Tag Archives: common good

What The Right Really Wants

Vox recently published an interesting postmortem of the midterm elections, looking to see how right-wing intellectuals (a term which I consider an oxymoron) are responding to the lack of that promised “red wave.”

This New Right “intellectual” movement arose after the 2016 election; its approach to Republican politics is a commitment to relentless, aggressive culture war. (Fortunately–at least in the recent elections–voters have seemed unreceptive.)

The article describes three distinct, albeit overlapping, reactions. One is a call to display what the article calls “some tactical moderation” (most notably by bracketing abortion, which was clearly not a winner for the GOP); another “centers on whether Donald Trump or Ron DeSantis represents the movement’s future, and what reasons there are to prefer one over the other.” The third centers on democracy itself.

A minority of New Right thinkers responded to defeat by suggesting the electorate is too far gone for conservatives to ever triumph — and even questioning the value of democracy itself.

“Democracy did not end slavery, and democracy will not end abortion,” declared Chad Pecknold, a self-described “postliberal” theologian at Catholic University.

The “thinkers” pursuing all-out culture war want to discard the conservative commitment to limited government; they argue that limiting the power of the state “stands in the way of waging an effective counterrevolution.”  They believe that their culture war can only be won “by jettisoning libertarianism and using the levers of policy to roll back the left’s cultural victories. Out with tax cuts, in with bans on critical race theory in schools.”

Abandoning the culture war, on this perspective, is not mere folly but national suicide. For some on the New Right, the idea that their approach to these issues might be unpopular is unthinkable. 

One star of the New Right argues for switching allegiance from Trump to  DeSantis –saying that he “backstops his culture-war agenda with capable governance.” (Granted, no one in his right mind could argue that Trump can even spell governance,  let alone provide it.) This DeSantis partisan believes DeSantis will be more able to deliver on the New Right’s shared goals: “to clean house in America: remove the attorney general, lay siege to the universities, abolish the teachers’ unions, and overturn the school boards.”  In other words,  eradicate “woke-ness.”

If the DeSantis contingent doesn’t terrify you sufficiently, there are the New Right “integralists.” These are “Catholic arch-conservatives who believe that the United States government should be replaced with a religious Catholic state.”

Integralists are a part of a broader “postliberal” trend among right-wing intellectuals that traces the cultural decay of American society back to its ruling liberal political philosophy: the doctrine that government should liberate people to pursue their own visions of the good life. Liberalism, they argue, promotes licentiousness and a corrosive individualism…

Postliberals believe that instead of protecting individual freedom, government should aim to promote the “common good” or “highest good”: to create a citizenry where people live good lives as defined by scripture and religious doctrine. This leads them to support an even more active role for the state than even the national conservatives, endorsing not only aggressive efforts to legislate morality but also expansions of the welfare state.

And here we come to the crux of the anti-democratic argument. It isn’t new.

Liberalism–properly defined–rests on a belief that humans are endowed–born with– certain “inalienable” rights that government must protect. The liberal conception of the common good is a society in which government respects those individual liberties to the extent that their expression does not infringe on the rights of others.

A liberal polity will argue–often vigorously–about where that line should be drawn. As I used to tell my students, freedom of religion cannot excuse the ritual sacrifice of your newborn.Figuring out what it can excuse is harder. Every liberty protected by the Bill of Rights has sparked philosophical and legal debate over the extent to which government must respect it–does your freedom of religion allow you to discriminate against people your church considers sinners? Does your Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable searches prevent government from going through the garbage bag you’ve left on the curb for pickup?

What the New Right wants is statism.  

These “thinkers” assume that they will be the ones who decide what the common good looks like–and they want government, under their control, to enforce their vision. (They’re not so different from the Tech moguls who want to impose their beliefs  by remaking society in their own image.) That approach to governance is incompatible with the cultural assumptions of most American citizens–not to mention the U.S. Declaration, Constitution and Bill of Rights.

You can call this philosophy a lot of things, but it sure isn’t American. 

There Are Two Kinds Of People…

How many conversations have you had during which someone (maybe you) opined that “there are two kinds of people…” and followed  that up with one of the roughly zillion ways that we “slice and dice” our fellow humans?

People who are open versus those who are closed. People who are honest versus those who aren’t. People who live in fear versus those who embrace change. People who are bat-shit crazy versus people who live in the admittedly-messy real world…

The New York Times recently ran a guest essay that made me think of another example: People who genuinely care about others–including their own children and grandchildren–and those who don’t.

The subject of the essay was something called “Longtermism”–a term I find somewhat off-putting. It began with a thought experiment, asking readers to imagine living the life of every human being who has ever existed — in order of birth. The experiment then went further:

But now imagine that you live all future lives, too. Your life, we hope, would be just beginning. Even if humanity lasts only as long as the typical mammal species (about one million years), and even if the world population falls to a tenth of its current size, 99.5 percent of your life would still be ahead of you. On the scale of a typical human life, you in the present would be just a few months old. The future is big.

I offer this thought experiment because morality, at its core, is about putting ourselves in others’ shoes and treating their interests as we do our own. When we do this at the full scale of human history, the future — where almost everyone lives and where almost all potential for joy and misery lies — comes to the fore.

If you knew you were going to live all these future lives, what would you hope we do in the present? How much carbon dioxide would you want us to emit into the atmosphere? How careful would you want us to be with new technologies that could destroy, or permanently derail, your future? How much attention would you want us to give to the impact of today’s actions on the long term?

These are some of the questions that motivate longtermism: the idea that positively influencing the long-term future is a key moral priority of our time.

As I was reading this, it seemed like a very long introduction to a very important–and very obvious–observation: what we do in the present will affect untold numbers of future people, so we need to act wisely.

We can make the lives of those who will come after us better–or much worse.  Given that reality, it is important to think about the long-term impact of our actions.

As the author notes, most of us tend to neglect the future in favor of the present, with the result that future people are effectively disenfranchised. “They can’t vote or lobby or run for public office, so politicians have scant incentive to think about them. They can’t tweet, or write articles, or march in the streets. They are the true silent majority.”

Yes–but not entirely.

Perhaps it is understandable that people who never had children would dismiss the effect of their actions on that future “silent majority” (although I know a lot of childless people who care passionately about future generations). But those of us who have children and grandchildren have an obvious and important stake in the future. 

A number of the people who comment on this blog are–like its author–elderly. Most of us–granted, not all– are financially comfortable. The bad decisions being made by today’s courts and legislatures, the potential loss of democracy as a result of the significant number of Americans who live in Never-Never land, the existential threat posed by climate change–these things really don’t–and won’t–directly affect us.

But we care about them. A lot.

We care because we care about our progeny, and the progeny of our friends and neighbors. I suppose that makes us “longtermers.” Actually, I think it makes us humans.

I’m not sure what to call all the people who clearly don’t care about others–the people who didn’t care about their neighbors enough to wear a mask during a pandemic, and don’t care enough about future generations to divest of fossil fuels. The author tells us that “there is remarkable overlap between the best ways we can promote the common good for people living right now and for our posterity.” I agree.

Unfortunately, however, there are two kinds of people: those who care about the common good, and those who  clearly don’t.

Citizens Aren’t Consumers

Criticisms of capitalism and market economies–fair and unfair– are plentiful. I’ve noted before that–as with most debates about political and economic systems– reality is more complicated than either the defenders or critics seem to recognize.

This post is not going to wade into those waters–I’ll leave my (hopefully more nuanced) economic arguments for another day–but I am going to argue that America’s devotion to the operation of the market has had one unfortunate  cultural consequence: it has strengthened a widespread belief in the notion that citizens are customers, rather than shareholders, of government.

And the customer, no matter how unreasonable, is always right–or at the very least, entitled to significant deference.

I’ve noted this confusion between citizenship and market consumption before; an article about recent attacks on school boards by parents and political activists have reinforced my concerns.

During the school masking debates, an essay in the New York Times considered the roots of the hostile confrontations at school board meetings. One of the people quoted in that discussion referred to a “citizen consumer” concept , which he said was helping him “to better understand the open-the-schools crowd.” I was unfamiliar with the scholarship around that term, so I googled it.

According to one paper abstract posted on the Oxford Scholarship Online website

Americans spend far more time thinking about what to buy, and what not to buy, than they do about politics. Political leaders often make political claims while using consumer terminology, and political decisions resemble consumer decisions in surprising ways. Together, these forces help give rise to the consumer citizen: a person who depends on tools and techniques familiar from consumer life to make sense of politics. Understanding citizens as consumer citizens has implications for a broad array of topics related to public opinion and political behavior. More than a dozen new experiments make clear that appealing to the consumer citizen as consumer citizen can increase trust in government, improve attitudes toward taxes, and enhance political knowledge. Indeed, such appeals can even cause people to sign up for government-sponsored health insurance. However, the consumer citizen may also prefer candidates whose policies would explicitly undercut their own self-interest. Two concepts from consumer psychology—consumer fairness and operational transparency—are especially useful for understanding the consumer citizen. Although the rise of the consumer citizen may trouble democratic theorists, the lessons of the consumer citizen can be applied to a new approach to civic education, with the aim of enriching democracy and public life.

I definitely fall within that group of “democratic theorists” who believe that confusing consumerism with democratic participation is very troubling.

The people who have embraced this approach are people with something to sell: the political strategists and public relations gurus whose business is peddling political policies and candidates. Those of us who decry the identification of political choice with consumer marketing agree with an organization called “The Common Good Collective,” which describes the difference between the citizen and the consumer:

A citizen is one who is a participant in a democracy, regardless of their legal status. It is one who chooses to create the life, the neighborhood, the world from their own gifts and the gifts of others. Many who have the full legal rights assigned by their country continue to wait for others to provide them with satisfaction and contribute little to democracy or the well-being of their community. At the same time, there are major contributors to community and democracy who do not enjoy the legal status of “citizenship.” Nevertheless, these people still] function as full participants in what is necessary for a democracy to work.

A consumer is one who has surrendered to others the power to provide what is essential for a full and satisfied life. This act of surrender goes by many names: client, patient, student, audience, fan, shopper. All customers, not citizens. Consumerism is not about shopping, but about the transformation of citizens into consumers.

Citizenship is a hotly debated political subject. Look for ways to participate in this discussion by contacting elected officials and supporting grassroots organizations assisting refugees and undocumented neighbors. As you do, consider, how might I call everyone I meet into deeper participation in our community? How might I loosen the grip of consumer culture on my life, noting and offering “care” in ways that move beyond transaction?

One of the accusations frequently leveled at Trump–aka “the former guy”–was that he was entirely  transactional, always concerned with “What’s in it for me?” He was the choice of  voters who saw themselves as “consumers” entitled to demand a political “product.”  If that product benefitted them at the expense of less savvy or less empowered consumers, tough.

Consumers don’t worry about the common good. Citizens do.

 

 

 

About That Reading List…

After I described my course on Individual Rights and the Common Good in a previous blog, several readers asked if I would post the reading list.

Because I’m at home with limited access to both my office and memory, I don’t have the complete list, but here are those I do have: Thomas Smith, Aristotle on the Conditions for and Limits of the Common Good, from Volume 93 of the American Political Science Review; John Locke’s Second Treatise of Civil Government (Chapters 9 and 10); DeTocqueville’s Democracy in America (Book 2, Chapters 27, 28 and 29) and an essay “DeTocqueville on Individualism” from a website titled The Laughing Agave; John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty (Chapter One); John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice (not the book, but an excerpt published by the journal Philosophy and Public Affairs in the summer of 1985; The Procedural Republic and the Unencumbered Self, by Michael Sandel, from the journal Political Theory in 1984; Liberalism, Community and Tradition by Joel Feinberg, from Volume 3, #3 of Tikkun; Church, State and Women’s Human Rights, by Martha Nussbaum, from Criterion: A Publication of the Divinity School of the University of Chicago; cases considering the rights of LGBTQ persons against claims of religious liberty: Bowers v. Hardwick, Romer v. Evans, Lawrence v. Texas and Obergfell v. Hodges, and cases I don’t have in front of me balancing property rights against nuisance laws and other governmental regulations.

The official course description was: Considers the tension between individual and majoritarian rights in our constitutional system, and the effects of that tension on the formulation of public policy.

The course was an investigation of that tension–the right of citizens to personal autonomy, on the one hand, and the equally strong human need to be part of a cohesive community, on the other.

As I pointed out in the course syllabus, the fundamental issue in political philosophy–as well as in day-to-day governance–is who decides? What sorts of decisions must government be empowered to make, and which must be left to the individual? Answering that, of course, requires that we explore many other questions–what do we mean by “the common good?” How much social consensus is necessary for a government policy to be considered legitimate?

Can public policies encourage the the development of an inclusive “we” from America’s increasingly diverse “I’s” without violating fundamental individual rights?

The class was cross-listed, meaning that both undergraduates and graduates could enroll. Because it wasn’t a required class, it attracted students who were actually interested in exploring those questions. It was fun to teach–or more accurately, to introduce them to what important thinkers have said about these issues, and to serve as a discussion guide.

As I listened to the political debates Americans have been having this year, I’ve really missed the kinds of thoughtful analyses and debates I heard from my students. Conspiracy theories that provide easily identified “bad guys” and heroes, religious dogmas that impose answers rather than helping adherents wrestle with important questions, insistence upon categorizing everyone as “us” or “them” –these are all hallmarks of a flight from genuine engagement and civic responsibility.

I have hopes that with Biden’s election, and his choice of competent adults to head the agencies charged with doing the people’s business, we can emerge from the embrace of ignorance, the corruption and the bigotry of this horrible four-year experiment with government by tantrum, and approach policy argumentation the way most of my students did.

For those of you who wanted the reading list–I hope you’ll let the rest of us know your reactions as you plow through!

 

 

 

Pay Your Dues!

I recently saw yet another study that attempted to quantify just how much money is lost to national treasuries by reason of what is politely called “tax avoidance.” 

The report, from an organization named the “Tax Justice Network,” is touted as the first study to thoroughly measure how much money each country loses each year to corporate tax abuse and private tax evasion. Its calculations were based upon data that had been self-reported by corporations to tax authorities.

I realize that one person’s loophole is another person’s policy choice, but with that caveat…

The research found–unsurprisingly–that wealthy countries are the primary drivers of tax revenue loss. (I say “unsurprisingly” because you have to have money to evade taxes.) Wealthy countries contributed most to the total of $427 billion in losses annually. Those losses, as the report noted, affect the ability of countries all over the world to provide services to the public.

This report puts numbers to the problem, but any sentient citizen is aware of the arguably pathological aversion to taxes displayed by many wealthy citizens and corporate entities. Certainly that’s true in the United States, where politicians with straight faces equate taxation with theft, and bemoan the extraction of dollars from presumed self-made “makers” to support those they dismiss as “takers.”

Probably the best response to this mischaracterization was Elizabeth Warren’s smackdown  a few years ago:

There is nobody in this country who got rich on their own. Nobody. You built a factory out there – good for you. But I want to be clear. You moved your goods to market on roads the rest of us paid for. You hired workers the rest of us paid to educate. You were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for. You didn’t have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory… Now look. You built a factory and it turned into something terrific or a great idea – God bless! Keep a hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.

Economists are quick to point out that economic growth–and the ability of wealthy Americans to prosper in an economy heavily dependent on consumption–requires that those at the bottom of the income distribution have disposable income sufficient to spend in the marketplace. Corporate bigwigs don’t create jobs–job creation is a function of demand. (No one is going to be hired to produce more widgets if few people have the resources to buy those widgets.)

What I always wonder, however, is whether these “captains of industry” treat their country clubs and other membership organizations the way they treat their countries. How would the Orange Menace react if members of Mar-A-Lago declined to pay their dues?

Those golf courses need tending. The clubhouse roofs and mechanical systems require maintenance. The properly servile “help” won’t be there to bring you your Scotch and soda if they aren’t being paid. Etc. Why don’t the same people who presumably understand the need to pay dues adequate to keep these organizations functioning acknowledge that–as members of the polity–they have similar obligations to the country?

Because they do know better.The loss of those billions of dollars isn’t accidental.

“A global tax system that loses over $427 billion a year is not a broken system, it’s a system programmed to fail,” said Alex Cobham, chief executive of the Tax Justice Network.

The ability to evade paying one’s membership dues–the chutzpah required to be a “free rider” on the contributions of others– doesn’t mean that a businessperson is “smart.”  To the contrary, it demonstrates just who the real “takers” are.