Stop the Madness

to preserve liberty and democracy

Photo by Colin Lloyd on Unsplash

In the U.S, a madness is threatening to overtake our nation. It is a desire for absolute political power: domination of all others by some through the power of the state.

This is real. It is actually happening. It looks like they are perilously close to succeeding.

They call themselves by many names, such as ‘patriot’, ‘conservative’, and ‘evangelical’/‘Christian’. They belong to various organizations, including ‘militias’ and churches. As a group they have converged on the Republican Party, which they are co-opting for their agenda (from which the traditional beneficiaries of that party, Big Business and wealthy individuals, are sure they have nothing to fear).

“Madness” is a psychological/emotional state, not an intellectual position. In this case it is the result of decades of being culturally oppressed. We who recognize the madness for what it is must recognize that its source is entirely legitimate.

For decades, these fellow citizens have been oppressed by the pop culture/ marketing complex of this nation — one could say, going back to the beginnings of ‘Hollywood’, for a full century. That complex dominates everyday life in this nation through all forms of our media: movies, T.V. shows, advertisements — even songs that get played on the radio. Within that complex secular beliefs are privileged over sacral beliefs and ‘liberal’ values privileged over any others.

All beliefs and values are by their nature necessarily arbitrary from the point of view of anyone who does not share them. For any beliefs/values to be imposed on people who do not share them is a form of oppression. Our extant cultural oppression has given rise to a countervailing drive to achieve political oppression.

Why is the madness happening now?

The reason it is happening now is the fall of the Soviet Union. That event, which removed an existential external threat to this country, has allowed them to take our domestic politics to the most extreme levels of partisanship possible (January 6, 2021) since then without being seen as inviting destruction from without.

Recall that it was November, 1994 (less than three full years after the Soviet Union was officially dissolved) that those who have been culturally oppressed in this nation experienced their first taste of political power at the national level. The cohort of Republicans they voted into office that year, giving that party its first majority in the House of Representatives of this nation in forty years, was the first signal success in the political counterattack on the part of the people who are culturally oppressed by the pop culture/marketing complex.

What is to be done?

The pop culture/marketing complex is all about depicting human beings living life. For whatever reason, political liberals dominate that complex. That is why it goes out of its way to depict people who are outside the dominant ethnic and cultural groups. Liberals believe that failing to include examples of such people in their depictions of life is simply wrong because failing to include examples of all kinds of people in those depictions of life is either to pretend that certain kinds of people don’t really exist or to imply that their existence is something so shameful it shouldn’t be depicted.

There are people who would criminalize at least some of those ‘lifestyles’ (if not to say ethnicities), but many people are tolerant of them (at least to the point of not wanting to criminalize them), but would prefer not to see — especially, have their children see — depictions of them. The latter are being drawn into the ranks of the would-be political oppressors.

I do think it would help a great deal if people who are engaged in the pop culture/marketing complex would acknowledge that they are promoting certain beliefs and values. Still, the only ‘cure’ for cultural oppression is political oppression: using the power of the state to say what can and cannot be depicted. The whole point is to stop this nation from going there.

Those of our fellow citizens who are seeking political oppression are rejecting liberty (for all) and democracy (when they are not the majority). Both liberty for all and democracy as an end in itself are required for either to exist. In rejecting those, our fellow citizens are rejecting the traditional understanding in this nation of what justice is.

Again, to preserve liberty or democracy requires preserving both. Those who prefer to emphasize the one or the other must recognize that. We must join together.

We must also be able to rally to our cause citizens who are currently politically unengaged. As part of that effort we do need to present a more coherent argument for liberty and democracy.

At the same time, we have to be able to provide people a vision of society with better material results for the citizens of this nation. Talk of diddling about with taxes/public debt for this program or that one no longer carries any weight. People have been listening to such talk since the Great Depression — almost a century. The promise of a materially sufficient life for all citizens has never been delivered. At this point no one believes for a second that such a society can ever be achieved through governmental programs.

Both of those political needs could be realized if we would advocate for a better understanding of justice in this nation. The understanding of justice that follows is really, as the reader will see, only a more coherent rendering of the traditional ideas about justice in this nation. Beyond preserving liberty and democracy, however, it can help us to transform the economic outcomes of the existing economy for all citizens: no unemployment, poverty, taxes, or public debt. That can all be done with a single legislative Act.

We could make the case that resetting our understanding of justice would not only avoid the worst that could happen if we as a nation were to continue on our present course, but it would make this Union “more perfect” than it has ever been. Even so, for people to accept changing their own understanding of justice, much less anybody else’s, isn’t easy, psychologically or intellectually. It does take courage.

Acts of courage are usually the result of the most profound form of personal liberation possible: a situation so dire that there is nothing to lose by doing what needs to be done. Our fellow citizens who are bent on political oppression certainly are acting courageously, however misbegotten their goals may be. They advocate most vociferously for what they believe and for what they want politically — and they vote! We who love liberty and democracy need to act at least as courageously in advocating for a slightly revised — but profoundly transformative — understanding of justice in this nation (which does not excuse, much less condone, much less ‘require’ any violence).

On the other hand, citizens of this nation have always had only vague (though usually strongly felt) ideas about what justice is, anyway. Even our Declaration of Independence, which provides a litany of injustices, gives no definition of what justice is, but only makes reference to equality and liberty (among other “unalienable Rights”). As for ‘Christian’ ideas about justice, according to the synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), Jesus did talk about justice as much as he talked about loving one another. Yet, he never explicitly defined it. Presumably, ‘justice’ refers that part of his teaching that applies to how people actually treat one another (as opposed to our feelings, attitudes, thoughts, etc.) He did not say anything about political or economic systems. After all, though, if people truly acted with love towards one another there would be no need for a government, and an economy — as relations of reciprocal exchange — simply would not exist. In the world as it exists we have no choice but to address those inevitable processes every society will have.

All traditional ideas about justice in this country can be traced back to Two Treatises of Civil Government, by John Locke (1689). He initiated the idea that justice involves liberty and equality. Here’s the thing: Locke got a lot right, but even within the context of his own conceptual paradigm he didn’t get justice completely right.

It seems clear that Locke set out to ‘prove’ that having a just society means maximizing liberty. While it is true that a just society will maximize liberty, in resetting our understanding of justice the first thing we have to accept is that the maximum liberty that coexisting human beings can share simultaneously is an outcome of a just society: the product of justice, not its source, or foundation, or (to use a term a philosopher might use) predicate, etc.

At the same time, equality is not the end-all and be-all of justice, either. In the first place, other than equality before the law, it is impossible even to imagine what a society in which ‘equality’ were strictly enforced might be structured and function, much less have any idea how to bring such a society into existence, much less maintain such equality over time. As far as this author can surmise, a society of that kind could only mean ‘the exact same for everyone’. Who could want that, even if it could achieved? [Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. wrote a typically, for him, darkly funny story, “Harrison Bergeron,” about a society that attempted to achieve total equality: anyone ‘above average’ in any way is required to accept some kind of appropriate burden to bring them back to the average.]

Locke used equality to constrain liberty. For him, everyone’s liberty ends at the person and property of any other person: it is unjust to transgress beyond that line. Those are commonly accepted limits on liberty in this nation.

In resetting our understanding of justice we have to accept that limits on justice go to more than persons and property. People have interests other than property. So we have to expand Locke’s dictum to say that liberty ends at the ‘person and interests’ of other people.

It is obvious why another person’s person — a person’s physical being — is a legitimate limit on liberty. To get to where we want to go it is worth asking why property is a legitimate limit on liberty.

After all, maximum justice is the goal of a just society, not maximum property. Maximizing justice means maximizing liberty. How does my property limiting your liberty maximize justice?

Property is a legitimate limit on liberty because any person’s property is an integral part of that person’s life. A person’s property is as much a part of a person’s life as that person’s physical self is. It is irrelevant whether it is necessary or not, or useful or not, or has monetary or sentimental value or not, or whether or not any other recognizable justification exists for any piece of property that a person owns. Even if a person’s property was illegitimately acquired, it is still unjust for any other individual person(s) to harm or take it. A person’s property is integral to that person’s life, and that is all anybody has to know. For that reason we must limit our own liberty by respecting all property of any other people.

So property is one integral interest in the lives of people, and for that reason it is a legitimate limit on liberty. Are there any other such interests?

One such interest that is already universally recognized is a person’s reputation. That is why the liberty to commit malicious slander/libel is limited to the point of being illegal. Indeed, to assassinate another person’s character is every bit as vile an act as murder is.

It is also known to all people that physical health is an integral interest that all people have. To put the physical health of others at risk is unjust. Taking measures to protect the health of people against known threats to it is a legitimate limit on liberty. [That goes far beyond the current pandemic, but regarding that situation, while receiving an injection is simply too invasive a thing to be mandated for all people, wearing a mask most certainly is not.]

We all know, furthermore, that a person’s mental/psychological/emotional well-being is another integral interest that all people have. To harm the well-being of that kind of any other person is unjust. To be required to refrain from committing such harm is a legitimate limit on liberty.

So, beyond our physical beings, those are the integral interests that people have: our property, our reputation, our physical well-being, and our mental/psychological/emotional well-being. All are an integral part of people’s lives. All are legitimate limits on liberty. Violating any of them is unjust. To maximize justice we the people must do our part by recognizing the legitimate limits on liberty and abiding by those limits whether any of them have been made illegal or not.

It’s called personal responsibility: self-government. To promote justice on the personal level, involving direct interactions with other people, we must be aware of the effects we might have on their persons and interests and to avoid doing harm to them by injuring/taking from them that which is integral to their lives as human beings.

There is another term for that set of restraints on people’s liberty: mutual respect. For justice to be present I must be respecting your person and interests and you must be respecting mine. Of course, all I can do to bring justice about is to respect your person and interests. If all people are doing that in all aspects of life, however, liberty is maximized.

To respect the persons and interests of one another is to take one another into account as we live our separate lives together in this world. So to promote justice on the personal level, involving direct interactions with other people, we must be aware of the effects we might have on their persons and interests and to avoid doing harm to them by injuring/taking from them that which is integral to their lives as human beings. It all boils down to a handful of absolute prohibitions: no killing, coercing, harming, stealing, or manipulating (which includes lying, cheating, etc.) in our interactions with other people. Anyone who is refraining from actions of those kinds is being just enough.

Mutual respect also applies to society as a whole, in the political process (the process of deciding what the community as a whole should undertake to accomplish and how to go about it) and the economy (the process of producing and acquiring goods and services).

That is as far as justice reaches. Beyond that, personal morality, based on beliefs, takes over. Our beliefs/personal moralities inform our participation in both the political process and the economy, but those societal processes must be just for the outcomes that they produce for society to be just.

For the political process to be just, all citizens must be taken into account in the structure and functioning of that process: the political process must be democratic. That is, freedom of political speech must exist for all citizens and any restrictions on any other form of participation in the political process (voting, running for office, petitioning the government, and peaceable assembly) cannot be arbitrary: they must be universally applicable and universally applied (such as age). Any outcome of a just political process is just (as long as the individuals involved acted justly in the process).

For the economy to be just there must be freedom for people to decide how and to what extent to participate in it: it must be market-based. Beyond that, money is to the economy as those forms of participation are to the political process: necessary for participating in it. Participating in the economy is the only way to satisfy even the most basic, necessary — integral — material needs all people have. In a just nation all citizens must be able to meet those needs. In a nation with a market-based economy that means having access to a sufficient income. So a just nation must have a market-based economy, with all (adult) citizens having access to such an income: any (adult) citizen can become eligible for it. We can call it a “democratically distributed” income.

There is a way to implement such an income* within any nation’s existing economic system — with a single legislative Act — that would not be accomplished via taxes/public debt. For that matter, all government (from central to local) could be funded at the existing level of (per capita) total government spending without taxes/public debt of any kind. At the same time, unemployment and poverty would be eliminated and sustainability would be increased — all accomplished without imposing any cost on employers, without having to redistribute anything, without imposing any limit on income/wealth, without additional regulations, and without requiring people to act any particular way — other than to be willing to work (if able and not yet of retirement age) to have an income: indolence would not be a crime, but there would be no public charity and, one would think, scant private charity for able people who would simply be unwilling to work for an income.

So a nation governed by mutual respect would have the maximum liberty that co-existing people can share simultaneously, a democratic political process, and the market-based economy with which we are all familiar, but with way better outcomes for society. Surely we can all be for all of that. There would still be disagreements on governmental policies and about culture, too, but at least we could all have a better understanding of justice — and justice is, after all, the point of all politics as its participants understand justice to be.

__________

More about the economic paradigm: “Same Economy, Way Better Outcomes for Society” (also here in Medium)

--

--

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Stephen Yearwood

unaffiliated, non-ideological, unpaid: M.A. in political economy (where philosophy and economics intersect) with a focus in money/distributive justice