Posted by: dacalu | 22 October 2012

American Community

I’ve been talking about common property and common decisions – the whole idea of community – for the last two posts.  Today I turn to the question of civil community in the United States.

Make no mistake, the 2012 election is all about competing ideologies.  On the Democratic side are people advocating for common property, common decision making, and common responsibility.  On the Republican side are people talking about individual property, individual rights, and individual responsibility.  In the age old struggle between valuing self and valuing community, I think both types of arguments are noble, necessary, and right.  In this particular case, I have a strong preference for community.  I think we, as a nation, have wandered too far into selfishness and greed (just as in the McCarthy Era we wandered too far into apathy, conformity, and blind faith).

I hate to speak specifically of parties.  I try very hard not to, but it has become impossible not to notice a concerted strategy on the part of many Republicans to promote fear of government, neighbors, and foreigners.  It has become impossible not to notice a strategy of arguing against a common concept of authority, wisdom, and truth in public discourse.  These things surprise me as one of the most valuable aspects of conservatism is in it’s ability to remember the past accurately, preserve custom and order, and to prevent needless experimentation.  I want a conservative party again.

Mind you, I have many complaints against Democrats as well.  I fear it has become a party of people incapable of enforcing personal sacrifice, incapable of saying “you can do this, but WE cannot,” incapable of eliminating personal entitlements for the sake of common good.  Still, the Democrats do not seem to be using rhetorical tools that break down the very fabric of our community.  [Yet.  See Tragedy of the Commons in the last post.]
“We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this constitution for the United States of America.”  [For the record, I wrote that from memory – and then checked to be sure it was correct.  I think this is important stuff.]

The United States is based on social contract theory.  The founders knew that there were many goods that simply could not be achieved by individuals and they listed them right up front.  They wrote a constitution and imbued it with the power to curtail the rights of individuals so that the people together could have these common goods and so that no person or group from within or without could deprive citizens of their rights.  This is why I am so ardent for the balance of powers.  No the president cannot declare war without congress.  No the legislature cannot write laws that the judiciary judges unconstitutional – no matter how many people want them.  No, the judiciary cannot enforce the laws, nor should they intervene in elections.  Communities are powerful and that power must be segregated into different branches to prevent any one – even one controlled by the majority – from tyrannizing individuals.

Our country was founded on the notion that power must be distributed.  A balance must be set between perfectly efficient imperium – united in the will but favoring one over all – and perfectly free anarchy – with freedom for all but without common action.

Our country was founded on the idea that disparate powers must compromise.  The greatest power would only be harnessed when the different powers could agree.  A congress was established as a way to barter power.  Maine would give up some of their independence so that South Carolina could help them out with food in the winter.  South Carolina helped Maine in the winter in order to get cheaper northern manufactured goods.  New York accepted equal representation by state in the Senate, while Rhode Island accepted representation by population in the House.  Now derided as “politics,” it’s the practical skill of learning to give up a little in order to receive a greater portion.  The synergy of government means that we all get something more out than we put in, when we all put something in.

It meant a commitment to ante up and then abide by the will of the people.

So here’s the modern problem.  We’ve all ante’d up to the common pot, only some members don’t want anyone to get a share until after they’ve received theirs.  This cannot be a universal strategy.  Someone has to get served first.  Worse yet, the pie is shrinking.  It would be nice if we could uniformly downsize the budget, but we can’t.  Common goods have discrete costs.  The answer is that we need to renegotiate the common costs and common benefits, but some citizens seem unwilling to do that.  They see the government as a separate from themselves.  They do not think of it as US negotiating, but as I getting the most I can.  That won’t work.

Everyone wants to cut the budget, but they’re only willing to cut the portion that benefits someone else.  And they won’t compromise.  I think everyone needs to elect representatives who they trust to balance the good of their constituents and the good of the country.  This won’t work if one side will compromise and the other side won’t.  That’s called the ultimatum game and it works briefly for the stoney side.  Then it backfires.  The other side loses faith in the community and the common goods go away.  You have to start over.

We must, as a country, tell the intransigents that we won’t lose our country to those who put short term profit over long term stability.  We must refuse to re-elect people who use fear to prevent compromise.  WE will reap what WE sow.

I’m sorry ladies and gentlemen, but there is no way to sugar coat this.  If you use fear to promote your agenda, you will live in fear.  If you succumb to the fear you will be taken advantage of – packaged so elegantly by the spin doctors – you will live in fear.  If you insist on making of US a THEM, you will live in fear.  And the Union will crumble.

More hopeful and proactive words in the next post.


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