A Moral and Political Critique of the Democratic Primary Debates of 2015, Part 1

This is the second installment of my examination of the arguments presented by presidential primary candidates of both major parties. I began the series with selections from the second Republican debate (I decided to skip the first mostly because there are so many debates to consider, I thought I’d wait until the polls had settled in, so to speak, indicating the field of candidates more likely to succeed), and I continue here with the first Democratic one.

As with the first, the debate transcript selections are in red, and my own remarks in black. I leave out introductions, banter, moderator comments, lines which indicate audience response, some purely empirical claims, and other parts that don’t directly pertain to the political and moral ideas considered here. The parts I leave out are indicated, as usual, by ellipses.

From the CNN Democratic presidential primary debate, October 14th 2015

The source of the debate transcript which follows is the New York Times, at nytimes.com
Participants: former Governor Lincoln Chafee, former Governor Martin O’Malley, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Senator Bernie Sanders, and former Senator Jim Webb
Moderators: Anderson Cooper, Dana Bash, Juan Carlos Lopez, and Don Lemon

COOPER: Welcome. I’m Anderson Cooper. Thanks for joining us….

WEBB: …You know, people are disgusted with the way that money has corrupted our political process, intimidating incumbents and empowering Wall Street every day, the turnstile government that we see, and also the power of the financial sector in both parties. They’re looking for a leader who understands how the system works, who has not been co-opted by it, and also has a proven record of accomplishing different things....

As you many remember from Huckabee’s comments in the first Republican debate examined here, mainstream Republican politicians are joining Democrats in denunciation of the corrupting influence of vast amounts of money flooding into the political system from a relatively few special interests and extremely wealthy individuals, and of the revolving-door relationships between our political institutions, lobbyist groups, and the finance industry. Many say that just because individuals and businesses freely decide to donate money, and that ex-politicians are routinely offered lucrative jobs by the same firms that lobbied them and donated to their campaigns, that doesn’t mean that they’re necessarily corrupted, guided by the will of their donors and potential employers instead of their constituents and their own best judgment.

But even if it’s true that most politicians are not purposefully corrupt, it’s already a well researched, well documented fact that gifts and donations have much more influence over one’s decisions than one might realize, even if one’s honestly trying not to let it happen. A few years ago, I read up on various studies of the ways that funding, gifts, and personal visits from sales representatives of pharmaceutical companies influence what physicians are more likely to prescribe and even worse, influence the outcome of clinical drug trials. And while the studies generally failed to find direct evidence that most researchers or physicians purposefully tailored their decisions or research to the financial interests of the funders, donors, or sales reps, the influence was clearly indicated, likely based on the unconscious desire to reciprocate real or perceive goodwill, and / or the bias in favor of perceived expertise. If you have a large amount of money to invest, or a team of sales reps with a convincing story to tell on your payroll, you have to know what you’re doing, right?

Human psychology being remarkably consistent, it’s nearly certain that politicians are subject to the same psychological phenomena. Lobbyists can be considered the political analogues of the sales reps, and donors the analogues of the research funders and pharmaceutical company gift-givers. And while the sales reps, lobbyists, funders, and donors may have good arguments, may be in the possession of good information, or may be driven by entirely noble motives, it’s still the case that their influence can crowd out other arguments, other evidence, and other interests which should have equal consideration.

COOPER: …Secretary Clinton …plenty of politicians evolve on issues, but even some Democrats believe you change your positions based on political expediency. You were against same-sex marriage. Now you’re for it. You defended President Obama’s immigration policies. Now you say they’re too harsh. You supported his trade deal dozen of times. You even called it the “gold standard”. Now, suddenly, last week, you’re against it. Will you say anything to get elected?

CLINTON: Well, actually, I have been very consistent. Over the course of my entire life, I have always fought for the same values and principles, but, like most human beings — including those of us who run for office — I do absorb new information. I do look at what’s happening in the world….

Clinton is right to point out that politicians, like all human beings, should remain ready and willing to learn, be open to new evidence, consider new and better arguments as they are presented, and be able to change their minds as warranted. Charges of ‘flip-flopping’ are often hurled at political candidates to portray their changes of mind as signs of dishonest maneuvering and weakness of will. But this isn’t always the case. A famous examples of a politician changing their mind on an important issue is Abraham Lincoln, who originally thought that preserving the political Union between the states took priority over the abolition of slavery. Another is Barack Obama, who originally thought that legal marriage should exclusively remain heterosexual, with civil union being an acceptable separate but equal institution for gay couples.

This being as it may, when a politician changes their mind, just like anyone else, it should be for very good reasons. And because they represent the people, they need to explain these changes of mind, to be open and honest to their constituents, especially when the change of mind might affect the voters’ choice of representative.

COOPER: Secretary Clinton, though, with all due respect, the question is really about political expediency. Just in July, New Hampshire, you told the crowd you’d, quote, “take a back seat to no one when it comes to progressive values.” Last month in Ohio, you said you plead guilty to, quote, “being kind of moderate and center.” Do you change your political identity based on who you’re talking to? 

CLINTON: No. I think that, like most people that I know, I have a range of views, but they are rooted in my values and my experience…

COOPER: Just for the record, are you a progressive, or are you a moderate?

CLINTON: I’m a progressive. But I’m a progressive who likes to get things done.

Clinton is not only representing herself as a practical politician, she’s making a larger point: while it’s important to be idealistic and to remain committed to one’s values, it’s also important to remember that if you can’t compromise when necessary, those ideals and those values will do no practical good because they’ll never be realized in public policy.

While I’m more than halfway with her on this, I still think we need a president, a Congress, and a Supreme Court who demonstrate a stronger commitment to a nobler political vision. With the notable exception of legalizing gay marriage, it’s been too long since our elected leaders exuded the moral strength necessary to lead us in accomplishing spectacular things like ending slavery, giving women the vote, establishing worker’s rights, instituting a New Deal, building a comprehensive and cutting-edge infrastructure, taking us to the moon. We’ve become cynical, expecting our politicians to squabble and block one another’s efforts at every turn while our infrastructure crumbles, healthcare costs soar, our middle-class dwindles, gun violence runs rampant, the earth warms as we continue to generate energy with old polluting technology, our education system becomes ever less effective, special interests take over our political system with enticements of massive amounts of money and cushy job offers, costly American military interventions take out bad leaders only to have worse ones rush in to fill the power gap, the war on drugs continues to fail while encouraging the rampant growth of violent cartels here and abroad, and more Americans are incarcerated than in any other nation.

As a result of this cynicism, too many of us have become hopeless and apathetic, staying away from the polls, content with venting our discontent and disillusion on social media. I’m not totally with those who hold a bleak view of the loss of civic engagement in our country: young people volunteer and donate at encouragingly high rates, and are vocal about their opposition to social ills such as racism, sexism, greed, violence, rampant incarceration, and so on. Still, if we care about doing the most good systematically and in the long run, I think it more important to begin with taking our political system back. A lot of the volunteering and donating is needed precisely because our political system is failing so many people.

COOPER: …Senator Sanders. A Gallup poll says half the country would not put a socialist in the White House. You call yourself a democratic socialist. How can any kind of socialist win a general election in the United States?

SANDERS: Well, we’re gonna win because first, we’re gonna explain what democratic socialism is. And what democratic socialism is about is saying that it is immoral and wrong that the top one-tenth of 1 percent in this country own almost …as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent. That it is wrong, today, in a rigged economy, that 57 percent of all new income is going to the top 1 percent…

COOPER: …You don’t consider yourself a capitalist, though?


SANDERS: Do I consider myself part of the casino capitalist process by which so few have so much and so many have so little by which Wall Street’s greed and recklessness wrecked this economy? No, I don’t. I believe in a society where all people do well. Not just a handful of billionaires….

For all Sander’s optimism on this point, socialism remains a hated word in the United States, and not for bad reasons. The largest socialist states of the 20th century did not act in the interests of their people as much as they acted in the interest of their leaders and their political ideology, with some exceptions. Yes, the Cuban health care system did and does better by their people, as a whole, than that of the United States: more people have access to good affordable health care, more people live healthier lives, and less people are financially ruined by a diagnosis of a serious disease. Yet the political rights of those in most socialist states are severely restricted if existent at all, and the average citizen remains relatively poor as their economies stagnate and the wealth and power are concentrated in the hands of a few. We can say the same historically of most modern socialist states, past and present: Cuba, the Soviet Union, China, East Germany, and so on.

However, here’s the key point about democratic socialism as Sanders describes it: all of those oppressive socialist states lack the ‘democracy’ element, even though it’s often part of the government’s official name. In those states, most people have no political voice or representation whatsoever, and their nations’ social, political, and economic systems are organized strictly along ‘top-down’ lines. A few political elites impose their will on the people unopposed, and any opposition is quashed with the justification that it was motivated by disloyalty ‘to the people’ or to the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat.’ Those that wield the power may describe lofty goals and proclaim that everything they do is according to the abstracted will of the people, but the actual people themselves are not allowed to participate in their own governance.

Democratic socialism is very different in principle and practice than socialism as commonly understood, if carried out as Sanders describes. Its public institutions are required to remain accountable to the people and its elected leaders subject to voter recall. It’s not a top-down system in the way authoritarian socialist regimes are for two reasons: there’s many points of view and sources of information that are brought to bear, not just the ideology of a single person or small political elite, and its policies and projects are implemented, constrained, and carried out by elected representatives and/or more directly by voters. Ostensibly, the democratic republican system we already have is this sort of government, but democratic socialists disagree because of the outsize influence of a few wealthy, powerful private interests. The reason why Sander’s party emphasizes ‘socialism’ in their name is because, they say, political systems dedicated more to individual liberty than to the well-being of its people inevitably fail in both.

In a market system, according to this view, the individual pursuit of profit will inevitably often work to the public’s detriment, whether or not individual capitalists have good or bad motives, because of the inherent incentives. Keeping an eye always on the bottom line keeps them off the plight of others, including that of the underpaid worker, or of the community’s lands being polluted, or those who can’t afford a necessary good or service (such as healthcare) because of price fixing, or the citizen who’s not being represented because of the money and influence that rigged the political system in the capitalist’s favor. Throughout history, both before and after regulations were put in place to protect the rights, health, and safety of citizens and the environment, there have always been a large percentage of capitalists who are greedy, who don’t care how the way they do business affects others, and they will always ruin it for everyone else, overrunning the system in their ruthlessness and making bad practice par for the course: exploiting those who need jobs but can’t find good ones, setting up grossly polluting factories wherever they’re not prevented from doing so, colluding with other businesses to fix prices and wages, forming monopolies, co-opting government to make laws in their favor, gambling in financial markets until they crash, and so on. And because these bad actors take over the system, other businesses must adopt these same bad practices in order to remain competitive and survive. That’s why, democratic socialists say, we need certain key goods and services to be controlled by public institutions that are accountable to the people, not just to the balance sheet, to investors, or the conscience (or lack thereof) of one individual.

Whether or not a well-run, truly democratic socialist state as would be more successful than a market-driven one remains to be seen. There are encouraging results in nations with mixed economies, such as the Scandinavian countries that Sanders hold up as his models, but the United States presents two important challenges these countries don’t face: it’s way more ideologically and ethnically diverse, and it’s way, way bigger. There are other much larger and more diverse countries who’ve nationalized a few but very important goods and services such as healthcare, like Canada and most modern European states, with very good results. Of course, they have their problems too, but that’s true of every system that has ever been devised. So the question’s not whether which system is perfect, it’s which one is better, and which one comes with a set of problems we find more tolerable to live with.

COOPER: We’re going to have a lot more on these issues. But I do want to just quickly get everybody in on the question of electability. Governor Chafee, you’ve been everything but a socialist. When you were senator from Rhode Island, you were a Republican. When you were elected governor, you were an independent. You’ve only been a Democrat for little more than two years. Why should Democratic voters trust you won’t change again?

CHAFEE: …I have not changed on the issues. I was a liberal Republican, then I was an independent, and now I’m a proud Democrat. But I have not changed on the issues…

COOPER: ….Senator Webb, in 2006, you called affirmative action “state-sponsored racism.” In 2010, you wrote an op/ed saying it discriminates against whites. Given that nearly half the Democratic Party is non-white, aren’t you out of step with where the Democratic Party is now?

WEBB: No, actually I believe that I am where the Democratic Party traditionally has been. The Democratic Party, and the reason I’ve decided to run as a Democrat, has been the party that gives people who otherwise have no voice in the corridors of power a voice….

I’ve been hearing the argument a lot: the Republican party is moving ever farther right, so the Democratic party feels compelled to keep moving more to the center in order to appear the moderate, reasonable choice. Clinton’s platform is the model of this, and it looks like Chafee and Webb agree. Sanders appears to be the one candidate who’s an unapologetic, leftist liberal.

COOPER: Senator Webb, thank you very much. Let’s move on to some of the most pressing issues facing our country right now…. We’re going to start with guns. The shooting in Oregon earlier this month, once again it brought the issue of guns into the national conversation. …Senator Sanders, you voted against the Brady bill that mandated background checks and a waiting period. You also supported allowing riders to bring guns in checked bags on Amtrak trains. For a decade, you said that holding gun manufacturers legally responsible for mass shootings is a bad idea. Now, you say you’re reconsidering that. Which is it: shield the gun companies from lawsuits or not?

SANDERS: …Let’s also understand that back in 1988 when I first ran for the United States Congress …I told the gun owners of the state of Vermont…, a state which has virtually no gun control, that I supported a ban on assault weapons. And over the years, I have strongly avoided [supported?] instant background checks, doing away with this terrible gun show loophole. And I think we’ve got to move aggressively at the federal level in dealing with the straw man purchasers. Also I believe, and I’ve fought for, to understand that there are thousands of people in this country today who are suicidal, who are homicidal, but can’t get the healthcare that they need, the mental healthcare, because they don’t have insurance or they’re too poor. I believe that everybody in this country who has a mental crisis has got to get mental health counseling immediately. 

Sanders is making the same argument here as most Republican candidates are now making, that when it comes to dealing with certain categories of gun violence, we should turn our focus to mental health and economic issues and away from gun control. While it’s true that there’s a lot of gun violence associated with mental illness and poverty, I think it’s a distraction. In fact, I don’t believe that Sanders and the Republicans would make this argument if they didn’t feel politically compelled to concoct some ad hoc justification for gun-friendly policies they ascribe to for other reasons. Even for people who believe in expansive rights to gun ownership, the fact that there’s far more gun violence in the United States than in all other first-world countries demands a more comprehensive explanation to be convincing.

So why don’t I buy the argument blaming lack of mental health care? For one thing, many or even most of the people known to have some kind of mental issue before the shootings were receiving treatment, or had access to it they were not availing themselves of, so far as I could tell from the news reports. In other cases, others only discover that people are violently mentally ill after they’ve shot up a theater or killed themselves. I agree wholeheartedly that everyone should have access to mental healthcare and to decent-paying jobs, and that it’s likely that gun violence would be somewhat mitigated if that were the case: some people’s mental illnesses would be discovered and hopefully successfully treated before resorting to violence, and others would be able to live in safer neighborhoods and stay out of the illicit drug trade, for example.

But all the free mental healthcare and jobs in the world will not solve the one problem that we all face when in comes to gun violence: when people have easy access to guns when they’re under the sway of some emotion, be it insanity, greed, anger, fear, excitement, zealotry, vengefulness, territorialism, or just carried away by the fun they’re having at the time, they are easily able to wreak death and destruction with the simple squeeze of a trigger, especially in a culture where guns are regarded as the best and only solution to so many problems. And other times, these deaths arise out of nothing more than sheer carelessness, ignorance, or bad luck while a gun was in hand. The trick is to mitigate the harm we can do each other out of the excesses of our variable human nature by limiting access to guns, and by changing our cultural attitudes to them. The former may very well lead to the latter.

COOPER: Do you want to shield gun companies from lawsuits?

SANDERS: Of course not. This was a large and complicated bill. There were provisions in it that I think made sense. For example, do I think that a gun shop in the state of Vermont that sells legally a gun to somebody, and that somebody goes out and does something crazy, that that gun shop owner should be held responsible? I don’t. On the other hand, where you have manufacturers and where you have gun shops knowingly giving guns to criminals or aiding and abetting that, of course we should take action.

COOPER: Secretary Clinton, is Bernie Sanders tough enough on guns?

CLINTON: No, not at all. I think that we have to look at the fact that we lose 90 people a day from gun violence. This has gone on too long and it’s time the entire country stood up against the NRA. The majority of our country supports background checks, and even the majority of gun owners do. Senator Sanders did vote … for this immunity provision. I voted against it. …It wasn’t that complicated to me. It was pretty straightforward to me that he was going to give immunity to the only industry in America. Everybody else has to be accountable, but not the gun manufacturers….

O’MALLEY: … here tonight in our audience are two people that make this issue very, very real. Sandy and Lonnie Phillips’… daughter, Jessie, was one of those who lost their lives in that awful mass shooting in Aurora. …A man had sold 4,000 rounds of military ammunition to this — this person that killed their daughter, riddled her body with five bullets, and he didn’t even ask where it was going. And not only did their case get thrown out of court, they were slapped with $200,000 in court fees because of the way that the NRA gets its way in our Congress…

While I laud the principle of personal responsibility of individual gun purchasers that seemingly informs the argument against increased liability for gun companies, it also has a serious practical downside: it removes one extra layer of protection for the public when gun manufacturers and sellers are not sufficiently motivated to ensure they operate reliably and have enough safety features, and to choose not to sell guns to people they have reason to believe won’t be a responsible sellers or owners. And, of course, it fails to apply the principle of personal responsibility to the gun manufacturers and sellers. Perhaps if everyone, not just the gun owners, but everyone involved was faced with the prospect of having to take responsibility for their part in contributing to gun violence, it would be substantially reduced.

I’ve offered a suggestion before that may sound oddly anachronistic, based as it is on the actual wording of and history behind the Second Amendment, but hear me out. The text of the Second Amendment reads: ‘A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.’ When we read this, we tend to mentally cast aside the militia part, since originally the Second Amendment was informed by the infant United States’ aversion to the institution of a standing army, relying on state militias instead, which is no longer the American system of defense. However, if the right to gun ownership was contingent on belonging to a militia, or to modern equivalents such as the military, its reserves, and police forces, than all lawful gun owners would be, if the institution was well-regulated as it should be, publicly accountable and suitably trained. Maybe, then, a literal reading of the actual wording of the Constitution can offer a solution to our dilemma. As written, the phrase ‘the right of the people to keep and bear Arms’ is a subordinate clause to ‘A well regulated Militia’. So maybe we should likewise subordinate the right to keep and bear arms to whether one does belong to a modern equivalent of a militia.

SANDERS: …We can raise our voices, but I come from a rural state, and the views on gun control in rural states are different than in urban states…

O’MALLEY: …Senator, it is not about rural — Senator, it was not about rural and urban …We were able to pass this [in Maryland] and still respect the hunting traditions of people who live in our rural areas….

WEBB: …We need to keep the people who should not have guns away from them. But we have to respect the tradition in this country of people who want to defend themselves and their family from violence…

The right to self-protection is emphasized the most, on both sides, in arguments about gun rights, with the possible exception of deterrence, emphasized by many conservatives. I have serious doubts about both of these, mostly based on lack of evidence in its favor. We have higher gun ownership rates than most countries in the world, yet we have higher levels of gun violence. Even controlling for cultural attitudes (such as in Canada, which also has a high level of gun ownership rates but much lower levels of gun violence), we should see a general, consistent correlation over time and place between high levels of gun ownership and low levels of violence. Yet when we compare the United States with other countries, and we compare states with each other, we find that higher levels of gun ownership almost always correlate with higher levels of gun violence. There are a few exceptions, such as Germany and South Dakota, but when these are the exception rather than the rule, the explanation is almost certainly to be found elsewhere.

So, if protection of the life of citizens is the goal, it is not accomplished by instituting policies which usually lead to more deaths. I think, again, the real reasons so many Americans cling to the right to own guns have entirely to do with cultural and historically based norms.

I’ll go ahead and end this first critique of the Democratic debates here. In the next installment, I’ll skip the foreign policy part of this debate since it’s covered more thoroughly in a later one, and pick back up where the discussion turns to civil rights issues and the Black Lives Matter movement.

To be continued….

* Listen to the podcast reading of this piece here or on iTunes

A Moral and Political Critique of the Republican Primary Debates of 2015, Part 1

As have many Americans, no doubt, I put on the Presidential primary debates of both parties mostly as background entertainment while I was doing chores, at least at first listen. Yet it occurred to me that it might be fruitful to sit down and take some time to really consider the arguments. Yes, we’re all a bit cynical these days, it seems, and it’s easy to wonder: why bother? Aren’t all of these presidential hopefuls just corporate shills and lapdog ideologues of the powers that be anyway?

Be that as it may (and I doubt that’s the case for all or most of them, at least not fully, though I agree that the financial incentives in the current political structure are corruptive to say the least), many of these arguments win over or enrage a lot of people, and it seems important to understand why and how. After all, we’re still, ostensibly, a democracy, and we all still have to live together in this country. Why not make the effort to better understand the strengths and weaknesses of the arguments that pit citizens against one another, uniting people within factions while dividing the nation as a whole?

So here’s a critique of arguments offered in recent Republican primary debates; I’ll do the same with the Democratic debate(s) soon as well. The debate transcript selections are in red, and my own remarks in black. I leave out introductions, banter, moderator comments, lines which indicate audience response, some purely empirical claims, and other parts that don’t directly pertain to the political and moral ideas considered here. The parts I leave out are indicated, as usual, by a series of ellipses.

From the Fox News / Facebook Republican presidential primary debate, August 6th 2015

The source of the debate transcript which follows is Time.com
Participants: Donald Trump, Governor Jeb Bush, Governor Scott Walker, Senator Marco Rubio, Governor Chris Christie, Dr. Ben Carson, Senator Rand Paul, Senator Ted Cruz, and Governor John Kasich.
Moderators: Fox News anchors Bret Baier, Megyn Kelly and Chris Wallace.

KELLY: It is nine p.m. on the East Coast, and the moment of truth has arrived….

Great, truth, let’s hear it!

…Mr. Trump, one of the things people love about you is you speak your mind and you don’t use a politician’s filter. However, that is not without its downsides, in particular, when it comes to women.

You’ve called women you don’t like “fat pigs, dogs, slobs, and disgusting animals.” …. You once told a contestant on Celebrity Apprentice it would be a pretty picture to see her on her knees. Does that sound to you like the temperament of a man we should elect as president…?

TRUMP: I think the big problem this country has is being politically correct. …I’ve been challenged by so many people, and I don’t frankly have time for total political correctness…

I agree with Trump on one thing: political correctness can be a problem in public and political discourse, and I think our ‘outrage culture’ has gone too far in sanitizing what we could and should be able to say, both publicly and privately, and especially in education. Some of the outrage and sensitivity comes from a good place, the concern that, through offensive speech, we can harm one another, act as bad influences on one another, and perpetuate our own bad habits of thought. These are true. But it’s also true that speech is necessary for confronting and addressing ideas honestly, whether they be good or bad. For example, sexuality and gender issues, like all else, are all part of the human story that can and should be told, and humor, banter, and in-your-face crudeness are some of the valid ways in which we address them. Trump may consider himself a harmless participant in all that.

But we can and should consider what people say when we make judgments about people, especially when we’re choosing our representatives in government. In a free society, we all decide if someone who regularly makes remarks that disparages women as thinking beings and gauges their worth based on sexual attractiveness to men is the sort of person we think best represents the American people and their core values. And as we’ve already considered, the words we use, and especially that influential people use, can go a long way in determining how a society thinks and acts. Besides, do we really want to elect a person who makes such nasty remarks about the daughters, sisters, wives, and mothers of other people, which we wouldn’t tolerate directed to our own, to the highest office in the land?

So let Trump freely say what he wants to say. If Trump sounds like an asshole when he talks about women or anything else, that’s very useful information he’s providing. In the end, the people will decide if what he reveals about himself shows he’s worthy and capable of representing the rest of us on the national and international stage.

…WALLACE: Governor Huckabee, like Governor Walker, you have staked out strong positions on social issues. …You favor a constitutional amendment banning abortions, except for the life of the mother. …

HUCKABEE: Chris, I disagree with the idea that the real issue is a constitutional amendment. …I think it’s time to do something even more bold. I think the next president ought to invoke the Fifth, and Fourteenth Amendments to the constitution now that we clearly know that that baby inside the mother’s womb is a person at the moment of conception. The reason we know that it is is because of the DNA schedule that we now have clear scientific evidence on. And, this notion that we just continue to ignore the personhood of the individual is a violation of that unborn child’s Fifth and 14th Amendment rights for due process and equal protection under the law

The glaring assumption in this argument, of course, is that possessing a unique sequence of human DNA is equal to personhood. But so far as I know, neither American law nor its parent British law has ever established such a thing. Historically, legal personhood has been linked to the assignation of roles and responsibilities, and in modern times rights, to independently living, breathing human beings. Most spiritual and religious traditions have also equated breath and life throughout history, including the scriptures of Judaism and Christianity. It may very well be the case, with the advances we’ve made in medical science, that it’s time to reevaluate the concept of legal personhood. People who can no longer breathe on their own or otherwise survive naturally can be kept alive through extraordinary means, sometimes with their cognitive abilities intact or capable of restoration, and fetuses in the later stages of development are now usually viable and possess most or all of the mental capacities of newly born, healthy infants.

But linking personhood to DNA is a very recent and I would say extreme innovation, and as yet no federal court has recognized this linkage, to my relief. The science of human reproduction reveals that it’s a complex process, rife with false starts (it’s widely estimated that well over half of all human conceptions fail to result in healthy live births). To assign personhood to every human conception would overturn centuries of very good legal precedent which does not concern itself too much with assigning rights and responsibilities to human organisms in the earliest and not yet determinate stages of development. Instead, it does and should concern itself first with the protection of the rights and responsibilities of individual human beings who we know already possess the attributes traditionally assigned to legal persons: viability without radical intervention and/or evidence of consciousness. Recent attempts to enforce laws based on DNA-based personhood have reduced pregnant and potentially pregnant women too close to the legal status of mere incubators.

…KELLY: Governor Kasich, You chose to expand Medicaid in your state …[and] defended your Medicaid expansion by invoking God, saying to skeptics that when they arrive in heaven, Saint Peter isn’t going to ask them how small they’ve kept government, but what they have done for the poor.

KASICH: …we’re treating [drug addicts] and getting them on their feet. And …the working poor, instead of them having come into the emergency rooms where it costs more, where they’re sicker and we end up paying, we brought a program in here to make sure that people could get on their feet. And do you know what? Everybody has a right to their God-given purpose….

It’s a relief from time to time to hear an American politician on the Christian right who remembers, if only occasionally, what the Christian religion was originally all about, and what it’s still all about at its best: eschewing greed and helping others. The Ayn-Rand, Gordon-Gecko brand of ‘nothing personal, it’s just business’ ethics, equating selfishness and relentless personal enrichment with ‘personal responsibility’, is not traditional; it’s another very recent innovation, though not so recent as the unique human DNA = personhood one. The early Christians were the original socialists, though their government was not linked to the civic one, and the only enforcer of their laws was, according to the New Testament, God himself. The Acts of the Apostles tells the story of Ananias and Sapphira, who hid some of their wealth from their Christian community which required the sharing of all resources. When Paul calls them out on their deception, God strikes them dead.

If I heard more conservative Christian politicians declare publicly that while they don’t believe the government should interfere, it’s still a grave sin for people to spend their money on lavish lifestyles for themselves when their employees are underpaid and so many others go without healthcare and other basic necessities, I’d be inspired. If I heard their voices crying in the wilderness of this self-centered, hyper-materialistic society we’re creating that it’s wrong to hoard money in tax shelters, depriving their fellow citizens, including the military and its veterans, of lawful tax revenue, I’d listen and admire. What would the God of the Acts of the Apostles think of such deception? But it still appears clear that those who benefit most from tax loopholes are the ones funding most of these ‘pro-business’ politicians and giving them lucrative private sector jobs when they’re done. In such an environment, these politicians rarely proclaim that they believe Business, just like everyone else, should conduct itself according to principles that the biblical Jesus spent most of his time talking about.

….WALLACE: Gentlemen, we’re turning to …the issue of immigration. Governor Bush, …I want to ask you about a statement that you made last year about illegal immigrants. And here’s what you said. “They broke the law, but it’s not a felony, it’s an act of love. It’s an act of commitment to your family.” Do you stand by that statement and do you stand by your support for earned legal status?

BUSH: I do. I believe that the great majority of people coming here illegally have no other option. They want to provide for their family But we need to control our border… We need to be much more strategic on how we deal with border enforcement, border security. We need to eliminate the sanctuary cities in this country. It is ridiculous and tragic that people are dying because of the fact that — that local governments are not following the federal law. …I hope to be that president — will fix this once and for all so that we can turn this into a driver for high sustained economic growth. And there should be a path to earned legal status…

Sadly, this is not the first time people have been driven to our borders as political and economic refugees. In times past, we turned them away, and as they had no opportunity to enter illegally, their ships were forced to return, and they died in the Holocaust. In that case, I believe those fleeing to our country would have been justified in breaking the law, as their right to sustain their own lives trumped all. As Bush pointed out, the situation is not that different for many illegal immigrants. Our policies help perpetuate the drug war ravaging so many of the countries south of our border and our own citizens are the eager customers of the murderous cartels, and while we might point out that it’s their governments’ responsibility to protect them, not ours, that makes no difference when it comes time to choose, to try and make a safe and decent life for themselves and their children.

But Bush is not correct in claiming that people are dying specifically because sanctuary cities are not targeting illegal immigrants for arrest. The relatively few people who are the victims of crime at the hands of illegal immigrants are suffering because some people do wrong, whatever their citizenship status. Later in this debate, in remarks I leave out for the sake of space, Trump, Cruz, and Carson offer anecdotes of conversations had with Border Patrol agents and other officials as ‘proof’ that illegal immigrants are bringing unprecedented waves of crime with them, a very poor type of evidence compared with the official arrest and crime records which contradict their claims. If Bush, Trump, Cruz, Carson, and others want to make the argument that ‘sanctuary cities’ should do more to arrest illegal immigrants as a crime prevention measure, than for consistency’s sake they would need to argue in favor of also rounding up American citizens too, since they’re the ones committing violent crimes at higher rates.

It seems that we would do more to reduce crime and violent deaths across the board by reducing the incentives and opportunities which lead to them. We should change our drug policies, decriminalizing many drugs, replacing our prohibition system with sensible regulation and treatment options. And we should stop allowing guns to flood our country, making it all too easy for the depraved, the violent, the angry, the untrained, the mentally ill, the depressed, the clumsy, and the just plain unlucky to kill each other and themselves.

KELLY: Alright, gentlemen, we’re gonna switch topics now and talk a bit about terror and national security. Governor Christie. You’ve said that Senator Paul’s opposition to the NSA’s collection of phone records has made the United States weaker and more vulnerable….

CHRISTIE: When you actually have to be responsible for [prosecuting, investigated, and jailing] terrorists, you can do it, and we did it, for seven years in my office, respecting civil liberties and protecting the homeland….

PAUL: …I want to collect more records from terrorists, but less records from innocent Americans. The Fourth Amendment was what we fought the Revolution over! John Adams said it was the spark that led to our war for independence, and I’m proud of standing for the Bill of Rights…

CHRISTIE: …You know, that’s a completely ridiculous answer. “I want to collect more records from terrorists, but less records from other people.” How are you supposed to know, Megyn?

PAUL: Use the Fourth Amendment! …Get a warrant! …Here’s the problem, governor. You fundamentally misunderstand the Bill of Rights. Every time you did a case, you got a warrant from a judge. I’m talking about searches without warrants …indiscriminately, of all Americans’ records….

It’s always interesting to me when people who describe themselves as proponents of ‘small government’ become ardent defenders of big, intrusive government when it comes to certain pet causes. I agree with Paul here: one of the strengths of our system is that there are mechanisms built into our laws, at least ostensibly, to keep government accountable to its people. Obtaining a warrant before gathering information on citizens is one great way to accomplish this, and to show the world that we actually mean it when we claim to believe in a government of laws that’s accountable to its free citizens. And let’s not forget: amassing one massive, centralized database of the communication of private citizens provides an irresistible target for those who would want to hack into and steal such a gold mine of information, be it for political power, business, or terror.

… KELLY: Senator Cruz …you asked the chairman of the joint chiefs a question: “What would it take to destroy ISIS in 90 days?” He told you “ISIS will only be truly destroyed once they are rejected by the populations in which they hide.” …

CRUZ: Megyn, we need a commander in chief that speaks the truth. We will not defeat radical Islamic terrorism so long as we have a president unwilling to utter the words, “radical Islamic terrorism”. …When I asked General Dempsey, the chairman of the joint chiefs, what would be required militarily to destroy ISIS, he said there is no military solution. We need to change the conditions on the ground so that young men are not in poverty and susceptible to radicalization. That, with all due respect, is nonsense.

KELLY: You don’t see it as…an ideological problem — an ideological problem in addition to a military one?

CRUZ: Megyn, of course it’s an ideological problem …Let me contrast President Obama, who at the prayer breakfast, essentially acted as an apologist. He said, “Well, gosh, the crusades, the inquisitions–” ….

Cruz is right insofar as it’s an ideological problem, but not necessarily in the way he means. People are prone to be inspired and radicalized by ideology, and right now, there’s an influential brand of Islam that inspires its followers to do violence in its name. But waging war, especially in the opponent’s territory, doesn’t solve this problem; it doesn’t tend to make one’s ideological enemies wave the white flag right off the bat. It tends to do the opposite, to inflame patriotism on all sides, especially for citizens and sympathizers of the country that’s been ‘defiled’ by ‘outsiders’ breaching its borders. Young men, especially single and without families, have always been most susceptible to this. And a cause like ISIS, which promises salvation through glorious martyrdom, is an irresistible draw to people of certain temperaments and beliefs, and especially to those who have not made their own lives meaningful to themselves in some other way. History is rife with examples of this, the original Muslim conquests, the Inquisition, and the Crusades all included.

A policy which encourages a backlash of more martyrdom-seeking looks like the strategy of defeating the mythical Lernaean Hydra by cutting off heads as fast as you can, knowing all the while this causes twice as many to grow in their place. We would probably do better by other means, such as helping other Muslims defeat them, or by capturing their leaders and putting them on trial, showcasing them as criminals and murderers and not noble defenders of a worthy cause. While Obama may err sometimes on the side of political correctness, it’s clear from the context that his goals (and they are worthy ones) are to avoid stirring up more religiously-motivated hatred, and to reduce the use of religious- and ideologically-charged rhetoric that self-proclaimed holy warriors can use as recruitment tools.

…  KELLY: Dr. Carson, in one of his first acts as commander in chief, President Obama signed an executive order banning enhanced interrogation techniques in fighting terror. As president, would you bring back water boarding?

….CARSON: Alright. You know, what we do in order to get the information that we need is our business, and I wouldn’t necessarily be broadcasting what we’re going to do

This is a silly remark in the information age we live in. If government agents torture people, we all find out at some point, and not only does it undermines our credibility when we do it in secret, we cede the moral high ground. We’ve made the moral decision, along with most of the civilized world, that we no longer believe in using tactics that are so brutal and corrosive to respect for human dignity. How can we hold ourselves up as an example to the world while resorting to tactics we’ve declared wrong to use on our own people when it suits our purposes? And, of course, our willingness to resort to torture is yet another recruitment tool for ‘holy warriors’ and provides them with the justification they want to torture captured Americans.

CARSON: We’ve gotten into this — this mindset of fighting politically correct wars. There is no such thing as a politically correct war. …And I’ve talked to a lot of the generals, a lot of our advanced people. And believe me, if we gave them the mission, which is what the commander-in-chief does, they would be able to carry it out. And if we don’t tie their hands behind their back, they will do it extremely effectively…

If he means that torture is more effective than other means of extracting information, than he’s just empirically wrong. It’s been shown time and time again that people being tortured, just like people under other kinds of duress, will tell you whatever they think you want to hear. Look at the history of torture and how often torturers got people to confess to the most ridiculous and unbelievable things, such as trafficking with the Devil and casting spells to kill neighbors’ cattle. Not to mention the huge amount of data we have on coercive interrogation techniques in law enforcement, which we’ve come to discover has led to unacceptably high rates of false convictions.

BAIER: …Now, broadly, ..the size of government is a big concern … But year after year, decade after decade, there are promises from Republicans to shrink government. But year after year, decade after decade, it doesn’t happen. In fact, it gets bigger, even under Republican politicians. …Is the government simply too big for any one person, even a Republican, to shrink?

HUCKABEE: It’s not too big to shrink. But the problem is we have a Wall Street-to-Washington access of power that has controlled the political climate. The donor class feeds the political class who does the dance that the donor class wants. And the result is federal government keeps getting bigger.

True, Huckabee, that’s true of the revolving door, of the tendency of many of the wealthiest to co-opt the power of the federal government to promote their special interests. If Republicans were generally even a little less willing than Democrats to keep money flooding into politics from special interests, equating dollars with speech, I might believe he’s on the right stage. As of yet, it’s only been a relatively few libertarian-leaning candidates, and John McCain, who’s consistently, openly criticized the Republican party and called for its reform on this account.

…. HUCKABEE: And I’m still one who says that we can get rid of the Internal Revenue Service if we would pass the Fair Tax, which is a tax on consumption rather than a tax on people’s income, and move power back where the founders believed it should have been all along.

The so-called Fair Tax system is an interesting idea overall: it has a built-in system of basic welfare, which delivers on the claim that we value equal opportunity; it taxes consumption, which might significantly curb the environmental effects of industry; the code itself is simpler, increasing transparency and making the ordinary citizen more or less as able as the wealthy to navigate it without the help of professionals; and it’s progressive in one sense, in that people with less money, up to a point, end up paying less. It has some big problems as its currently formulated, such as: the excess money of the wealthiest people, who couldn’t spend most of it even if they tried, would not be taxed and would therefore fail to generate much-needed public revenue; it would be more difficult to enforce, especially when it comes to services; capital gains would not be taxed, encouraging investment in what Joseph Stieglitz calls ‘rent-seeking’ over innovation and the creation of useful goods and services; and its doesn’t have any disincentives that I could find for the kinds of financial speculation that so often brings down our economy. If the Fair Tax system underwent some pretty thorough reforms to solve some of these problems, I might become a proponent myself.

…BAIER: Dr. Carson, do you agree with that?

CARSON: What I agree with is that we need a significantly changed taxation system. And the one that I’ve advocated is based on tithing, because I think God is a pretty fair guy. And he said, you know, if you give me a tithe, it doesn’t matter how much you make

Carson, by contrast, advocates a flat tax, which is a deeply unfair system if there ever was one. $1 out of every $10 is a crushing burden to a poor person, but can have little to no impact on the quality of life of a wealthy person. And even if he wanted his Christian beliefs to inform our tax laws, there’s no evidence that the Judeo-Christian God would advocate a flat tax anyway. While tithing was a common charitable religious practice for the Jews as it was for other traditions, two remarks of the biblical Jesus express a different view of what the just person should contribute. In one parable, he dismisses the large charitable donations of the rich while praising an old women who gave only a tiny amount, because it was nearly everything she had. In another place, he said, ‘For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required’. Instead of proportionality, he valued the contribution according to the generous spirit with which it was given, and how much was given compared to how much one received in life. In this sense, Jesus could be considered a critic and advocate of reform of the old practice of tithing, just as he was of many other practices of his time.

KELLY: The subject of gay marriage and religious liberty. Governor Kasich, if you had a son or daughter who was gay or lesbian, how would you explain to them your opposition to same-sex marriage?

KASICH: Well, look, I’m an old-fashioned person here, and I happen to believe in traditional marriage. But I’ve also said the court has ruled … And guess what, I just went to a wedding of a friend of mine who happens to be gay. Because somebody doesn’t think the way I do, doesn’t mean that I can’t care about them or can’t love them. …I think the simple fact of the matter is …we need to give everybody a chance, treat everybody with respect, and let them share in this great American dream that we have….

Well said, a succinct and plain-spoken defense of the American value of pluralism and of the rule of law, the latter of which can be extended to protect people who had previously, and unjustly, been denied its protection.

…BAIER: Governor Huckabee, the culture of the American military is definitely changing. Women are moving into combat roles. Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell has obviously been dropped. And now Defense Secretary Ashton Carter recently directed the military to prepare for a moment when it is welcoming transgender persons to serve openly. As commander in chief, how would you handle that?

HUCKABEE: The military is not a social experiment. The purpose of the military is kill people and break things. It’s not to transform the culture by trying out some ideas that some people think would make us a different country and more diverse. The purpose is to protect America

The American military has been de-segregated and liberalized many times over the centuries, to it and the nation’s benefit. While its primary purpose to to fight wars and defend the homeland, its also a powerful symbol of how we conduct ourselves among the nations of the world. For example, when black soldiers were treated shamefully in the barracks, on the battlefield, and at home despite their heroism, the injustice of the differential treatment really sank in for the American people, and the civil rights movement first gained its real traction as a result. But the military is not only a symbol, it’s our national defense, and as such, should represent who we are as a people. And whether some individuals like it or not, we are, as a people, men, women, black, white, brown, straight, gay, and transgender.

KELLY: …In our final moments here together, we’re going to allow the candidates to offer their final thoughts. But first, we want to ask them an interesting closing question from Chase Norton on Facebook, who wants to know this of the candidates: “I want to know if any of them have received a word from God on what they should do and take care of first.”

….KASICH: …You know, today the country is divided. …We’ve got to unite our country again, because we’re stronger when we are united and we are weaker when we are divided. And we’ve got to listen to other people’s voices, respect them …because of how we respect human rights, because that we are a good force in the world, [the Lord] wants America to be strong. …And nothing is more important to me than my family, my faith, and my friends.

Again from Kasich, he is honest about his beliefs, but succinct: he places the focus of his answer on solving the political matter at hand, and expresses a commitment to the law and to human decency, which all Americans can unite behind, regardless of whether his religious beliefs cause him to disagree personally on specific matters. This is the right tone to take when you run for the presidency of a pluralistic society dedicated to freedom of belief. Carson took the same tone in answer to this question. The rest of the candidates made comments that mostly sounded religiously divisive to me, more like preachers and less like public officials.

….KELLY: Thank you all very much, and that will do it for the first Republican primary night of the 2016 presidential race. Our thanks to the candidates, who will now be joined by their families on stage.

To be continued….

* Listen to the podcast reading of this piece here or on iTunes
* A nearly identical version is also published as a guest post at The Moderate Voice.

Investing in People

I’ve been hearing this refrain for what seems like forever now: ‘We need to invest in our [insert demographic group here]!’ Pick some class of people (but not just any, as we shall see), plug that into that opening phrase, and do an internet search. We need to invest in our children, in our women, in our entrepreneurs, in our African-Americans, in our veterans, and in our students, political leaders and the media proclaim. This phrase has been enthusiastically adopted by liberals and progressives, despite its strong capitalist, and thus ostensibly conservative, overtones. Because the phrase is so often coupled with the name of some group we’d all like to help succeed, it sounds so nice, doesn’t it? Shouldn’t we put more of our resources into helping others do well in life?

Of course we should. But remember what investment means: it’s putting resources into some venture in the hopes that it will pay off, and especially, that it will pay off for you. That, in itself, is not a bad thing. Investment, like capitalism generally, can lead to to all kinds of wonderful things: goods, technology, infrastructure, the arts, and other stuff which make other people’s lives better as well as your own, and more money with which fund more worthy projects. But think of the implication when it comes to investing in people. First, a good investment is one which has good results; so far, so good. But here’s what it also implies: putting our resources into bettering people’s lives is only worth doing if there’s something in it for someone else, and especially, for you. And that’s why I find the expression ‘investing in people’ irksome.

Of course, I realize that such expressions as ‘We need to invest in people’ are often shorthand for entirely benign sentiments such as ‘We need to invest in the projects and infrastructure that will provide opportunities and improve the lives of people because we care about their well-being’. Investment has become a buzzword that’s taken on more shades of meaning than it originally had, and political speeches and rallying cries are most effective when they’re short, punchy, catchy, and heavy on the use of buzzwords; I get it.  But I would be a more convinced of the humanitarian sense of purpose that investment rhetoric inspires if market interests were routinely subjugated to considerations of human rights and dignity and the health of our planet than the other way around. If it was used at least as often in the context of publicly supporting our elderly, our disabled, our homeless, our mentally ill, our artists, musicians, poets, volunteers, and others who don’t produce much of market value, it might not bother me much, and this essay wouldn’t exist.

As philosopher Michael Sandel worries, rightly to my mind, we seem to be transitioning from a market
economy to a market society, to the detriment of many. The rhetoric of investing in people is an emblem of a transition too far from from a humanistic, rights-based value system, and towards an acquisitive, incentive-based value system.

While personal gain has always figured heavily in market decisions, it seems to me that our behavior reveals less concern than ever about how our values should influence these choices. Despite what we find out about the low pay and awful working conditions of employees here and abroad compared to the wages of the company’s higher-ups, we keep gobbling their products up as fast as they’re churned out, and CEO’s continue to accept ever more lavish salaries without qualm. We know that children as well as adults are forced into labor mining rare earths, and that massive dumps of discarded electronics are rendering massive swaths of land and water in developing countries toxic, but we continue to invent, create, and gobble up new electronics without a murmur, and so on and so on. These are only two of the myriad ways in which we’re exhibiting a general loss of commitment to higher values in our market choices, and the noble working-class protests, strikes, and boycotts of the last century have disappeared and given way to complacent consumerism. We occasionally complain on the internet that higher-ups shouldn’t make quite so much when their workers are underpaid, and we sign petitions calling for a hike in the minimum wage, but we don’t do anything about it if our daily lives are made slightly less comfortable by doing so. As we can see from rising economic inequality, the plight of millions of unprotected workers who suffer and even die to produce cheap and plentiful goods, and the rate at which we’re causing mass extinctions, pollution (especially in poor countries), and climate change, they promise to undermine social cohesion and destroy our ability to sustain ourselves if we don’t start to seriously re-examine our behavior, re-commit to our values, and change our hyper-consumerist habits.

None of this is to say that we do wrong when we take into account how sharing our resources will impact our own lives. It’s actually quite an important consideration, especially given the fact that our own wellbeing is connected to the wellbeing of others, often closely. To clarify: I’m not a believer in so-called pure altruism. For example, I don’t believe, as did the great Immanuel Kant (at least according to some interpretations of his ethics) and as do some other philosophical and theological traditions, that an action is only fully morally praiseworthy if you don’t benefit from it in any way, even if only by feeling good about it. Kant thought that all actions that benefit the doer even a little are less morally good than they could be, because it means such actions are at least partly selfish. Only actions done purely out of duty, that are difficult or come at a cost to the doer, in this view, can be considered truly good.

But this extreme view of selfishness, which holds that doing anything that benefit’s one’s self is less than fully good, has a fatal flaw. It implies that there’s at least one human being in that’s less deserving of care than others, namely yourself.  So if you believe that all human beings have equal moral worth, or at least should be treated as if they do, then acting without concern for one’s own wellbeing offends justice just as much as acting without concern for others. The extreme view of selfishness also implies that human beings are atomistic, that the wellbeing of one is disconnected from the wellbeing of others, which we can easily recognize is untrue. It’s a demonstrable fact that the lives and fates of human beings are intimately intertwined in a way that’s unique among living creatures, due to our human nature as hypersocial creatures with highly developed, complex skills of communication. From the moment we’re born, we need human connection and human assistance to sustain life and enjoy happiness. As we saw earlier, the most pressing problems we face today, just as it’s been throughout history, concern the wider impact of individual human behavior and thought. I challenge the reader to think of any action or idea that doesn’t have consequences of any sort outside the life of an individual. Our own private thoughts habituate and instigate us to act in one way and not another, thereby manifesting themselves in the wider world. Even withdrawing ourselves from the human community, which gave us our being in the first place, is depriving it of our help and our participation, and therefore affecting it.

This all means that there’s no such thing as pure altruism or pure selflessness for human beings since, as we’ve seen, what we do affects others as well as ourselves as a matter of course. Concern for ourselves is bound up in everything we do and think. We’re all aware of this: human beings generally behave in a cooperative and even generous way because we know, by instinct, reason, and observation, that if we behave badly, it’s likely to come back and hurt us. When we behave badly, we seek ways to minimize the harm to ourselves, knowing it’s an expected result. When we consume too much, pollute too much, are greedy with our money when so many others are in want, and so on, we undermine the human community that sustains us (yet, this even includes those far away). We don’t trust bad actors, we are prone to respond in kind, and we aren’t as willing to cooperate and share with them. But when humans routinely do good, everyone benefits, ourselves included.

Even actions that are generally classified as selfless, such as self-immolation or martyrdom, are not really selfless. When we choose to sacrifice at least some portion of our well-being for other people or for an idea, we are satisfying some need of our own, such as the satisfaction of being fully committed to a cause, or of believing we’re saving our own souls, often at a cost to the wellbeing of others, such as that of the friends and family we leave behind. (I have some serious problems with the idea of martyrdom too, which I’ll explore more fully in another piece.)

In sum, pure altruism and the extreme view of selfishness and pure altruism are useless concepts, the first because it’s impossible in a hypersocial species such as ourselves, and the second since it would apply to every thought we have and everything we do, and thereby rendered meaningless.

If I seem to digress, I do this for a good reason: this discussion of altruism and selfishness directly relates to an objection that may seem to undermine the project of this essay, which is to demonstrate why it’s important we don’t restrict sharing our resources only to those situations where we can recognize and identify the potential payoff. Returning from the consideration of altruism and selfishness back to the idea of investing in people, it seems that my critique of the first two undermines my critique of the latter. Since the wellbeing of everyone is linked, and everything that goes around comes around, doesn’t that indicate that we should only want to spend our resources in ways that might benefit ourselves as well as others?

Well, for one thing, the term investment doesn’t generally apply where the returns might be to indirect or too spread out to be readily identifiable as benefiting the investor. It also doesn’t generally apply where non-monetary or at least non-material returns are irrelevant, if we wish the term investment to include expectations of more noble returns, such as decreasing suffering or protecting the rights of others. But even if we extend the meaning of the term to include these, I still think that using the rhetoric of investment is not only unhelpful, it can instill a bad habit of thinking. In a democratic society that ostensibly protects the rights of all of its members equally, a rhetoric that originates with the monetary concerns of the the most wealthy, or at least only those with material wealth to invest, is a very poor fit with the more broadly humanitarian aims of the public endeavor it refers to. At best, it implies that we should apply a market mentality of only spending money in hopes of personal reward to situations where human rights and dignity should be of primary concern. At worst, it ends up crowding out the habit of thinking we would do better to instill in one another, that human beings are worth sharing our resources with for their own sake, and that anything we can do to make it more likely that human rights are protected is a worthy goal in and of itself.

Returning to Kant, investing in people sounds like a violation of his great categorical imperative, that every person should be treated as if they’re an end in themselves, never as if they’re just a means to an end. Human beings, in his view and in the context of a humanitarian, rights-based value system, are worthy of respect and of support for their own sake.

You may object, who cares what it sounds like? We should only care about what we really mean by ‘investing in people’. Well, in case this whole discussion leaves you wondering if this is really all just a case of nitpicking about verbiage, that I would do better just making a case for why we should do more for those who need our help, well, I think that words really can matter. While the theory that language itself influences our thoughts is controversial, what’s not controversial is the knowledge that the words we choose both directly convey and imply our ideas and our values. When we choose the language of investment rather than the language of virtue or of human rights and dignity to talk to each other about why we should share our resources, I think we imply that we place a higher value on the return than on the persons being helped. And when our political leaders and the media flood the internet and the airwaves with this rhetoric, I think they do a disservice by making people too comfortable with that implied idea through repetition. After all, the American people (though not alone, by any means) are bombarded right and left with the message that to be a happy person and a good citizen we should work tirelessly to get ahead, and that the measure of our success is to be as well-dressed, well-housed, well-fed, and possessed of as much money in the bank and as much stuff as possible, whatever the wider ramifications.

I think that it would be an excellent thing if our political rhetoric more regularly emphasized the idea that the human community, and the world that makes its possible, is worth our respect and our support for their own sake. ‘Investment in people’, to my mind, does nothing to emphasize that point. While it’s true that a public commitment to sharing our resources where needed does benefit ourselves as well as others, that’s the gravy. The meat is the commitment to protecting human rights and to making lives comfortable and happy as befits their human dignity, and to preserving the wonderful world we are so fortunate to find ourselves in and which makes our lives possible, just because we know it’s the right and the beautiful thing to do.

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Sources and inspiration:

Rohlf, Michael, “Immanuel Kant”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2014 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2014/entries/kant/>

Sandel, Michael. What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012. https://books.google.com/books?id=06-54FCTQ9AC&printsec=frontcover&dq=

Thomas Paine on Basic Income, and Why Welfare is Compatible with an Individualist Theory of Human Rights

Thomas Paine, advocate of liberty par excellence, is an intellectual hero of all believers in democratic and accountable government. He’s also, especially, a hero of modern American conservatives and those of the libertarian persuasion.

But here’s a lesser known fact: he also argues in favor of what today we commonly call welfare.

Paine is, most famously, the author of Common Sense, The American Crisis, The Rights of Man, and The Age of Reason. These pamphlets are, in turn, an argument in favor of the American colonies’ cause for independence, a series of pamphlets of encouragement and calls for support for the struggling revolution, a rebuttal to Edmund Burke’s harsh critique of the French Revolution (and founding work of modern conservatism), and deist critique of Christianity and organized religion in general.

In Common Sense, Paine calls government a ‘necessary evil’, which we need only because of our flawed human nature, and he considers it legitimate only if it functions to benefit the people as a whole. But to do so, it must remain fully accountable and therefore not too large, or else it would do as governments had always done throughout the history of Europe: it would oppress, enslave, overly tax, and otherwise use its people for its own ends, making them suffer for the inevitable territorial, political, and ideological wars that all monarchs, power-hungry aristocrats, and high-ranking clergy embroiled themselves and their nations in. He also writes that commerce was one of the great pacifiers of the world by rendering people ‘useful to each other’, and as such, should not be interfered with. Thus far, his thinking is closely aligned with the political principles of libertarianism and modern American conservatism.

Yet libertarians and conservatives misunderstand Paine when they stop there: Paine very definitively argues that government should play some very important roles in public life beyond defense of life and private property and the enforcement of contracts. After all, it’s not only governments that oppress and neglect its citizens in all kinds of ways: it’s also other people.

One of these roles that government should take on is economic support of all citizens when they are the most vulnerable, especially the young, the elderly, and the infirm. As Paine observes, neither governments nor individuals sufficiently protect the rights of working people nor of the people to support themselves when they can’t yet work or can no longer work. He himself suffers at the hands of the government when in their employ as a tax officer: they routinely underpay and overwork him and his fellow tax officers, fire him for insufficient cause, and punish him for petitioning the government to improve their treatment of public employees.

Paine thinks government can do better, and go beyond just paying fair wages to its own representatives. He argues in favor of publicly funded welfare for all citizens, especially at the beginning and at end of life, and he outlines a concrete plan for its implementation. As he sees it, taxation and redistribution of wealth, within certain bounds, are just as essential for liberty as are the franchise, education, free trade, a constitution, and a bill of rights. For every person to have the chance at sustaining their life in a way compatible with their rights, the young should, at the very least, receive a free and full education and a sum of money with which to start out on their chosen profession, and a stipend to sustain them in health, comfort, and dignity when they can no longer work.

How is this possible? How can Paine be in favor of accountable government and individual rights while supporting a welfare system, often portrayed today as an enemy of both? His argument is an innovative one, and shows how a system of welfare is, in fact, not only consistent with an individualist theory of liberty and human rights, but is a necessary consequence of it.

Like the writers of the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, and the United States Constitution, Paine is influenced by John Locke, author of Two Treatises on Government and therefore, indirectly, of American political theory. Paine bases his argument on a Lockean theory of rights: all human beings are born into the world with identical natural rights, including that to life and liberty. Everyone is also born with equal rights of access to the land and to its resources, since the latter two are necessary to the former, not only for sustaining life but for making it a free and happy one. The right of individuals to own property, therefore, is not a pure natural right like the others, since it allows particular people access to particular land and resources while denying it to others. Purely natural rights, by contrast, are equal in kind and in degree from individual to individual. Yet giving people the right to claim property as their own is valuable to everyone, since it provides incentives for individuals to create wealth through labor, improving what nature left on its own cannot provide: agriculture, technology, housing, art, and so on, and this wealth is shared by all through trade. Unlike the right to life and liberty, Locke’s labor theory of property rights is contingent, valid only if its original acquisition is ‘mixed’ with the owner’s labor. and only if enough is left so that others have not only enough, but just as good. (When the United States government drove the Native Americans of their ancestral land, they routinely and conveniently forgot the second part of Locke’s property rights theory as they grabbed the most resource-rich and most conveniently located land for themselves, driving the tribes into ever smaller and ever poorer places.) Even if it sometimes interferes with the ability of some to enjoy their purely natural rights, such as when certain people grab all the wealth for themselves while leaving others to suffer in poverty and even starve, Locke thinks that the right to own property benefits society on the whole to such a degree that it’s justified.

Paine, however, is not satisfied. He observes that property rights routinely benefit the few to a great degree and most relatively little. He looks not only at the world around him but at the whole of European history, seeing a world of immense wealth mostly enjoyed by a small number of people while most others earn just enough to sustain themselves, and the problem tends to grow worse over time. Paine tends to blame this state of affairs largely on a spoiled, despotic monarchy, aristocracy, and clergy, who use the law, assertions of ‘duty’, and enticements of salvation to wrangle most of the wealth out of the hands of people who actually create it. This leaves many of the young without the resources with which they could start creating wealth of their own for themselves and their families, and the impoverishment of the old who, after a lifetime of contribution through work, are left without resources when they can work no longer, having earned too little in their lives to save for their old age. So how can this be squared with Locke’s view that property rights should generally lead to the benefit of all, and that they are contingent on there generally being enough for everyone else to have what’s ‘just as good’?

He addresses this problem most thoroughly in his lesser known pamphlet Agrarian Justice, written in 1795 and ’96 after he’s observed the success of the American revolution (except for enslaved Americans, of course) and the turmoil of the French one. The French Revolution, after all, was mostly driven by popular anger and despair over the widespread privation and suffering of the French people, condemned to a life of hard work, few prospects for social mobility, and a strict hierarchical class system in which most of the nation’s wealth was gobbled up by a very few.

Paine doesn’t just base his argument on sympathy for the poor, the hapless young, and the elderly, though his work is clearly driven by that emotion, occasioned partly by his hard-working parents’ and his own struggles to get by. Instead, his argument centers on justice; specifically, the principle of just recompense. Since every person is born into society denied of their birthright, which is the right of equal access to all land on earth and its resources, everyone is responsible for paying damages for that loss. What we now call welfare is really reparations, due to everyone, by all members of a society that enforces landed property rights.

But wait a minute, one might object: isn’t the very fact that society as a whole benefits from property rights recompense enough? Even if Paine is right, wouldn’t justice only demand we make sure that everyone has the same liberties, the same protection under the law, and the same access to basic public goods such as infrastructure and education? That way, outcomes in wealth will generally apportion themselves fairly according to the hard work and ingenuity of individuals. This idea, commonly called equality of opportunity, is especially popular with those who fall into the modern conservative and libertarian portions of the political spectrum. Anything else looks like an injustice in this view. After all, is it really just to take away wealth from some, especially those who earned it through their own labor, and give it to those who have not earned it?

Remember that Paine offers the facts of history to show that fair wealth distribution just never seems to happen in societies that privatize land rights: the average person who works the hardest and does the most to benefit society very often does not accumulate even a fraction of the wealth as the relatively idle monarch, aristocrat, or member of the clergy. Well, then, how about today’s democratic market societies, where there is no monarch, aristocracy, or clergy empowered by the law to plunder most of the wealth from the working people for their personal use? We have only to pay attention to the news a short while to be aware that extreme inequality and unfairness of wealth distribution is as bad or nearly as bad as it’s ever been. The people doing the hardest and arguably most important jobs, such as teaching our children, manufacturing goods, cleaning up our cities, or harvesting the crops that sustain our lives earn anywhere from a pittance to a decent, but not stellar wage. Yet the CEO, the career politician, the idle children and grandchildren of millionaires, the trader and inventor of exotic financial products, and the tech whiz who invents the newest fad internet game often pile up money almost faster than they can stuff it into tax shelters.

Many like to say that unskilled, low-paid jobs are a stepping-stone to something else, but this is belied by the facts in the United States and around the world. While some do work their way up to more highly skilled and highly paid jobs, there are many, many more who never do. The fact that our economy depends on there being a certain number of those low-wage jobs in existence guarantees they will keep existing, at least until technology renders them obsolete. And when and if that happens, what will all those unemployed people do then? Even if every single one received an education and job training sufficient for employment as a skilled worker, there will only be a certain proportion of jobs that will be decently paid, leaving the rest in the same predicament. And there very well may be a lot less jobs in existence than there are people in this technological age. What then?

The reason why the whole equality of opportunity idea never works out may be that it’s a mythical concept, incompatible with the laws of nature, or if it were at least theoretically possible, indemonstrable.

In the real world, competition among workers for jobs necessarily leaves a huge number of people out when it comes to the ability to earn decent or even any money whether or not they do work hard, whether or not they’re willing but don’t have the opportunity, or whether or not they can at all. There are countless reasons for this due to the variety inherent in human nature and in the human experience. Some never had access to a good education, or they lack the network of patrons and mentors that the offspring of successful people rely on to get their own start in life. Others are simply not as intelligent, or tall, or graceful, or otherwise good-looking enough according to the whimsical and capricious standards of society, or of the ‘right’ race, ethnicity, religion, or don’t have the ‘right’ accent, and so on. There are jobs that disappear from the market due to advances in technology, with suddenly unemployed middle-aged or older people with now useless job skills in a society that heavily favors youth. There are people who are born with medical problems that make it difficult or nearly impossible to get well-paying jobs in a competitive market: skin disorders, genetically-imposed obesity, missing limbs, compromised immune systems, cancers, heart conditions…. the list is very long. And there are countless numbers of people for whom the ‘rat race’ is painful or self-destructive, as they have personalities that are shy, contemplative, independent, gentle, non-competitive, ‘weird’, and otherwise totally unsuited to that whole competition thing, and therefore terrible at it. The list goes on and on.

And the reason why equality of opportunity is indemonstrable, at least as something that can be implemented through public policy, can be recognized when we compare it to the gold standard of demonstrating the truth or usefulness of a theory: the scientific experiment. Consider a group of scientists who say, we are sure this theory is true because of this, that, and the other thing. They have an assortment of facts, they have arguments to show why, given the facts, certain things should result, so they make a prediction. Then they run the experiment and… what do you know, the results of the experiment fail to support the hypothesis. They say, oh yes, we see the flaws with the experiment and/or with the participants, they compose new arguments, they formulate a new hypothesis, they run a new experiment and… oops, it failed again! And again, and again. Now, consider every democratic market economy ever in existence and see if any of them actually achieved actual equality of outcome. These actual economies are analogous to the scientific experiments, and the equality of opportunity-based sets of policies are analogous to the hypotheses being tested. Even if, hypothetically, some system based on the ideal of equality of opportunity would actually achieve equality of outcome in a world of identical beings who are not born with or given extra advantages by others, we’ll never know. Asking us to ascribe to indemonstrable political strategies based on equality of opportunity is like asking us to believe the truth of hypotheses that are never proven by scientific experiment. That’s why I, for one, don’t buy it, and am more interested in focusing on equality of outcome, which Paine’s basic income idea seeks to resolve in a practical and just way.

Returning to the original point regarding the fairness of redistributing income from the wealthy to the un- or under-employed: Paine foresees this objection by calling for a universal basic income. In other words, he thinks that it should not be granted on the basis of need. That’s because, for one thing, he bases his whole argument on the equality of natural rights. All human beings alike are deprived of their natural right of free and full access to all of the land and its resource in societies that enforce landed property rights. Even those who own land are still deprived of the right of access to other land, so they are still owed the same damages. If they are wealthy enough to throw the money back into the public fund since they don’t need it, that’s up to them, and very much to their credit, but it’s still owed to them, same as anyone else.

For another thing, and perhaps most importantly for its being popularly acceptable enough for implementation, Paine recognizes that basic human psychology instinctively abhors unfairness. The whole idea of giving welfare to some and not others, even based on need, might seem charitable but still feels unfair, especially when the funds are taken away from people who earned it through their own labor and given to the un- or under-employed. Human beings simply do not need any more sources of strife and division than they already contend with: politics, ideology, and religion do enough mischief on that account already. Therefore, Paine says, basic income should be equally distributed regardless of need so that no-one is given, by society at least, an excuse to resent or look down on anyone else.

*This essay has also been published at the Thomas Paine National Historical Association website (under a different title)

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

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Sources and Inspiration:

“Labor Theory of Property.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 22 Sep. 2015. Web. 30 Sep. 2015.
https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Labor_theory_of_property&oldid=682304595

Locke, John. Two Treatises of Government, 1689
http://socserv2.socsci.mcmaster.ca/econ/ugcm/3ll3/locke/government.pdf

Paine, Thomas. Agrarian Justice, 1796.
http://piketty.pse.ens.fr/files/Paine1795.pdf

Paine, Thomas. The Rights of Man, 1791.
http://www.ucc.ie/archive/hdsp/Paine_Rights_of_Man.pdf

O.P. Recommends: Alison Gopnik’s ‘David Hume and the Buddha’

I just read a delightful piece in The Atlantic‘s October 2015 issue which combines three of my favorite things: history of ideas, a detective story, and David Hume. In her article ‘David Hume and the Buddha’, psychology researcher, philosopher, and author Alison Gopnik tells the tale of how she detected elements of Buddhist philosophy in Hume’s A Treatise on Human Nature, and how she set out to discover if he had indeed been influenced by it.

In Hume’s time, mid-1700’s, there was very little access to Buddhist philosophy in Europe, at least in part due to church suppression of its public dissemination. There was, however, some accounts of it buried in private libraries here and there, especially among the Jesuits, travelers, missionaries, and scholars as they were (and are). As Gopnik read up on Buddhist philosophy and European first encounters with it, she stumbled upon more than an ideological link with Hume: a possible way he could have discovered as a young scholar.

Like the 23-year-old Hume, Gopnik had fallen into a depression, but in her case, it was brought on by the changes that so often occur in mid-life: the children have grown up and left home, her marriage had broken up, she moved, and the stress of it all left her unable to work for a time. Hume’s depression was likely brought on by too many years of intense study, too much time spent indoors all alone. His Letter to a Physician of 1734 is a clear and detailed account of what it’s like to suffer a severe bout of depression, and he recognized it, clear-headed naturalist that he was, as an ailment of the physical body, and just as amenable to a cure if only the right one could be found.

Hume found the cure for depression in regular exercise and in enjoying the company of other people; Gopnik found in in a new love and renewed enthusiasm for her favorite pursuits, but first she found it in Hume. After finishing Gopnik’s story, I find myself even more impatient for my next traveling philosophy adventure in the history of ideas. Until then, I’ll continue to be inspired by Hume’s, Gopnik’s, the Buddha’s, and other great thinkers’ work, and heed Thomas Jefferson’s advice: if you keep yourself busy and your mind occupied, depression will be hard pressed to find its way in.

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Gopnik, Alison. ‘David Hume and the Buddha’. The Atlantic, October 2015 issue.
Published online as ‘How an 18th-Century Philosopher Helped Solve My Midlife Crisis:

David Hume, the Buddha, and a search for the Eastern roots of the Western Enlightenment’.
http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2015/10/how-david-hume-helped-me-solve-my-midlife-crisis/403195/

To Paris, France I Go, In Search of Revolution-Era Thomas Paine, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Thomas Jefferson

Hello, friends of Ordinary Philosophy!

From time to time, I take a trip to some corner of the globe, to explore the lives and ideas of great thinkers in the places where they lived and worked. For this series, I follow in the footsteps of thinkers who are no longer alive, since those who are still telling their own stories. But those who are no longer alive in the body live on in the ideas that they pass on, and in the example they provide for us to follow.

I’m pleased and excited to announce my fourth philosophical-historical themed adventure, this time in Paris, France to follow in the footsteps of Thomas Paine, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Thomas Jefferson at the time of the French Revolution.

The French Revolution, following on the heels of the American Revolution, inspired and horrified many. The financial crisis, caused by over-expenditures in recent wars (including assistance to the Americans) and food shortages, caused by a series of crop failures, led to an uprising mostly of professionals and merchants, joined later by members of the laboring classes. The movement for reform called for disestablishment of the monarchy, who entangled the nation in wars and continued to spend lavishly in times of want, and for ending the special privileges of the aristocracy and clergy, whose tax exemptions often placed the heaviest financial burden on those who could least afford it.

Thomas Paine, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Thomas Jefferson were three Enlightenment thinkers whose work is central in the intellectual legacy of modern human rights movements, and who were heavily influenced by the French Revolution. Paine, a British-born corset-maker who became involved in local politics and reform movements in his native country, in America, and in France, set down his political theory and freethought philosophy in Common Sense, The Rights of Man, and The Age of Reason. Mary Wollstonecraft, who was also born in England and also moved to Paris to take part in the revolutionary activism taking place there, followed Paine’s The Rights of Man with her Vindication of the Rights of Woman, now considered the founding work of the modern feminist movement. Thomas Jefferson, founding father of the United States and eventual President, was an American statesman living in Paris as the events leading up to the French Revolution unfolded, and continued to defend its core democratic values, if not all its tactics, even as it devolved to the bloody Terror.

So off to the Paris I go! There, from August 9th through the 21st, I’ll visit landmarks associated with their lives at this time, and see how the events that occurred at that time in the places where they lived, worked, died, thought, wrote, studied, rested, and played contributed to their thought during and after the Revolution.

~ Thank you, Ronnie Ruedrich and Mark Sloan, for your generous support

Here’s the story of the trip and related essays about these three thinkers and their ideas:

On Today’s Supreme Court Ruling Striking Down State Bans on Gay Marriage

Congratulations to all of my fellow Americans in love who, until today, have been denied the equal protection that’s their Constitutional and moral right. This so happens to be the week I celebrate eight years of happy marriage with the love of my own heart, and I’m so glad that that our society is affirming the love and commitment of so many more people. Here’s to all you lovers out there!