Environmental Ethics
and Public Policy
Ernest Partridge, Ph.D

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Conscience of a Progressive

Ernest Partridge

Chapter Four:

A Master Morality



[The Master] regards himself as a determiner of values; he does not require to be approved of; he passes the judgment: ‘What is injurious to me is injurious in itself;’ he knows that it is he himself only who confers honor on things; he is a creator of values. He honors whatever he recognizes in himself: such morality is self-glorification. “

Friedrich Nietzsche
Beyond Good and Evil

If one were to search for a unifying principle of regressive/right policy (the religious right excepted), one could scarcely do better than this: “If it advantages the privileged wealthy and powerful, we’re for it.”

Of course, the regressives don’t say this outright, and perhaps many even persuade themselves not to believe it. Nonetheless, regressive behavior and the implications and consequences of their policies betray this unifying principle. If the 97% plus of our population that is not of the “master class,” recognized this principle and its implications in an authentically democratic society, this “master morality” would not stand a chance.

And so this bitter pill of a principle – “if it’s good for us privileged, it is good, period” -- is layered over with a sugar coating of morality, including:

  • The uncompromising primacy of personal liberty.

  • “Trickle-Down” economics: “The rising tide raises all boats.”

  • “The Ownership Society.”

  • “It’s your money!” (“You can spend your money more wisely than the federal government can." George W. Bush).

  • “Government is not the solution; government is the problem.” (Ronald Reagan). Regulation is unwarranted and stifling interference with free commerce by “big government bureaucracy”.

  • Taxation for any purpose other than the protection of life, liberty and property, is theft.

  • Market Absolutism: The unfettered and mysterious workings of free market always provide superior solutions to government directives and regulations. And by implication:

  • Private ownership of land, resources, and public services is always preferable to public ownership (i.e., gasp! “socialism!!”).

  • Welfare Assistance leads to the “demoralization.” of those it is intended to benefit.

The more these precepts are accepted by the public at large, the better the prospects of the privileged to secure and enhance their wealth and power, to the disadvantage of that same “public at large.” As this book proceeds, we will examine and refute each of these precepts.

The concepts of “master morality, and its polar opposite, “slave morality”, were most extensively articulated by the great nineteenth century German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, in his books “The Genealogy of Morals” and “Beyond Good and Evil.” The basic idea is quite simple, even compellingly obvious: the shared values of a group (“mores”) reflect the social status and conditions of that group. (Of course, this notion is not original with Nietzsche; it is prominent in the works of Machiavelli, Marx, and numerous sociologists).

Accordingly, the ruling and “owning” classes exemplify and value what Nietzsche calls “the will to power” – autonomy, self-control and self-enhancement, greed, acquisitiveness, ruthlessness.

In contrast, those who are oppressed by the “masters” adopt a “herd morality” which prizes justice, prudence, humility, compassion, frugality, self-denial, resignation. It is no mere coincidence that the “slave morality,” which Nietzsche despised, describes traditional Christian virtues, for Christianity had its origins amongst an oppressed people and, for its first three centuries, was a cruelly persecuted religion.

The social-democratic morality of the progressive is neither the morality of the master nor of the slave. It is the morality of the free citizen of a democracy under the rule of just laws. This book will be devoted to the task of articulating and defending that morality. However, for now, let’s return to our examination of “master morality.”

(Note to Nietzsche scholars: I am taking from Nietzsche not a philosophy or a doctrine but merely a concept: “master morality.” If you find that the account of the master morality of regressivism which follows departs significantly from that of Nietzsche, don’t bother writing a critique to that effect, for I will stipulate that departure at the outset. In fact, there is much in Nietzsche’s moral philosophy that a progressive would reject and that a regressive oligarch would enthusiastically endorse – for example, the concept of the übermensch (the “superman”). My essential purpose in discussing Nietzsche is to point out that the basic precepts of regressivism issue from the social status and political power of the privileged – as rationalizations of their wealth, status and power.)

At the beginning of this chapter, I proposed that the “unifying principle of regressive/right policy” might be summarized: “If it advantages the privileged wealthy and powerful, we’re for it.” That principle is “sugar coated” by several quasi-moral justifications: “the master morality. Time now to test this proposal by applying it to the regressive regime now in power in the United States.

The Bush Administration as a Corporation, of, by and for “the stockholders.”

George Bush has said that he wants to run the government like a business. He has achieved his objective, for although Bush was allegedly “elected” as President of all the people, Bush, Inc. is in effect, less a government than it is a vast holding company. The firm’s executive officers are Bush, Cheney, and the Bush Cabinet. The Board of Directors are the Republican Party and the GOP Congressional leadership. The stockholders are the contributors to the Republican campaigns. The “accounts receivable” to the firm are the federal tax revenues from 280 million American citizens, who receive, in return, poor if any government services. Finally, the product of Bush, Inc., is regulatory relief, legislation, and munificent no-bid government contracts, all designed to benefit the stockholders.

In almost all instances the dividends to the stockholders are generated and “the product” is delivered at the expense of those who produce the national wealth – the vast majority of our fellow citizens.

The American public is persuaded to tolerate this racket by a mass-media owned and controlled by the Bush, Inc. stockholders. As ultimate insurance, the officers and directors of the firm can not be voted out of office, because the public’s votes are counted and compiled by unauditable machines manufactured and secretly coded by stockholders of the firm.  In addition, under the guise of "investigating voting fraud," the poor and minorities, traditional Democratic voters, are denied access to the ballot box.    The corporate media, of course, refuses to investigate and publicize this outrage, and dismisses all citizens who raise this issue as “conspiracy theorists.”

To appreciate the force of this analogy, one need only contemplate a broad range of policies proposed by the Bush Administration, and the legislation enacted by his Republican allies in the Congress: one discovers that these policies and legislative acts are all designed to further enhance the wealth and power of the “stockholders” – elites who “own” the Republican party, and hence the White House and the Congress.

In sum, Bush, Inc., is an enterprise operating of, by and for the privileged stockholders. As such, it is a “master morality.”

Abundant evidence supports the bold assertion that all policies and legislation of the Bush Administration and the Republican Congress are designed to benefit the wealthy elites:

  • In the Bush Administration’s proposed federal budget, funding of the military is increased and the useless missile defense program is maintained, while programs benefiting the poor and the middle class are cut across the board – programs such as health care, childcare, Head Start, nutrition programs, food stamps, foster care, Pell grants (college assistance), “No Child Left Behind,” police and fire departments, environmental protection, veterans programs, etc.  Even the funds to required to equip our troops and to care for the wounded veterans, are not exempt from this frugality.

  • The tax burden is shifting inexorably from the wealthy to the poor and the middle class. Specifically:

    (a) The abolition of the estate tax (in Bush Newspeak, “the death tax”) works to the almost exclusive advantage of the very wealthy. The resulting loss of revenue means that the shifting tax burden must be placed upon the poor and middle class or, due to the deficit, future generations.

    (b) The Bush tax legislation features cuts in taxes on income from investments (dividends, capital gains), with raises in taxes on income from labor and sales of essential goods.

    (c) Further abominations are contemplated, including a national sales tax, a national consumption tax, and a “flat tax” – all of which are regressive, and all of which disregard the elementary economic fact that a constant sum of money is “worth” far less to the wealthy than to the poor. Example: Bill Gates cares less about the loss of one billion dollars of his net worth in the Stock Market, than a Wall-Mart employee (correction: “Associate”) cares about the loss of a thousand dollars.  (See Chapter 9).

  • Bush’s “reform” of Social Security is, in effect, a massive “corporate welfare” scheme that would transfer billions of citizen dollars from the pockets of ordinary citizens into the accounts of stock brokers – all this to the net disadvantage of those same ordinary citizens. Similar schemes have been tried in Chile and Great Britain, where the public is now clamoring for a return to the old government-managed system. The case against Bush’s Social Security con is complicated and extensive – the sort of thing that only a CPA could love. Paul Krugman offers the most lucid and layman-friendly arguments against this scheme.1 His opposition to the Bush scheme is supported by virtually every economist who is not on the payroll of Bush, Inc. or of its “stockholders” in the securities industry.

  • The Federal regulatory agencies were established to protect ordinary citizens from exploitation by private corporations. These agencies include the Food and Drug Administration, The Federal Communications Commission, The Securities and Exchange Commission, The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation and the Environmental Protection Agency. Pre-regulatory abuses by private interests are not merely hypothetical, for history provides abundant examples: food contamination, useless pr harmful drugs, stock swindles, pollution of water and air, and much, much more. Ronald Reagan brought in the era of “deregulation,” – in effect, the firing of the “night watchman” -- and with it the loss of these protections of the public, to the great advantage of the corporations. (See Chapter 7; “Kill the Umpire!”).

  • The libertarian-right detests government regulation and its interference with “free market transactions” (“capitalist acts between consenting adults” Robert Nozick). Instead of government regulation, the libertarian argues, civil law will protect the private citizen from corporate irresponsibility. The threat of lawsuits, we are assured, will deter the pharmaceutical company from marketing harmful drugs, the packing company from selling tainted meat, and the factory from polluting the water and the air. There are many compelling reasons to reject the “tort law” solution to corporate abuse, as I will argue in Chapter 8 at some length. Of more immediate interest is the fact that Bush, Inc. would deprive the ordinary citizen of both regulatory and tort protection. For in addition to deregulation, the Republican congress has severely curtailed the ability of citizens to file class action suits against corporations, and it has “capped” the amount of punitive damages that might be assessed against corporations.

  • The new bankruptcy law will no longer protect middle class families from financial ruin due to severe illness, job loss, or family breakup. The equity in the family house is no longer protected. This legislation is Bush, Inc.’s service rendered to the banking and credit card industries in return for their payment of more than fifty millions in campaign donations. These draconian punishments of hard-pressed ordinary citizens do not apply to the wealthy, however. Corrupt bankrupt corporations such as Enron can shelter their assets against claims by cheated employees and investors, and bankrupted tycoons can keep their mansions.

  • All the major environmental organizations agree: this administration has the worst environmental record in history. Despite the Orwellian names for the Bush programs – “Clear Skies,” “Healthy Forests,” etc. – the environment is taking a beating on all fronts, as air quality deteriorates, the eutrophic “dead” zone returns to Lake Erie, and the national forests are being assaulted with renewed vigor by the lumber barons. A pack of corporate foxes has been put in charge of the federal environmental hen-houses. Lawyers from anti-environmental organizations, such as Interior Secretary Gail Norton, and industry lobbyists, such as now-deputy Secretary of the Interior, Steven Griles. The degradation of the natural environment adversely affects every citizen. The ill-gained windfall profits from relaxation of environmental regulation and enforcement, benefits the privileged few.

The results of these and many more instances of “reverse RobinHoodism” (taking from the poor and giving to the rich), are clearly manifested in the wealth distribution in the United States. Thirty years ago, one percent of the U. S. households owned about twenty percent of the national wealth, and a typical CEO of a large corporation earned forty times as much as the average worker. Today, that one percent owns about half of the national wealth, and that same typical CEO is paid five hundred times as much as his worker.  To put that number in perspective, this means that the CEO earns, in half a day, the annual salary of his median worker. As a result of the Bush policies, that trend can only accelerate

But what of the agenda of the religious right?  Opposition to gay marriage, stem cell research, and abortion, promotion of school prayer and public display of the Ten Commandments, etc. Surely these issues do not follow the pattern of benefiting the rich at the expense of the poor?

Not directly. But “reverse RobinHoodism” is a factor nonetheless. It is doubtful that the typical corporate “stockholder” in Bush, Inc. cares very much about these “family values” issues. However, what Karl Rove and his team of political strategists do care about is the fact that the religious right delivered 40% of Bush’s 2000 vote total. Thus it is essential that Bush, Inc. keep the evangelicals on the reservation. That being so, enthusiastic support for “family values” was a sure thing – until after the recent election, that is. It is noteworthy that following the election  Bush lost interest in the promised “anti-gay-marriage amendment.”

A bodyguard of myths.

Moral considerations aside, the success of Bush, Inc. is a truly remarkable accomplishment. Here is a system that deliberately and systematically extracts wealth from the vast majority of citizens that produce that wealth, as it simultaneously withdraws public services from those citizens. And yet, those citizens tolerate this abuse, and in some cases even enthusiastically support their abusers. How is this possible?

The answer lies, at its foundation, with the fact that Bush, Inc. controls the media and thus the message heard and seen by a credulous public. The message is propped up by right wing talk shows and by a horde of “experts” issuing forth from right-wing “think tanks.” With this advantage, the regime surrounds itself with a bodyguard of myths. Among them:

  • The “trickle-down” theory of economics: a nation’s prosperity is based upon the private investment of wealthy individuals. The best way to serve the poor and the middle class is to provide jobs, and jobs are created from investments. “I never was given a job by a poor man,” as former Senator Phil Gramm put it.2 Hence still more wealth must be directed to the wealthy.

  • The Horatio Alger myth: with initiative, determination, and admittedly a little bit of luck, anyone can “rise to the top.” Thus, by implication:

  • The sin of poverty: people are poor by choice – by a willing failure to seek employment and apply themselves honestly and diligently to their work.

  • The invisible hand: The term is from Adam Smith, who writes in The Wealth of Nations, that the individual who “intends his own gain ... is ... led by an invisible hand to promote... [the interest of] society.”3 (Book IV, CH. 2). Thus, since the free market “automatically” promotes the public good, there is no need for government to provide social services.

  • The myth of “the liberal media.” It is difficult to understand how anyone who critically assesses the political commentary and reporting in the mass media can conclude that it has “a liberal bias.” Yet this charge (by the media!) that the media has a “liberal bias,” is repeated so often that it is widely believed.

The strength of these myths (“the liberal media” excepted) resides in the fact that they are, to a limited and qualified degree, true – in other words, they are so-called “half-truths.” Wealth does, in fact, “trickle down” from investments of the wealthy. But it also “percolates up” from the labor and initiative of the workers. And Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” is no doubt beneficently at work in a free market economy. But most economists, Adam Smith among them,4 acknowledge in addition the existence of “the back of the invisible hand:” the fact that in many clearly identifiable cases individuals seeking their own gain, can bring about social disaster, an issue that I will explore in the next two chapters. Half-truths such as these are especially insidious, as the truthful half lends credence to the false half.

These myths persist due to an absence of an effective media voice to debunk them, just as Bush, Inc. flourishes due to an absence of a conspicuous opposition media. There can be little doubt that with a free and diverse media, and with an honest and accurate voting system, a progressive  Democratic Party would today control the White House and the Congress.

It is noteworthy that a similar system of “state capitalism” worked, however brutally, for 70 years in the Soviet Union until, because of advances in the technology of communication, vital information and dissenting opinion could no longer be controlled, and the Western youth culture could no longer be excluded. When the people of the Soviet Union came to appreciate that a better life was possible, the system was doomed. The Commissars could successfully deal with the threats of Romanov restoration and Western capitalism. But they were eventually brought down by blue jeans, The Beatles, and Rock and Roll.

Bush, Inc., stands on even shakier ground. The American people know what it is like to live in a free and prosperous country, and when freedom and prosperity are lost, no amount of state-controlled propaganda can cover-up this loss. While commercial broadcasting and cable TV are overwhelmingly right-wing, progressive opinions are beginning at last to push back. In addition, some independent progressive publications are still available. And of course, there is the internet, where we find access to a wide range of domestic dissenting opinion as well as the foreign press. If, as is quite possible, the internet is privatized, sold to the likes of Rupert Murdoch or Rev. Moon, and progressive opinion is shut out, there will be an irrepressible samizdat of computer disks, CDs, and satellite and cross-border broadcasts. As the Soviet Presidium learned from Poland’s “Solidarity” and Czechoslovakia’s “Velvet Revolution,” and as the Chinese Communist regime learned in Tiananmen Square, the technology of communications is now out of the control of even the most repressive regimes.

At this moment, most Americans continue to believe the United States is still a free country, and that “it can’t happen here.” When they realize that it is happening here, either Bushism will be overthrown, or in a desperate attempt to remain in power, the Busheviks will significantly increase their repressions.

In the meantime, the greatest threat to the Bush regime is a widespread appreciation amongst our fellow citizens that there is a superior alternative to the “Master Morality” of Bush, Inc. It is “Social Democratic Morality,” expressed in a political system best described by Abraham Lincoln as a “government of the people, by the people and for the people.” It is a government constrained by the rule of law to which all citizens, including the President and his Administration, must submit. It is a government, the policies, rules and legislation of which are designed to result in the greatest good for the greatest number in a regime of “equal justice under law.” It is a government that acknowledges and protects such public goods as a clean environment, wild places, civic pride, public safety, and free association. And it is a government that proclaims that economic prosperity is cooperative achievement of workers and investors, as well as educators, researchers, and government.

Simply put, the best alternative to the “Master Morality” of Bush, Inc. is the political morality of the founding documents of our republic; the political morality that we once believed to be exemplified in our government; the political morality that the propaganda machine of Bush, Inc. is determined to convince us that we still have.

If and when the day comes that a critical mass of our fellow citizens comes to fully appreciate what has been taken from us, that will be the day when the fate of Bushism  is sealed.


[Not linked. 

1.    [Find Krugman source]

2.    Until his retirement from the US Senate, Gramm also never received a job from a rich man. Upon receiving his doctorate in economics, Gramm became a professor at Texas A&M, then served in the Texas legislature, then the US House of Representatives and the Senate – all his paychecks issuing from public funds.

3.    Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations, Book IV, CH. 2.

4.    As the context containing the phrase, “the invisible hand” makes entirely clear, Smith asserts that “the invisible hand” can not be assumed to always deliver socially beneficial consequence of individual enterprise. Note the words that I have italicized in the passage below from The Wealth of Nations (Book IV, Ch. 2):

[The individual] generally, indeed, neither intends to promote the public interest, nor knows how much he is promoting it... [H]e intends only his own security; and by directing that industry in such a manner as its produce may be of the greatest value, he intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention. Nor is it always the worse for the society that it was no part of it. By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it.

Copyright 2005 by Ernest Partridge



Dr. Ernest Partridge is a consultant, writer and lecturer in the field of Environmental Ethics and Public Policy. He has taught Philosophy at the University of California, and in Utah, Colorado and Wisconsin. He publishes the website, "The Online Gadfly" (www.igc.org/gadfly) and co-edits the progressive website, "The Crisis Papers" (www.crisispapers.org).  Dr. Partridge can be contacted at: gadfly@igc.org .