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The Great Regression -- and the Road Back


Ernest Partridge, Co-Editor
The Crisis Papers.

March 4, 2008


This past week I revisited an essay that I wrote in May, 2000: “On Civic Friendship.”  Reading it was a sobering reminder of how much we Americans have lost, economically, politically, and morally, since then – how much our sense of hope, our self-esteem and our international reputation have disintegrated under the Bush/Cheney regime.

In that essay, I contrasted a “well-ordered society” of citizens bound by a shared sense of justice, with a “private society” of autonomous individuals, loyal only to themselves and their immediate friends and families and aspiring only to maximize their personal welfare.  (The phrases “well-ordered society” and “private society” are from John Rawls’s book A Theory of Justice, coincidentally the subject of my doctoral dissertation). 

In May, 2000, despite merciless and unrelenting harassment by a Republican Congress and the corporate mass media, Bill Clinton was completing eight years of peace and prosperity, with a budget surplus that promised a reduction of the five trillion dollar national debt.  Directly ahead: Bush v. Gore, 9/11, and a virtual suspension of the United States Constitution and the rule of law.

Here is a re-write, in a much darker mood, of that essay, as a former celebration of the accomplishments of the American republic is transformed into a lamentation and a warning.  I close with a sketch of a possible route out of the abyss into which we have fallen these past eight years.


Civic Friendship.

The United States of America is a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic and multi-religious nation-state. 

So too are Northern Ireland, Lebanon, Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan.

So why has the United States, unlike these unfortunate countries, not suffered tribal turmoil throughout most of its history? Why have we and most of our fellow citizens been at least moderately safe in our homes, possessions and persons? And why have we lost much of this domestic tranquility and security in just the past eight years?

We Americans are separated by one-hundred and forty-three years from our one and only civil war.  Our Constitution is the oldest continuously operative political charter in the civilized world.  There is no armed rebellion against the government, or armed conflict by one racial, ethnic or religious faction against another.  Occasional acts of domestic violence against the government or the social order, such as the Oklahoma City bombing, are universally recognized as aberrations, and the belief of the perpetrators that such acts will set off a mass rebellion against the established political order are universally recognized as delusional.  Principled civil disobedience, such as the civil rights movement of the sixties, has succeeded on the foundation of the common principles of political morality, in particularly equal rights and human worth, as proclaimed in our founding documents.  Racial segregation collapsed when the aggrieved victims dramatized the moral contradictions of their oppressor's doctrine.  "Separate but equal" was thus proven a moral absurdity.

Thus, we have enjoyed moderate domestic tranquility, thanks to our shared concepts of justice and personal worth, and our sense that we belong to a unified community, that we are protected by just laws, and that the government rules with our consent.  We have, despite all our differences, regarded each other as compatriots: we are all "Americans." Accordingly, in our fortunate, “well-ordered” society, we have been bound by what John Rawls calls, "civic friendship:”

A society is well-ordered when it is not only designed to advance the good of its members but when it is also effectively regulated by a public conception of justice.  That is, it is a society in which (1) everyone accepts and knows that the others accept the same principles of justice, and (2) the basic social institutions generally satisfy and are generally known to satisfy these principles...  Among individuals with disparate aims and purpose a shared conception of justice establishes the bonds of civic friendship; the general desire for justice limits the pursuit of other ends.  (A Theory of Justice, 1971, p.5).

These advantages of “civic friendship” in “the well-ordered society” are now unraveling with the emerging triumph of “the private society."  By replacement of what Michael Moore calls “the we society” with “the me society.”


The Well-Ordered Society

The personal moral probity of each citizen (or, more realistically, of most citizens), is a necessary condition of a well-ordered society.  But it is not sufficient. 

Suppose that several families comprised of saintly individuals, unknown to each other, were to simultaneously enter an uninhabited region and set up a village.  While each was trustworthy, each would not know if his next-door neighbor were a saint or a scoundrel, and so, fearing the worst, each would be prudently on his guard.  Thomas Hobbes saw this "state of nature" as a desperate situation, to be solved only by the surrender of individual personal freedom to a "sovereign," who would then impose peace and order on the commonwealth.

Historical experience suggests a more benign solution.  For as each individual in our hypothetical settlement becomes better acquainted with his neighbors, as each learns that they share conceptions of justice, fair play, and mutual respect, bonds and expectations of trust are established.  When interests compete and conflict, mutually acknowledged modes of adjudication are applied, leading to amicable resolutions.  The "well-ordered society" emerges and is maintained.

In an important 1981 article in Science Magazine, Robert Axelrod and William Hamilton explain this “evolution of cooperation,” and with it the development of altruism and community loyalty.  Through a repetition of reciprocating and mutually advantageous “offers” and “acceptances” (called “tit-for-tat”), modes of cooperation evolve.  Failure to cooperate leaves individuals at a competitive disadvantage with those who cooperate, and thus, through a “natural selection,” societies, (described by Rawls as “cooperative venture[s] for mutual advantage”) are established, develop and flourish.  The “tit-for-tat” strategy is so fundamental that it applies “automatically” and non-deliberatively to groups of animals, between species (symbiosis), and among even insects and bacteria.  (The “tit for tat” strategy, which involves game theory, can not be adequately explained in this brief space.  For more, follow the link above, and see Axelrod’s book, The Evolution of Cooperation). 

Accordingly, among human individuals, a “well-ordered society” is established, not only when I act morally, but also when I understand that your conduct is governed by the same principles of justice and the same respect for the dignity of persons.  But that is not quite enough: for in addition, each must understand for himself and recognize in the other this mutual obedience to moral principles and this immediate sentiment of mutual respect.  I not only know that I will treat you fairly and honorably, but you also know that I will do so; and conversely, I also know, as you do, that you too will treat me likewise.

Such restraint, based upon mutual respect and a mutual acknowledgment of shared principles of justice, need not be perfect and complete, for if perfection were required, there would be no well-ordered societies.  In all societies, there will be deviants and “free riders” who must be deterred and, failing that, dealt with.  Moreover, to guide the behavior of even well-intentioned citizens, these principles of justice and their implications, like traffic laws, must be specifically spelled-out.  Hence the necessity for the rule of law. 

Clearly, what we are describing here is an ideal and flourishing community -- an association of individuals sharing, "in common," moral ideals, a sense of justice, and a respect for the humanity of each and of all.  Each member recognizes the community -- "our club," "our profession," "our faith," "our country," and (dare we hope) "our planet" -- as an entity of value apart from the totality of constituent individuals. 

In failed communities such as Ulster, Bosnia, Kosovo and Uganda, tribal loyalties blind the individual to the worth, even the right to life, of "those others" within the community.


The Private Society.

In contrast, there is a conception of "society" that has little use for shared communal values.  Rawls calls it "the private society," and describes it thus:

Its chief features are first that the persons comprising it ..  have their own private ends which are either competing or independent, but not in any case complementary.  And second, institutions are not thought to have any value in themselves, the activity of engaging in them not being counted as a good but if anything as a burden.  Thus each person assesses social arrangements solely as a means to his private aims.  No one takes account of the good of others, or of what they possess; rather everyone prefers the most efficient scheme that gives him the largest share of assets.  (Rawls, 521).

Margaret Thatcher endorsed "the private society" with stark simplicity and brevity, when she proclaimed: "There is no such thing as society, there are only individuals and families." Also Ayn Rand: “There is no such entity as ‘the public,’ since the public is merely a number of individuals.” The implications are stark.  If there is no such thing as society, then there are no social problems, there is no social injustice, and there is no social progress, and government has no business trying to address these fictions.  So-called “victims of society” are nothing more than victims of their own failings, or “sins,” as the religious right would have it.

A moment's reflection will indicate to us that “the private society” is the kind of (so-called) "society" described by the neo-classical economist and recommended by the libertarian.  To the neo-classical economist, the optimal society emerges “spontaneously” from the unfettered market transactions among autonomous, egoistic "utility maximizing" individuals -- homo economicus.  To the libertarian, popular government has no legitimate function other than the protection of personal life, liberty and property.  (See my “Liberals and Libertarians,"  "With Liberty for Some," and “Privatism and Public Goods”). 

When this conception of "the private society" was celebrated a generation ago by the novelist Ayn Rand, it was generally regarded as too outlandish to be taken seriously.  A kindred ideology, presented by Barry Goldwater, was soundly rejected by the voters in the 1964 Presidential election.  Through the persistent and lavishly funded efforts of a few true believers, the dogma of "the private society" has become the dominant political ideology of our time.  It is heard, time and again, in the political and media complaints against the "evils" of "big government," and also the rarely questioned faith that alleged “social problems” will best be solved by "the free market" unconstrained by "government interference."


The Stakes in the Contest

The contrast between the idealized "well-ordered society" and the "private society" is exemplified in most of the public and political issues of our time.  In public discourse, these competing positions are designated (very roughly) as "liberal" and "conservative."  Unfortunately, political rhetoric has robbed both terms of useful meaning.  Three decades of right-wing abuse has loaded the word “liberal” with so much negative connotation, that it can no longer function as a description of a political ideology.  (Note sub-title to Geoffrey Nunberg’s new book, Talking Right: “How conservatives turned liberalism into a tax-raising, latte-drinking, sushi-eating, Volvo-driving, New York Times-reading, body-piecing, Hollywood-loving, left-wing freak show”).  Accordingly, I prefer to use the word “progressive.”

Similarly, “conservatism” no longer adequately describes the program of the right-wing, which, in fact, is engaged in a full-scale attack on traditional American political institutions – institutions that the progressives are struggling to protect.  The Right seeks not to “conserve,” but rather to transport society back to an earlier era, real or imagined.  Hence my preferred term for the Right: “regressive.” (See my “The Language Trap..”).

Furthermore, self-described "conservatives" and "libertarians" are often mistakenly associated with each other.  However, while they both endorse "free market" solutions to economic issues, they differ radically on issues regarding personal conduct -- e.g., abortion, pornography, gay rights, drug use). 

With these semantic clarifications in order, let’s examine the contrasting progressive, regressive and libertarian approaches to some public issues:

Criminal Justice: To the regressive-right, the purpose of incarceration is retribution and punishment.  The offender is to be separated from society as long as possible -- hence mandatory sentencing, "three strikes," and minimal preparation for a successful re-entry into society upon release.  To the progressive, the purpose of incarceration is rehabilitation, so that the individual might be successfully rejoin the community upon his release.

Gun Control: The regressive advocates a return to the frontier system (more of popular legend than of history), with each individual his own defender.  Hence permissive "concealed weapons laws" and "Second Amendment absolutism." The progressive believes that greater security is to be found in a disarmed society, where each citizen might be confident that the next stranger he or she meets will not be "packin'."

Art and Culture: To the libertarian, an individual's taste in art, music and literature is strictly that person's own business.  Government support of the arts or art education or public broadcasting, by "taking" the property of one person through taxation to subsidize the preferences of another, amounts to simple theft.  The liberal is convinced that, left to "market forces" alone, public taste will degrade and the popular culture will be coarsened.  Aesthetic taste and a refined intellect, the progressive insists, do not emerge, ex nihilo, from the mind of the growing child; rather, these are qualities that are absorbed from the culture and acquired through deliberate modes of education.  Put simply, the cultural liberal feels that it is better to live in the company of fellow citizens who listen to Mozart and Beethoven and who are familiar with Shakespeare and Dostoyevsky, than to live amidst individuals who know only gangsta rap and acid rock, and slasher films and video games. 

Primary Education: Until recently, the US public school system was one of our most successful and unifying institutions -- until, that is, decades of miserly financial support and the declining status of the teaching profession began to take its toll.  Amidst the clamor of criticism today, we have forgotten that early in the twentieth century, and at the close of the nineteenth century, the public school system was the gateway through which the flood of immigrant and first-generation children learned of our history and our political institutions, became fluent in our common language, acquired the skills necessary to be assimilated into our labor force -- in short, became "Americanized."  Thus the public schools were crucially important instruments in the maintenance of our "civic friendship."  But now, rather than repair the public schools, the regressives propose to abandon them through "privatization" -- a system of "vouchers" that would drain the talented and well-behaved children from the public schools, withdraw the support of the parents of these fortunate children, and leave the public system in ruins, thus casting away the ladder of advancement out of poverty and destitution.  In addition, the regressive Busheviks have, through the underfunded “No Child Left Behind” act, imposed upon the public schools a regime of “teaching to the test,” that strips the public schools of education in the arts, culture, history, literature and civics, in favor of “readin’, writin’ and ‘rithmetic” – skills useful to employers who desire workers who perform simple tasks, but who do not think critically and who are unfamiliar with their history or their fundamental rights as citizens.

What does the deterioration of public education have to do with "privatism?" A recent event in my own community, replicated throughout the land, makes the point.  We recently had a school bond issue.  In the local paper, several citizens complained that the schools had no right to tax them, since they had no children of school age, or (alternatively) that their children were in private schools.  The notion that the education of others' children was a public benefit was furthest from their minds.  Even so, fifty-five percent of the voters cast their ballots for the bond issue, which was nonetheless defeated.  And why was it defeated? Because, in a previous regressive "tax revolt" (Proposition 13 of 1978), the voters of California decided that the majority does not necessarily rule.  Additional tax assessments, they decided, must be approved by a two-thirds vote.  (See my “Why Should I Pay for Someone Else’s Education?”).

Higher Education: According to "the private society" view, an individual's education is, of course, of advantage to himself.  However, no attention, much less public investment, need be given to the alleged "social benefits" of others' education.  Fortunately, this was not the opinion of the enlightened legislators in the early twentieth century who expanded the system of public higher education.  A paradigm case was the City University system in New York City, whereby a resident youngster of sufficient talent and motivation, however poor, could continue his or her education through graduate school.  Thousands of doctors, jurists, engineers, and scientists from impoverished immigrant families emerged from that system.  Similarly, what Jefferson called the "natural aristocracy of talent and virtue" took advantage of the University of California system -- until recently, the finest system of public higher education in the world.  However, this was not good enough for the regressives, and so public higher education in California has become increasingly "privatized," as tuitions have soared, state support has fallen, and a large part of the "slack" has been assumed by corporate-funded research.  And with the abolition of "affirmative action" in California, still more talented and motivated youngsters, who had the bad luck of choosing poor and minority parents, will be deprived of the opportunities that might have been enjoyed by their parents or grandparents.

Government: To the libertarian, government "is the most dangerous institution known to man" (John Hospers).  "Big government" whittles away at our "natural rights” of life, liberty and property by imposing burdensome regulations upon our commercial activities ("capitalist acts among consenting adults" -- Robert Nozick) , and by confiscating our property, through taxation, to support other people's children (welfare), others' education (the public schools), and others' artistic and literary tastes (public broadcasting, museums, the National Endowment for the Arts).  To the progressive, government is the one institution which can legitimately act in behalf of all, treating each citizens as an equal before the law.  Thus government can legitimately act to protect the numerous poor and weak from the few who are powerful and wealthy.  At its best, government protects the rights of each individual citizen and embodies and enforces the principles of justice which, when publicly acknowledged and shared, are the foundation of the well-ordered society.

In General: Citizens of a "well-ordered society" regard the private economy, the shared social institutions, and the popularly elected government and body of laws as "ours." In the "private society," "the establishment" (those in the corporate boardrooms, the fellowship of lobbyists and legislators, the media), regard the economy and the government as "theirs." This is the “private society” of the United States that three regressive administrations (and one DLC-Democratic administration) have bestowed upon us.  In this “new order,” the vast majority of us are alienated from the forces that control our lives and which devastate our hopes.  The incomes of the privileged have soared, while the incomes of the ever-shrinking middle class stagnate, and the prospects of the poor have declined, so that today the Fortune 500 CEO earns, before his three-martini lunch, more than his company's median worker earns in an entire year.  Fewer and fewer citizens bother to vote in elections in which the "opposing candidates" are ideological clones who conduct campaigns made up of images rather than ideas.  The media fail to inform, but instead they entertain and distract with saturation coverage of celebrity peccadilloes, custody fights, and unsolved murders.  The cement of social union dissolves as the individual is encouraged to arm herself, is told not to trust her government, and as she retreats into her own home, encountering the outer world (more likely a fantasy world) through her TV or computer screen.

Can an Ulster, Bosnia, Kosovo and Uganda be far ahead along this lonesome road?

History, as Will Durant points out, may suggest the answer:

"...  the mind of Rome, at the close of the Antonine age [with the death of Marcus Aurelius, 180 AD], sank into a cultural and spiritual fatigue.  The practical disfranchisement of first the assemblies and then the Senate had removed the mental stimulus that comes from free political activity and a widespread sense of liberty and power.  Since the prince had almost all authority, the citizens left him almost all responsibility.  More and more of them, even in the aristocracy, retired into their families and their private affairs; citizens became atoms, and society began to fall to pieces internally precisely when unity seemed most complete." (The Story of Civilization: Caesar and Christ).
 

No Free Gift

If one listens long enough to the self-described “conservative” entrepreneur, one may begin to suspect that he attributes all that he has accomplished to his energy, intelligence, initiative, and willingness to accept risks.  "Government," as Dick Cheney told Joe Lieberman in the 2000 VP debate, “has had nothing to do with it,” except perhaps to block him from even greater accomplishments.

What colossal conceit!

Whether or not he recognizes it, the entrepreneur’s success depends upon some degree of good order in his society.  For example, he could accomplish nothing without an educated work force available to him, educated, for the most part, at public expense.  He applies technologies developed by others, built in turn on "impractical" basic scientific research, which only the state will support (since no profits are foreseeable).  His patents and copyrights are secure under protection of law, and he is confident that if they are violated, he can appeal to the courts in the expectation that the body of law, not the highest bribery bid to the judge, will settle the dispute.  Finally, he is reassured that if his "enterprise" is imperiled by the increasing monopolization or unfair trade practices of a competitor, the law will protect him.

Moreover, the well-ordered society is economically efficient, since the costs of securing the libertarian triad -- life, liberty and property -- are inversely proportional to the degree of "civic friendship" -- of mutual trust and respect, and the manifest adherence to shared principles of justice and fairness.

The well-ordered society does not happen by accident, nor is it maintained through indifference and neglect.  It is not a free gift.

To receive it, a generation must be preceded by others who have fought and perchance died for it and who have nurtured and protected it.  If it is to survive to the next generation, the well-ordered society must be maintained by loyalty, by a pride of shared history and institutions, by mutual respect and a celebration of diversity, by adherence to shared principles, by education -- and yes, by the expenditure of cash.  All segments of society must believe, with justification, that they have a "stake" in the well-being of their community, thus the least fortunate must be cared for.  All citizens must learn, from their youth, to cherish their shared political ideals, and thus the youth must be taught their history and their politics.  Because the artistic and literary refinements of culture will not simply "fall out," unintended, from the profit-motivated purveyors of popular culture (quite the contrary!), institutions such as public broadcasting and the National Endowment for the Arts and the Humanities must be supported with public funds.  Because "impractical" basic research (in fact, the well-spring of applied science and technology) and "unprofitable" social criticism are unlikely recipients of corporate funding, such essential activities must be supported by public funding, through such agencies as the National Science Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities.  All this requires an expenditure of public money, which means taxes -- "what we pay for civilized society" (Oliver Wendell Holmes). 

Clearly, with the Bushevik dismantling of the public sector, with the “ownership society” leading to the corporate ownership of the government, with the dissolution of the rule of law and the introduction of political crimes, thought-crimes, and pre-crimes, we are forfeiting what our Constitution has bequeathed to us: justice, domestic tranquility, ...  the general Welfare, and ...  the blessings of Liberty. 

These are some of the milestones along the hard road toward a restoration of our democracy:

  • we must increase our investments in education, and afford teachers a respect commensurate with their social importance.

  • we must once again teach our children how to think critically, and re-acquaint them with our history and our political institution.  And we must alert them, through scientific education, to the environmental perils facing the human species.

  • we must assure that no citizen will go hungry, will be unable to find employment, or be deprived of medical care.

  • we must insist that the broadcast media pay the public for the use of the public airwaves by devoting considerable time to the analysis and discussion of public issues.

  • we must demand civility in political debates and punish the offenders by depriving them of public office. 

  • we must hold entertainment conglomerates responsible for the "collateral" social effects of their depictions of violence.

  • we must put an end to the privatization of legislative government by establishing effective campaign finance laws.

  • we must end the relentless attack upon the legitimacy of our governmental institutions and the public servants who labor therein.

  • we must acknowledge and celebrate the common humanity that we share with our fellow citizens who may have different religious faiths, political convictions, or ethnic origins.

The new "conventional wisdom," steeped at length in the culture of privatism, dismisses this agenda as "bleeding heart liberalism."

Might it not be time, at last, to pause for a moment, to reflect, and to assess and aggressively challenge the "wisdom" of this convention?


Copyright 2000/2008 by Ernest Partridge

 


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Dr. Ernest Partridge is a consultant, writer and lecturer in the field of Environmental Ethics and Public Policy. He has taught Philosophy at the University of California, and in Utah, Colorado and Wisconsin. He publishes the website, "The Online Gadfly" and co-edits the progressive website, "The Crisis Papers".   His e-mail is: gadfly@igc.org .


Crisis Papers editors, Partridge & Weiner, are available for public speaking appearances