Lincoln and the Easter of Democracy

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Few words are more well known. I love the speeches of Lincoln. While this speech may not be his greatest, I think that in many ways encapsulates what made Lincoln great.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.

This speech takes place November 19, 1863 (exactly 113 years to the day be for my birth). In January of 1863, Lincoln signs the Emancipation Proclamation. Both of these events were part of an active attempt by Lincoln to make the war about slavery. In doing so, he would claim the moral high ground and keep the British out of the war.

We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

Continue reading “Lincoln and the Easter of Democracy”

“Sounds like Satan’s plan!”

From the recent Newsweek coverage of us Mormons:

Congressman Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) sees an even deeper connection between his faith and his economic and political views. According to Mormon tradition, God and Satan fought a “war in heaven” over the question of moral agency, with God on the side of personal liberty and Satan seeking to enslave mankind. Flake acknowledges that the theme of freedom—and the threat of losing it—runs through much of Mormonism, and “that kind of fits my philosophy.” (Although Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has declared, “I am a Democrat because I’m a Mormon, not in spite of it,” his is a minority view among members of the faith.)

Continue reading ““Sounds like Satan’s plan!””

Freedom and Socialism

“How can the freedom of citizens be secured in a socialist state?” asked political theorist William Connolly. In Free to Choose, Milton Friedman makes an automatic connection between the economic freedom and political freedom, implying that socialism by its very existence denies freedom to its citizens. Economic freedom, as defined by Friedman, is laissez—faire capitalism or market activity with very minimal government assistance or regulation. Political freedom, as defined by Friedman, includes the freedom of speech, the freedom of religion, and the right to vote. As a liberal egalitarian, I do not disagree with the basic definition of political freedom which Friedman advocates. However, Friedman asserts that socialist economic systems, whether they are Soviet-style system, social democratic systems, or even liberal welfare states, undermine political freedom. I find this assertion problematic not only because it does not follow logically, but also because it is a commonly held assumption

The common connection between economic socialism and political authoritarianism is a remnant of the Cold War. Our main point of reference is the Soviet Union (though this may be short-sighted), where one could admit that political freedom was heavily repressed. But it does not follow that the lack of freedom (particularly civil and political freedom) in the Soviet Union was due to its economic system. Instead, it was likely its authoritarian single party political structure. While I may be myself oversimplifying, this fear of socialism in the name of civil and political freedom is a major part of the American ideological narrative.

However, this is not to say that we should not be worried about the structure of socialism. As with capitalism (democracy, liberalism, etc.) some forms are better than others. Likewise, certain precautions need to be taken against all forms of government in order to ensure civil and political liberty. The fact that many socialist regimes have been authoritarian is clearly something which socialists should be worried about, as is Connolly – though this does not mean that they should necessarily give up on socialism.

William Connolly makes four recommendations about how socialist states can secure freedom while maintaining a commitment to socialism. First, schools and other institutions of learning “must be subject less to state control and more to the control of local communities and teachers.” He argues that by diffusing educational authority, there will be a greater amount of diverse and critical thought. It also prevents the state from using the educational system as merely a propaganda tool.

Second, it is important that “publishing houses, the press, and other media retain some independence from state control.” Such protections are needed to keep the state from manipulating the public for the states-sake. State-control of media outlets is not a socialist program, but rather a program utilized by authoritarian governments to undermine dissent.

Third, an independent judiciary is “imperative” for a socialist state, in the way that it is vital in any regime. Connelly says that a significant difference between Richard Nixon and Joseph Stalin was the existence in the United States of a judiciary which “was relatively immune from direct executive control.” Now, courts are still imperfect (there is no shortage of examples from American history), however Connelly could more generally have said that what is needed is a meaningful system of checks and balances. A strong and independent judiciary would be an important element of a significant checks and balances scheme, which would also require a strong legislature with the ability to represent the will of the people apart from the disposition of the executive.

The forth recommendation that Connelly makes is that the right of workers to strike should be maintained. The right to strike would ensure that the interests of worker are not ignored by a regime the is supposedly organized to benefit the workers.
In many ways, Connelly is calling for a socialist state with republican protections. In many ways, Marxist theory provides an economic critique which touches on politics but lacks a theory of regime types. This may not be fatal to Marxist theory, but is has complicated effort to establish socialist states.

The separation of powers, the division of powers, the protection of individual rights against government intrusion, and the rule of law are in no way capitalist ideas. One could argue that capitalist regimes have equally undermined such principles. The failure of socialist regimes in the late 20th century has cast doubt upon the prospect for socialism. However, we should not fall for the analysis of Friedman and other libertarians who blame the negatives of socialism upon its economic theory; rather we should look at the failure to establish sound political principles. These principles are under attack today in many places (Russia, Pakistan, and even the United States) where socialism does not exist is a serious way.

By claiming that capitalism produces political freedom ignores the important role of constitutional democratic government, which I would claim is the root of American freedom, despite capitalism, not because of it. We are willing to ignore those protections in the name of capitalism, much in the way that we are willing to ignore them in the pursuit of empire. John Rawls argues against laissez-faire capitalism and welfare-state capitalism largely on the grounds that the inequalities resulting from it undermine the basis for equal citizenship.

In 1977, Connelly asked “is it possible, possible even at the level of theoretical speculation, to institutionalize such a synthesis of socialist and liberal ideals?” He is less than optimistic about the possibility. While I am hesitant to place hope in this as a political reality, theoretically such a synthesis may be the direction that I am heading in. Both liberal egalitarians and proponents of market socialism seem to also be heading along a similar course.

Connolly, W. E. (1977). A note on freedom under socialism. Political Theory, 5(4), 461-472.

Friedman, M., & Friedman, R. D. (1990). Free to choose : A personal statement (1st Harvest/HBJ ed.). San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

Rawls, J., & Kelly, E. (2001). Justice as fairness : A restatement. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Charity Vs. Justice

It is often said that social justice is about forcing others to be charitable. I should let you in on a secret: I do not give a crap about whether you are charitable or not. If I was trying to force you to be charitable, I would be doing it to force you to be righteous, but social justice is not about whether you are just but whether our society is just (sorry, not everything is about you).

Now saying that I am trying to force you to be charitable, is a clever (though repeating the same stupid arguments over and over againn sort of undermines the whole clever thing) rhetorical trick. If I am forcing you to be righteous, I am forcing you to be saved…I am carrying out Satan’s plan. But, I am in not all that interested in the afterlife. I am hoping to make this world a better place to live.

Now, the prospect of a just world scares many religious people. I cannot be sure the reason for this, since the prospect of peace and equality does not contradict my religion. However, I think many worry that if we do not have inequality and misery people will not have a reason to seek out religion. Look at Europe, the well-being of social democracy has led to a people generally uninteresting in religion (though I think this mostly has to do with the history of religion on the continent). Yet, if your religion can only sustain itself through human suffering, this seems to be a religion that I should oppose rather than embrace.

One reason that I am generally uninterested in discussions about private donations versus government effort is that private donations are more about the giver than they are about
the needy. The change you put into the red kettle outside of WalMart this holiday season was more about the warm fuzzy it gave you or the sense of guilt it delayed than it was about those it will help. It will only help a small few and only for a short period of time. This is not to say that it is bad to give to charitable organizations. In fact such organizations do much good, particularly when we consider the rather pathetic and meager effort we make as a society.

The aim of social justice is not to “help poor people” (something we all think is good) but to minimize inequality and poverty. Private donations may well help poor people, but they cannot and do not address the deeper problems of poverty and inequality. Now the political structure of the United States has largely undermined the effectiveness of most government efforts to address poverty and inequality, so this is not a defense of government programs as they now exist, but only collective efforts can address the issues of poverty and inequality.

Many will say that my approach is inconsistent with Mormon approaches to these issues. That may be the case. This has led me to a recent epiphany. I may belong to the same Church as those who think that there Social Darwinism is rooted in some interpretation of the pre-existence, but I do not share the same religion.

Patrick Henry and Right-Wing (Anti-) Constitutionalism

The Patrick Henry Caucus is the pro-state’s right group within the Utah State Legislature. This is the right-wing of a very right-wing legislative body. They are in many ways the voice of the tea party movement and the 9/12 groups.

The choice of Patrick Henry as their symbol is an appropriate one. Henry is most famous for his “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death” speech. While this speech is a rousing oration, it points in many ways to who Henry is. He is not the great revolutionary, but America’s first great demagogue. Continue reading “Patrick Henry and Right-Wing (Anti-) Constitutionalism”

A Student Comment on Social Justice, Rawls, and Chris H.

Professor H,

A student in your Political Philosophy course asked that these comments be forwarded to you since they could not fit in the comment box available on the Student Ratings survey:

This is from a student in my Political Science 309r: Special Topics in Political Philosophy. The special topic was “Social Justice.” No, this was not a response to Glenn Beck. His comments came out a couple months into the term and about 7 months after the topic had been chosen. The primary focus of the class had been, of course, John Rawls and contemporary writings about social justice. I was going to comment on the comment…but it is beautiful all by itself (I have only edited out my full last name). 

For the rest of my life, I will be grateful to Professor H for teaching me about the most powerful tools a political philosopher can use—smugness and sarcasm. Professor H taught by example, as well as by word. Dismissive snickering is far more effective than actual argument, as was vividly proven by the performances and demonstrations he integrated into his lectures.

Yes, Professor H. enjoys an abundance of excellent qualities as a teacher—his rather astonishing ability to understand texts he has never read; his pious refusal to argue (so difficult in a political science class); his ability to unite the class as a single, sulky, homogonous body of dissatisfied aristocrats (by applying the snicker method to any student who tried, however feebly or briefly, to defend—or discuss—property rights. Eventually such students were alienated, shunted into a corner of the room where they were remembered only when ridiculing them could further the day’s lecture. After a few months, they took to whimpering and shaking, groaning and rocking like Elantris’ Hoed, ravaged beyond sanity by the disease of having disagreed with the professor).

Yes, all of these are desirable qualities, and we enjoyed Prof. H’s abundance in them just as he did. Nevertheless, Professor H. is not without his flaws. The flaw that bothered me the most was the ease with which he dismissed the notion that God allows evil to exist in the universe as a way to test us, and the following notion that life is about choosing one’s own destiny. Certainly, I would never say that because God is in control we shouldn’t strive for justice on earth. This class was bafflingly unconcerned with justice—apparently slapping the word “social” on to “justice” stops justice from being an eternal good. The course proceeded as follows:

Professor H. presented the class with a problem: namely, that the world is an unjust place. Then he presented us with a solution: namely, that justice can only be achieved when a giant global government rises up, deprives everyone of everything, and dispenses resources among mankind according to the dictates of its awful omniscience. Then the professor retreated into the corner with the Hoed to lament the fact that this giant world totalitarianism seems unlikely to arise. Continue reading “A Student Comment on Social Justice, Rawls, and Chris H.”

Sandel on Morality and the Free Market

“We have drifted from having a market economy to have a market society.” Wow. A thoughful and insightful critique by the political philosopher Michael Sandel.

Check out the clip.

Also, I have written a few thoughts, inspired by Sandel and some conversations I have had lately, over at Radical Moderation.

The Mormon Rawls Project: The Original Position and the Council in Heaven I

Authors note: The following is the second in my Mormon Rawls Project Series. It is also the expansion of my first ever post here at FPR.

When Rawls develops the concept which he labels “justice as fairness.” This does not mean that a just society is one which is fair, but instead that principles of justice must be determined under conditions which are fair to all.

While fairness may not be something commonly found in the world, we can imagine what the conditions of fairness might appear like. This is what Rawls does when he introduces the original position (OP). The original position is a hypothetical situation where representatives come together to determine the principles of justice that will govern the basic structure of society (the basic structure being the political and economic institutions which impacts ones life-chances) . It is these principles that would guide the development of a constitution and further development of law and policy.

In order to ensure that these principles are chosen under fair conditions. Rawls introduces the device known as the veil of ignorance. The veil of ignorance prevents the participants from knowing the particulars of their own situation and standing in the world. They are unaware of their own wealth, gender, race, and geographical situation. They are essentially stripped of the knowledge that might lead than to pick principles of justice which benefit themselves or people like themselves rather than principles that benefit all and which could be accepted by all. Continue reading “The Mormon Rawls Project: The Original Position and the Council in Heaven I”

Creating a World Without Poverty: Muhammad Yunus

In a speech titled “Becoming Self-Reliant—Spiritually and Physically” in the March 2009 Ensign, Elder M. Russel Ballard makes the following comment about economist Muhammad Yunus:

“…we need to appraise our own lives. How well are we listening to the Spirit? Are we living according to the eternal truths and doctrines of the restored Church of Jesus Christ? Can we effectively appraise the needs of others by the prompting of the Spirit? It impressed me that Muhammad Yunus must have been prompted by the Spirit when he organized a very unusual bank in Bangladesh, which some have said was the beginning of microfinance. When Yunus, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006 for his efforts to help the poor, was asked what his initial strategy would be, he responded:
Continue reading “Creating a World Without Poverty: Muhammad Yunus”