Once again, the United States government has been shut down. As is to be expected, the politicians and pundits are engaging in the blame game. A key Republican talking point is that Obama and the Democrats are to blame because they would not compromise on the matter of Obamacare. If, say the Tea Party Republicans, Obama had been willing to defund or delay Obamacare, then they would not have been forced to do what they did.
The obvious counter to this is that Obamacare became a law via the proper constitutional process and hence this is no longer a compromise situation. It should also be noted that the proposed compromise is a rather odd one. It is as if the Republicans in question are saying: “here is our compromise: we get our way on Obamacare and, in return, we will not shut down the government.” That hardly seems like a reasonable compromise. To use an analogy, it would be like being in a bus heading to an event that was voted on by the people on the bus. Then some folks say that they do not like where the bus is going and one of them grabs the wheel. He then says “here is my compromise: we go where I want to go, or I’ll drive us into a tree.” That is hardly a compromise. Or even sane.
It could be argued that Obama and the Democrats should have done a better job in the past in terms of getting Republican buy-in on Obamacare. Or that the fact that the Republicans are a majority in the house shows that Americans want to be rid of Obamacare. These are not unreasonable points. However, they do not justify shutting down the government.
While I believe that Obamacare is chock full of problems and will have a variety of unpleasant consequences, I also believe in the importance of following the constitution. That is, I believe in the process of law. Obamacare went through that process and properly became a law. As such, there do not seem to be any grounds for claiming that it should be stopped because it is somehow an improperly passed law.
There have been claims that Obamacare is unconstitutional. There are some merits to these claims, but the matter was properly settled by the Supreme Court. Presumably the matter could be reconsidered at a later date, but the constitutional process has been properly followed. As such, the rhetorical points that Obamacare is unconstitutional lack merit. However, even if there was new and most excellent legal argument for this claim, this would not warrant shutting down the government to block the law. It would warrant having the Supreme Court consider the argument. That is proper procedure—that is how a system of government should operate. Using the threat of a shutdown against a law is certainly not how things should be done. That is essentially attempting to “govern” by threats, coercion and blackmail.
To use an analogy, imagine a night baseball game in which one side is losing. That side has argued every call repeatedly and used all the rules of the game to try to not lose. But it is still losing. So the coach of the losing team says that his team will turn out the lights, take all the balls, rip up the bases, and throw away the bats unless the other team “compromises” and gives them all the points they want. That would obviously be absurd. Likewise for the Tea Party Republican shut down.
A possible approach to warranting the shutdown is based on the idea of popular democracy. Some have argued that Obamacare is unpopular with most Americans. While this seems true, it also is true that most Americans do not seem to have enough of an understanding of Obamacare to have a rational opinion and much of the alleged dislike seems to stem from how the questions are asked. Interestingly, many people seem to really like things like the fact that people cannot be denied coverage because of pre-existing conditions and that children can stay on their parents’ insurance until they are 26.
Since this is supposed to be something of a democracy, considering the will of the people (however confused and ill-informed the people might be) seems reasonable. However, this would need to be a consistent principle. That is, if the Tea Party Republicans say that they are warranted in shutting down the government because a majority of Americans are opposed to Obamacare, then they would need to accept that the same principle applies in the case of other laws as well. So, if most Americans believe that X should be a law or that X should not be a law, then that is what must be done—and if it is not done, the government must be shut down. Given the overwhelming support for certain gun control laws that congress refused to pass, if this principle is accepted then these laws must pass—or the government must be shut down.
However, the Tea Party Republicans are clearly not operating on a principle here, unless it is the principle of “we’ll shut down the government if we don’t get what we want”—but that is hardly a reasonable or democratic principle.
Another plausible approach to countering this is to argue that a shutdown can be justified on the grounds that a legitimately passed, Supreme Court tested law is so bad that action must be taken. While this could not be warranted on constitutional grounds, it could be justified on moral grounds, most likely utilitarian grounds. The idea would be that the consequences of allowing the law to go into effect would be so dire that the consequences of shutting down the government are offset by the achievement of a greater good. Or, rather, the prevention of a greater bad.
Interestingly, this could be seen as a variation on civil disobedience. But, rather than have citizens breaking an unjust law to get arrested, there are lawmakers breaking the government—or at least the parts that don’t pay their salary.
Since I find Thoreau’s arguments in favor of such civil disobedience appealing, I have considerable sympathy for lawmakers deciding to serve the state with their consciences. However, what needs to be shown is that the law is so unjust that it warrants such a serious act of civil disobedience.
Ted Cruz and other Tea Party Republicans have made various dire claims about Obamacare—it will result in people being fired, it will cause employers to cut hours so that workers become part-time workers, and so on. Cruz even brought out a comparison to the Nazis, which did not go over well with the Republican senator John McCain. Interestingly, Cruz and others have attributed backwards causation powers to Obamacare: the stock talking points well before Obamacare went into effect included claims that Americans were already suffering under Obamacare—despite the fact that it was not in effect.
When pressed on the damage that Obamacare will do, the Tea Party Republicans tend to be rather vague—they throw out claims about how it will come between a patient and her doctor and so on. However, they never got around to presenting an obective coherent, supported case regarding the likely harms of Obamacare. This is hardly surprising. As a general rule, if someone busts out a Nazi analogy, then this is a fairly reliable sign that they have nothing substantial to say. This is, I think, unfortunate and unnecessary: Obamacare no doubt has plenty of problems and if it is as bad as the Tea Party Republicans claim, they should have been able to present a clear list without having to resort to rhetoric, scare tactic, hyperbole and Nazi analogies. So, I ask for such a clear case for the harms of Obamacare.
As a final point, Obama has made the reasonable point that he has been asking the Republicans for their input and their alternative plan for health care for quite some time. Some Republicans have advocated the emergency room, which I wrote about earlier, but their main offering seems to be purely negative: get rid of Obamacare. In terms of a positive alternative, they seem to have nothing. But, I am a fair person and merely ask for at least an outline of their alternative plan.
The received wisdom of the day is that Washington is broken. Depending on who you ask, the exact nature of the breakage varies. However, there is a general agreement that Washington is mired in gridlock and a swamp of corruption. Members of both parties have run on the promise of repairs. Obama promised hope and change while he was on the campaign trail. However, when the trailed ended in Washington, one can only say that while he came, things stayed just about the same. After Obama arose the Tea Party. This subset of the Republican Party gave rise to a surge of candidates who swore to run for office by running against the broken government and promised to drain the swamp. Once elected, however, they seemed to find that the swamp water was even more delicious than tea, so the swamp was sipped but not drained.
These results are not surprising. As the anarchist Emma Goldman contended, people who run for office on an honest promise of fixing the system and doing right either do not get elected or end up being ineffective. Those who are not so honest simply slide comfortably into the swamp and get busy locking up those grids. Because of this, it certainly makes sense that Washington is seen as broken. However, I contend that Washington is not broken and will make a case for this seemingly ludicrous claim.
Sorting out whether something is broken or not involves determining the purpose of the thing. After all, unless you know what something is supposed to do, then you will probably not know if it is working properly or not. In some cases, it is quite possible to err in regards to purpose. I will illustrate this with an analogy.
Many years ago I was at a track meet which had the javelin throw as one of the event. People tended to pay attention to this event, if only to avoid taking a javelin to the face. During the competition, a paper plate blew out onto the field and landed in a way that made it look like a target. Shortly after this, an athlete threw his javelin way past the plate, causing a recently arrived spectator to comment that the throw was bad because the javelin was way away from the “target.” I corrected the spectator, pointing out that the javelin throw is for distance rather than for accuracy (you just need to keep it in the rather large designated area). Given this purpose, the throw was actually quite good.
In the case of Washington, people who say it is broken are like the spectator: they see the politicians relentlessly missing the target that the spectators think they should be hitting (such as solving the problems faced by the general population). However, the spectators are in error: the politicians are not doing a bad job hitting that target. Rather, they are doing a good job at achieving other objectives. One of these objectives is, obviously enough, accumulating wealth. Politicians can (and often do) cash in on their offices via insider information, lobbying gifts, connections and so on in order to accumulate significant amounts of money. It is thus no shock that Obama is a millionaire—as are most of the folks in congress. While some politicians elect to be re-elected, some move into other lucrative careers, such as lobbying their former colleagues or taking top jobs in the industries they used to regulate.
Looking at Washington in terms of this objective, it is not broke. Far from it: about half of congress (and about 67% of senators) are millionaires. By this measure, Washington is working just fine for Democrats and Republicans alike. There are other objectives aside from the accumulation of wealth, but this should suffice to indicate that Washington is not broke from the perspective of many of the politicians embedded there.
The obvious counter to this view is to argue that Washington is broke because it is not working as it should be working. That is, although it is working to achieve the goals of most of those running the show, these are not the goals that they should be aiming for. That is, the politicians should be acting for the general good of the country rather than their own private goods in ways that are damaging to the public good. This is not to say that both cannot occur—after all, what is good for the country might be good for a senator. However, the current tendency seems to be in favor of those in Washington and against the rest of us.
Given the catastrophically low approval rating for Congress and low approval ratings for other politicians, it seems evident that people do get that while Washington is working for some it is certainly not working for all. Despite this, the incumbents have generally managed to win re-election after re-election, although there have been some upsets and there seems to be an ever increasing willingness to challenge the old guard. However, what is needed is not just a swapping of the dwellers of the swamp, but the long promised draining of the swamp.
While it is tempting to yield to cynicism and apathy, this sort of situation is not a new one for America. In the past, Americans have managed to clean things up and at least get some solid islands protruding from the swamp. If we can do this again, we can repair the damage that has been done. However, there is also another lesson of history: when an empire’s rulers are focused on their own enrichment and act contrary to the good of the nation, then the fall of the empire is surely approaching.
While I retain optimism, the fact that the sort of people who are needed in Washington are now refusing to slog into the vile swamp. But, the fact that such people do exist and are willing to lead in a principled way on the state and local level means that hope still remains.
In the United States, race has been forged into a matter of great concern—at least for some people. One of the not uncommonly expressed concerns is whether or not someone is black. In the past, this was often a concern that a black person might be attempting to pass as white. As might be imagined, this was mostly a matter of concern to certain white people. In more recent years a twist has been added to the matter of discerning a person’s blackness. To be specific, one matter that concerns some people is whether or not a person is authentically black as opposed, presumably, to being inauthentically black. In such cases, the racial classification of the person is generally not in dispute. That is, s/he is identified as being black. The concern is, rather, over whether or not the person is properly black. As such, this adds another normative level to the judgment being made.
One recent incident that raised this matter occurred on the ESPN program “First Take.” While this is a sports program, the conversation turned to race when Rob Parker asked if Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III is “a brother or is he a cornball brother?” This, on the face of it, seems to be in inquiry into whether or not Griffin is “properly black” or not. When asked what he meant, Parker replied “well, he’s black, he kind of does his thing. But he’s not really down with the cause, he’s not one of us. He’s kind of black. But he’s not really the guy you’d really want to hang out with because he’s off to do something else.”
While Parker does not clearly lay out detailed standards for being authentically black, he did expand on his remarks in a way that suggested what he meant by “being down with the cause.” Parker noted that Griffin has a white fiancée and that there are rumors that he is a Republican.
Parker’s concern over Griffin having a white fiancée is not uncommon. While whites have often been dismayed by attempts to “mix the races” (and it was not until 1967 that the Supreme Court ruled against laws restricting marriage based on race), blacks sometimes criticize other blacks for having relationships with non-blacks. Interestingly and disturbingly, the reasons advanced against “race mixing” often mirror those advanced by racist whites (such as preserving the race). As such, this sort of criticism of Griffin seems to be racist. Naturally, there have been attempts to defend opposition to “race mixing” as being non-racist, but that seems to be a rather challenging (but perhaps not impossible) goal.
Of course, even if being suspicious of “race mixing” is at least a bit racist, it could still be argued that being authentically black requires that a person only have relationships with other black people. That is, that being involved with a non-black would somehow make a person less properly black. Presumably this could apply to other races, so that a white person who dates outside of her race is not properly white and so on for the other races. That is, to be a proper member of the race, one must only be involved with one’s own race. This, of course, requires working out an account of race so that people can date properly if they wish to be authentic. After all, if having a relationship with a person of another race causes one to be inauthentic, then presumably it would follow that dating someone of mixed race could lead to a partial inauthenticity. There is also the obvious problem that “race mixing” has already occurred on a rather large scale and hence those concerned with racial authenticity will need to sort out the matter of mixed-race people, such as President Obama and myself (I’m a colonial blend of English, French, Mohawk and “other”).
Parker’s second main point seems to be in regards to the rumor that Griffin is a Republican. While the Republicans were once popular with African-Americans, that certainly changed (and did so well before Obama ran for president in 2008). The modern Republican Party is often regarded as being tainted with racism and, at the very least, is regarded primarily as a white male party. Not surprisingly, known black Republicans, such as Colin Powell and Herman Cain, are sometimes accused of selling out or even of being “Uncle Toms.” The underlying assumption seems to be that the Republican Party is simply not the place for an authentic black American, presumably because of the values endorsed (or attributed to) the Republican Party.
This does, of course, raise the obvious question as to whether or not being properly black entails that one is obligated to hold to a specific set of political views (namely those not held by the Republican Party). This would seem to suggest that part of the definition of being authentically black involves not merely appearance (having black skin) but also ideology. This would indicate that authentic blackness is not merely a matter of race but also of mind. On the face of it, it does seem odd that being an authentic black would be incompatible with being Republican. After all, while the Republican Party is often presented as the white party, a white person who is a Democrat (or independent) is not regarded as being an inauthentic white. But perhaps things are different for whites.
As a final point, Parker does seem to regard physical appearance as an important part of being an authentic black. When speaking of Griffin’s braids he said, “To me, that’s very urban…. You’re a brother if you have braids on.”
While Parker might be presenting a sufficient condition for being “a brother” (presumably being authentically black), it seems reasonable to assume that it is not a necessary condition. It is not, however, clear to what degree the braids offset the other suspicious qualities of Griffin or others. However, combining this remark with the other claims made by Parker, it would seem that racial authenticity involves behavior (specifically relationships), ideology (specifically politics) and appearance (specifically hairstyle). This would seem to provide the basis for a theorist to work out an account of authenticity.
Given what Parker has said, one might wonder what Griffin thinks about the matter of color. Interestingly, Griffin echoes the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. when he said, “For me, you don’t ever want to be defined by the color of your skin. You want to be defined by your work ethic, the person that you are, your character, your personality. That’s what I’ve tried to go out and do.” Griffin, then, seems more concerned with being authentically himself than with meeting a Parker style standard of being authentically black. Not surprisingly, I agree with Griffin in this matter.
As Bill O’Reilly pointed out, the majority of black & Hispanic voters supported Obama over Romney in the 2012 election. While O’Reilly presented this a moral failing on the part of blacks and Hispanics (as O’Reilly saw it, they supported Obama because they wanted “stuff”) more practical Republican politicians have taken a different perspective.
To be specific, these politicians are saying that the Republican Party needs to attract these voters and this will require that the party undergo some changes (or at least the appearance of change). This has already led some politicians to say that the party needs to reconsider its stance on immigration so as to win over Hispanic voters. Interestingly, the party had previously professed to have taken a principled stance on this and related issues. However, that was before they lost the election to Obama.
While politicians profess principles and ideologies, these are typically means to the end of being elected rather than actual commitments. That is, politicians profess what they believe will get them elected.
There are, of course, some true believers. However, there are clearly more politicians who are like Romney (who changed his professed views with consistent inconsistency) than like Ron Paul (who is well known for his constancy in belief).
As such, it makes sense that the practical Republicans would begin to change their professed views on the matter of immigration. After all, they believe that doing so will increase their chances of being elected (or re-elected). As might be imagined, it has been pointed out that Hispanics do not care solely about immigration and that merely saying something different about immigration will not be enough to win over voters.
It is also interesting that the main focus is on Hispanics rather than other minorities. However, this is not surprising—Hispanics are a rapidly growing “minority” and even before the Republicans publicly acknowledge the need to get their vote they were a coveted demographic for advertisers. Also, as some might point out, it had been assumed that blacks would support Obama and hence little effort was made to woo black voters. This might, however, change.
There has also been an effort to win over women voters and this began before the election. Romney was able to make inroads against Obama’s lead, but Obama did well with single women, making this a demographic that Republicans will need to win over in future elections.
It is, of course, tempting to criticize politicians for doing this. After all, if O’Reilly can criticize voters for supporting Obama because they want “stuff” it seems very reasonable to criticize politicians for abandoning their professed principles and ideologies simply to get votes. After all, they are not acting on principle—other than the principle that one should do whatever it takes to get elected. After all, when they thought they could win by appealing to white and socially conservative voters, they pandered to them. Now that they have realized that the demographics are not as their narrative told them, they are changing their pandering targets.
In defense of the Republicans who are advocating a change in professed values, it could be argued that they are not merely being cynical and practical politicians. Rather, it could be argued that they are following the principles of democracy and modifying their views in a principled way to match the values of their potential constituents. That is, the Republicans are legitimately undergoing a re-evaluation of their values and assessing them in a principle manner—as opposed to changing their rhetoric to pander to the new demographics so as to get elected.
However, if the Republicans truly change their professed principles on key issues to win over black, Hispanic and women voters, then there is the important question of determining what the party and its members stand for (other than winning elections). Of course, the party could contend that they will still retain their core values while changing what are now the more peripheral values (although these values seemed rather core last time around).
Much to the dismay of the fine folks at Fox (and to the delight at the marvelous mortals at MSNBC) Obama was re-elected president. In the face of this defeat for the Republican Party, there was a rush to explain Obama’s victory.
Bill O’Reilly, visibly shaken by the results, put forth a three part explanation falling under the general heading of demographic change. The first part is that 50% of the voters want free stuff and they voted for Obama because he would give it to them: “It’s a changing country, the demographics are changing. It’s not a traditional America anymore, and there are fifty percent of the voting public who want stuff. They want things. And who is going to give them things? President Obama.”
The second part is that there are more non-white people in America and they voted for Obama, presumably because he is only half-white and Romney was 100% white. The third part is that women (who may simply fall under people who want free stuff) voted for Obama: “The white establishment is now the minority. And the voters, many of them, feel that the economic system is stacked against them and they want stuff. You are going to see a tremendous Hispanic vote for President Obama. Overwhelming black vote for President Obama. And women will probably break President Obama’s way. People feel that they are entitled to things and which candidate, between the two, is going to give them things?”
This explanation, which is a beautiful example of a rhetorical (or persuasive) explanation, certainly matches what could be seen as some of the uglier parts of the Republican narrative regarding people of color, women and the 47%. However, what is most striking about it is that O’Reilly said many true things.
First, he actually underestimated the percentage of voters who like free stuff. I would say that the figure is closer to 100% than 50%, given the extent to which Americans of all classes receive “stuff” from the state and seem to like that “stuff.” I know I liked getting my Pell grant. Now I like driving on public roads, running on public sidewalks, enjoying the protection of the state in the form of police and the military and so on. While I do not receive Social Security yet, I certainly would like to get that when I retire—after all, I have been paying into it for years.
Being somewhat more serious, O’Reilly’s main point seems to be that those who supported Obama did so out of a moral failing—they simply want to get free stuff from the state. However, the evidence that 50% of American voters are morally defective in this manner seems to be assumed by O’Reilly based on the fact that they voted for Obama rather than on the basis of significant and objective evidence. O’Reilly seems to have mainly just bought into Romney’s infamous 47% remark which was not grounded in reality but merely based in stereotypes and prejudices.
Second, he was right that most voters who are not white voted for Obama. Of course, plenty of white voters voted for Obama as well. While O’Reilly and others seem to be casting this as a moral flaw on the part of said voters of insufficient whiteness, he did point to an important reason Obama won: most black and Hispanic voters believed that they would be better off with Obama in office than Romney. While O’Reilly clearly buys into the old racial stereotypes that blacks and Hispanics are lazy spongers and presents this as a reason for Obama’s win, the real reason lies elsewhere. To be specific, the Republican party has made little serious effort to win over black and Hispanic voters at best and at worst some elements of the party seem to embrace views that are at least tinged with racism. This is not just a matter of immigration but of broader issues as well. As such, it is not just that Obama won these voters it is also the case that the Republicans lost them. While it is no doubt emotionally satisfying to put the blame on the black and Hispanic voters, this does them an injustice and also, ironically, serves to make the situation worse for the Republican Party in terms of gaining voters.
Third, he was right that Obama did very well with single women. As with blacks and Hispanics, the explanation seems to be that the women who supported Obama did so from their moral failings—that is, they want free stuff (presumably abortions and birth control). While this might be an emotionally satisfying narrative, it is at odds with reality. While it is true that Obama won over many women voters by doing things that benefit them (such as supporting equal pay for women), this hardly shows that these women merely want free stuff or that they are thus morally defective. If it does, it would seem to show that almost all voters are morally defective—after all, people tend to vote for the person they think will do what is best for them. In this case, women voters would be morally defective, but this would not be a special flaw on their part.
O’Reilly also seems to fail to consider that while Obama did win over many women voters, the Republicans also lost them. Rush Limbaugh denouncing Sandra Fluke as a slut surely did not help the Republicans. It is also likely that the “legitimate rape” and unequal pay episodes of Akin and Mourdock’s idea that being impregnated by rape is a gift from God did not win over women votes. The attempt to impose mandatory transvaginal ultrasoundon women seeking an abortion probably also pushed a few women voters away from the Republican Party. While I could go on providing examples, it should be clear that women had incentives other than getting free stuff to vote for Obama.
I was asked to contribute a piece on political philosophy to Florida A&M University’s Living Well series and here is what I wrote:
Election Day is almost here and every U.S. citizen must reflect on the similarities and differences between each presidential candidate before casting a vote. This requires more than a quick scan of party platforms. Instead, a deeper focus on the philosophy behind Democratic and Republican party rhetoric will help the average citizen make a more informed decision on Nov. 6. While many believe philosophy has little impact outside of academics, the campaign trail has shown the importance of really knowing the core philosophical values that guide each candidate and will ultimately determine America’s fate for the next four years.
Lost in the heat of partisan politics is the truth that most of us share the same values as a people. In fact, both parties share core philosophical views traceable to the European and American thinkers of the Enlightenment Period (about 1600-1800) such as Thomas Hobbes, Adam Smith, John Locke, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The English philosopher John Locke is probably the philosopher who most influenced American politics in his case for the right to life, liberty and property. In addition to these cherished ideals, Locke also believed legitimate government relies on the consent of the citizenry through majority rule. Interestingly, Democrats and Republicans are united in the once radical view that government exists for the good of the people.
Self-Interest vs. the Common Good
Many of their differences, however, stem from deciding what role the government should play in serving this good. Republicans tend to take a more conservative approach and accept the philosophy of Adam Smith, the author of The Wealth of Nations. Smith’s view, commonly known as laissez-faire capitalism, encourages individuals to act on the basis of self-interest in a free and competitive market that best serves the good of all. Furthermore, Republican views on the role of government are best attributed to the American philosopher Henry David Thoreau: “that government is best which governs least.” Rather than have the state direct the market, Smith spoke of the market’s “invisible hand” as a metaphor to describe the self-regulating behavior of the marketplace.
While Democrats also embrace capitalism, the philosophy of the current Democratic Party was shaped by the Great Depression and the New Deal. From their standpoint, this economic disaster was caused by allowing the invisible hand of the market to act with little restraint or regulation.
As such, Democrats tend to favor having the state play a prominent role in regulating the economy. This allows the state to serve the good of the people by checking the excesses of self-interest in favor of the common good. Republicans contend checking of excesses can harm the public good by choking the economy. Thus, Republicans generally favor less state influence over the economy.
The Democrats, as exemplified in the New Deal, generally take the view that the state has a positive, active and significant role to play in securing the good of the people. Specifically, the Democratic Party believes the state should be altruistic in its support of programs like federal student aid, welfare, and healthcare.
While the Republican Party also holds to the idea of the state having an active role in the public good and in caring for citizens during times of need, they generally embrace the idea that the role of the state should be more limited and it is preferable for people to rely on personal success than private charity.
A very strong version of this view is put forth by the Tea Party. Interestingly, they explicitly acknowledge the influence of philosopher Ayn Rand. In her collection of essays titled The Virtue of Selfishness, argued that we are morally obligated to achieve happiness. As she saw it, ethics based on altruism (the moral view that we should act for the benefit of others) would prevent people from achieving happiness. This is because altruists would be wasting their resources on other people rather than using them to achieve their own happiness. Her solution was that people should embrace what philosophers call ethical egoism—the moral view that a people should exclusively act in their own self-interest. While this might sound harsh, the justification is that this creates a better society in which people can succeed by their own efforts without being dragged down by supporting others and without being trapped in dependence.
Thus, some of the key philosophical distinctions between the Democrats and the Republicans involve their views of what role the state should play in securing the general good. The Democrats advocate a more extensive role for the state in securing this good while the Republicans claim the general good is better served by a more limited state. This disagreement is often dramatically exaggerated in political rhetoric, which makes it all the more important to remember that far more unites us as Americans than divides us as Democrats or Republicans (or independents).
I’ll be doing a Twitter live chat as well:
Join LaBossiere on Twitter for a live chat on Nov. 1 at 6 p.m. to answer your questions about political philosophy. Follow FAMU_1887 via hashtag #LivingWell101.
Because I am a philosopher, I am sometimes accused of “not getting” the “real world.” That is, people who disagree with me sometimes like to take the intellectual shortcut of accusing me of not getting it rather than actually presenting developed arguments showing that I am in error.
Despite being accused of being detached from the “real world”, I actually consider reality to be an excellent source of evidence for discussing philosophical concerns, such as the legitimate role of the state.
Not surprisingly, the legitimate role of the state is often an issue in presidential elections and the 2012 election was no exception. The Republicans put forth the general idea that government is not the solution. There was also the stock tactic of presenting government as both ineffective and undesirable. One interesting addition was the explicit Tea Party twist of an Ayn Rand attack on the demon of collectivism. In sum, the Republican Party presented the government as an evil to be reduced and collective action as undesirable. Then Sandy hit the east coast of the United States.
Despite the political ideology expressed by the Republicans, there has been no opposition to the government stepping in to take collectivist actions. Republican Governor Chris Christie (who spoke passionately against Obama at the RNC) praised Obama’s leadership in bringing the state into the rescue and recovery operations. Christie himself made it clear that the state has a clear role to play in the recovery. Christie and Obama are right about the importance of the state in such disasters. After all, it requires collective action to address a problem of this magnitude and the private sector alone cannot handle the problems. On the face of it, disasters like Sandy provide considerable evidence against the Republican attacks on the state and collective action.
An obvious reply is that while the Republicans have been critical of the state and collectivism, they can claim that they believe the state has a legitimate role to play in disasters while still being able to hold to their criticisms of the state and collectivism. That is, they can take the collective response by the state to Sandy as legitimate government activity while still painting other activities, such as student loans and welfare, as socialism.
While this reply has some appeal, it is reasonable to dig a bit deeper and look at the underlying principle at work.
In the case of a natural disaster, many people are put in danger and are in need through no fault of their own. Of course, people sometimes are partially responsible—by staying when an evacuation order has been given, for example. This can be taken as justifying the collective action of the state. To be specific, the scale of the disaster and its nature requires a collective response by the state because it is beyond the capabilities of individuals acting on their own and even beyond the capabilities of the private sector to handle. Also, the fact that the disaster has struck people through (in general) no fault of their own also serves to justify state intervention even for those who might otherwise be opposed to the state assisting people. After all, one might contend, it is one thing for a person to simply expect the state to give them free stuff and another for them to be given aid in the context of a disaster like Sandy—even if this includes “free stuff.”
As such, a reasonable principle to justify state intervention in a disaster would be that the state has a legitimate role in addressing large scale disasters that arise through no (or perhaps even partial) fault of those who are harmed by the disaster. This principle would thus justify the collective action taken by the state in response to Sandy.
However, the principle would also seem to justify collective action by the state in other cases as well. For example, the economic “storm” that damaged the economy was a man-made disaster, but it was widespread and hurt many people through no (or at most partial) fault of their own. That is, millions of people were victims of an economic disaster that is ongoing. As such, the collective response by the state can be justified in general by this same principle. Interestingly, the general harms caused by the economic system (such as unemployment, low wages, environmental costs and other endemic harms) could also justify collective intervention by the state to mitigate them. After all, people who are homeless because the economy tanked are no less homeless than people who lost their homes to Sandy or other storm.
The obvious objection is, of course, that there is a difference between man-made disasters and natural disasters. As such, it could be argued that the state can legitimately intervene in the case of a natural disaster like Sandy but to intervene in man-made disasters would be unjustified.
The obvious problem with this objection is that it would entail that the state would have no legitimate role in defending citizens from enemies foreign or domestic. That is, the state would have no justification in regards to the military or police functions. After all, they exist to respond to man-made harms on both the small and the large scale.
It could be objected that the state has a legitimate role in responding to harms caused by people using force, violence, fraud (or other criminal means) but no legitimate role in responding to harms caused by people acting within the existing laws. So, if someone blows up your house, then the state has a legitimate role in addressing the problem. If the economy is wrecked by other people via legal means and you lose your home, then you are on your own.
While this distinction might have some appeal, it also seems rather absurd. After all, the legality of the actions that cost you your house seem to be outweighed by the fact that you lost your house due to harms inflicted by others. As such, whether a natural disaster or financial shenanigans beyond your control cost you your house you would still be a victim who deserves aid. Naturally, it would be rather another matter when the disaster is self-inflicted. If I lose my house because I quit my job out of laziness, then the fault is my own and the state owes me nothing beyond what I have earned.
In sum, if the state has a legitimate role to play in addressing natural disasters like Sandy, it also has a role in addressing man-made disasters, such as the current economic system.
Sandy has struck the United States, killing several people and doing billions in property damage. As is to be expected, we are now hard at work repairing the damage and getting things back to normal.
I am sorry for the losses and feel for the people directly impacted. I wish everyone the best and hope for a rapid return to normalcy.
The brave people who responded to the disaster to rescue and aid others deserve our thanks for their actions and the good that they have done. The people who are now hard at work setting things right also deserve our appreciation. While this storm will be costly, we have pulled together as a nation and have shown, once again, that we are a strong people when we work together for the general good. For at least a little while, we will think of ourselves as Americans and forget (at least for a moment) the political divisions and bickering. Perhaps this sort of thing should be remembered more often and not just during disasters (natural or man-made).
Be safe and well.