Adam Smith Revisited

The usual take on Adam Smith is that he was the father of modern capitalism, an apologist for man’s greed and ambition, inventor of the notion of the “invisible hand” that would lead to prosperity and happiness for one and all in a capitalistic economy — trickle down, as it were. The fact is that he was much more famous in his day for his moral philosophy as author of  The of Moral Sentiments in which he insisted that human beings were born with a natural sympathy for one another that would temper their dealings and — in the case of capitalism — keep them from gouging one another and making huge profits at the cost of exploiting their workers and screwing one another.  As he said in Moral Sentiments:

“How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature which interest him in the fortune of others and render this happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it.”

Smith’s reference here to the supposed selfishness of human beings is a direct reference to the cynical Bernard Mandeville who insisted that thinkers like Lord Shaftesbury and Adam Smith were all wet to insist that men were naturally virtuous because, in fact, they are selfish and self-seeking. Mandeville’s infamous little book The Fable of the Bees, which develops this theme at length, was severely attacked by an eighteenth century English audience led by thinkers such as Shaftesbury, Bishop Butler, Francis Hutchinson, Edward Gibbon, and Adam Smith who agreed that Mandeville was all wet. The group even included such skeptical thinkers as David Hume, though he was not as vociferous a proponent of the moral sense theory as the others. And these thinkers were supported by John Wesley and his Methodistic followers who were very active, especially among the very poor.  In any event, these  folks were all great minds that comprised what came to be called the Scottish “moral sense” school of philosophy, insisting that humans are born with a natural sensitivity to others, that we all exhibit the “social virtues” of sympathy, benevolence, compassion, and fellow-feeling. As Smith notes, sympathy cannot be a disguised form of self-interest or we could not explain how a man could sympathize with a woman feeling the pains of childbirth. Sympathy is primal; it is not self-interest posing as something else.

The theme was presupposed when he later wrote Wealth of Nations. Very few have read the 900 page book, but they have perused the pages and picked out passages that reinforce their own particular views of the nature of capitalism and the desirability of the capitalistic enterprise to guarantee human happiness. It is not necessary to repeat here what I have written before of Smith’s reservations about raw capitalism, nor to repeat the excellent comments on my blog by Jerry Stark, except to note that Smith had serious concerns about the deleterious effects of the profit motive on human beings.

To be sure, there is no question but that capitalism has improved the lot of most people in this society. We live in a country where the average person has so many things that would have made kings jealous in Smith’s day, we live longer, and we are healthier. But what is noticeably lacking today is the social virtue that Smith presupposed in his treatise. And without moral sensibility, the “fellow-feeling” of which Smith speaks, capitalism is reduced to fierce competition among people who are all reaching for the same goals of fabulous wealth, status, power, and prestige. Somewhere along the line the social virtues that Smith simply assumed were prevalent in humankind have all but disappeared, and the ugly qualities that are accompany capitalism are left unrestrained by the gentler, human sympathies.

The fact is that the eighteenth-century thinkers who founded this nation, who wrote the “Declaration of Independence” and the “Constitution,” all presupposed the very same social virtues that Smith speaks of. They assumed, as James Madison says quite clearly in a number of the Federalist Papers, that virtuous people would elect wise and virtuous leaders who would promote the common good. This was axiomatic in English and American political and moral thought at that time, and was regarded as the sine qua non of a republican government. And yet we look around and fail to see much virtue at all; it has been replaced by the greed and avarice that capitalism breeds when it is not tempered, as Smith simply assumed it would be, by the social virtues. Recall Madison’s comment in Federalist Paper #55:

“Were the pictures which have been drawn of the political jealousies by some among us [Mandeville?] faithful likenesses of the human character, the inference would be that there is not sufficient virtue among men for self-government; that nothing less than the chains of despotism can restrain them from destroying and devouring one another.”

I have spoken before about the transition of the word “virtue” into “value,” and the consequent reduction of virtues to feelings that are not in the least bit shared by all, but are purely subjective and personal. You like what you like and you value what you value; I like and value what I like and value. And that’s an end to it. But this seemingly innocent alteration in the way we look at things and speak about things reflects a deeper attitude toward our fellow human beings, a lack of sympathy and fellow-feeling accompanied by a conviction that there is nothing that is valuable or true, and that human happiness can be bought and paid for by grubbing about in the market place, trading stocks, exploiting our fellow humans, accumulating as much stuff as possible, climbing the political and social ladder, and ignoring our responsibilities to one another.

We have come a long way, baby, in the name of “progress.” What is not so clear is that we are any the happier or that what we have thrown away was not more valuable than what we have kept.

Term Limits

The Federalist Papers are a collection of essays written by James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay. They were an attempt by these men to persuade the citizens of New York to ratify the Constitution and the book is generally regarded as the best collective statement of the meaning and purpose of the document they wanted New York to ratify. Madison is usually credited with writing the 55th Paper. In that Paper the shows how the Founders simply assumed that the members of the House of Representatives would change every two years. They thought that a good thing — new blood and folks elected because they more closely represented the wishes of their constituency than did the Senate which was to be chosen by the several State Legislatures. There are other assumptions at work in this paper, as they are throughout the Federalist Papers as a whole. One of the assumptions had to do with the “virtue” — which at that time meant “civic virtue” of the ordinary citizen who would always attempt to do what was best for the country at large. In response to the critics who had their doubts about the virtue of the citizens,  or indeed those who represented them, Madison had this to say:

“I am unable to conceive that the people of America, in their present temper, or under circumstances which can speedily happen, will choose, and every second year repeat the choice of, sixty-five or a hundred men who would be disposed to form and pursue a scheme of tyranny or treachery. . . . I am equally unable to conceive that there are at this time, or can be in any short time, in the United States, any sixty-five or a hundred men capable of recommending themselves to the choice of the people at large, who would either desire or dare, within the short space of two years, to betray the solumn trust committed to them. . . .Were the pictures which have been drawn by the political jealousies of some among us faithful likenesses of the human character, the inference would be that there is not sufficient virtue among men for self-government; that nothing less than the chains of despotism can restrain them from destroying and devouring one another.”

What we have here, by contemporary standards, is eighteenth century naiveté. Madison shows himself convinced that the citizens of this country have sufficient virtue to select the very best legislators and that those same legislators would commit themselves to the common good — since they are in office for only two years — or they would be dismissed from office and replaced by those who would more nearly reflect the views of those who elected them in the first place.

What has come about, as we all now know, is a government of extremely well-paid professional politicians who are elected again and again and who cling to the offices they are elected to the way a drowning man clings to the life raft that will save his life. The citizens have shown themselves bereft of “virtue” to the extent that if they vote at all they vote for individuals who represent the interests not of the citizens at large, but of the corporations that put up the money to have them nominated in the first place. The allegiance of those elected officials is, naturally, to those very corporations they are bound to and not to the people whom they supposedly represent.

What it all boils down to is that term limits would be the only thing at this point that would restore this government to a shadow of the image the Founders had in mind when they wrote the Constitution. The basic concept that comes through loud and clear on nearly every page of the Federalist Papers is that of a well-informed citizenry that would insist that their representatives work for them or they would be summarily replaced. This will not, it cannot, happen today as long as members of Congress are allowed to hold office interminably. We have term limits for the President and there should be term limits for members of Congress. Otherwise, we shall have the continued boondoggle that passes for representative government in which representatives pursue self-interest (which is identical with corporate interest) and not the best interest of their constituents or their country, a country in which the citizens are currently bound by the “chains of despotism” if you will.

Impulsive

Of all the qualities the president-elect has shown to us I think the most disturbing is his impulsiveness. I gather that this word means the tendency to act quickly without forethought — as we do in stores when we see something we don’t really need but it looks enticing. So we buy it.  This man shows every sign of being impulsive to a very high degree.

How does this fit in with the analysis I posted the other day, standing as I did on the shoulders of Arthur Schopenhauer? I have thought about this and it fits perfectly. The man of dominant will, the man who exhibits a diminished intellectual capacity, is likely to act on impulse. His intellect is completely at the service of his will: it simply shows him the way to achieve the ends he wants, it provides motivation. Period. His intellect lacks imagination and the ability to abstract from immediate experience; he has scattered ideas but lacks ideation. Impulse is the embodiment of this sort of behavior: immersed in the present, we simply grab what we want without giving it a thought.

Let us imagine that such a person is a TV personality who wants to improve his ratings and also to make sure he will get a great deal more money from the network bosses. Let us suppose further that this man decides that running for president will do the trick. He doesn’t think it through, indeed he CAN’T think it through. He doesn’t really know what the presidency involves and he has no idea what the Constitution of his country allows the president to do and what restraints it puts on that office. But he knows he wants to make the run. And in doing so he perceives around him an alarming degree of discontent and even anger and hatred on the part of a great many people toward those, like himself, who are wealthy and who have much bigger slices of the pie.

This man is clever and he realizes that his bid for success in the presidential race necessitates posing as one of those angry folks and encouraging their basest wishes — which are in many respects like his own. He is a super salesman: he has been selling himself for years and he knows how to play that game. (I never said this man was stupid. I simply said that his intelligence is totally in the service of his will). His will is very strong indeed, and has always shown him the way to achieve what he has gone after; and as his success increases his will becomes even stronger, much like a spoiled child.

Along with his impulsiveness, which leads him to say and do things he has not thought through, we discover in this man a tendency to react strongly to criticism and observations from others who oppose this will. Impulsively, he strikes out at those people, calling them names and threatening to sue, jail, and even to harm them. He is a bully and he sees those who oppose him as people to be eradicated, one way or the other.

This, as I understand it, is the sort of person Schopenhauer has described and the man we have selected for our next president. His will dominates his personality and he exhibits a mind that is enslaved to that will, a strong tendency to act impulsively. Recall how Schopenhauer describes such a person:

“. . . we find in many men a strong, i.e., decided, resolute, persistent, unbending, wayward, and vehement will, combined with a very weak and incapable understanding, so that every one who has to do with them is thrown into despair, for their will remains inaccessible to all reason and ideas, and is not to be got at, so that it is hidden, as it were, in a sack, out of which it wills blindly.”

There has been much talk lately about how this man is precisely the sort that Alexander Hamilton warned against in the Federalist Papers, the sort for man the electoral college is supposed to keep out of the highest office in the land. I would argue that he is the prototype of such a man, and his impulsiveness is the key to a personality that will act first and react later — showing a tendency to reduce what little thought he is capable of to finding fault with others and blaming them for his own shortcomings — and if impeded he will plot other avenues to the shallow goals he has set for himself. This is a personality that is lost within itself and acts only in those ways that will advance his own agenda and seeks blindly to find ways to eliminate those who oppose his will.

It is my sincere hope, and my expectation, that if the electoral college does not perform its proper function this man will enrage those he must please in order to realize his goals (to wit, the Congress) to the point that soon after his swearing-in he will be impeached by that Congress — a Congress made up of a majority of men and women from his own political party who will find this man impossible to deal with. They cannot understand him and he refuses to try to understand them — as though he even could.

Small Minds

Many years ago, in my misspent youth, I read an article in the Sunday paper, written by a Nun, that developed the notion that great minds discuss ideas, average minds discuss events, and small minds discuss people. I have always thought that was an interesting notion and it may have been (in a small way) the reason I decided to pursue a PhD in philosophy. At the very least, I didn’t want my mind to atrophy and I thought philosophy was the sort of subject that could keep my mind alive well into my dotage: questions that don’t have answers! Well, here I am.

But, with the exception of a few bright people who post blogs and comment from time to time about the issues, I appear to be surrounded by small minds discussing people. I am speaking of the elections, of course, in which ideas are scarce if present at all and events seem to have been ignored as well — unless they reveal a scandal about the parties involved. This election is all about people and the ad hominem fallacy abounds. I speak of that logical fallacy that redirects attention to the character of the person advancing an argument rather than dealing with the argument itself. One of the candidates, who will not be mentioned, glories in attacking not only his opponent but anyone who walks, rolls, or crawls and has the gall to disagree with him. I cannot remember any candidate in my lifetime who seems to enjoy attacking persons as does this man. And he has a great many followers who seem to enjoy it as well.

Politics has always been a bit dirty even from the get-go. And the ad hominem attack on the speaker has always been there in some form or other. But this election takes the cake and wins hands-down: it seems to have achieved a new low. We are scraping through the bottom of the barrel!

When one reflects back on the days when the Constitution was being considered for adoption the country (very small at the time, of course) was abuzz about the balance between states and nation; there was considerable fear of giving up the power that resided in the small relatively homogeneous states to a nation of people who disagree with one another about many of the important issues of the day. Where have those ideas gone? Where is that passion for thought on a large scale, a scale beyond the self? Why can’t people discuss issues with those whose opinion differs from their own? Why do we have to cast aspersions against those who disagree with us rather than listen to what they have to say?

When the Federalist Papers were written by three men of genius they were published in all the major newspapers of New York state and everyone worried whether by adopting the concept of a united country they would be giving up much of the power they had amassed as one of the most prosperous states in the colonies. Everyone who could read — and many who could not — discussed the ideas and thought about the issues involved. It is sobering to realize that those people were willing to think outside the box, to imagine a united country and the positive force it could be in the world. They saw beyond themselves and the present moment and made determinations based on the question of what would be best in the long run.

When this country celebrated its bicentennial in 1976 Henry Steele Commager, the great American historian, was asked what single thing differentiated the folks in this country when the Constitution was written and discussed from the people of America two hundred years later he answered quickly: in those days they thought about the future, about their children and their grandchildren. We no longer think about those things because we are fixated on ourselves at the present moment. That was in 1976. How much worse has it become in the interim? One can only wonder.

In any event, the answer to this question is revealed to some degree by the present lack of discussion in the political arena about the ideas that are so important to the future of this country. Instead we hear about every mistake (real or imagined) one or the other candidate has made in his or her lifetime (or what mistakes their significant other might have made). And it’s not just the candidates, either. The media glories in gossip and citizens who are about to go the voting booth are immersed in talk about the personalities and character (or lack of character) of those who are running for political office.  “I hate him,” or “I can’t stand her.”

We should be talking about qualifications, not personalities. We are lost in blather about people and have lost sight of the issues that confront us all and which will determine the course of this country for the next generation at least. Our minds have shrunk: they are small indeed.

The Power of the President

I want to develop an idea I mentioned in passing in an earlier post. It has to do with the limited power of the President and the absurd promises our presidential candidates make about what they will do when elected — given the fact that by themselves they cannot do very much at all. Witness Barack Obama’s pathetic attempts to promote some sort of gun control.

Our Constitution borrows from the pages of Montesquieu’s The Spirit of the Laws in dividing power among the Legislative, Executive, and Judicial. Limiting power was a prime concern among political thinkers in the age of Enlightenment as they sought to wean themselves from the whims of various corrupt Monarchs. If one reads our Constitution one immediately realizes that Congress is the main body in the thinking of those who wrote and later adopted that document. The very first Article in the document deals with legislative powers. There are ten Sections in that Article. On the other hand, there are only four Sections in the Article dealing with the limited powers of the President. Most of them stress the need for the legislative body to “advise and consent” or the manner of election and impeachment of the president. Clearly, those men were worried that they might be creating another monarch. And this they did not want — even with George Washington ready at hand.

The ten sections under Article One describing the powers of the legislative body are detailed and extensive. They go on for pages and outline a body that not only manages the purse strings, but also has the capacity to control the excessive urge to power of any president. And if those latter restraints are insufficient there is always the Supreme Court that further limits the President who might wish to get too big for his or her britches. The document is all about limiting power because these men knew better than anyone how power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely, as Lord Acton once said.  And the reason these men put so much faith in the legislative branch is because they were convinced that those elected would represent the will of the body politic. In the small country at that time they envisioned the representatives serving with little remuneration for a very short time and in that time visiting their constituents on a regular basis and merely parroting the wishes of those who voted them into office. If the representatives varied too much from the will of the voters, they would be voted out. That was a given at the time, as is clear from the Federalist Papers.

We have seen how this hasn’t worked out, of course, with no term limits on those elected to Congress and huge salaries now attached to political offices. Men and women get into office and their primary urge is to remain there as long as possible. They don’t give a hoot for the needs of their constituents, since they answer only to the wealthy persons whose money can guarantee them a long term in office. The founders never saw it coming.

This is why, in the end, when we are thinking about which political candidate might make a good president we should be thinking about which candidate could work most effectively with a Congress that holds the purse strings and which is the seat of power in this country. Personally, I think Bernie Sanders stands out above the rest of the presidential candidates, because he has the best sense of what would be good for his country and is willing to take on the powers that be. He realizes, as the rest of the candidates do not, that the real contest in this country is not between the Republicans and the Democrats but between the corporations that would take all the power and the people who are supposed to have it. But, the question is, can he work effectively with what has become a recalcitrant (for want of a better word) Congress tied to the wealthy by their purse strings?  I suspect not, sad to say. I suspect he is regarded as an outsider and would find himself running in place — unless by some miracle the voters manage to alter the make-up of the Congress and give him enough legislators to work with.

That, it seems to me, is the main question.

Movers and Shakers

Machiavelli (Courtesy of Wikipedia)

Machiavelli
(Courtesy of Wikipedia)

Machiavelli’s Prince was written in the sixteenth century ostensibly as advice to the rulers of Florence — especially Lorenzo de Medici — about how to achieve and maintain power. Or it may have been written to alert the common folk about what their rulers were up to. It is so vivid and frank that people like Jean Jacques Rousseau have been tempted to insist that it is satirical: surely, politics isn’t that rough and cut-throat! The Catholic Church disagreed with Rousseau and banned the book soon after it appeared.  For my part, I think Machiavelli was being quite honest: politics is, indeed, a matter of doing whatever it takes to achieve the desired objective.  And the “objective” is always to gain and maintain power. In his day, it was the Medici family who pursued that goal. In our day it is the corporations where the CEOs make 475 times as much money as their average employee and “morality” is a word never used.

In fact, there is a most interesting and provocative parallel here that might have missed a great many readers of Machiavelli’s classic. The Medici were the wealthiest family in Florence. Today’s power-brokers are the very wealthy, as was the case in Machiavelli’s day. Money is power. Thus, while we like to delude ourselves about democracy resting upon the power of the people, Machiavelli would insist that the people who have the power are, in fact, those who hold the purse strings. The people simply go through the motions and exercise the very few options open to them.

Thus, while you and I might bemoan the fact that the planet is suffering from severe attacks by greedy people and something must be done and the quicker the better, as long as people like the Koch brothers are the ones who decide what will be done, the planet must suffer.  They hope to stack the political deck with hand-picked puppets and rid the country of restraints on “free enterprise” — by such as agencies as the EPA. To be sure, today’s movers and shakers failed to achieve all they hoped for during the past election, despite the millions of dollars they spent to guarantee that the puppets they had selected for public office were successful in the national elections. But they have sworn that this will not happen again in the mid-term elections. And given their determination together with the money they have at their disposal, success seems inevitable. The vision of the fore-fathers that was framed in the Enlightenment optimism of the eighteenth century, the vision that assured those who embraced their new nation that the people will in fact rule in this Democracy — as reflected in Madison’s statement in Federalist Papers that those in positions of political prominence would be removed if they failed to attend to the voice of those who elected them — turns out to have been a pipe dream. Sad to say.

In then end, then, those of us who care about our planet and our country will have to sit by with hands tied and watch those who rule — who are, in fact if not in principle, the movers and shakers of today. They are the ones who hold the reins of power by means of the amount of monies they have to spend on electing puppets who will respond only to the pull of the strings that are wielded by the power-brokers themselves. And, of course, those same people could care less about the planet or their country. They care only about the bottom line. They are blinded by greed and the love of power and care only about what will bring them what they want. So let’s not fool ourselves. Machiavelli told us all about it centuries ago, and things have not really changed that much since then. Those who have money and power seek only to maintain their positions of strength while the rest of us seek the latest diversion they provide us with.

Does this mean that I, personally, will no longer hope for real change, that I will no longer send in my piddling amounts of money to help support those few politicians who seem to have something resembling a conscience? Certainly not. One must free one’s hands and continue to swim against the tide if it is certain to be heading in the wrong direction. I will continue to hope and I will continue to struggle and raise my shrill voice. But though I am not a pessimist or even a fatalist, I am a realist who has learned from the wisest and brightest of those who have passed before me. I have a pretty good idea how things will turn out.

Courting Failure

I found two pieces of information about the federal court system interesting and worth pondering. Consider the first item from the New York Times about the number of vacancies in our courts:

The number of vacancies on the nation’s federal courts has reached an astonishingly high level, creating a serious shortage of judges and undermining the ability of the nation’s court system to bestow justice.

Of 856 federal district and circuit court seats, 85 are unfilled — a 10 percent vacancy rate and nearly double the rate at this point in the presidency of George W. Bush. More than a third of the vacancies have been declared “judicial emergencies” based on court workloads and the length of time the seats have been empty. By far the most important cause of this unfortunate state of affairs is the determination of Senate Republicans, for reasons of politics, ideology and spite, to confirm as few of President Obama’s judicial choices as possible.

This, in itself, is an embarrassment, though it seems unlikely this Congress could do anything to make itself look worse. But the number of important court cases backing up due to Congress’ reluctance to either nominate or  confirm proposed justices raises serious questions about the ability of these people to govern this nation — if we had any doubts.

On the other hand, we read a good piece of news from Phoenix, Arizona regarding a decision by federal district court judge Murray Snow regarding the country’s self-proclaimed “toughest” sheriff, Joe Arpaio, and his policy of racial profiling in defiance of federal mandates and constitutional principles guaranteeing equal rights to all citizens in this country. A case was brought against Sheriff Arpaio by, among others, Manuel de Jesus Ortega Melendres, a Mexican tourist who was in the United States legally when deputies took him from a car in which he was riding with a white driver and kept him detained for nine hours while they determined whether or not he was indeed in the country legally. The country’s “toughest” sheriff has apparently a defiant attitude toward federal laws and a declared policy that reflects his own particular brand of racism — and, sad to say, keeps him secure in his office.

Arizona lawman Joe Arpaio has required prison inmates to wear pink underwear and saved taxpayers money by removing salt and pepper from prisons. He has, at times, forbidden convicted murderer Jodi Arias from speaking to the press.

The stern Maricopa County Sheriff has said the federal government will not stop him from running his office as he sees fit. But on Friday it did.

A judge [Murray Snow] ruled Friday that Arpaio’s routine handling of people of Latino descent is not tough enforcement of immigration laws but instead amounts to racial and ethnic profiling.

Some of those profiled sued Arpaio, and Judge Murray Snow found their complaints to be legitimate.

The federal court in Phoenix ordered “America’s Toughest Sheriff” — a moniker Arpaio sports on his website — to stop it immediately and has banned some of his operating procedures.

The sheriff’s office has a history of targeting vehicles with occupants with darker skin or Latin heritage, scrutinizing them more strictly and detaining them more often, Snow ruled.

As is the case here, it is not unusual for the courts to do things right in this country. Indeed, one might say the judicial system is one of the great strengths of this country and something we can be very proud of — and which keeps us this side of barbarism. But the unwillingness of Republicans in Congress to act on federal court appointments means that many cases will go untried and  innocent people will suffer unfairly. In the case of the country’s “toughest” sheriff, the case took eight months between the days of the final testimony and the decision itself.  One suspects that Judge Snow’s calendar is filled to the brim. Can we agree that this is yet another strike against the Congress?

The founders thought that incompetent politicians would simply be voted out of office. Alexander Hamilton says this repeatedly in the Federalist Papers. That doesn’t often happen, however, because they have enough wealthy backers (like the Koch brothers) to convince gullible voters at election time that they are doing a bang-up job on the voters’ behalf. So we are faced with Congressmen who hang on to their offices for dear life, by ignoring their civic duties and their constituents but pleasing those who hold the purse strings, knowing that it beats real work and pays very well. In spite of the fact that it might lead to inefficiency (though that ship has already sailed), there surely ought to be term limits on congressional offices. It would force the politicians to be a bit more responsive to their constituents and less concerned about reelection. Politics would be less a career choice and more a temporary respite from the business of making an honest living. That’s one the founders missed, for all their prescience and political savvy.

Representation

Our system of government is not a democracy. Don’t believe what they tell you. In its purest form Democracy involves a system in which everyone votes on every issue. But that is unworkable in any setting where there are large numbers of people involved, so the idea of representation was born wherein one person represents the wishes and desires of a great many more. This is what we have. When the founders discussed the concept as they were drawing up the Constitution they were fully aware of the inherent absurdity of representative government. One person cannot exactly represent any other person or two people or three. Even identical twins will disagree from time to time. By the time we have one person who is supposed to represent a thousand the absurdity will have become apparent to all but the most dim-witted.

But the large question the founders wrestled with was: given that we want representative government how should the representative vote on a particular question — as the majority of those he represents would have him vote (if he took a poll, for example), or as he thinks the majority should vote? The two cases might be quite dissimilar and this is because the concept of representation is absurd on its face. Clearly, there are problems with the concept of representation.

Above all else, the founders did not want what the British had. By the end of the Civil Wars in 1651 Great Britain had become a Commonwealth; Parliament came into power and the House of Commons was supposed to be a representative body — not pure representation (whatever that might be) but “virtual representation.” The English bought into the idea even though twenty-nine out of thirty Englishmen did not enjoy the privilege of voting. And representation was a bit of a joke: voting was restricted to men (!) of property. In some Burroughs there were no voters at all. Cornwall and Devon sent seventy representatives to Parliament; Manchester, Birmingham, and Sheffield had none. London, Westminster, and Southwark elected only six members.*

The founders of our nation knew they didn’t want what England had, so they settled on numerical representation, which makes a bit more sense. But it does not get around the absurdity of representation itself. Aware, perhaps, of this inherent absurdity, the founders decided to restrict the House of Representatives to two-year terms. With voting restricted to male property owners (though the notion of “property” was more generous than it was in England) there were relatively few voters and as we can see from the Federalist Papers the founders were certain that incompetent members would be voted out after a term. Term limits were not part of the deal: they seemed unnecessary. In addition, representatives didn’t stand to make much money while in Washington. On the contrary.

Much has changed, of course, as incompetent members of the House and Senate now serve for years (and years), make piles of money, and are seldom voted out of office. Further, they are elected in the first place because of special interests whose will has become the political will that drives the machine of government. The Representatives vote pretty much the way their wealthy supporters tell them to. So we have evolved from the absurd idea of representation to the even more absurd idea of  a government driven by special interest. The candidate goes to the highest bidder, and the sky is now the limit.

There are a couple of steps that could be taken to remedy the situation and make the notion of representation closer to the idea the founders had — despite its theoretical flaws. There could be term limits on members of the House and Senate, and there might be prohibitions against lobbyists and PACs in Washington. This would make it more likely that our representatives might actually represent the will of most of the people. But these steps will likely not be taken because those who would have to initiate such action are the ones who benefit from the status quo. So we seem to be stuck with a dysfunctional government separated into warring camps, unable to get along, in whom the people have little or no confidence. The founders must be wondering what on earth went wrong.

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[*The information about “virtual representation” in England was culled from John Miller’s excellent book “Origins of the American Revolution.]

Is It Broken?

A causal story in Yahoo news caught my eye. It has to do with a botched ploy on the part of this Administration to sell guns to a cartel in Mexico in order to trace the movement of illegal guns and eventually prosecute the guilty parties. The idea went terribly wrong when one of the guns ended up killing a border guard and the Republicans are out to “get” the Administration presumably in behalf of the family of the man who was killed. The Administration is claiming executive privilege in order to keep secret the details of the story and the Republicans are going to take the Administration to court to force them to divulge details of the scam. The story reads in part,

House Speaker John Boehner said Sunday that Republicans are preparing to file a civil suit in an attempt to gain access to more information pertaining to the Justice Department’s botched Fast & Furious cartel gun tracking program.

We have heard this story before. The only thing that changes are the parties involved. I am not going to question the notion of executive privilege, but I want to note the extraordinary limits to which partisan politics has gone in the country. England has a system that allows the government to “dissolve” itself if it reaches an impasse and it is clear that is has ceased to function. We have no such proviso and it has come to the point that we are stuck in the rut of an intransigent political system where parties are “at” one another constantly and are therefore unable to come together to solve the problems the nation faces on a daily basis. All they seem able to do is to call one another names and throw stones  — or take one another to court at the nation’s expense.

The health care plan that was recently upheld by the Supreme Court is a case in point. It is going to be challenged by the Republicans — not because it is a bad plan (it is precisely the same in all major respects as the one Mitt Romney pushed through in Massachusetts) — but because it is plan pushed through by a Democratic President. Horrors! And now there will be a court case to force this Administration to disclose information that may or may not be of national importance. It doesn’t matter what the issue happens to be, one side or the other is going to throw stones and the other will necessarily respond in kind. And nothing important will get done.

The framers in their wisdom imagined a system that would be fluid and would make it possible to get things done, or the pieces would be changed. The electorate would be small enough and active enough and if politicians didn’t do their jobs they would be voted out of office. Term limits were not necessary because elections would happen on a regular basis: if a man [sic] is ineffective, he would be replaced. It’s that simple. One quick look through the Federalist Papers reveals the high levels of optimism and the obvious conviction that this system will work because elections would be a constant corrective.

As it happens, it is not that simple, because we now have corporations supporting wealthy politicians who find their niche in political office and cannot be removed with a keg of dynamite. The citizens of the country have become mere spectators of a comic spectacle, so far removed from what is happening in the seat of power that they are, in effect, disenfranchised. The system is broken. Clearly. The government ought to be dissolved; it has become stagnant and we are helpless to do anything about it.

We cannot really fault the framers. They wrote the Constitution for thirteen tiny, disparate colonies that regarded themselves as autonomous and were separated by distance, coinage, customs, laws, and at times even language. They couldn’t possibly have foreseen the present state of affairs. They never conceived of the power that multinational corporations would have to back their chosen men and women and accordingly never mentioned them in their writings. I have said it before and I will say it again. The Constitution is an obsolete document, remarkable as it is, and it is in need of radical revision. But that will not happen because those who might initiate revision are comfortable in their seats of power from which they will not, they cannot, be moved.

I Really Don’t Care

I have always wondered why so many people simply don’t care about who it is that is running the country and now that those who are doing so are clearly the few who simply want things to go on as they are as long as they continue to grow rich the problem becomes compounded. This is because if things keep going on as they are now the Constitution won’t be worth the paper it’s written on and the planet will suffer irreparable damage. And yet people generally don’t care.

I take my clue from Dostoevsky, one of the deepest minds I ever attempted to fathom. In his chapter in The Brothers Karamazov entitled “The Grand Inquisitor,” to which I have alluded in an earlier blog, he suggests that humans don’t really want freedom, they want “miracles, mystery, and authority.” We pride ourselves in this country on being one of the freest nations on earth, but if growing numbers of us are quite satisfied to have someone else running things because we are too busy having fun, earning a living, or watching football (which may or may not be fun), then we are not free in any but the loosest possible sense of that term: we aren’t in jail.  But we are prisoners to someone else’s will, namely those who govern, those who make the rules. But apparently that seems to be OK for most folks. All they ask is that they be left alone and make sure they have enough money so they can continue to divert their attention away from pressing problems they really don’t want to worry about. This, of course, explains America’s preoccupation with the economy which has become the central point of interest in political elections. Be that as it may, the result is citizen apathy — a sign of which is voter apathy which, as we know (and the following chart dramatizes), is widespread in this country:

Though the chart requires no explanation, I will provide the explanation that accompanied it in the Wikipedia article: Over the last 40 years, voter turnout has been steadily declining in the established democracies. This trend has been significant in the United States, Western Europe, Japan and Latin America. It has been a matter of concern and controversy among political scientists for several decades. During this same period, other forms of political participation have also declined, such as voluntary participation in political parties and the attendance of observers at town meetings. The decline in voting has also accompanied a general decline in civic participation, such as church attendance, membership in professional, fraternal, and student societies, youth groups, and parent-teacher associations. At the same time, some forms of participation have increased. People have become far more likely to participate in boycotts, demonstrations, and to donate to political campaigns. [Footnotes are in the article on-line.]

Writing in the Federalist Papers, James Madison thought it was “essential to liberty that the government in general should have a common interest with the people,” and felt that a bond between the people and the representatives was “particularly essential.” He wrote “frequent elections are unquestionably the only policy by which this dependence and sympathy can be effectually secured.” This hasn’t happened: though voter turnout in 2008 was up a bit, a study in 2009 showed that few Americans were familiar with leaders of Congress and many college graduates didn’t know how many Senators each state has! Voter apathy is apparent: citizen apathy, related as it is to ignorance and an extremely narrow focus, is the root of the problem.

When pollsters brag about voter turnout in 2008  it was still less than 70%. And many of those who voted were obviously ignorant about the issues and the candidates. There is cause for alarm. This is especially the case in light of the decline so evident in the chart above, which shows this country reflecting deeper voter apathy than other democratic nations.  What it also shows in no uncertain terms is that growing numbers of Americans are perfectly content to let someone else run the show; they are too busy doing something else to care. As long as they can “do their thing,” as long as they can live more or less to the standard they regard as appropriate, it doesn’t matter who is in charge. In a word, they are perfectly content to be slaves to another’s will, unfree though easily deluded into thinking they are among the most free persons on the planet. It does give one pause.