U.S. politics today are not democratic politics. Economic power is political power, and in the United States many of the holders of economic power have ceased to engage in democratic politics. Raw economic power has transformed the “Republican Party” into a shelter for a self-confessed revolutionary movement. This is not a conspiracy “theory.” There is a highly organized, well-funded Radical Libertarian conspiracy engaged in effecting a kind of rolling state-by-state coup d’etat which would replace democratic government with an oligarchy serving the interests of only the wealthy. As historian Nancy MacLean put it in Democracy in Chains (p.231), “The pursuit of states’ rights is not an atavistic racial reflex for the insiders . . . but a cold-eyed way to secure minority rule.”

One needn’t resort to such foot-noted studies for evidence of this conspiracy. One need only acknowledge that people like Grover “I-just-want-to-shrink-it-down-to-the-size-where-we-can-drown-it-in-the-bathtub” Norquist mean what they say. And what they leave unsaid can be observed in what they do: suppress the vote, gerrymander voting districts, undermine the power of labor, attack public education, and generally shrivel the public realm.

The values behind these efforts are explicitly anti-democratic, for they deny the right of the demos—the people—to rule. They are anti-republican, for they reject the legitimacy of the “res publica” itself. The movement seeks a de facto revolution in the American constitution.

We must realize that the current political conflict is not a debate about policy and programs conducted between groups committed to shared fundamental values. The “Republican” objective is not to change policies but to change the constitution itself. The Radical Libertarians reject the egalitarian philosophy of the Declaration of Independence. Their philosophy is profoundly elitist, contemptuous of the vast majority, to whom it would concede absolutely no say in government. Its notion of liberty is restricted to the right of any individual to make and keep as much money as possible by any means possible. It recognizes no other rights, civil or human; it rejects utterly the idea that the purpose of government is to secure the rights of all to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” It values wealth, not people. It values power, it possesses great power, and it seeks to wield that power without restraint.

If living in a world governed by such values is not attractive, then we need to do more than merely resist. We need to fight ideology with ideology, not with programs and policies. We need to actively reaffirm the importance of democracy. We need a rededication to the “self-evident truths” of the Declaration of Independence, the political philosophy that animates our Constitution and the constitutions of all democratic states.

Jefferson’s summary of America’s revolutionary philosophy begins with the assertion of human political equality as its fundamental principle. Political equality is the foundation of democratic government, not an end to be achieved by government. Because of that equality, all people are possessed of rights based on their humanity, not on any achievements such as the accumulation of great wealth. The function of government is to secure those rights—an undefined number of rights including “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”—for all, and the powers of government are legitimized solely by “the consent of the governed.”

Radical Libertarians would cast aside all of those values. They would reduce “the governed” who give consent to the very wealthy, a group that, generously defined, might include as much as 1% of the American population.

We also need to be clear that private capitalism and democratic politics are not the same thing.  Both emerged out of the individualizing impulse of the Renaissance, but in spite of the fantasies of Ayn Rand and Milton Friedman, economic activity alone is not capable of organizing a social order of any complexity. Not all values can be monetized. Property rights are basic to freedom, but human freedom cannot be reduced to property rights. Our greatest national failure, the ultimate source of much of the divisiveness in contemporary life, was slavery, the institutionalized triumph of property rights over human rights.

The dynamics of unchecked capitalism will inevitably overwhelm the claims of human rights. Wherever capital has been unconstrained by the power of a countervailing political system—think Nazi Germany, communist nations, other countries in which political and economic power are unified as in Pinochet’s Chile—human rights suffer, often catastrophically.

It can happen here

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Enough Talk about Race


Enough Talk about Race

Chief Justice Roger Taney’s 1857 decision in the Dred Scott case shifted the national discussion from slavery to race, and we’ve been talking about race ever since. Group therapy to deal with our personal discriminations can never do what needs to be done. It’s time white Americans stopped talking and started doing.

Father Sundborg’s essay in Sunday’s paper is constructive, but his initial characterization is badly flawed. He writes: “I have come to view white privilege as the unconscious mindset and behavior of white people.” This statement locates the problem in peoples’ minds. How can we remain so unconscious? We can be unconscious of our privileges because they are so thoroughly institutionalized that they are simply the nature of our reality.

Two things need to be done by we white folks: 1) acknowledge fully that slavery and Jim Crow together with the treatment of Indians constitute crimes against humanity that dwarf the crimes of Nazi Germany, and 2) deal seriously with the economic deficits that still cripple black Americans as a group.

American blacks remain enslaved by the imputation of inferiority embodied in slavery. Every Civil War statue, every show of the Confederate flag, renews that stigma. It cannot be erased until we, as a nation, confess that crimes against humanity were committed. That confession needs to take the form of a formal Congressional apology passed as a standalone bill, signed by the President in an elaborate public ceremony, and actively pursued in school curricula from kindergarten through high school. There are no living former slaves, but there still should be a monetary acknowledgement granted to every American of African ancestry, excluding immigrants who have arrived since the Civil War. The estimated average value of a slave at the start of the Civil War was about $1,000, and that would be a symbolically meaningful amount for each black American. (American Indians have been granted a Congressional apology, as have the Hawaiian people, to whom we apologized for our government’s complicity in the coup that brought annexation. and the Japanese who were interned during World War II.)

That would give us a running start. The heavy lifting would follow: The apology should also contain a commitment to a settlement for the economic damages suffered by blacks as a group as the result of actions by all levels of American government, from the local to the national (see R. Rothstein, Under Color of Law). Black families possess on average about one-tenth of the assets possessed by white families. That is not an accident. The foundation of American capital was the land taken from Indians, and blacks were totally shut out of that windfall. During Reconstruction many of the freedpeople managed to acquire some property, but by the end of the century almost all had been destroyed or lost to whites through various forms of fraud or terrorism. Since then black accumulation of capital has been frustrated by the Jim Crow regime, which became national as blacks moved out of the South. What we have called de facto segregation was actually de jure segregation—unconstitutional practices tolerated for decades in housing, labor unions, schools, colleges and universities, government programs such as Social Security, the FHA, and the GI Bill. Time and again blacks have been blocked from prosperity.

Settling for economic (not punitive) damages will require a commitment on an altogether different scale. Closing the gap in mean asset value between white households and black households—$130,000-$150,000—would require $2-3 trillion. (The total 2018 budget for the U.S. Government stands at a bit over $4 trillion.) A program on that scale would have to be longitudinal, and it would consist of many in kind services as well as direct cash payments.

Having a few black friends has done nothing to end the privileges that I have enjoyed.

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Trump Is Truth about America

I peered into the abyss last night and saw that Trump is the Truth.

By that I mean that he is the personification of the collapse of the constitutional invention of 1787. To answer Lincoln’s implicit question, a government “conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal cannot long endure.” It was better than the alternatives, but it gradually slipped away from us over the last 50 years, done in by the attempt to be serious about “equal.”

These thoughts were stimulated by The Nation. It resurrected a short piece from 1992 that ran through the “high crimes and misdemeanors” of the Reagan administrations, especially Iran/Contra, and reflects darkly on the fact that there was no effort to impeach even though the violations were much more serious than anything Nixon had done. His analysis is a version of T.S. Eliot’s “Human kind cannot bear very much reality:” the American people simply did not want to confront the truth.

And I thought on, about the effort to impeach Clinton for a blow job, Bush’s election by the Supreme Court (Gore betrayed us all by not forcing a Constitutional crisis at that point), and the lack of any effort to impeach Bush and Cheney for lying to get us into the war in Iraq. Trump knows nothing about the Constitution and constitutional government, and he does not worry about the consequences of anything he might do. Trump, too, has observed the collapse of “checks and balances.” Obviously there would never be an effort to impeach him. He personifies the situation, but there is no good served by blaming him. He simply makes visible how far we had fallen. Hillary’s election would have made little substantive difference—a few years’ delay, perhaps, but no return to constitutional governance. Ever since 1976 Congress has been too benighted to care. The structure became so rotted that it was standing only because nobody leaned against it. Trump leaned.

I had a wretched night, but having confessed my dark thoughts to my wife this morning, I find myself quite at peace—a bit like Melville to Hawthorne: “I have written a wicked book, and feel spotless as the lamb.”

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Gerald Horne’s “The Counter-Revolution of 1776”

Gerald Horne’s basic thesis is implicit in his title: the real revolution of the 1770s was the British turn against slavery represented by the Somerset case of 1772, and the rebellion in the North American colonies was a counter-revolutionary reaction to that revolution

Like all monocausal theories invoked to explain complex historic events, Horne’s theory does not convince. It does not help his case that he explicitly throws in the towel on page 4 of his “Introduction”:

“Assuredly, as with any epochal event, the ouster of London from a number of its North American colonies was driven by many forces—not just slavery and the slavery trade—a point I well recognize.”

But he doesn’t really mean it. His final chapter is “The Counter-Revolution of 1776.” Evaluating his claim is important because it is the foundation for a subtext that runs through the book denigrating the Declaration of Independence, both the document and the action.

To have a counter-revolution you must first have a revolution.

Horne asserts that the revolution was embodied in the decision rendered in June of 1772 by Lord Mansfield, Lord Chief Justice of Great Britain, in the case of Somerset v Stuart. Somerset was Stuart’s Negro slave, purchased in Virginia and brought to England. Somerset was a troublesome slave, so Stuart planned to sell him in Jamaica, and to that end had him shackled aboard a ship for transportation. Anti-slavery activists obtained a writ of habeas corpus. Somerset was released, and Stuart sought to assert his rights as owner in the English courts.

Lord Mansfield was acutely aware of the significance of any decision he made, and he urged the parties to settle to avoid the consequences. The parties pushed for a decision, and after a month of deliberation Lord Mansfield delivered his decision. The crucial passage is the following:

“The state of slavery is of such a nature that it is incapable of being introduced on any reasons, moral or political, but only by positive law [statute], which preserves its force long after the reasons, occasions, and time itself from whence it was created, is erased from memory. It is so odious, that nothing can be suffered to support it, but positive law. Whatever inconveniences, therefore, may follow from the decision, I cannot say this case [Stuart’s claim to Somerset] is allowed or approved by the law of England; and therefore the black must be discharged.”

Technically this decision is very narrow, applying only to the case of James Somerset. It does not outlaw or ban slavery in England. It says only that nothing in English law supports slavery.

Does the Somerset decision mark a “revolution”?

As early as 1693 the Quakers of Pennsylvania began to question the morality of slavery. In that year An Exhortation & Caution to Friends Concerning the Buying or Keeping of Negroes was published by the Philadelphia Monthly Meeting. In 1702 the Lord Chief Justice of England, Sir John Holt, stated that “as soon as a negro comes to England he is free; one may be a villein in England, but not a slave.” (However, slaves continued to be bought and sold at markets in Liverpool and London.)

In 1758 the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting appointed a committee to “visit those Friends still holding slaves.” (, 27 March 2015). 1775 saw the organization of the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery.

In 1778 Virginia outlawed the importation of slaves. In 1790 Vermont organized itself with a constitution prohibiting slavery, and by 1804 every state north of the Mason-Dixon Line (the southern border of Pennsylvania) had decreed the end of slavery, all be it effective at various future dates. In 1807 the United States outlawed the importation of slaves, effective January 1, 1808, the earliest date possible under the Constitution. England moved to abolish the slave trade in 1807, with an effective date in 1814. Slavery itself was not abolished by England until 1833.

Where along this historic continuum did a “revolution” occur

Perhaps the most significant aspect of Somerset’s case was that it was the first major direct clash between slavers and abolitionists as self-identified interest groups: Somerset was supported by early English abolitionists and Stuart’s action was funded by “West Indian Planters and Merchants.”  Both sides were already organized for the fight.

The decision’s great power resides, however, less in the legal pronouncement than in the moral condemnation of slavery on which the decision is based:  “It is so odious, that nothing can be suffered to support it, but positive law [i.e. statute].” And no such positive law existed in England. Somerset was freed.

To reinforce his “counter-revolution” argument, Horne associates it with the proclamation in late 1775 by Lord Dunmore, royal governor of Virginia, to free and arm any slave who would join the English in controlling the colonists. That was a disastrous mistake, but in any case the revolution was well advanced by then. As the Declaration of Independence stated in 1776, “These United Colonies ARE [emphasis added], and of right ought to be, free and independent states.” (Horne repeatedly uses as a contemptuous sneer the term “Unilateral Declaration of Independence,” as if any self-respecting declaration of independence could be anything but unilateral.) The Boston Tea Party was held in 1773, and by the time of Lord Dunmore’s edict, the Continental Army (such as it was) was besieging Boston, whose port had been closed by the British Navy since 1774. The battles of Lexington and Concord had occurred in April of 1775. And by January of 1776 not one royal governor was sitting on American soil; several remained nearby aboard British men-of-war (as was true of Lord Dunmore), but none was effectively governing.

And in June 1772 occurred the Gaspee Affair, which Horne discusses briefly but incorrectly. The H.M.S. Gaspee was a British customs schooner (not “a brig arrived from Africa,” as Horne has it, implying that it might have been a slaver) under the command of Lt. William Dudingston. Since early in the year, Dudingston had patrolled the waters of Rhode Island, irritating powerful merchants by seizing their ships and cargos (usually sugar, molasses, or rum) and irritating everyone, from the governor on down, with his arrogant manner and abusive behavior. A series of escalating incidents led, in June of 1772, to a sloop called the Hannah luring the Gaspee into shallow waters, where it ran aground. After  midnight, when the moon had set, a well organized force of colonials boarded the vessel, plundered it (even stealing its silver spoons), rowed the crew to shore, then set fire to the ship, which was utterly destroyed.

American colonists were thus well on their way to revolution in June of 1772, the same month as the Somerset decision. The Somerset decision may have been a revolutionary step in the emergence of abolitionism, but the American Revolution was in no meaningful sense a counter-revolution against it. Our Revolution did not occur on July 4, 1776. The cultural revolution that made independence imperative had been under way for a generation or more (see, for example, Gordon Wood, The Radicalism of the American Revolution). The Declaration’s second paragraph articulated the political philosophy that had emerged from those changes.

The truly fatal flaw in Horne’s argument, however, is this: both the abolition movement and the colonists’ declaration of their independence were integral parts of the long historical process in which monarchy and hereditary hierarchy were giving way to the more fluid, individualized culture of the modern world. That revolution started long before 1776, and it remains an ongoing exploration of the meaning of human political equality. We don’t have it right yet, but the process is still at work.

In dealing with American history it is good to join Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and “become acquainted with ambivalences.”

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Our discussion of the shooting of black men by white police can be enlightened by considering why the non-violent techniques of Martin Luther King succeeded in the 1950s and 1960s. To understand those successes, we need history of deep culture, of the roots of America’s Western myth. The bottom line: racial conflict is the DNA of our national narrative.

Those roots date from 1682 when one Mary Rowlandson published a narrative of her captivity by Indians. Her little book, A Narrative of the Captivity . . . of Mary Rowlandson, established the first American literary genre, the Captivity Narrative. It established a number of enduring narrative elements. 1) It treats the Indians as the personification of all that was fearful in the vast American forests, 2) frequently identifying them with the Devil. 3) It treats Mrs. Rowlandson’s captivity as a divine testing of her religious faith, which she of course passes, making the Captive a vessel bearing fundamental values. 4). It treats her return to the English community as evidence of God’s continued active blessing on the New English project, later to become Manifest Destiny. 5) It established three main actors in the American story: the Captive, the Savage Captor, and God the Rescuer.

This was the American story until the Revolution. The problem then was that in the Captivity Narratives the captives were mostly passive victims. The active characters were always the Indians as the Devil’s agents and God as Rescuer. The captives were pawns in the cosmic drama between God and Devil, Good and Evil. A newly independent people needed a story with a properly active human hero.

Over time, through the reported lives of actual Americans–Daniel Boone, Davy Crockett, Kit Carson, John C. Fremont, and William Cody were the most prominent–and through the imaginative works of others–most notably James Fenimore Cooper and the myriad of writers who imitated his “Leatherstocking Novels,” and William “Buffalo Bill” Cody whose “Wild West” was hugely influential in shaping the idea of American history not only in the United States but in Europe as well—the Rescuer role played originally by God was taken over by the cowboy or by the nation itself. The dramatic interest shifted from the internal experiences of the Captive to the exploits of the Rescuer. By the end of the 19th century, the modern Western had been born. Its ties to the Captivity Narrative are not apparent, but its psychological and emotional roots nevertheless lie in racial conflict.

The Captivity Narrative both reflected and shaped Americans’ understanding of national experience. After the Civil War the great challenge was to fit the freed slaves into the national narrative of a reunited country. Before the war they were Captives. After the war, what were they? Early Southern histories of Reconstruction cast white Southerners as the Captives and blacks as Savage Captors, but they had little influence on Northern perceptions, which were shaped more by spectacular lynchings or the continuing influence of Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

Because of the inherently racial character of the Captivity Narrative, this ambiguity about the role of the freed slaves created serious instability in the way Americans thought of themselves. The problem was that there was no national narrative of blacks as Savage Captors. In the propaganda battles leading toward civil war, both North and South were invested in images of slaves as kind, gentle, happy people. It took a long time to create a narrative with blacks as Savage Captors. By 1915, the task was completed with the release of The Birth of a Nation.

The Birth of a Nation was probably the single most influential element of popular culture in the 20th century. It was seen by millions upon millions of Americans, and it solved the problem of the role of the black male: he was the Savage Captor. The identification of the black male with that role is underscored by the film’s development of Western motifs from Buffalo Bill’s “Wild West.” Before doing Birth Griffith had made dozens of short Western films, in many cases working with men who had ridden in Buffalo Bill’s show. One of the grandest scenes in that show was “The Raid on the Settlers’ Cabin,” an Indian attack on peace loving white settlers. The grand climax of Birth is a version of “The Raid on the Settlers’ Cabin,” but with blacks in the role of the Indians. Blacks had become the Savage Captors of this new national narrative, and White America was the nation that had been born.

King’s movement had little momentum until May of 1963, when Birmingham’s Bull Connor revised our narrative. The national impact of the images of white officers turning police dogs and fire cannons on children and then hauling them off to jail reversed the roles: blacks became the Captives; white men became Savage Captors. Freed from the narrative of White America, that fall King could capture Americans’ imaginations with a new national narrative free of racial conflict.

The inspiration was sustained through the assassination of John Kennedy into the summer of 1964, when the great Civil Rights Act was passed.

Then in the spring of 1965 the spirit of Bull Connor reasserted itself at the Pettus Bridge in Selma. Again, on national television, the nation saw the white Savages beating unresisting black marchers. Before the end of the summer, the Voting Rights Act had been passed.

By 1968, as in 1868, reaction had set in. In many ways our racial DNA reasserts itself: in failing schools, in mass incarceration, in white police killing black males. So far, however, we have no new Birth of a Nation. Griffith’s America and King’s America struggle for control.

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For years now, people have been casting about in search of a “new economy” to replace capitalism as we have known it. For the most part the suggestions advanced have been one form or another of something called “a shared economy.” As nearly as I can tell, a shared economy is one in which those of us with modest amounts of stuff share what we have with others in the same category, including cooperative ownership of our places of employment. The heart does not beat faster.

Finally, something really new has been suggested by Peter Barnes in a little book entitled With Liberty and Dividends for All. He begins by facing the really, really, really big problem that is coming down the pike:  “We must face the fact that jobs alone won’t sustain a large middle class in the future—there just aren’t, and won’t be, enough good-paying jobs to do that.” His unflinching conclusion: “This means we need broadly shared streams of nonlabor income.” His one-sentence solution: “The best way to create those streams [is] with dividends from wealth we own together.”

About that “wealth we own together,” Barnes cites a successful example of what he has in mind: the decision by the state of Alaska in 1980 to distribute the state’s earnings from North Slope oil directly to the citizens rather than to the state itself. For a theoretical grounding he turns to a late work by Thomas Paine (he of Common Sense fame), Agrarian Justice. Paine distinguished between “natural property”—such as air and water and soil—and “artificial property” invented by men. The latter, he noted, will always be distributed unequally, but the former belongs equally to all. Natural property could be distributed equally to all by creation of a national fund to which users of natural resources would make payment and from which all individuals would receive equal payments.

Barnes develops the idea most fully in relation to the right to release carbon dioxide into our air in large quantities. Rather than a system of carbon taxes, as has been batted around for years, he suggests simply that the fees paid for the rights to carbon emissions be paid directly to all card-carrying (Social Security cards, which represent a distribution system already in place) Americans as annual dividends. The value of such rights would be set by auction. Many other co-owned assets could also yield dividends, including the value of basic systems such as the financial system; securities transaction fees could easily yield substantial dividends for all of us. As would be the case with carbon emission fees, the system could be used to attack the problem of climate change and other environmental challenges such as water pollution or the depletion of ground water.

Barnes argues that his scheme should be politically viable since it has obvious appeals to those on both sides (although probably not those at the two ends) of the political spectrum.

Or, perhaps it is an idea on which a new political party could be built?

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The Declaration, the Constitution, and Equality

“With respect to equality one should not understand the word to mean that the degrees of power and wealth are absolutely identical . . . but that no citizen should be rich enough to buy another and none so poor as to be obliged to sell himself.” J.J. Rousseau

 As Paul Krugman recently put it, the essence of our current political conflict is a struggle between democracy and plutocracy. That is what the discussion of inequality is all about. What is notably lacking in these discussions is the role of equality in our basic political philosophy. Equality is fundamental to the political philosophy outlined in the Declaration of Independence, the document which created the United States of America—the nation, not the government.

The Declaration’s opening statement declares that the document’s purpose is to “declare the causes which impel [the colonies] to the Separation” from Great Britain. The second paragraph of the Declaration launches into a series of “self-evident truths,” beginning with “All men are created equal” and ending with a long assertion of the right to revolution. Taken together those “truths” provide a brilliant condensation of a coherent political philosophy. That philosophy was unquestioned in 1776 and was in fact the only useable philosophy available in 1787 when the Constitution was drafted, creating our government. While the ideas were conventional, Jefferson’s formulation is subtle and complex, with equality as the fundamental value underlying each step in his series of self-evident truths.

As a factual statement, the meaning of the first self-evident truth—“that all men are created equal”—is narrowly limited. We can’t know what range of meanings Jefferson or any other participant at the Continental Congress gave to “equality.”  We can be reasonably certain, however, that they all understood it to mean at least “political equality.” At birth, all individuals are politically equal. There is no hereditary right to rule. There is no natural social or political hierarchy. The meaning of “political equality” was beautifully expressed by one Col. Richard Rumbold, a Cromwellian soldier executed for treason in 1685. Speaking from the scaffold, he asserted that “there was no Man born marked of God above another; for none comes into the World with a Saddle on his Back, neither any Booted and Spurr’d to Ride him.”

By itself, the proposition that all are created equal is more a problem than a solution. The assertion of equality is negative—it tells us what IS NOT (ruling power as a birth right) but does not determine what SHOULD BE (an effective government). From the moment of birth, the central fact of human experience is the myriad inequalities among people—physical, intellectual, psychological, moral, political, economic—starting with the inequality between parent and child. Political equality in itself posits no institutional form, no guidelines for legitimate sovereignty, no foundation for government. It is value-free. As a general proposition, political equality raises the specter articulated by Thomas Hobbes: a war of all against all, in which the strong tyrannize the weak.

“Equality” is not a fact of human experience. It is a convention, an idea developed to fill the vacuum created when the convention of hereditary rule—of inherited “authority”—collapsed in England in the 17th century. By itself the idea of political equality leaves us free to construct whatever political philosophy we want. At one extreme, lovers of peace hold up anarchy— not the bomb-throwing type but utopian anarchy, the belief that equal people can cooperate in a classless society and make governmental structures unnecessary. Marx’s notion that the state would ultimately wither under Communism is a prominent example, as is the Occupy movement of recent memory. At the other extreme, are those who think that might makes right—the claim of William the Conqueror to all of England, or the claims of European nations to vast portions of the non-European world, the claims made by Americans in the 1840s to as much of North America as they could grab, the actions of Putinesque strongmen.

Equality of birth is the foundational value, but it cannot provide direction to efforts to create a just government. Such direction can come only from a commitment to further ideas. Jefferson’s second self-evident truth is a leap to the unprovable assertion that “they [all those equal people in truth number one] are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights.” These rights—which today we call “human rights”—are, like equality, present at birth. They are equally possessed by each individual. They precede government, so they are not created by government and therefore can be asserted by individuals against government.

Jefferson then gives substance to those equal human rights with his third self-evident truth, “that among these [rights] are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.” Only three rights are named, but the phrase “among these” implies the existence of an indefinite number of additional rights. The Ninth Amendment to the Constitution of 1787 explicitly reaffirms the existence of an undefined number of “rights retained by the people.”

Jefferson did not invent the short list, which was a conventional Enlightenment list of rights. He nevertheless did make a substantive choice by using the phrase “the pursuit of happiness” rather than the more common Lockean term “property.” Unlike a right to property, a right to “the pursuit of happiness” is egalitarian; it can be actively enjoyed by everyone, including those who manifestly fail to achieve happiness. The pursuit of happiness, like “life” and “liberty,” is an activity, a life course, a process completed only by death. Modern American English has trivialized “happiness,” but for Jefferson its pursuit was probably close to what we would call “living a life of dignity” or “having the opportunity to realize one’s natural abilities to their fullest.” It asserts a right for each to live a fulfilling life.

The fourth of the Declaration’s self-evident truths moves from the assertion of human rights equally possessed by all to a sweeping assertion about human history: “that to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men.” This is less a statement of historical truth than of revolutionary intention. It is the simplest and clearest statement we have of the American philosophy regarding the function of government: to secure equally to all their rights as human beings.

Jefferson then inserted a crucial requirement: governments derive “their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed.” This clause circles back to the initial idea of political equality. Legitimate political sovereignty is initially dispersed among all of the people as their equal heritage at birth. Sovereignty—the right to exercise political power on behalf of one’s fellows—flows up from the equal people as they grant their consent to be governed.

After political power has been granted, the government so created must use that power to secure the equal rights of all. If it fails to do so, Jefferson’s fifth self-evident truth asserts, “it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government.” In traditional hereditary hierarchical systems, there could be no right to revolution because the right to rule had been established at (or before) birth. The ultimate consequence of the assertion of human political equality is the right to revolution.

 *  *  *  *  *

 “Equal” does not appear in the Constitution of 1787 in any form. Has the lofty philosophy of the Declaration of Independence any lasting relevance to American politics?

The short answer is a resounding YES. The ideas set forth in the Declaration—not because they were set forth in the Declaration but because they were almost universally held—shaped American government.

The Continental Congress that adopted the Declaration of Independence went on to form a new government for the nation it had created. Cobbled together during the course of the Revolutionary War, the Articles of Confederation was not formally ratified until 1781. Slow in coming, it reflected widespread fear of a strong central government. It created almost no institutional structure of governance, and it provided no reliable source of revenue to fund the activities of government—not enough even to properly service the debt incurred fighting the war. After the war ended officially in 1783, the new states squabbled among themselves, and the economy was a shambles. The nation was short on gold and, because it lacked a meaningful central government, it was difficult to obtain credit, fair trade privileges, or even minimal respect from other nations.

By 1786 the government created by the Articles had manifestly failed. It had become destructive of the basic ends of government. It did not and could not secure the rights of Americans. And so, as the Declaration said they could, men began to discuss altering the government and went on to abolish it and institute a new government under the Constitution of 1787.

The Articles of Confederation had created a confederation of states, one that derived its powers from the various state legislatures rather than from the sovereign people. The Constitutional Convention of 1787 took a different course. The Preamble declares that “We the People of the United States . . . do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.” And the Constitution required that it be established through a process of ratification by conventions in each of the states called for the sole purpose of ratifying it. The governed gave their consent.

To what did they give their consent? The Constitution creates an institutional framework of government, so it is short on idealistic rhetoric. Nevertheless the political equality asserted in the Declaration lies at the very core of the new government in the form of the elected legislative and executive officers. No American would be born with any right to rule over other Americans.

On two, four, and six year cycles those who exercised political sovereignty had to be elected by their peers. Renewed consent by the governed was an ongoing, inescapable requirement for the exercise of political power.

Even more indicative of the political equality at the base of the new government were the requirements for those who could be elected to those offices. There were only 2 requirements: different ages for the various offices, and residency. There were no stipulations about family of birth, about education, about wealth, about experience. There also were no stipulations regarding gender, race, or condition of servitude. As far as the Constitution was concerned, an illiterate American-born female slave of African origin could be elected to office. Voting rules in the individual states made such an outcome purely theoretical, but the fantasy makes clear that the Constitution embodies political equality of a very high order.

The possibility of continued re-creation of the form of government was embedded in the new Constitution’s Article V, which provided for amendments, and it was used almost immediately. The Constitution as presented to the ratifying conventions made no mention of the rights of people. Its chief author, James Madison, omitted any mention on two grounds. First, he believed that the democratic structure that he had designed was itself proof against any violation of citizen’s rights. Second, he was concerned that any listing of rights would inevitably leave out some rights. Popular demands made the addition of a Bill of Rights a requirement for ratification, so the initial ten amendments were added and ratified by 1791. The Ninth Amendment spoke to Madison’s concern about omitting an important right by stating that “The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.” Because of such language, new rights can be and have been defined by legislation and by decision of the Supreme Court of the United States. Jefferson’s “among these [rights]” lives on among us.

Finally, there is the record of Constitutional Amendments subsequent to the Bill of Rights. Since then, seventeen amendments have been added. Of those, five are housekeeping amendments, dealing with such matters as presidential disability. Two deal with the aberration of the prohibition against alcohol. The remaining ten amendments all provide for greater equality under our government: abolition of slavery, direct election of senators, woman’s right to vote, the ballot for 18 year olds, and so on.

 * * * * *

It is clear that the political philosophy presented in Declaration of Independence shaped the government crafted by the Constitution of 1787. Human equality is the great shaping idea of our governmental structure. That the function of government is to secure human rights equally to all of the people is an idea whose meaning has been steadily explored and expanded.

The question we are confronting today is whether we wish to continue under that philosophy. The issue has not been framed in such sweeping terms, and the varied special interests engaged in our culture wars obscure the profundity of the underlying issue: Do we wish to abandon the political philosophy that has shaped national life for nearly 250 years? Do we no longer want the function of government to be the securing to all Americans their equal rights as human beings? Should sovereign power continue to represent equally the rights of all Americans, or should we accept the proposition that the views of those with great wealth should be followed at the expense of the less prosperous?

Arguing whether government should be larger or smaller is fiddling while Rome burns. The question is what should it do and how should it do it. If the Declaration’s assertion that the function is to secure the rights of all is not the goal we wish to pursue, what other definition of the function of government should be used as our guide? If we still see securing our rights as our goal for government, how should that goal be pursued?

The Declaration’s language can provide a useful touchstone. If government is to secure my right to life, how does that bear on the problem of obtaining health care? If government is to secure my liberty, how does that bear on available education resources? If I am to pursue happiness, how can and should the government facilitate the process?

While few if any want a leveling equality, it is clear that there is a limit to inequality beyond which democracy cannot and will not survive. We can’t define that boundary with precision, but we have immense evidence that if we continue increasing inequality, we will not only lose our democracy but also will probably decay to the status of a third world nation.




































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The Road to Serfdom: The Tea Party

As a lifelong liberal, I have belatedly undertaken an effort to understand the thinking of libertarians. An early project was the reading of F.A. Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that, in spite of the over-heated title, the book presents a rational argument.

It is a polemical book; as an Austrian refugee living and teaching in London in the 1930s, Hayek began to develop his argument in 1931, driven “by my annoyance with the complete misinterpretation in English ‘progressive’ circles of the character of the Nazi movement.” (The Road to Serfdom: Text and Documents: The Definitive Edition edited by Bruce Caldwell, p. 53. All citations refer to this edition.).

The flaw he saw was the progressive argument that although the German character made the Hitler regime quite unpleasant, the central economic planning at its heart was in itself a great idea. In Hayek’s contrary view, the brutality of the German, Soviet, and Italian regimes was the inevitable result of socialist thought, not an expression of the flawed national characters of those countries.

The Road to Serfdom is a history of ideas arguing that the decades of socialist theorizing among European intellectuals had led inevitably to the totalitarian regimes in Germany, Italy, and the USSR. Whether one accepts his general historical interpretation or not, his analysis of the dangers of central planning contains a lot of good sense.

It is important to emphasize that “central planning” is his primary target. As he said in his Preface to the 1976 edition of the book, “At the time I wrote, socialism meant unambiguously the nationalization of the means of production and the central economic planning which this made possible and necessary . . “ (p. 54).

Hayek was opposed to centralized government control of the economy but not to all government interventions in the economy nor to a government “safety net” for its citizens. In his introduction, Caldwell notes that during the 1930s Hayek often spoke to groups of business people, to whom he argued that what is needed is a set of rules defining what government activities are legitimate and which are illegitimate; “You must cease to argue for and against government activity as such” (p.20), he advised them.

Further, in his chapter on “Security and Freedom” he notes that there are two incompatible kinds of security for individuals: “first, security against severe physical privation, the certainty of a given minimum of sustenance for all; and second, the security of . . . the relative position which one person or group enjoys compared with others. . . .” It is a choice between “the security of a minimum income and the security of the particular income a person is thought to deserve. . . . “ He continues, “There is no reason why in a society which has reached the general level of wealth which ours has attained the first kind of security should not be guaranteed to all without endangering general freedom.” (147-48)

In other words, this sacred text of libertarianism supports the provision of a guaranteed “security” for all. It does not argue that such a governmental guarantee is inconsistent with freedom. What Hayek objects to most vehemently is not a government guaranteed minimum but government actions that provide “a privileged security of particular classes,” which probably would include agricultural subsidies that pay millions to industrial farming operations, family “charitable” foundations that serve the founding families, laws that prevent the federal government from negotiating prices with pharmaceutical firms, and tax laws that protect extractive industries, such as petroleum, from the inevitable depletion of the resources they extract.

The Road to Serfdom is most pertinent to contemporary American political life in his analysis of the intellectual process that leads to totalitarianism. It is a detailed and subtle argument in which Hayek sets forth the nature and affects of totalitarian propaganda. All states use propaganda for various purposes, but “in a totalitarian state . . . all propaganda serves the same goal—all the instruments of propaganda are coordinated to influence the individual in the same direction.”(p. 171) Totalitarian propaganda, he argues, “cannot confine itself to values but must extend to questions of fact.” (p 172)  Since the values dominate (the ends justify the means), facts must be made to conform to those values. The great casualty of this process is truth itself, and “There is consequently no field where the systematic control of information will not be practiced and uniformity of views not enforced. This applies even . . . to all the sciences, even the most abstract.” (p176).

In the U.S. of today that description does not apply to the government.

It does apply, however, to the political right. It is the right that has developed the carefully controlled flow of information for its adherents. It is the right which flamboyantly refuses to allow its ideas to be limited by facts. It is the right that consciously and systematically sustains campaigns of misinformation.

Against that context one other of Hayek’s observation is immensely disturbing: he noted in the early 1940s that “the one decisive factor in the rise of totalitarianism on the Continent, which is yet absent in England and America, is the existence of a large recently dispossessed middle class.” (p. 215). Such a class does exist in the United States today, and, as in Germany in the 1930s, it is the group most caught up in the closed world of right wing fact-free discourse.

In Hayek’s analysis the road to serfdom in the United States is now being paved by the Tea Party-Right, not the Democratic Party..



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“We Have Met the Enemy . . . “

“We Have Met the Enemy . . .”

I have long puzzled over the difficulty we have had talking about the causes of increased inequality. Those in favor of current distributions have managed to control the terms of discussion. Their basic strategy has been to blame everything on impersonal forces that just can’t be controlled. The common plea is that “Globalization made us to it.” Or that corporations simply must pay CEO’s utterly obscene salaries to hire the great talents that they need. Or that taxes must be kept low to induce “job creators” to create jobs.

Nonsense. All nonsense.

In 1990 Kevin Phillips, a one-time high level Republican advisor who helped craft Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” in 1968 and wrote The Emerging Republican Majority, published a book entitled The Politics of Rich and Poor. The subject of his book, he said, was “the new political economics, intensifying inequality and pain for the poor, the unprecedented growth of upper-bracket wealth, the surprisingly related growth of federal debt, global economic realignment, foreigners gobbling up large chunks of America, the meaninglessness of being a millionaire in an era with nearly a hundred thousand ‘decamillionaires.” (p. xxii).

Phillips does not connect these changes to impersonal forces. He credits them to the policies associated with the Reagan administrations. He duly notes that some of these developments were international, yet he insists that “by 1988 many of the new patterns of wealth during the 1980s . . . could be traced to specific approaches followed by the new administration after January 1981.”

In his fourth chapter Phillips does trace the new patterns to specific actions by the federal government. He discusses four basic categories of change:

  1. Tax-Bracket Reductions. The top income tax rates were cut from 70% to 28%, capital gains rate, which had dropped from 49% to 28% in 1978, was further cut to 20%. For a period in the mid-1980s the top rate for incomes between $70,000 and $150,000 was 33% while everything over $150,000 was taxed at only 28%! Meanwhile the Social Security Tax rate rose from 6% to 7.5%.
  2. Budget Policy. In simple terms, domestic spending was cut while defense spending (which fed huge profits to owners of defense related industries) was increased dramatically.
  3. Deregulation. Deregulation had begun in the Carter years with the deregulation of transportation—airlines, railroads, truckers—and selective deregulation made good sense. Fired by a latter-day faith in laissez faire government, however, the Reagan administrations deregulated with reckless abandon. Deregulation in the financial markets were especially effective at redistributing income from the poor to the rich.
  4. Money and Debt. Fiscal and monetary policies were managed to shift income and wealth from the bulk of the population to the top and tippy-top few.

In other words, we did it to ourselves.

The crucial moral, therefore, is that we can undo it.

Unless, that is, that so much power has concentrated in so few hands that the democratic process has ceased to work and we are now a de facto plutocracy rather than a democracy.



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Milton Friedman and the Anarchic Unicorn

Milton Friedman, through his 1980 PBS TV series and subsequent book entitled Free to Choose, did much to make free market ideology attractive to many Americans. The TV series remains available online and on DVD, and the book remains in print. Friedman was a Nobel laureate for his economic work, but not for his free market ideology. I can’t judge the work on which the award was based, but I can judge his presentation of free market ideology. It is ideological propaganda, intellectually shoddy and logically flawed.

For simplicity I will deal only with the book, and for the most part only with its brief “Introduction.” As with most such books, the introductory materials establish the basic assumptions that control the book. Friedman takes 1776 as his baseline, with the publication of Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations and our Declaration of Independence as the two sets of ideas that made possible the story of the economic and political “miracle” that is the United States. Throughout the book he refers back frequently to Adam Smith, but having quoted the Declaration through the equality of men and the definition of our unalienable rights, Friedman forgets the Declaration. He forgets, too, that its next phrase insisted that “to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men.”

Friedman, in other words, rejects the proposition that the role of government is to secure our rights and assumes that economic freedom—the “free market”—can and should suffice to shape and manage national life. The fundamental problem with the arguments throughout the book is that a free market is as easy to find as a unicorn. It has not and does not and cannot actually exist. Free market ideology assumes a condition in which all individuals are equal, in which no significant differentials exist between the powers of individuals, and in which no institutions exist other than the government. It is a world without corporations, without banks, without special interest groups, without organizations that privilege some economic players over others.

The second problem is that Friedman’s conception is not about an economic system but about social organization. He imagines what Michael Sandel would call a “market society,” a society organized by price alone. For Friedman life is economics; he does not conceive of a social order with non-monetary values, a social order using market mechanisms to serve those non-monetary values. Drawing on Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” he conceives of a social order organized completely on the basis of economic relations. Economic freedom, he believes, creates a social order “By enabling people to cooperate with one another without coercion or central direction . . .” (p. 2-3). This is an anarchist’s dream, not a serious idea about the way the world works.

The third problem is obvious in this last formulation: for Friedman, all economic actors are individuals. The existence of corporations, he says, “does not alter matters. We speak loosely of the ‘corporation’s income’ or of ‘business’ having an income. That is figurative language. The corporation is an intermediary between its owners—the stockholders—and the resources other than the stockholders’ capital, the services of which it purchases [sic]. Only people have incomes . . .” (20). Corporate institutions don’t exist in his world.

The fourth problem arises from this evaporation of the corporation: Friedman sees no serious threats in differences in economic power. He repeats the fantasy at the nineteenth century roots of the so-called “American Dream,” the idea that individual workers freely sell their labor. In the sentimental historical vignette of immigrants coming to America for economic opportunity in his “Introduction,” Friedman observes that our most rapid growth came after slavery was abolished. At that time “The millions of immigrants from all over the world were free to work for themselves, as independent farmers or businessmen, or to work for others, at terms mutually agreed.” (emphasis added). The idea that workers and employers engaged in a symmetrical negotiation about terms of work–an example of the assumption that all economic actors are individuals—reflects a stunning ignorance of history.

The fifth problem is Friedman’s unwillingness to talk about private or corporate economic power. He does not discuss the economic role of corporations except to inveigh against the folly of taxing corporations. His basic assumption is that the cooperation induced by the free market “reduces the area over which political power is exercised.”  (p.3). He continues to assert that, “by dispersing power, the free market provides an offset to whatever concentration of political power may arise. The combination of economic and political power in the same hands is a sure recipe for tyranny.” (p. 3). Throughout the book Friedman’s persistent assumption is that the only institutions that acquire any economic power are the government or labor unions. He is oblivious to the possibility that growth of political power (“government”) developed as an offset to the concentration of economic power in corporations. When speaking of the progressive movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries he says nothing of the conditions that arose because the economic power of corporations had become immense political power as well.

His inability to see corporations as economic entities is clear as he dismisses the New Deal in strictly personal terms. His analysis of the change that occurred is that “The view that government’s role is to serve as an umpire to prevent individuals from coercing one another was replaced by the view that government’s role is to serve as a parent charged with the duty of coercing some to aid others.” (p. 5) (emphasis added). He has no conception that the economy, the government, and individuals are all part of a single system.

Free to Choose is a very dangerous book. It appeared at a time when the government of the United States had lost legitimacy among many Americans through its pursuit of racial and gender policies that undermined the status of white males, the loss of international stature, the horrible mistake of Vietnam, and the mess that led to the resignation of Richard Nixon.

Many Americans wanted an alternative to government, and Free to Choose promised an orderly anarchy created by a free market. It was a captivating fantasy in which many believed. Enough still believe that we are at risk of riding this anarchic unicorn from democracy into an oligarchic plutocracy—a system more like the Russia of today than like the United States of 1975.

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