The Gadfly Bytes --
March 4, 2008
The Great Regression -- and the Road Back
This past week I revisited an essay that I wrote in May, 2000:
Friendship.” Reading it was a sobering reminder of how much we
Americans have lost, economically, politically, and morally, since then – how much our sense of hope, our self-esteem and our international
reputation have disintegrated under the Bush/Cheney regime.
In that essay, I contrasted a “well-ordered society” of citizens bound by a
shared sense of justice, with a “private society” of autonomous individuals,
loyal only to themselves and their immediate friends and families and
aspiring only to maximize their personal welfare. (The phrases “well-ordered
society” and “private society” are from John Rawls’s book A Theory of
Justice, coincidentally the subject of
my doctoral dissertation).
In May, 2000, despite merciless and unrelenting harassment by a Republican
Congress and the corporate mass media, Bill Clinton was completing eight
years of peace and prosperity, with a budget surplus that promised a
reduction of the five trillion dollar national debt. Directly ahead: Bush v. Gore, 9/11, and a virtual suspension of the United States Constitution and
the rule of law.
Here is a re-write, in a much darker mood, of that essay, as a former
celebration of the accomplishments of the American republic is transformed
into a lamentation and a warning. I close with a sketch of a possible
route out of the abyss into which we have fallen these past eight years.
The United States of America is a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic and
So too are Northern Ireland, Lebanon, Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan.
So why has the United States, unlike these unfortunate countries, not
suffered tribal turmoil throughout most of its history? Why have we and most
of our fellow citizens been at least moderately safe in our homes,
possessions and persons? And why have we lost much of this domestic
tranquility and security in just the past eight years?
We Americans are separated by one-hundred and forty-three years from our one
and only civil war. Our Constitution is the oldest continuously operative
political charter in the civilized world. There is no armed rebellion
against the government, or armed conflict by one racial, ethnic or religious
faction against another. Occasional acts of domestic violence against the
government or the social order, such as the Oklahoma City bombing, are
universally recognized as aberrations, and the belief of the perpetrators
that such acts will set off a mass rebellion against the established
political order are universally recognized as delusional. Principled civil
disobedience, such as the civil rights movement of the sixties, has
succeeded on the foundation of the common principles of political morality,
in particularly equal rights and human worth, as proclaimed in our founding
documents. Racial segregation collapsed when the aggrieved victims
dramatized the moral contradictions of their oppressor's doctrine. "Separate
but equal" was thus proven a moral absurdity.
Thus, we have enjoyed moderate domestic tranquility, thanks to our shared
concepts of justice and personal worth, and our sense that we belong to a
unified community, that we are protected by just laws, and that the
government rules with our consent. We have, despite all our differences,
regarded each other as compatriots: we are all "Americans." Accordingly, in
our fortunate, “well-ordered” society, we have been bound by what John Rawls
calls, "civic friendship:”
is well-ordered when it is not only designed to advance the good of its
members but when it is also effectively regulated by a public conception
of justice. That is, it is a society in which (1) everyone accepts and
knows that the others accept the same principles of justice, and (2) the
basic social institutions generally satisfy and are generally known to
satisfy these principles... Among individuals with disparate aims and
purpose a shared conception of justice establishes the bonds of civic
friendship; the general desire for justice limits the pursuit of other
ends. (A Theory of Justice, 1971, p.5).
advantages of “civic friendship” in “the well-ordered society” are now
unraveling with the emerging triumph of “the private society." By
replacement of what Michael Moore calls “the we society” with “the me
The Well-Ordered Society
The personal moral probity of each citizen (or, more realistically, of most
citizens), is a necessary condition of a well-ordered society. But it
is not sufficient.
Suppose that several families comprised of saintly individuals, unknown to
each other, were to simultaneously enter an uninhabited region and set up a
village. While each was trustworthy, each would not know if his next-door
neighbor were a saint or a scoundrel, and so, fearing the worst, each would
be prudently on his guard. Thomas Hobbes saw this "state of nature" as a
desperate situation, to be solved only by the surrender of individual
personal freedom to a "sovereign," who would then impose peace and order on
Historical experience suggests a more benign solution. For as each
individual in our hypothetical settlement becomes better acquainted with his
neighbors, as each learns that they share conceptions of justice, fair play,
and mutual respect, bonds and expectations of trust are established. When
interests compete and conflict, mutually acknowledged modes of adjudication
are applied, leading to amicable resolutions. The "well-ordered society"
emerges and is maintained.
In an important 1981 article
Magazine, Robert Axelrod and William Hamilton explain this “evolution of
cooperation,” and with it the development of altruism and community loyalty. Through a
repetition of reciprocating and mutually advantageous “offers” and
“acceptances” (called “tit-for-tat”), modes of cooperation evolve. Failure
to cooperate leaves individuals at a competitive disadvantage with those who
cooperate, and thus,
through a “natural selection,” societies, (described by Rawls as
“cooperative venture[s] for mutual advantage”) are established, develop and
flourish. The “tit-for-tat” strategy is so fundamental that it applies
“automatically” and non-deliberatively to groups of animals, between species
(symbiosis), and among even insects and bacteria. (The “tit for tat” strategy,
which involves game theory, can not be adequately explained in this brief
space. For more, follow the link above, and see Axelrod’s book,
The Evolution of Cooperation).
Accordingly, among human individuals, a “well-ordered society” is
established, not only when I act morally, but also when I understand that
your conduct is governed by the same principles of justice and the same
respect for the dignity of persons. But that is not quite enough: for in
addition, each must understand for himself and recognize in the other this
mutual obedience to moral principles and this immediate sentiment of mutual
respect. I not only know that I will treat you fairly and honorably, but you
also know that I will do so; and conversely, I also know, as you do, that
you too will treat me likewise.
Such restraint, based upon mutual respect and a mutual acknowledgment of
shared principles of justice, need not be perfect and complete, for if
perfection were required, there would be no well-ordered societies. In all societies,
there will be deviants and “free riders” who must be deterred and, failing
that, dealt with. Moreover, to guide the behavior of even well-intentioned
citizens, these principles of justice and their implications, like traffic
be specifically spelled-out. Hence the necessity for the rule of law.
Clearly, what we are describing here is an ideal and flourishing community -- an association of individuals sharing,
moral ideals, a sense of justice, and a respect for the humanity of each and
of all. Each member recognizes the community -- "our club," "our
profession," "our faith," "our country," and (dare we hope) "our
planet" -- as an entity of value apart from the totality of constituent
In failed communities such as Ulster, Bosnia, Kosovo and Uganda, tribal
loyalties blind the individual to the worth, even the right to life, of
"those others" within the community.
The Private Society.
In contrast, there is a conception of "society" that has little use for
shared communal values. Rawls calls it "the private society," and describes
Its chief features are first that the persons comprising it .. have their
own private ends which are either competing or independent, but not in any
case complementary. And second, institutions are not thought to have any
value in themselves, the activity of engaging in them not being counted as a
good but if anything as a burden. Thus each person assesses social
arrangements solely as a means to his private aims. No one takes account of
the good of others, or of what they possess; rather everyone prefers the
most efficient scheme that gives him the largest share of assets. (Rawls,
Margaret Thatcher endorsed "the private society" with stark simplicity and
brevity, when she proclaimed: "There is no such thing as society, there are
only individuals and families." Also Ayn Rand: “There is no such entity as
‘the public,’ since the public is merely a number of individuals.” The
implications are stark. If there is no such thing as society, then there are
no social problems, there is no social injustice, and there is no social
progress, and government has no business trying to address these fictions. So-called “victims of society” are nothing more than victims of their own
failings, or “sins,” as the religious right would have it.
A moment's reflection will indicate to us that “the private society” is the
kind of (so-called) "society" described by the neo-classical economist and
recommended by the libertarian. To the neo-classical economist, the optimal
society emerges “spontaneously” from the unfettered market transactions
among autonomous, egoistic "utility maximizing" individuals -- homo
economicus. To the libertarian, popular government has no legitimate
function other than the protection of personal life, liberty and property. (See my
"With Liberty for
“Privatism and Public Goods”).
When this conception of "the private society" was celebrated a generation
ago by the novelist Ayn Rand, it was generally regarded as too outlandish to
be taken seriously. A kindred ideology, presented by Barry Goldwater, was
soundly rejected by the voters in the 1964 Presidential election. Through
and lavishly funded efforts of a few true believers, the dogma of "the
private society" has become the dominant political ideology of our time. It
is heard, time and again, in the political and media complaints against the
"evils" of "big government," and also the rarely questioned faith that
alleged “social problems” will best be solved by "the free market"
unconstrained by "government interference."
The Stakes in the Contest
The contrast between the idealized "well-ordered society" and the "private
society" is exemplified in most of the public and political issues of our
time. In public discourse, these competing positions are designated (very
roughly) as "liberal" and "conservative." Unfortunately, political rhetoric
has loaded the word “liberal” with so much negative connotation, that it can
no longer function as a description of a political ideology. (Note sub-title
to Geoffrey Nunberg’s new book, Talking Right: “How conservatives turned liberalism into a
tax-raising, latte-drinking, sushi-eating, Volvo-driving, New York
Times-reading, body-piecing, Hollywood-loving, left-wing freak show”). Accordingly, I prefer to use the word “progressive.”
Similarly, “conservatism” no longer adequately describes the program of the
right-wing, which, in fact, is engaged in a full-scale attack on traditional
American political institutions – institutions that the progressives are
struggling to protect. The Right seeks not to “conserve,” but rather to
transport society back to an earlier era, real or imagined. Hence my
preferred term for the Right: “regressive.” (See my
Furthermore, self-described "conservatives" and "libertarians" are often
mistakenly associated with each other. However, while they both
endorse "free market" solutions to economic issues, they differ radically on
issues regarding personal conduct -- e.g., abortion, pornography, gay
rights, drug use).
With these semantic clarifications in order, let’s examine the contrasting
progressive, regressive and libertarian approaches to some public issues:
Criminal Justice: To the regressive-right, the purpose of
incarceration is retribution and punishment. The offender is to be separated
from society as long as possible -- hence mandatory sentencing, "three
strikes," and minimal preparation for a successful re-entry into society
upon release. To the progressive, the purpose of incarceration is
rehabilitation, so that the individual might be successfully rejoin the
community upon his release.
Gun Control: The regressive advocates a return to the frontier system
(more of popular legend than of history), with each individual his own
defender. Hence permissive "concealed weapons laws" and "Second Amendment absolutism."
The progressive believes that greater security is to be found in a disarmed
society, where each citizen might be confident that the next stranger he or
she meets will not be "packin'."
Art and Culture: To the libertarian, an individual's taste in art,
music and literature is strictly that person's own business. Government
support of the arts or art education or public broadcasting, by "taking" the
property of one person through taxation to subsidize the preferences of
another, amounts to simple theft. The liberal is convinced that, left
to "market forces" alone, public taste will degrade and the popular culture
will be coarsened. Aesthetic taste and a refined intellect, the
progressive insists, do
not emerge, ex nihilo, from the mind of the growing child; rather, these are
qualities that are absorbed from the culture and acquired through deliberate
modes of education. Put simply, the cultural liberal feels that it is better
to live in the company of fellow citizens who listen to Mozart and Beethoven
and who are familiar with Shakespeare and Dostoyevsky, than to live amidst
individuals who know only gangsta rap and acid rock, and slasher films and
Primary Education: Until recently, the US public school system was
one of our most successful and unifying institutions -- until, that is,
decades of miserly financial support and the declining status of the
teaching profession began to take its toll. Amidst the clamor of
criticism today, we have forgotten that early in the twentieth century, and at the close of
the nineteenth century, the public school system was the gateway through which
the flood of immigrant and first-generation children learned of our history
and our political institutions, became fluent in our common language,
acquired the skills necessary to be assimilated into our labor force -- in
short, became "Americanized." Thus the public schools were crucially
important instruments in the maintenance of our "civic friendship." But now,
rather than repair the public schools, the regressives propose to abandon
them through "privatization" -- a system of "vouchers" that would drain the
talented and well-behaved children from the public schools, withdraw the
support of the parents of these fortunate children, and leave the public
system in ruins, thus casting away the ladder of advancement out of poverty
and destitution. In addition, the regressive Busheviks have, through the underfunded “No Child Left Behind” act, imposed upon the public schools a
regime of “teaching to the test,” that strips the public schools of
education in the arts, culture, history, literature and civics, in favor of
“readin’, writin’ and ‘rithmetic” – skills useful to employers who desire
workers who perform simple tasks, but who do not think critically and who
are unfamiliar with their history or their fundamental rights as citizens.
What does the deterioration of public education have to do with "privatism?"
A recent event in my own community, replicated throughout the land, makes
the point. We recently had a school bond issue. In the local paper, several
citizens complained that the schools had no right to tax them, since they
had no children of school age, or (alternatively) that their children were
in private schools. The notion that the education of others' children was a
public benefit was furthest from their minds. Even so, fifty-five percent of
the voters cast their ballots for the bond issue, which was nonetheless
defeated. And why was it defeated? Because, in a previous regressive "tax
revolt" (Proposition 13 of 1978), the voters of California decided that the
majority does not necessarily rule. Additional tax assessments, they
decided, must be approved by a two-thirds vote. (See my “Why Should I Pay
for Someone Else’s Education?”).
Higher Education: According to "the private society" view, an
individual's education is, of course, of advantage to himself. However, no
attention, much less public investment, need be given to the alleged "social
benefits" of others' education. Fortunately, this was not the opinion of the
enlightened legislators in the early twentieth century who expanded the
system of public higher education. A paradigm case was the City University
system in New York City, whereby a resident youngster of sufficient talent
and motivation, however poor, could continue his or her education through graduate
school. Thousands of doctors, jurists, engineers, and scientists from
impoverished immigrant families emerged from that system. Similarly, what
Jefferson called the "natural aristocracy of talent and virtue" took
advantage of the University of California system -- until recently, the
finest system of public higher education in the world. However, this was not
good enough for the regressives, and so public higher education in
California has become increasingly "privatized," as tuitions have soared,
state support has fallen, and a large part of the "slack" has been assumed
by corporate-funded research. And with the abolition of "affirmative action"
in California, still more talented and motivated youngsters, who had the bad
luck of choosing poor and minority parents, will be deprived of the
opportunities that might have been enjoyed by their parents or grandparents.
Government: To the libertarian, government "is the most dangerous
institution known to man" (John Hospers). "Big government" whittles away at
our "natural rights” of life, liberty and property by imposing burdensome
regulations upon our commercial activities ("capitalist acts among
consenting adults" -- Robert Nozick) , and by confiscating our property,
through taxation, to support other people's children (welfare), others'
education (the public schools), and others' artistic and literary tastes
(public broadcasting, museums, the National Endowment for the Arts). To the
progressive, government is the one institution
which can legitimately act in
behalf of all, treating each citizens as an equal before the
law. Thus government can legitimately act to protect the numerous poor and
weak from the few who are powerful and wealthy. At its best, government
protects the rights of each individual citizen and embodies and enforces the
principles of justice which, when publicly acknowledged and shared, are the
foundation of the well-ordered society.
In General: Citizens of a "well-ordered society" regard the private
economy, the shared social institutions, and the popularly elected
government and body of laws as "ours." In the "private society," "the
establishment" (those in the corporate boardrooms, the fellowship of
lobbyists and legislators, the media), regard the economy and the government
as "theirs." This is the “private society” of the United States that three
regressive administrations (and one DLC-Democratic administration) have
bestowed upon us. In this “new order,” the vast majority of us are alienated
from the forces that control our lives and which devastate our hopes. The
incomes of the privileged have soared, while the incomes of the
ever-shrinking middle class stagnate, and the prospects of the poor have
declined, so that today the Fortune 500 CEO earns, before his three-martini
lunch, more than his company's median worker earns in an entire year. Fewer and fewer
citizens bother to vote in elections in which the "opposing candidates" are
ideological clones who conduct campaigns made up of images rather than
ideas. The media fail to inform, but instead they entertain and distract
with saturation coverage of celebrity peccadilloes, custody fights, and
unsolved murders. The cement of social union dissolves as the individual is
encouraged to arm herself, is told not to trust her government, and as she
retreats into her own home, encountering the outer world (more likely a
fantasy world) through her TV or computer screen.
Can an Ulster, Bosnia, Kosovo and Uganda be far ahead along this lonesome
History, as Will Durant points out, may suggest the answer:
mind of Rome, at the close of the Antonine age [with the death of Marcus
Aurelius, 180 AD], sank into a cultural and spiritual fatigue. The
practical disfranchisement of first the assemblies and then the Senate
had removed the mental stimulus that comes from free political activity
and a widespread sense of liberty and power. Since the prince had almost
all authority, the citizens left him almost all responsibility. More and
more of them, even in the aristocracy, retired into their families and
their private affairs; citizens became atoms, and society began to fall
to pieces internally precisely when unity seemed most complete." (The
Story of Civilization: Caesar and Christ).
No Free Gift
If one listens long enough to the self-described “conservative”
entrepreneur, one may begin to suspect that he attributes all that he has
accomplished to his energy, intelligence, initiative, and willingness to
accept risks. "Government," as Dick Cheney told Joe Lieberman in the 2000 VP
debate, “has had nothing to do with it,” except perhaps to block him from
even greater accomplishments.
What colossal conceit!
Whether or not he recognizes it, the entrepreneur’s success depends upon
some degree of good order in his society. For example, he could accomplish
nothing without an educated work force available to him, educated, for the
most part, at public expense. He applies technologies developed by others,
built in turn on "impractical" basic scientific research, which only the
state will support (since no profits are foreseeable). His patents and
copyrights are secure under protection of law, and he is confident that if
they are violated, he can appeal to the courts in the expectation that the
body of law, not the highest bribery bid to the judge, will settle the
dispute. Finally, he is reassured that if his "enterprise" is imperiled by
the increasing monopolization or unfair trade practices of a competitor, the
law will protect him.
Moreover, the well-ordered society is economically efficient, since the
costs of securing the libertarian triad -- life, liberty and property
-- are inversely proportional to the degree of "civic friendship" -- of
mutual trust and respect, and the manifest adherence to shared principles of
justice and fairness. In other words, the greater the moral probity of
the members of a society, the less the cost to each of of maintaining a
police, criminal courts, and prisons.
The well-ordered society does not happen by accident, nor is it maintained
through indifference and neglect. It is not a free gift.
To receive it, a generation must be preceded by others who have fought and
perchance died for it and who have nurtured and protected it. If it is to
survive to the next generation, the well-ordered society must be maintained
by loyalty, by a pride of shared history and institutions, by mutual respect
and a celebration of diversity, by adherence to shared principles, by
education -- and yes, by the expenditure of cash. All segments of society
must believe, with justification, that they have a "stake" in the well-being
of their community, thus the least fortunate must be cared for. All citizens
must learn, from their youth, to cherish their shared political ideals, and
thus the youth must be taught their history and their politics. Because the
artistic and literary refinements of culture will not simply "fall out,"
unintended, from the profit-motivated purveyors of popular culture (quite
the contrary!), institutions such as public broadcasting and the National
Endowment for the Arts and the Humanities must be supported with public
funds. Because "impractical" basic research (in fact, the well-spring of
applied science and technology) and "unprofitable" social criticism are
unlikely recipients of corporate funding, such essential activities must be
supported by public funding, through such agencies as the National Science
Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities. All this
requires an expenditure of public money, which means taxes -- "what we pay
for civilized society" (Oliver Wendell Holmes).
Clearly, with the Bushevik dismantling of the public sector, with the
“ownership society” leading to the corporate ownership of the government,
with the dissolution of the rule of law and the introduction of political
crimes, thought-crimes, and pre-crimes, we are forfeiting what our
Constitution has bequeathed to us: justice, domestic tranquility, ... the
general Welfare, and ... the blessings of Liberty.
These are some of the milestones along the hard road toward a restoration of our
increase our investments in education, and afford teachers a respect
commensurate with their social importance.
once again teach our children how to think critically, and re-acquaint
them with our history and our political institution. And we must alert
them, through scientific education, to the environmental perils facing
the human species.
assure that no citizen will go hungry, will be unable to find
employment, or be deprived of medical care.
insist that the broadcast media pay the public for the use of the public
airwaves by devoting considerable time to the analysis and discussion of
demand civility in political debates and punish the offenders by
depriving them of public office.
hold entertainment conglomerates responsible for the "collateral" social
effects of their depictions of violence.
put an end to the privatization of legislative government by
establishing effective campaign finance laws.
end the relentless attack upon the legitimacy of our governmental
institutions and the public servants who labor therein.
acknowledge and celebrate the common humanity that we share with our
fellow citizens who may have different religious faiths, political
convictions, or ethnic origins.
"conventional wisdom," steeped at length in the culture of privatism,
dismisses this agenda as "bleeding heart liberalism."
Might it not be time, at last, to pause for a moment, to reflect, and to
assess and aggressively challenge the "wisdom" of this convention?
Copyright 2000/2008 by Ernest Partridge