This is a good idea, right? Well…if you’re rich. For the rest of us, it’s decidedly not a good idea – at least until we’ve improved the system.
For a satirical view of the issue, watch this Daily Show segment, then continue reading…Vodpod videos no longer available.
If it were true that society were run through democratic structures, from the neighborhood to the workplace to the city and on up – then our adage would be relevant, since we wouldn’t want a government that interfered with peoples’ democratically-run lives.
Unfortunately, however, there is little that is truly democratic about our society outside of the myths we tell ourselves about it. Democracy? That means actually having the power to make (or participate in making) decisions about your life. But when is the last time you got a say (a vote) in how wide they make the sidewalk in front of your house; or whether or not the shops down the road should put large neon signs in their front; or whether you show up to work at 9am or noon? Unfortunately, these are not things we get to vote on, because they don’t get run democratically.
We tell ourselves that society is more or less run through a participatory democracy, but this is, sadly, hardly true at all. Can anybody really become president? Can the people really vote on the candidates most relevant to them? Are the candidates truly from among the people themselves, and do they actually have the interests of ordinary people at heart in their decisions?
While America has always loudly proclaimed itself to be democratic, it has never actually fostered more than a convincing illusion of democracy, right from the start. Perhaps most telling in this is the fact that most of the original population, from women to people of color, were disenfranchised without apology.
How many women, people of color, and poor have had access to the presidency? The answer is simple: as of 2011, precisely zero, one, and zero. If we were living in a democracy, then the answer would presumably be something representative of the population, meaning the large numbers of our presidents would have been women, people of color, and poor.
Let us return to theories of government. One of the most prevalent theories is the body of ideas known as liberal theory. While this is a poorly defined concept, since it is so inclusive, implies the loosely coherent body of political thought that developed mainly in Western Europe during the 1700s.
This tradition began with the “natural law thinkers” including Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau, and came to later include the economic theories that laid the foundations for free-market capitalism, such as those of Adam Smith and Ricardo. Other thinkers considered foundation for liberalism include Grotius, Kant, and Benjamin Constant.
But this thought is not nearly as unified as it is often assumed to be. For example, some of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s ideas could be considered more anarchist or socialist than anything reflecting our system today. Liberal theory has long tended to cherry-pick its ideas, conveniently simplifying from authors who represented a more complex portrait than is generally acknowledged.
Rousseau, for example, saw right into the heart of injustice in a system such as ours where some people have everything while others have nothing at all.
Rousseau made some of his most penetrating insights through a thought experiment about the process in which society began. For him, if you think back far enough in human history, you get to a place where nobody “owned” things, since people probably just lived off the land communally, the way wild horses or colonies of monkeys do today.
His reasoning goes like something like this: one day, some arrogant guy puts a fence around a really nice peach tree, or a lake, or the best cave on the block, and claims it all his own private property, kind of like the Spanish conquistadors planting a flag in South American land when they arrived in 1502 – this ours, just because we say so!
Of course, we immediately see the problem. Yours? – says who?!
And the answer is just a swift: says the guys with the biggest guns, are the most soldiers.
So in the last analysis, there is no legitimacy beyond a monopoly on violence. Whoever has the best monopoly, ends up making the laws, including the right to own property – after they have distributed it to their liking. The strongest makes up the laws and the rest of us just have to live by them…or else.
This is how Rousseau saw the history of wealth distribution. The reason the nobility (1%) ends up owning more than the peasants (99%) is merely because their ancestors won the first battles and then kept everything for themselves. Once all the wealth was collected under a small number of owners who could enforce their laws through violence (they owned the guns and the army), everyone else was done for. The poor were dispossessed and had little means themselves; there was no way to pry the stolen resources back from the new rich. After generations pass, everyone forgets how illegitimate things once were, and it all starts to seem normal, natural, “just the way things are.”
By reconstructing history speculatively, Rousseau points out that this is not normal or legitimate; this is a great crime that should be undone!
The first person who, having fenced off a plot of ground, took it into his head to say ‘this is mine’ and found people simple enough to believe him, was the true founder of civil society.
… in a word, competition and rivalry on one hand, opposition of interest on the other; and always the hidden desire to profit at the expense of other. All these evils are the first effect of property and the inseparable consequence of nascent inequality.
Thus, as the most powerful or most miserable made of their force or their needs a sort of right to the goods of of others…the destruction of equality was followed by the most frightful disorder; thus the usurpations of the rich, the brigandage of the poor, the unbridled passions of all, stifling natural pity and the as yet weak voice of justice, made man avaricious, ambitious, and evil.
Moreover, whatever pretext they [the rich] might give for their usurpations they were well aware that these were established only on a precarious and abusive right, and that having been acquired only by force, force could take them away…Even those enriched by industry alone could hardly base their property upon better titles. In vain might they say: But I built this wall; I earned this field by my labor. Who gave you its dimensions, they might be answered…Do you not know that a multitude of your brethren die or suffer from need of what you have in excess, and that you needed express and unanimous consent of the human race to appropriate for yourself anything from common subsistence that exceeded your own?
Such was, or must have been ,the origin of society and laws, which gave new fetters to the weak and new forces to the rich, destroyed natural freedom for all time, established forever the law of property and inequality, changed a clever usurpation into an irrevocable right, and for the profit of a few ambitious men henceforth subjected the whole human race to work, servitude, and misery.
This has been a digression. What I actually wanted to get at is that phrase I hear oft repeated in today’s mainstream political discourse: the government that governs least is the one that governs best. This quote is alternately attributed to either Thomas Paine or Thomas Jefferson, but that doesn’t matter much. Its idea ultimately derives from John Locke, whose minimalist vision of the state was one that kept bad guys from attacking the country, and evil doers from murdering their neighbors. Otherwise, there wasn’t much more to do. If you starve to death from hunger or freeze in the cold, if the children don’t learn to read, all that is not something the government should be concerned with.
We’ve moved a long way since Locke’s minimal vision of government. Indeed, we widely regard it as an urgent moral task of the government to guarantee a minimum quality of life for all of its citizens. Where to draw that “minimal” line is a matter of debate, but few would argue about clean drinking water, free firefighters, free hospitals, free sewage treatment plants, free schooling for children…all this is something the government of a rich state ought to, at the very least, guarantee its citizens.
So when Republicans repeat this phrase on the Congressional floor, we ought to scoff. Do they really think we should do away with food inspectors, housing regulations that make sure skyscrapers will survive earthquakes, free public schooling, and emergency rooms? How would you like the firefighters to arrive at your doorstep with a bill for you to sign before they’ll act to put out your fire? Should poor families be stuck raising illiterate children because they can’t afford to educate them? And should the poorest have a life expectancy of 45 because they can’t afford diabetes treatment or cancer treatments?
Furthermore, the Republican administration is responsible for two unnecessary, totally unnecessary, wars. Iraq was shown to not be in possession of a single dangerous weapon. Our final rationale for invasion was that “Saddam was a mean guy.” Hardly a reason for so many lives lost and so much money spent.
We invaded Afghanistan for reasons having to do with 9-11. But 9-11 was directly related to bin Laden, who just happened to be living in Afghanistan. We certainly needed to go after him personally, and his relatively small network of bad guys. But there was hardly a good reason to invade a whole country just because one guy was living there with his band of evil-doer buddies. The president at the time claimed that it had to be done to make sure that no bin Laden 2.0 could live there again and, as this president speculated, attack America another time. So we were to invade Afghanistan and give it a society just like ours. This was the dream. Obviously, this is not going so well. In fact, it will be a miracle if we haven’t made it all worse than when we started. No one living in Afghanistan, except the ex-Taliban or the mullahs on US payroll (with taxpayer money!), would claim that Afghanistan is a “better” place than it was under the Taliban. And that’s after nearly ten years of fighting, killing, and spending.
Finally, when the Republicans complain about spending money on things like, say, health care for the poor, we should ask them how they justify the billion dollars a day that the wars are costing us (references here and here). As Martin Luther King Jr. never tired of reminding us, if tax-payers are going to pay for something, let it be our own people, whom we could lift out of poverty so easily if we only spent on them a fraction of what we spend on our military budget. We should recall that half of our taxes go to military-related costs. War, war, war.
Eisenhower warns us sternly about the dangers of a giant arms industry that has taken over politics and dictates much of our agenda: