It has become fashionable amongst the right to whine about taxes, first and foremost, then government spending, the apparent source of all that ails America. If Washington, D.C., could only get its house in order—balancing the budget, of course, but, better yet, building a surplus—the country would realize its Randian destination, freeing the superior among us to accomplish great and wonderful things while consigning the remainder to their proper role: worshiping and serving the best and the brightest.
Under such philosophy the individual is sacred; collectivist and communitarian thought must be purged. Yet, there would seem to be a problem with this notion.
First, the very existence of homo sapiens depends on our species’ social abilities. Our ancestors survived not one-by-one but as groups via cooperation.
Second, no one bothered to tell the Founding Fathers that Ayn Rand should be consulted. The Preamble to the Constitution reveals a marked antithesis to Randian individualism, beginning with its opening pronoun we. It is followed rather quickly by the phrase “promote the general welfare.” Gad. Welfare?
Third, governments are all about providing some sort of order, establishing rules and procedures by which individuals interact with one another, to, among other things, “form a more perfect union.” (Oops. Another collectivist term, union.) Those who dare to establish governments or try to run them acknowledge the imperfect allocation of natural gifts. While we may have all been “created equal” in personal dignity and in the “unalienable rights” that inhere within each of us, we’re not all geniuses, hunks, and beauty queens. Implicit in the founding documents is the belief that, despite our differences, we’re all in a fundamental sense the same. We’re human. Associated with that common understanding is sympathy for victims of misfortune.
If the reader is still with me on the broad contours, he or she will appreciate that governments are more than necessary evils. In complex societies they are essential to realizing and nurturing the human condition, manifested in both saints and sinners.
And the religious allusion is not accidental. The Founding Fathers, however secularly enlightened, were quite familiar with the “new testament,” the “Sermon on the Mount,” and the concept of redemption. The Christian god as revealed in the epistles and gospels was all about faith, hope , and charity (caritas), and the greatest of these was the last.
Yet, governments, like people, are fallible. Nor is there any guarantee that necessary evils do not themselves become evil. They do so, in my judgment, when they stray from embracing “we the people” and promoting the “general welfare” to enriching the lives of an already privileged few. That tendency steers toward fascism—by one definition, “extreme right-wing, authoritarian, or intolerant views or practice.”
You can see where this is going. Those of the Righteous Right, judging by their own words and actions, show scant tolerance toward alternative views and opinion. However, while I can foresee the RR’s facile embrace of a strong authority, provided the authority’s ideology is consonant with theirs, such an “authority” would have to be anti-government, at least rhetorically. The person who’s come closest to satisfying these conditions is, of course, Ronald Reagan (also RR), who famously said that “government is the problem.”
The Ayn Rand reference seems apropos, given the unleashing—on “Tax Day”—of a new film based on her novel Atlas Shrugged. Michael Shermer reviews the film for The Huffington Post. He writes:
The release of the film is also timely with Rand’s resurgence of influence driven in part by Tea Party firebrands who at their rallies have posterized memorable Randenalia, such as “Atlas is Shrugging”, “Who is John Galt?”, and the über-Bondish “The Name is Galt. John Galt.” Stimulated in part by the recession and subsequent government bailout — which Rand watchers are quick to point out was predicted in Atlas Shrugged half a century earlier–sales of the novel skyrocketed in 2009, with its 300,000 copies putting it in competition for sales with the top 20 new novels that year. That is saying something about a half-century old 1,183-page novel chock-a-block full of lengthy speeches about philosophy, metaphysics, economics, politics, sex and money.
Why the renewed popularity of Ayn Rand, in particular among self-proclaimed Tea Party members? I have a hunch.
America, if placed within a broad historical context, is on the wane. While its military is second to none—indeed the US spends more money on “defense” than the rest of the world combined—America can’t seem to score victories against its declared enemies. With the possible exceptions of Panama and Grenada (lopsided engagements in the extreme), the US has not “won” a war since defeating the Japanese and Germans. Not for lack of trying, mind you.
If not in battle, then, the military still has its uses, mostly for protecting corporate interests around the globe. And here is where America’s story starts its downward trajectory.
But I hasten to add that it’s important to distinguish between America as a nationstate and America as the accidental haven for multinational corporations. The very idea of America, loosely defined as “the land of opportunity” combined with an inchoate political notion of a “city on a hill,” is losing or has already lost its luster. The “beacon of freedom,” so tenaciously held in the minds of the Righteous Right, is being transformed into yet another banana republic, fertile soil for xenophobia and über-nationalism, the prickly elements of the Tea Party. Let me explain.
A salient feature of banana republics is oligarchy or plutocracy. While it’s true that we still hold elections in this country, the outcomes are pre-ordained. Not by “the people,” mind you, but by the extremely wealthy. I’m not speaking here of conspiracy, which is unnecessary, but merely the aggregate identification and realization of interests, namely those of the rich. The transformation is the predictable effect of concentrated wealth, so moved.
Imagine, if you will, a population marked by extreme wealth, at one end, and persistent poverty, at the other—in other words, America. Over time, the wealth has become more concentrated in the hands of a few, while poverty has metastasized, infecting more and more people. Meanwhile, the so-called ‘middle class’ has been shrinking.
We would expect, under this set of circumstances, that the rich would increase their share of wealth decade after decade. Everyone else would gradually and increasingly suffer. Why?
In a mostly laissez-faire society, one advocated by Ayn Rand and the Tea Party, the non-rich have diminishing prospects of becoming wealthy, to be sure, but also self-reliant. They cannot possibly catch up to those who were essentially born on third base. Indeed, and over time, the influence and power of the wealthy rises exponentially, since gains are parlayed into further gains.
This essentially inertial process is aided and abetted by the putative democracy we have so long revered—mistakenly, I contend. The campaign contributions and lobbying expenses of the rich act as investments, from which they realize mushrooming returns. All of this has been aptly chronicled by Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson in their recent book Winner-Take-All Politics. But their observations and conclusions do not comport with the hagiographic treatment of “civics” found in our public schools or in the minds of Tea Partiers. Thus, they are either ignored or ridiculed.
The non-rich, which is decidedly most of us, grow increasingly insecure about their financial situations, both current and future. Their jobs are at risk, wages inadequate, benefits middling to zero, and retirement only the stuff of dreams. This rising insecurity does not fit well, if at all, in the idealized imagery of the United States. How can so many suffer economic anxiety in a country so wealthy? Who is to blame?
Few of us see the culprit in the mirror, although the individualists suggest that’s where we should look. Uncomfortable, we look elsewhere. The answer appears, and take your pick. It’s the Jews, or the Arabs, or the Hispanics, or the Asians, or just about anybody who is different. Once the cause is identified, an entire alternative narrative emerges in which the Others have conspired with the “socialists” who have conspired with the Democrats who have conspired with the devil himself. To what end? To threaten and eventually extirpate the Righteous Right.
But notice who is absent from the list of perpetrators. The rich. By some twisted logic, the Righteous Right, marinated in Randian Objectivism, praises, if not worships, those who extract vast fortunes from the rest of us.
Thus, the RR winds up in bed with the wealthy, trying mightily to help secure the privileged’s agenda. The rich want lower taxes. Amen. The rich want less government intrusion. The rich want to build up the reserve army of workers (ten percent unemployment is not high enough) to press wages further downward. The rich want a vast military apparatus to protect and defend their economic interests, wherever they exist. The rich want to trample on the rights of others. The rich, through its near monolithic media empire, seek to atomize us, transforming a collective citizenry into individual consumers.
Madness run amok.
The antidote cannot be found on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, or in corporate boardrooms, or, alas, even in the halls of Congress. We won’t find it in the mainstream press, especially given its diminishing effect.
Oddly, and ironically, the cure lies with “the people.”
Jean-Jaques Rousseau, the French philosopher, distinguished between two senses of the people and their desires and intentions. In one sense, the people’s will could be discerned by votes: add up individual preferences to arrive at an aggregate preference. Rousseau preferred a different, albeit more opaque notion. Here is what he wrote in The Social Contract:
“…the general will, if it be deserving of its name, must be general, not in its origins only, but in its objects [my emphasis], applicable to all as well as operated by all, and that it loses its natural validity as soon as it is concerned to achieve a merely individual and limited end, since, in that case, we, pronouncing judgment on something outside ourselves, cease to be possessed of that true principle of equity which is our guide.”
I roughly divide the population by means of a matrix, which I illustrate below. We can be sorted along two continua. The y-axis runs from me to all. The x-axis refers loosely to the timing of gratification, whether we want what is deemed good right now or what we expect to be good over time.
You can go through your own process in filling in the boxes. I’d place corporate CEOs in the lower left box. They are joined by hedge fund managers, most Republicans, and social Darwinists. In the upper right box, which is the antithesis of the lower left, I’d include green socialists and those who adhere to Rousseau’s general will. These are people who prefer that decisions benefit everyone over time.
Occasionally in his posts Paul Krugman will admit to being a “Rawlsian.” He is referring to John Rawls, the Harvard philosopher who authored a modern instantiation of the social contract in his A Theory of Justice. Rawls, like Rousseau, Hume, and Locke before him, attempted to develop a rational basis for government and, ultimately, morality: How should we behave toward others?
Rawls creates a thought experiment. Imagine that all of us are in an “original position.” He assumes that we see through a “veil of ignorance.” That is, we do not know our standing within the group, whether we are privileged or poor, tall or short, white or brown, and so on. How would we then decide? In particular, how would we distribute scarce goods and services. Rawls believed that we would first and foremost be fair. We could not know how decisions would benefit the individual, since the individual was ignorant of his or her unique circumstances. So, Rawls suggested, we would hedge, understanding that a decision could adversely impact us, depending on our situation. We would “spread the wealth,” as it were.
So, back to government and its proper function.
The rich act as if they don’t want government; they may not even need it, save for the limited task of protecting their wealth. Everyone else, I presume, would like some protections from the vicissitudes of life—social safety nets. We acquire some limited protections against hazards via private insurance: fire, theft, and auto accidents. If we have jobs, and most still do, then we’d hope that our employer provides health insurance, sick leave, and a modest retirement fund.
But far too many of us either lack jobs or work in occupations that deny benefits and pay wages inadequate to support a family. Nor are employees so situated able to accumulate surpluses sufficient to provide the aforementioned benefits. Should sickness befall them, tough luck.
And now we get to the heart of promoting the general welfare, a principal function of government. Nature can be cruel, at birth and throughout life. The big question which underlies a proper governmental role is this: By what rationale should those who have give a portion of their wealth to those who lack?
Individualists, libertarians, Tea Partiers, et al., would hold that taxation is confiscatory. I made the money, so keep your filthy government hands off my bank account. We quickly grasp that such ideologues would have no truck with Rousseau’s general will. Their vision is limited, in both object and time.
Their opposite, found in the upper-right box, willingly pay taxes on the belief that the revenues will be used to “promote the general welfare,” which includes compensating what economists like to call “the losers.” (The market, after all, is just one big competition.) They generally support: education, voting for every levy and bond issue; public media; Social Security; Medicare; Medicaid; welfare programs; and adequate pensions. They are less likely to want tax dollars going to the Pentagon.
But I have no confidence that we can transform those inhabiting the box on the lower left. I can only hope in a political economy that there are more in the other box. The circumstances hardly support Rousseau’s preferred concept of the general will.
Why the pessimism? Just read this.