Environmental Ethics
and Public Policy
Ernest Partridge, Ph.D

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Conscience of a Progressive
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Conscience of a Progressive

Ernest Partridge

Chapter Twenty-Four:

The Progressive Society


As I have pointed out in Chapter 10 [still to be written], the free market – the foundational concept of regressivism – presupposes a moral order (a “well-ordered society”), which is the foundational concept of progressivism. That moral order includes a climate of trust, and a loyalty to ethical principles above associations or persons in positions of leadership.

On Trust

Trust is the moral cement that binds a just political order – the society aspired to by the progressive.

Like a person in good physical health, a society of trusting citizens takes its good fortune for granted as each citizen goes about his personal business. When we dwell in such a fortunate society, awareness and appreciation of the bond of civic trust fades below the collective consciousness, even as we continue to enjoy the benefits thereof.

We pay our bills and send personal messages through the mail, trusting the Postal Service to deliver the mail on time and not to open and read it en route. We purchase our food and drugs confident that the food will not be contaminated and that our drugs will be both safe and effective. When we go shopping, we often do not bother to check the change returned to us at the register, and we routinely write checks against bank deposits without scrupulously checking our balance, confident that our funds are safe and intact. In short, we generally trust each other.

Despite two decades of relentless assault upon "big government" by the regressives, we have continued to trust our government. Until very recently, we have expressed our personal and political opinions in our homes and over the telephone and e-mail, without fear that the government has planted a device to eavesdrop on our conversations. The supreme law of our political order contains a Bill of Rights which, we have confidently believed, guarantees our freedom of speech, of worship, of assembly and the privacy of our persons and our homes. And when our personal lives have been disrupted by an "insolence of office," we have generally been assured that the courts would provide a remedy. For as long as this benign regime of law and order has been secure, it has seemed so ordinary, so "natural." that we have taken little notice of it.

No longer. For today, we have good reason to fear that this benevolent political order is in grave jeopardy. Those of us who publicly express these concerns are called “alarmists” by “conservative” pundits, and even “traitors” by a few right-wing commentators.

I have experienced an alternative political order, albeit briefly. Of my seven visits to Russia, the first three were during the final days of the Soviet Union. During the summers of 1990 and 1991, I stayed with a friend in his Moscow apartment. On one occasion, as we were having a free-wheeling political conversation, he abruptly stopped me, put a finger to his mouth and then pointed toward the ceiling, in the general direction of an undetected yet plausible microphone. Thereafter, we carried on our conversations outdoors. The brief stroll between the Metro station and his apartment ran alongside the local post office, the upper floors of which were lit "24/7." Why? I was told that the postal workers, under the direction of the KGB, were reading personal mail en route to delivery. (To this day, my Russian friends advise me not to expect my postal and e-mail to be delivered to them unread). And on my trip to the Moscow Sheremetyevo Airport to board my flight back to the States, my driver was pulled over by the Militziya (traffic cop). He did not write out a citation. Instead, at the driver's instruction, I handed the officer a $20 bill, whereupon he waved us on. My feeling of liberation upon returning home to California was palpable.

I returned with a renewed pride in my country, its Constitution and Bill of Rights, its traditions of tolerance, fair-play and mutual trust, and with a renewed gratitude for my good fortune in being a citizen of these free and prosperous United States.

But in the past five years, that pride and gratitude have been clouded by fear and foreboding.

Yes, we Americans have thrived in an atmosphere of mutual trust. But some of the foundation of that civic trust has been seriously eroded, and unless we repair and restore it, that trust may be lost forever.

Within the memory of all of us, we trusted the ballot box and were thus assured that our political leaders enjoyed the legitimacy of "the consent of the governed."

We enjoyed some expectation that those whom we elected to our Congress and our legislatures represented those who voted for them, and not those who financed their elections.

Our trust in our elected representatives had, in the past, been honorably reinforced by our independent "fourth estate" – the press. When government or the elected and appointed denizens thereof got out of line, the press stepped in and exposed the waste, fraud and abuse. The New York Times publication of the Pentagon Papers, and the Washington Post investigation of Watergate were among the finest hours of American journalism.

And when representative government failed, aggrieved citizens could turn to the rule of law, and ultimately the Supreme Court, as it desegregated public education, enforced voting rights, protected the citizen's right to privacy, and maintained the wall of separation between church and state.

Within the past five years, all these foundations of our civic and political trust – the franchise, representative government, the press, the courts -- have been severely compromised.

It didn’t happen all at once. The undermining of the foundations of our political order has been constant, albeit little noticed by the general public. For over the past two decades, regressive pundits in the corporate media, and politicians beholden to their corporate “sponsors,” have told us relentlessly that "government can't be trusted" – and that virtually all government functions can best be handled by "private enterprise." As if to prove their point, while in power the regressives have violated the sanctity of the franchise and the integrity of the rule of law, and have spewed out "misinformation" from the their ill-gotten public offices, all of which has provided just cause to further distrust government. And when nature delivers a devastating blow, as with the Katrina catastrophe, the regressive regime further “proves” the inadequacy of “big government” by putting incompetent cronies in charge of emergency response, and then handing out emergency funds, through no-bid contracts, to “the usual suspect” mega-corporations.

Meanwhile, the Presidency, and particularly Bush's Press office, have become fountainheads of lies. Virtually from the moment that Dubya took office, we were served the slander that the departing Clinton administration had "trashed" the executive offices. The General Accounting Office set that record straight. We were told that Saddam “kicked out the arms inspectors.” A lie. That “we know where the WMDs are.” A lie. That all wire taps take place with a warrant. A lie. That “we don’t torture.” A lie. But why go on? There are hundreds more1  as documented here, here, here, and here).

The upshot: Trust and credibility are the mother’s milk of effective democratic leadership. FDR and Churchill had it in World War II, and so did George Bush when he stood at “ground zero,” bullhorn in hand. Bush was trusted then because the public needed desperately to trust him. But now Bush’s fund of trust, like that of LBJ and Nixon before him, has been exhausted, and with it, his capacity to lead. For truth and reality are remorseless adversaries, and eventually as the lies are exposed, trust evaporates, whereupon leadership fails. Then follows a time of great political danger. For if the discredited regime is to remain in power, civil order, once accomplished through trust, mutual respect, and obedience to law, must instead be achieved through force and threat, which is to say, oppression.

So now, when our country has been dealt a grievous injury by the terrorists, when the regime in power has proven itself incapable of dealing with natural disasters or extricating itself from an ill-conceived and immoral war, when the dreadful consequences of fiscal insanity are soon to come due, we are called upon to place our trust and loyalty in an administration which has gained office through an unprincipled manipulation and subversion of our foundational political institutions: the vote, the rule of law, and the free press. Today, when we desperately need to trust our government, trust, that essential moral resource has, like the federal surplus, been squandered to serve private greed and ambition.

And so, today’s progressives, acting as authentic “conservatives,” are striving to restore that trust in government, along with the “liberty and justice for all” that we once had confidently believed was our endowment, secured by our Constitution and the rule of law.

On Patriotism




Patriotism means to stand by the country. It does not mean to stand by the president or any other public official, save exactly to the degree in which he himself stands by the country. It is patriotic to support him insofar as he efficiently serves the country. It is unpatriotic not to oppose him to the exact extent that by inefficiently or otherwise he fails in his duty to stand by the country. In either event, it is unpatriotic not to tell the truth, whether about the president or anyone else.

Theodore Roosevelt

A Prince, whose character is ... marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free People.

Thomas Jefferson
Declaration of Independence

The progressive is a patriot. But this patriotism has as its fundamental object of loyalty, not a leader or a party, but rather enduring political and moral principles.

"Patriotism" is a word that has been hyper-conspicuous these days. The Congress of the United States has even chosen that word as a label for its anti-terrorism bill: "The USA PATRIOT Act."

So just what does it mean to be a "patriot."? Who are today's "patriots"? What historical figures exemplify this civic virtue?

Judging from the casual use of the word these days, it would seem that most everyone has a clear intuitive sense of the meaning of "patriotism." Even to inquire as to its meaning might appear to many of our fellow citizens to be, well, "unpatriotic." Nonetheless, we should explore these questions, and damn the consequences -- including the risk of being called a "traitor" by the regressives.

And so, to begin, we ask: who was and is a "patriot"? Washington, Jefferson, Paine, those who pledged their lives, fortunes and sacred honor by signing the Declaration of Independence – all these come to mind. But what about Colonel Klaus von Stauffenberg, whose failed attempt on Adolf Hitler's life cost the Colonel his life? Or Andrei Sakharov in the Soviet Union. More recently, how would we characterize John Dean during the Watergate affair? Or Daniel Ellsberg?

The dominant meaning of "patriotism" as it is used today in the popular media seems to be "support of our nation's leadership during this time of peril." By implication, as John Ashcroft seemed to suggest to the Senate Judiciary Committee, criticism of our leaders amounts to virtual treason.

By this account, Washington, Jefferson, von Stauffenberg, Sakharov, Ellsberg and Dean, were traitors, for they all rebelled against "constituted national leadership," i.e., King George (House of Hanover, not House of Bush), Adolf Hitler (legally elected Chancellor of Germany in 1933), the Brezhnev regime, and Richard Nixon, respectively. Today, Joseph Wilson, Richard Clarke, Noam Chomsky, and Sibel Edmunds could be added to that list.

Clearly, unconditional allegiance to a leader will not do as a criterion of "patriotism." Otherwise, an "unpatriotic" or even "treasonous" leader would be an oxymoron. In fact, history provides an abundance of examples of such leaders. "L'État, c'est moi!" was a concept against which our forefathers successfully fought a revolution. In our political tradition, it seems, "patriotism" implies a different object of loyalty than whosoever might, at the moment, be our appointed (or if we are lucky, our elected) leader.

The progressive insists that the "patriotism" exemplified by the founders of the American republic consists in an allegiance, not to persons, not to offices, and not even to institutions, but rather to political and moral principles. Such principles as self-determination, the social contract, inalienable human rights, and additional ideals such as those enumerated in the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights.

And yet, if polls and the pundits are to be believed, the prevailing public opinion demands that we accept without dissent and in the name of "patriotism," the legitimacy of an unelected President, a curtailment of our liberties enumerated in the First, Fourth, Fifth and Sixth Amendments, which means our right to privacy, to habeas corpus, due process and competent counsel. In addition, the public appears willing to allow the President, at his own discretion, to set aside acts of Congress, such as the Freedom of Information Act, the prohibition against torture, international treaties and even the Bill of Rights, in direct violation of the separation of powers stipulated by the Constitution.

Many brave individuals who have protested against such usurpations or who have criticized other aspects of the President's conduct in office have, if lucky, been met with scorn and derision from their fellow citizens, and if unlucky, they have lost their jobs. If recent history serves as a guide, there is no assurance that in the near future, still worse retaliation might await the dissenters.2

Clearly we seem to be dealing with two distinct and often conflicting concepts of patriotism. One is based upon a loyalty to individuals, offices and parties, while the other is founded upon abstract moral and political principles.

This distinction is illuminated by the work of two late and influential Harvard professors: the moral philosopher, John Rawls,3 and the cognitive psychologist, Lawrence Kohlberg.4  In independently developed yet remarkably similar theories, Rawls and Kohlberg described "stages" of development of moral judgment and capacity. As the individual matures and ascends to a higher stage of moral development, his judgment becomes more comprehensive, nuanced and integrated – more "cognitively adequate," to use Kohlberg's term . Moral puzzles that are insoluble on a "lower" level are resolved on a higher level. (E.g., should an impoverished husband steal a medicine to save the life of his desperately sick wife?)

Kohlberg describes six stages of development, in three pairs: "pre-conventional" (obedience to authority), "conventional" (conformity to social norms), and "post-conventional" (moral autonomy -- social contract in politics, and obedience to abstract principles in personal morality).

Rawls's ascending categories are "Morality of Authority," "Morality of Association" and "Morality of Principles."5  By this account, the child first develops a love and a loyalty to those most immediately and conveniently present and caring -- his parents. The loyalty is extended to relatives and friends, and then to such abstractions as associations and institutions to which one's acquaintances (and oneself) belong. Finally, the loyalty attaches to the most abstract of entities, ideals and principles. A dramatic moral crisis, such as the Watergate Scandal, often illustrates the conflict between these three stages of morality. In the Watergate affair, some officials were motivated by their loyalty to a person, i.e., Mr. Nixon. Others were moved by their loyalty to an institution, i.e., the Presidency. Still others, such as John Dean, acted in accordance with their duty to uphold the general principle of equal justice under the law.

This conflict among concepts of "patriotism" as obedience to authority, as conformity to convention and as loyalty to principle resonates throughout history and literature. For example, Shakespeare thus depicts Brutus' justification of his assassination of Julius Caesar:

Had you rather Caesar were living, and die all slaves, than that Caesar were dead, to live all free men? ... Who is here so base that would be a bondman? Speak, for him have I offended... Who is here so vile that will not love his country? Speak, for him have I offended.

Marc Antony then turned the attention of the crowd toward Caesar's alleged personal virtues of charity, mercy, modesty and generosity (not conspicuous either in Shakespeare's portrayal or in historical accounts of Caesar's character). Antony finally appeals to the greed of the crowd by producing a fraudulent "will" claiming to bequeath Caesar's fortune to the citizens. (Not unlike a promise of tax rebates).

Both appealed to "patriotism" – Brutus to a loyalty to principle, and Antony to loyalty to a charismatic leader. The Roman mob chose Marc Antony's lies and cult of personality over Brutus' ideals. And that decision marked the end of the Roman Republic.

Today the American public may be facing a similar decision, as the right wing media trumpets the Antonian demand that the public “stand behind our leader." And that is reason for grave concern.

If our republic is to endure, then any and all leaders and offices must be constrained by the principles of our Constitution and the rule of law, and must stand upon the foundation of the consent of the governed. That consent was violated in the disenfranchisement of the Florida voters before the 2000 election, by the harassment of election officials immediately following, and by the judicial coup d'etat by the Supreme Court in Bush v. Gore. The American public appears willing to "get over" this massive violation of the franchise. With this quasi-legitimacy safely in hand, the Bush Administration seems intent now upon dismantling the Constitutional system of checks and balances, along with the Bill of Rights.

The progressive understands "patriotism" to mean allegiance to shared political ideals, embodied in the rule of law. Accordingly, a President and his Administration must earn the support of the public by exemplifying these ideals and by submitting to the constraints of the law and our national charter, The Constitution. After all, every President, in his very first act in office, takes an oath that he "will to the best of [his] ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States." That oath appears, verbatim, in the Constitution itself. (Article 2, Section 1).

The President who fails to abide by this oath relinquishes his right to hold his office, and it becomes the patriotic duty of the legislature, the judiciary, and the citizenry to separate that President from his office.

In the current controversy over "patriotism," our collective moral and political maturity is being severely tested, as we encounter this crucial question: "Is our ultimate loyalty to our leaders or to our Constitution?"

The progressive is firmly on the side of the Constitution, not simply because it is the founding document of our republic, but more fundamentally, because of the political and moral ideals that it embodies.

Loyalty to the master is the ethic of the slave. Loyalty to principle is the ethic of the free citizen.

On Civic Friendship

The United States of America is a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic and multi-religious nation-state.

So too are Northern Ireland, Lebanon, Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Iraq.

So why is the United States, unlike these unfortunate countries, not suffering tribal turmoil? Why are we and most of our fellow citizens at least moderately safe in our homes, possessions and persons?

I certainly do not wish to suggest that we have achieved an acceptable level of personal safety and domestic tranquility, or that one can not identify enormous room for improvement. In numerous countries we find noticeably greater civility and tranquility among the citizens -- New Zealand, England, Switzerland, The Netherlands, and the Scandinavian countries immediately come to mind. Continuing racial tensions, the conditions of our inner cities, the impoverishment of our children, are national scandals. And our continuing love-affair with firearms makes each of us about sixty-four times more likely to be killed by gunfire than our British cousins.6

Even so, we Americans are separated by one-hundred and thirty-five 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 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 immediately recognized as delusional. Principled civil disobedience, such as the civil rights movement of the sixties, succeeds 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 enjoy moderate "domestic tranquility," thanks to our shared concepts of justice and personal worth, and our sense that we belong to a unified community -- we are all, despite all our differences, compatriots -- we are "Americans." Accordingly, in our fortunate society, we are bound by "civic friendship" in what John Rawls calls a "well-ordered society."

All this advantage is now under threat by the ideology of the libertarian right: "the private society."

The Well-Ordered Society. As we noted at the beginning of this chapter, the progressive believes that a functioning market, and the opportunity for each individual to seek the maximization of one’s personal self interest, is not, as the libertarians insist, the foundational condition of a just society. On the contrary, says the progressive, that market and that opportunity presupposes a stable and reliable (“trusted”) moral order. Thus 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, each family unknown to the others, were to simultaneously enter an uninhabited region and set up a village. While each was trustworthy, each would not know if his near neighbor were a saint or a scoundrel, and so each would prudently be on his guard. Thomas Hobbes saw this "state of nature" as a desperate situation, to be solved only by the surrender of individual personal liberties to the "sovereign," who would then impose peace and order on the commonwealth, ruthlessly if necessary. The “sovereign” is the government, so vehemently distrusted by the libertarians.

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, rules of conduct and mutually acknowledged modes of adjudication are applied, leading to amicable resolutions. These “rules” and “modes” are then formalized in to a body of law, the enforcement of which requires a government. The "well-ordered society" emerges and is maintained. (As we pointed out in Chapter Six, Axelrod and Hamilton have explained this “evolution of altruism.”) {“Promissory note:” This section in Ch. 6 is still to be written}.

In short, "good order" 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.7

Perhaps the closest achievement of this ideal is found among mutual-interest communities. For example, when I encounter a stranger on a wilderness trail or on a wild river, I feel no threat and fall immediately into a friendly conversation. In stark contrast, I would never be so foolish as to walk alone at night in Central Park or South Bronx, where I would, for good reason, fear the worst from my next encounter with a stranger.  [Also, if I were black and pulled over by a white policeman in a southern town.]

Clearly, what we are describing here is an ideal and flourishing community -- an association of individuals sharing, "in common," 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 individuals.

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." There is little or no loyalty to the greater encompassing entity, the state.

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 it thus:

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.8

As we have noted, repeatedly, 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."9

Of course, Rawls has here describe, as “the private society,” kind of "society" described by the neo-classical economist and recommended by the libertarian. To the neo-classical economist, society is exemplified by "the perfect market" populated by egoistic "utility maximizing" homo economicus. To the libertarian, popular government has no legitimate function other than the protection of personal life, liberty and property.

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 the persistent 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 social problems will best be solved by "the free market" unconstrained by "government interference."

Policy Implications

The contrast between the progressive’s idealized "well-ordered society" and the regressive’s "private society" (regressivism) is exemplified in most of the public and political issues of our time.

In public discourse, these competing positions are designated as "liberal" and "conservative." However, as I pointed out in Chapter Two, these terms are grossly misleading. Far from being “conservative,” the right is destructive of our established political institutions and thus is better described as “regressive” and “radical.” The left, while once correctly designated as “liberal,” is now advised to avoid that word, since the term “liberal” has been so besmirched by right-wing propaganda

As we proceed with this list, we will recapitulate many observations and conclusions from earlier in the book.

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 "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'."

Civil Society: In private “regressive”society, individuals are regarded as autonomous "utility maximizers" -- as means (qua workers or consumers) to further one's private ends. In the well-ordered “progressive”society, voluntary associations of citizens flourish and proliferate -- groups of individuals who come together as equals, face-to-face, through common faith, through common interests (garden and kennel clubs, bowling leagues, Rotary and Kiwanis Clubs, etc), and through shared concerns (environmental action groups, political action groups, etc.).

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 progressive 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, he 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 progressive 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 Dosteyevsky, than to live amidst individuals who know only “gangsta rap” and acid rock, and slasher films and video games.

The Environment: The libertarian right proposes to cut up the environment into parcels of private property, which the owners are free to use in any way they see fit. The religious right believes that God gave the earth to humans for them to use, and use-up. There is no concern about environmental deterioration or the depletion of resources, since these are “the end times,” after which mankind will have no use for the environment. The progressive regards the environment as an inheritance from the past and a legacy for the future, to be treated with love and respect during the brief tenure of the present generation. The secular progressive insists, not that the earth belongs to mankind, but that mankind belongs to the earth, which gave rise to and sustains our species, as long as we treat it with care and respect. The religious progressive also takes a long-term view of the environment, believing that “the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof.”

Primary Education: The libertarian right holds that education of the child is the parents’ responsibility, and that taxation to pay for the education of others’ children is theft. Moreover, regressives complain that public education in the United States is a disaster, notwithstanding the fact of its success in the past, and in other industrialized countries. Accordingly, 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.

The progressive regards public education as a common benefit and points out that until recently, the American 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, says the progressive, we have forgotten that earlier in this century, and at the close of the previous 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 ideals, became fluent in our common language, acquired the skills 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."

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 made to alleged "social benefits" of others' education. Fortunately, the progressive replies, 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 education through graduate school. Thousands of doctors, jurists, engineers, and scientists from impoverished immigrant families emerged from that system. Similarly, what Jefferson called a "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 and liberties" 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: The progressive affirms that the 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," those outside "the establishment" (the corporate boardrooms, the fellowship of lobbyists and legislators, the media), regard the economy and the government as the property of “the establishment." All others are alienated from the forces that control their lives and which devastate their hopes. The incomes of the privileged soar, while the incomes of the ever-shrinking middle class stagnate, and the prospects of the poor decline. 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 romances, custody fights, and unsolved murders. (Sound familiar?) The cement of social union dissolves, as the individual is encouraged to arm himself, is told not to trust his government, and as he retreats into his own home, encountering the outer world (more likely a fantasy world) through his TV or computer screen.

Can an Ulster, Bosnia, Kosovo and Uganda be far ahead along this lonesome road?

History, as Will Durant points out, may suggest the answer:

"... the 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."10

No Free Gift. If one listens long enough to the regressive 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" has had nothing to do with it, we are told, except perhaps to block him from even greater accomplishments. (This means, by implication, that since he is solely responsible for his accomplishments, the conditions of society are irrelevant, and that he thus could have done as well in any society with a "free market" economy).

What colossal conceit!

That entrepreneur, in fact, 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.

The progressive insists that 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).

There is ominous evidence that we are not collectively making full payment for what our Constitution has bequeathed to us: justice, domestic tranquility, ... the general Welfare, and ... the blessings of Liberty. Without full payment, history may find us in default, and these advantages may be lost to us.


1.      See: Joe Conason: Big Lies: The Right-Wing Propaganda Machine and How It Distorts the Truth, St. Martins, 2003. David Corn: Lies of George W. Bush: Mastering the Politics of Deception, Crown, 2003. And Jerry Barrett (ed): Big Bush Lies, White Cloud Press, 2004. See also, The Crisis Papers page on "Lies and Deceptions".

2.    See my "Free to Agree"           {More: some quotes from the essay}

3.    A Theory of Justice, Harvard, 1971.

4.    [Citation to follow]

5.    Rawls, op cit, pp 490-1.

6.    See my "Round Up the Usual Suspects."

7.    "A society 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. In this case while men may put forth excessive demands on one another, they nevertheless acknowledge a common point of view from which their claims may be adjudicated ... 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. One may think of a public conception of justice as constituting the fundamental charter of a well-ordered human association."  (John Rawls: A Theory of Justice, Harvard, 1971, p. 5).

8.    Ibid., 521

9.    [Cite.  Note also Ayn Rand]

10.    The Story of Civilization: Caesar and Christ.




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 .