Was Socrates Right?

This is another in my series of re-posts. I wrote it just prior to the last presidential election and have added a few comments to the update.

The Greek philosopher Socrates who lived from 470 until 399 B.C.E. sought to withdraw from the hurly-burly of ordinary political life in what was one of the very first democracies. He insisted that it was impossible to participate in the political life of Athens and at the same time retain one’s integrity. And in his view integrity, living a virtuous life, was of paramount importance: it led him to eventually accept the decision of a corrupt court and drink Hemlock.

 Socrates

Socrates

Politics has always been a bit of a dirty game, but it is a game that is played for high stakes and a great many have discovered how to become very wealthy playing the game, doing what they are told, and collecting their reward from the special interest groups. I have not counted recently in our political system (which is not a democracy, strictly speaking) how many can be readily identified as corrupt. But the number must be rather large. We are now caught in a bind with “representatives” who only represent special interests and who are determined to bring government to a halt if their candidate does not win the presidency.  Partisanship has replaced citizenship in this country and there are very few like Socrates around — or even those who are convinced that they can play the dirty game of politics and still keep their hands clean. We can count those few on the fingers on one hand. But there are a few.

Socrates, it has always seemed to me, was a bit too uncompromising. Surely it is possible for a person to be actively involved in politics and to remain a person of integrity? Or is it? Think of the temptations from the immensely wealthy who have millions of dollars to spread around buying the people who will make the decisions that will favor their particular business. [Think N.R.A.] There is no question whatever but that the corporations and special interest groups call the shots, especially since the Supreme Court decision Citizens United that gave the corporations the right to directly influence elections. Is it possible for a politician like Elizabeth Warren, for example, to continue to play the dirty game without getting soiled? That is an interesting question and one which will not be answered for a few years yet. But the siren song of wealth and power is always playing in her ear and she will have to be one tough cookie to ignore it.

There are a great many people in this country who are sick and tired of “politics as usual.” They are convinced that it is a dirty game and that everyone who plays it is soiled. Of late, to be sure, those who play the game strike us as a large group of very well paid men and women who spend time talking, getting paid large salaries, and doing nothing. Thus these voters turn to an outsider, one who is outside of politics if not outside of reality itself, and they hope and pray that this man with the funny hair and tiny hands will deliver this country from the muddy world of politics as usual. In the process, they expect, they themselves will be legitimized and their hopes and dreams will become a reality, because politics as usual has passed them by and they have been left in the lurch, clutching at straws.

Unfortunately, politics is a dirty game. That is a fact, and anyone who chooses to play must get their hands at least a bit dirty. The problem that faces this country at this juncture is whether we are realistic enough to accept the fact that politics is a dirty game and seek the one candidate who is the cleaner of the two and who promises to play the game in such a way that the country will remain relatively strong and survive as at least a shadow of the republic the founders envisioned. Or will the citizens of this country be so sick of politics as usual that they will blindly choose a man who is completely unqualified to head up this government and play a game whose rules he does to fully understand, a man who is used to making up his own rules on the go? [We now know the answer to that question!]

Socrates was right. But he was also wrong. It is possible for some to play the game and retain their integrity. But it is mighty difficult and there are few who can manage to play it successfully. In the meantime, we must accept reality as it is given to us and accept the candidate who will do the best job for the country and for each of its citizens — the best under the circumstances. It’s time for realism, not pie-in-the-sky-fantasy that ignores the fact that an unqualified president will flounder and fail miserably in the dirty world of politics, a world he is totally unfamiliar with and one that will eat him alive.

Revolution?

I was a bit dismayed by the lack of response to a guest blog I posted not long ago written by Jerry Stark. It struck me as extremely insightful and even a bit alarming. It is certainly worth a moment’s reflection. If Jerry is correct then we are in the midst of a revolution — which may or may not be a bad thing. Thomas Jefferson thought we needed a revolution every 20 years to clear the air, as it were! But this revolution is assuredly not a good thing, I fear, as it radically alters our perception of our world and other people in decidedly negative ways. I suspect it goes hand in glove with our cultural narcissism and may be exacerbated by our numerous fears and uncertainties. At the very least, it expresses the ressentiment of a growing number of people in this country who feel disenfranchised, excluded from the centers of power and influence, on the outside looking in.

In any event, I have selected the ten points that Jerry lists as evidence of the revolution in our thinking and will leave it to my readers to decide whether or not this alteration is a good thing — or indeed if it is widespread. I cannot argue against the fact that it is taking place. The only question is whether or not we will benefit from it in the long run. After all, like the oligarchy that has replaced our Republic, it replaces much of Western Civilization as we have known it for hundreds of years.

Here are Jerry’s ten points as he posted them:

(1) There is no truth other than the truth of the powerful. Any truth other than that of the powerful is not only false and fake; it is evil. The Leader is the source of Truth.

(2) Bigotry in defense of white supremacy is good. Non-white people are inferior. Social equality between races and religions is a dangerous lie.

(3) Nationalism, nativism and authoritarianism are good. Globalism, cosmopolitanism, and intellectualism are forms of weakness.

(4) Men are superior to women.

(5) Christians are superior to non-Christians.

(6) Real Americans, that is white Americans, are superior to all others.

(7) Strength is better than weakness. Military and economic strength are all important. Diplomacy and cooperation are signs of weakness.

(8) The strong are morally worthy; the weak are morally unworthy.

(9) Leadership is action for its own sake. Destruction is better than reform. Intelligence and policy analyses are unnecessary. All that is required is the will to act decisively and to prevail — in Trump’s words, to be a winner.

(10) Ignorance is virtue; intellect is vice.

 

The Electoral College

I have mentioned a number of times that our Constitution is in need of revision — or at least a number of amendments — to remedy the oversights of the Founders of this nation. They could not possibly see such things as the monumental growth of the corporations or the expanding wealth and power of a few individuals who would take the reins of power away from the people who were supposed to be the backbone of this Republic. Well, “backbone” may be too strong a word, because the Founders didn’t really trust the people altogether.

This can be seen by a cursory glance at the Constitution in which the Senate — selected by the legislators of the various states — is given the greatest power (a fact that disturbed Henry Adams no end) and the House of Representatives — which was the only body voted in by the people — was severely limited in its powers. And the President, of course, was to be elected by the “Electors.” The role of the Electors is discussed in Article II of the Constitution and it states that:

“Each state shall appoint, in such manner as the legislature thereof may direct, a number of electors, equal to the whole number of senators and representatives to which the state may be entitled in the Congress…”

Note that the Electors are “appointed” not elected. A lengthy paragraph follows in which it is shown how the Electors would choose a President and a Vice President — a paragraph that was altered by the Twelfth Amendment, passed in 1804, which expanded on the manner in which the President and Vice President were to be chosen, but kept the notion of the Electors intact.

In both cases, as in the case of the selection of the Senate, it was very clear that those who authored and approved the Constitution did not trust the people to do much in the way of choosing their government as they managed it so there would be buffers between the people and those chosen to govern them. It was simply assumed that the House of Representatives would be made up of people chosen directly by the citizens, but limited to a two-year term. Why would one want to state in office for longer since there were more important things to do at home?

The notion that those elected would be voted out of office if they were incompetent was clear from nearly every page of the Federalist Papers that were written to persuade the voters of New York state to ratify the Constitution. Those authors also made it clear, as I have noted before, that the voters themselves would exhibit “civic virtue,” that is, a love of country and willingness to put the needs of the country before their own. These notions now seem to have been idealistic if not naive.

But to focus attention the Electoral College, we might note that it was designed to guarantee that the very “best” people would be chosen for the highest office in the land. It was a check against the rude passions of the “rustics” who might want to elect a man (not a woman, of course) who would be unqualified for the job. There is simply no evidence whatever that those who wanted this Constitution really wanted to provide the people themselves with much power; it was to be housed among those who were best qualified — that is, the wealthier and better informed members of the thirteen states. The Founders, remember, were themselves educated, many of them quite wealthy, and most of them had been British citizens long enough to hang on to a deep prejudice against extending “suffrage” and a reluctant desire, perhaps, to mimic the better elements of the English system of government. The Senate, after all, appears to have been their version of the House of Lords — without any mention of Landed Gentry, of course.

It is ironic, then, that this document which is filled with checks and balances — and masterful in its way — placed so much power in the Electoral College to guard against the whims of the citizens who were not to be trusted with great responsibility. This College in our day has become an anachronism and was actually responsible for the recent election of the very sort of man the Founders were seeking to guard against — a man totally unqualified for office who could in a moment of anger or rage bring down then entire edifice around our ears.

We need to keep reminding ourselves that Hillary Clinton won the popular election by nearly three million votes. The Electoral College put her opponent in office. It would appear the people had more wisdom and common sense than the Founders thought they could exhibit. And the end result of the election was the very thing they sought to avoid.

I say again: perhaps it is time to address some of the oversights of the Founders who wrote this truly remarkable, but antiquated, document.

Right, Not Might

The earliest statement of the doctrine of “might makes right” that I know of comes in the first book of Plato’s Republic. In that book — which I think stands apart from the rest of the Republic and is pretty much self-contained — Socrates is politely discussing with an elderly man, Cephalus, the nature of justice. The conversation is moving along slowly and without incident when, suddenly, Thrasymachus, a brash and confident young man, breaks into the conversation in the following manner:

“He bawled out into our midst. What balderdash is this that you have been talking, and why to you Simple Simons buckle and give way to one another? But if you really wish, Socrates, to know what the just is, don’t merely ask questions or plume yourself upon controverting any answer that anyone gives — since your acumen has perceived that it is easier to ask questions than to answer them — but do you yourself answer and tell what you say the just is. And don’t you be telling me that it is that which ought to be, or beneficial or the profitable or the gainful or the advantageous, but express clearly and precisely whatever you say. For I won’t take from you any such drivel as that!”

After a few moments during which Socrates pretends to be overwhelmed by this sudden onslaught and worries that Thrasymachus has loaded the dice by telling him what he cannot say, Socrates manages to ask the man himself (“It is easier to ask questions rather than to answer them!) what he thinks justice is, to which Thrasymachus replies:

“Hearken and hear then, said he. I affirm that the just is nothing else than the advantage of the stronger. Well, why don’t you applaud? Nay, you’ll do anything but that.”

Socrates first says he must understand just what it is that Thrasymachus has said, clarify his use of terms — a typical Socratic move — and he then proceeds to tear Thrasymachus’ definition to little pieces in his typical fashion, with irony, and understatement. In the end, he forces Thrasymachus to admit that the unjust man is not truly happy and that justice cannot be a matter of mere strength and position in society. Thrasymachus leaves the group with the whimper:

“Let this complete your entertainment, Socrates, . . ..”

The rest of the Republic — which is Plato’s largest work, consisting of ten books — is taken up with the attempt by Plato’s nephews, Glaucon and Adimantus, to convince Socrates that he must indeed define justice and not resort to trickery or easy sophisms. But, as I mentioned, the thesis of Thrasymachus in that first book stands alone as the first attempt, so far as I know, to articulate the view that might makes right. And it is a view that has a great many followers and adherents today. “Justice is the interest of the stronger,” “might makes right.” These are themes we hear again and again.

The problem is that the notion of “right” is a moral precept and the thesis of folks like Thrasymachus is insisting, in effect, that society has no place for justice and right; it makes room only for the interest of the stronger and more powerful. Clearly there is some truth in the claim that the wealthy and powerful rule the roost in this and many another society. But what is not clear is that they have any right to do so, that it is “right” that they do so. In a republic, for example, the right thing is for the citizens to rule, not special interests or the wealthy with their hidden agendas. Like so many after him, including the infamous Machiavelli, there has been a consistent attempt to make politics a matter of expediency rather than morality, to collapse the “ought” into the “is.”

These lessons are important today as we see our republic in tatters, threatened to be destroyed by the wealthy and the corporations that have not-so-hidden agendas of increased profits and endless wealth for the few. And they would pull the political strings that control the “elected representatives” who are supposed to be working for the citizens but are intent instead on doing what they are told so they can be re-elected and continue to hold onto their lucrative and cushy jobs. But doesn’t this make Thrasymachus’ point? Isn’t this exactly what he was saying to Socrates centuries ago? It would seem so. But Socrates’ point, which he takes great pains to spell out, is that this may be the way things are, in fact, but it is not the way they are supposed to be. “Might” is not to be equated to “right.” The two are different and it is the hope — if not the expectation — that a republic would pursue the latter and not the former. It cannot allow the two to collapse into one: they are not the same at all.

Democracy and Education

Years ago John Dewey wrote a book about the relationship between democracy and education, making the claim that the former relies upon the latter. Without an educated citizenry democracy cannot survive. I have been harping on the same theme for many years now and am saddened to say that Dewey was spot on. We are seeing his prediction come true, especially of late.

Thousands of qualified American citizens are ready to vote for a demagogue who has openly lied and insulted whole classes of people while making it abundantly clear that he is an autocrat in the mold of Vladamir Putin: he wants to (and thinks he can) run the show by himself. He doesn’t realize that as president he must work with the sitting Congress in order to achieve anything. Given his past performance it is fair to say that if the Congress doesn’t act as he would want them to he will try to bully them into doing so and (if he had his way) fire them if they don’t — like the generals he regards as incompetent. The extent of this man’s ignorance of this democracy which he wants to lead and how it is supposed to work beggers belief.

But the point is that so many of our fellow citizens are prepared to support him and are convinced that he is the only one who can deliver this nation from the depths to which he insists we have plunged. This, in itself, demonstrates the truth of Dewey’s thesis. Given all the indicators employed by a wide variety of disinterested parties, American education is failing and the numbers of those who plan to vote for a candidate supremely unfit for the office is clear indication of that very failure. I have written about this so many times it doesn’t bear repeating. But the truth, no matter how many times repeated, bears serious reflection.

Donald Trump would be America’s tyrant and take this country down a path that leads away from true human freedom, a path that an educated citizenry of a true democracy would avoid at all costs. Our government has already altered its form and now more nearly resembles an oligarchy than it does a republic. The wealthy in this country at present buy and sell politicians like toilet paper. The ordinary citizens, like you or like me, stand in line and vote once every four years for a candidate selected by wealthy corporate interests because they meet with their approval and will do their bidding. But even here intelligence is required to guarantee that the best qualified candidate wins the job.

There is no question the system is failing on all counts. At the roots of this failure is the fact (undeniable, though stoutly denied by many) that our education system fails to teach young people how to use their minds. The evidence is abundant as the trend in our schools has increasingly moved in the direction of job training and away from true education, know-how rather than know-why. Unless or until enough folks get worked up about this fact it will not change. Indeed, the trend will continue and demagogues like Donald Trump will continue to capture and hold America’s attention and even affection. Our democracy will be completely undone.

It all starts in the home before kids go to school. It then proceeds through the grades and into high school and college where increasingly parents and educators have allowed the students to dictate what they will learn and in doing so those parents and educators abandon their primary responsibility and weaken the structure of the political system that supports them. It is ironic, to be sure. But more to the point it is terribly sad.

Consequences

One of the things that Donald Trump doesn’t know — and that list seems to grow longer with each passing day  — is that words, like actions, have consequences. He seems to think he can simply open his mouth and wisdom will come forth, and his minions will fall at his feet. But the exact opposite seems to be the case. He opens his mouth and hatred and bigotry come forth, people get angry and start shouting obscenities;  these words have had consequences already which the Donald himself may or may not be aware of.

What Trump’s words have done is to turn over a great many rocks and the creatures that have issued forth have been repulsive and just a bit frightening. We have seen this at his rallies and we have seen this in the increase in the burning of Muslim Mosques in this country — which, strictly speaking, cannot be attributed directly to Trump, but which have occurred after he started his rail against Muslims and others he doesn’t particularly like. There may be cause and effect or there may not. But one must wonder.

In any event, we must ask the question what will happen to these rock-dwellers after Trump loses this contest for the presidency — or when he simply resigns because it no longer suits his fancy to stand up before people and harangue  against minorities and women, not to mention crying babies and war veterans? His mindless minions will surely not quietly crawl back under their collective rocks. Trump has given them a sense of their own importance: they look around and see that there are others who think (?) like themselves. They now have degree of confidence resulting from the Trump’s articulating in public their own deepest and darkest hatreds, fears and suspicions. Be assured, these folks will be around for a while. And, I dare to say, Trump will be there to goad them on — in whatever capacity he chooses.

This man may or may not quit the race. But in any case he almost certainly will not be our next president [he said with fingers and toes crossed] and then the really ugly part of his candidacy will begin: the aftermath. He will not go quietly, of that we can be sure: he will go with fingers pointing elsewhere. And it seems highly unlikely that those he has brought out into the bright sunlight after years under rocks will not go quietly either. To say the aftermath of his run for the highest office in the land will be interesting is to say the least. It will be a great deal more than interesting and one can only hope the protests that are sure to follow will be quelled without violence — though that seems unlikely in the extreme.

I do not choose to be a nay-sayer or a gloomy gus, though I suspect many readers have already placed those labels on my posts. I choose, rather, to be a realist and one cannot look even casually at current events and this abortive political race and not be disturbed at least a little bit. One can, of course, choose to hide one’s head in the sand. But if you look around you really must face the question what is likely to happen to those mindless minions who think Donald Trump is the savior of this country and that his loss would mean a return to “politics as usual” which they both fear and hate.

In that regard, I must admit I do not look kindly on the game of politics as it is played in this country and am sick and tired of wealthy people choosing other wealthy people to run for public office in order to support agendas that are both hidden and insidious, but usually mean greater profits for those already rich. I would love to see the system altered at its roots, a return to a Republic as envisioned, pretty much, as the founders imagined it. But that change must come, if it is to come at all, slowly and not in this particular election. This election is all about seeing to it that Donald Trump does not become our next president. And then we must brace ourselves for the consequences of his eventual loss.

None Of The Above

In an interesting article in this month’s Empirical magazine, Randall Auxier, a philosophy professor at Southern Illinois University has a provocative suggestion to make about increasing voter participation in this country which, as we all know, is something of an embarrassment. In his article about the “Death and Resurrection of Democratic Institutions” he suggests that there should be a box on each ballot sheet next to the list of candidates for public office giving the voter the option to vote for “none of the above.” In this way, disenchanted voters would have the opportunity to express their displeasure about the candidates listed and in some cases the office might even become vacant. This would not only increase voter participation, it might help clean out some of the dead wood occupying space in our political offices!

Auxier, taking a page from Richard Rorty, is convinced that our democracy is on life support. It suffers from a variety of maladies, including voter apathy, but due most recently to the fear of impending terrorist attacks, not to mention the increasing wealth of a small number of individuals in the country who are in the position to determine political outcomes. I would add that the government is dysfunctional to the degree that compromise at the Federal level, which is the life-breath of any thriving democratic system, no longer appears possible.

But the most recent threat to our democratic way of life, as Auxier points out, is the so-called “war on terror,” which is not a war at all but which has instilled in the population a creeping paranoia and a willingness to turn over the reins of power to the military. This has always been the case with a great many Republicans, of course, but it now appears to be the case with our President and a growing number of Democrats in the Congress as well — as I have noted in a previous blog.

Whatever the causes might be, I think we can agree that the Republic for which we stand today is a far cry from the ideal created by the founders over two hundred years ago. To an extent that was inevitable, because it was impossible for them to predict the future — they did not see the growing power and influence of corporations, for example. But also, the disparity between what our founders hoped to create and today’s reality has been greatly enlarged by the fear we have all felt since the attacks on 9/11 and the subsequent fear-mongering on the part of the politicians (and the weapons-manufacturers who help get them elected) who have learned that a fearful population is one that is much easier to control.

Many of us can recall F.D.R’s famous comment during his first inaugural address, “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Auxier makes a strong case out for the fact that the fear we are all experiencing in what we insist on calling the “war on terror” is destructive of democracy itself. As he puts it, “We need to open borders and start trusting one another again. Terrorists are not killing democracy, unreasonable fear and its anti-democratic practices are killing democracy. Have the courage to bequeath to your children a world fit to live in, psychologically, and you will teach them that over-reactions of the late 20th century are a lesson in what not to do when threatened. We don’t mean to, but we are creating whole new generations of human beings whose ethos and expectations are closer to the police state than the democratic world our parents gave to us.”

These strike me as wise words and ones worth pondering as we seek to maintain our balance and remain calm while many around us continue to promote fear by exaggerating serious threats and making remote possibilities seem much nearer than they are. Perhaps this way we can keep our democracy on life-support a while longer.

Dodging Taxes

A recent story in Yahoo News caught my eye. Apparently there is movement afoot among the very wealthy to renounce their citizenship and skip the country to protect their filthy lucre. The story reads, in part:

According to a 2012 study published by the Research Institute of Industrial Economics that examined the mobility of billionaires over the past two decades, “70% [of those billionaires] have migrated from a higher to a lower capital gains tax country … One-third of the billionaires that moved went to small countries defined as ‘tax havens,’” including Switzerland, Bahamas and Singapore.

Presumably these billionaires are all Americans. In any event, we can infer from this that the exodus has been going on for some time. But apparently with the new tax increases  that have raised the taxes among the very wealthy a huge 4.6% the number of people from this country who are seeking asylum elsewhere in places where their money is safe from the IRS has increased. In the state of California where Proposition 30 has added to the tax burden of the very wealthy — and where millionaires like Phil Mickelson can be heard crying poor — the number of people thinking about leaving the country is even larger.

There are several interesting ramifications of this exodus. To begin with, one must question these people’s patriotism, which involves both rights and responsibilities. They obviously see taxes simply as a burden — as though the state and the Federal government are stealing their money; they recognize no obligation whatever to the state and country that have provided them with the opportunity to accumulate this huge wealth. Nor do they see themselves as part of a larger inter-dependent community. Rather, they see themselves, on the whole, as self-made men and women who didn’t need anyone’s help along the way. We noted that when Romney was running for President. It is apparently an affliction which the vast majority of wealthy in this country are stricken with, a kind of moral blindness. We might call it the “self-sufficient syndrome” (S.S.S.) They are blind to their obligations to others.

But this tax money can do so much good in the states and the country at large to improve the infrastructure, assist the poor to get back on their feet, improve the schools which are near the bottom of the world’s educational heap, and improve the lot of those who are in need of proper health care. None of these things seems to factor in with those whose lives are focused entirely on the effort to accumulate and protect their (often) ill-gotten gains.

The hope of the founders was that the Republic would encourage public virtue, the desire of all people to place the common good above self-interest. Their hope was that this form of government, of all the kinds the world has ever known, would involve its citizens in the effort to build a community of kindred spirits who would pull together to make the country strong and vibrant. Instead, many U.S. citizens see nothing but the opportunity to gain wealth and continue to do so until they die  (“the one with the most toys when he dies wins”) — at which point they will hand as much of it as possible over to their children to give them the same sort of head-start they almost certainly had themselves. So those lofty ideals of apparently naive thinkers in the eighteenth century who founded this nation have been replaced by the reality of greed and self-interest (the very things they feared). And those of us who will be left behind after the exodus is over will have to clean up their mess.

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.]

Long Life and Education

What a strange people we are. We apparently need reasons to pursue education — as though training the mind to be more perceptive, critical, and insightful needs to be justified. We have for years tried to send our kids off to school with the promise that getting an education will guarantee them a good job and more income in their lifetimes. Recently, however, that line of reasoning has come a cropper. It appears that the jobs aren’t there and we now find PhD’s working as greeters at Wal-Mart. Whatever!

But lately there’s a new reason to get an education. We are told that educated people live longer, as an interesting Yahoo News story reveals:

If you want to know how long you will live, you might stop fretting over genetics and family history and instead look at your educational achievements. Education is certainly not the only variable associated with longer lives, but it may be the most powerful.

If it is true this is good news indeed for those who have stuck it out in school, especially since they may find themselves financially strapped. However, there are a couple of problems with this story and the reasoning behind the conclusions drawn by the author.

To begin with, it smacks of “false cause,” the fallacy that reasons from a coincidence of events to a causal relationship: it has rained every time I put out the trash, therefore putting out the trash must be causing it to rain. Yeah, right! Believe it or not, people actually buy into this line of reasoning. In the case of length of time in school (which we wrongly equate with being educated) and length of life, there could be a great many other factors that enter in that lead to a longer life — perhaps, as suggested, the kinds of lifestyle so-called educated people live. Perhaps they know enough to stay away from the kinds of foods that cause cancer and heart attacks. But whatever we factor in, the leap from A to Z is huge. Education, in itself, cannot possibly lead to a longer life — it may not even be the most “powerful” factor in the equation.

But more important is the consideration I raised at the outset of this blog: assuming that this is suggested as a reason to pursue an education, why do we need such a reason in the first place? Given that education properly conceived means the ability to use one’s mind, one would hope that everyone in this country, if not the world, would want as much as possible. But we do confuse schooling with education when there are a great many people who are well schooled who are horribly mis-educated — they may be well-trained to do a particular thing, but they cannot use their minds and are captive of every intellectual fad that passes their way. And there and a great many who never went to school and who are positively brilliant — like Eric Hoffer or Abraham Lincoln. What these people did was read copiously and explore the world around them: they kept their minds open and examined every passing notion to see if it was worth holding on to. Education should help us achieve these goals, but it may not.

In a Republic like ours it is essential that all citizens acquire the capacity to use their minds, to know whether or not they are being led astray — keep an open mind, stay on top of what is going on around them, and think their way through all the nonsense to see if there is a kernel of substance at the center. Education properly pursued will assuredly lead to this end; but it is not the only way to get there. And even when schools do their job and lead us down the path to an education, it does not stop there. Education properly conceived, lasts a lifetime. If education also leads to a longer life or a better job, so be it, but neither of those should be the goals.