Thursday, April 26, 2012

On Misinterpreting Voltaire

In his poem La Bégueule, Voltaire quotes a saying, “le mieux est l’ennemi du bien,” which in English is, “The best is the enemy of the good.” The moral of the satirical poem may be stated thus: “appreciate the things you have.” The central character in the poem is a lovely but marble-hearted woman who was unimpressed by her life of leisure, and ultimately found it necessary to take an extramarital partner to alleviate her boredom. 

To say “appreciate the things you have” is not the same as saying, “don’t expect much.” The former is advice against greed, envy, and ingratitude. The latter is an expression of defeat when spoken by the downtrodden, and it is an expression of arrogance when spoken by aristocrats and despots.   

Misinterpreting Voltaire's quote to mean "don't expect much" has become a commonplace. It is evidently very consoling to be able to quote (however incorrectly) someone as famously wise as Voltaire when celebrating one’s own pusillanimity. The quote has become a means of consoling oneself for failure, and hence closely akin to the expression, “half a loaf is better than none.” 

I recently commented on an opinion piece presented by an online news source that will remain nameless, and after a brief exchange with other commenters, I was accused of being a purity troll. I was unfamiliar with the expression but soon discovered that it is not a compliment. I also learned that people who disapprove of purity trolls often quote Voltaire, incorrectly. 

The phrase “the perfect is the enemy of the good" also appears in Ray Bennett's valuable book, The Underachiever's Manifesto. Following the phrase to its logical conclusion, he notes, “If something is worth doing at all sometimes it's worth doing it half-assed.”

My reason for discussing the abuses of the adage “the best is the enemy of the good” will become clear shortly. In short, it has become a favorite of politicians, and has also become a means by which voters persuade themselves to lower their own expectations. 

Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA)

In defending PPACA, President Bill Clinton said the following: “Our only responsible choice is the path of action. Does this bill read exactly how I would write it? No. Does it contain everything everyone wants? Of course not. But America can't afford to let the perfect be the enemy of the good (source).” Also in reference to PPACA, Senator Evan Bayh said, as he left a caucus meeting, “The general consensus was, we shouldn’t make the perfect the enemy of the good (source).” 

Sober analysts have concluded that PPACA is a mere stopgap. Yet, the liberal use of variants of the adage, “the best is the enemy of the good” allows a clever politician to transform an expedient compromise into a heroic feat. The narrative goes something like this: Democratic lawmakers were eager to provide Americans with the best of all possible health care systems, but were forced to do battle with recalcitrant Republicans.

A stopgap solution to a problem, in many cases, becomes necessary after considerable resources have
been spent creating the problem in the first place.

The adage also conveys the seemingly very pragmatic and sensible belief that it is impossible to provide everything that everyone wants. Fortuitously, for every Democrat who is prepared to sing the praises of PPACA, there is a Republican who expects PPACA to usher in some sort of medical apocalypse. Clearly then, there is no pleasing everybody. Of course, this assessment overlooks the fact that in every other industrialized Western nation on earth, people were able to come to a consensus and agree to implement some form of universal health care. One may wonder who benefits the most from a hyper-partisan political environment.

A good Whig understands that genuine insights are revealed if one simply observes the flow of money between private interests and political leaders. Using this methodology, one conclusion that may be drawn is that PPACA aims to generously reward hundreds of well-paid executives of the private insurance and pharmaceutical industries who contribute large sums to political campaigns, while providing comparatively niggardly benefits for millions of Americans who were previously uninsured and cannot afford to contribute to political campaigns. This is discussed at greater length in an earlier post and is also discussed in a very illuminating report located here.

                             In general the art of government consists in taking as much money
                             as possible from one class of citizens to give it to the other. 

Troubled Assets Relief Program

The Troubled Assets Relief Program (TARP) became law in the wake of the nearly unprecedented economic disaster that befell the United States in 2007. Economist Joseph Stiglitz, a Nobel Prize winner, has asserted that TARP is tantamount to a massive theft perpetrated on the American people (source). TARP ensured that big banks would be able to keep their profits and avoid further losses. TARP achieved this by making the American taxpayer accountable for any losses that the banks might incur as they returned to their free-wheeling highly speculative financial schemes. As a result, in the years following the economic disaster, the “bailed-out” financial firms have enjoyed record profits and the American people continue to struggle with massive unemployment and economic uncertainty.  

                          The comfort of the rich depends upon an abundant supply of the poor.

At the time, the American people were told that TARP may have flaws, but it was necessary. Senator Majority Leader Harry Reid said, “We should not let the perfect be the enemy of the good, and … we must move this legislation forward (source).” President Obama himself stated, “I urge all of us not to make perfect the enemy of the absolutely necessary (source).”

Presidential Elections

Many Republicans were disappointed that John McCain became their party’s candidate for president in the 2008 election. McCain was criticized as being too moderate. One conservative blogger (here) incorrectly quotes Voltaire and then asserts that, “When faced with a choice between a moderate who holds some conservative positions and some non-conservative positions and a liberal who holds no conservative positions, the logical decision is to take the moderate. After all, half a loaf is better than none.” 

The Judgment of Solomon: Is the expression "half a loaf better than none" broadly applicable? source
One of the great political mysteries of the modern day is the origin of the widely-held belief, around the year 2004, that John Kerry was the most electable of the candidates for the Democratic nomination. Whatever the cause of this mass hysteria, it illustrates the point that Americans have become accustomed to voting for candidates that they do not like. 

A similar situation now faces Republicans, who are conspicuously lacking in enthusiasm for the presumptive candidate Mitt Romney. The outcome of the 2012 presidential race is by no means certain, however, because despite Romney’s failure to excite the Republican base, President Obama is also losing the support of members of his base (source). 

Democrans and Republicrats

Antoine Augustin Cournot observed a situation in which two companies selling bottled water were placed in competition with each other. As both companies sold water, there was little product differentiation to set them apart. Each company had market power: that is, each company had a large enough of a share of the market that any decision it made could have far-reaching effects on price. In a situation such as this, one company could choose to forgo revenue and compete by lowering prices or otherwise increasing value for the consumer. Yet, a more advantageous strategy involves the companies forming a cartel; if both companies increase their prices, their profits will increase. Because there is little product differentiation, there is little risk of one company losing customers to the other. 

Cournot competition is analogous to a two party political system. Suppose that the two parties each profit from large campaign contributions by large donors. The interests of large donors are at odds with the interests of the consumer – that is, the voting public – but the voting public has no option but to choose between one of the two parties. In a situation such as this, there is an incentive for both parties to agree not to compete for a larger share of votes, but instead, maximize the amount of profit they can achieve by adopting policies which serve the interest of their large donors. In a scenario such as this, one would expect that elections would frequently be very close: the losing side receives 49% of the votes and the winning side receives 51%. The voters don’t get what they want, so they remain loyal to their favored party and -- rather than question their loyalty to their chosen party -- place the blame on the other party. 

Voltaire, long before Cournot was born, made a similar observation. He said, “If you have two religions in your land, the two will cut each other’s throats; but if you have thirty religions, they will dwell in peace.”

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

On Voting as an Ethical Choice

During past presidential elections, third party candidates have played the role of spoilers. Ross Perot may have influenced an election in favor of Bill Clinton; Ralph Nader may have tipped an election in favor of George Bush. Once, I shared the view that third party candidacies are counter-productive, but lately, I have come to the conclusion that voting for a third party candidate is the only ethical choice in today’s political environment. 

Third party candidate Ross Perot predicted NAFTA's devastating effect on the supply of American jobs. If not for pluralistic ignorance and its effects on his perceived electability, he might have won the 1992 presidential election.Getty Images

The course that has led me to this conclusion is this. Following the national economic calamity of 2007, the American people have been eagerly waiting for justice to be served. However, neither Democrats nor Republicans have committed themselves to the goal of imprisoning the financiers who brought this calamity upon the American people. In all likelihood, justice will not be served. The retired Americans who had placed their life-savings in the hands of these financiers will starve; people who had earned their way into the middle class are now sliding slowly but inescapably into the lower classes; and members of the lower class are more vulnerable than ever to the shifting winds of economic fortune. 

Meanwhile, the people who plundered them of their meager earnings are not asked to provide restitution, they are not punished, and they are showered with taxpayer money in the form of “bail-outs.” Many of these monsters are earning larger profits than ever, and are busily setting the stage for the next economic calamity. Any clear-thinking American now recognizes that the government of this nation no longer serves the American people; instead, this government serves the treasonous few who conspire against the interests of the American people for the sake of increasing their already considerable wealth. 

Americans have, for many years now, celebrated the American Dream: the idea of becoming wealthy by one’s own efforts. Therefore, we do not begrudge the wealthy their fortunes. Yet, the recent economic calamity has caused us to think more clearly, and distinguish between the wealthy who have earned their fortunes by honest means, and those who have earned their fortunes by means of theft and fraud. 

Americans are now beginning to remember the warnings of the Founders. The Founders knew that wealth can become concentrated into the hands of a small clique of individuals. They also knew that, once this happens, members of government will aspire to join this privileged clique, and renounce their loyalty to the people who voted for them. These members of government may call themselves “Democrats” or they may call themselves “Republicans” but in either case, the more honest description would be “tools of the oligarchy.” 

These corrupt members of government know that the privileged few profit by exporting American jobs, and will therefore do nothing to discourage this practice. Insatiable in their greed for wealth and power, corrupt members of government will never vote in favor of campaign finance reform, nor seek to rein in the deceptive, destructive, felonious – but also supremely lucrative – practices of the financiers. Knowing that their campaign contributors consist almost entirely of the top 1%, they will ignore the increasingly desperate pleas of 99% of Americans. As a result, neither Republican nor Democrat office-holders are interested in stamping out the evils that afflict the 99%. As compared to elected politicians’ most wealthy benefactors, the 99% do a poor job of filling the campaign coffers. Each election cycle, the cost of electing a president increases exponentially, and the two party organizations must try that much harder to ingratiate themselves to their wealthy donors. 

For the time being, members of the political class are still dependent on the votes of the American people, if they are to remain in power. If nothing is done, this will of course change. Freedom of speech will be gradually taken away; members of the military will engage in domestic law enforcement; the right of law-abiding Americans to be safe against intrusions into their private lives will vanish; the reach of surveillance will grow; fear of speaking against the government will increase and the need to speak out against the government will also increase. Ordinary Americans will be kept poor, never again enjoying the incomes they enjoyed as recently as the 1990’s, because the poor are dispirited and fearful and helpless to change the political situation. These predictions may strike the reader as extreme; but these historical events have occurred many times before in world history, and they will happen again. And, if the reader has been attentive to current events, he or she will recognize that each one of these portents of tyranny is already beginning to appear in this country.
Military helicopter over Chicago, The use of the military in domestic law enforcement is a clear violation of federal law. Happily, this was only a training exercise. April 2012. CBS

Having said all this, the reader may still feel a tug of loyalty to either the Republican or Democratic Party, believing it to be the “lesser of two evils.” Partisan politics has taught the American people to uncritically support one party and revile the other party. As a result, even if the favored party offers up a less-than-satisfactory candidate, the candidate will be showered with millions of votes, his or her name will appear on innumerable bumper-stickers and yard signs, and partisans will overlook the candidate’s faults and praise the candidate for virtues that he or she does not possess. A candidate who deserves at best tepid support will receive instead an outpouring of enthusiasm.
Surveillance. Our future? Source.

In fact, if a voter chooses a party or a candidate based on his or her narrow self-interest, members of labor unions might be better served by Democrats, and managers whose profits suffer when unions are strong might be better served by Republicans. People who choose to vote according to their self-interest are often deceived – in the case of the manufacturing industry, for example, American union members and managers both suffer when wealthy financiers decide to move their production to China. When a person becomes too absorbed by his or her self-interest, it is easy to lose sight of the larger context.

In the wake of SOPA and PIPA comes CISPA. source
The question remains: is it right to vote for the lesser of two evils? It may be a pragmatic choice, but is it the ethical choice? The idea that the act of voting is constrained by ethical considerations may seem quaint in this day and age, but ethics – or as the 18th century American patriots called it, “public virtue” – was the foundation on which this nation was built. And the patriots warned us that, if this foundation is not secure, the nation will crumble. 

To resolve the ethics of the issue, one may turn to one of the finest ethical and political philosophers of all time, and consult Plato’s Gorgias. Gorgias defends the art of oratory – that is, the art of persuasion. According to Gorgias, a man is powerful if he is able to change what others believe. Socrates takes the contrary view. Socrates argues that oratory is no art at all. The term “art,” for Socrates, applied to small handful of fields such as the field of medicine. A medical doctor possesses substantive knowledge of techniques that in fact improve the health of patients, and the doctor’s ability to successfully improve the health of patients is the standard by which he or she is judged. Oratory does not consist of substantive knowledge and is designed only to benefit the orator. For these reasons Socrates considered oration to be no more than a knack for pandering to that which gratifies the audience. 

Hence, if the audience consists of fundamentalist Christians, the politically-minded orator will appeal to the vanity of the audience by showing a profound regard for fundamentalist Christianity, and promise to advance the interests of this group. If the audience consists of union members, an orator will extol the virtues of union membership and promise to advance the union’s economic and political agenda. What does an orator gain from this? By controlling what others believe, the orator seeks to gain power. The orator is not driven by an earnest desire to fulfill his or her promises, because these promises are merely the means by which his or her true goal – the goal of power – is achieved. 

In contrast to oratory, statesmanship is an art. It is based on a substantive knowledge of what will improve the health of the body politic, and a leader can be judged by his or her results.
Our politicians are orators rather than statesmen. They are self-interested: that is, they seek to increase their own power, and therefore refuse to take up the cause of campaign finance reform or Electoral College reform, and dare not speak against the financiers who fund their campaigns. They encourage members of the public to vote in favor of their own narrow self-interests, because doing so divides the electorate and distracts voters from the public interest. They will appeal to Americans’ vanity rather than their patriotism, and rely on the inflammatory “red meat” issues that mobilize certain constituencies but are of no consequence whatever when it comes to rooting out sources of corruption. The two parties will blame each other for what they are unable to accomplish. If newly passed legislation is popular, a politician will take credit for it even if he or she had previously opposed it; and if it is unpopular, he or she will blame members of the opposing party even if he or she had previously supported it. Orators lie convincingly. 

And even the few honest politicians among the lot are forced to play by the rules of the game; no politician can be choosy about who is allowed to donate to his or her campaign; no politician can avoid promising favors; no politician can avoid endearing him- or herself to certain influential constituencies or alienating certain other constituencies. 

In summary, the lot that controls American government consists of mere orators and panderers. Our leaders are subservient to wealthy backers, care nothing about the trust that the voters have placed in them, and are preoccupied with increasing their private and separate advantages. It is hopelessly naive to believe that they will ever police themselves; it is folly to expect that they will ever turn away campaign contributions from their treasonous donors. But it is certainly true that if they will ever be compelled to behave in a lawful and ethical manner, it will be the result of the threat of punishment.  

If the American people seek to enact laws that will guarantee that corrupt politicians be punished, and that the corrupting influence of private campaign contributions be stopped, the only solution is to starve the Democratic and Republican parties of votes, contributions, and support of any kind. These votes, contributions, and support must be given instead to building new political parties and supporting the candidates of these parties. The reader may be forgiven for thinking, “if my favored party loses in the next election, it may compromise some things that I care about.” As Socrates convincingly argued, it is more commendable to suffer harm than to inflict harm on others, and that ultimately, what is in the public interest is in one’s own interest.