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.
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 benefit of striving for the ideal of “the rule of law” is that doing so imperfectly seals out human caprice and the unrestrained exercises of power that such caprice enables. But it does so at a cost, for striving for the ideal of “the rule of law” also imperfectly seals out the ability of unrestrained minds to make nuanced, context-sensitive decisions on a case-by-case basis. The lathe of history, spun with an eye to maximizing the benefit while minimizing the cost (though also with the bias of power resisting its own marginalization), has carved out a balance between relative objectivity (“blind justice”) and nuanced human judgment by allowing decisions in the interstices of established law to continually create new and finer filaments reaching into the endless inner-space of novel fact patterns.
Combined with this is the political game of testing how much ambiguity can be read into words and phrases given from above in the procedural flow-chart of legislating, executing, and adjudicating the law, and to what extent that real or imagined ambiguity can be exploited to stretch and fold the law to desired ends.
While I am about to describe the dynamical, evolving legal structure generated by these forces in static, structural terms, it’s important to remember that it is really an on-going process, one consisting of the movement and manipulation of human cognitions (see The Evolutionary Ecology of Social Institutions and The Fractal Geometry of Social Change for a more comprehensive description of this more general phenomenon). The specific sphere of human cognition most centrally implicated in the generation and evolution of the legal structure is that which is encompassed by policy analysis and legal reasoning, the latter representing finer filaments of the former. As I wrote in a law school final exam essay:
Legal reasoning is artificially constrained policy analysis. If ethical and political discourse is a ship adrift at sea, then legal reasoning is a ship that has dropped an anchor too light to keep it from drifting, but heavy enough to drag on the seabed and restrict it’s meanderings. Even when the anchor momentarily snags on the kelp of a particular law or legal theory, the ship of legal reasoning still swings in broad arcs defined by the length of the anchor line and the currents of the sea. Of course, the anchor itself, its weight and the length of the line, and the kelp upon which it snags, are shifting functions of the drifting ship rather than exogenous parameters, byproducts of generations of ethical and political reasoning which themselves drift with the judicial-political zeitgeist. And not one but many ships are adrift at once, exploring many areas of law, proliferating and occasionally pruning the thickening forest of kelp while becoming entangled in the growing vines. Legal reasoning, therefore, is a subset of policy analysis, with tentacles branching like veins throughout the universe of ethical and political discourse, according to a fractal geometry generated by an algorithm of “distinctive . . . argumentative techniques” and limiting rules.
The U.S. Constitution and the English common law, together, provide the broad framework within which this cognitive process takes place. The English common law (the accumulated law created by court decisions over the centuries) was adopted and continued by the new United States, the Constitution being the first codification of our own will carved into it. Gradually, Congress and state legislatures continued this process of codification within the universe defined by common law, enacting statutes which superceded the common law, sometimes merely codifying it and sometimes overriding and replacing it. These two levels (state and federal legislation) articulated in their own way, with states building on federal law, and federal law sometimes nationalizing widespread state laws.
Eventually, the complexity of the economy and our demands on government generated the need for finer filaments of codified law, a finer elaboration within the framework of statutory law. Congress (and, to a lesser extent, state legislatures) increasingly delegated essentially legislative responsibilities to executive branch administrative agencies, which promulgated regulations designed to specify more precisely how to define the broad statutes passed by Congress.
As can be seen from the above discussion, the legal structure in America is recursive, with the broad, general outlines of common law and the Constitution filled in by more massive and specific statutes, which in turn are filled in by yet more massive and specific regulations, all carving out codified law from the space historically occupied by common law. But this recursiveness occurs not just in enacted and codified law, but also in the evolution of common law itself, with court decisions occasionally encountering novel fact patterns not perfectly anticipated by existing common law, and, like occasional mutation creating new species, coming to decisions in response to these anomalies which generate new inner-spaces of common law.
This does not exist independently of the courts’ role in interpreting Constitutional, statutory, and regulatory law. Not even the fine filaments of regulatory law can anticipate all contingencies. Courts are left to decide cases in which, occasionally, the specific facts fall within the inevitable remaining gaps in Constitutional, statutory, regulatory, and common law. (In regulatory law, this occurs first in administrative courts with quasi-judicial functions, and only sometimes then end up in Article III judicial courts). This is the mechanism by which the finest filaments of our legal structure are forged.
One can discern in all of this the complementary fractal geometry of government, which exists to create (legislative branch), implement (executive branch), and interpret (judicial branch) the law. Our founding legal and governmental blueprint (the Constitution) provides the simple formula that, when iterated and reiterated over time, generates the branches and twigs and tiny veins of both government and law. The three branches of government exist at the federal, state, and local levels (the executive and legislative often being combined at the local level, particularly in county commissioners).
Congress is mirrored at the state level by state assemblies and at the local level by city councils, county commissioners, school boards, and transportation (and other special district) boards. The federal executive branch, headed by the president and including the Cabinet and the major executive branch agencies under the control of these secretaries (e.g., departments of state, interior, defense, etc.), as well as the proliferation of regulatory agencies created by Congress, is mirrored at the state level by the Governor’s office and state level administrative agencies, and at the local level by city mayors, county commissioners, school superintendents, and special district board chairmen. Similarly, federal courts (comprised of appellate circuits which in turn are comprised of federal districts) are mirrored, recursively, by state courts (comprised of state districts), county courts, and municipal courts, with specialized courts tucked into this structure. Quasi-governmental entities such as HOAs fill in some of the remaining gaps.
Inevitably, some of this is excessive, redundant, and wasteful. The underlying algorithm generating, continuously, this complex fractal of law and government doesn’t have an “off” switch, and is over-productive in part because of political pressures both to try to cover all bases and to appease all interests. And some of it is oppressive, imposing an excess of controls on individual freedoms, particularly at the micro-quasi-governmental levels (e.g., HOAs).
But the wastefulness and oppressiveness of this throbbing, organic entity tend to be exaggerated, and its utility underappreciated. Some of the redundancy is functional, providing checks and balances, and allowing for efficiencies of less cumbersome and expensive recourses as a first response, in order to siphon off the simpler issues and filter out all but those that need to continue up the hierarchy into more elaborate and involved processes, leaving each issue addressed at the level most appropriate for it. And rules, in reality, can liberate as well as oppress, protecting rights and coordinating our coexstence without requiring us to spend all of our time and energy ordering our coexistence from scratch in an endless trap of institutional amnesia.
The massive size of bills drafted by Congress is as much a function of the complexity of the world in which it is legislating as of the political processes that cause accretions of “pork” to glob on to every piece of legislation. Some of that bulk is due to Congress’ healthy desire to cede as little power as possible to the executive branch, for once enacted legislation leaves Congress and enters the administrative infrastructure, Congress loses control of it. The more gaps Congress leaves to be filled in, the more those administrative agencies end up writing the law, and rewriting it in accord with successive presidents’ ideologies. In other words, even while our laws are a messy product of an imperfect world, they are amazingly adapted to the complex challenges of that complex world even so.
What’s left over after Congress, state legislatures, and local governments carve their enacted law into the space of haphazardly evolved common law is the inner-universe of the unforeseeable, to which the organs of legal production must constantly respond and adapt. This is the function, first, of the judicial branch, at all levels, addressing, on the margins, unique circumstances unanticipated by both existing common law, and existing federal (constitutional, statutory and regulatory), state (constitutional, statutory and regulatory), or local law.
When existing law cannot be interpreted in service to reason, the courts generally must submit to the unreasonable, while, in their written opinions, sending a message to legislators that there is a defect requiring their attention. Depending on the egregiousness of the defect and the political obstacles involved, the defect may or may not be remedied. This process can certainly be improved upon, lubricated and rationalized. While the lathe of time places a constant pressure in favor of doing so, the institutionalized resistance to that pressure can be quite obstinate.
All of this articulates with the processes described in Adaptation & Social Systemic Fluidity, The Evolutionary Ecology of Social Institutions, The Fractal Geometry of Social Change, The Evolutionary Ecology of Human Technology, and The Politics of Consciousness. The waxing and waning technologies, social institutions, and ideological beliefs reverberating through the social field create the environment within which the above described processes occur and to which they respond, and the above described processes, in turn, further modify that environment and, by doing so, affect the complementary processes of technological, ideological, and social institutional evolution. The ebbs and flows, expansions and contractions, of all aspects of the social institutional landscape, including technologies, ideologies, religions, norms, rituals, beliefs, and laws, are intertwined and mutually formative.
There are many portals of human intentionality into this system. In fact, it is comprised predominantly of human intentionality. Every act by every person either reproduces or slightly modifies some aspect of this dynamo. Human will and ingenuity insinuates itself in particularly salient ways in several fields, such as academe, writing (both fiction and non-fiction), and engineering. But, of all of these, there is something particularly important about politics, about how we exercise our will in the on-going refinement of the formal rules by which we intentionally provide a context for this all-encompassing human enterprise, a context which determines how robustly our imaginations are activated and their products realized. For it is through the political process that we consciously determine how well or poorly we manage to liberate The Genius of the Many, which is the most valuable of all human and natural resources.
Changes in the social institutional and technological landscape ripple through the system, demanding and facilitating adjustments and modifications throughout, which in turn demand and facilitate adjustments and modifications of their own. Choices we make affecting the framework within which this occurs help determine how robust this process is, what kinds of positive and negative consequences it generates, and in what ways and to what extent it affects the human and natural world.
One recent set of technological innovations has had epoch-making implications. Accelerating developments in Information Technologies (computer and communications technologies combined) have rippled through the economy and culture, changing the way we communicate, seek and disseminate information, access entertainments (and the entertainments available), and even conceptualize the nature of reality (with complex dynamical systems analysis, a child of computerized mathematical modeling techniques, transforming several of our underlying scientific paradigms).
These developments have partially displaced and challenged the viability of newspapers and the postal service, vastly increased the liquidity and volatility of financial markets, vastly increased the robustness and diffusion of both the flow of information and the unreliable “noise” that accompanies it, and has become an indispensable tool in virtually every economic, academic, professional, and technological human endeavor.
Other examples abound. The invention of the internal combustion engine led to an enormous demand for oil, which turned the Middle East into a region of vital geopolitical significance, and led to a vastly increased rate of environmental contamination and destabilizing climate change. The invention of the airplane led to the development of a widespread rapid global transportation system, and transformations in warfare, economics, and epidemiology.
Even slight modifications can have rippling consequences. Improvements in the thrust of jet engines, for instance, have necessitated improvements in the strength and heat resistance of composite materials (both giving rise to a demand for their creation and providing new engineering opportunities elsewhere, which gave rise in turn to other systemic demands and opportunities). These together made larger jet airliners both technologically and economically feasible, resulting in new demands on airport designs, requiring more space and creating new challenges for municipal governments seeking to establish international airports, all in turn merging into a vibrant international air traffic system.
Not only technological, but also social institutional innovations have similar effects. The invention of currency, for instance, freed markets from the necessity of a double coincidence of bilateral wants imposed by a barter system. (In a barter system, two people each must have something that the other wants more than they want what they already have, whereas currency allows an unlimited ongoing multilateral exchange via a medium that stores and transports value in the abstract). The consequences of this social institutional innovation have been enormous.
The establishment of the American Political system, codified in the American Constitution, drawing on and marginally refining existing forms and emerging ideas, is another example of a highly consequential set of social institutional innovations. It has proven to be a highly robust general model, not just in the United States but around the world. And it too unleashed myriad complex, rippling, unforeseen and unforeseeable dynamics.
Governments have always been vital agents in these processes. From the great architectural monuments of ancient history (e.g., the pyramids and the Great Wall of China) to our most robust modern technologies (e.g., computers, and myriad technologies emanating from space exploration), governments have been uniquely situated to mobilize massive resources in concentrated purposive endeavors that could not have otherwise been accomplished.
Not all such endeavors have necessarily served human welfare, and not all government functions that do are necessarily massive in scale. But the vital role of governments as concentrations of human organizational action for purposes other than profit or cultural expression is undeniable. The challenge is to free ourselves from the stiflingly non-productive debate over whether government has a vital role to play in the human endeavor, and focus our energies instead on the meaningful and multi-faceted question of what precisely that role is.
The answer lies, of course, in understanding the nature of the social systems within which it is embedded, and how the tandem processes of social institutional and technological evolution can most effectively be simultaneously invigorated and channeled by collective decision-making via the instrument of government. To do so, we face several interrelated challenges, some in tension with one another. At a bare minimum, we must liberate and lubricate the processes by which innovation and its rippling effects occur, while catching and mitigating negative effects (i.e., effects ultimately destructive to human welfare).
Despite the conservative myth that government is in general an impediment to economic growth, the exact opposite is true (and has been proven true repeatedly by historical experience). The obsessive ideological commitment to starve and shrink government is the true impediment to economic growth. This is so because it creates a bottleneck in the system, decreasing the fluidity with which innovations ripple through the social institutional field by eliminating our ability consciously to adapt to them, to facilitate and channel them. It impedes the development of human and material infrastructure which has played such a vital role in the astronomical acceleration in the production of wealth that characterizes the modern era.
Moreover, it forces an unconsciousness onto these robust, highly consequential, constant and constantly accelerating transformations rippling through our social institutional landscape. It relies on an empirically discredited certainty that these transformations automatically always serve human welfare as long as we close our collective eyes tightly enough. It relies on a set of idolatries (see “Political Fundamentalism”, “Constitutional Idolatry”, Liberty Idolatry, Small Government Idolatry) rather than on living minds taking on living responsibilities, within a legal and political framework that has developed from the Constitution, and faithful to the Constitution. It eschews the responsibility that comes with freedom and self-governance, the responsibility of thinking, and understanding, and acting in a world that poses constant challenges to those who exist within it, and cannot simply be relegated to blind ideologies and false certainties posing as patriotism.
Social institutional and technological evolution occurs not only through chain reactions of adaptations and innovations rippling through our social system, but also through our own collective adaptations to it. Coordination of efforts and imposition of consciousness and foresight upon them have always been vital, if insufficiently employed, ingredients. Government is nothing more or less than one such organizational overlay of human consciousness on these processes, providing one more vehicle to harness and channel the dynamo that we have created, and that has created us.
As I’ve often said, the agency problems involved, that form the basis of the ideological rejection of government, are both real and normal, common to all principal-agent relationships, though such relationships are a vital and robust aspect of modern social organization. The principal-agent relationtionship between a polity and their government, along with the diverse interests and beliefs of the principal, and the uneven distribution of resources with which factions within the principal can influence the agent, form part of the complexity of the challenge of using government to maximum advantage. They do not mean that government is any more problematic than any other social insitutional arrangement, however, since all such arrangements have similar or analogous problems embedded in them.
It’s time to stop wasting our human cognitive resources on the enervating debate over whether this organizational overlay called “government” is “good” or “bad,” and instead focus on the more meaningful question of how best to use it.
Extreme Individualism was dead. Even Economics, the most individualistic of Social Sciences, knew that it was dead. But Abandoner Screwage didn’t. (“Abandoner´s” real name was “Abner,” a Tea Partier who attended Sarah Palin rallies in a Medicare-supplied “Hoverround,” along with hundreds of others similarly equipped, like a confused geriatric biker gang).
Abandoner saw the ghost of Extreme Individualism everywhere, as if it were alive and well. He saw it in a century-old non-empirical Austrian economic philosophy and in a century-old poorly written and conceived novel expressing an adolescent superiority complex. He saw it in his caricature of the American Constitution, and in fabricated economic principles that no living economist actually adhered to. He saw it in his door knocker, heard it ringing all his bells (like a drunken hunchback defecting from another novel of the same era), filling his dreams with the slack-jawed stupidity of blind fanaticism.
But Abandoner didn’t realize that Extreme Individualism itself knew that it was dead, and that it wanted Abandoner to know it as well. For the Ghost of Extreme Individualism was ashamed of itself, and longed only for peaceful oblivion.
Extreme Individualism’s Ghost clanked its chains in Abandoner’s 3000 square feet of well-apportioned and larded living space that Abandoner knew he deserved by being born into an affluent family (or by being fortunate in other ways, but never primarily by the mythological “merit” with which he always rationalized the inequitable distribution of wealth and opportunity as inherently just, in much the same way that landed aristocracy had in centuries gone by). The Ghost passed through the door into Abandoner’s room, howling and rattling and moaning, and in general giving Abandoner that warm fuzzy feeling of being favored by a dead and discredited idea.
But the Ghost of Extreme Individualism was repentant, and introduced itself to Abandoner by declaring the error of its, and his, ways.
“Business!” the Ghost cried. “Mankind was my business! The common good was my business!” The Ghost looked out the window and saw the misery that it and its past adherents (now moaning specters floating through the air) had wrought, all tortured by their inability to work toward instituting the public policies that would help alleviate that suffering, the policies that they had all so rancorously opposed in life.
“You will be visited by three spirits,” Extreme Individualism’s Ghost told Abandoner. “The first will come when the clock strikes one. The second when the clock strikes two. And the third when the clock strikes three. Heed their lessons well, Abandoner!”
Abandoner fell asleep trembling at the thought that his beloved dead and discredited ideology had turned on him, and awoke at the stroke of one to find himself confronted by the Spirit of Reason and Goodwill Past. The spirit was simultaneously old and ageless, quiet and strong, unpresuming and relentlessly imposing. But it was filled with sorrow and regret, for it knew that ages of suffering that it had failed to prevent had cost so many so much.
“Touch my robe, Abandoner, and I will show you your predecessors in elitism and oppression, in indifference to the unjust suffering of others, in rationalized selfishness and implicit cruelty.” The spirit took Abandoner on a tour of human history, showing him how private property came into being and passed from hand to hand through military conquest and theft, how titles of “nobility” assumed by thugs and descendants of thugs sought to rationalize and justify that distribution of wealth, how the evolution of democracy and capitalism, though generally improvements on what had preceded them, still largely preserved the injustices of past distributions of wealth and opportunity, and how those who were left to suffer in poverty and despair were usually guilty primarily of “being born into the wrong womb,” as much in the present as in the past.
The spirit shamed Abandoner by showing him that even the thugs of the past were more convinced of their social responsibility than he was, the Roman and Medieval aristocrats who understood their “noblesse oblige” and paid for public works and public feasts and alms for the poor with their own money, not as a charitable whim to satisfy or not as they please, but as a sacred (quasi-legal) obligation that would have brought disgrace upon them to fail to fulfill.
The Spirit of Reason and Goodwill Past showed Abandoner the American Revolution, on which Abandoner based so much of his self-justification. The spirit showed both the ways in which that revolution served to defend the current and potential wealth and power of its mostly landed aristocratic perpetrators against the British attempts to protect the Indians of the newly acquired Ohio Valley, the captive African population, the Scotch-Irish rural poor (who sided with the crown), and the French Catholics of newly acquired Canada from the avarice of the colonial coastal landed gentry; and the ways in which its underlying ideals were far more committed to the common welfare and the ideal of equality (as well as a commitment to continuing political progress rather than enshrinement of that moment in history) than Abandoner’s self-serving parody of those ideals recognized.
The spirit showed Abandoner the struggles for justice and equality that followed, struggles often opposed by oppressors using precisely the same language and ideas as Abandoner himself; the struggle for abolition of slavery, which Southern slave owners ironically decried as an attack on their liberties; the struggles to respect the rights of the indigenous population, to secure for women the right to vote, to overcome the legacies of history which deprived some of rights and the most basic of freedoms in the name of service to the “liberty” of others.
Abandoner watched the slaughter of innocent indigenous women and children in the name of “liberty” but in service only to the theft of their land. He saw slaves whipped, husbands separated from wives and mothers from their small children in sales designed to increase the master’s wealth, all in the name of “liberty” (as argued, for instance, by John C. Calhoun in his tome Union and Liberty, using language and arguments identical to those used by Abandoner today). He watched the denial of real, lived, shared liberty in the name of his false, greedy, oppressive and destructive mockery of the word. And he couldn’t help but be moved, for his self-serving ignorance and avarice could not withstand the onslaught of reality presented by this Spirit of Reason and Goodwill Past, a spirit who showed the blaring absence of all that it stood for, a surging sea of ignorance and malice rationalized by the convenient idols of petty and shrivelled souls.
Abandoner awoke again in his own room at the stroke of two to find a bright light seeping through the cracks in his firmly closed door. He opened the door to find the robust and hearty Spirit of Reason and Goodwill Present sitting on a raised chair surrounded by bounty, raucous laughter on his face and on his lips.
“Come in, Abandoner!” the spirit bellowed with resonant good humor. “Come in, and partake of our shared feast! Plenty flows from my horn when more are more disposed to share with others, and even deprivations are borne more lightly when borne together!”
The spirit showed Abandoner the rest of the developed world, less diseased by Abandoner’s miserable and miserly ideology than America. In these countries that share many of the same values and ideals, but have been spared the misfortune of enshrining them and thus reducing them to parodies of themselves, poverty has been virtually eradicated, there is less violence and more personal security, health care is universal and less expensive to provide and health outcomes are better by almost every single statistical measure (including public satisfaction), self-reported happiness is higher, and there is greater rather than lesser ability to prosper by virtue of one’s own efforts.
“The folly of condemning THAT, while embracing THIS…,” cried the spirit, showing Abandoner his own hyper-individualistic society, the one that Abandoner himself had helped to shackle with the rotting corpse of Extreme Individualism, with higher rates of poverty and all the social ills that accompany it: Higher infant mortality rates, poorer health, less happiness, poorer educational performance, more violence, more suffering. “This is what you are fighting to enshrine as the perfection of human genius! Clinging to a fictionalized past to impose greater suffering and less joy on a population ridiculed and pitied by all others of comparable economic power! Shame on you, you shrivelled little excuse for humanity! That poor child you’ve abandoned to your false idols is worth more in the eyes of God than all you self-satisfied misanthropes combined, who claim that the suffering of others is no concern of yours!”
The spirit showed Abandoner the other America, the one which Abandoner did not define, filled with many who accepted salaries far lower than they were capable of earning in order to do good works for others’ benefit, the teachers with advanced degrees, the public interest lawyers earning a fraction of what their peers in private firms did, the workers in non-profits and social services struggling to stem the tide of social indifference that Abandoner, with his every word and breath, struggled to preserve and perpetuate.
“Join them, you petty little parasite!” intoned the spirit. ”Join them in the shared feast which you choose instead to horde and call your own!”
Abandoner saw joy; joy in the faces of a teacher who inspired a child to learn rather than despair, to aspire rather than prey on others; of the social worker who helped another child find safety and love; of those who fought to govern themselves with compassion and empathy for one another rather than with individual avarice and mutual indifference; of those who were blessed by the Spirit of Reason and Goodwill and appalled by the specter of Extreme Individualism which so smugly and callously opposed it.
Abandoner couldn’t help but feel their joy, the celebration of humanity’s shared existence, the knowledge of belonging to something larger than himself and lovingly shared rather than being the covetous hoarder of something smaller and jealously guarded. He fell asleep with that joy dancing in his heart, truly light-spirited for the first time for as long as he could recall. He fell asleep knowing what it means to thrive, something that requires generosity of spirit, something that is the fount of true liberty.
He awoke at the stroke of three to see the Spirit of Reason and Goodwill Yet to Come standing beside his bed, a lithe form and beatific face, but human rather than ethereal; a mild satisfied glow in its eyes and a slight knowing smile on its lips, unburdened wisdom and contentment dancing across its features and flowing through its every movement and gesture. It was filled with passion but not anger, knowledge but not arrogance, reason but not certainty, imagination but not superstition, humility but not fear. It was what Abandoner would have dreamt of being, were Abandoner wise enough to understand the meaning of human potential.
The spirit stood before Abandoner saying nothing, piercing him with its gaze. Abandoner felt profoundly naked, trasparent, revealed. He felt foolish and small, which, of course, was precisely what he was.
“Are you the Spirit of Reason and Goodwill Yet to Come, whose appearance was foretold to me?” Abandoner asked, having wanted to invoke his customary bombast, but finding himself unable to, knowing now what a farce it had always been and would always be.
The spirit didn’t move, didn’t answer, didn’t even nod, but its smile seemed just a bit more intent, and its eyes to sparkle just a bit more brightly.
As Abandoner gazed into that face, he saw a future he had been unable to imagine, a future in which liberty and mutual responsibility were inseparable ideals, in which the interdependence of all was understood and acknowledged, in which freedom was heightened and enriched by transcending the shallow pretense that its exercise by each occurred in a vacuum, and recognizing instead that no one has the inalienable right to (for instance) contaminate another’s air and water any more than one has the inalienable right to put a bullet in another’s chest.
The spirit took Abandoner on a tour of a future devoid of both ostentatious wealth and abject poverty, a world of mutual care and support, a world not cleansed of human foibles but rather adapted to them. People lived to celebrate life, to discover and expand and enjoy and assist others in doing the same. Their work was both more productive and more satisfying for the value and respect that others gave it. Entertainments were edifying and enriching rather than mindless distractions that sapped the soul. Robust and knowledgeable discussions were commonplace, sometimes heated debates, but almost always reverberating with reason and imagination and goodwill. There was greater joy, greater health, greater mental health, less suffering, less abuse, less neglect, less violence, more freedom -real freedom, the freedom born of nurtured human consciousness.
But then the spirit showed Abandoner a different future, or perhaps the inevitable road to the one he had just shown, a road whose length would be longer or shorter depending on the choices of those who comprise it. Abandoner saw all the Tiny Tims that would die because of his callous insistence that denying health care to those who can’t afford it is a requisite of “liberty.” Abandoner saw all of the violence and suffering and heartbreak that could have been prevented, that had been prevented to a far greater degree in places less in the thrall of his shallow and life-denying ideology. He saw that it was real, that the tormented howls of a parent who lost a child to violence that could have been prevented, to a disease that could have been cured, to abuse or neglect by another that a society that placed greater value on empathy would have avoided by investing in its avoidance, were all real, and he knew that each and every instance was a crime against humanity, a crime for which Abandoner and all like him shared a portion of the guilt.
The spirit led Abandoner to a large book on a book stand, like a relic of a previous age. Abandoner’s trembling fingers reached out to trace the embossed letters that formed the title on its cover: “Humanity.”
The book suddenly flipped open, pages fluttering by as Abandoner recoiled in fear. Then the flurry ended and the book lay open, the spirit glancing suggestively at the revealed page.
Abandoner, quaking with fear, leaned over the book and read history’s judgment of the movement to which he belonged. He read how he and his kind would be as disdained by future generations as all others of similar disposition had been before, for just as those before had hidden behind distorted ideals, it was not “liberty” for which these shallow and selfish people were really fighting, but rather injustice and inequality.
History has always condemned the brutal, self-serving disregard for the welfare of others that litters its pages, and it condemned Abandoner. He was just another foolish adherent in another chapter of the long and tragic tale of Man’s Inhumanity To Man, and the false idols he gloriously cloaked himself in were just another swastika, another sickle-and-hammer, another white hood, another brown shirt, another tool of another Inquisition, another blind faith denouncing heretics while obstructing the less stagnant and reducible truths of Reason and Goodwill. He had wasted his life as just another dupe of ignorance and belligerence, and if he were remembered at all, that’s all he would ever be remembered for.
“Spirit!” cried Abandoner. “Are these the shadows of things that must be, or can I, if I change my ways, change what is written in that book?!”
The spirit looked into Abandoner’s eyes, and spoke for the first and last time. “What do you think Freedom really means?”
Abandoner awoke on Christmas morning, a white blanket of snow covering the Earth, and a weight lifted from his heart. He felt free, freer than he had ever felt before, free of a pettiness that had imprisoned him more securely than bars or chains ever could, free to work for the common good, free to be a part of something bigger than himself. He knew that individual generosity was a part of it, something that was as important as any other part, that he had to help others of all ideologies to understand that. But he knew also that it isn’t enough to express that generosity just as a bunch of atomized individuals, that it must also be expressed as a part of our shared existence, that we also each have a responsibility to work with all others so inclined, and to try to convince all others to become so inclined, to reach down into the systems that order our lives and refine them to better express that generosity of spirit that he had been shown by the three spirits who embodied it, not in defiance of individual liberty, but in the ultimate and most meaningful service to it.
Abandoner abandoned his old way of thinking, and gave his name new meaning, for he abandoned ignorance and belligerence; he abandoned extreme individualism; he abandoned fixed and inflexible, rigid and unsubtle ideas that do more to shackle otherwise free men and women than any other agent of oppression; he abandoned the struggle to impose injustice and suffering on the world, and joined instead the struggle to liberate ourselves from the constraints we have imposed on ourselves, together.
And he was forever loved and respected for having done so.
Merry Christmas, Everyone!
(For more precise, analytical discussions of the logical and empirical errors of extreme Libertarian/Tea Party ideology, see the other essays in the fourth box at Catalogue of Selected Posts: “Political Fundamentalism”, “Constitutional Idolatry”, Liberty Idolatry, Small Government Idolatry, The Tea Party’s Mistaken Historical Analogy, The True Complexity of Property Rights, Liberty & Interdependence, Real Fiscal Conservativism, Social Institutional Luddites, The Inherent Contradiction of Extreme Individualism, Liberty & Society, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” American Political Edition (Parts I-V), An Open Letter To The American Far-Right, A Frustrated Rant On A Right-Wing Facebook Thread, The Catastrophic Marriage of Extreme Individualism and Ultra-Nationalism, Dialogue With A Libertarian, More Dialogue With Libertarians, Yet Another Conversation With Libertarians, Response to a Right-Wing Myth, and The History of American Libertarianism. For an alternative vision, based on the realities of the complex dynamical systems of which we are a part and how we can most wisely and effectively articulate our own individual and collective aspirations within those systems, see the essays in the second box at Catalogue of Selected Posts. For some insight into the nature of those complex dynamical systems and our place in them, see the essays in the first box at Catalogue of Selected Posts.)
The concept of “liberty”, far subtler and richer than its current idolaters realize, can’t be explored in isolation from its partner, “society.” The idolatry with which the concept of liberty is now insulted, ironically, does far more to undermine it than defend or perpetuate it, because it divorces liberty from its partner, without which it cannot exist. For we have no freedom without life, without health, without opportunity, and it is only through a robust and well-functioning society that our lives and health are protected from mutual predation, and opportunity maximized through the creation of a context in which liberty is more than just “freedom from,” but is also “freedom to.”
Our Declaration of Independence refers to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” (slightly modifying, in an act of historically acceptable plagiarism, John Locke’s earlier “life, liberty, and property”). There is no pursuit of happiness without health and opportunity; life is threatened and shortened by disease and destitution. There are thosewho insist that only negative, not positive, rights are guaranteed by our Constitution, “freedoms from” rather than “freedoms to.” Be that as it may, wisdom and compassion dictate something more, as does logic, for “freedom from” is intended as a means to “freedom to.” We guarantee freedoms from oppression in order to be free to pursue the goals that are available to its in its absence. “Freedom to” is always the ultimate purpose. When we have created the capacity to extend and augment it, then it is incumbent upon us to do so.
And what is it that we are free to do? To speak a language which is a product of collective genius, inherited from the many over the ages. To worship as we choose, either in discrete religions that are similarly products of our collective genius, created by the many over the ages, or in synthesis and distillations of existing religions and philosophies, which are, as well, products of our collective genius…. To think, express, believe, wonder, and act using the motifs and instruments that we have collectively produced, through media we have collectively invented and made available, to and with others, usually to some social end. Liberty is all about society.
Indeed, those liberties which don’t explicitly involve society (though they always implicitly do, in the forms of thought we utilize) require no protections, because they are invisible to others. One has always and everywhere been free to think what they please, as long as they keep it secret. It is only when it enters the public sphere, our shared universe, does liberty require protection. It is only when it involves a social act that liberty is a concept with any meaning.
Those who are advocates of social disintegration can argue, of course, that they’re not, that they only argue against “government,” which is not synonymous with “society.” They can argue that they understand that we belong to a society, and that our liberty is an expression of that fact, but that when we express the fact that we are a society with any focused intentionality, when we seek to actually act with a will as a society, when we try to empower our primary vehicle of collective decision-making, it is then that we have violated the sanctity of liberty, by infringing on it in precisely the way that our venerable forefathers so nobly opposed.
But our venerable forefathers never opposed government, per se. They opposed government that represented some and not others, that infringed upon liberties in order to extract wealth for the few at the expense of the many. Our government, whether state or federal, suffers no such defect. The franchise has never been broader, and is considerably broader than it was at the time of The American Revolution. We are more, rather than less, like the ideal our forefathers envisioned. And, while both our founding fathers and our current “patriots” share a bias in favor of the wealthy, the impulses on which our revolution was based were far more about the more equitable distribution of wealth and opportunity than about the protection of privilege, an ideal which today is expressed in efforts that our pseudo-patriots most vehemently oppose.
With that endless irony that characterizes their movement, it is often those who have the most to gain from an improved distribution of opportunity that are opposing it most angrily, in a variation of Marx’s realization that the masses are opiatedby the religion of the powerful, and seduced into a false consciousness that serves the interests of the wealthy rather than of themselves or the public as a whole. (Disclaimer: I am not a Marxist, a theory which fails both politically and analytically by failing to understand the salience of individual over group or class interests. But Marx did get some things descriptively, if not analytically or prescriptively, right, to an extent that retains at least some value).
If we admit that society is an equal partner of liberty, and that even such events as our own Revolution and the drafting of the U.S. Constitution are collective acts of a society designed to express its collective will, than we admit that there is some role to having a vehicle for such collective action as a society, one through which we can express our collective will in defense of, and perhaps even to augment, our personal liberties. We are not always fighting the King of England, nor is our own democratically elected president, signing into law legislation passed by our own democratically elected Congress, a “tyrant.” He is an expression of the will of a majority of the people, and if, after the election, a majority does not support some of the choices he and our legislators make, then that is also in accord with our blueprint for representative democracy, which was never designed to be run by incessant plebiscite, to our great good fortune.
As many have noted, our founding fathers were extremely bright individuals, certainly far brighter than those who insultingly claim their mantle today. They understood the importance of establishing a strong central government (which was the purposeof the U.S. Constitution), and the importance of creating some separation of that government from the popular whims that would dominate it if it could. Liberty is not just an expression of society in the abstract; it is dependent on government in the daily reality of life. And how vibrant, robust, extensive, and egalitarian that liberty turns out to be, depends on how noble the will we chooseto exercise via that government. Alas, those who wear the tricorn hats today are mere tasseled jesters mocking those who wore them when they were first in vogue.