Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Weak Tea, part three

I seem to be on a roll. Here we go, deeper into the principles of the 912 Project . . .
6. I have a right to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness, but there is no guarantee of equal results.
Life, Liberty, & The Pursuit of Happiness “Everyone has a natural right to choose that vocation in life which he thinks most likely to give him comfortable subsistence.” Thomas Jefferson
Most of the first part of principle is itself a direct quotation from the Declaration of Independence. To question that would be tantamount to blasphemy.

The second half of the principle also seems fairly uncontroversial . . . in part because strict equality of outcome is all but incoherent as a goal for any economic and political system that involves human beings. Does anyone seriously propose this any more?

Here it is a false dichotomy that obscures the really interesting questions – and there are a number of them – still to be asked about equality and the pursuit of happiness, questions about which there may still be reasonable disagreement.

Now, it may well be that the Republic as a whole really is better off if everyone adheres strictly to the libertarian vision: everyone pursues his or her own happiness, and lives (or not) with the outcome they get.

Or, maybe not. Consider just one question that might fall in between libertarianism and strict equality of outcome.

Might the Republic as a whole be better off – more just, more secure, more free – if we establish a minimum level below which no citizen should be allowed to sink? In short, should there be public provision of some kind of safety net?

As it happens, I’m reading Aristotle’s Politics with one of my classes right now. I just came across a passage in which he is discussing what he calls “polity” or constitutional rule, a particular kind of constitution that is the mean between democracy (rule by the poor, tending to mob rule, stickin' it to the rich) and oligarchy (rule by the rich for their own benefit, stickin' it to the poor). Aristotle considers polity to be the best political system that is readily attainable under ordinary circumstances, avoiding the corruption of the other two forms. As it happens, though, this balanced kind of constitution is possible only when there is a large middle class, neither too rich nor too poor.
Great then is the good fortune of a state in which the citizens have a moderate and sufficient property; for where some possess much, and the others nothing, there may arise an extreme democracy, or a pure oligarchy; or a tyranny may grow out of either extreme. Politics 1295b38ff
How many of the policies decried by neo-conservatives, from the New Deal on down, were aimed at the establishment of a broad middle class, secure in their homes and in their investments? How many were aimed at preventing – albeit with mixed success – the fall of too many citizens into a permanent underclass, or aimed at lifting - with still more mixed success - people out of poverty?

America That Was, that dream to which tea partiers long to return, seems at times to be the agrarian republic favored by Jefferson. He feared the coming of industrialization from Europe because it would create a class of poor workers. Jefferson had read Aristotle; he could see what would follow from that. Well, the factories came, drawing displaced people into the cities from the American countryside and from Europe, and away we went.

So, how to prevent the working class from becoming a revolutionary class, heralding the dictatorship of the proletariat? Provide them with a safety net, yes, but also draw them into the middle class. Make it easier and safer to get a mortgage. Get them into homes of their own. Offer them security for their retirement. Encourage them to buy cars, then build roads for them to drive on . . . so they can drive to Washington, D.C., stand in a public park, and decry the interference of the federal government in their pursuit of happiness.

7. I work hard for what I have and I will share it with who I want to. Government cannot force me to be charitable.
Charity “It is not everyone who asketh that deserveth charity; all however, are worth of the inquiry or the deserving may suffer.” George Washington
Here, yet again, is a principle that distorts an interesting and important set of questions.

Charity is almost by definition voluntary. It's also particular and personal. Prompted by my sympathy for your plight, I offer you assistance and ask nothing in return. If you demand that I give money to individuals (Bums! Slackers! Welfare Queens!) I don’t admire and for whom I have no sympathy, you are violating not only my rights, but the very idea of charity itself. More evidence that you are an evil fascist!

More poison in the well.

The thing is, charity isn’t really the issue here. We're not talking about something personal and particular, but something public, something we (or our representatives) may choose, even though you or I do not.

Here, as I see it, is the salient question: What kinds of public action may legitimately be taken to secure public goods?

(What follows overlaps with my discussion of the sixth principle, but since Beck and his writers seem to be dwelling on this point, distorting the same question from two different directions, some of this bears repeating.)

There are many good things we as individuals and as families can secure for ourselves through private initiative in the open market. But there may also be some good things we as a nation pursue together, some of which may even be necessary for the full flowering of liberty, that can be secured only through public action and public investment.

Some would argue for a fairly spare set of public goods, once we’ve established national defense and protection against force and fraud, including perhaps some public spaces and public fora, basic transportation infrastructure, and so on.

Others envision a much broader set of public goods, including educational and cultural institutions, public funding for various kinds of research, regulation of markets to smooth out the inevitable boom and bust cycle of a capitalist economy, and safety-net provisions that help people over the rough spots, so they can continue to participate in economic and civic life.

At it's best, the argument might go, the American government can act and invest in such a way as to open up new kinds of opportunities for people to pursue their own, privately chosen goals.

So, the way to think of the provision of public goods is not as the coerced transfer of wealth from one particular person to another person who does not deserve it. Rather, it’s our collective investment in the long-term liberty, security, and prosperity of our Republic.

As noted in my response to the sixth principle, someone could reasonably argue for safety-net provisions on the grounds that the republic as a whole is worse off – less secure, less prosperous, ultimately less free – if too many people are malnourished, uninsured, etc. Of course, the republic as a whole may be worse off if too many people are abjectly dependent on government subsidies, but that seems to indicate there is a balance to be struck. The point is at least debatable.

It’s also possible to argue for safety-net provisions on the grounds of simple reciprocity, following good old-fashioned social contract theory. “I agree to pay taxes that will be used for public action to provide a basic safety-net for others because I would want others to do the same for me if I should find myself, in spite of my honest best efforts, falling on hard times.”

As I write this, the Atlanta area is recovering from serious flooding, after 20-25 inches of rain fell in three days. I heard on the radio this morning of a woman leaving a Red Cross shelter in tears because she had lost everything in the flood, and the Red Cross could not provide her with a rent voucher to help her through until she could recover. The Red Cross depends on the state government to provide funds for such emergency assistance, but Governor Perdue insists the coffers are empty.

Is that just her tough luck? Should she depend instead on charity, which may be utterly inadequate to the scale of the disaster, uncertain in its delivery because it is dependent on the momentary goodwill and private means of individuals, and provided only with strings attached (say Hallelujah!)?

Would I be content if I were in her situation? Would you be content? Do we really will to live in a Republic that makes no provision for emergency relief? The point is at least debatable.

Where the tea partiers do have a good point is that the current way of making decisions about public investment in the common good doesn’t seem very public. Congress seems detached, in a reality of its own, and tempers are running high.

Fair enough.

But what’s the solution? To stomp on the federal government as such? To “starve the beast”? Or is it to reform our institutions, to make them more directly responsive to public deliberation, less under the influence of private and powerful special interests?

I would opt for the latter, but this would require citizens to be a lot more informed, a lot more engaged, and a lot less inclined to call names and bellow their incoherent rage.

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