American patriot, after all. Maybe our Constitution means what it says. Maybe your conceptualization of “liberty,” the same one John C. Calhoun used to so thoroughly butcher what it means to decent human beings, isn’t the right one for America after all. And maybe we should care more about democracy, more about empowering people to vote, more about continuing to realize the ideal of equality of opportunity, than in your preservation of power at the expense of those inclined to deprive you of it: The majority of minorities in America. Because they’re the ones who have long known what you REALLY mean when you say “liberty.”
Steve…would it be a good thing or not if all voters had to demonstrate some basic understanding of our gov’t and/or issues? Is it a celebration of democracy if the uninformed have the same voting power as the citizen who makes effort to understand the issues?Harvey
Who gets to decide who is more or less informed? As a lawyer, economist, teacher, professional researcher and policy analyst, I think you and your fellow ideologues fail to clear the requisite threshold, and, if I were inclined to think as you appear to be thinking, would consider it a service to humanity and to the formation of sound policies to exclude you from our democratic processes. I do not, however, think that.Dorman:
The great irony of your ideology is that you are anit-elitist elitists, who somehow have managed to declare yourselves omniscient and infallible while simultaneously studiously ignoring the disciplined application of reason to reliable evidence.
oh for heavens sake Steve…..balderdash and poppycock. A very simple objective test might be: Name the 3 branches of gov’t, who are your US Senators and Representative, and who is your Governor. I submit that a prospective voter who cannot answer these questions is unqualified…..however ‘elitist’ you may think that is. I note that you did not answer the question if it is a good thing or not.Harvey:
No, it is not a good thing, for the same reason that it is not a good thing to have a “benevolent dictator”: You can never be too sure of his or her benevolence, and you can never be too sure that those who pass your test will look out for the interests of those who don’t. That’s the whole reason we have a democratic process in the first place, to bind the agent (government) more to the principle’s (people’s) interests.
When you deny a class or classes of people the right to vote, you are denying them representation in the political process, and you are denying them the ability to ensure that their interests are included and their voices heard. The result, as a general rule, is that their interests are most overlooked, and, frequently, they are marginalized, exploited, and/or oppressed as a result.
But I do appreciate it when self-identified Tea Partiers are so visibly committed to the same kinds of bigotries that have plagued this nation throughout its history; it makes it that much easier for reasonable people of goodwill to shine a light on what you REALLY stand for.
Here’s the thing: There are degrees of inclusion and exclusion, from an absolute dictatorship of a single individual over all others, to a perfect distribution of power and privilege to all equally. Neither of these poles exists in reality, the former because no one individual can hold such power over a multitude without giving some privilege away to those who are willing to help him to hold it, and the latter because Nature is not so kind and human artifice not so infallible that it (human artifice) can ever remedy all of Nature’s injustices.
But, on the continuum defined by these poles, the evolution of human consciousness and human social institutions has moved rather consistently from forms approaching the former toward forms approaching the latter. We (the English and Americans, from the Glorious Revolution of 1688 through the American Revolution) have famously flipped sovereignty on its head, turning subjects into sovereigns and sovereigns into our employees.
You, typically, advocate a regression, a withdrawal from that progress, claiming that some among the popular sovereign must be denied their sovereignty for failing to pass your litmus test. Your test, with unabashed egoism, excludes those you deem less well informed than you, but would not dream of admitting that those better informed than you might reasonably draw the line to the other side of you, or that each one’s reckoning of who is and isn’t well enough informed might be subject to their own self-serving prejudices.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: You are an adherent to an ages old movement that might best be called “Organized Ignorance,” ignorant of history and its lessons, ignorant of economics, law, the social sciences, social systemic thought in general, and reason applied to evidence in some disciplined way more generally still, and yet are assertively committed to the false certainties that thrive like thorny weeds in the untended, undisciplined and often delusional garden of your consciousness.
There is an old admonition: Lead, follow, or get out of the way. Analogously, one might implore folks like you to either engage in the disciplines of the mind that lead to subtler and broader understandings, defer to those who do, or (to avoid the tempting colloquialism) stop proselytizing the politics of inhumanity.
Something worth considering.
(The following is a response to an extreme Libertarian who posted the New Hampshire Constitution’s endorsement of a right to revolution as a justification and encouragement to his ideological fellow travelers.)
The only problem is that you are “rebelling” against a government that is both Constitutional and, within those constraints, democratic. You resent the will of the majority, which differs from yours, and misname the will of the majority, with Constitutional restraints to protect minorities, “tyranny.” By your definition, any use of government of which YOU disapprove is automatically tyranny. Rather, you would wish to overrule the will of the majority, and discard the Constitution, in order to impose your radical, economically illiterate, ahistorical, impractical, inegalitarian, and nationally self-destructive ideology on the rest of us. You can utter all of the magical rhetorical incantations you want, but it remains what it is: A cultish, glassy-eyed fanaticism rearing its ugly head in our own country and our own time, as it has reared its ugly head in so many other times and places.
The government you are rebelling against is Constitutional because your main objection, to the taxing and spending of Congress, is a Constitutionally granted power. Article I, Section 8, Clause i of the United States Constitution grants Congress the unlimited power to tax and spend in the general welfare. You can argue about what constitutes the general welfare, and, in perhaps some extreme instances, can find a Supreme Court that would hold that some use of that power was too clearly NOT in the general welfare to pass Constitutional muster (e.g., Congress taxed and spent in a manner which was unambiguously and incontrovertibly only on the welfare of the members of Congress), but none of the programs that are in controversy fall into that range. The Constitutional limitation on Congress’s power to tax and spend in the general welfare is the electoral system, by which we can fire those members of Congress whom we feel have abused that power, or have not executed it as faithful agents of our will and interests.
The government you are rebelling against is democratic, because the people making the decisions with which you disagree were elected according to our electoral process, administered with a relatively high degree of legitimacy and precaution against fraud and abuse. You oppose the will of the majority, appropriately constrained by Constitutional protections of minorities, and wrap that anti-Constitutional, anti-democratic inclination to impose your own factional will on all others, in defiance of both our Constitution and our electoral process, in a faux-nobility and patriotism, though it is, in fact, exactly the opposite.
The government you are rebelling against is the one that has been honed by the lathe of history, in part through a Civil War and Civil Rights Movement which institutionalized the recognition of the fact that minorities and individuals don’t just need to be protected against the tyranny of the federal government, but also against the tyranny of state and local governments, and, in some instances, the tyranny of private corporations or individuals (e.g., against racist employment discrimination).
And, ironically, the consequences of your efforts, to the extent that they are successful (whether through legal or extralegal means), is the increase of real tyranny, not only by rolling back such protections, not only by reducing our national commitment to equality of opportunity, but also by transferring de facto political power from those public institutions which are (imperfectly) Constitutionally and democratically constrained, to those powerful private institutions that are not.
This is a subtle and complex world we live in, in which the lathe of history works on the raw material produced by our Constitution and by our basic values as a nation. The development of our political economy, of our administrative state, of our need to rein in not just governmental power but also private corporate power which in many instances has grown to the size of medium-sized nations, are not developments to be tossed away because a group of blind ideological fanatics believe that there is some single platitude which overrules all other knowledge and historical experience. You counsel for a kind of imposed mass stupidity, a quasi-religious fanaticism which rejects all knowledge in deference to generally misinterpreted sacred documents and ancient prophets. You may succeed; there’s enough lunacy in this country for that to be a real possibility. But to the extent that you do, it will be an immeasurable tragedy for those hundreds of millions who must suffer the consequences.
I’ve written before about the potential of “new media” to accelerate our cultural evolutionary processes (processes described in the essays linked to in the first box at Catalogue of Selected Posts), emphasizing the positive potential (see A Major Historical Threshold or A Tragically Missed Opportunity?). But there are also dynamics in place which co-opt this meme-accelerator in service to our basest inclinations, systematically favoring the least well-informed and most poorly reasoned memes and paradigms over the best-informed and most well reasoned memes and paradigms.
This consciousness-contracting force is comprised of the following interacting factors, the first of which is laudable in and of itself, but combines with the other two in dysfunctional ways: 1) A shared popular commitment to respecting the right of each to express any position in public discourse without privileging some over others; 2) A wide-spread individual aversion to being embarrassed by having one’s own factual or logical error debunked in public discourse; 3) The pandering of many comment board and blog moderators to those who are so embarrassed, favoring empty sniping (which is accepted as the norm on such forums) over carefully constructed argument (which is considered too discomfiting a challenge to those who want a “safe” place to broadcast their often arbitrary, ideologically-derivative opinions).
I’ve encountered this dynamic repeatedly, targeted both by participants and, in service to popular inclinations, moderators as well, for introducing analytical thought into such forums. Most recently, the Denver Post has taken this dynamic to new depths, deleting three highly factual and analytical comments on my part, at the behest of someone who was offended by the factual and analytical content itself.
The first comment was a list of points contesting a comment by the complaining individual (whose own comment was nothing but a string of ad hominems), citing economic studies, a demographic argument made by The Economist magazine, and historical facts. Other than starting with the word “hogwash,” and ending with the phrase “other than that, you really nailed it,” it was nothing but fact and argument. The second comment was a point-by-point debunking of his response, devoid of any ad hominem. The third was nothing more than a straight-forward and very dry correction of the assertion that the 15% tax rate paid by many of the wealthiest Americans is due to their charitable giving, noting that the 15% rate was the capital gains tax rate that many of them enjoyed, and not an artifact of deductions for charitable giving. Amazingly, the Denver Post on-line moderator deleted all three, at one point messaging me that he saw nothing wrong with my comments, but was deleting them anyway!
I contacted the Denver Post about this, and received assurances that they would discuss it and get back to me. They never did.
This is just the most egregious example of a larger, and more troubling dynamic: The privileging of angry ideological memes over factually informed and well-reasoned memes. Anyone who reads comment boards such as the Denver Post can’t help but notice the dominance of angry ideological voices. What many may not realize is that the moderators themselves actually contribute to ensuring that such voices dominate their comment boards, not because they necessarily agree with or prefer the tone of those voices, but rather because of a mistaken application of a democratic instinct: Protecting voices from factual and logical challenges to them.
In one sense, the larger endeavor we are in, the struggle over humanity’s future, is a contest between the forces of mindlessness and mindfulness, of belligerence and compassion, of bigotry and enlightenment. We must never forget, each and every one of us, that that struggle occurs within as well as without, within our own individual psyches, within our own groups and movements, within our own rationalizations and ideologies. But the two are a challenge that we face without distinction, for we share a mind, and when the forces of mindlessness prevail in our interactions, they also prevail in our own internal cognitive landscapes. The Denver Post, for instance, succeeded not only in silencing reason applied to fact in deference to irrationality applied to fictions, but also in reinforcing the belief that it was right to do so in the mind of one who least could afford to have that belief reinforced.
It is incumbent on each of us to confront these countervailing currents, sweeping through the same media of collective consciousness as I am using now; to level their waves of mindlessness with the interference of equal and opposite waves of mindfulness. As many know, my outline of a sustained strategy for doing so can be found in the essays linked to in the second box at Catalogue of Selected Posts. But this suggested paradigm, like the paradigms it is designed to affect, should be one which benefits from the genius of the many, from the refinements offered by time and numbers. It is now just a nascent thought, waiting to be developed. The only critical thread that must weave itself through all of our efforts is a commitment to continuing to strive to be reasonable and imaginative people of goodwill, working together with humility and compassion to confront the challenges and opportunities of a complex and subtle world. The more successfully we spread that meme, the better off we will be.
It is an America where history is rewritten to honor dictators, murderers and thieves. It is an America where violence, racism, hatred, class warfare and murder are all promoted as acceptable means of overturning the American civil society.
It is an America where humans have been degraded to the level of animals: defecating in public, having sex in public, devoid of basic hygiene. It is an America where the basic tenets of a civil society, including faith, family, a free press and individual rights, have been rejected. It is an America where our founding documents have been shredded and, with them, every person’s guaranteed liberties.
It is an America where, ultimately, great suffering will come to the American people, but the rulers like Obama, Michelle Obama, Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi, Barney Frank, Chris Dodd, Joe Biden, Jesse Jackson, Louis Farrakhan, liberal college professors, union bosses and other loyal liberal/Communist Party members will live in opulent splendor.
It is the America that Obama and the Democratic Party have created with the willing assistance of the American media, Hollywood , unions, universities, the Communist Party of America, the Black Panthers and numerous anti-American foreign entities.
Barack Obama has brought more destruction upon this country in four years than any other event in the history of our nation, but it is just the beginning of what he and his comrades are capable of.
The Occupy Wall Street movement is just another step in their plan for the annihilation of America .
“Socialism, in general, has a record of failure so blatant that only an intellectual could ignore or evade it.”
–Thomas Sowell (born June 30, 1930) is an American economist, social theorist, political philosopher, and author. A National Humanities Medal winner, he advocates laissez-faire economics and writes from a libertarian perspective. He is currently a Rose and Milton Friedman Senior Fellow on Public Policy at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.Steve Harvey: 1) “Living off the labors of others” exists in some form or another in all paradigms, including a radical libertarian one, in which investors still live off the labor of workers. The main difference is whether you are concerned that there is some semblance of equality of opportunity and a diminution of the effects of inequalities due to chances of birth. Certainly, the issue of avoiding perverse incentives, in which effort isn’t rewarded while non-effort is, is a vital consideration. But reducing that to some simple platitude which both ignores reality and rationalizes various forms of predation and exploitation is not the right way to address it.
2) Those who crow the loudest about their commitment to the Constitution are, ironically, those who are working the hardest to undermine it, by arbitrarily insisting that it supports only their own ideology in every instance, whether it does or doesn’t. In a previous discussion, when I pointed out the clauses that do not support your interpretation (e.g., the necessary and proper clause, the general welfare clause, the commerce clause, etc.), you insisted that your interpretation had to prevail, because otherwise the Constitution could be read to mean something other than what you want it to. That may be convenient for you, but it’s death to Constitutional Democracy. When the meaning of the Constitution becomes subject to ideological plebiscite, there is no constitution, but only ideological plebiscite.
3) The science supporting global warming, for example, is truly overwhelming. But you’re right that all questions should be subject to the discipline of scientific methodology, rather than the whims of those who wish to impose their own arbitrary truths on society at large, justifying actual tyranny with the ruse of claiming it to be the response to a fictional tyranny. It’s as old as the Inquisition, and smells exactly the same.Steve Harvey: Buddy, I have my own issues with the “Occupy” movement, and especially with the argument that enforcement of laws is unconstitutional whenever someone claims that they are breaking it as an act of free speech, but are you suggesting that demonstrating is itself un-American? So, when Sam Adams led the Sons of Liberty on such lawless acts as The Boston Tea Party, he was emblematic of the America of Obama that you would rise above? No demonstrations, no lawlessness, but rather an America ruled by non-Ignorant people like yourself, people who have transcended ignorance by arbitrarily declaring themselves omniscient, whatever they believe or assert or advocate to be by definition the inviolable truth, and therefore all who disagree with them the weak and parasitic who must be extermina…, uh, let’s just say “reviled”?
You’re going to tell me that all “intellectuals” are incompetent and ignorant, while wise blind fanatics such as yourself have simply gotten it right? And how do we know that you got it right? Because you insist that it is so! No damned peer-review articles for you! Oh no! That’s the clever ruse of those idiot intellectuals, who think that you have to try to discipline knowledge by applying reason to evidence. The hell with that crap! Everyone knows what the one absolute truth is: Whatever Buddy Shipley says it is!
This is the fundamental, obvious flaw in all that you are saying: While those of us who realize that absolute truth is harder to determine than simply claiming that whatever the speaker believes it to be must be it, there are others who simply never take that step, and insist that the only truth that matters is the one they are already certain of. Might global warming be wrong? Absolutely. But not because people shout loudly enough that it is, but rather because careful application of scientific methodology bears the weight of evidence against it. And that is simply not the case at this moment in time. (All of the narrative used to claim that is just normal, human-cluttered science in action; always imperfect, and always better than arbitrary claims to knowledge forged without recourse to any, even imperfect, methodology at all).
I know that I don’t know, despite my decades of studying as diligently and broadly and intensively as I can. I’ve studied economics, but am less certain than you of the absolute economic truth, because I recognize complexity, I recognize uncertainty, I recognize the limitations of human comprehension. And without that, those who fail to take that step, are just a bunch of Jihadists trying to impose their own fanatical false certainty on a world that does not necessarily reduce to the caricature of their imaginations.
What we really need, what would really serve us as a nation and humanity as a whole, is to recognize our imperfections, to commit ourselves to some degree of humility and to reason and to goodwill, and to work together in that spirit to do the best we can. That’s the one absolute truth you can hang your hat on.WS: It is very interesting that the people who say the most, actually say the least. Factual correction – the USA is a Republic, not a constitutional democracy. Steve Harvey: I’m well aware of that semantic obsession, but the particular rigid label you’re relying on is relevant in the context only of one particular taxonomy, and not in the context of using words according to their generally applicable meanings. It is, in fact, perfectly correct to refer to the United States as a constitutional democracy, since it operates according to a combination of democratic and constitutional principles. It is also perfectly correct to refer to it as a republic, because it is by definition a republic within a taxonomy of political forms established in classical times. Either terminology is acceptable, and both are in widespread usage, including among political scientists and others who spend their lives studying precisely these issues.
(In a broad sense, “Democracy” and “Res Publica” are merely the Greek and Latin terms, respectively, for essentially the same thing: Government by the people. The classical meaning of “republic” is that of mixed government, incorporating elements of monarchy, oligarchy, and democracy, and that is the reason why America is “technically” a republic rather than a democracy. Ironically, the fact that it is technically a republic rather than a democracy disfavors rather than favors the ideology of those who insist on rigid adherence to this terminology: America was designed to balance democratic processes with a strong executive and a deliberative legislature rather than to reduce to government by plebiscite. The major distinction between a republic and a democracy is that a republic has a stronger central government.)
Secondly, it’s remarkable how frequently people who are unable to make a compelling substantive argument zero-in on form instead (such as harping on a shallow semantic obsession, or referring to the length or writing style of the argument they would like to debunk but can only flail against).
Third, the notion that more quantity automatically corresponds to less quality or substance is convincing to those who will grab hold of anything they can, but is absurd on the face of it. The Encyclopedia Britannica is rather lengthy, but says much, as would a library of all scientific literature, or any other comprehensive examination of any aspect of our existence or our surroundings. What I write may or may not be substantive; it may or may not be compelling; it may or may not be well-argued; but mere declarations in service to a desperate ideological preference, shored up by nothing other than an irrelevant observation about length or style, does nothing to inform anyone of whether it is or isn’t.Steve Harvey: Now, I’d like to address the frequently invoked specter of anti-intellectualism that is so essential to your ideology. Intellectualism can indeed go astray: Marxism, for instance, was an intellectual doctrine that was disastrously wrong, both pragmatically and theoretically. The banner of intellectualism guarantees nothing. And all human endeavors, whether intellectual or not, are still human endeavors, contaminated by the messiness of all things that are pursued by mere talking animals.
But some disciplines, some procedures, some frameworks that humans create channel that messy on-going enterprise better than others. Scientific methodology, for instance, has proven itself to be much more robust in the reduction of error, and the production of insight, than any alternative approach to discerning the nature of our empirically observable context. Even though this is so, no scientific enterprise, no great discovery, no evolution of thought, was ever devoid of the human messiness that is inherent to all human enterprises. The effort to debunk science by pointing out instances of that human messiness is really just an effort to obscure the more reliable source of information in favor of less reliable sources of information.
Though some brutal and oppressive doctrines and movements have intellectual roots or supports (often, though not always, through misinterpretation of the theories they claim as their legitimation), it is also true that virtually all liberating and life-affirming doctrines and movements do as well. Furthermore, many oppressive doctrines and movements do not, relying instead on blind dogmas and fanaticisms without even a veneer of rational justification.
All oppressive or inhumane doctrines and movements eventually rely on anti-intellectualism to survive, because there is no bulwark against them as effective as the active engagement of the human mind, in service to humanity, and so no enemy against which they must more vigorously rally. (In fact, the presence of anti-intellectualism in a doctrine or movement is a fairly certain indicator that it is an oppressive or inhumane doctrine, for if it were not, it would not have to fortify itself against the glare of rational scrutiny.) No blind dogma, no rote deference to the often perverted and always interpreted doctrines of the past, no rigid enslavement of the human mind to any set of seemingly error-proof platitudes on which to rely, can or should free us of the responsibility to exercise our freedom as conscious and compassionate beings, applying the wisdom of the past to the challenges of the present and future.
We should all strive to be as rational, as imaginative, and as disciplined as we can be, and always apply that vital resource of human consciousness to the benefit of humanity to the best of our ability. We all implicitly agree with that. For instance, Buddy likes to post long strings of quotes by more or less revered thinkers of the past, as proof that his position is venerable and well-conceived. He is invoking intellectual authorities in service to his argument (such as it is). The problem is that you have to do it with a certain amount of integrity, based on testing tentative hypothesis in a context of skepticism and uncertainty, rather than doing it as an exercise in confirmation bias, cherry picking quotes to shore-up a presumed ideological certainty.
There is nothing undemocratic about using our brains. It does not undermine democracy to try to apply more rather than less living human genius to the challenges that face us as a nation and as humanity. We will do so more or less efficaciously, with better or worse results, bungling it sometimes, and achieving marvelous successes in others. But there is no better way to go, no preferable approach to confronting the challenges of self-governance and human existence.
Part of that methodology involves listening to and reading the diligent research and analysis of others, since no one of us has the time to contemplate and study and research all things all on our own. I can’t make a particle accelerator, or use one, or even interpret the data collected by using one, but I can benefit from the efforts of those who do. That is how human consciousness grows and is used to greatest effect.
We are in a shared enterprise, a complex and subtle and very significant one. We should treat it with the respect it deserves, and treat humanity with the compassion and commitment that we all deserve.
In the comments to Tina Griego’s recent favorable column on the “Occupy Denver” movement (http://www.denverpost.com/ci_19375895?source=bb), I noticed a cartoon showing how much more respectable the Tea Party participants are than the Occupy participants, various comments about how “sad” and otherwise disreputable the latter are, complaints about the “liberal media” and its fellow travelers dismissing the Tea Party as a radical fringe movement, and at least one completely gratuitous xenophobic rant blaming all of the woes of the “Occupy” participants on illegal immigrants (and illegal immigration on Tina Griego). Mere non-condemnational attention to those protesting Wall Street is enough to unleash a torrent of those simultaneously reviling them and rallying to their never-mentioned ideological counterpart. It’s clear that not only is our government caught in the gridlock of two opposing political ideologies (at least one of which is too uncompromising for any cooperative action to be achieved), but our nation and population are also caught in a tug-o-war between two diametrically opposed (but in many ways overlapping) movements.
Several commenters engaged in the remarkable contortion of simultaneously dismissing the participants of the “Occupy” movement as subhuman parasites, while bitterly complaining that liberals have dismissed the participants of the Tea Party movement in a similar fashion. This in itself almost completely captures the underlying essence of the ideology these folks are embracing (so lost in an in-group/out-group world view that identical actions are defensible when they commit them but reprehensible when their “enemy” does). But they do have a point: While their movement is almost completely saturated in this attitude, their opposition exhibits far too much of it as well. It is one thing to make unflattering but accurate observations; it is another to foam at the mouth while doing so.
So let’s transcend the debate about which movement is more irrational and belligerent, and contemplate the movements themselves. I have criticisms of both the Tea Party and the “occupy” movement, and see some legitimate points being made by each. For example, I think the “Occupy” movement errs by trying to claim that any otherwise illegal act is protected by the Constitutional right to free speech, and the Tea Party movement is correct that the exercise of power by government is problematic and difficult to control. But, taken on balance, I do indeed consider the “occupy” movement to be more on target than the Tea Party, not based on comparisons of how the respective members of the two groups dress or clean up after themselves or who is better employed or any other misdirectional irrelevancies, but rather because the content of the concerns of one is closer, in my assessment, to what is most economically and politically rational to be concerned about. In other words, my relative support of the two movements is based on their substance, not their form.
The basic divide is between those who see government as the primary threat to liberty, and those who see large corporations as the primary threat to liberty. An argument can be made for both, and both spheres of power are certainly problematic. Both are comprised of entities which exert formidable control over our lives, profoundly affecting us all in service to the welfare of some more than of others. Both also serve valuable purposes, either producing wealth or acting as a collective agent negotiating the challenges we face as a polity, respectively. Both are necessary, and both need to be subject to checks and balances such that we do our best to maximize their benefits to our welfare and minimize their costs to our welfare, all things considered.
But the emphasis on reducing the power of government is a strategy which reduces the one nexus of power which is at least somewhat controlled by a democratic process, in favor of the other major nexus of power which is not at all controlled by a democratic process. The result is to cede power to the more despotic and less democratic vehicle through which power is exercised, leading to more rather than less tyranny.
In the modern era, democratic, constitutional government is less the vehicle of tyranny than the bulwark against tyranny. It is still problematic; those who exercise power within it are still hard to rein in and control; the “agency problem” of ensuring that our agent (our government) acts in the interests of the principal (the people) rather than of the agent and its allies (the government officials themselves, and those who do the most to keep them in power) is an ever-present and very real challenge we must face. But, in the case of government, well established, long-standing, and relatively (if imperfectly) effective mechanisms exist for confronting that agency problem. In the case of corporations, only very weak and difficult to implement mechanisms (such as boycotts) exist to do so.
Government is the portal through which we, as a polity, have the opportunity to stand up to, tame, and channel the loci of power that inevitably exist, and that can serve broader or narrower interests depending on how well we continue to refine our social institutional arrangements. To relinquish that one opportunity in fear that we can’t control it after all is to relinquish our liberty completely, and surrender to power over which we have no effective control at all instead.
(The following is a slightly extended version of my response to an op-ed by Vince Carroll, Putting Fat Cats In Their Place, in today’s (10/30/11) Denver Post: http://www.denverpost.com/opinion/ci_19211159?source=bb.)
Vince Carroll is absolutely correct that we must consider not only the distribution of wealth, but also the absolute growth of wealth, when discussing issues of our economic well-being as a nation and a people. Certainly, if everyone is getting wealthier, then why should we worry if that is accomplished by means of a system in which the wealthiest get astronomically wealthier while the further down you go along the spectrum of income and wealth, the less robust the growth of wealth becomes (less robust even as a proportion of existing income and wealth, meaning a lower percentage of a lower base number)?
There are several reasons why:
1) The growth in household incomes that Carroll cites is due to an increase in two-worker families, and a decrease in stay-at-home moms. In reality, there has been a decrease in real individual average income in that same time period, an anomaly in the modern era of ever-expanding wealth which corresponds precisely with the rise of income-concentrating deregulation.
2) We have an economic system demonstrably less efficient than some others in existence (e.g., Germany, the Netherlands, etc.) at striking an optimal balance between absolute growth and distribution of the fruits of that growth, resulting in far greater levels of impoverishment, infant mortality, homelessness, violent crime, incarceration, mental health problems, and numerous related problems, than have been achieved by other nations that have struck a more sensible balance.
3) Extreme income inequality reduces economic vitality by constricting the breadth and depth of economic activity. The more concentrated wealth is, the less disposable income, in the hands of fewer people, is available to contribute to the consumer engine of our economic vitality.
4) Carroll disregards the role of deregulation (from the 1980s onward) in generating this economically debilitating concentration of wealth, how that deregulation has been implicated in every major economic crisis since its inception, how it has now undermined the consumer engine of our economy in dramatic and enduring ways, and how, as a result, our economy is in a period of stagnation following contraction, with a no-longer-growing pie still obscenely concentrated in far too few hands.
5) Carroll disregards the various costs not measured by traditional economic indicators, referred to in the economic literature as “externalities” (those costs and benefits of economic transactions that affect those who were not parties to the transaction, in either positive or negative ways), which, while helping to author the huge concentration of wealth in America over the past 30 years, also have helped to do so on the back of the population at large by reducing public health, safety, and welfare, and placing increasing burdens of accumulating and devastating negative externalities on future generations across the globe.
6) Extreme income inequality has many other socially destructive consequences, even aside from the ones listed above. It undermines national solidarity and cultivates inter-class resentments, creates subjective feelings of relative poverty, and undermines democracy by concentrating both the means of affecting public opinion (and thus determining the outcomes of elections) and the power to determine the economic well-being of the vast majority of the people of the nation into the hands of a small, corporation-beholden-and-embedded economic elite.
One must look not only at this “snapshot of reality,” but also at the trends revealed over time, and the consequences of such trends. Even if all of the present reasons for considering how equitably distributed wealth is did not exist, a trajectory of accelerating concentration of wealth is clearly untenable in the long run.
Today, 1% of the nation’s wealthiest command 40% of the nation’s wealth, while the bottom 80% command less than 15% of the nation’s wealth. In 2007 (see http://sociology.ucsc.edu/whorulesamerica/power/wealth.html for an overview of 2007 income distribution figures), the top 1% commanded slightly less than 35% of the nation’s wealth (already considered an indicator of astronomical inequity). The current growth trend in capital concentration has been underway since 1980, coinciding precisely with the Reagan-coined “government is the enemy” paradigm of the right; in 1979, the top 1% commanded just over 20% of the nation’s wealth, having fluctuated since WWII between 20% and, in a rare outlier in 1965, 34%.
The last time the concentration in wealth in the hands of the wealthiest 1% of the population exceeded 40% was in 1929, on the eve of The Great Depression, when policies similar to those advocated by the Libertarian Right today had been successfully championed under the Hoover Administration.
If the challenge is to “get it right,” all things considered, then our grotesque and accelerating concentration of wealth in America, accompanied by the highest-among-developed-nations rates of poverty, hunger, homelessness, violence, incarceration, and other social ills, is indeed an indicator of having failed to do so.
Yes, we do not want to seek “equality” in a vacuum, engaging in the folly of imposing an equality of impoverishment. But we as a nation are not teetering on the edge of that particular folly; rather, we are over the edge of the opposite folly, which we insanely avoid addressing by pretending that it doesn’t exist.
“The genius of the many is a captive giant, whose freedom is the ends and the means of all other things.” This is a line from my novel (A Conspiracy of Wizards; see An epic mythology), uttered by the wizard Evenstar to his disciple Algono, both expressing one of the underlying dynamics of nature about which the novel is ultimately about, and foreshadowing a metaphorical representation of it: A fiery giantess trapped in a mountain (a volcano myth; see The Hollow Mountain), representing the pent-up power of Mother Nature herself.
Nature (more specifically, the terrestrial biosphere) is a product of the genius of the many, of time and numbers, of a “selfish gene” (to use biologist Richard Dawkins’ term) replicating, mutating, and competing (or struggling) for reproductive success, in a process of non-linear diversification and proliferation (i.e., there are ebbs and flows to both). This diffusion of thriving, of experimentation, of massive quantities of failed variations interspersed with occasional successes, winnowing down the spectrum of forms to those which can articulate themselves into the transcient biological and geological landscape of their time and place, is the progenitor of human existence. And, as might be expected, the progeny (humanity and human history) resembles but is not identical to its parent (the biosphere and “natural history”).
I have already described this resemblance in a series of essays (Adaptation & Social Systemic Fluidity, The Evolutionary Ecology of Social Institutions, The Fractal Geometry of Social Change, The Evolutionary Ecology of Human Technology, The Politics of Consciousness , Information and Energy: Past, Present, and Future, The Evolutionary Ecology of Audio-Visual Entertainment (& the nested & overlapping subsystems of Gaia), The Nature-Mind-Machine Matrix). This is not another reiteration of that theme. Here, I am focusing on a single aspect, an underlying dynamic: The relationship between the Many and the One (see E Pluribus Unum and Collective Action (and Time Horizon) Problems for related discussions). More specifically, this post is about the aggregation of the many into a more or less robust unity, focusing especially on the robustness of information processing.
Arguably, the robustness of information processing is precisely what defines the genius of the many, as exemplified in the progressions of biological evolution and human history (parallel phenomena on different time scales, with a different breadth and depth of forms). Genes are packets of information, and evolution is how they are naturally processed (accidental mutations fit themselves, successfully or unsuccessfully, into their environments, modifying the environment in which both previous and subsequent accidental mutations must fit themselves, in an evolving matrix of informationally defined forms). And the same is true for human technologies and social institutional forms, including the various ways in which organized divisions of specialized labor are accomplished: It is all information-based (see Information and Energy: Past, Present, and Future, for a discussion of these interrelated generators of human historical progress).
The informational foundation of our existence is not just what we normally identify, such as the product of universities and research institutions, or the communication of information through our various media, but also the full range of human activities: all of the norms, values, techniques, rituals, arts, recreations, jokes, gestures, expressions…, in short, all that constitutes human life.
In human affairs, there are two fundamental facets to the genius of the many: One that is the product of averaging, and one that is the product of aggregating. The first aspect is best illustrated by the fact that if you have a thousand people guess the number of jelly beans in a jar, the average of their guesses will be far closer than any individual guess, and, in fact, will be remarkably close to the actual number. The second aspect is best illustrated by the robustness of a division of labor in a market economy, in which the organic articulation of separate expertises and activities produces greater aggregate wealth. This essay is primarily about the second facet, but it is important to remain aware of the first as well, that the “averaging” of our diverse opinions and assessments also contributes to our collective genius, and that, in many circumstances, seeking more moderate positions is recommended by such awareness. But it is through the aggregation rather than the averaging of our individual consciousnesses in which the most robust expressions of the genius of the many can be found.
Embedded in our technologies and social institutions is something analogous to the human genome, but encoded in cognitions rather than in genes, and more fluid (or faster flowing, and acceleratingly so as a result of its own feedback loop) due to the speed and intentionality of cognitive communication, mutation, adaptation, and competition for (cognitive) reproductive success. Our intentionality is a part of this process: To the extent that we, individually and collectively, prefer some outcomes over others, our will, and how we exercise it, affects this evolutionary process for better or worse. The two predominant variables affecting the quality of the effect our will has on this process are the degrees of reason and goodwill employed in our efforts: A deficit in either leads to less desirable aggregate outcomes, while an abundance of both leads to more desirable aggregate outcomes, in proportion to the extent of the deficit or abundance (see The Politics of Reason & Goodwill, simplified, for a discussion of how we can and should organize in service to these two values).
In a sense, embedding reason and goodwill into our social institutional landscape, and cultivating them as the predominant (metaphorical) flora and fauna of that landscape, is the recursive function of the genius of the many in service to human welfare (by which I mean not just the relative absence of devastating hardships, but also the increasing presence of conditions which give full expression to the human spirit and the joyful celebration of life). As the quote from my novel says, freeing the genius of the many is both the means and the ends of this goal, because it both produces and defines human welfare. Thus, we value individual liberty both as an end in itself (enabling each of us to more fully pursue and celebrate our own lives), and as a means to the end of aggregating into a more creative and productive society.
A slight digression is required here, to distinguish liberating the genius of the many, on the one hand, from liberating individuals from oppression on the other. The two are related, but not identical. The former depends both on the liberation of individual creativity and initiative, and the aggregation of that individual creativity and initiative into a collectively productive force. The latter is a more unbalanced concept, focusing only on the individual and not on the articulation of individual efforts into a collective and mutually enriching enterprise. The latter is the blind ideological expression of a historical recalibration, in which the tendency of societies to be overcentralized and oppressive was confronted and eroded, and the ideology favoring individual liberty rose in prominence in those societies which most successfully confronted this previous historical imbalance.
Unfortunately, in contemporary America, the pendulum has swung too far, creating an ideological obliviousness to our interdependence and mutual responsibilities to one another. We need now a new conceptual framework, which recognizes both the value of individual liberty, and the value of organizing into a collective enterprise for mutual benefit and in service to humane values and ideals. The genius of the many is not liberated by disintegration into mutually indifferent individuals, but rather by recognizing the complex and subtle relationship between the individual and society (see, e.g., Liberty & Interdependence, Liberty & Society, Liberty Idolatry, and The Inherent Contradiction of Extreme Individualism). Indeed, true liberty is something subtler and richer than mere freedom from government; it is a function of our mutually liberating collective enterprise, which endows us with the conceptual and material means to live fuller, more expressive, and more gratifying lives, with a wider spectrum of possibilities available to us.
It is true that the genius of the many does not always serve this end, that its product can be temporarily diverted toward its own containment. It is sometimes tapped in service to goals that do not seem to serve human welfare at all, such as building great monuments to ancient rulers (e.g., the pyramids), or enriching the few on the backs of the many. In the former instance, such ostentatious displays are both the oppressive aggrandizement of the rulers who commission them, and are a symbolic consolidation of our collective genius, an expression of the degree to which a society has managed to organize itself sufficiently to mobilize enormous resources in service to the mere advertisement of that ability. It is analogous to the Irish Elk, which, according to a still debated theory, went extinct due to having evolved ostentatious antlers in males, as a way of advertising to females their ability to squander their surplus nutritional intake (and thus their prowess in being able to obtain and consume that surplus) on a mere symbol of such prowess (the antlers having reduced their competitiveness vis-a-vis other species, eventually leading to their extinction).
But this diversion of the product of the genius of the many, in human societies, is generally in service to the few, or in service to blind militancy. It gradually leads to the collapse of the society that indulges in it under its own weight (much as the Irish Elk did under the weight of their antlers), rather than the invigoration of that society by virtue of the continuing liberation and mobilization of the genius of the many. A good modern example is the Soviet Union, which mobilized enormous resources in service to a militant totalitarianism, but in an unsustainable way.
In other words, diverting the product of the genius of the many away from human welfare, and away from liberating individual initiative and creativity, expresses and consolidates a current degree of liberation of that genius, but often curtails further liberation of it, and even contracts the existing degree of liberation. One theory of the rise of modern democracy in England illustrates this most clearly: According to the theory, the constant internecine wars of Medieval Europe create a constant pressure on monarchs to mobilize sufficient resources to fund those wars. The pressure was greater than it was in other parts of the comparably developed world, because European states had resisted (since the fall of the Western Roman Empire) consolidation into a strongly centralized large empire, leaving kings to vie with other kings close enough to pose an immediate and constant threat to the throne itself. The English solution to this problem was the gradual granting of increasing rights, first to nobles, and then expanding outward, in order to liberate the individual initiative and effort sufficient to produce enough taxable resources to fund these wars. In other words, to compete through utilization of rather than display the genius of the many requires liberating more of it rather than merely channeling it into the production of monumental works.
While historically, (implicit and explicit) competition with other (internal and external) polities was the generating force of the progressive liberation of the genius of the many, we have within our power the ability to replace that motivating force with one more directly committed to the maximization of human welfare. We can compete, in other words, not against each other, but against suffering and in service to our collective well-being.
So the question is: How do we organize ourselves to best liberate and mobilize this genius of the many in service to human welfare, broadly understood? Again, the two essential ingredients to such organization are reason and goodwill. We must increasingly focus our efforts on serving humanity rather than merely serving either ourselves individually (or locally) or serving some blind ideology which evolved in haphazard response to the end goal we can now explicitly define and pursue. And we must do so by subjecting all policy choices to the crucible of systematic and procedurally disciplined “reason.”
Government is our agency for such collective decision-making. We have two basic challenges facing us vis-a-vis government: 1) Ensuring that it serves our collective welfare rather than the welfare of smaller, privileged sub-groups; and 2) ensuring that we enable it to do so most effectively. These are somewhat in tension with one another, because democracy, which evolved in service to the former demand, can limit or obstruct the mobilization of specialized knowledge and expertise through a division of labor that best serves the latter demand. The challenge for us, and the vehicle for most effectively liberating and channeling the genius of the many, is how to most efficiently and effectively articulate these two mechanisms into a single coherent system.
Our national ideology has enshrined both of these values (democracy and division of labor through a market economy), but has conceptually divorced them from one another, obstructing their articulation. In the popular American view, the economy may benefit from specialization and a division of labor, but government benefits from direct popular control of decision-making. We may want to hire our surgeons on the basis of their training and expertise, but we don’t want to entrust such responsibilities to our governmental representatives. The problem is that governance is, like surgery, an information-intensive task, requiring the mobilization of precise knowledge and analysis in service to well-designed public policies. And the challenge we face in governing ourselves accordingly is not dissimilar to the challenge face in other principal-agent relationships: We have an agent to whom we must delegate some specialized functions, but in such a way that we ensure that that agent is acting in our interests rather than its own (at our expense).
The most efficient way to accomplish this is to align the interests of the agent with those of the principal, so that when the agent pursues its own interests most robustly, it incidentally is also serving its principal’s interests most faithfully. This is what social institutions generally attempt to accomplish, through market mechanisms, hierarchically imposed rewards and punishments, diffuse social approval and disapproval, and internalized values invoking one’s own “conscience.”
On the other side of the relationship, the complacency or disengagement of the principal permits the agent to run amok. In order to improve our articulation of the interests of the principal with the expertise of the agent, we need a principal, a polity, that is as engaged as possible, actually tracking the outlines of the information that the agent will be mobilizing, just as the parent of a child about to undergo surgery might want to be as well informed and involved as possible, even while recognizing that they have to entrust their child’s life to the surgeon’s expertise.
In America today, we suffer the combination of a polity that blindly entrusts its own self-governance to a government it feels disassociated from, while simultaneously distrusting that same government and wanting to impose on it its own uninformed will. What we need instead is a polity that has access to and an interest in the details of what it means to govern ourselves intelligently, and works with our agents to utilize their expertise in service to our informed and engaged collective will.
To most effectively liberate the genius of the many, we need to organize ourselves from top to bottom, filling in the chasm between “people” and “government,” forming layers of engagement, and channels of information flows, so that our various potential contributions to intelligent self-governance flow “inward” to our agents, while the outlines of the relevant expertise to which we must frequently defer flow “outward” to the polity. (Again, my outline for how to go about doing that can be found at The Politics of Reason & Goodwill, simplified). By doing so, we can most effectively and organically institutionalize the incorporation of both reason and goodwill (or collective will) into our political decision-making processes, more fully liberating the genius of the many, and, by doing so, more fully liberating the human spirit.
Tea Party Fanatics Believe the Means Justify the Ends: Just a couple of days after a Tea Partier, in an on-line conversation with me, criticized Democratic Party get-out-the-vote efforts, not only on the paranoid basis that it is a secret attempt to access personal information, but also because many voters “[have] no idea what the issues are or the qualifications of the candidate,” the Denver Post reports on increasing voter intimidation tactics by Tea Party fanatics (http://www.denverpost.com/ci_16441222). Actual violence by a (male) Rand Paul volunteer against a (female) MoveOn.org volunteer just before a debate between Paul and his Democratic opponent, a fortunately thus far exceptional event in American politics, may be just an isolated incident, or it may be indicative of the general disdain for democracy increasingly in evidence among Tea Party fanatics. Just yesterday I wrote about The Tea Party’s Mistaken Historical Analogy, drawing parallels between the Tea Party’s anti-intellectualism and disdain for the poor with mid-twentieth century European Fascism. Continuing evidence of the parallels should raise people’s awareness of how corrosive and dangerous this movement really is.
9News removed the anti-Perlmutter ad that the Denver Post had called “a whopper,” 9News had called “false,” and 7News called “fiction,” the last adding, “Perlmutter did not vote for a bill to allow rapists access to Viagra.” (http://www.denverpost.com/news/ci_16442793, Saturday Night Briefs: Deceptive Political Ads & Dogmatic Intolerance). Another example of the Far Right’s extreme tactics. Negative ads are one thing, but even some unfortunately mainstream excesses, such as taking quotes out of context don’t rise to this level of outright deception. The Tea Party is upping the ante in electoral deception and distinctly unethical conduct. Shadowy right-wing groups attacking Democratic candidates with outright lies so egregious that television stations have to pull ads (in another break from the previous standard, the groups themselves refuse to when called on the deception), along with the observations noted above and yesterday, need to start registering on the collective consciousness.
Not only does it mark a new level of outright deception and voter intimidation, but The Tea Party is based on the notion that we are better governed by the arbitrary opinions of uninformed lay people than by any degree of professionalization of governance (New Tea Party Bumper Sticker: “If It Isn’t Dumb, It Isn’t Right”, John Andrews Recommends Protecting CU From Intellectuals). The horrors of the rise of fascist and communist totalitarianisms in Europe and Asia in the early and mid-20th century were preceded by just such populist rejections of moderation and professionalism in governance, embracing instead demagogues who promised to cure government of those defects.
We have enjoyed, longer than any other country, a modern democracy characterized by a high degree of professionalism and moderation in our governance. We need to preserve and reassert our collective commitment to maintaining both, especially as such a distinctly immoderate and anti-professional movement is so passionately on the rise.
I finally clicked on and opened this little treasure trove of wonders on The Economist website (http://www.economist.com/blogs/democracyinamerica/), and discovered (at the top of a string of interesting posts) a post which suggested, tongue-in-cheek, that foreign participation in American democracy (ala foreign money financing political speech) is only just and right, since American hegemony means that American decisions increasingly directly and indirectly affect the lives of foreign nationals.
As I’ve argued before (http://coloradoconfluence.com/?p=243&cpage=1#comment-12), there isn’t really such a vast difference between “empire” and “federalism” as we sometimes pretend. The Tea Partiers, as sometimes happens, are actually right to conflate the two, though wrong in the oversimplistic moral-political judgment they impose on that similarity: Such political consolidation generally yields both aggregate and broadly (if not equitably) distributed benefits that shouldn’t be disregarded. It also involves the institutionalization of uneven distributions of power and influence.
As many people around the world viscerally realize, American hegemony is not really that far removed from American empire, just as Roman hegemony during the late Republic was not all that different from the Roman Empire that followed. And the Southern states that rebelled in defense of slavery were far more accurate than the Northern zeitgeist acknowledges when they (the Confederates) claimed to be heirs to the revolutionaries, fighting against a centralized federal/imperial government telling them what to do.
Of course, the American Revolutionaries themselves weren’t all that anti-imperialistic a mere 13 years before the signing of the Declaration of Independence, when they were still proud and loyal British citizens. It was their disappointment in the wake of the French and Indian War over a set of British policies that was less favorable to them than they would have liked that quickly eroded their love of empire (the policies in question included the abandonment of the long-standing British policy of “salutary neglect,” sparing the colonies the taxes levied on everyone else in order to give them an opportunity to grow prosperous, which they did; the protection of the Indian tribes in the newly acquired Ohio Valley from colonial expansion; and tolerance of the French language and Catholic religion in the newly acquired Canadian territory).
Our attitudes (like those of our founding fathers) toward political consolidation and centralization are generally situational, less indignant when it is serving our interests, and more indignant when it isn’t. Two ideological cross-currents have entered that stream, one which views any exercise of power over those who are not constituents of that power (i.e., members of the electorate of those who exercise it) as unjust and unacceptable; and one which, bizarrely, sees any consolidation of democratic agency within the nation (over those who elect their representatives) as an affront to liberty, but at least a significant faction of which is not particularly concerned about exercises of power abroad (over those who have no democratic say in the matter), except to the extent that it inconveniences them. (To their credit, another faction of this latter group are true isolationists, but, as I hope I make clear below, though that may be more consistent, it isn’t at all functional).
Both of these ideological cross-currents to some extent confuse the issue, the first by positing that humanity is best served by the eradication of all injustice (something that, if successfully prosecuted, leads to universal destitution), and the second by thinking that humanity is best served by the eradication of all power (other than, for some, that which the nation projects abroad), something that, if successfully prosecuted, leads to social disintegration and a very dramatic contraction of wealth and well-being (whether at the national or global level).
While I am not unaware of the beneficial, if not necessary, role of hegemony in the world, simply because the preferable path of global confederation is too obstructed by a tangled and brutal mess of vested interests to keep pace with the overwhelming need for some degree of global governance, I certainly recognize the injustice of it, and even more so when hegemony is exercised particularly irresponsibly (as it was throughout the first eight years of the new millennium). I’ve written about that demand for global governance (Problems Without Borders ), and about the aristocratic arrogance with which that demand has been met, when it’s been met at all (Lords and Serfs on the Global Manor: Foreign Aid as Noblesse Oblige ). But social organization, perhaps in all forms, involves some distribution and exercise of power (even decentralized normative control does). That’s just a reality we have to deal with, and far preferable to the alternative (a Hobbesian “war of all against all”).
The issue isn’t that the power exists, but rather how it is distributed, how it’s checked and balanced, how it’s contextualized to best serve the interests of those under its umbrella and to protect the vulnerable from abuses. We should want to live in a world capable of organizing across national boundaries to face international challenges and take advantage of international opportunities. But we should also want it to be done, to whatever extent possible, in a way which does not, systemically and consistently, serve the interests of some at the expense of the interests of others. We should want it to be done democratically.
America no longer trusts the world enough to be in the vanguard of its democratization as a world. We have, for some time, exercised our hegemony with disdain for the voice and will of those over whom we are exercising it. This is neither just, nor, in the long run, functional. Maybe it’s time we returned to the dream of Wilson and FDR that we usher in a new age of international organization, and sought ways to give those over whom we reign some small voice in how they are ruled.
I am not, of course, suggesting that we extend rights of direct or equitable participation in American democracy to the world’s population, but rather that we continue what had been evolving for two centuries or more; the gradual forging of a weak but functioning overlay of global governance. From the Concert of Europe in the wake of the Napoleonic Wars, through the League of Nations, to the United Nations, the modern developed world (repeatedly abandoned by the United States in the effort) has haltingly and imperfectly tried to forge workable institutions comprising a weak overlay of participatory global governance, each incarnation a little stronger and more functional than the last.
The United Nations is hopelessly flawed, it is true, but so was The United States under the Articles of Confederation. Hopeless flaws invite hopeful reforms, not an abandonment of the challenge the flawed institutions arose to meet. We probably need a new incarnation of this necessary part of the global institutional landscape, one which has more direct subnational representation and less deference to often parasitic national governments that don’t necessarily represent their people’s interests, and more participation of transnational, extranational, and supranational organizations that are key players on the world stage. But America has to continue to aspire to be more than a mere hegemon pursuing its own interests in the global arena; we must aspire to be the “leaders of the free world” we have so long claimed to be, and, as leaders committed to democratic ideals, continue to seek and find ways to include those who are led in the decision-making processes which affect them.