Tuesday, February 21, 2012

On Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness

In a Gallup poll conducted in September of 2011, 50% of respondents answered “yes” when asked, “Do you think the federal government poses an immediate threat to the rights and freedoms of ordinary citizens?” This could be an illustration of the tiresome and nebulous complaint against “big government.” It could be an example of the famously paranoid style of American politics. But it could also be evidence that the American people are wiser than is sometimes believed.
The Founders left the American people with the advice that, when it is believed that the government has gone off course, it is time to return to “fundamental principles.”  These are conveyed, in abbreviated form, in the phrase, “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
Of course, there is no proof that Americans still revere the ideals. This is an age, after all, when noble-sounding ideals are seen as unsophisticated. For some, talk of life, liberty, and happiness is a relic of antiquated Enlightenment thinking. Liberal intellectuals who follow Richard Rorty will dismiss Enlightenment philosophy as essentialist: that is, dogmatic and proselytizing. Multiculturalists may believe that the Founders were too uniformly white and male to be taken seriously today. The critics of the Founders are less damaging to their memory, though, than the praise of that peculiar breed of modern American who is notable for his beer belly, tricorn hat, and an unhealthy obsession with the Second Amendment.
But before it is even possible to consider whether the ideals of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” are still meaningful to Americans, it is necessary to consider whether the words are widely understood. After all, language has changed since the 1770’s. The press of day-to-day life gives little cause or opportunity to reflect on these merely historical, academic notions.
It’s doubtful that Americans still learn this antique vocabulary. The American Pageant[1] for example is a widely adopted high school textbook and may give an indication of what young people are being taught. The book does not explain what the Founders meant by “liberty,” “property,” “equality,” “natural law,” “anarchy” or “tyranny.” John Locke, who was probably the single most important influence on the political thinking of the Founders, is only mentioned once – and then it is to credit his contribution to 19th century transcendentalist philosophy. Nothing is said about Cato’s Letters, a collection of writings that helped articulate the fears of the American colonists, rally them around fundamental principles, and spark the War of Independence.[2]
There are also plenty of misconceptions. People are mistaken about the word “liberty.” The libertarian may believe, with Ayn Rand, that “liberty” means, “Man’s right to individual action, individual choice, individual initiative, and individual property.”[3] But the Founders were never drawn to radical individualism; in their eyes, what Rand describes is not liberty but anarchy.  John Adams defined anarchy as a state in which, “Every Man will do what is right in his own Eyes.” Where there is anarchy, Adams warned, self-serving justifications will be offered for every sort of offense against another human being, and “no Man’s life or Property or Reputation or Liberty will be secure.”[4] Anarchy leads, ultimately, to the explosion of buildings and public property.

Faces of Anarchy. As noted here, "fringe" elements have traditionally been employed as "bogey-men" to frighten a naive populace into submission, either when they are protesting injustices, or asked to accept further usurpations of their freedoms. (Update to post, May 2nd, 2012)

Wall Street, bombed by anarchists in the year 1919. The ensuing "Red Scare" provides an historical example of how extremists and their extreme acts are used by government to impugn the motives of peaceful dissenters.

“Liberty,” as the Founders knew it, refers to the “happiness to live under laws of our own making.”[5] It comprises a set of rules that the people create and agree upon and that allows them to live together amicably. Locke said that liberty, like the law, must be “equal and impartial.”[6] Liberty, in other words, only exists in the sense that unanimity exists, when it applies to everyone.   
The coiled snake defending liberty (symbolized as a tree).

The Founders often contrasted liberty and tyranny. By Locke’s definition, a tyrant is any leader who uses power, “not for the good of those who are under [his power], but for his own private, separate advantage.”[7] Hence, tyranny is synonymous with corruption, inasmuch as corrupt motives generally lead to abuses of power. It exists wherever there are political leaders acting against the interests of the people they’ve been entrusted to represent. Here again, the meanings of words change. Locke’s definition is at odds with the modern sensibility, which reserves the word “tyranny” for only the most overt, prima facie cases of “cruel and oppressive government.”[8]
The Founders were certainly not Puritans, although historian Forrest McDonald is justified in characterizing the government they created as a “puritanical republic.”[9] McDonald was referring specifically to the Puritans’ pessimistic – or merely unsentimental – view of human nature. Jefferson, sounding a bit like Cotton Mather, wrote, “in every government on earth is some trace of human weakness, some germ of corruption and degeneracy, which cunning will discover, and wickedness insensibly open, cultivate, and improve.” Puritans and Whigs both understood that insatiable greed and self-interest are the norm rather than exception; they are the inevitable consequence of exposure to wealth and influence. To resist the encroaching nature of these vices, people rely on one another for mutual encouragement and watchfulness.
Tyranny grows by stages. Like a cancer, it is dangerous before symptoms are detected. It starts as petty corruption. The longer this corruption is allowed to continue unimpeded, the more ravenous and destructive it becomes. Yet, it is only after the corruption has reached an advanced stage do the signs become unmistakable; then, it will resist any efforts on the part of the people to eliminate it. Thus, it is possible for tyranny to exist and the only indication one has is the feeling that, no matter who wins an election, the promised and most urgently needed changes will not occur. And it is only after many small compromises that cruelty and oppression, in the form of unlawful imprisonment, unreasonable searches of law-abiding people, suppression of freedom of speech, and punishing the innocent, manifests.
Today, for a lot of people, “equality” means the absence of discrimination. To the 18th century mind, equality meant the absence of privilege. In monarchies, privileged citizens swayed elections and had their own separate more lenient and accommodating system of justice. The poor could literally be hanged for stealing a loaf of bread, but the privileged could evade punishment for far more destructive crimes – such as taking public money for private gain, or causing banks to fail.
Today, the word “property” means “something that is owned.” It is often considered to be synonymous with “private property.” When it was used in the Founders’ era, especially in a legal context, the word meant “a claim to possession.” People did not say “I have property,” but instead, “I have a property in it.”[10] Justice John Vaughan, in the 1673 case of Thomas v. Sorrell, ruled that “every man … has a property and right … in life, liberty, and estate … which the law allows him to defend, and if it be violated, [the law] gives an action to redress the wrong, and to punish the wrongdoer.” And, “To violate men’s properties is never lawful.”[11] These ideas were later championed by John Locke in his claim that property consists of “lives, liberties and estates.”[12]
Then, as now, “property” meant different things to different people. For Tories – many of whom were landholders – the word “property” meant property in land. Anything other than land was chattels. For Whigs, who represented the commercial and professional classes, the word “property” meant property in rights, among which, the right to possess the products of one’s own labor without fear of confiscation by the government or by landlords.
The distinction between property in land and property in rights is essential to understanding the origins of the fundamental principles revered by the Founders. To appreciate this, some historical background is necessary. During the 17th and 18th centuries, the king exerted political and economic influence by conferring land grants, offices, and honors. Some saw this as a vestige of seigniorial monarchy. This refers to a Feudal Era theory of government in which property in land is the origin of political authority and a kingdom remains in the possession of the king and his heirs in perpetuity. Through a system of tenure certain individuals –usually wealthy and privileged aristocrats – were allowed to hold a piece of land as though it were theirs for a period of time. This arrangement consigned the remainder of the population to the status of renters; their lives and livelihoods depended on the forbearance of the aristocrats.
A feudal landowner could take his renters’ belongings as he pleased. He could charge a rack-rent, which allows the tenant to keep only a bare subsistence, and requires him pay the rest. If the renter decided to leave, he’d have to pay a quit-rent before being permitted to do so. During the Feudal Era, there were a few masters and a great number of slaves.
When Cato’s Letters was written, remnants of this feudal vision still animated political thinking. Therefore, they were expressing bold and fairly new ideas when they said, “every Man has a Property in his own Person. This no Body had any Right to but himself. The Labour of his Body, and the Work of his Hands, we may say, are properly his.” And Locke, in his explication of natural rights, said that mankind is God’s handiwork, and is made to last “during his, not one another's pleasure: and being furnished with like faculties, sharing all in one community of nature, there cannot be supposed any such subordination among us …  as if we were made for one another's uses.”
In the context of Great Britain’s legacy of feudalism and the hardship that it imposed on so many people, Jefferson felt he could replace the word “property” with “the pursuit of happiness” without causing too great a change in meaning. On the subject of happiness, as it pertains to the body politic, Benjamin Franklin wrote, “the true principles of the happiness of nations” will be achieved when “The causes, which tend continually to accumulate and concentrate landed property and wealth in a few hands, may be diminished” and “the remains of the feudal system may be abolished.”[13]
Even though property qualifications prevented many of them from voting, and still fewer from sitting in Parliament, many Britons believed that they lived in a royal monarchy. The king, by this view, acts as a protector, rather than owner, of the kingdom. So he does not regard the county casually as something he rents out over the holidays or loans to a friend. Thomas Paine noted the British disdain for seigniorial monarchy in a letter: “When it was reported in the English Newspapers … that the empress of Russia had given to one of her minions a large tract of country and several thousands of peasants as property, it very justly provoked indignation and abhorrence.” Yet, Paine added, the situation was not so different in Great Britain. Even the poorest citizens had to pay taxes, and a large portion of the public revenue became gifts, grants, pensions and bail-outs that the king and his ministers exchanged for the purpose of personal profit, political loyalty, or extracting favors.[14]  
John Adams saw history in a similar light. Writing about Queen Elizabeth, he noted that, “her private interest and the importunity of her avaricious favourites, betrayed her into the measure of granting monopolies, and of creating exclusive companies with exclusive privileges, fatal to the interest of her most industrious subjects.”[15]

The Evolution of the Idea of Property, in Relation to the American Revolution
Royal prerogative at the time extended to foreign trade. King Charles II, for example, granted a corporation by the name of The Royal African Company exclusive trading rights for portions of modern-day Libya. And, the company was given authority to confiscate the ships of unauthorized traders.
Commander Bridges’ ship was confiscated by this company. He believed he had a right to carry out trade, and took the matter to court. His lawyer, a man named Bartholomew Shower, questioned whether the king had the power to bestow properties on a private company. Citing Thomas v. Sorrell as precedent, Shower argued that property encompasses “life, liberty, and estate.” Property is not the king’s to give. Instead, it belongs to every law-abiding British subject. Hence, decisions regarding the alteration or transfer of properties require parliamentary approval.[16]
Shower’s winning the case did not prevent parliament from granting exclusive trading rights. The East India Company continued to exercise its trading rights in India and elsewhere, on the condition that its stock consistently paid a dividend of 12%. The government received a yearly fixed return of £ 400,000 but earned considerably more by stimulating 4 million in trade per year; the company became “the great money-engine of state.”[17] Many citizens were unconcerned by or resigned to the fact that the king and members of parliament owned stock in the company.
The government sent thousands of soldiers to India, both to collect revenues on behalf of the company and to suppress rebellion. Muslim provincial rulers, the nawabs, were given fiefdoms and an ambitious revenue target each year. The targets were met by means of rack-rents and revenue agents. Revenue agents entered cities and villages to collect exactions: meaning, the payments required of Indian people to cover the expenses of British soldiers as well as a growing army of British civil servants, many of whom were political appointees. If the nawabs fell short of the target, they had to borrow the money to pay. The British exploited the opportunity to become lenders and charge high interest rates. In time, new bonds were issued to pay for earlier bonds, and revenue mortgages (borrowing against future revenue) were signed. If they met the revenue target, the target would be raised. This left the nawabs with little time to spare for the “exertions of honest industry” (as one observer put it), as they were forced to focus their attention on speculative financial schemes.[18]
The East India Company was also involved in engrossing domestic products – meaning, they purchased goods in such supply that they could control prices, so as the Indians were asked to pay more, they were also forced to sell for less. According to Macaulay’s historical account, “Enormous fortunes were thus rapidly accumulated at Calcutta, while thirty millions of human beings were reduced to the extremity of wretchedness."[19] And not only were the Indians earning less money, hard currency was steadily being taken out of their economy and sent abroad. Edmund Burke observed, at the time, “Every rupee of profit made by an Englishman is lost forever to India.”[20] Domestic investment in manufacturing and infrastructure fell into steady decline, and credit became increasingly hard to come by.
In Bengal, after a drought had led to a poor crop, company administrators made up the lost revenue by charging a rate of 60% on tax and tariffs. The Bengalese farmers were left with no other alternative than to stop growing food and start to growing opium poppies, a far more lucrative crop, thus inaugurating the modern pattern in which the creation of fiefdoms creates the violent trade in drugs. When the farmers abandoned the production of food crops, it created a famine, and several million Bengalese people died of disease and starvation.[21] Over time, the effect of the company’s policies on farming and manufacturing led to lost production. This caused the company to struggle financially, even as directors and managers enjoyed great wealth.
Having read about the events in India, Britons were appalled by the newly and ostentatiously wealthy East India Company employees who returned to England. Still, many managed to buy their way into parliament – by 1780, there were 27 of these so-called “nabobs” in office.[22]
It is likely that 18th century Americans were avid readers of Cato’s Letters because this collection of writings provided insight into current affairs. Copies were distributed in every colony, some coming directly from Benjamin Franklin’s presses. The authors of Cato’s Letters posed the question, “What has [the East India Company] done for the benefit of trade, which they were established … to promote? They have suffered numbers of our manufactures to rot … hindered private traders from carrying on an advantageous commerce … and, it is said, by their wise conduct, have lost a million or two of the Company's principal.” As the fortunes of the East India Company foundered through their “extravagance and folly,” the directors of the company conspired to inflate (or “job”) the price of their company stock. When they “wound up the cheat to the highest pitch that it can go,” they will, “like rats, leave a falling house,” and allow “multitudes of people to be crushed by it.”
And once they have earned their latest windfall by manipulating the price of stock, they will finally “bring themselves into the legislature with their peddling and jobbing talents about them, and so become brokers in politics as well as stock, wanting every qualification which ought to give them a place there.” Through forestalling, buying, and selling votes, they will, “fill their private purses with many thousands [in profit] … load the people with many millions [in debt].”
The economist Adam Smith also wrote about the effects of these mercantilist policies. He used the term “monopoly” more broadly than it is used today, to refer any situation in which supply is artificially restricted to a small number of producers. He saw government-sponsored franchises or “exclusive companies” as examples of this practice. Monopolies increase the amount of profit enjoyed by a privileged few, he believed, by denying profit to the large numbers of people who are shut out of the market. Adam Smith’s thinking is reflected in the modern economic concept of rent-seeking. The term is an allusion to feudalism: when landholding aristocrats charged their peasants rent, wealth was taken out of the hands of the numerous, industrious poor and placed in the hands of the wealthy, idle few.
Against the East India Company's importation of tea, 1773. Note the reference to "private interests."
When the British government gave the East India Company exclusive rights to sell tea in the colonies, it was intended as a bail out for the struggling company. The colonists preferred to boycott this “monopolized and dutied” tea.[23] Benjamin Franklin wrote, with apparent satisfaction, that, “The … refusal of North America to take tea from … [the East India Company] has brought infinite distress on the Company. They imported great quantities [for sale in the colonies] … and now they can neither pay their debts nor dividends; their stock has sunk … and government will lose its £ 400,000 a year.”[24] John Adams stated the case plainly: the colonists chose not to buy the tea because they wanted to resist the British scheme to introduce, in the colonies, “the inequalities and dependencies of the feudal system.”[25]
When the United States Constitution was being drafted, Jefferson sought to include in the Bill of Rights, along with freedom of speech and freedom of the press, a “freedom of commerce against monopolies.”[26] But he was to discover that there were, even among the delegates assembled to ratify the Constitution, some who would oppose this idea. The changing meaning of the expression “free trade” is, regrettably, too large a subject to be considered here.

[1] Eleventh Edition. Thomas A. Bailey, David Kennedy, & Lizabeth Cohen. Houghton Mifflin.
[2] Bernard Bailyn, The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution.
[3] Ayn Rand, http://fare.tunes.org/liberty/library/toptt.html
[4] An Essay on Man’s Lust for Power, 1763 / 1807.
[5] Benjamin Church, Cited in Gordon Wood, The Creation of the American Republic, 1776 – 1787.
[6] A Letter Concerning Toleration, 1689
[7] Second Treatise on Government, 1689.
[8] Miriam-Webster Dictionary
[9] Novus Ordo Seclorum
[10] See David Seipp, ‘The Concept of Property in the Early Common Law’
[11] Cited in Seipp, ibid
[12] Second Treatise on Government.
[13] ‘Reflection on the Augmentation of Wages.’ 1788.
[14] Second Letter to Lord Onslow, 1792
[15] A New History of Great Britain, 1802.
[16] Report of Cases Adjudged in the Court of King's Bench During the Reigns of Charles II, James II, & William III, Volume 2, 1794.
[17] George Dempster. 1773. Proceedings and Debates in Parliament.
[18] Phillips, ‘A Successor to the Moguls: The Nawab of the Carnatic and the East India Company, 1763-1785.’ 1985.
[19] Essay On Clive, published 1907.
[20] Speech on Mr. Fox’s East India Bill. 1780.
[21] Marshall, Problems of Empire
[22] Lawson & Philips, ‘Perception of Nabobs in Mid-Eighteenth Century Britain’
[23] Benjamin Faneuil, cited in Francis Drake, Tea Leaves. 1970.
[24] Ministry Embarrassed with the Affairs of the India Company -- Distress among the Manufacturers. 1773
[25] A Dissertation on the Canon and Feudal Law, 1765
[26] Letter to A. Donald. 1788.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

On Libertarians, Progressives & Whigs

The Problem

Mickey Edwards’ article in The Atlantic begins like this. 

Angry and frustrated, American voters went to the polls in November 2010 to “take back” their country. Just as they had done in 2008. And 2006. And repeatedly for decades, whether it was Republicans or Democrats from whom they were taking the country back. No matter who was put in charge, things didn’t get better. They won’t this time, either; spending levels may go down, taxes may go up, budgets will change, but American government will go on the way it has, not as a collective enterprise but as a battle between warring tribes.[1]
Mr. Edwards goes on to present an analysis of the American two-party system that is reminiscent of what Elmer Schattschneider wrote back in 1942. He said, “A political party is first of all an organized attempt to get power. Power is here defined as control of the government (emphasis added).”[2] Hence, an individual with political aspirations chooses one of the two parties, and makes a deal: in exchange for loyalty to the party, he or she will have the assistance of the party organization in winning elections. The cynic might add to the equation this: the party organization is most interested in supporting candidates who can reliably bring in vast amounts of campaign contributions. Because there is no mistaking the fact that a candidate and a party need money in order to buy ads, do the opposition research, and anonymously circulate stories that are detrimental to the other party’s candidate. Sometimes a candidate will act against another candidate in the same party. During the primary campaign of 2008, the story of John Edwards’ expensive haircuts was sent to the media by Barack Obama’s staff.[3] Politics, therefore, is a cut-throat game. A zero-sum game, in which there must be one winner and one loser.

Mr. Edwards continues: “we elect our leaders, and they then govern, in a system that makes cooperation almost impossible and incivility nearly inevitable, a system in which the campaign season never ends and the struggle for party advantage trumps all other considerations.” Our political system is “focused not on collective problem-solving but on a struggle for power between two private organizations.” He proceeds to explain how the two-party system has, over the years, become very effective in holding on to its power, by gerrymandering, instituting closed primaries, and deciding which issues will set the agenda at a particular point in time. 

A third party candidate cannot hope to find a party organization that has the resources and level of control over local politics that the Democratic and Republican parties enjoy. If a third party candidate manages to get elected, he or she is required to caucus with either the Democrats or Republicans. And sometimes – for example, in the case of the Independent senator from Connecticut, Joe Lieberman – a politician who shows loyalty to neither party becomes a petty tyrant, able to sell (figuratively speaking, of course) his or her vote to the highest bidder. 

The question of whether political parties are, in fact, more concerned about winning elections than they are any other consideration can be settled by looking at the empirical data. Many Americans still believe that the Democratic Party is the party of the poor and laboring classes and the Republican Party is the party of the businessperson. Democrats are, by reputation, relatively more willing to spend public money on social programs, whereas Republicans stand for frugality and limited government. Is there evidence that party leaders will sacrifice these principles in order to win elections, to stay in power, or pursue some agenda that is clearly not designed with the good of the American public in mind?  

Millions of Jobs Exported Per Year     source
Back in the 1990’s, Democratic President Bill Clinton decimated social welfare programs (here), repealed the Glass-Steagall Act, and supported NAFTA. Each of these measures harmed the poor and working classes. The deregulation of Wall Street firms has resulted in the loss of incalculable sums of public money and obliterated the retirement savings of countless American families. NAFTA was promoted with the promise that it would increase the number of American jobs, but even a cursory look at the employment picture since it was passed will show that there has been a net loss of American jobs (here). The only Americans who seem to have benefited from NAFTA have been the heads of large multinational corporations who now have a more convenient means of replacing American workers with less expensive Mexican workers. Now companies can easily boost their own profits by firing Americans, and make the shareholders happy.  Republican George W. Bush spurned the Republican ideals of thrift and limited government by increasing the size of government, abandoning any pretense of fiscal restraint, and embroiling the country in two costly, interminable, and unproductive wars. 

Many Americans are still emotionally attached to one or the other political party. In this sentimental haze, they are liable to accept, uncritically, the stories their party tells them. They will believe in fairy-tales about “job creators” even if the only jobs that are being created are in Mexico, China, and India. And now, after President Obama’s latest free trade deal (quietly passed when America’s attention was focused on some manufactured crisis involving debt ceilings), we may expect an increase in the exportation of American jobs to South Korea. The sentimental American who still believes in political fairy tales will trust the president when he says that he really wanted to raise taxes on millionaires, and would have done, if it wasn’t for those people on the other side of the aisle. But it is in the interest of both political parties to place more money in the hands of millionaires. The political party that places money in the hands of wealthy benefactors can expect, in exchange, gratitude, support, and campaign contributions. 

Americans who keep a close eye on politics have become disenchanted with the two-party system. Some Republicans are turning to a Libertarian political philosophy and some Democrats are turning to a Progressive philosophy. Ordinarily, a diversity of opinion is a good thing, but in these troubled times, what is needed more than anything else is unity.  The Founders were able to unite the colonists, at least long enough to win the War of Independence against Great Britain. What unified the colonists back then was a Whig philosophy, which will be discussed a little later on. 


According to the Cato Institute, libertarianism hinges on the concept of individual rights. “Because individuals are moral agents, they have a right to be secure in their life, liberty, and property. These rights are not granted by government or by society; they are inherent in the nature of human beings.”[4] However, the mistake is immediately apparent. “Individual rights” is an oxymoron (for further discussion on this key issue, go here). The rights of life, liberty, and property are, in fact, granted by society. How could it be otherwise? A right only exists for as long as it is respected. If attacked by an armed murderer or robber, one cannot defend against the attack simply by stating, “I have a right to my own life and possessions.” Laws to protect rights have no practical significance or visible presence unless they are widely understood, agreed upon, observed, and enforced. 

If rights are not the product of social interactions and social institutions, but instead a characteristic of persons, what would that mean? One may envision a solitary individual living in a state of nature, awake at all times, hand-made weapon in hand, within the confines of his or her own hermitage. Thomas Hobbes envisioned this state of affairs to be “nasty, brutish, and short.” This is, admittedly, a mere philosophical fine-point, and neither refutes the logic of Libertarianism nor lessens its appeal for its many devotees. 

In the same Cato Institute essay, the author presents the principle of limited government, which holds that government is a “dangerous institution.” This is not an incorrect view, but it is incomplete. The people should fear governmental abuses of power, but they should also fear abuses of power committed by corporate oligarchs existing outside of government, and they should fear direct democracy if there is no safety against tyranny by aggrieved, unreasoning, uninformed, self-interested, and stupefied citizens. Dangers to liberty come from many directions. Moreover, there is no inherent virtue in limited government, if it is too limited to prevent precipitous and ill-conceived alterations of the law. And mischiefs will arise if there is no specific and detailed answer to the question, “limited in what respects?” 

The most worrying feature of Libertarianism is its notion of “social parasites.” Thomas Jefferson is often quoted, as he said, “We have more machinery of government than is necessary, too many parasites living on the labor of the industrious.” This quotation is very misleading when it is viewed apart from the corpus of Jefferson’s writings.  He was undeniably concerned about the danger of the “leveling impulse” which seeks to take from the rich and give to the poor. But he was equally concerned with other threats to the republic. He wrote, “Experience declares that man is the only animal which devours his own kind, for I can think of no milder term to apply to ... the general prey of the rich on the poor.”[5] Liberals and conservatives are both able to cherry-pick quotes from Jefferson because he was both liberal and conservative in his thinking: that is, he was able to imagine that both liberal and conservative viewpoints provide a glimpse of the truth, even if they seem to contradict each other.
Some people are uncomfortable around Libertarians because of all this talk about parasites. Ayn Rand said that people who “live by the ability of others” are parasites. Consider the following quote: “And here man faces his basic alternative: he can survive in only one of two ways - by the independent work of his own mind or as a parasite fed by the minds of others. The creator originates. The parasite borrows. The creator faces nature alone. The parasite faces nature through an intermediary.” Elsewhere she writes, “To be a 'great man' means to have to take action, make decisions and bear the responsibility. This, the parasite cannot and will not do.” Murray Rothbard is a famous Libertarian who uses the same imagery, having written: “the public sector can only feed off the private sector; it necessarily lives parasitically upon the private economy.” In place of the great man, it is the private sector that is being valorized, and the public sector is left as a scapegoat.
This stark division between light and dark, strength and weakness, great men and parasites, is virtually identical to what one finds in Mein Kampf, with inhumane references to foreigners “sucking like leeches …” on the German economy, assorted references to the Jews as “wandering parasites,” and members of parliament as “bedbugs” (see here). It is the philosophy of the Ubermensch, Prometheus, John Galt, and legions of self-appointed self-made men (all too often they are trust-babies) who imagine that they tower above the common lot of humanity.The name Jefferson had for them was "pseudo-aristocrats."
Despite the worrying parallels that can be drawn between some elements of Libertarian thinking and the unmitigated evil of fascism, the only real connection between the two is a shared anger toward the importunities of people who (from their perspective) take more from society than they give. It is the anger felt by those who strongly wish to be given the opportunity to be self-sufficient; they are confident in their capacity for industry, creativity and self-sufficiency, but also convinced that the political regime is conspiring against their ambitions for success and prosperity. The white man who lacks a college education does not believe that he is particularly privileged when competing against African-Americans, Hispanics, or women for a job. He may hear about the liberals’ downward redistribution of wealth, but lives in a hardscrabble, forgotten community that does not appear to be a recipient of this government largesse. Red state residents are among the poorest of the poor in this country. Farmers who live beside dirt roads can be forgiven if they do not care to see public money spent on high-speed rail, smart highways, and electric cars.
The Libertarian is sensitive to the danger that people may ask too much of society. Are there people who accept unemployment benefits but who are not looking for work? Are there people who sue automobile manufacturers after their own careless behavior causes a collision?  Do employees sometimes demand pay raises even to the point that their employer is driven to bankruptcy? Undoubtedly there are; and these maddening stories of life in the Nanny State fortify Libertarians in their thinking. 

Landlords, medical personnel, social workers, and police officers are among those who regularly interact with people who do not appear to value the importance of being self-sufficient or accepting personal responsibility. There is a kind of horror that arises when one encounters people who appear to be unwilling to bestir themselves to action, even if it is to save their own lives. It is a horror that sometimes turns to anger, particularly by those who carry a heavy burden of personal responsibility in their daily lives, and still feel the sacrifices – futile or not – that they have made along the way.
Contemporary Libertarians deserve credit for being outspoken opponents of governmental abuse of power. The Democratic Party has, since the Vietnam War, held the reputation of being advocates of peace; yet, in the current political campaign, the most vocal critic of militarism and imperialism has been a Libertarian Republican named Ron Paul. Additionally, democrats have been less zealous than they ought to be in defending privacy against unlawful surveillance of Americans, defending human dignity against torture and unlawful detention –as observed at Guantanamo Bay – and defending the principle that government has no place punishing citizens for victimless crimes such as the private use of marijuana in one’s home. In these respects, the Libertarians are more liberal, in the classical sense, than the Democratic Party orthodoxy has become. And most refreshingly, they are learning to see the world in a way that is not defined by the stories that either Democrats or Republicans tell.  


If the Libertarians are guilty of a one-sided and romantic embrace of the ideal of individualism, Progressives are guilty of an equally one-sided and romantic embrace of the ideal of communitarianism. Progressives are motivated by the possibility that government can improve the lives of the poor. However, like the Libertarian, the Progressive sees a world of light and dark. Instead of the great man versus the parasite, it is the struggling poor versus the heartless, wealthy Fat Cat. Rather than seeing the world through a lens of self-reliant individualism and personal responsibility, the Progressives discern the presence of sociological phenomena that, like the Greek gods of old, have the power to elevate some people into a life of ease and force others into a life of misery and crime.
The Progressive Party began in the opening years of the 20th century, when the pendulum of political power had swung in favor of the interests of mammoth corporate trusts and monopolies, and far from the interests of common ordinary citizens. The progressive tradition draws a sharp contrast between public interest and public spiritedness on one hand, and private interests, self-dealing and corruption on the other. This framing of the issues is taken directly from the republican tradition of Locke and his contemporaries. As stated in their 1912 party platform, 

Political parties exist to secure responsible government and to execute the will of the people.
From these great tasks both of the old parties have turned aside. Instead of instruments to promote the general welfare, they have become the tools of corrupt interests which use them … to serve their selfish purposes. Behind the ostensible government sits enthroned an invisible government owing no allegiance and acknowledging no responsibility to the people.[6]
The Progressives were committed to enforcing safety regulations to prevent workers from being injured or killed at the workplace; to end child labor; to institute a minimum wage; and limit the workday to 8 hours during a time when there were almost no restrictions on the number of hours a company could require employees to work. Progressives stood up against impurities in food that killed or sickened countless Americans. Instead of the Libertarian ideal of limited government, Progressives favor a more expansive role for government. 

The Progressives were influenced in their thinking by Marx, but it would be wrong to paint them all as Marxists, communists, or fellow-travelers. What they did take away from Marx was his vision of a world divided between virtuous proletarians and capitalist Fat Cats. One difficulty arising from this Marxist legacy is the fact that many Americans do not see themselves as oppressed and miserable proletarians. Many came to this country to escape that reality and create another. They are too proud and remain optimistic that, through hard work, they can realize the American dream. There is some truth in the claim that government "hand-outs," aimed at helping the poor, inadvertently attaches the stigma of shame to government intervention on behalf of its most at need constituents (see here).

Also, Americans understand that the wealthy classes are not all enemies of the working class but are in many cases been powerful champions of republican and egalitarian government. And many Americans live in two worlds: they may be upwardly-mobile managers or business owners during the week, but visit economically struggling friends and relatives on the weekends. They understand that America still promotes prosperity for some, but launches others into a state of unemployed, uninsured, foreclosed-upon poverty. 

The Progressives are limited by their single-minded attention to social policy, and by their failure to articulate new ideas regarding economic policy (see here). It is likely that their reticence to deal openly with economic policy stems from the fear that their Marxist roots will show.

The Marxist assumption that capitalism is inherently exploitive and destructive does not hold up under scrutiny. Modern day economists find virtues in the free market while also recognizing that a market is only free for as long as trusts and monopolies do not stand in the way of competition and corrupt price-fixing and rent-seeking practices are prohibited. Well before Marx began to advance his economic and political views, the Founders had grappled with similar ideas, being versed in the writings of economists including Adam Smith, Anne Robert Jacques Turgot and Cesare Beccaria, and solidly grounded in a Whig political philosophy.  

The Whigs

Henry Middleton was the second president of the Continental Congress in 1774. Addressing this body, he said, “In every human society, says the celebrated Marquis Beccaria, there is an effort continually tending to confer on one part the height of power and happiness, and to reduce the other to the extreme of weakness and misery. The intent of good laws is to oppose this effort, and to diffuse their influence universally and equally.” It is likely that he was expressing views which were then, at least among the assembled members of the Congress, an uncontroversial and widely-held view. 

Whigs believed that human beings are, by nature, very susceptible to the temptation to pursue personal, short-term advantage even if it may lead to a public, long-term disaster. This psychological insight (well-supported by modern investigations in the field of behavioral economics, and sometimes referred to as short-termism) is woven into their political philosophy, and is particularly salient in the writings of Jefferson, John Adams, and James Madison. Madison, for example, warned of the grave potential for corruption in government, and defined “corruption” as the practice of “substituting the motive of private interest in place of public duty.” Corrupt leaders are bent on “ ... accommodating [legislation] to the avidity of a part of the nation instead of the benefit of the whole: in a word, enlisting an army of interested partizans, whose tongues, whose pens, whose intrigues, and whose active combinations ... support a real domination [by] the few, under an apparent liberty of the many. Such a government ... is an imposter (emphasis added).”[7]

One feature that sets the Whig philosophy apart from both the Progressive and Libertarian views is the rejection of a Manichean division of the world into light and dark. They did not see politics as the struggle between great men and parasites, or between the virtuous poor and the wealthy, avaricious Fat Cats. Instead, the Whigs knew that every segment of society has the potential to abuse power in order to advance its own interests, even at the expense of the public interest. John Adams said, “If the poor are to domineer over the rich, or the rich over the poor, we will never enjoy the happiness of good government; and without an intermediate power, sufficiently elevated and independent to control each of the contending parties in its excesses, one or the other will forever tyrannize.”[8] The Founders, all classical scholars, took heed of Plutarch’s warning that, “An imbalance between rich and poor is the oldest and most fatal ailment of all Republics.”
The Whigs sought to design a mixed form of government to ensure that no one group, united by shared interests, gains advantage over other groups. They were particularly concerned by the competing claims and vastly different priorities of the rich and the poor. Their solution was modeled after the British example: they had instituted a House of Commons to represent the lower classes, a House of Lords to represent the upper classes, and an executive branch to moderate their disputes. The United States Constitution likewise stipulates a bicameral legislature and an executive branch.
If this design has failed to achieve its intended purpose, it may be because the users of the Constitution have failed to consult the warnings and instructions that the Founders provided. The form of government outlined in the Constitution will only be successful, the Founders believed, for as long as voters and politicians are able to put aside their private interests and consider the public interest. Otherwise, the entire nation will pay a heavy price. The Founders believed that private interest groups both create and result from a “spirit of faction.” “By a faction,” Madison wrote, “I understand a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or a minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.”[9]
George Washington also warned that political parties generally comprise, “a small but artful and enterprizing minority of the Community” who will contend against one another, and through “the alternate triumphs of different parties … make the public Administration the Mirror of the ill concerted and incongruous projects of faction, rather than the Organ of consistent and wholesome plans digested by common councils and modefied by mutual interests.”[10]

The overriding goal for the reform-minded American, then, is to replace the competitive spirit of faction with a renewed spirit of cooperation. As it is in the interest of neither Republicans nor Democrats to achieve this goal, the American people should not look somewhere between the two for a magical “center.” The American people must accomplish a spirit of cooperation without the expectation of assistance by either party.

Image credit: http://www.calvin.edu/academic/cas/gpa/sturmer.htm

[1] http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2011/07/how-to-turn-republicans-and-democrats-into-americans/8521/?single_page=true
[2] Party Government. Greenwood Press.
[3] http://www.npr.org/blogs/politicaljunkie/2009/11/john_edwards_400_haircut_tip_c.html
[4] http://www.cato.org/pub_display.php?pub_id=5758
[5] letter to Edward Carrington, 1787
[6] http://teachingamericanhistory.org/library/index.asp?document=607
[7] National Gazette, 1792
[8] letter to George Walton, 1789
[9] The Federalist
[10] Farewell Address, 1796