Market Economy versus Market Society

Michael Sandel’s What Money Can’t Buy is noteworthy in part for the teacherly technique employed. Sandel develops his thesis anecdotally rather than analytically. This procedure appears designed to force readers to experience a series of situations in which market values have entered into our lives in ways that many people will find morally unacceptable. His examples range from having advertisements tattooed on one’s forehead to paying place holders to save one from having to stand for hours in long lines to the selling of human organs.

There is a clear analytical claim made near the beginning of the book, however. On page 10 Sandel notes that we have never had a proper debate about the relations among moral, political, and economic issues involving markets. He continues: “As a result, without quite realizing it, without ever deciding to do so, we drifted from having a market economy to being a market society.” The italics are Sandel’s—the only authorial italics in the book—but he blurs the force of his point by using the unqualified “we” as his subject.  His subject is not a personal “we” but “we” as an organized society. The point is that we have drifted from being a society having a market economy to being a market society.

This distinction is of immense importance. A society “having a market economy” is a situation in which some overarching value system manages relations among people (“society”) and uses a market economy as a tool to manage economic relations. “The market” is not an autonomous system that runs itself but a subordinate system managed by a combination of public and private managers. Those managers, in theory, would guide the economy according to the value system organizing social relationships. For the United  States that value system is summarized in the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence, beginning with the “self-evident truth” that “all [people] are created equal.” The Declaration continues to assert the existence of “unalienable” human rights and the role of government to “secure those rights,” exercising powers legitimized by “the consent of the governed.”

A “market society,” on the other hand, is a situation in which market forces embody both the overarching value system and the autonomous power to direct not only all economic functions but also all relations among people. Free market ideology is an anarchistic fantasy in which the Market is the dominant legitimizing force, providing the ultimate sanction for all relationships—economic, political, institutional, personal. It supplants the roles of government, religion, education, family, and tradition. It destroys the very idea of a legitimate public realm. It inexorably monetizes more and more of life. Money increasingly serves as the sole value on which all choices are based.

And that is why the individual examples raised by Sandel are so disquieting: they reveal how markets are inexorably delegitimizing all values but money.

Posted in Economy, Free Market Ideology | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Gildered: Why the Rich Could Steal America

The great story of American life over the past 40 years is the rising political power of wealth, both personal and corporate. The process is central to our cultural adjustment to the 1960s. We celebrate the enhancement in the 1960s of the rights of women and minorities. We have ignored the obverse side of that process, the collapse of white male entitlement. Perhaps no national elite has ever suffered such a disastrous loss of status without catastrophic military defeat.

America had reunited after the Civil War on the basis of white male supremacy. Regardless of the 15th and 19th Amendments, white men possessed political legitimacy. All details of twentieth century American culture were shaped around the gender and race foundations of white male power. When the Civil Rights Revolution destroyed the legitimacy of white male power, all aspects of American life became unmoored.

The search for new grounds of legitimacy played itself out most publicly in the presidential elections of 1968, 1972, 1976, and 1980. In general terms the Democratic Party embraced the Revolution and struggled to shape a new legitimacy out of the expansion of civil rights. It lost itself in the cacophony of new voices that had been set free. The Republican Party mounted a counter-revolution that apparently sought to restore legitimacy to white males.

For both Nixon and Reagan the coded references to white male supremacy were more electoral strategies than serious policy objectives. In office Nixon agreed to much of the continuing legislative program that had dominated the 1960s. Reagan, however, was after much bigger fish. In office he did little to restore white male power, but he did campaign openly for “supply-side economics,” a rationalization for tax cuts for the wealthy and elimination of much government regulation of business.

The question we face now is how a policy that so obviously hurt far more people than it helped acquired and sustained broad popular support.

The answer centers on Ronald Reagan’s special relationship with America’s national myth, the Western. Components of that myth are most widely known in terms of western movies, and, for a huge portion of voters, Reagan was personally associated with Western movies. Both as candidate and as President he easily evoked images associated with the tradition of Western films.

Western movies are only the tip of the mythic iceberg, however. Unrecognized elements embedded in that myth contributed substantially to Reagan’s success. A crucial element was the hostages in Teheran. Americans are unusually vulnerable to stories of captives, especially when the captors are dark skinned—the prisoners of war in Korea, the prisoners of war presumed to be still in the hands of the Viet Cong after that war had ended, Patty Hearst held captive by the Simbionese Liberation Army, hostages taken in Lebanon, the hostages in Teheran. In each of these cases, the captors were dark skinned people.

Rescuing captives is a vital element in the Western myth. The roots of the myth lie back in the seventeenth century. The first American story—one that could not have happened in Europe—was published in 1682. Written by Mrs. Mary Rowlandson of Lancaster, Massachusetts, it described her experience as an Indian captive. Mrs. Rowlandson cast her experience as a trial of her religious faith, and she saw her survival as proof of God’s blessing on the entire New England project. It was read throughout the colonies, repeatedly reprinted up to the Revolution, and established the Captivity Narrative as a genre exploited by others.

Captivity of Americans was seared into the fabric of developing American culture. The American as a passive captive, however, was not useful for the newly independent nation. In the 1820s James Fenimore Cooper, the first American to earn a fortune writing fiction, transformed the Captivity Narrative into the Rescue Narrative. His five “Leatherstocking” novels are all tales centered on the rescue of an American female captured by Indians. American readers recognized in Leatherstocking a representation of “the American.” Cooper was imitated, not only in hundreds of popular Western novels but also by such living characters as Kit Carson, John Fremont, William “Buffalo Bill” Cody. In the twentieth century the Cooper tradition shaped the development of the Western film with its cowboy hero.

Probably no other candidate would have benefited as much as Reagan from the ongoing national agonizing over the captives in Teheran. President Carter tried to rescue the captives, but the effort ended in a catastrophic failure in the Iranian desert. That disaster certainly helped Reagan win the election. And then, on the day of his inauguration, the Iranians pointedly waited until the minute after Reagan had taken the oath of office to release the captives. Reagan, the genial cowboy, began his presidency as the Rescuer.

The drama over the release of the hostages was playing during Reagan’s inauguration. We all knew that the moment he became President our captives would be released. In that context, Reagan delivered an inaugural address which was a sustained attack on the federal government. In a much quoted line he assured us that “In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” The government, in effect, has captured Americans by limiting their dreams. But “We have every right to dream heroic dreams,” and his administration will renew our ability to dream great dreams. He will rescue us from government.

He set about his rescue by sponsoring wide ranging deregulation of business activities, tax cuts that disproportionately favored the wealthy, attacks on safeguards for workers and on labor unions, and a tripling of the national debt. Over the decades those policies have led to stagnant incomes for the vast majority, serious weakening of protections for public health and safety (inadequate protection of food, the failed response to hurricane Katrina, the regulatory failures that enabled the BP oil spill), the grotesquely feeble financial regulations that led to foreclosures on millions of American homes while workers in the upper levels of finance have acquired astonishing wealth.

And yet, politicians who support the policies that bore such fruit continue to win popular support.

That perplexing fact is possible because the Rescue Narrative that Reagan initiated at his inaugural, with supporting help from Grand Ayatollah Sayyed Ruhollah Mostafawi Mousawi Khomeini of Iran, continues to resonate with many Americans. It does so because Reagan’s Rescue Narrative enjoys mythic stature. It defines not only America but the individual American. Reagan liberated America by enabling individual Americans to imagine themselves as heroic Rescuers. America, in Reagan’s terms, would be rescued by the actions of those who used their new freedom to create additional wealth. In 1960 the American had been defined by race and gender: the white man was America. The civil rights and women’s movements destroyed that identity. Under Reagan the American was above all an individual, regardless of race and gender, who made a lot of money.

Reagan was almost certainly innocent of any conscious intent to use the Rescue Narrative to change the nation, just as individual Americans were not conscious of responding to it. Furthermore, it is reasonable to believe that many Americans had constructed that new story independently. Reagan was the galvanizing shock that brought it to life.

After the 1960s and 70s, making government the villain was no great challenge. The question really is why so many felt Reagan’s solutions were right. The answer again lies in a part of the Western myth. At the time of Independence it was unusual for a man to spend his working life as the employee of another. “Labor” law was simply the inherited Master-Servant relationship of the common law tradition. Under that tradition there was almost no distinction between a “servant” and a “slave.” Which is to say that working as another’s employee lacked respect.

As the economy was transformed into an industrialized market economy, the North needed to construct a view that asserted that wage labor was superior to slave labor. The basic solution was the belief that wage labor would always lead to financial independence. Because throughout the eighteenth century most men did in fact move from working for others to financial independence, and because vast expanses of “vacant” land lay to the west, available land sustained the faith. Anyone, it was held, could achieve financial independence by heading west. West was opportunity. As the Republican Party’s motto put it in 1856, “Free Land, Free Labor, Free Men.”

The negative side of the faith that anyone could achieve financial independence was that labor at best received grudging respect. Real Americans achieved financial independence, and all of them could do it. Those who didn’t achieve independence were lazy, shiftless, immoral, or criminal. That was the American Dream. Americans have done whatever it takes to keep that Dream alive. For example, one of the functions of white male supremacy was its promise that a white man, even if he didn’t achieve financial independence, possessed the consolation that he could not fall to the level of a non-white or a woman. When race and gender failed them in the 1960s, white men (and many of their women) salvaged something for themselves in the remnants of the Dream: even if they hadn’t become financially independent, they still had a chance to do so—if only the government would get out of their way.

For most people, mythic narrative functions below consciousness. It is the framework within which life makes sense. In this case, however, at least one man discovered terms that explicitly associated “supply-side economics” with the Western tradition: George Gilder.

Gilder has withdrawn to the recesses of conservative think tanks, but in the early Reagan years his name was a household word. Just as the Reagan administration began in early 1981, Gilder published a book called Wealth and Poverty that struck a national nerve. It was actively promoted by the Reagan administration and became a national best seller. It did little to promote specific policies, but it did much to promote an atmosphere that supported what Reagan did.

Gilder’s interest for us lies as much in his first two books as in Wealth and Poverty. He originally came to prominence as a warrior in the gender wars of the 1960s and 70s. That phase of his career culminated in Sexual Suicide (1973) and Naked Nomads (1974). He had an intense and basically accurate sense of the tremendous loss of status experienced by American males. As an upper class New Yorker/New Englander, he was little disturbed by racial issues, but he responded viscerally to the sexual revolution.

He was not a prude. On the contrary. He saw that “sexual energy animates most of our activities.” He objected to the ways in which notions of liberated sex devaluated sexuality. Instead of “embracing every aspect of our lives,” liberated sex has reduced sexuality and sex “to copulation, as if our sexual lives were restricted to the male limits—as if experiences of maternity were not paramount sexual events” (SS, 1-2).

From such sensible foundations, Gilder’s social conservatism finally leads him to hysterical conclusions. By the end of the book, after he has considered developments in reproductive technology, Gilder achieves lift-off. Leaving behind any resemblance of reasoned discourse, Gilder raises the specter of a world in which all reproduction has been taken over by the state, with babies grown in artificial wombs rather than women’s bodies. It would be a technocratic nightmare in which “women would at last be liberated from the ‘baby trap’ and from the oppression of marriage and family. This is the ultimate destination of ‘feminism”: female inferiority and familial disintegration under the auspices of the Sexual Suicide State” (SS, 261.Gilder’s hysteria provides a measure of the dislocations of American life that emerged in the 1960s.

His second book, Naked Nomads, considered the plight of men without women. His thought is based on the old idea that the violent energies of the male had to be controlled before civilization could develop The solution was a theoretical bargain in which a woman gave an individual male exclusive sexual rights in exchange for the male’s agreement to protect and provide food for the woman and her children. This bargain not only provided for women and children, it also saved males from their own natures,

In modern America, Gilder argues, this basic bargain has been rescinded by liberated women. For most of human history, the male’s superior physical strength enabled him to provide and protect women and children. With the coming of industrial society, however, physical strength became of diminishing importance. As Gilder put it in Naked Nomads, “In modern societies the provider role is performed with money” (p.131). Or, as he summarized it in 1986 in Men and Marriage (p. 6), “Money replaces muscle.” Women have therefore become increasingly capable of providing for and protecting themselves and their children, and they have thereby destroyed men’s function in the world.

At some point in the years following publication of Naked Nomads, Gilder discovered “supply-side economics” and immersed himself in available materials. From that study he was able to construct in Wealth and Poverty a new foundation for American manhood.

Supply-side economics is fundamentally elitist. The central argument of supply side economics is that the purpose of government is to encourage economic growth (such matters as protecting human rights fly outside their radar). All economic growth comes from the activities of creative entrepreneurs. Workers, it seems, contribute nothing. It then follows that government policies should be designed to encourage those willing to take great risks to develop new products or services. Specifically, the argument calls for reduced taxation on high incomes and accumulated wealth and for reduced government restriction of economic activity through regulatory mechanisms, all in the name of motivating entrepreneurs.

Gilder is not an economist, and he elaborates supply side theory not to advance the theory but in order to weave it into a narrative which will restore the male to his proper position. In Gilder’s new story the role of the male recovers the bracing challenge of the hunt: “A successful economy depends on the proliferation of the rich, on creating a large class of risk-taking men who are willing to shun the easy channels of a comfortable life in order to create new enterprise, win huge profits, and invest them again.” (245).

The reference to “risk-taking men” is not casual. Gendering the creation of wealth as a male activity is crucial for Gilder. Entrepreneurialism channels the male’s innate need for adventure toward socially constructive ends. More important, it trumps the kind of providing that women are able to manage. The gender argument is rarely explicit in Wealth and Poverty, but it permeates the book. Women may be able to provide for and protect children on their own, but they can’t do the heavy lifting needed to energize the national economy. Women, it appears, simply do not pursue entrepreneurial projects. Only men do so. Thus, in the celebration of risk in supply side economics, Gilder found a distinctively male role.

“Risk” is also crucial. The problem with government is that liberals, who support the idea of female equality, also support the idea that government should attempt to reduce risks for citizens. Confronted with the challenges of the deteriorating environment and diminishing natural resources, for example, the instinct of liberal government is to impose regulations, to limit activity, to plan the future in detail. Government seeks to provide insurance against risk.

Liberal government focuses on the closing of frontiers rather than seeing that the “problems and crises” afflicting modern America “are in themselves the new frontier. . . . The old frontier of the American West also appeared closed at first. It became an open reservoir of wealth only in retrospect, because the pioneers dared to risk their lives and families in the quest for riches, looking for gold . . . and finding oil . . .Only in retrospect were the barrens of Texas and Oklahoma an energy cornucopia . . .” (Wealth and Poverty, p. 268).

In the glories of entrepreneurial risk-taking, Gilder recovers the male glory of the Western, which looks a great deal like the energetic manliness of Teddy Roosevelt and the Spanish-American War. His heroic risk-takers, when considered objectively, look a great deal like the hero of Owen Wister’s formative Western novel, The Virginian (1901). In spite of Gilder’s repeated assertions in his first two books that women are superior to men, his views are astonishingly close to those of the nineteenth century: women are morally superior, but their values simply don’t shape the world. Women may civilize men, as Molly Stark does in The Virginian, but they must cast aside their own values and embrace male values in marriage. Like the families of the pioneers which Gilder evokes, women must follow where men will lead.

In Gilder’s world, however, the measure of the man has become restricted to money. When the Virginian insists that “ . . . a man has got to prove himself my equal before I’ll believe him,” nothing suggests that the Virginian would concede equality to a man who pulled out a big wad of money rather than a revolver. While Gilder, like the Virginian, holds a cheerfully elitist view, for him money is the measure of all things. “Material progress” he wrote, invoking the greatest good in his philosophy, “is ineluctably elitist; it makes the rich richer.” (Wealth and Poverty, p. 259) Money has, indeed, replaced muscle. American manhood has shriveled to nothing but the possession of money.

The difficulty Congress experienced in dealing with financial regulations to prevent a repeat of the 2008 meltdown was not the crude amounts of money spent to sway their judgments. The cash was more symptom than cause. Americanness has come to be identified with the possession of large sums of money. Big money legitimizes itself, and facilitating the continued acquisition of large sums of money is for many the legitimate purpose of government. Money, not the people, has become the source of sovereign power.

The Teabaggers are right on one thing: we do need to take back our government. Their approach—calling for “smaller government”—serves only to compound the problem. To restore government by the consent of the governed, we need to break the emotional and psychological hold of mere money. We need to restore real values. The fetishization of the Constitution now going on in Congress will not restore values. It is all about limiting government in the interests of wealth.

We need a discussion of the goals of government, and the place to start is with the Declaration of Independence. There is a set of values to conjure by. It says that governments are instituted to secure the human rights of all people. It puts people before money, human rights before cash. It is a readily available starting point.

Posted in Economy, Equality, White male Status | Tagged , , | 2 Comments


A friend just brought this 1997 book to my attention. Charles Black was a professor of constitutional law at Yale for much of the last half of the twentieth century. This small book presents for general readers his arguments for elevating human rights to explicit prominence in constitutional law. He argues that “The prime system the United States exists to secure is a national regime of human rights” (P. 54).

His foundation for that assertion is the Declaration of Independence, which states that governments are founded to secure “the unalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” with which every person is born. He argues that the Declaration should be recognized as a constitutional document of the United States. The sentence that declares independence both terminates the authority of Britain and asserts the right of the United Colonies to operate as a government. The Declaration therefore is a constitutive document and is the root of “all legitimate exercise of power.”

Black specifically ties the Declaration to the Constitution through the 9th Amendment: “The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.” To give those retained rights body and form, Black identifies them with the broad range of rights implicit in the right to “the pursuit of happiness.” The problem here is that there remains no enumeration of human rights. This leaves us the choice, Black argues, to do nothing or to “take the Ninth Amendment as a command to use any rational methods available to the art of law, and with these in hand to set out to discover what it is you are to protect.” (p. 14)

Constitutional jurisprudence has done some of both. New rights have been enunciated by the Supreme Court—such as the extension of freedom of the press to new media, or the discovery of privacy rights that include the right to use contraception and the right to abortion—but it has not done so as a frank exploration of human rights. Instead, it has built on the “due process” clauses of the 5th and 14th amendments with a principle known as “substantive due process.”

Black finds the idea of “substantive due process” intellectually feeble and productive of decisions that lack rational conviction. An open commitment to human rights would, in his judgment, produce much clearer legal results.

Black’s desire to see a more open commitment to human rights reaches well beyond a desire to have more convincing legal decisions. He argues that the human right to “the pursuit of happiness” demands that Congress has an “affirmative constitutional duty” to “devise and prudently to apply the means necessary to ensure, humanly speaking, a decent livelihood for all” (p. 133).

It is easy to see that a full commitment to national law based on human rights would help avoid the current chaos surrounding health care in the United States. If the duty of government is to secure our right to life, it is surely its task to secure the health on which the pursuit of happiness and life itself depend. It is easy to argue that in the modern world, access to necessary health care must be viewed as a basic human right.

Such actions are needed, in Black’s view, not as acts of compassion but “as an issue of constitutional justice. This kind of justice must be done, or we will never attain to any other kind of justice. The general diffusion of material welfare is an indispensable part in the general diffusion of the right to the pursuit of happiness” (p. 139).

Perhaps it is time that the United States underwent a Human Rights Revolution.

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Human Rights vs. Civil Rights

The expansion of civil rights in the 1960s did not fundamentally change the dynamics of American life. It did not—it could not—eliminate the exclusion at the heart of American life. Exclusion is not a mere by-product of our social order but is its mode of operation and its goal.

A key function of America’s meritocratic system was and still is to create and preserve an American version of social classes by restricting admission to full participation in American life. The American system is designed to exclude rather than include people. Calling the system meritocratic—claiming that those with ability will find open opportunities for success—can not change the fact that the basic function of the system is to exclude most individuals, not to include all.

In a meritocracy, even success fails to provide security, for a meritocracy values only our successes, not our humanity. That principle was embodied in the hero of the novel that established the Western as America’s national narrative, Owen Wister’s The Virginian.  In an important discussion about equality with his lady love, the Virginian insists that “a man has got to prove himself my equal before I’ll believe him.” That is our model: the individual is excluded until evidence proves that he or she deserves to be included. We are all outsiders until we prove individually that we deserve to belong. And the proof is never durable. It must be offered up freshly every day.

The Civil Rights Movement fell into the trap of setting out to prove that individuals of certain excluded classes—non-whites, women—in fact deserved to be included. They did not challenge the system but rather sought to join it. They identified the achievement of civil rights with equality, a way of thinking about equality that has trapped us in intellectual positions which are no longer creative. By identifying civil rights with equality, the Civil Rights Movement exaggerated our natural tendency to think of equality as an end rather than as a means or a first principle of life. Equality, however, is not the goal or end of government. It is the belief about human life on which the idea of democratic government stands. Equality is the very ground of society and government. To the degree to which we think of equality as an end, we trap ourselves in an irresolvable conflict. No one wants a ruthless leveling out of all inequality. As an end, equality becomes an undesired and unachievable will-‘o-the-wisp, and the Declaration of Independence’s assertion that all men are created equal is reduced to a pious fiction that cannot be taken seriously

Civil Rights rhetoric identified equality with the achievement of civil rights. Human equality, however, is a much broader conception than civil rights. Civil rights, as the name implies, are rights of citizens, rights created and protected by the state. In the language of the Declaration of Independence, by contrast, the equality of all men is a first principle, a cosmic reality which precedes the state. Equality is inherent in and inseparable from our humanity, an endowment from the cosmos, not from the state. 

The Declaration also asserts as a first principle (“endowed by their Creator”) the idea of “certain unalienable rights,” and it asserts that “among these [rights] are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” In the political philosophy of the Declaration, it is to secure these basic human rights that “governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” Human rights precede government, and therefore “whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government . . . .”  In the philosophy of the Declaration, the legal enforcement of equality—of basic human rights—is the central function of government. The nation’s police and military powers, and its capacity to treat with foreign powers, are ultimately justified by their usefulness in securing to each American those rights which are ours by virtue of our humanity.

When we focus our social ideas on civil rights rather than the broader human rights described in the Declaration, we reinforce tendencies which have become destructive in American life. Civil rights emphasize the claims of the individual against all others. They strengthen the self-reliant individualism that we celebrate as an unqualified good. By doing so we blind ourselves to the negative power of individualism, which is its inevitable tendency to isolate the individual.

The separation of women and men so obvious in our writers of the early nineteenth century—Cooper, Emerson, Hawthorne in particular—has become a social fact of almost crippling power. Modern American culture tells each of us repeatedly that relations with others will inevitably limit our ability to experience our individuality to the fullest. We are taught that relationships get in the way of being ourselves, that it is foolish to allow loyalty to another to restrict us. In business there is immense pressure to cut to the chase, to simply pursue money without regard to any connection to others through the creation of valuable goods and services. Good people feel these pressures, and they find little in our culture to support efforts to live in ways that affirm our ties to other people. 

At one time individualism, like Calvinism before it, was a creative counter to the stultifying force of the involuntary associations of hierarchical orders. After several centuries of development, individualism has in turn become a stultifying force. In the United States the Civil Rights Movement has carried individualism beyond its capacity to enrich human life. With the passage in 1990 of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), civil rights as an intellectual construction capable of enhancing our lives exhausted itself. In recognizing formally the rights of the lame, the halt, the blind, the alcoholic, and the mentally impaired, we’ve gone as far as we can go. The idea of civil rights now exhausts itself in the pursuit of ever purer refinements, reaching for theological niceties of individual rights whose subtlety would warm the heart of any medieval churchman.

Our focus on civil rights has reinforced the anti-social and anti-democratic potential of the American Revolution. It highlights the significance of the absence from the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of any equivalent of the third member of the French revolutionary trinity, “Liberte, egalite, fraternite.” “Fraternite” translates roughly as “brotherhood,” but American English has no true equivalent. The French term honors relations among men as a value as fundamental as liberty and equality. Social life, in that view, is as important as the freedom and equality of the individual. American life focuses on individual liberty and equality, but it never has seen social life as basic to human life. We have created a world in which individuals can live alone much more easily than they can live with each other. Civil rights so magnify what separates each of us from others that society becomes an impossibility, a mere phantasm.

 As E.J. Dionne, Jr. said, “Both [Republicans and Democrats] constantly invoke individual ‘rights,’ then criticize each other for evading issues involving individual and collective responsibility. Each side claims to have a communitarian vision but backs away from community whenever its demands come into conflict with one of its cherished doctrines.”  (Why Americans Hate Politics,(Simon & Schuster, New York, 1991 p. 13). 

 Human rights, on the other hand, emphasize what is shared. In a time when developments are forcing us to acknowledge our connection to peoples around the world, the concept of human rights can forge not only a sharper sense of national community but also a recognition of ourselves as a nation among nations rather than a nation apart. Human rights—the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—bind us to others. They emphasize not only my right to distinguish my individuality but also the fact that all people have as great a claim as I have to clean water and 2000 calories a day. 

Intellectually, philosophically, logically, emotionally, and psychologically it is easy to progress from human rights to more detailed individual civil rights. The reverse is not true. We cannot work our way from insisting on the priority of our individual rights to an assertion of human rights. As the Counter-Revolution of the 1980s has demonstrated, narrow insistence on individual rights leads not to richer social life but to social fragmentation. Continuing to pursue individual rights as we have can only exacerbate our problems by intensifying the individual need to win and the sense of exclusion inevitably related to it. The pursuit of individual rights has a corrosive effect on social experience. It cannot provide a sense of social inclusion. On the contrary, such a pursuit can only emphasize the extent of our exclusion. 

The Revolution of the 1960s and the Counter-Revolution of the 1980s have both failed us. We need not reach back all the way to the Declaration of Independence for direction, however. In the 1960s we had leaders who knew that the next step for America was to grapple with economics. Martin Luther King knew that civil rights were not enough, that human rights were our proper concern, and that those rights had to deal with economic justice. Lyndon Johnson, after noting the great wealth accumulated by the nation during its first 150 years defined our future challenge as “whether we have the wisdom to use that wealth to enrich and elevate our national life, and to advance the quality of our American civilization.”

A vision of civil rights can not provide such wisdom. Only an understanding of human rights broad enough to embrace economic rights can save us from the crisis in which we now flounder.


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Race and the Rage of the Betrayed

American culture was constructed during the nineteenth century on the basis of white male supremacy. The roots of the rage evoked by the Obama administration lie in the reunification of the nation after the Civil War. The nation lacked any social or cultural traditions from which an inclusive polity could emerge, and so by 1900 the majority of “white” Americans had reunified the nation on the basis of white male supremacy. White men held exclusive, culturally sanctioned political sovereignty.

That sovereignty was obvious in the Jim Crow laws that developed in the former Confederacy. It was less obvious, and therefore more pernicious, in the myriad ways in which it became built into the structure of American culture in the meritocratic system. Under that system, all access to middle class status included controls that excluded women and non-whites. 

 In a crucial paradox of meritocracy, although white men, as white males, were entitled to privileged access to social, economic, and political power, they did not experience themselves as privileged. American meritocracy depends on the presumption that everyone starts outside the system and earns inclusion on the basis of demonstrated merit. We each begin with nothing but the assurance that we can each become what we want to be. What we are is never sufficient.

The experience for every white male, therefore, was not privileged inclusion but the same exclusion experienced by everyone else and the presumably universal need to earn inclusion by demonstrating merit. White men therefore did not experience their entitlement as a privilege that set them apart from others.

That entitlement was not merely personal. The legitimacy of the government of the United States was integrally related to the entitlement of white men. Thus, while we think of the revolution of the 1960s in terms of gains in civil rights and women’s rights, the truly revolutionary event was the loss of white male status. White men, as white men, were marginalized, and the basis of legitimate political, social, and economic power was weakened and confused.

That loss of race and gender status caused many white men to experience a serious loss of power. That loss of power was and still is experienced primarily by those white men who had least power to begin with. In practical terms, the political, economic, and social power of the nation remained securely under the control of white males. What was lost was the legitimacy of white male power that included even the most humble white man.

The loss of legitimacy has been the central political issue in the United States since 1968. Beginning with the presidential campaign of 1968, national politics became a struggle between those who sought a new basis for political legitimacy (the Democratic Party) and those who sought to restore the legitimacy of white male power (the Republican Party). Richard Nixon, with winks, nods, and code words, attempted to vest political legitimacy in a presumed “silent majority,” a code for white male America.

For Nixon, the encouragement of white male legitimacy was an electoral strategy, not a considered political philosophy. Only in 1980 did the issue of legitimacy become explicit, as Ronald Reagan mounted an effective counter-revolution. Reagan revitalized the claims of the white male tradition through his skillful evocation of imagery from white supremacy’s national narrative, the Western. Highly effective as campaign rhetoric, scraps of Western traditions amounted to gobs of red meat thrown out to the culture warriors, white people whose loss of status and power kept them fired up over issues of gender and race.

But Ronald Reagan cared little about either gender or race. Beyond the bare minimum needed to keep his political base happy, he worked consistently not to revive the legitimacy of white male power but to shift legitimacy from white males to money and from government, where the challenge of non-whites and women had real strength, to the private sector. The claims of wealth, regardless of the color or gender of the owner, trumped all other claims. Since white men had most of the money and power, Reagan’s policies looked enough like a restoration of white male entitlement to sustain the political support of those who yearned for that restoration. They did nothing, however, to help those who had experienced the loss of power, and they have done much to increase the losses suffered. The Reagan counter-revolution betrayed most of those who supported it.

The Reagan counter-revolution was ascendant for a quarter century, but since 2005 those who believed in it have found themselves betrayed. The creeping stagnation and decline in incomes of working people showed that wealthy white men were not concerned about the welfare of less prosperous white men. The fiasco of the response to Hurricane Katrina, which revealed that competent government is important, was the first alarm that no one could escape. The economic collapse of 2008 has revealed that the wealthy could not be relied on to manage even the private sector with competence.

We see in the hatred and threatened violence since Obama’s inauguration the rage of those who were thus betrayed. Promised a renewal of the legitimacy of white males, they must instead face the wreckage of their world view.

Given the role of racism in the construction of our political culture, we should not be terribly shocked that the election of a half-black President would make him personally a metaphoric object for the rage of the betrayed. We must not, however, let ourselves be distracted by race. The determining problem today is the power of money, underscored by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling on corporate campaign contributions.

There are two obvious struggles now that are testing the power of money to overrule the welfare of the people. The first is the continuing assertion of the primacy of the financial sector, apparent most recently as the institutions that required hundreds of billions of dollars of public money to survive will be paying out tens of billions in bonuses to those who created the problem. The second is the struggle over health care reform, in which the claims of existing business interests are trumping the physical health of the people.

After twenty-five years, money has proven that it is not a legitimate source of political power, but no effective alternative has been asserted. If the Obama administration and Congress fail to check the power of money now, however, the future will be grim indeed. The sense of betrayal is climbing the social ladder.

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The Pursuit of Happiness

“The pursuit of happiness.” This well known phrase from the Declaration of Independence has always called up for me visions of a lecherous older man chasing after a voluptuous, scantily clad nymphet. That image is not too far afield from our modern notions, but it surely is not what Thomas Jefferson and his committee had in mind in the summer of 1776.

Appearing in a recitation of the “unalienable rights” possessed by every person by virtue of human equality—appearing in the company of “life” and “liberty”—it deserves serious consideration. It is, after all, one of the basic rights which it is the duty of government to secure for its citizens. We need to understand “the pursuit of happiness.”

Many have puzzled over the use of “pursuit of happiness” in place of “property.” John Locke, the influential seventeenth century English philosopher whose work shaped much of the thought associated with the eighteenth century Enlightenment, was well known to have recited “life, liberty, and property” as the great basic rights shared by all people. Some have chosen to believe that “the pursuit of happiness” was only a softer, kinder euphemism—“property” with a wink and a smirk.

Such an interpretation ignores the fact that Locke himself had used “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” and that by 1776 the decades since Locke had produced an astonishing range of philosophical exploration of “the pursuit of happiness”. Of special importance to many Americans was the work of writers of the Scottish Enlightenment. Among them “the pursuit of happiness” was a philosophical term of art.

So what did “the pursuit of happiness” mean to Thomas Jefferson and his contemporaries?

Both the pursuit and the pursued need our understanding. “Pursuit” was not a random or arbitrary conception. Unlike “property,” which was external to persons, “pursuit” was an innate drive, an internal, personal need as basic as life itself and liberty.   It was a right equally possessed by all, unlike “property,” which was possessed by only some of the people and by them possessed very unequally. It was something that people DID, individually and collectively. Unlike life and liberty, the pursuit of happiness was both a philosophical concept and a human activity.

The pursuit itself was a basic human right because it was a basic human need, an innate drive. In a detailed study of the philosophical backgrounds of the Declaration of Independence, Garry Wills observed that “[The pursuit of happiness] is the basic drive of the self, and the only means given for transcending the self.” (Inventing America., 1978; p. 247).  This formulation recasts “the pursuit of happiness” in twentieth century terms, and it captures the eighteenth century understanding that the pursuit of happiness was much grander than the mere subjective pleasure of individuals.

As a basic human right, “the pursuit of happiness” assumed that the happiness of each depended on the happiness of all. Over the intervening centuries we have been so shaped by self-reliant individualism that such an assumption seems absurd. Or, as has generally been the case, it has been treated as “an ideal,” by which we mean that it has no practical bearing on real life and can be dismissed as irrelevant. To restore meaning to the right to the pursuit of happiness, we need a new vocabulary.

The best candidate is Robert Fuller’s emphasis on “dignity.” He wrote in a recent blog posting that “More than anything except life itself, people want dignity. They will compromise both their liberty and equality to get it.” (“Blueprint for a Majority Third Party,”, Feb. 24, 2010).

We have lost the eighteenth century’s shared understanding of “happiness,” but we still share an understanding of “dignity.” It is most important to those whose claim to it is most in doubt. On the streets, the primacy of dignity is asserted by the sensitivity of the most hardened young men to being treated without dignity. On the streets, disrespecting (“dissing”) another can prove fatal. 

 A sense of dignity is an individual experience, but its roots are social. Dignity is a sense of one’s own worth in the world. Some individuals can preserve their sense of dignity in spite of what the world thinks, does, and says, but most of us are exquisitely sensitive to actions by others that humiliate us. 

The loss of dignity is not trivial. As Fuller noted in the posting quoted above, “To suffer an indignity carries the threat of being deprived of social and material resources essential to well-being, even to life itself. The need for dignity is more than a desire for courtesy or respect. To be ‘nobodied’ is an attack on one’s status in the tribe, and carries an implicit threat of exclusion that, not long ago, amounted to a death sentence.”

“Dignity” has the further advantage that, unlike “happiness,” it presents an achievable goal. Unlike modern notions of “happiness,” “dignity” remains an observable, objective condition. It is preeminently a social experience. We know when others assault our own dignity, and we know when others are humiliated by our own behavior. We know when public conditions, such as the varied indignities visited on all of us by bureaucracies, public or private, humiliate individuals. We know of the systematic denial of dignity suffered by children in school and by the aging in nursing homes.

Fuller has also identified the mechanism that underlies most assaults on dignity, “rankism.” Rankism is simply the abuse of the power inherent in rank. He calls it the mother of all isms, the begetter of such familiar problems as racism, sexism, or ageism. (See Robert W. Fuller, Somebodies and Nobodies: Overcoming the Abuse of Rank.) Rankism, whether public or private, whether a matter of institutional policy or personal self-serving, obstructs the pursuit of dignity.

Like racism and sexism, rankism has been institutionalized. Like racism and sexism, rankism can and must be combated to secure to all of us our right to the pursuit of dignity. As a criterion for action the pursuit of dignity can illuminate choices ranging from our deeply personal and private lives at home to our actions at school or at work and to all levels of governmental policy approaches. (For a full exploration, see Robert Fuller, All Rise:Somebodies, Nobodies, and the Politics of Dignity.)

When we see dignity as a fundamental right, we will find it easier to elevate the rights of humans over the rights of money. When the dignity of all becomes a matter of shared concern, we can restore the central importance of government by the consent of the governed and recover the legitimacy of electoral politics so badly eroded over recent decades.

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Originalism and the Declaration of Independence

For years we have been subjected to claims that the Supreme Court should always discern the “original intent” of the framers. The absurdity of the idea has been pointed out many times but to little effect, largely because no intellectually defensible alternative principles for constitutional jurisprudence have been advanced.

Making Our Democracy Work: A Judge’s View by Justice Stephen Breyer provides a case in point. The book is an effective nuts-and-bolts discussion of the process through which the Supreme Court has reached its decisions. It is an excellent piece for educating the public on the court’s role in American government. However, although in various ways he acknowledges the role of “underlying values,”  he provides no elucidation of what those values might be. He provides no alternative to the intentions of the Framers.

Intentions are important. Unfortunately, the Constitution simply is not a meaningful guide to some undeviating quantity known as “the Founders’ intentions.” The problem is that two conflicting intentions stand at the core of the Constitution. On the one hand, human equality was the intellectual bedrock of the available political philosophy; on the other hand, most of the framers feared the masses and were determined to retain political power in the hands of “the better sort.”

The egalitarian side of the equation is easy to miss on a casual reading. The Constitution makes no reference to human equality. It accepts slavery, the right of one man to reduce another to the status of a horse or a carriage. It also does nothing to mitigate the traditional subjugation of women to men.

Nevertheless, the Constitution is stringently egalitarian when it comes to the human core of the new government: the only stated requirements for representatives, senators, and presidents are age, citizenship, and residency, with the additional stipulation that the president must be “a natural born citizen.” This added requirement for the presidency stands out because it is the only one based on birth. No hereditary political hierarchy of the kind universal in Europe was created. Further, no conditions of social or economic standing—such as education or property ownership—were imposed. Any (white male) citizen of the United States was eligible for the highest offices in the land.

These requirements for elective government office were the American political revolution. They were the principle that “all men are created equal” put into action.

The gentlemen at Philadelphia dared go where no men had gone before, but they kept their fingers crossed. Fears of too much democracy were deeply felt and frequently voiced at the Constitutional Convention. Those fears shaped the Constitution in a number of ways: the creation of a bicameral legislature with an “upper” house modeled on England’s House of Lords; the provisions for the election of Senators by state legislatures rather than direct election by the people; the oddity of the Electoral College for the selection of Presidents and Vice Presidents.  

Contradictions are, of course, the very stuff of life. In the words of Walt Whitman,

Do I contradict myself?                                                                                                       Very well then, I contradict myself.                                                                                      (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Nevertheless, there are difficulties inherent in relying on a contradictory source—the “original intentions” of the Framers—as an anchor for Constitutional jurisprudence.

Also, it is fair to note that the Framers’ intentions included an intention that their intentions should not bind future generations: they included within their scheme a provision for amending the document, a detail that suggests they were loathe to claim eternal perfection.

If we query the amendments added to the Constitution, it appears that subsequent history has put its thumb on the scale in favor of the egalitarian faith: of the 17 amendments added after the Bill of Rights, 5 can be classed as “housekeeping,” 2 involve the aberration of Prohibition, and 10 correct the most grievous anti-egalitarian features of the Constitution of 1787: they abolish slavery, guarantee the vote to former slaves and women, provide for the direct election of senators, lower the voting age to 18, and so on.

This egalitarian trend of Constitutional amendments suggests that a better source of “underlying values” than “original intent” would be the Declaration of Independence. It brilliantly condenses the key assumptions of the political philosophy dominant in political discourse during the Revolution. Those assumptions are the “self-evident truths:”

  •      that all men are created equal,
  •     that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights,
  •     that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
  •    That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.
  •     That whenever any form of government becomes destructive to these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.

Here is a set of ideas that can freshen up our national discourse! If questions were asked and answered in relation to the Declaration rather than the Constitution, vital questions could be explored. What, for example, does it mean for our government to “secure” my right to life? If we’re all equal, why should a United States Senator have guaranteed access to better medical care—greater security of life—than I do? Might Congressional medical benefits be unconstitutional?

If we are born with equal political power, is a campaign finance system that enables the wealthy to buy political power for themselves unconstitutional? If a government must derive its powers from the governed in order to be just, does not a system that blurs the distinction between a bribe and a campaign contribution obstruct justice for all? Where in the philosophy of the Declaration do we find that corporations were endowed by their creators with the rights of human beings?

These are questions that the Constitution itself cannot deal with, but we must somehow deal with them. Empathy and other personal characteristics of Supreme Court justices cannot see us through. The restoration of the philosophy of the Declaration to prominence in public discourse and judicial thought would do much to get America back “on the right track.”


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I have just re-read Robert Fuller’s Somebodies and Nobodies(2003) and am struck again by the immense value of his analysis of rank in American life.

While acknowledging the essential role that rank plays in any organization, he explores the ways in which the abuse of rank—what he refers to as “rankism”—threatens the future of democracy in America. Rank, however achieved, confers power. Rankism develops whenever the power of rank is expanded outside its proper sphere, as when a supervisor transforms proper power over the work of a subordinate into demands for sexual favors.

Fuller’s central insight is that rankism is “the mother of ‘Isms.’” He notes that the “motivating principle” of democracy is “circumscribing rank,” of preventing those with power from abusing that power. All of us, in some situations, have some power over others—parents over children, teachers over students, doctors over patients, the experienced over the novice—and we are all at risk of abusing those powers, of practicing rankism.. 

The practical consequences of rankism are many. Fuller cites the ways in which rankism in work environments reduces efficiency and quality of work. He shows how rankism in the classroom obstructs learning and how rankism damages personal relationships.

The most damaging aspect of rankism, however, is psychological. Rankism is always an assault on the dignity of its victims. It is always a denial of equality between perpetrator and victim, a denial of the victim’s essential humanity. The assertion of human equality is not a delusion that all are of equal ability, nor is it an argument for a leveling of the human condition. It is, rather, a recognition of the equal dignity each possesses as a human being.

The language of the Declaration of Independence asserts that we all possess fundamental rights—“life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” In modern terms, the pursuit of happiness is best understood as “living a life of dignity.” Democracy, Fuller argues, demands that individuals—all individual—be able to live with dignity.

Living with dignity is not an individual project. Dignity is a social experience. Our dignity must be secure in the presence of others, and the dignity of others must be secure in our presence. For Fuller, American democracy can realize its full potential as a humane way of life through the creation of a culture that actively resists rankism and nourishes the dignity of each of us—what he calls “a Dignitarian society.”

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On Inequality

Americans have wasted immense amounts of time arguing about equality and inequality. Most such disputes are based on the notion that the human equality asserted in the Declaration of Independence refers to an equality of condition. It refers, instead, to the possession by each individual of “certain unalienable rights” among which are the rights to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”—what we would now call “human rights.” Each of us has an equal claim to these rights, which are not a claim to equality of condition. They are, however, the bedrock of democracy.

Inequality of condition is inevitable.  At some point, however, inequalities of condition can become so great that they destroy democracy.

Serious inequality destroys the possibility of that “consent of the governed” that is basic to democracy. The operations of inequality are complex. Most basically, inequality undermines our sense of shared interests as Americans. With extreme inequality, the wealthy can afford to live in private worlds in which their personal lives make little use of the public resources—local and national parks, transit, public schools, swimming pools, hospital emergency rooms, libraries, welfare services—that are vital to the lives of those with lesser incomes..

That weakened sense of shared interests has an immense consequence: it liberates the power of money, both personal and corporate. That power has been increasingly evident in our national life. It has become common for wealthy individuals to use their personal wealth to buy political power, either by themselves running for office or by supporting candidates or causes that would benefit them at the expense of the general public. A glaring example is the attack on the estate tax that has been funded for nearly 20 years by several very wealthy families, including the Coors, the Gallos, and the Mars (candy-bar) families.

We do not need perfect equality, but current levels of inequality are clearly beyond the limits at which inequalities become inconsistent with democracy. The power of wealth now concentrated in the top 0.1% of American families and in a relatively few corporations is destroying American democracy.

Increasingly individuals like Carly Fiorina and Meg Whitman are using personal fortunes to literally buy political office. Or like David and Charles Koch, whose immense fortune (second only to Bill Gates and Warren Buffet) funds a wide range of programs such as the extended disinformation program to discredit the science proving global warming and major support for the Tea Party movement. Corporations increasingly have the power to buy governmental action serving their interests at the expense of the public interest, such as the financial institutions that caused the crisis of 2008 then used their money power to block meaningful financial reform and the pharmaceutical and insurance companies that effectively opposed serious reform of our medical care system.

The power of money is depriving most Americans of their right to government by the consent of the governed. Inequality is denying to an increasing percentage of Americans their human rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

As in 1863, we are now testing whether “government of the people, by the people, and for the people” will endure in the United States.

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On Equality

The people and government of the United States continue to have a profound interest in human equality. The legitimacy of our government depends on human equality, the equal right of all to live with dignity.

In the political philosophy of the Declaration of Independence, equality is not the end of government but its foundation. In the logical sequence of the Declaration’s argument, human equality is primary, the bedrock on which rest the basic rights possessed equally by all humans. Government is merely instrumental, the mechanism through which those rights are protected for all.

The specific language of the Declaration is important, for it contains a brilliant summary of a complete political philosophy:

We hold these truths to be self-evident,

  • that all men are created equal,
  • that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights,
  • that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
  • That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.
  • That whenever any form of government becomes destructive to these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.

This philosophy was not invented by Thomas Jefferson and the other members of the committee that drafted the Declaration. Various thinkers in Britain (most notably John Locke) and on the Continent had worked out a theory of popular sovereignty as an alternative to the divine right claimed by seventeenth century kings. The British were especially in need of such a theory because their Parliament had beheaded their King Charles I. They needed a theory that justified political revolution and provided a new foundation for political sovereignty.

American colonists needed such ideas. By January of 1776 British rule of its North American colonies had collapsed. By that time not one royal governor remained on North American soil (although two or three sat off-shore on men-of-war and pretended to rule their colonies from there). Revolution had been committed. It needed justification, and the newly free Americans needed a theory of political sovereignty.

The notion of human equality was more than a dodge to justify treason. Eleven years later, many of the men who drafted and approved the Declaration of Independence gathered again in Philadelphia and crafted a new and radical Constitution of the United States of America. The new document makes no mention of human equality. It goes the Declaration one better, however, and bases the new government on equality. It separates the political status of (white men) from the political status of their fathers. Each (white male) person was politically equal at birth. No one could inherit from his father a right to political power, nor could anyone inherit the taint of treason. Individuals could obtain political power only by the consent of their fellow citizens, and then they held that power only for a limited term.

The Constitution of 1787 enshrined substantial inequalities, but even its limited embrace of equality was revolutionary. Ordinary people took equality very seriously, and the equality at the center of the Constitution destabilized all aspects of life in the new nation. Equality became a dynamic force that drove the nation into Civil War and continues to be the deepest drive in American life.

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