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I’ve frequently encountered the argument that any reference to the legacy of history, to continuing evidence of a racially differentiated distribution of wealth and opportunity, is irrelevant because: 1) “I’ve never owned any slaves;” 2) everyone has the opportunity to succeed in America today, and it’s entirely the fault of those who don’t succeed if they fail to take advantage of that opportunity; and 3) the statistical trends are a result of sub-cultural problems that are the fault of the people who are suffering from them. All three of these rationalizations contain errors that are easily demonstrated.

One commenter insisted that the past is remote and irrelevant, that it is full of discredited ideas and so why should we turn to it to understand anything about the present or future? My answer was that disredited past ideas and well-evidenced past realities are two distinct things, that I am not arguing that we should be bound by past beliefs —far from it— but rather that we should be informed, in part, by past realities.

I do not oppose developing state-of-the-art new ideas and insights. Indeed, that’s what I live for. I’m a student of the ever-evolving explosion of human consciousness and its products. But those are all part of a historical process. They do not just exist in the present; they emanate from the past.

Even aside from the persistence of racist attitudes, of actual prejudice and discrimination (which are far more prevalent than some are willing to admit), there are other mechanisms by which past prejudice and discrimination continue to have present consequences. Children inherit from their parents a variety of legacies which are differentiated by history, passed down through the generations, legacies which include material wealth, social and institutional connections and privileges, and habits of thought and action adapted to and conducive to the social and material context of previous generations. Those who inherit more material wealth, richer social and institutional connections and privileges (such as ivy school “legacies,” in which the children of alumni receive preferential treatment in admissions considerations), and are socialized into the patterns of thought and action incubated in and conducive to socio-economic success, are clearly advantaged over those who inherit less material wealth, poorer social and institutional connections and privileges, and are socialized into patterns of thought and action adapted to and reproductive of relative poverty.

Paradigms persist even when we are no longer invested in their persistence. It is not enough to eradicate racist laws, or even racists attitudes, to eradicate the effects of racism. It requires a social investment, based on a recognition of a social responsibility.

There is an economic concept called “path dependence,” which refers to the tendency to remain in sub-optimal paradigms due to the up-front costs of paradigm shifts. For example, if there is new physical plant that produces something far more efficiently than what had heretofore been used, any calculation of the benefits of replacing the old with the new includes the huge up-front costs involved, and, even if there are huge long-term benefits to be gained, if the up-front costs are onerous enough, those benefits might never be pursued.

This can take many forms, from changing physical plant, to changing forms of government or economic systems, to changing understandings of reality. All of these confront various kinds of path-dependent resistance.

Here’s a very simple (and trivial) example: The “QWERTY” computer keyboard arrangement (named for the first five letters, from upper left, on the computer keyboard). If, for some purpose, someone needed to know why computer keyboards, in the present, are arranged that way, they would not be able to discover the answer by limiting themselves to consideration of present reasons why it might be so. The reason, rather, lies in the past: It minimized the jamming of mechanical typewriter hammers. It is a present reality, determined by past circumstances.

There are limitless other examples, in limitless arenas: The human spine has its shape because we evolved from walking hunched over (from four-legged, going further back), to standing upright. The spine wasn’t designed from scratch, but rather took its form from successive developments that built on previous conditions. And it is a sub-optimal design, leading to a lower back that is weaker than structurally necessary. The past is present in the present.

The notion that meeting current and future challenges requires thinking in the present and in no way benefits from understanding the past relies on a false dichotomy: Acting in the present and understanding the past are not incompatible, and, in fact, to do the former well, you have to include the latter in your approach.

Those “vague events of the past that really have no bearing” (as one commenter put it) are not so vague, and not so irrelevant. Such assertions conveniently ignore the statistical fact that the two most historically oppressed racial groups in American history, African Americans and Native Americans, are far more represented among our impoverished than random chance would allow. Why? Surely those who deny the relevance of this fact aren’t explicitly arguing that those racial minorities just happen to have an excessive amount of non-meritorious people among them, that they are “inferior” races. But it’s hard to see how their argument can be based on anything other than an implicit assumption to that effect.

The argument that members of those races have individually failed to take advantage of the opportunities available to them doesn’t address the statistical reality that so many more individuals from those races have failed in this way than individuals in the race that historically oppressed them. What a coincidence that the descendants of those who were enslaved and conquered are, on average, so much “less meritorious” than the descendants of those who enslaved and conquered them. Just highly improbable random chance, no doubt, and in no way involving those vague and irrelevant facts of history.

And the argument that it is a subcultural phenomenon begs the question: Why these subcultures and not others? Will those arguing this position really stand by the claim that it’s just a coincidence that the subcultures burdened with these problems just happen to encompass the populations we massacred, enslaved, and oppressed for centuries? Or will they admit that, to the extent that a mediating cause of social problems borne by these populations is subcultural in nature, the development of such subcultural dysfunction has as a first cause the centuries of oppression in which it was incubated?

The argument that some once disadvantaged ethnic groups have prospered, so why don’t these, doesn’t cut it either: There are many variables in play, and they lead to a wide variety of outcomes. Two major factors come into play: 1) No other disadvantaged population was ever quite so extremely and enduringly disadvantaged as the two I’ve named, and 2) the fact that there are circumstances in which countervailing factors overcome the liabilities of prejudice and discrimination doesn’t negate the existence and salience of prejudice and discrimination. In the case of generally new waves of exploited and impoverished immigrant groups who then prosper later, combinations of economic factors, less entrenched discrimination, and cultural characteristics particularly conducive to success can all come into play.

Just as some formerly underprivileged groups prosper, so do some individuals from underprivileged backgrounds, not because all is well and everyone has an equal chance, but because other factors intervene to counterbalance the injustices that really do exist. An individual might have gotten lucky by having exceptional talents, or exceptional mentors, or other bits and pieces of countervailing good luck.

But these bits of greater good fortune overwhelming an unjust situation don’t excuse the perpetuation of the unjust situation. There were slaves that escaped and prospered as well; that doesn’t mean that slavery was just fine, because, after all, some born into it prospered. The injustice isn’t erased by some fraction of those who escape it. And the fact that our current distribution of wealth and opportunity is unjust is conclusively proven by statistically significant differences in average outcomes for large populations on the basis of race, ethnicity, or gender.

The purpose of understanding the past isn’t to change the past, or to apportion blame, or to cultivate a sense of guilt and a sense of victimhood, or to suggest that descendants of victims of injustices necessarily deserve reparations beyond a commitment to erasing the legacy of those injustices, or to suggest that any inequality itself is unacceptable. The ultimate goal isn’t to recognize the role of history in forming the present, but rather to mobilize that knowledge in service to humanity today and tomorrow.

Who cares why the keyboard is as it is, or the human spine is as it is, or the inequitable distribution of opportunity in America is as it is, unless there is some present use for that knowledge? In the former two, there really isn’t, because we are willing (or have no choice but to) accept the current state, and so how it became so is of little practical relevance. But, if there were a question of fundamental justice involved, of human rights and human dignity, then it would be relevant, as it is in the last mentioned case.

Letters on a keyboard aren’t conscious and don’t care where they’re located. Human beings are, and do. The “QWERTY” of the distribution of wealth and opportunity has a relevance that the “QWERTY” of the location of keys on a keyboard doesn’t. And the relevance of the history that created that distribution of wealth and opportunity is that it exists, that the injustices of history have not been erased by time, that they are still embedded in the chances of birth. A commitment to our most basic values compels us to face that fact and deal with it responsibly, rather than deny it and pretend that each person fares only according to his or her own merit and effort, despite the overwhelming evidence that that just isn’t so.

It is not merely, or even primarily, to demonstrate the relevance of past racial discrimination to current inequitable distributions of wealth and opportunity that we should be informed by this presence of history, but rather to demonstrate the existence of social and economic injustice itself. I might be inclined to argue that those who are impoverished in America, or struggling in circumstances characterized by poorer than average opportunities to thrive, regardless of their race, are by-and-large victims of ill-fortunes that were not their own making, and did not enjoy a true equality of opportunity such as we, as a people, should be striving to realize. I might be inclined to argue that our policies for addressing these injustices shouldn’t be racially targeted, or race-conscious, but rather address the problems themselves that are disproportionately borne by members of some formerly oppressed races, and by doing so address the injustices at their root, as they occur, rather than superficially by the categories in which they most prevalently occur.

But the people who deny that the injustices of the past have any relevance to the injustices of the present are doing so to argue that there are no injustices in the present, or at least no injustices of a kind that incur any social responsibility borne by us collectively as a people and a nation. They argue that those who are poor are poor because they lack merit, lack resolve, lack something that those others who are not poor have, in complete defiance of the evidence.

The number one predictor of future wealth is the wealth into which one is born: If you are born into a wealthy family, you are likely to become a wealthy adult; if you are born into a poor family, you are likely to become a poor adult. There is far less social mobility than our mythology pretends (indeed, less even than in the more liberal countries of Western Europe). When one’s fate is largely determined by the socioeconomic class into which they are born, there is less difference, in terms of social justice, between our current political economy, and the more unabashedly inequitable systems of the past. Obviously, the ideal of equality of opportunity is far from being a reality in this country.

One of the fundamental challenges facing us as a people is to recognize this, and continue to strive to remedy it. In America, too many people hide behind a political philosophy that allows them to “have their cake and eat it too,” to enjoy the benefits of living in a society without undertaking any of the moral responsibilities that that incurs (see The Catastrophic Marriage of Extreme Individualism and Ultra-Nationalism  for a discussion of a different aspect of this overly-convenient and pernicious blend of individualism and nationalism). It is time we once again heeded John Donne’s famous admonition that

No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as a manor of thy friends or of thine own were; any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind. And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

Buy my e-book A Conspiracy of Wizards

Buy my e-book A Conspiracy of Wizards

“Property” is a concept concerning the relationship of people to one another regarding objects that have value. It refers to who is included in the circle of people with a legal right to utilize or dispose of the object(s) in question, and who is excluded. The object, at least in any direct sense, is unaffected by these relationships (of course, it may be affected in terms of how it is utilized, destroyed or exhausted). While at first glance it might appear that property rights define the relationship between individuals and objects (both tangible and intangible), it really defines relationships among people by identifying who can and can’t exclude which others from access to or utilization of those objects (sometimes with the assistance of third parties authorized to enforce these rights).

Two essential truths about property are in tension with one another:

1) A market economy depends on well-defined property rights, and preferably extensive private property rights (in which the right to access and to exclude others from access is vested in a single individual), and a hybrid, predominantly market economy is the most robust producer and distributor of wealth yet discovered; and

2) Property is theft, especially historically.

Most Americans bristle at the second observation, usually assuming that it implies a denial of the first, even when both are stated. But the second observation is clearly accurate, though a bit paradoxical itself (how can property be “theft,” if “theft” presupposes the existence of property?). As a “first cause,” when a human being or group of human beings first encounters land or other objects that they lay claim to, this is the creation of property. Calling this first encounter “theft” is a bit of  a stretch: It can be depicted as “theft” from all other would-be claimants, since it is held by force against others unable to exert superior force, such that its possession isn’t a function of first encounter, but rather a function of greater might. But the “theft” really occurs once the force is exerted.

For the sake of argument, let’s consider this first creation of property to be the one instance in which property is not theft; if those who encounter first can hold it, let’s say they are entitled to do so. All other involuntary transfers, when someone takes property by force from another, can then be considered “theft,” and any subsequent transfers of such stolen property can be considered exactly that.

From prehistory into the modern age, territories have been possessed, defended, conquered, and expanded primarily by means of force. Probably no current tract of land is possessed primarily by the decendents of those who first encountered it. Probably every or virtually every current tract of land is either possessed by someone who is descended from, or was originally purchased from someone who was descended from, some individual or group who took that land from others by force. Thus, all land is stolen property.

There is a line from my novel, set in an ancient civilization, in which a warrior of non-noble birth who is leading an up-start army against the nobles of his own land tells his gathered soldiers before the decisive battle, “if we lose this battle, the nobles will shackle us in chains and label us criminals for doing ourselves what their great-grandfathers did for them.”

It’s not difficult to extrapolate from this objects other than land, since such objects are ultimately derived from the land in various ways (from mined ores, logged timber, and so on). If the land on which resources are found is all stolen property, then the resources exploited upon it are as well.

But that is then and this is now: Given that well-defined property rights, and particularly private property rights, are a cornerstone of a robust economy from which everyone, to varying degrees, benefits (in relation to the alternatives), what difference does it make? The difference it makes is that we stop pretending that property is a god-given right, and that its distribution at any given moment can be defended as somehow inherently just. Of all of the virtues that private property legitimately can be defended as providing, fairness is not, and never has been, one of them.

One of the defining characteristics of private property is the right to give it to whom one wishes at any time, including the right to devise to whom one wishes upon one’s own death. That means that people are born into an inequitable distribution of originally stolen property. Every baby at birth is born into a property-context not of their own making, not to their own credit or fault, which yet determines a great deal of what their opportunities will be. Such determinations are not just due to the direct material implications of the differential property-contexts into which people are born, but also into complex consequences of the property differentials, such as social and professional networks that parents have, the traditions and habits and attitudes associated with the possession and preservation of property that they transmit through socialization, and so on.

Many on the right today want to pretend that the persistent disproportionate poverty of some categories of people –most notably, Native Americans and African Americans– is due to failures of their own. But, while there are complex mechanisms by which this occurs, it is clear that the First Cause of that persistent disproportionate poverty is the fact that people from these categories are born into long chains of unpropertied lineage, chains that began with the theft of the land from those who occupied it when the Europeans arrived, and the importation and conversion of others from another land into property themselves.

There is another complexity, perhaps more salient but even less obvious, that renders the conceptualization of private property as inherently just and equitable a ruse to protect what is in fact quite unjust and inequitable: The fact that property, and wealth, are produced by social processes that involve complex, articulated in-puts and result in socially institutionalized distributions of the product of those processes. In other words, the political economy by which we produce and distribute wealth doesn’t distribute it fundamentally on the basis of merit, as some conveniently mythologize it to be, but rather on the basis of privilege, as has been the case throughout human history.

This system of distribution primarily on the basis of privilege functions through a variety of mechanisms. One such mechanism is that the occupations that receive the highest remuneration are the occupations that require the longest education. Since such education is expensive, it is more easily accessed by those who have the money to invest in it. Since wealth is inherited, and few have earned much on their own prior to entering into such advanced education, it is the wealth of one’s parents that determines the ease of access to the educational opportunities which position one to remain wealthy in the future.

But there are subtler aspects of this system as well, subtler mechanisms embedded within it. Not only are inequitably distributed material endowments transmitted from generation to generation, but so too are the inequitably distributed skill sets and cultural adaptations that are associated with that inequitable distribution of material endowments. Parents teach children how to cope with the world that the parents encountered and understood, and, even as times and opportunity structures change, the sub-cultural adaptations to past circumstances remain embedded in the lineage of socialization transmitted from generation to generation.

While some social mobility exists, and some individuals rise out of the most opportunity-deprived circumstances to achieve phenomenal success against the odds, the actual statistical rates of social mobility are far lower than what many imagine them to be, and the exceptional cases both fewer and less accessible than many imagine them to be. For every exceptional case, there are some set of particular circumstances that applied in that case to make it exceptional (e.g., the good fortune to find an exceptional mentor, an unsually fortuitous genetic endowment, etc.). The underlying fact remains that the opportunities available, on average and in the aggregate, between those born into poverty and those born into wealth are inequitably and unjustly distributed.

So the challenge becomes how to preserve the robustness of markets, which depend on the existence of private property, and at the same time mitigate the inequities and injustices inherent in the existence of private property. This is really what the development of the wealthiest nations, particularly over the last 80 or so years, has been all about: Spiralling toward some balance of robust markets dependent on clearly defined private property rights, and administrative interventions that both preserve the health of those markets and increase the equity of opportunity faced by members of society despite the inequities inherent in private property rights. (The fact that such interventions not only can be used to increase the justness of distribution, but also are necessary to maintaining the functioning of the market economies at all, is evident throughout the historical record, in which periods of underregulation have led to spikes in the concentration of wealth followed by catastrophic market collapses, most notably in 1929 and 2008.)

Though the two necessary functions of government in a modern predominantly market economy (i.e., preserving the efficiency and well-functioning of markets, on the one hand, and increasing the equitability of the distribution of opportunities and benefits produced by those markets, on the other) are closely intertwined, I am focusing only on the latter in this essay. The question is how best to mitigate the inequities of markets without undermining them (and, indeed, whenver possible, enhancing and invigorating them).

There are two areas which rise to the fore: 1) Improving real access to education, at all levels; and 2) heavily taxing inheritance. In fact, education, at all levels, should be completely publicly funded, and the way in which it can be completely publicly funded is through inheritance taxes with gradually rising marginal rates approaching 100% at the extreme heights of personal wealth. Obviously, this is politically impossible in America today, but is approximated in most other developed nations to varying degrees, with unambiguously beneficial results.

There is more involved in improving real access to education than simply making it free to all at all levels. It would also involve community development and related up-front investments which would increase the ability of those who are currently born into lower socio-economic strata to succeed in school, so that the opportunity available is a real one rather than merely a formal one. That is something I discuss in my essays on education (see. e.g., Education Policy Ideas, Real Education Reform , Mistaken Locus of Education Reform, School Vouchers, Pros & Cons, West Generation Academy, American Universities: Two Dimensions on which to Improve).

However we move forward, however we address the myriad challenges and opportunities facing us, it’s time we did so by letting go of the mythologies which insulate social injustice from scrutiny, and instead confronted our world and our social systems as they are, with both strengths and weaknesses, both virtues and shortcomings. There is much that works well and should be defended, preserved, and built upon. And there is much that doesn’t, which should be examined, analyzed, addressed, and improved upon. That is what the human endeavor is all about.

Buy my e-book A Conspiracy of Wizards

Buy my e-book A Conspiracy of Wizards

This Week With Christiane Amanpour hosted an excellent debate this morning, with conservative pundit George Will and Congressman Paul Ryan on one side, and Congressman Barney Frank and Clinton Administration Labor Secretary Robert Reich on the other, over the fundamental, perennial issue of the optimum size and scope of government. First, please note that I did not frame it in the conventional way, with “small government” (SG) on one side, and “big government” (BG) on the other, because that is the frame created by SG advocates to mislabel their opposition. The real debate, as I see it, isn’t between SG advocates and BG advocates, but rather between SG advocates and advocates of “No Presumption Pragmatism” (NPP).

The legitimate concern is that NPP may tend toward limitless growth in government, but it is not therefore the case that those who are advocates of “no presumption pragmatism” are advocates of big government. Rather, it might be that there is an un-met challenge facing NPP that, if met, is a preferable path to either dogmatic SG advocacy or a careless, unrestrained-government growth version of NPP.

But there is an inherent tension between wanting government to perform an endlessly growing list of functions, and wanting government to be a minimalistic agent in our national affairs. ABC News’ John Donvan summed up that aspect of the debate nicely:

In the following introductory comments and opening salvos in this incarnation of The Debate, the participants lay out the parameters nicely, challenge some assumptions, redefine some positions, and offer some compelling insights and arguments:

Paul Ryan does an impressive job advocating his position, arguing that adhering to strict principals that generate optimal outcomes is superior to overreliance on government to take care of all challenges and address all issues, the latter error leading to a sprawling and cumbersome burden on human creativity and enterprise rather than an effective reduction in social problems and increase in human welfare. Barney Frank and Robert Reich respond that the government is too big in some ways and too small in others, and that reducing one’s position on the issue to an anti-government presumption fails to address the real challenges of managing a popular government.

Frank points out that many SG advocates are perfectly happy to rely on government to impose their will on others, advocating restrictions on women’s reproductive rights and a lack of definition of civil rights for gays and lesbians, while opposing the use of government in the productive manner of addressing “public goods” and “public bads,” not defined by arbitrary moral convictions, but rather by the real effects of our inevitable interdependence on our individual well-being. Reich reiterates that the question isn’t the size of government, but rather what factions of the population government is assisting or failing to assist.

Paul Ryan’s argument that smaller government is inherently more efficient and more effective than big government simply ignores the inevitable fact that any government function costs money, that, in a complex modern economy, there are a plethora of inescapable and quite expensive government functions that must be performed (e.g., regulating information-intensive markets such as financial and energy markets, which are easily gamed at potentially catastrophic public expense, but costly to monitor effectively); that the majority of the government programs targeted by SG advocates (with the notable exceptions of Social Security and Medicaid) actually involve piddling expenditures in relation to these large inescapable costs that government must be able to meet; that advocacy not to meet those inescapable costs is advocacy for a wildly self-destructive public policy; and that many of those piddling expenditures are in programs which research strongly demonstrates reduces far larger future costs that occur in their absence (such as those we currently incur in our enormous criminal justice system, far larger and more expensive, per capita, than those in other developed countries, incarcerating a far larger proportion of our population).

Since, in reality, there are expensive functions that a modern government must perform, and since, in reality, some social welfare programs have been strongly demonstrated to be cost effective over time, all things considered, what we as a polity really need to do in this debate is to transcend both the “big government is bad” platitude and the “every problem has a direct government solution” habit, and move into thinking more systemically, more intersectorally, and engage, in ever larger numbers with ever more commitment and knowledge, in the real challenge of using government as a disciplined and effective agent of our will, a portal into the organic processes of which we are a part, through which the essential functions of consciousness, of collective decision-making, of necessary oversight, of intentionality and value-driven intervention, can be implemented.

The debate in response to the audience question at the end over bailouts v. limiting the size of banks so that none are “too big too fail” is, as Robert Reich pointed out, an example of an information-intensive issue on which the relative positions of “conservatives” and “liberals” is not quite clear. The conservatives in this debate favored limiting the size of banks, while Frank on the liberal side argued that we require a different paradigm that allows for the existence of big banks in order to be internationally competitive. Though this Great American Debate historically began, in many ways, over a very similar question (should we have a national bank or not?), in its modern incarnation, it’s less ideological than technical, both sides admitting to the need to rely on economic analysis rather than blind ideology, neither side having the definitive solution to what is in reality a very complex problem.

The next segment deals with economic inequality and collective responsibility:

Elizabeth Warren’s introduction to this segment of the debate is, I believe, a very eloquent expression of the fundamental truth undermining the extreme SG/Libertarian argument: We are interdependent members of a single society, our political economy not being, never having been, and simply not capable of being, a mere market place for exchanges among atomized individuals, but rather an arena of coexistence in which some aspects of our shared lives are coordinated through market exchanges, but some aspects are necessarily coordinated in other ways as well.

These “extra-market” aspects of our shared existence aren’t just cultural, aren’t just a matter of family relationships and community relationships and voluntary organization memberships, but are also political and economic, involving our collective decision-making apparatus, our laws, and the ways in which a modern capitalist economy is populated with corporate actors whose own internal structure is hierarchical rather than “free market” based, and which wield enormous political power as a result.

The distribution of wealth and opportunity in America is clearly not a function of some mythical perfected meritocracy, but, as in all times and places throughout human history, is primarily a function of historical injustices reproduced through the chances of birth and the inherited opportunities and burdens that come with them. Our current legal system, evolved through periodic cleansings of the codification of those injustices, has certainly diluted the effects of those historical injustices, but their remaining legacy is clear to see, and is, in fact, a statistically undeniable current reality. Whatever policies we implement or decline to implement today, doing so with blithe disregard for the realities that currently exist is indefensible on both pragmatic and moral bases.

Paul Ryan’s response to Christiane’s opening question about economic inequality bordered on disingenuous: He blamed “current economic policies” for that growing disparity, despite the fact that the disparity has grown with the greatest acceleration, as it has in previous historical epochs, with the growth of deregulation and the success of SG political advocacy. This trend can clearly be seen in the three eras of most obscene concentration of wealth in America: The era of “The Robber Barons,” the “Roaring Twenties” of the Hoover Administration, and the current Reagan and post-Reagan era.

Ryan also, as he did throughout this debate (and as is an endemic deficiency in his ideological camp’s position), acted as if there is no other nation in the world with which we can compare our policies, to determine which kinds of policies really do increase social mobility and decrease economic inequality, and which ones really do exacerbate the lack of social mobility and the increase in economic inequality. The inconvenient fact is that a comparison to the social democracies of Western Europe and Canada demonstrates what the historical record I mentioned above also demonstrates: Social mobility is increased through social democratic government interventions in the economy, economic inequality is decreased, and prosperity is not undermined.

Paul Ryan argues that any attempt to decrease social inequality inevitably serves only to impoverish the wealthy rather than enrich the poor. This is an assumption and a fallacy. Historically, in fact, our political economic institutions have evolved in large measure to decrease social injustice (including economic inequality) without undermining the productive engine from which we all benefit. We’ve been successful enough at the latter goal that we consider merely slow growth to be economic failure, and periods of economic stagnation to be a crisis, and have, on average, maintained a fairly constant and sustained continuing growth in overall economic prosperity. While we’ve met that side of the challenge rather soundly, we not only have failed to address the increasingly inequitable distribution of the wealth thus created, but have actually devolved into a debate over whether we should care about that failure or not.

Ryan and Will represent the more “urbane” branch of their ideological movement, counterfactually insisting that their position decreases inequality and increases social justice, rather than that inequality and social injustice don’t matter. Unfortunately for Ryan and Will, the history of our own nation, and a comparison to other nations, demonstrate that the truth is the precise opposite of what they are claiming it to be.

Robert Reich added the observation that both the marginal tax rate on the wealthiest, and economic growth, were astronomically high under Dwight D. Eisenhower, debunking the assertion that they are antagonistic to one another.

George Will argues that Big Government always favors the wealthiest and most powerful, because it is most responsive to those who can pay expensive lobbyists and make large campaign contributions. Well, yes, government is skewed in favor of those with greatest political economic power, which is why the anti-government, deregulation movement has been so successful: It favors those with the greatest political economic power. To argue against using government to favor the interests of the less powerful on the basis that any government action is somehow inevitably going to favor the more powerful is a bizarre tautology, especially given the historical fact that disenfranchised groups have with some regularity successfully organized to gain power and legal protections throughout our history (e.g., women, African Americans, workers, environmental activists, etc.)

George Will then brought up the interesting observation that (therefore) the welfare state in America is primarily a transfer of wealth from the poorer young to the wealthier elderly (in the form of social security and Medicare). But this is a surprisingly sloppy representation, since neither the young nor the elderly are monolithic in their economic condition. I do agree, however, that social security and Medicare should be means tested; as a nation, we simply can’t afford to subsidize the wealthiest with public programs designed as safety nets.

But it is completely disingenuous to argue that the primary reason for that intergenerational disparity in wealth is due to Social Security and Medicare. The fundamental reason is insufficient government regulation of a market successfully exploited by a small minority of citizens over the course of their lives, such that they accumulate astronomical wealth by old age, creating the disparity that Will cites.

Ryan, however, made a potentially good point that Big Federal Government concentrated in Washington creates a convenient geographic and institutional nexus of power for corporate America to influence the political class. However, ironically, the policies that are most implicated in anti-BG advocacy are those policies that are most antagonistic to corporate interests, such as improved public health and safety standards, improved environmental standards, and expanded social services and programs for the neediest. The success of corporate lobbyists isn’t primarily the increase of government action to their benefit (though there is, of course, some of that), but rather the decrease of government action to their benefit (i.e., deregulation).

I do believe, however, that we need to move toward a paradigm of government facilitated public empowerment to carry out some of the functions currently embedded in governmental bureaucracies. Government can serve best to channel resources and pass legislation that will fund and guide local efforts. We need to think and act more systemically, in a more decentralized way, rendered coherent and conscious through our central agency of collective action (i.e., government), but utilizing all of the social institutional material on the ground in pursuit of social problem solutions and social institutional improvements.

The audience question that opens the next segment is very timely for me, since just yesterday I received my first “photo surveillance” ticket in the mail:

Paul Ryan’s repetition of the notion that economic equality automatically grows with economic growth is well answered by Barney Frank, who pointed out that economic growth is a necessary but not sufficient condition of wide-spread economic well-being

In fact, aggregate economic growth and economic equity (distributive justice, which is one aspect of social justice) are neither diametrically opposed nor perfectly compatible. There is a tension between them, in which some policies could indeed increase aggregate growth at the expense of distributive justice, some policies could increase distributive justice at the expense of economic growth, and some policies increase both economic growth and distributive justice at the same time. Obviously, the last category has the most to recommend it, but there are also times to accept trade-offs between aggregate growth and equitable opportunity to partake of the wealth produced by it.

As a thought experiment, consider the extremes: Few would support an arrangement by which one person accumulates ten times our current GDP every year, but everyone else is left in abject poverty. And, similarly, few would accept an arrangement in which there is absolute equality of abject poverty. There is clearly some balance to be struck between these two values.

Of course, Paul Ryan is right on target in the gist of his last remarks at the end of this segment: We need to end crony capitalism, eliminate subsidies to the rich, and address our economic challenges systemically. Those observations, however, do not belong to the larger ideological package that he is advocating, and, in the final analysis, are not compatible with it.

And on to the closing arguments:

Diminutive Robert Reich’s joke during his closing argument, reminding the audience that he has worked in government most of his life and then standing up and asking, “Do I look like Big Government to you?” struck me for a moment as funny but irrelevant, until I reflected on it a bit: Government is a human institution, comprised of human beings, acting in human ways. It is how we use it (and how we fail to use it), and what we do with it that defines its value. It is a vehicle of human will, not an external imposition, and it is, and should be, exactly as “big” as we are.

But, despite all of my arguments above, the take-home lesson from this debate, for everyone, should be that there is a legitimate debate to be had. From there, we can begin to acknowledge that no platitude suffices, and that the question is not one that can or should be answered with a slogan or reductionist philosophy. The responsibility of popular sovereignty, of self-governance, is that we govern ourselves wisely, succumbing to the manias and oversimplifications neither of the left nor the right. The more of us who take that step, who seek to transcend blind ideologies and embrace the challenge of being reasonable people of goodwill working together in a complex and subtle world, the better off we all will be.

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The current Tea Party concept of “liberty” to mean “what’s mine is mine” was most eloquently articulated by John C. Calhoun in Union and Liberty, in which he argued that any attempt to deny southern slave owners of their right to own slaves was an infringement on their (the slave owners’) “liberty,” and should be opposed as such with arms (which, of course, happened a couple of decades after he published it). Calhoun also argued for the protection of “minority” rights, by which he meant the rights of southern slave owners to own slaves.

There is a direct and unbroken line connecting those who opposed ratification of the U.S. Constitution, through those who advocated “nullification” doctrine (that each state has the right to ignore the federal government at will), through the southern secessionists, through the southern opponents to Civil Rights legislation and jurisprudence, to the modern Tea Party.

They are, happily, the losers of American history, whose loss has meant real freedom and real opportunity for hundreds of millions who would otherwise have been denied it. But those whose ideology keeps getting thankfully relegated to the dust heap of history are relentless, incessantly trying to “take back America,” by which they mean a return to some semblance of previous eras characterized by Jim Crow, slave ownership, and the completely dysfunctional Articles of Confederation, not to mention the onset of The Great Depression.

The connection to slavery and Jim Crow is a historical continuum, not a current identity. Virtually no one today identifies themself as an advocate of slave ownership. Relatively few, but some, state opposition to the federal engagement which put an end to Jim Crow. Many oppose current federal efforts to address the legacy of that history still extant today.

My point is not that by being a modern Libertarian you are an advocate of slave ownership, but rather that the history of modern Libertarianism belongs to those who were advocates of slave ownership. Those who succeeded to slave owners defended Jim Crow. Those that succeeded to defenders of Jim Crow oppose any federal commitment to social justice.

It is a logical continuum, with a shared underlying philosophical thread: “What’s mine is mine, as a matter of basic principle, regardless of the injustice of that distribution of wealth and power, regardless of the historical violence implicit within it, and regardless of how politically and economically dysfunctional the belief is.”

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(The following is a series of posts I made on a Libertarian’s Facebook page. Ironically, the owner of the page, while lost in the morass of Libertarian nonsense, seems to be a fairly decent fellow, as some are, which only adds to the poignancy of the tragedy, since we are capable of doing great violence to one another without even possessing the emotional disposition to do so. But the fact that we as a country can be in the grips of this self-destructive mania is simply too much to bear. How on Earth do we shake some sense into these blind and destructive fanatics, trying to do their own re-enactment of history’s most tragic chapters?)

I don’t copy and paste anything, Rick. I live, learn, study, contemplate, and comment. There are several values that merit our attention, not just the maximization of aggregate wealth (though that is one as well, since indeed it is important to maintain a political economy that produces wealth robustly). This country has been moving in a highly regressive direction in terms of social mobility and social justice, increasing the extent to which the condition you are born into determines your opportunities in life.

In reality, the number one predictor of future socio-economic status in America is one’s socio-economic status at birth. This is a statistical fact. To argue that it is irrelevant because some minority of people succeed in changing their socio-economic statuses, which to the irrational means that there is no social injustice in America, neglects that the members of that minority benefited from some good fortune or combination of good fortunes that the rest did not: Great parents, a great mentor, exceptional natural endowment, chance circumstances, etc.

A commitment to equality of opportunity (not equality of outcome, as you insist equality of opportunity means) requires not relegating certain classes of people to drastically reduced chances of success in life due to the chances of birth, even if additional chances save some small subset of those disadvantaged classes. In fact, addressing it is not just good for rectifying our endemic and growing social injustice (far greater than that of our fellow highly developed nations), but also improves aggregate productivity itself, mobilizing our human resources more efficiently and effectively.

In 2007, 35% of America’s wealth was concentrated in the hands of 1% of our population. (The bottom 40% of Americans are thrown the crumbs of .2%, one five hundredth, of America’s wealth; the next 40% of Americans share just 15% of America’s wealth. 85% goes to just 20% of Americans.) Our Gini Coefficient (the statistical measure of the inequality of the distribution of wealth) is behind all other developed nations, and is behind even Iran, Russia, and China. This is not, as your convenient mythology maintains, due to a meritocracy, but rather an entrenched and growing classism, with only marginal social mobility laced into it (this is a statistical fact, not a random assertion; America has less, not more, social mobility than all other developed nations).

You imagine yourselves to be the warriors of freedom, and those who oppose you to be “elitists,” but that is precisely backward: You are warriors of elitism, fighting for gross inequality and injustice against those who actually understand economics and history and the fact that by no measure are your assertions accurate or defensible.

Your assertion that this inequality is necessary to the robust production of wealth is, like the rest of your assertions, simply wrong. The United States, despite its off-the-charts inequity in the distribution of wealth, has only a middling per capita GDP in comparison to other developed nations, below many that are far more egalitarian, and not significantly above any (see A far smaller portion of Americans participate in that wealth, however, than do those of those other countries.

In other words, you are fighting for ignorance in service to human suffering, and calling it a noble ideal. Freedom, prosperity, justice, are far more complex and subtle ideals than you recognize, and, in your shallow world, you therefore sacrifice the realities on the alter of your false idols. There is no real freedom when the circumstances of birth are so highly determinant of one’s future prospects, and when participation in a society’s prosperity is so skewed by the chances of birth. There is no justice when the descendants of those who were conquered or enslaved not so many generations ago are statistically extremely overrepresented among those who do not partake of that prosperity and opportunity today. There is only an implicit racism in insisting that we live in a meritocracy, and that if some races and ethnicities are overrepresented in poverty in our country, it must be that they coincidentally are just lazier and less meritorious than the descendants of the former elites. Yeah.

The depth of your irrationality in service to your inhumanity is simply mindboggling. Don’t get me wrong: There are no simple answers. The market economy is indeed a robust producer of wealth, and the problems and challenges we face are not easily solved. But we must first, as a nation, as human beings, be honest about what those problems and challenges are, rather than conveniently defining them out of existence and turning a blind eye to the real injustices and inhumanities that we are blithely reproducing and deepening.

The way to approach this ongoing endeavor of ours is to understand economics (the real discipline; not the archaic caricature on which you rely), and history (again, the real discipline, not the information-stripped caricature on which you rely), and all other disciplines relevant to our shared existence, and to treat the challenge of self-governance as non-trivial, not reducible to a few neat, ideological platitudes that adherents claim are ordained by God or by Founding Fathers, or by something other than what works and what’s just and what’s wise.

You rely on caricatures of our wonderful (though human, historical, and imperfect) founding document (the U.S. Constitution, which was drafted to strengthen, not weaken, our federal government, a strengthening eloquently argued for in The Federalist Papers by Madison, Hamilton, and Jay). You ignore those clauses which don’t suit your ideology, and ignore our system for interpreting the Constitution, insisting that your nonsensical interpretation should prevail, thus only destroying the document and nation you claim to serve. It’s a tragic comedy of ignorance and inhumanity, one that loses its comic value when you take measure of the real human suffering it imposes and preserves, and the damage it does to us as a people and to our children’s prospects in the future.

Let’s not forget the real human measures of your regressive ideology: We have, in comparison to other developed nations, the highest infant mortality rates, the highest poverty rates, the highest homelessness rates…, a tribute to a society in the grips of an inhumane mania that has no connection whatsoever to reality, or to justice, or to reason, or to compassion, or to anything to which human beings ought to aspire.

Here’s the story you folks need to live: And here’s the historical reality you ignore: Here are the cliches and caricatures on which you rely:,,, And here is a guide to the rational, compassionate, historically and economically literate, humane, and truly progressive alternative: Finally, while you are crowing about the brilliance of your shriveled and inhumane little platitude-driven blind ideology, here are some examples of what a real, growing, contemplative, informed understanding of our world looks like:,,,,,,,,

What we are and what we are capable of, as human beings, is incredible. But it is not served by your flattened and stripped parody of the intellectual product of a historical moment, rather than the living, growing reality that those ideals gave birth to. Our liberty isn’t served by the absurd farce that popular government and strivings for social justice are its enemies, but is rather most pointedly threatened by it. As Sinclair Lewis poignantly observed: When fascism comes to America, it will come carrying the cross and wrapped in a flag. And for all your rhetoric deluding yourselves that you represent its opposite, you are nothing if not the unwitting (though eagerly exploited) agents of fascism, freeing those who wield the political power of concentrated corporate wealth from any restraint of popular regulation and oversight, demolishing problematic but indispensible popular government in preference for the tyranny of unfettered concentration of wealth and the real political power that it wields.

You are clueless, and dangerously so, threatening this nation, and, to some extent, this world, with your belligerent ignorance, trying to obstruct all thought and analysis and compassion and human decency in service to your mania. Good God, it’s just too much to take! Get a frickin’ clue already.

(See The Catastrophic Marriage of Extreme Individualism and Ultra-Nationalism for a continuing discussion of the precise ideological components of the dysfunctional ideology I am confronting in this post, and Dialogue With A Libertarian for a response to a comment that gets to the heart of the logical and empirical fallacies on which libertarians rely).

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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-RightA 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.)

Buy my e-book A Conspiracy of Wizards

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Martin Luther King, Jr, (apparently borrowing from an earlier Christian philosopher) said that “the arc of history is long, but it bends toward justice.” John Maynard Keynes (later plagiarized by Winston Churchill, directing the reference toward Americans in particular) said that “[people] will do the rational thing, but only after exploring all other alternatives.” What these quotes illustrate, aside from the prevalence of plagiarism among famous orators (John F. Kennedy got his “Ask not…” line from his prep school, whose motto it was, substituting “your country” for “your school”), is the combination of optimism and cynicism that characterized these two quite different but equally visionary thinkers. In both phrases, the short-term is frustratingly full of injustice and irrationality, but the lathe of trial and error, and the impetus of the human soul, tend to sort it out in the long-run.

Neither of them were counseling complacency, however. Both were counseling perseverance, and commitment to bending the arc more sharply toward justice, accelerating and abbreviating the exploration of all those irrational alternatives. We who believe in reason, who believe in justice, who believe in the shared responsibility to be our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers, and in the woefully underrealized potential we have to intentionally and conscientiously improve the human condition, are called upon to be the agents of reason and justice in an irrational and unjust world, not as glassy-eyed fanatics pursuing emotionally gratifying caricatures of the two, but as patient, committed, and good-humored agents of what is good and decent about humanity.

The question that forever presents itself, and that is never more than partially and inadequately answered, is: How do we best confront that challenge?

There is no one answer. Yes, we need to keep generating the best ideas, most disciplined by reason exercised through reliable methodologies, most inspired by focused imaginations, most dedicated to the highest ideals and tempered by humility and dispassionate lucidity. Yes, we need to be pragmatic, political realists, working within that which currently exists to create that which might someday be. These two demands upon us cannot be denied: We must both generate the best ideas, and fight within the political arena to see them implemented to whatever extent possible, by whatever legal means possible. But these two demands, which dominate our attention and seem to exhaust the scope of our obligation, are missing the most vital component: We must reunite the two, so that the best ideas about how to govern ourselves become the means for their own political success. We must create a center of gravity comprised of reason and goodwill, a moral and intellectual force that few can resist.

The two great historical figures I quoted above both did just that, as have others: Martin Luther King, Jr., like Gandhi before him, made passive resistance in service to simple justice a very compelling force, one that few could stand against in the long run, though many stood against it in the short run. John Maynard Keynes helped inform a fiscal and economic policy that remained almost undisputed for over half a century, informed the most massive and rapid economic growth the world has ever seen, and continues to be the certainty of last resort in a fiscal crisis, when “we are all Keynesians.”

My favorite movie line of all time exhorts us all to rise to the level of such leaders, by being followers who honor them by identifying with them: “I am Spartacus!” (This line is in the news again, as supporters of a fellow in England who was arrested for Tweeting a joking bomb threat at a Northern English airport are now tweeting joking threats of their own, with the tag line “I am Spartacus!”). We are all Spartacus; we are all Martin; we are all Keynes; we are all capable of asking the most of ourselves in service to one another, and of doing all that we can to bend that arc of justice more sharply, to abbreviate that exploration of irrational alternatives to whatever extent possible.

Martin, in fact, “was” Gandhi, became Gandhi by emulating Gandhi, as any one of us can become Martin by emulating Martin. Who will be the next to stand up and lend their name to that nobility of spirit that resides in each of us, something we all aspire to realize, something we all struggle to untangle from the baser elements within us that hold it back and keep it buried? It may well be you.

But what does it mean to find that soul of justice and reason, of courage in service to these virtues, of commitment to stand on their behalf and resist the temptation to simply find a quiet refuge to escape their demands (and even, as the Tea Party has now done, create an ideology which justifies and exalts yielding to that temptation)? It means not just submitting to the discipline of reason and goodwill, but also dedicating oneself to making them inexorably attractive forces, striving to give them a voice and an incarnation in each of us that others cannot deny, just as the many could not deny reason and justice expressed through Gandhi and King.

The project I have proposed (A Proposal) is an attempt to give a new philosophical and programmatic life to this ideal. We need to work harder at connecting that place in our soul that can’t hide from the message insisting upon social justice when expressed with the undeniability of a Martin Luther King, Jr. or a Mahatma Gandhi with the efforts we make to reassert that same forgotten commitment to reason and social justice that so languishes today. Few of those Tea Partiers who are, unbeknownst to themselves, spitting on the memory of Martin Luther King, Jr., would ever suggest that they aren’t an admirer of his. We need to spoon-feed them that inconsistency, gently but assertively, and force them to work through the cognitive dissonance it provokes. We need to make them face the fact that they are not reasonable people of goodwill, that they are one of those “other alternatives,” that outward bow in the arc that must be bent back toward justice.

That is the ultimate political challenge. It includes creating the best ideas, and it includes fighting to have them implemented, but it also includes appealing to something inside all of us, something that responds to what’s true and right if it is presented in a way that can’t be denied. The phrase “winning minds and hearts” has become a cliche, but it remains the ultimate political challenge.

Let’s not forget to keep rising to it.

Buy my e-book A Conspiracy of Wizards

Buy my e-book A Conspiracy of Wizards

The title of this post is also the title of a famous treatise by the moral philosopher John Rawls, in which he continues the centuries old tradition of work involving the concept of “the social contract,” and applies to it a version of “The Golden Rule”  ( The central concept is “the veil of ignorance,” an imaginary construct in which one does not know what position they occupy in the social firmament, what socio-economic status, race, or location they are born into, and what natural endowments or infirmities they are born with or acquire by chance. From behind this assumed veil of ignorance, we should each evaluate social policies and institutions, asking ourselves what policies and institutions we would prefer under this condition of not knowing what lot we will draw (or, in reality, have drawn) in life.

Rawls argues that by diligently assuming the “veil of ignorance” when debating issues of public policy, we identify policies that are most fair to all. Consider how important a step this is in discussions such as those that occur on blogs like this: The “veil of ignorance” unveils the disguised biases of competing positions, for to argue against it, one must argue in favor of intentional unfairness. The only way to defend policies that do not pass the “veil of ignorance” test is to admit to a commitment to injustice.

Rawls posits his thesis as an alternative to both utilitarianism and libertarianism. It embraces and transcends the precepts of both, since choices that would be made from behind the “veil of ignorance” are choices that include the values that inform and motivate each. Those who argue for their particular notion of “liberty” that is indifferent to the distribution of wealth and opportunity must argue why that is what one would choose if they could be born into any condition in life. Similarly, those who argue for “the greatest good for the greatest number” must defend that position within the same framework of evaluation.

The greatest difficulty, of course, is the degree to which people with existing biases and ideological certainties can suspend them enough to subject them to this test honestly. It is hard to imagine people who have already argued vehemently on behalf of one ideology or another revising their views in the light of this lens. It is easier to imagine that they would revise or distort the lens to accommodate what they have already concluded. The bigger challenge than identifying a lens through which the justice of social institutions and policies can be judged is convincing people to suspend their biases long enough to look through it.

A considerable number of people read this blog, but very few participate on it. This would be an ideal opportunity to change that. Here’s my question for those (if any) who are willing to participate in an experiment: What do you see differently than you have seen before when you look at the world through Rawls’ “veil of ignorance”? Please, everyone, try to refrain from simply making the same arguments you would have made in any other context, and instead try to discover something new, some change in perspective, that thinking about the world in this way bestows. Any takers?

Buy my e-book A Conspiracy of Wizards