Filthy Lucre

For hundreds of years in the West it was deemed vulgar to be involved in the making of more money than was required to live on, including lending at interest or simply hoarding. The notion that one would spend his or her time simply accumulating money and wealth was regarded, not only by the Christian Church but also by those “in the know” as beneath contempt. In Dante’s Inferno, for example, the usurers are placed beneath the murderers because they commit a sin against God, whereas murderers only commit a sin against man. Those who lend money at interest seek to make money appear where there was none before, creating money without laboring in any way, creating money ex nihilo. Only God can do this, it was thought. When man seeks to copy God he has stepped beyond a moral barrier that condemns him to eternal perdition. In Dante’s poem the usurers sit at the edge of a burning pit with heavy bags of gold around their necks, waiting for the gold to increase, presumably.

There can be no doubt that the deep prejudices that folks like Adolph Hitler drew upon against the Jews in Europe was based, in part at least, on the fact that the Jews saw nothing wrong with usury or the making of money while those who did not espouse that particular religious view were told in no uncertain terms that it was contemptible and trifling and even vulgar. There was one Jew, of course, who founded a new religion based on the notion that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. But he was an exception and has been widely ignored, especially of late. In any event, the accumulation of wealth as an end in itself was regarded as de-humanizing and even immoral.

How did this view change? How did we get from looking down at money-gatherers to regarding them as the most successful people on earth and worthy not only of our respect but even, in some cases, of our adoration? Bill Gates and Warren Buffet are held in high esteem in our culture. We even have elected a president whose only possible claim to that office is that he was a successful (?) businessman. They are examples of the fact that anyone can “make it” in America. The Horatio Alger myth lives on, though it gets a bit weaker when we discover that many were born with a silver spoon in their tiny mouths and we also discover that Balzac was right: where there’s a fortune there must have been a crime.

In any event, the attitude toward “filthy lucre” has changed radically and it is down to people like John Locke, Adam Smith, and John Calvin. The changes in attitude came in two stages. Firstly, the notion that the acquisition of great wealth, once regarded as a sign of grubby self-seeking greed, had been replaced by the eighteenth century, when capitalism was aborning, by the notion that the accumulation of great wealth was an example of virtuous behavior  — a point of view we find expressed again and again in Adam Smith who wrote that “probity and punctuality are virtues that invariably accompany the introduction of commercial relations into society.” And, secondly, it was said that commerce benefits not only the one who engages directly in the activity, but it benefits everyone else around him as well. It has a “trickle down” effect, if you will. Smith worried that capitalism displaced centuries-old morality, but he felt that, in the end, it was worth the trade-off.

But even before Smith we read that John Locke worried about the possibility that in a state of nature a man could accrue to himself more of nature’s bounty than he could possibly need and in the process leave little or nothing for his fellow humans. This was not a good thing. But once gold and silver were taken to be true wealth and John Calvin insisted that the gaining of wealth was a sign of God’s grace and favor, this no longer was a problem; now one could accumulate as much as he wanted whether he could ever spend it in his lifetime or not. It would never spoil and, presumably, there was plenty left for others to accrue as well. So was born the “Protestant work ethic.”

Thus, in our day, we have heroes who would have been pilloried in earlier times. We now regard the making and hoarding of money as not only acceptable but also as a sign of intelligence, imagination, and hard work, worthy of admiration, a measure of success. In the process the accumulation of capital, has become at the very least an a-moral activity, even though folks like Karl Marx continued to regarded it as immoral — because it necessarily involves the taking it way from others who need it more, who earned it, and therefore deserve to have it. This happens under capitalism in the form of the creation of “surplus value” which we have come to dismiss as, simply, “the earnings of capital.” The wealthy see their immense profits as something they have earned and therefore deserve, whereas others (like Marx) might view it as coming at the cost of unethical acts that involve the exploitation of those who actually do the work necessary to produce the wealth in the first place.

But no matter which way we look at it, the making and hoarding or money, no matter how great the hoard, is now viewed in our culture as a good thing. It is no longer “contemptible and trifling,” unworthy of human beings who have been touched by the hand of God. It is no longer “vulgar.” At the very least it is clear that the making of filthy lucre has become “demoralized.” Ethics and economics simply do not mix in our current commodified culture. No longer do the usurers have to worry about  being placed in a burning pit with heavy bags of gold around their necks through eternity. Now they build high-priced, low-quality mini-mansions, swim in their own swimming pools, and drive large, powerful gas-guzzling cars to Church every Sunday for an hour.  And the rest of us admire them and want to be just like them.

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Rights and Responsibilities

One hears so much about “rights” these days it suggests that it might be a good idea to see if folks know what the hell they are talking about. When I hear the word it usually means something like “wants.” Thus, when Albert says he has a “right” to that parking space over there what he means is that he wants it. I heard a man from Charleston recently explain why he hadn’t voted in the last election because he “had a right not to vote.” This is absurd. What he meant to say, as so many like him mean to say, is that he didn’t want to vote.

The notion of rights comes from the Enlightenment tradition that informed our own Constitution and was firmly in the minds of the founders of this nation as they worried about separation from the most powerful country on earth at the time. They were concerned about their rights, their human rights. The word has strong moral overtones and suggests, when properly used, that one is morally permitted a certain course of action. Thus, when I say that I have a right to free speech the implication is that it is morally right that I be allowed to speak my mind and others are morally bound to allow me to do so — as long as I don’t shout “Fire!” in crowded theater, engage in hate speech, or promote civil insurrection (or tell lies with the intention to misinform the public).

In any event, rights imply a corresponding responsibility. Rights are one side of the coin, responsibilities, or duties, are the other. But we hear very little about the responsibilities that are intimately bound up with rights, because we have reduced the notion of rights to wants — and wants do not imply responsibilities. Again, the moral connotations are strong in the case of both rights and responsibilities. And in saying this I am speaking about what folks like John Locke and Thomas Jefferson regarded as human rights, the rights that every human being is entitled to simply because he or she is a human being. This contrasts with civil rights, which attach to membership in a specific polity and which can be taken away by those in power, if we abuse them by breaking the law. Our Bill of Rights are civil rights and are not absolute in any sense — even the Second Amendment that guarantees the militia (not every Tom, Dick, and Sally) the right to “bear arms.”

Human rights, as Jefferson says, are “inalienable,” that is, they cannot be taken away. They can be forfeited in that if I ignore the corresponding responsibilities I can be said to forfeit the rights that I might otherwise lay claim to. If I kill someone, according to Thomas Aquinas, I forfeit my right to life and am therefore subject to capital punishment. I myself think this is simplistic, as it is not always clear when a person has killed another and thus never clear when those rights can be said to have been forfeited, but the point is that no one else can take my rights from me. Or you. They are “inalienable.” The principle is quite clear.

What is important to keep in mind when speaking about human rights are two things: (1) they are moral in that those in power can take them but they should not do so. No one should do so. The “should” here suggests the moral nature of human rights. Clearly, those in power can take them from us, but they should not do so: they have no moral justification whatever for doing so. And this raises the second point: (2) Rights have reciprocal responsibilities in the sense that if I claim to have rights this implies that you have a (moral) responsibility to recognize those rights — and I to recognize yours, since we are both human beings. The only humans who can be said to have rights without responsibilities are the mentally infirm and children. In these cases alone those who are not capable of recognizing their responsibilities still have rights because they are human beings. But with these rare exceptions (and these are debatable) all who have rights also have responsibilities and if we ignore our responsibilities we can no longer lay claim to our rights. We might want to keep this in mind next time we hear Albert shouting about his “right” to the parking space. There is no such right.

Locke On Property

One of the more fascinating chapters in John Locke’s Second Treatise on Civil Government explains his position on property. He ties his view in with his doctrine of natural human rights which informed the thinking of our founders as well. In fact, Thomas Jefferson had a portrait of Locke on his walls (one of two I am given to understand) and his “Declaration of Independence” is thoroughly Lockian, as is his Virginia Constitution. In any event, Locke thought that property was a natural right, along with life and liberty. Note that Jefferson borrowed Locke’s phrase which was later changed to “Life, Liberty, and Pursuit of Happiness.”

Property is a natural right because in a state of nature, before there are any civil laws to protect it, we have a right to as much property as we can take and use. Note that “use” is a key here. Locke  places a boundary on this type of acquisition–a person may only acquire as many things in this way as he or she can reasonably use to his advantage, making sure to leave some for the next person. If, for example, I chance upon apple trees in the state of nature I have a right to as many apples as I can reasonably consume before the next harvest. I ought not take more than I can eat or so many that others who might have a right to them as well cannot find enough to eat. That is, I should only take as many apples as I can eat before they go bad; if I take too many apples and some of them rot and go to waste, I have overextended my natural rights of acquisition. Others might have been able to eat those apples. One ought only take so much as one can use. Locke applies these rules to land: a person in a state of nature can claim land by adding labor to it–building house on it or farming on it–but only so much as that person can reasonably use without waste.

 

The invention of money clouds the picture somewhat, but the principle remains the same. The value of money is merely symbolic: it stands for the labor extended in creating products. I have a right to collect more money than I actually need because money does not spoil. But, at the same time, I have no right to more than I could possibly need in my lifetime, especially if it means that others will have less than they need to live on. It’s a “zero-sum” game here — even in the case of money. There’s only so much to go around.

Even John Calvin writing a century before Locke and usually credited with formulating the Protestant Work Ethic, urges restraint — and bear in mind that this is the man who regarded great wealth as a sign of God’s favor:

“. . .many today look for an excuse for excessive self-indulgence in the use of material things. They take for granted that their liberty must not be restrained in any way, but that it should be left to every man’s conscience to do whatever he think is right.  . . but because Scripture has laid down general rules for the use of material possessions, we should keep within the limits laid down. . . . Many are so obsessed with marble, gold and pictures that they become marble-hearted, are changed into hard metal or become like painted figures.”

If we now alter our focus somewhat and think about our own society in which 1% of the people control the vast majority of wealth in the country and the numbers of poor and needy grow daily, thousands of whom have no place to sleep or sufficient food to eat, we can see where Locke might have some serious problems. He was convinced, as was Adam Smith (the father of free-market capitalist theory), that humans would be guided by a moral sensitivity to the needs of others and their natural tendencies towards acquisition would be tempered by that sensitivity, as was urged by such men as John Calvin. In other words, the concept of the “free market” was couched within an ethical framework which stressed human sympathy for those less fortunate than ourselves: people would care about one another out of a sense of shared humanity, as “laid down by Scripture.” The notion that some would accumulate billions of dollars while others around them starve was unheard of, not even considered. It clearly violates the fundamental Lockian principle about the natural right we all have to property. To quote Benjamin Disraeli,

“Riches, position, and power have only one duty — to secure the social welfare of the People.”

In sum, our present situation violates the fundamental moral principle — and Locke’s notion of natural rights was a moral precept, not an economic one — that we have a right only to that which we can reasonably use in our lifetime while making sure there is enough for others who might be in need. On its face it is abhorrent that so few control so much of the wealth in this country and so many of them seem to have no sense of shared humanity with others in need — though there are notable exceptions, such as Bill Gates and a handful of wealthy athletes who make an effort to help those on this earth who go hungry to bed (if they have one) each night. I would argue that those with great wealth have a moral obligation to help others who have less than they do. At the very least, they have no right to more than they require to live a healthy and happy life.

Earning Respect

I didn’t watch this year’s ESPYs where a number of overpaid and self-involved athletes are placed in the spotlight to receive even more attention and applause. I did, however, get a glimpse at the highlights.  Some of the awards make sense and are well deserved, but in general it’s just one more chance for these athletes to be seen on television. One of the awards this year, the Arthur Ashe Award for Courage, went to Caitlyn Jenner, formerly Bruce Jenner, Olympic decathlete who won a gold medal in 1976 and at the time was reputedly the greatest male athlete on the planet. He (She) has changed mightily. You wouldn’t recognize him (her). During her tearful speech, looking for all the world like something dragged backwards through a bush, she thanked her children for their support during her ordeal; she wanted our respect.

I have no problem whatever with Ms Jenner’s sex change. I applaud it. Perhaps it did show courage, though I would look for someone who fought off a seemingly fatal disease if I were making the choice, or perhaps Ray Rice’s wife. What Caitlyn did was something she says she simply “had to do.”  But the problem I really had was when she looked at the camera, mascara running down her face, and insisted that anyone who makes the choice she made should be shown “respect.” At that moment, the little devil on my left shoulder told me, she looked and sounded like someone who absolutely did NOT deserve respect. But that was him speaking, I won’t quarrel. Well, maybe a bit. I want to tighten up the word “respect.” I think she was using it rather loosely.

The word “respect” has reference to rights which have a colorful history. The Greeks never talked about rights, perhaps because they thought themselves superior to all other peoples on earth. Perhaps they were. But the medieval theologians, such as St. Thomas Aquinas, spoke of rights as “God-given” to all humans at conception. This, of course, is the root of the ongoing fight about abortion. But the notion was picked up in the age of Enlightenment by such thinkers as John Locke who dropped the theological overtones and referred to what he called “natural rights,” which were attributed to all persons at birth simply because they are human. Persons don’t earn them and, as Thomas Jefferson was to note, they are “unalienable.” They cannot be taken away. These rights must be respected by each of us or we have no grounds whatever for claiming rights for ourselves. And the notion that certain groups have rights that apparently do not pertain to others, such as women, blacks, or native Americans, is nonsensical on Locke’s view. All humans have rights simply by virtue of being human. Some thinkers have maintained that we could forfeit our natural rights through heinous crimes, such as murder, but in general they are “unalienable.”

But then there are also civil rights, which we have when we become citizens and which we can have taken away by the government, presumably in consequence of a criminal act whereby we are locked up and lose the right to vote or lose our driving license after repeated DUIs. During the years when hell was breaking loose in Stalin’s Soviet Union and Hitler’s Germany, no one had any rights, civil or natural — not even those in power. Anyone at any time could be sent to concentration camps where they were simply annihilated, erased from memory. Anyone who claimed to remember those who were sent away found themselves in the same boat. Welcome to totalitarianism in spades!

In the end, respect, which those with natural rights are deserving of, is a given. We must respect the natural rights of all persons: that’s a moral imperative, the cornerstone of Kant’s ethics. But there is also the respect we earn through our efforts and abilities and which can turn to contempt if we make little effort or squander those abilities and become somehow unworthy of respect. This sort of respect might be attributed to the teacher in the classroom because of her position, let us say. It can be turned to contempt when she shows herself ignorant of the subject or unable to communicate with her pupils. This is the respect we must earn. The question is does Caitlyn Jenner deserve this sort of respect?

The angel on my right shoulder says “yes,” because she had the nerve to go public and share with others her ordeal — and an ordeal it must have been from the look of her. The devil on my other shoulder (yes, he’s still there) tells me she doesn’t deserve our respect because she is making a fool of herself, and in drawing attention to herself — including, so I have read, wearing revealing apparel in public, apparently designed to show that, yes, she does have breasts  — she is simply on an ago trip.  Such people are not deserving of our respect because they have done nothing to earn it. I’m of two minds on this one, but I tend toward the devil’s view.

And as for receiving the Arthur Ashe Award for courage, that galls me a bit, because there was a man of true courage who did whatever he could to promote the rights of his people, who attacked apartheid in South Africa, who was an exemplary human being, and in the end fought with the aids that had been injected into his bloodstream by mistake with dignity and class. Now, there was real courage. Let’s not be taken in by the imitations.

The Predatory Rich

The term in the title of this piece is from Doris Kearns Goodwin’s excellent book, The Bully Pulpit, about Teddy Roosevelt, William Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism. I have referred to her book previously, but I wanted to return to it and share some of the excellent points Ms Goodwin makes. I have noted the rough parallels between the “robber baron” days and our own — specifically, the widening gap between the rich and the poor and the almighty power of the corporations, or “trusts” as they were called then. A critic might well point out that we have made great strides from the days of child-labor and the 12 hour work day. And this is true. But we still have a pathetically low minimum wage and there are folks out there who would love to reverse those strides and take us back to the “glory days” of laissez-faire economics, free enterprise, as they imagine it to be — free from governmental interference and those pesky agencies that put restraints on the obscene increase in profits.

Roosevelt himself was very much aware of the mentality of the “predatory rich” (Goodwin’s words) and that is what most interests me, because while many things have changed I don’t think that mind-set has changed much at all. We can see examples of it all around us as the number of homeless and disenfranchised grow, the middle class shrinks, and the corporations and folks like the Koch brothers continue to amass fortunes. It is most interesting to note that Teddy Roosevelt was himself a wealthy Republican and staunch supporter of capitalism who grew to see more and more clearly the moral depravity that is bred by an unfettered economy when the government looks the other way and a small group of men are allowed to take the reins in their own hands and focus exclusively on accumulating piles of gold. He was, of course, a “progressive” Republican, a reformer who saw the need to put restraints on the greed of those who see nothing but profits and losses, whose world has shrunk to the size of a gnat’s testicle and who seem to have no conscience whatever. Describing his notion of the balance that is needed, Roosevelt noted in a speech to the Union League Club:

“Neither this people not any other free people will permanently tolerate the use of vast power conferred by vast wealth, and especially by wealth in its corporate form, without lodging somewhere in the government the still higher power of seeing that this power, in addition to being used in the interest of the individual or the individuals possessing it, is also used for and not against the interests of the people as a whole.”

One would hope, wouldn’t one? In any event, after McKinley was shot and Roosevelt became president — much to the chagrin of the Republican bosses who tried to bury him in the Vice-Presidency to get him out of the governorship of New York where he was a pain in their collective ass, — he faced one of his major challenges. The miners in Pennsylvania went on strike; as the strike grew in size and violence and as Winter approached and coal became increasingly scarce, he wondered what the Constitution allowed him to do. He was in sympathy with the miners as he was with those poor folks in crowded New York tenements whom he visited, living together, five in the same room where they rolled cigars in sweat-shop conditions struggling to eek out a living. He knew the miners worked 10 hour days from the age of ten until they died at an early age from black lung disease, seldom seeing the light of day. And he knew that the owners were bound and determined to see that their plight did not improve at the owners’ expense.

One of the things that outraged him, as it did so many others, was the arrogance of the owners who had banded together and refused to listen to the legitimate grievances of the miners until they went dutifully back to work. The owners had already turned down an agreed-upon raise of 5% that would have cost them a mere $3 million dollars a year against their estimated profits of $75 million. Their attitude was clearly expressed in an open letter published by mine-owner George Baer which included the following paragraph:

“I beg of you not to be discouraged. The rights and interests of the laboring man will be protected and cared for — not by the labor agitators, but by the Christian men to whom God in His infinite wisdom has given the control of the property interests of the country, and upon the successful management of which so much depends.”

Needless to say, these words threw gas on the fire. They aroused the anger of thousands of people around the country, including the president. And they drew dozens of angry responses from newspaper editors around the country. Eventually Roosevelt was able to work a compromise by some brilliant machinations which drove the Republican bosses mad while reducing his chances of gaining the Republican nomination he so dearly sought. But he knew what was right and he knew he had to act accordingly. And he knew how to use the power of the press against those who ruled the Republican party. And that knowledge proved pivotal.

But what I want to focus attention on is the attitude reflected in those extraordinary words written by George Baer. As one editor noted, it smacks of the notion of divine rights of kings, except the sentiment here, strongly felt no doubt by his fellow fat-cats, is that property owners have a divine right to their property and to what is done with it — regardless of costs in human lives. Indeed, it is doubtful if men like Baer had any idea about the moral costs of their stunted perspective. In this comment he seems to be lost in his own convictions about Christian his right to lord it over others, if you can imagine such a thing.

It is one thing to insist that folks have a right to determine what happens with their property, but even John Locke, who was one of the first to defend free-enterprise capitalism, realized that there must be moral restraints on the amassing of great wealth. He insisted that one had a right to amass wealth only to the point where it interferes with the possibility of others amassing wealth as well. Adam Smith, who wrote the Bible on free-enterprise capitalism, agreed. They both simply assumed that human sympathy, fellow-feeling, would enter in and make the rich realize that there are limits to how much wealth they can collect without making life miserable for others. How naive! On the contrary, Baer’s letter reveals an attitude which we can see to this day among the predatory rich, which rests on the unquestioned assumption (on their part) that they have a right to as much money as they want and any interference with the steps they might take to gain that money are to be squashed, whatever the cost. I give you the predatory rich. You can have them.

Obscene Wealth

Aristotle’s notion of virtue is built around the concept of moderation. Virtue, for The Philosopher, is defined as a mean between extremes. Courage, for example, is a mean between cowardice and foolhardiness. Indeed, extreme behavior of any kind was anathema to the Greeks generally, though their behavior often lent the lie to the ideal. But at least they paid lip service to the notion, whereas we seem to have lost sight of it altogether.

In 1995 Christopher Lasch, whom I have referred to a number of times in these blogs, published a rejoinder to Ortega y Gasset’s Revolt of the Masses which Lasch called Revolt of the Elites. In that book he took exception to Ortega’s notion that it was the masses who would drag down democracy and eventually destroy it altogether through their “radical ingratitude” and their “incredible ignorance of history.” For all the masses know, or care to know, history started when they were born and will end with their death: they have no obligations to anyone. Lasch is convinced that it is the elites who will bring this about because they are so much like the masses whom Ortega describes and because they have lost their sense of community and, indeed, lost all touch with reality. Their “community” is one made up of “the best and brightest of contemporaries, in the double sense that its members think of themselves as agelessly youthful and that the mark of this youthfulness is precisely their ability to stay on top of the latest trends.” Note here the absence of any sense of belonging to a place and any group to bond with, a total immersion of self into self.

Lasch defines the elites as the opinion-makers, the “thinking class,” which he defines as “those who control the international flow of money and information, preside over philanthropic foundations and institutions of higher learning, manage the instruments of cultural production and thus set the terms of public debate.” These folks, feeling “no obligation either to their progenitors or their progeny,” are lost in a world of abstractions; they belong to no nation.

“The new elites are at home only in transit, en route to a high-level conference, to the grand opening of a new franchise, to an international film festival, or to an undiscovered resort. Theirs is essentially a tourist’s view of the world — not a perspective likely to encourage a passionate devotion to democracy.”

Certainly not to this democracy. They have dissociated themselves from what was their parents’ country and become non-involved citizens of the world, as it were. Traveling the world and taking their millions with them. And here’s the rub. The new elite control the wealth in the country and are in the process of destroying the middle class on which the capitalist economy and a vital democratic system have always depended. They are, above all else, the greatest threat, in Lasch’s view, to the preservation of this democracy. In fact, they don’t care much about the preservation of Western Civilization either. As Lasch points out, the “thinking class” who people the universities have turned their backs on Western Civilization which they traditionally pledged themselves to preserve. For these people

“. . . the very term ‘Western Civilization’ now calls to mind an organized system of bourgeois values [which keep] the victims of patriarchal oppression — women, children, homosexuals, people of color — in a permanent state of subjection.”

Preoccupied with minor concerns like political correctness and cultural diversity, they ignore such things as the dissolution of the family, the intrusion of the market into all phases of human life, and “the crisis of competence; the spread of apathy; and a suffocating cynicism, the moral paralysis of those who value ‘openness’ above all.” But above all else, outside the academy the new elite have been enabled to amass great fortunes with the approval of the very class they seem determined to eradicate. Capitalism has traditionally frowned on the amassing of wealth beyond a person’s needs. For John Locke and Adam Smith, for example, capitalist accumulation was tempered by a sense of community coupled with a strong feeling of restraint from accumulating unnecessary wealth which might otherwise go to those in need; this tradition has been lost. These convictions are reflected in the words of Horace Mann who, two hundred years later, helped us recall that “The earth was given to mankind for the subsistence and benefit of the whole race, and the rights of successive owners were limited by the rights of those who are entitled to the subsequent possession and use.” No one, according to this way of thinking, has a right to unlimited wealth and possessions they cannot possibly ever use. But those restraints are no longer with us. In light of these changes, Lasch expresses the hope that

“boundaries are permeable, especially where money is concerned, that a moral condemnation of great wealth must inform any defense of the free market, and that a moral condemnation must be backed up with effective political action. . . In the old days Americans agreed, at least in principle, that individuals cannot claim entitlement to wealth far in excess of their needs. The persistence of this belief, even though it is admittedly only an undercurrent in the celebration of wealth that now threatens to drown all competing values, offers some hope that all is not yet lost.”

But that “undercurrent” has grown very weak, not to say feeble, in the twenty years since Lasch wrote those words. And with it the hope that our democracy will survive grows weak as well. The infamous 1% who control more and more of this nation’s wealth, who do not see themselves as part of this nation or its people, who, indeed, see other people as simply exploitable, have taken this country so far away from the ideals envisioned by our Founders that we will assuredly never find our way back. And augmenting this demise is the full support of those mindless masses whom Ortega identified; those who see no reason why people should not accumulate wealth far beyond their needs because in their own shrinking minds they see themselves as at some point joining the group; those who have also lost any sense of moral restraint, who do not recognize how obscene — in the full sense of that word — is the accumulation of great wealth in a society where many have no food to put on the table or roof over their heads; those who are lacking in the moderation that Aristotle long ago insisted is the core of human virtue.

Do Corporations Have Rights?

There is no mention of corporations in either the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution of the United States. But as early as 1819 in Dartmouth College vs. Woodward the Supreme Court suggested that corporations were entitled to make and enforce contracts, thus implying early on that they should be treated as persons with rights protected by the Constitution. By 1886 it was simply assumed “without argument” that corporations are persons. The absurdity of this interpretation became glaring clear not long ago when the Supreme Court decided in the “Citizen’s United” case that spending limits should not be placed on corporations under protection of the First Amendment. That is, corporations should be allowed to spend as much on political campaigns as they see fit on the grounds that, as persons, they had a right to freedom of speech. Yes, that’s right, corporations are not only persons, they are entitled to give politicians as much money as they want under the aegis of freedom of speech.

None of these court decisions considered the rather basic fact that if corporations have rights they must also have responsibilities. While fines are levied against corporations in some cases for the atrocities they commit they can be “held responsible” for those acts, but this can hardly be called “having responsibilities.” The only responsibilities corporations acknowledge are to their stockholders and these, too, can hardly be called “responsibilities,” since it is simply what corporations are supposed to do — namely, maximize profits. There is very little, if any, talk about responsibilities to “stakeholders” in corporate inner circles — or about moral or ethical responsibilities, either. Further, it’s never clear just who the corporations are. Are they the CEOs or the boards that govern them? Or are they the stockholders? Or are they the engineer who turns the handle that releases poisonous gas and kills 2500 people? The question threatens to become positively metaphysical. But assigning corporations rights without acknowledging their responsibilities makes no sense whatever. Rights without responsibilities can apply only to children and the mentally challenged, otherwise the notion is absurd on its face. (I hesitate to discuss the question whether corporations can be said to be mentally challenged.)

I have always thought that the concept of balance of powers under the Constitution is one of the most brilliant ideas ever conceived by the human mind. It arose, of course, in a French mind in the person of Montesquieu in the seventeenth century who saw this balance as necessary for the protection of individuals in a political group. Kings are not to be trusted. Presidents are not to be trusted. Those in power in general are not to be trusted. But if we balance the power among the executive, legislators and judges we can control the abuse that nearly always follows from too much power in the hands of one person. That’s the idea.

The United States Supreme Court was the result of this thinking, of course, as it worked its way down through John Locke, Thomas Jefferson,  and James Madison. And it is an inspired notion: a court that would be above political influence since members are not elected but appointed for life. And, indeed, some of the decisions of the court over the years have been brilliant. But the decision in January of 2010 to grant corporations the status of persons with rights under the First Amendment is simply stupid, if not absurd — as noted above. And it certainly does not appear to have been apolitical. Not only are corporations not persons, unlimited donations to a political election clearly do not constitute free speech.

In any event, the concept of “person” is a moral concept fully explored in the ethics of Immanuel Kant and previously used by the Founders to apply to citizens with both rights and responsibilities. As Kant examined the notion, it was held that persons were “ends in themselves,” and never a means to an end. In other words it is morally wrong to use others for one’s own purposes: Kant stressed responsibilities, or duties, over rights. It is precisely because we can recognize our duties to other persons (who are also ends in themselves) that we have rights. Responsibilities are primary; rights are derivative. But corporations are clearly not “ends in themselves”; they are simply a means to an end, namely, profit. Further, as mentioned, they have no responsibilities. The appropriation of a moral concept for legal purposes by the Court in 1819 and applied to an entity that was not even human was inappropriate; extending the notion further as the court did recently borders on the bizarre.

The absurdity of this decision can be seen by considering what other rights are guaranteed to persons under the First Amendment, namely, the right to practice religion as one sees fit, to assemble, and to petition the government for redress of grievances. The Constitution also guarantees every citizen the right to vote and to run for national office. Is the Court now saying that a corporation can run for President if it is thirty-five years old? Nonsense! But just as it would be absurd to think about corporations assembling, practicing religion, running for public office, or voting, it is also absurd to think that “they” have the right to free speech — assuming that this is what giving stacks of money to political candidates amounts to. This has to be one of the worst decisions ever to come from this Court and it deserves to be overthrown by a Constitutional amendment, and a movement to do so is afoot. That movement, however, seems sluggish at best — a reflection, perhaps, of the population’s general indifference to political issues and the unwillingness of those in power to bite the hand that feeds them.

Liberal Individualism

British and American political thought arise out of the Enlightenment tradition that places the individual at the center of the political state. For thinkers like John Locke, Montesquieu, Rousseau, and even Thomas Hobbes thinking about politics begins with the individual in what a number of them liked to call a “state of nature.” By placing their emphasis on the individual and beginning the discussion about civic membership with focus on human rights — as opposed to human obligations, which are the other side of human rights — they gave birth to what British MP and author Jesse Norman calls “liberal individualism.” The words, taken in their original meaning, suggest the emphasis of much of contemporary political and even economic thought on the rights of individuals and the notion that the human ideal is one of the self-sufficient individual with complete freedom from the restraints placed on them by civil laws. This thinking permeates much of contemporary political theory by both conservatives and liberals. As Rousseau would have it, the central idea in political thought is the question how a person can obey a law and in doing so remain free — implying that the paramount good in political societies is human freedom. The issue is not what sorts of things a citizen must do in order to become a good citizen and practice what the Greeks called “civic virtue.” The issue focuses almost exclusively on individual rights and freedom, freedom from restraints and the right to do as we want.

This Enlightenment view, as Norman has argued in his excellent book on Edmund Burke, is diametrically opposed to the classical, Greek and Roman view of politics that begins with the notion that human beings are social animals — even, as Aristotle said, political animals — and cannot be taken out of the social context without stripping them of their essential humanity. As Aristotle would have it, society makes possible those things that make Homo sapiens specifically human — such things as law, speech, and morality. A man or a woman taken completely out of the social context that defines them is not fully human: the hermit living alone in a cave is more nearly an animal, struggling to survive, having no ties with others, and lacking in the ability to communicate with others of his kind. Such a person is the imagined man in a “state of nature,” as Burke would have it. And such a man is not one we would want to emulate, one would think. And yet we do, unknowingly, in our adoration of the idea of the individual free to do his or her own thing.

Norman, in his study of Burke, is convinced that this peculiar Enlightenment notion of liberal individualism is the root cause of today’s stress on the self  and the resulting narcissism that permeates our culture and arises largely from viewing the individual in isolation. Much has been lost, in Norman’s view, by ignoring the classical view of human beings as social animals. One of the few thinkers who refused to buy into the Enlightenment view of liberal individualism was Edmund Burke who is usually labelled as a “conservative” thinker even though much of his thought is remarkably in line with such familiar “liberal” or “moderate” politicians as Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt. In any event, labels don’t really help us to comprehend where a person stands on complex philosophical and political issues, and the term “conservative” may be the least helpful label of all. It is certainly the case, for example, that Burke would be appalled by the behavior of so many self-styled “conservatives” in America who pursue self-interest and unlimited wealth without any consideration whatever for the obligations they have as citizens.  Norman puts it well in the final paragraph of his rather laudatory study of Burke when he notes that:

“. . .Burke also questions the present self-image of politics and the media, an empty post-modernism in which there is no truth, but only different kinds of narrative deployed in the service of power. Instead, he offers values and principles that do not change, the sanction of history and moral authenticity of those willing to give up power to principle. He gives us again the lost language of politics: a language of honor, loyalty, duty, and wisdom, which can never be adequately captured in any spreadsheet or economic model. And he highlights the importance of moderate religious observance and moral community as a source of shared norms, and the role of human creativity and imagination in re-enchanting the world and filling it with meaning.”

Those who like to think of themselves as politically conservative would do well to read and ponder the writings of Edmund Burke — as would we all. It is certainly the case that the political landscape is barren at present and would benefit greatly by thinking past profit, power, and personal advancement to the values listed above. And it is certainly the case that we could all benefit from another way of looking at ourselves — not in isolation, free and unfettered, but as members of a body politic and as such concerned about others. Therein may in fact lie true self-realization and even happiness — even, perhaps, true individualism.

Parental Rights and Duties

This is a puzzler. The story begins as follows:

PHILADELPHIA (AP) — A couple serving probation for the 2009 death of their toddler after they turned to prayer instead of a doctor could face new charges now that another son has died.

Herbert and Catherine Schaible belong to a fundamentalist Christian church that believes in faith healing. They lost their 8-month-old son, Brandon, last week after he suffered from diarrhea and breathing problems for at least a week, and stopped eating. Four years ago, another son died from bacterial pneumonia.

Prosecutors said Tuesday that a decision on charges will be made after they get the results of an autopsy.

John Locke was the champion of liberal thought who almost single-handedly formed the warp and woof of Madison and Jefferson’s thinking about the place of government in the lives of its citizens. It is generally known that they followed Locke in thinking that that government is best that governs least. I do not follow them in this libertarian thinking, because things have become so complicated these days and we have learned that when government doesn’t step in — as in the case of large corporations that would pollute the air and water — the citizens are the ones who suffer. In fact, citizens have little recourse as individuals in attempting to take on large, wealthy corporations that are impacting their lives in so many ways.

But at the same time, I do agree with Locke who also noted that parents are responsible for their children until they reach “the age of reason,” as Locke put it. That was never defined, but I assume he meant the age when they can take responsibility for their own lives. We have decided it is 18 or 21 — depending on what sort of responsibility we are talking about. But while the age is somewhat arbitrary the principle is clear: parents are responsible for their children until we can presume the children themselves can act responsibly. The parents in this case are devout Christians who distrust medical science and seem convinced that prayer is sufficient to heal their sick children. I don’t happen to agree with them, and there are many arguments against this strict position.

But I must admit I have a problem with officials of the state of Pennsylvania stepping in and telling these people they cannot raise their children as they see fit. This is a classic case of paternalism and the man who argued most persuasively against that position was John Stuart Mill in the late nineteenth century. He was developing ideas he found in Locke, ideas that focus on the unwarranted spread of civil influence into the private lives of individuals who ought to be allowed to make their own mistakes. Mill was convinced that the only time the state had a right to interfere in the lives of the citizens is when they pose a real and present threat to one another: when it steps in to prevent harm to a citizen.

In the case of young children who are the responsibility of their parents, it seems to me that the state has firm grounds for stepping in between parents and children if, and only if, the parents are clearly threatening the lives of the children — when they physically abuse them, for example. The case of parents who refuse medical attention because they believe in the efficacy of prayer assuredly does not come under this rubric. Failure to seek medical attention for their sick children seems to me to be one of the things best left to their judgment, whether or not we agree with that judgment. In this case it is not only paternalistic it is a violation of the First Amendment which guarantees religious freedom. Whether we like it or not (and I confess I do not like it) these parents are guaranteed the right to raise their children in accordance with their deeply held religious convictions. The couple has seven children who are now in foster care and have been described as “distraught” over the death of their child; nonetheless, prosecutors seek to have the couple jailed since they are regarded as a “threat to their children.” What possible grounds could the state of Pennsylvania have for either taking the children from their parents of prosecuting the parents as criminals?

Pandora’s Box

The Supreme Court recently indicated that it will address the question of campaign spending limits. We have already seen how the court leans on this issue in the “Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission” case in which the court, in its wisdom, saw fit to insist that corporations are persons and in the name of “free speech” should be allowed to contribute to politicians as much as any wealthy individual would. The current case will determine whether there are any limits whatever on what a person (or a corporation) can give to a political candidate and, given that the court agreed to hear the case, the bets are that the court will remove those limits entirely, which are minimal as things now stand. As we are told in a recent HuffPost story;

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court announced Tuesday that it will hear a case challenging the per-biennial cycle limit on campaign contributions from individuals.

The case, McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, argues that the limit on what individuals are allowed to give candidates ($46,200 per two-year cycle) and parties and PACs ($70,800 per two-year cycle) is an unconstitutional violation of the individual donor’s free speech rights.

The present court has tended to lean to the right on issues such as this since Sandra Day O’Connor left the court. Thus, despite the 1976 Buckley v. Valeo Supreme Court decision, which upheld limits set in 1971 on how much money an individual could give to any one candidate, the present Court is almost certain to lift those limits entirely in the name of free speech. Many believe it is a foregone conclusion. But then so was the decision regarding the Affordable Care Act which the Supreme Court upheld to the surprise of nearly every student of the history of the Court. So there is hope.

The problem stems from the fact that the Constitution was written at a time when the major concern was the abuse of power on the part of the Executive. The framers understood power and the need for balance, of course. They had read John Locke and Montesquieu and were very careful to see to it that no one branch of the government became so powerful that it overshadowed the other two, though they did tend to err a bit on the side of the Senate. But the framers never fully considered the effects of great wealth on the workings of an ostensibly democratic government — though several of them, like Thomas Jefferson, saw the possibilities: recall his concern that “a rich country cannot long be a free one.”

In any event, there is nothing in the Constitution about corporations and about PACs or about the limits of spending on political candidates. This allows the Court to refer to whatever portion of the document that seems to them to be appropriate to make a case for whatever decision they regard as politically expedient — not unlike those who read portions of the Bible to support their own take on Judeo-Christian teachings. And given that this Court leans to the right, it is most likely that we will see all limits removed from campaign spending, in which case we can conclude with assurance that the government will henceforth go to the highest bidder.

Pandora’s Box was opened with “Citizens United” and we saw how ugly that got in the last election. What we are about to see, in all probability, is all of the remaining contents of that box in the coming months and years. Barring a Constitutional amendment on spending limits, or a sudden and unexpected shift to the left by this court, we may be witnessing the end of America’s experiment with democratic government.