A Wealthy Republic?

I begin with a disclaimer: I have nothing against money. I like money and I am happy that after years of struggle I finally have enough to be relatively worry-free and even able to help others when given a chance. At the same time I am aware that money is a two-edged sword. In the form of the capitalistic economic system it has brought about a higher standard of living for more people than could have been imagined by folks like Adam Smith when he was promoting free enterprise in the eighteenth century. But I do wonder if it has brought greater happiness to a great many people — as Smith thought it would. And as one who read his New Testament carefully for many years in his mis-spent youth, I am aware of the inherent contradiction between the basic principles of capitalism and the values promoted in the New Testament where, we are told, the poor are blessed and 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.

This latter concern was given impetus when, as an undergraduate, I read R.H. Tawney’s compelling book Religion and the Rise of Capitalism. It opened my eyes to the contradiction I had dully sensed. The history of the organized Christian church, and the machinations of “Christians” everywhere attempting to explain away the words of the New Testament have been fascinating — and upsetting. But it wasn’t until the Protestant revolution that the lid came off, as it were, and folks were given a free ticket to claim their Christian affiliation while at the same time pursuing unlimited wealth. We now have self-proclaimed ministers of God like Jesse Duplantis flying about the country in their private  $45 million jets and living the good life in their palatial homes after they have preached an inspiring sermon to the many who arrived at the service in the huge amphitheater in their gas-guzzling SUVs.

But I never fully appreciated the tensions that were everywhere apparent during the colonial period between the pursuit of wealth and the preservation of the new Republic. It didn’t worry Alexander Hamilton and his followers who would prefer to have the President and the Senate serve for life — in imitation of the English King and House of Lords. But it worried a great many more colonists who followed Thomas Jefferson in his suspicion that those focused on wealth and prosperity would make poor citizens of a republic built on the notion of the Common Good.

In his excellent book, Rethinking America: From Empire to Republic, to which I have referred a number of times, John Murrin points out the struggles of the early colonies with the problems of great wealth. Many at that time worried, along with Jefferson, that excessive wealth in the hands of a few would plant the seeds of a new aristocracy. After perusing numerous newspapers from the period, Murrin tells us that the colonial attitude, generally, was one of concern, worry that:

“The pursuit of wealth without regard to the public good not only corrupted individuals. It threatened to destroy independence and the American republic.”

Or again,

“In a capitalist society that generates huge amounts of wealth and want, democracy is ever at risk.”

And this has, indeed, become a larger and a larger problem as today we seem to find ourselves in a “democratic” country ruled by the very rich who pick and choose their politicians as one might pick cherries from a bush, and then tell them precisely how to vote on key issues — lest they lose their high-paying jobs in Congress and state legislatures. It is a deep and perplexing question just how far the pursuit of profits and wealth blinds us to the larger questions that surround the notion of the public good: the cares and genuine concerns of those around us. It is a political conundrum and a serious moral problem that we might all do well to ponder.

I do not have the answer, but the Scandinavian countries seem to have a suggestion for us in the form of Democratic Socialism which they have embraced and they are reputed to be the happiest people on earth at the moment.  Raw capitalism is driven by avarice and encourages self-interest in the name of healthy competition — not qualities designed to help a democratic society grow strong, to promote the common good. Curbs on raw capitalism, which we have seen from time to time in this country (and which the current Administration would eliminate), put a bit in the mouth of the beast which it finds annoying but which still make the common good a possibility — remote perhaps, but still a possibility. A good start to much-needed reform would be a fair tax system that closes the loop-holes for the wealthy and for corporations and taxes them at the same rate as everyone else.

 

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Violence In America

In some sense, I suppose, this post can be read as a follow-up to my previous one since both seek to explain the same thing.

Numerous theories have been advanced to explain why it is that America is so prone to violence and leads the world in violent deaths by firearms. Perhaps the most popular study was that by Michael Moore in his documentary Bowling for Columbine in which he concluded that the only thing that set America apart from the rest of the world was the violence shown on our news programs. I always thought this a weak conclusion, but I saw the difficulty in finding a key ingredient in the formula to explain America’s past and present tendency toward violence.

Upon reading John Murrin’s essay about the “Making and Unmaking of an American Ruling Class”  (in his book Rethinking America) it occurred to me that perhaps the answer to the question why America is such a violent country lies in the historical record which shows Americans to have always, from the beginning, insisted on having a firearm ready at hand. To understand this a bit better, it might help to have some background.

Murrin argues that many of the earliest settlers in this country were never from the elite classes in England (in particular) but, rather, “the younger sons of English gentry or merchants.” These men aspired to leadership in the new country and managed to create an appproximation of the English ruling classes, albeit not bound by the same rules that might lead to an aristocracy — though there were some, such as Alexander Hamilton, who would have loved to mimic the English royalty as much as possible. Americans, for the most part, prized their independence and while early on they regarded themselves as English citizens, with all that that entails, they eventually, as we know, threw off the English yoke in order to achieve the independence they had come to value so highly. And they never trusted those who aspired to aristocracy. Hamilton and the Federalists hung on until Jefferson’s presidency, but they then faded into the dust. America’s thirteen colonies  became, in Murrin’s words, a “paradise for the younger sons” who were denied status among the landed gentry in England by laws such as entail and the so-called rights of primogeniture.

More to our present point, early on the colonies had no standing armies — with the exception of New York which had a small one — and the governors, appointed by England for the most part, ruled by deference and the handing out of privileges rather than the use of force. This made America unique among civilized nations in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Moreover, as Mullin points out,

“. . .the absence of a standing army in most colonies for most of the colonial era compelled the government to insist (except in Quaker societies) that the settlers arm themselves. In no American province did the government establish the monopoly of violence that Europe took for  granted by the eighteenth century, and firearms were always and still are more widely available in America than in any other Western countries.” [Italics added]

This helps explain the insistence in our Bill of Rights upon the “right” of the militia to bear arms — the Second Amendment that is so very controversial today. That Amendment, please note, guarantees every male citizen the right to bear arms because he is expected to defend his colony against any presumed outside threat to peace and order; like Cincinnatus in ancient Rome he was a citizen-soldier. In the end, of course, the militia was called upon to free the colonies from English rule, which provided George Washington with his greatest challenge, constantly frustrated by his inability to mold such a diverse group of volunteers, who deserted in appalling numbers, into a disciplined army.

In any event, the notion was with us from the very start that all men were expected to bear arms because of the lack of a standing army; the possession and use of firearms has always been a characteristic of the American male (at least). It’s in our blood, so to speak. And as we fought to protect ourselves from the English, the French, and even the Spanish — not to mention to remove the Native people from the land we wanted for ourselves — we became a violent nation, a nation that not only insisted that we be allowed to possess arms but to use them to get what we wanted.

I am not sure this will pass as a complete explanation as to why we are such a violent nation (causal connections are notoriously difficult to make, as I noted in my previous post) but it certainly helps us to understand why we might share a deep sense of this so-called “right” to arm ourselves and resort to violence whenever opposed by the will of another. I seriously doubt whether it explains why demented young men force their way into our schools and shoot unarmed teachers and children, which I sought to understand in my previous post.  But it helps us to understand the prevalence of firearm in our homes and makes it easier to see why those who own them might be more inclined to use them if harried or thwarted in their desire to have their way. As I say, it’s in our blood — or so the historical record would suggest.

Strict Construction

During the Reagan administration Attorney general Edwin Meese and Judge Robert Bork and other conservative spokesmen demanded that the Constitution be interpreted as the founders intended it, that there be a “strict construction” of the Constitution in attempting to decide contemporary court cases. This view has been around for some time, but it rests on the questionable assumption that we can know what the hell the Founders meant when they wrote that document in the eighteenth century. We can’t. We don’t even know what we ourselves mean when we say or write something today — even our own words in many cases! Can anyone reading this please tell me, for example, what the dickens our President means when he tweets his endless drivel? Does he even know?.

James Madison, who authored the Constitution in large part, and who kept copious notes on the proceedings of the Convention when the document was being discussed, insisted that his notes be kept private until after his death. In his words, it was better that people make of it what they can on their own, that his notes remain unpublished

“till the Constitution should be well settled by practice, and till a knowledge of the controversial parts of the proceedings of its framers could be turned to no proper account.”

In a word, it is better, in the view of the founders themselves, that no attempt be made to try to determine what a group of men — most or whom disagreed with one another on nearly every topic — might possibly have meant, especially hundreds of years ago. As John Murrin says in his excellent book, Rethinking America, ”

“Even if we decide to accept the accuracy of these accounts, they only tell us what one man [Madison] thought, not why the majority voted as it did or what the majority assumed it was doing.”

Strict Construction is a fiction. It demands that we strive for an impossible goal: to know what a group of men thought years ago in the heat of debate and during a time when thirteen colonies had very different agendas and there was yet no sense of a “united” states. Murrin concludes that

“The real question is not what the drafters thought they were writing, but what the people believed they were implementing [when they ratified the document].”

And that, as we know, is an impossible quest. But, then, so is “strict construction.”