Environmental Ethics
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Ernest Partridge, Ph.D

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The Gadfly Bytes -- June, 1998

Kill the Umpire!

By Ernest Partridge
University of California, Riverside
www.igc.org/gadfly // gadfly@igc.org

Published in The Online Journal, September 7, 2001
Smirking Chimp, September 9, 2001

This essay has been updated, revised and expanded as Chapter Seven
of Conscience of a Progressive.


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!

Pop Quiz: Who said that? Abbie Hoffman? Randy Weaver? Timothy McVeigh? Some other anarchistic militia nut?

Wrong! It was Ronald Reagan, fomenting rebellion against the very government over which he presided. Aw, c'mon. You knew it all along, didn't you? 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? (The opening quotation, by the way, is entirely accurate: it was transcribed from Reagan's voice, broadcast over National Public Radio, May 30, 1985).

When the late Barry Goldwater said such things thirty years ago, they were considered beyond the pale of conventional political debate. Today 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. After all, industrialists do not like to be told that the internal organs of  unconsenting citizens are inappropriate catchments of their chemical wastes. 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.

To all of the above private interests, "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), 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 under the sun, 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. Mindful of this failure, James Madison, "the father of the constitution" wrote in  Federalist 41:

It cannot have escaped those who have attended with candor to the arguments employed against the extensive powers of the government, that the authors of them have very little considered how far these powers were necessary means of attaining a necessary end. They have chosen rather to dwell on the inconveniences which must be unavoidably blended with all political advantages; and on the possible abuses which must be incident to every power or trust, of which a beneficial use can be made. This method of handling the subject cannot impose on the good sense of the people of America. It may display the subtlety of the writer; it may open a boundless field for rhetoric and declamation; it may inflame the passions of the unthinking, and may confirm the prejudices of the misthinking: but cool and candid people will at once reflect, that the purest of human blessings must have a portion of alloy in them; that the choice must always be made, if not of the lesser evil, at least of the greater, not the perfect, good; and that in every political institution, a power to advance the public happiness involves a discretion which may be misapplied and abused. They will see, therefore, that in all cases where power is to be conferred, the point first to be decided is, whether such a power be necessary to the public good; as the next will be, in case of an affirmative decision, to guard as effectually as possible against a perversion of the power to the public detriment.

Clearly, Madison could be speaking directly to the "libertarian-anarchists" of today.

Heeding the good advice of Madison, 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. And so we find such spectacularly successful institutions as the Voice of America, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Food and Drug Administration, the National Science Foundation, under attack in the thoughtless and relentless assault on "big government." Furthermore,  "privatization" has torn the heart out of the public interest content of Public Broadcasting. Support for our common cultural heritage is likewise under attack, as so-called "conservatives" in Congress have gutted the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities. And only a spirited defense from the scholarly institutions saved the Social Science and the Ethics and Values Studies programs of the National Science Foundation from fiscal knives of the "conservatives."

All the while, deregulation and privatization march along: today the penal system and the public schools (which, a century ago, facilitated e pluribus unum), next - who knows? Perhaps the courts. After all, even the Congress has at last become a commodity, as the Supreme Court proclaims, in the Buckley decision, "one dollar, one vote" - neglecting the words carved above its entrance: "Equal Justice Under Law."

Amidst the logorrhea of cable TV commentary on the Clinton scandals, we recorded (from PBS) this gem of an observation by Michael Lerner:

I think the major accomplishment in politics in the past 20 years has been the destruction of the public sphere. Most of the people elected to Congress in both parties, intentionally or otherwise, [are] doing the bidding of their highest donors. A major goal of the corporate interests of this country is to undermine the public sphere so that there would be no control over corporations as they pursues their agendas. Over the course of the past 20 years they have been incredibly successful in discrediting politics, and that is a major accomplishment. When you watch Dan Burton today, or when you listen to the Lewinsky scandal, or any of this stuff, none of the significant issues facing our country are discussed.

He is right, of course. Media and public obsession with our President's sexual escapades crippled his office, while the crowning achievement of our Congress at that time was the renaming of the Washington airport. "No matter," said the "conservatives." "The less government, the better."

With the withering of civil society and popular government, and the triumph of privatization and market forces, we face the end of citizenship followed by the ultimate commodification of the individual - as a producer of wealth and consumer of goods. "Society" (to Margaret Thatcher, a "myth") will then be transformed into a market place - and nothing more.

If this is to be the outcome of the now-triumphant "conservatism," then this so-called "conservatism" is nothing of the kind: it is radicalism plain and simple, aimed at the roots of our personal autonomy, our social contract and our civil society.

We are embarked upon a perilous course. Perhaps the most urgent question before our body politic today is whether we will have the collective wisdom to pause, look carefully ahead and then reflect, before we travel on.

Copyright, 1998, by Ernest Partridge

This editorial deals with issues and ideas explored at length in several papers included in this web site. The issue of "the commodification of citizens" is brilliantly examined by Mark Sagoff, most directly in the first three chapters of his  The Economy of the Earth (Cambridge, 1986). The Gadfly has also written on the issue of the "economization" of public discourse and policy and the commodification of citizenry. For a "gateway" to these papers, start with "
The New Alchemy."


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 .