Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Marketplace versus Commonwealth

Those of you who had the intestinal fortitude to watch the Republican National Convention instead of "Here Comes Honey Boo-Boo," were probably as appalled as I was by the parade of narcissistic, self-absorbed, obtuse  "self-made" men and women parroting "We Made It." They were obviously programmed to ridicule Obama's self-evident observation that nobody achieves anything worthwhile without a lot of help, including services provided by government at all levels. My last book had my name on the cover, but the "acknowledgements" section in the preface ran to four pages. And I still feel guilty that I left out a lot of people who deserved my recognition. Has anybody ever heard of an Olympic athlete, Academy Award winner, or Most Valuable Player who had the chutzpah to proclaim that he or she did it all by himself or herself (even though some of them may really believe so, deep down inside)? Even Congressmen who require their staffers to read Ayn Rand novels generally shrink from such unalloyed hubris when they are running for office. Such grotesque lack of self-awareness harkens back to such 19th century exponents of "Social Darwinism" as Herbert Spencer or William Graham Sumner, who twisted "natural selection" and "survival of the fittest" into rationales for obscene inequalities in wealth and income, as well as brutal exploitation of employees and consumers. Sumner was a Yale professor who began his lectures with the injunction that "this is a world in which it is root or die, in which the longest pole knocks down the most apples." In his matter-of-fact essay "What the Social Classes Owe to Each Another," the answer was a blunt "Nothing."' Not surprisingly, Spencer, Sumner, and their allies were lavishly praised as omniscient gurus by the "Robber Barons" of their day, who also believed fervently in the "Gospel of Wealth" and rejected the "Social Gospel."

It is tempting to conclude that those who spoke at the Republican convention are either callous, ignorant, or malevolent, (which I have been occasionally prone to do, in private,out of frustration or righteous indignation). In my more lucid and professionally constrained moments, however, I realize that they and I are products of two opposing world-views (which the Germans call weltanschuung and the Greeks paideia), which are both deeply embedded in the American culture  and psyche. Theirs is what various scholars have dubbed the "marketplace model", in which society and polity are conceived of as competitive arenas where socioeconomic, ethnocultural, and similar "interest groups" engage in ruthless and ceaseless competition for wealth, power, status, and recognition. Its members view themselves, according to historian Rowland Berthoff,  as "congeries of social atoms." The "public interest" (if they admit of such a thing) is, therefore, nothing more than the sum total of antagonistic private individuals and groups. Those that predominate at any given time and place are,ipso facto, the fittest. How do we know that they are "the fittest?" Well, they are dominant, aren't they? They are, as historian Daniel Rodgers astutely observes, the "formal fictions" putatively traceable to Adam Smith, John Locke, and John Stuart Mill--the autonomous economic man, the autonomous owner of property rights, the autonomous paragon    of virtue. Politicians and government officials, therefore, act only as "brokers." who mediate disputes among warring competitors and distribute benefits according to the relative "clout" of  the contestants. Government, then, exists solely to facilitate the private pursuit of particularistic goals, and to enhance the opportunities available to the "most worthy" (and most generous) competitors. Voters are neither "citizens" nor possessors of "equal rights," but "consumers" of public goods and services, according to their private wants and"buying power."

The polar opposite of the "marketplace model" is what Rodgers calls "the language of social bonds," and what is variously referred to by others as "the public interest," the "general welfare,"  or the "public trust." It is clearly endorsed in the Preamble to the Constitution. According to political scientist Daniel Elezar, this world-view is best understood as the "commonwealth conception" of society and polity and by sociologist Robert Bellah as "the language of community solidarity." Rather than viewing society as a "congeries of social atoms," its adherents perceive it as a seamless web of organic networks in which each individual is unique and integral, but interdependent and united by relationships to ancestors, kin, and progeny. Those in the productive years of their lives instinctively assume a responsibility to care for those too young or too old to contribute to the general welfare, even as they were nurtured as children and expect to be protected as "senior citizens."  Even reduced to its most crass economic terms, it translates into those in their active years being willing to bear the actual cost, however expensive, of educating and training young people, in order that they might be prepared to live and work in the economy of the future. While most other modernized countries regard their young as potential assets, and are willing to pay whatever it costs to prepare them, many well-educated and well-to-do Americans--caught up in the marketplace model of "everyone for himself or herself"--apparently are only willing to afford that opportunity to their own children and to let everyone else fend for themselves. Increasingly, even the children of today's upper middle class can only afford such an education by going into serious debt that will take a decade or more to repay, thus effectively diminishing their ability to establish a viable middle class of their own. It is clearly a vicious, and ultimately self=destructive, circle that will eventually destroy the American Dream and reduce the U.S. to a second or third rate economic power. It is also a modern form of INDENTURED SERVITUDE, which, by the way, comes perilously close to violating the 13th Amendment's prohibition against "involuntary servitude."  A lot depends on how one defines "involuntary," and by who does the defining. By the same token, most other modern societies guarantee their people a safe and secure retirement, if only as an incentive to be productive in the present. In short, you can motivate people fat more by hope, honesty, and fairness than by fear and punishment.

Any society that fails to live up this social compact, whatever its economic or political ideology and organization, is doomed to continual strife and ultimate disintegration. According to economist Richard T. Ely, one of the seminal thinkers of "the Wisconsin Idea,"society, economy, and polity are "organisms, of which individuals, families, groups...form parts." Especially in our modern, urban, post-industrial, ethnoculturally diverse   environment, these "numberless parts are in an infinite variety of manner interdependent. Infinite interrelations! Infinite interdependencies!" In such a frequently bewildering maze, government, at all levels is, at the very least, A "necessary evil." It is the only institution that provides (or at least could or should) universal access to everyone, regardless of their station in life. Before the Supreme Court conjured up Buckley v. Valeo, Citizens United and similar assaults on logic and history, the "one man(one woman), one vote" formula of Baker v. Carr (1964) prevailed and must again. government is also the only institution that can compel people to acquiesce in what the majority judges to be in "the general welfare" or "the public interest," even if an influential minority perceive it to be a violation of their particularistic self-interest.  Without "a fair and judicious" use of government's coercive power, some people would never agree to support anything from which they themselves did not derive an immediate and personal benefit, regardless of how much their fellow citizens needed or desired it.

Closely akin to the commonwealth concept are what the architects of "The Wisconsin Idea" called "social investment." and "the new individualism." The former is the belief that society as a whole needed to invest tax money and cooperative effort in such endeavors as education, fire and police protection, mass transit, environmental protection, and care of those unable to care for themselves. Properly designed and administered, taxes should really be "the price of civilization" rather than "the result of earnest efforts to get others to pay them." Mass incarceration is far more expensive than mass education. The "new individualism" is the conviction that all people "deserved the the right of opportunity and benefited by it, that it was the duty of the state to preserve to them opportunities; that the state was a necessary good and not a necessary evil; that the great institution of private property was good; but that if any particular part of it did not exist for the public good, it should be made to do so."  

The solution to almost every problem in our society and polity depends, to a great extent, if one sees the world as a marketplace or a commonwealth.



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