Environmental Ethics
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Ernest Partridge, Ph.D
www.igc.org/gadfly

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Classical Guitar:
"The Other Profession
"

 

 

 

Conscience of a Progressive

Ernest Partridge


Chapter Seven

Kill the Umpire!

 

 

 

 

I think you can spend your money more wisely than the federal government can.

George W. Bush
Second Presidential Debate, 2000


Those exertions of the natural liberty of a few individuals, which might endanger the security of the whole society, are, and ought to be, restrained by the laws of all governments.

Adam Smith,
The Wealth of Nation
s


Regressives do not like government – unless, of course, it serves their interests. Progressive critics call this “corporate welfare,” or “socialism for the rich, free enterprise for the poor.”

At times, the regressive’s aversion for government can only be described as bizarre. Consider the following:

The members who spoke in this capital [Williamsburg, Virginia] said 'no' to taxes because they loved freedom. They argued, "why should the fruits of our labors go to the crown across the sea." Well, in the same sense we ask today, "why should the fruits of our labors go to that capital across the [Potomac] river?" . . . . We, like the patriots of yesterday, are struggling to increase the measure of liberty enjoyed by our fellow citizens. We're struggling, like them, for self-government -- self-government for the family, self-government for the individual and the small business, and the corporation... What people earn is their money. Seventy-two years after its inception, what is our Federal tax system? It is a system that yields great amounts of revenue, even greater amounts of disorder, discontent and disobedience. [Tax cheating] is not considered bad behavior. After all, goes this thinking, what's wrong with cheating a system that is itself a cheat? That isn't a sin, it's a duty!1

While it sounds like the ravings of some anarchist militia nut, it was in fact spoken by Ronald Reagan, fomenting rebellion against the very government over which he presided. This should not come as a surprise, after all this was the President who told us, in his first inaugural address, that "government is not the solution, government is the problem." Why should we then be surprised to find him quoting our founding fathers: "taxation without representation is tyranny!" -- conveniently dropping the second and third words of that war cry?

When the late Barry Goldwater said such things thirty years ago, they were considered beyond the pale of conventional political debate. Today's conventional journalistic wisdom is telling us that Goldwater's triumphant followers have long-since accomplished and moved beyond his platform. Everywhere, "Big Government" is anathema and in retreat. "Anything government can do, the free market can do better." ("What?! You don't agree? What are you, some kind of socialist")

The triumph of the anti-government message is so complete that it has retreated from public debate and has become a virtual presupposition of our public discourse - an article of faith so "obvious" that very few even bother to question it.

For example: We often hear on the air or in casual conversation, the remark "who can trust the government when it can't even deliver the mail on time!" Surely that remark, which has become a cliché, deserves some exposure as a Grade-A bad rap! We hear it so often, that we don't pause even to think about it. In point of fact, the US Postal Service is renowned the world over as one of the most reliable and well-functioning institutions under the sun. Now be honest: when is the last time that one of your letters was really "lost in the mail?" (Remember, this isn't one of your creditors asking this). Frankly, I can not remember when this last happened to me. And when you mailed that package last December 21, convinced that it could not possibly be delivered by Christmas, weren't you amazed to find out that it was? Don't we all, in fact, simply take the reliability of the Postal Service for granted - and for good reason? And yet, when that "can't deliver the mail on time" slander is made, rarely is it challenged.

And so, despite abundant and familiar refuting evidence, we now have the new conventional wisdom: "private initiative and market mechanisms will always come up with better solutions than the government!" Oh, really! "Often better," to be sure. Perhaps even "usually better." But "always better?" Who would you prefer to assure you that your food is uncontaminated and that your drugs are safe and effective? Private industry or the Food and Drug Administration? Who would you trust to keep the public airshed and water supply clean? Private industry or the EPA? Who would you rather have as the owners of Yosemite, Yellowstone, and the other national parks? Yourselves along with all your fellow citizens, or MCA and Disney Inc.? "Always better?" Even the most thoroughgoing libertarians concede that there is a "public interest" in protecting the lives, liberties and property of individual citizens, and thus that, at the very least, the police, the military and the courts can not legitimately be privatized.

But by granting even this little, the libertarians give themselves away. If it is the legitimate function of government to protect the lives, liberties and property of its citizens, then it is clearly the function of government to regulate the activities of private individuals and corporations.

To be sure, to the corporations and the oligarchs, "big government" is unquestionably a nuisance and a financial burden, as it goes about its appropriate business of acting in behalf of the rest of us.

But since "the rest of us" have been denied access to the airwaves (due to the demise of "The Fairness Doctrine"), and since, in A. J. Liebling's words, "freedom of the press belongs to those who can afford to own a printing press," and finally, since our Congress has been sold to the highest bidders ("cash is speech," saith the Supremes in Buckley v. Valeo), the anti-government crowd has had the public podium pretty much to themselves, and thus even the plain beneficiaries of government protection have been persuaded to join cry to "Kill the Umpire!"

Never mind that the moment the umpires leave the field, the game is over, and nobody wins! This is true with every organized team sport, and as history demonstrates conclusively, it is true of all human societies that have attained a civilized condition.

The greatest strength of the anti-government message lies in the fact that much of it is true. "Aren't governments shot-through with waste, fraud, and abuse?" Of course they are! And so too is every human institution, including corporations. But the inference from imperfection to uselessness and even malignancy is, to say the least of it, a "stretch." No Police Department can completely eliminate crime, and no Fire Department can completely eliminate fires. They are imperfect institutions. Do we then propose their abolition? Certainly not! Instead, we strive constantly to improve them.

So it is with governments. The founders of the American republic were well aware of the abuses of government, having successfully struggled to overthrow a foreign tyranny. And so they tried, with the Articles of Confederation, a minimalist government - which failed.

Having learned from this failure, the Founding Fathers adopted a Constitution for a government of laws, with checks and balances, and with a Bill of Rights explicitly stating the limits of that government ("Congress shall make no law..."). However, even before the Bill of Rights and the body of the Constitution itself, we find the Preamble, which clearly recognizes that government has a function: namely, "... to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity..." Nowhere in that document, did the founders say or suggest that all this could be accomplished entirely through the unregulated activity of self-serving "economic persons" in the market place. Least of all did they indicate any endorsement of Margaret Thatcher's infamous observation that "there is no such thing as society, there are individual men and women, and there are families."

True to the spirit of Thatcher's social atomism, we are now casually dismantling a civic and political order that is the envy of world - the sort of civil society that the Russians and the former Soviet republics are desperately attempting to achieve.

If the regressives succeed in drowning government in Grover Norquists “bathtub,” will they be content? Assuredly not, as the following parable might indicate.


Mr. Delay Goes to Washington

This was an important day in the life of Congressman Tom DeLay (R. Texas). He had to catch an early flight from Houston to Washington, in time to lead the fight in Congress to protect us all against the encroachment of "Big Government" in our personal lives.

And so, upon awaking to his clock-radio, he learned from the US Weather Service that the flying weather was ideal, but that later in the week a tropical storm was likely to hit Houston. So he made a note to have the storm windows put up. He then enjoyed a hearty breakfast of ham and eggs, certified Grade A by the US Department of Agriculture, and dutifully took his daily prescriptions, pronounced safe and effective by the Food and Drug Administration. While at the table, he checked the stock quotes in the morning paper, assured by the Securities and Exchange Commission that he had not been swindled. On the way to the airport, he stopped at the bank to take out some pocket money, and was not at all surprised to find that his account was intact, as guaranteed by The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation .

His flight took off on time and without incident, after the aircraft had been certified as safe, and his flight cleared for take-off, by personnel of the Federal Aviation Agency.

Three hours later, Tom DeLay arrived at "Reagan National Airport" safe, healthy and financially secure, thanks to all the above "big government bureaucracies" and still others too numerous to mention.

Firm in his conviction that his fellow taxpayers were "better qualified than the government to spend their own money," DeLay then led the successful fight to return $1.3 trillion of federal taxes "to the people" (more than half of it to the wealthiest two-percent of "the people.")

"I think you can spend your money more wisely than the federal government can."  This remark by George Bush, during the second presidential debate, came to mind recently, as I was watching the movie, "The Perfect Storm." Because the Captain chose to ignore the warnings of the National Weather Service, the "Andrea Gail" went down with the loss of all hands. Other crews, less dismissive of "big government bureaucracy" paid heed and survived. And when a sailboat, caught in the storm, was about to sink, the Coast Guard, answering their distress call, rescued the helpless crew. It is doubtful that, at that moment, any of those rescued sailors felt that this big government agency was less qualified than they to deal with the emergency.

This citizen's debt of gratitude to "big government" came very close to home in late October 2003 -- specifically, within 100 feet of "home." Then, "The Old Fire" consumed 91 thousand acres of federal, state, and private land in the San Bernardino mountains. The fire almost surrounded the cluster of homes in our neighborhood, and only the combined, coordinated and professional effort of the US Forest Service and state and local fire fighters saved our homes. We were ordered off the mountain while these "big government bureaucracies" did their work -- magnificently. (See my "When it Burns, It Earns").

Presumably, Mr. Delay's solution would be for each of us private citizens to take a valiant stand by our individual houses, garden hoses in hand. Who can doubt that if we tried that, all our houses would have been reduced to heaps of ashes, and most of us would have ended up as "crispy critters."
No question about it: When our mountain caught fire, "the government in Washington" -- and Sacramento, and San Bernardino -- were "better qualified" to spend our money.

And so we are led to ask: are we as individuals, or the government, better qualified to

— deliver the mail.
— predict the weather
— ensure that our food is safe to eat
— protect the lives and property of the citizens
— determine the safety and efficacy of our medicines
— monitor and respond to epidemics
— identify and mitigate environmental pollution
— support "economically useless" basic scientific research

Speaking for myself, I am not prepared to devote the time and expense, or to gain the expertise, to set up a laboratory in my basement to determine if my food and drugs are safe and effective. Nor can I run off to Wall Street and carry out a private investigation to find out if my investments are safe from violations of the securities laws, nor am I qualified to check the innards of a passenger jet to see if it is flight-worthy, and I have no idea how to direct air traffic.

In all these cases, and countless more, I will readily concede that I am less qualified than the appropriate government agencies to "spend my tax money."

Neither are these proper functions for "the private sector," for in each case, these are regulatory activities – the enforcement of laws and regulations upon self-interested parties in behalf of the general public. It makes no more sense to "privatize" government regulation and services, than it would be to have the referees of a pro-football game in the employ of one of the teams, or to have the police force under the control of organized crime. (Alas, not unheard of).

A case in point: in 1962, the pharmaceutical industry put pressure on the Food and Drug Administration to release the sedative drug, thalidomide, for general distribution. That pressure was steadfastly resisted by an FDA "bureaucrat," Dr. Francis Kelsey, who thus spared thousand of infants from birth defects. Unfortunately, similar "government interference" was not in place to restrain Pfizer from marketing Vioxx and Celebrex.

Another case: in 1934, the federal government established the Federal Communications Commission, in order to regulate "traffic" in the broadcast spectrum. Significantly, the FCC was enacted at the insistence of the broadcast industry, which finally came to realize that without a neutral agency to assign and enforce frequencies, electronic chaos and cacophony would result.


Tom Delay’s Grievance Against “Big Government.”

With all these manifest services afforded to all United States citizens by the federal government, why do Tom DeLay and his political allies regard that same government as if it were an oppressor?

The answer may be found in his pre-political career. Before he ran for public office, Tom DeLay was in the pesticide business. In that business, he came face-to-face with "big government interference," when the Environmental Protection Agency told him that he could no longer sell or use such pesticides as DDT. This regulation, the result of many years and millions of dollars of government sponsored scientific research, benefited song birds, birds of prey, and oh yes, young children and other vulnerable critters. At the same time, this "big government decree" was a damned nuisance to the chemical industry and to pest controllers such as DeLay, who came to refer to the EPA as a "Gestapo.".

What business is it of "big government" to tell Tom DeLay that he can't poison his neighbors and the ecosystem, as he goes about his business of eliminating "pests"?

The answer is as close as the founding documents of our Republic. "To secure these rights" of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, states the Declaration of Independence, "governments are instituted among men." And in the Preamble to the Constitution, we find that the government is established, among other things, to "promote the general welfare."

If, as the libertarians insist, it is the legitimate function of government to protect the lives, liberties and property of its citizens, then it is clearly the function of government to regulate the activities of private individuals and corporations that threaten these lives, liberties and property. As history testifies, entrepreneurs like Tom DeLay do not like to be told that the internal organs of unconsenting citizens are inappropriate catchments of their chemical residues. Meat packers don't like to have government inspectors around while they are making sausages. Drug companies do not like to be told that they can't put opium in their cough medicine, and that they cannot put a drug on the market before it has been proven both safe and effective. Mine owners have fewer qualms than government inspectors about putting their workers' lives in peril. Broadcasters don't like to be told that the public airwaves that they are freely given must contain some "public service" content, or that opinions other than their own deserve a fair hearing.

And most conspicuously, the Enron Corporation found federal regulation so distasteful that it arranged to disarm the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the Securities and Exchange Commission, while investing millions in "gifts" to pundits and in "contributions" to members of Congress. Then the senior corporate officers "took the money and ran," leaving thousands of their employees without their life savings.

Make no mistake: if we abandon federal regulation and oversight (called by regressives "government control of our lives"), this does not mean that "control" will necessarily devolve to each of us ordinary citizens. As isolated private individuals, we are all too often ill-equipped to protect our interests against the assaults of impersonal corporate power. The history of the late nineteenth century bears out this observation. Absent the protections of "big government," our food will once again be tainted, and our drugs again unsafe and ineffective. Pest controllers like Tom DeLay will once again spread poison on to the land, heedless of the "side-effects" once the primary objective of "zapping the bugs" has been achieved. The free and diverse press which Jefferson regarded as essential to democracy and as (take note!) an indispensable constraint upon the abuses of governmental power, will be replaced by the monotone voice of media conglomerates in the service of wealth and power.


Two Cheers for Government2

When, during a baseball game, a referee makes a call against the home team, the fans are often heard to shout: "Kill the Umpire!" - forgetting, for that moment, that without umpires, the game could not continue.

Similarly, "abolish government" is another cry that issues from frustration. Without a doubt, governments can be damned nuisances. They require us to pay taxes, often for services that do not benefit us or for benefits which we take for granted. Governments tell us that we can't build homes and factories on public lands, that we can't throw junk into the air and rivers, that we can't disregard traffic lights and drive at any speed we wish, and that we can't sell medicines without first testing their safety and efficacy. All this curtails the freedom and the wealth of some. But at the same time, such "government interference" promotes the welfare of the others: of consumers, travelers, ordinary citizens and, yes, even property owners. Interestingly, among the liberal democracies, the constraints of "big government" tend to burden the wealthy and powerful, while those same constraints protect the poor and the weak, all of whom, in a just political order, are equal citizens before the law.

Thus regressivism does not qualify as a just system for all members of society. On the contrary, it is "master morality," reflecting the preferences and protecting the interests of the wealthy and powerful. Complaints against "big government" and "over-regulation," though often justified, also issue from the "masters" who are frustrated at finding that their quest for still greater privileges at the expense of their community are curtailed by a government which, ideally, represents that community. Pure food and drug laws curtail profits and mandate tests as they protect the general public. And environmental protection regulations "internalize" the costs of pollution, thus properly burdening the corporations and their investors as a direct result of these regulations relieving the unconsenting public of the previously externalized costs.

The regressive's trust in "the wisdom of the free market" is likewise attractive to the wealthy and powerful, since one's involvement with markets - the regressive’s and the libertarian’s preferred instrument of social adaptation and change - is proportional to one's access to cash. The Golden Rule - "those with the gold get to rule" - is one of the first principles of both "the master morality" and of the regressive right.

If regressive doctrine is a "master morality," reflecting and serving the interests of the wealthy and powerful elites, how does one explain its attractiveness to those who are ill-served by this ideology – i.e., most of us? The closest approximation of a political-economic theory of regressivism is adopted from the libertarians, and to be sure the foundational principles of libertarianism - the rights to life, liberty, and property - are, in the abstract, compellingly attractive. So much so that the progressive critics of libertarianism rarely dispute this triad of principles - in the abstract.  But the libertarians, along with the progressives, embrace two other principles, "the like liberty principle," and “the no harm principle,” and on closer inspections, we find that these principles prove to be the undoing of the regressive and libertarian ideology. For the unregulated exercise of the "right to property" can threaten the life, liberty and property of others, as in the case of the segregation laws in the American south prior to the enactment of the “liberal” public accommodation laws. In general, the powerful and wealthy individual's "freedom to choose" is routinely found to constrain the same freedom of others and to cause harm to others. Then, as one attempts to comprehend this tangle of inconsistent and competing rights and claims, one discovers what most students of human society, psychology and history already know and that defenders of political progressivism affirm: that human beings are not merely isolated bundles of "preferences" with uncompromising “rights,” but rather are fundamentally social creatures.  Accordingly, one also discovers that successful human communities are characterized, not simply by competition and market exchanges, but also by shared ideals and the paradoxical achievement of individual self-fulfillment through self-sacrifice and other-directed concern.

In short, the libertarian pillar of regressivism fails, not simply because it is wrong, but because it is also insufficiently and over-simplistically right. It correctly celebrates the rights of life, liberty and property, and then fails to examine the conflicts and paradoxes that issue from these rights. Its “one size fits all” solution is privatization of all assets and property, with recourse to the courts if and when an individual’s utilization of his property (e.g., through pollution or nuisance) damages the interests of his neighbor. This libertarian solution fails to appreciate that a just system of adjudication of conflicting rights and claims of presumably equal citizens would necessarily restore much of the very governmental structure that the libertarians would abolish and that the liberals defend. This bold progressivist rebuttal requires an argument, which I will provide in the following chapter.

If the libertarian scheme of free markets, absolute property rights will not suffice to protect the rights of all citizens, then what will?

Here's a modest, if familiar, proposal. Let the public in general establish an agent to act in its behalf, and as the guarantor of the commonly held values and aspirations of the polity. And then let that agent first determine and then enforce rules for the optimal sustainable use of the necessarily common resources (e.g. the atmosphere, the hydrological cycle, migrating wildlife, etc.) and public goods (an educated work force, just political institutions, domestic tranquility) . And if the public is not satisfied with how that agent is acting in its behalf, it then has the right to replace that agent with another.

Such a system is in fact in place: the "agent" is called "government," the rules are called “law and regulation," and the system of checks against the abuse of power is called "democracy." In the US Constitution, as well as the supreme law of numerous other liberal democracies, the freedom and integrity of the individual (i.e., one's rights to life, liberty and property) are protected, even from "the tyranny of the majority." But these assurances by the government will not suffice for the regressives. They assume a priori that "government," even popularly elected and under the rule of law, simply must behave as if it were an occupying foreign power. This, they tell us, is the source of all our problems.

As I have argued in the foregoing, and will argue further, the regressive and libertarian doctrines of social atomism, unfettered free markets, and unconfined personal liberty, bear morally atrocious and practically unmanageable implications. In contrast, these implications are avoided by the progressive assumptions, developed and defended earlier: (a) that human beings are essentially social creatures, (b) that an unrestricted and unregulated "free market" has consequences that are unjust and morally unacceptable, (c) that because unregulated markets result in monopolies, they are self-eliminating, (d) that in readily identifiable instances, advantages to each result in ruin for all, (e) that, conversely, advantages to all exact sacrifices upon each (e.g., taxes), and finally (f) that, accordingly, optimal social policies are assessed from “the moral point of view” – from the perspective of the “ideal disinterested spectator.” Accordingly, the liberal concludes, human excellence, social harmony and, yes, personal liberty for all, can best be accomplished through the agency of a government, "checked" and "balanced" to prevent abuses, answerable to the people, and through the rule of law, applied impartially and equally to all.

Admittedly, the progressive’s liberal democracy and regulated capitalism is not perfect -- nor is any human institution under the sun. But an anecdotal inventory of the shortcomings of public regulation, still less a dogmatic a priori dismissal thereof does not, by itself, constitute a repudiation of the existing system.. What is required is a clear and persuasive presentation of a better alternative. This the regressives have not provided us. Nor can they, so long as anyone pays more than casual attention to human psychology, enduring moral precepts, and the lessons of history.



NOTES AND REFERENCES
 

  1. This quotation is totally accurate. It was transcribed from Reagan's voice, broadcast over National Public Radio, May 30, 1985.

  2. From the summary section of my  “With Liberty for Some.”


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 .