The Golden Mean

I’ve been on IUPUI’s faculty for nearly 15 years, and for the very first time, faculty offices are scheduled for repainting and (gasp!) new furniture. Since the desk I’ve used since I arrived has seen nearly as many birthdays as I have, I welcome the change.

The downside is that we all have to box up our books, files, pictures and the like so the movers can do their thing, and it is amazing–and daunting–to realize just how much…stuff…(aka crap) one can accumulate in 15 years. It’s particularly sobering to realize how seldom that crap gets consulted.

I did come across some interesting reading as I was weeding out my files of “background information.” Case in point, an essay by Benjamin Barber titled “A Failure of Democracy, Not Capitalism,” remarking on the passage of an anti-corporate-corruption measure in 2002. As Barber pointed out,

“ malfeasance is the consequence neither of systemic capitalist contradictions nor private sin, which are endemic to capitalism and, indeed, to humanity. It arises from a failure of the instruments of democracy, which have been weakened by three decades of market fundamentalism, privatization ideology and resentment of government.”


Fundamentalism is problematic in all areas of national life, not just the economic sphere. As attractive as either-or formulations and beliefs may be–and let’s face it, possession of THE truth, THE answer, is undeniably seductive–such hard and fast, one-size-fits-all approaches just don’t work in the real world. ¬†Unfortunately for market fundamentalists, capitalism requires regulation to ensure an even playing field; unfortunately for proponents of central government control, those regulations need to be carefully calibrated–too much is as bad as too little.

There are areas of our common life that require “socialism”–the communal provision of services like police and fire protection, sanitary sewers and roads, to give a few examples. There are other areas where government needs to tread lightly–retail sales, manufacturing, and other entreprenuerial activities requiring relatively minor rules protecting public health and safety. The level of government activity should depend upon the nature of the activity rather than rigid ideology.

The regulatory failures of the past decades have–predictably–spawned a movement intent upon “replacing capitalism.” Americans tend to lurch from one fundamentalism to another, and we don’t seem to recognize that such pendulum swings are unhelpful. Barber’s insight remains an important one; we don’t need to give up capitalism, which has served us well overall. We just need social and legal structures that channel its energies and control its corrupting tendencies.

The Greeks had it right when they advocated for the golden mean.


  1. Don’t know if it’s golden or not, but there sure is enough “mean” to go around these days.

  2. I live in a country that is quasi – socialist. There is universal health care that rivals the best in the world. The economy here is running at a growth of 7.5-10% of GNP per year – there is no unemployment. If you want a job, you can have one – of course some will never want one. How can this be? The difference is economic freedom. Economic freedom and capitalism are compatible with socialism as seen here and in socialistic Chile with equal economic statistics. Even Communistic China is doing very well with economic freedom. The problem with the US and others is that progressives and capitalism are not compatible resulting with a severe loss of economic freedom.

    The declaration of independence and the revolution just celebrated was justified by the desire for economic freedom. The constitution and the eventual amendments were primarily directed to protect that freedom by insuring individual freedom and the protection of property rights. It has to be realized that with freedom comes responsibility. The present attitude in the US is one to exclude responsibility from the equation – both individual and corporate. Let the government be responsible. Let them be responsible for my illegitimate children, my banks and other corporate identities who go bankrupt. We will bail them out. No one has to be responsible any longer. I am sure our forefathers are turning over in their graves watching the deterioration of the social structure in the US.

  3. Bingo. A Kennedy I could vote for.

    It would be simpler if one side was right and the other wrong, but I think it’s behavioral versus political. I hold better chance for success in keeping the excesses of free enterprise capitalism in check versus expecting we can make everyone responsibly productive to pay for universal benefits. But, if not vigilant, I think either can, have, and will fail.

    As free spirits understandably value all manner of arts, literature, and lifestyle, why is it incongruent to expect variation in economic success and failure? Or- if there are to be soft landings for all, why is it outrageous to expect the recipients (dare we call them citizens) to be “all in” on paying for it?

    If we’re not going to really practice both sides of this collectivism, socialism, whatever we’d like to call it, then kindly give us the freedom and responsibility in spending our health care and charity dollars as we see fit.

    I think whichever path we choose is just one more oligarchy without fulfilling Mr. Kennedy’s advocacy for responsbility.

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