Tag Archives: common good

About That Reading List…

After I described my course on Individual Rights and the Common Good in a previous blog, several readers asked if I would post the reading list.

Because I’m at home with limited access to both my office and memory, I don’t have the complete list, but here are those I do have: Thomas Smith, Aristotle on the Conditions for and Limits of the Common Good, from Volume 93 of the American Political Science Review; John Locke’s Second Treatise of Civil Government (Chapters 9 and 10); DeTocqueville’s Democracy in America (Book 2, Chapters 27, 28 and 29) and an essay “DeTocqueville on Individualism” from a website titled The Laughing Agave; John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty (Chapter One); John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice (not the book, but an excerpt published by the journal Philosophy and Public Affairs in the summer of 1985; The Procedural Republic and the Unencumbered Self, by Michael Sandel, from the journal Political Theory in 1984; Liberalism, Community and Tradition by Joel Feinberg, from Volume 3, #3 of Tikkun; Church, State and Women’s Human Rights, by Martha Nussbaum, from Criterion: A Publication of the Divinity School of the University of Chicago; cases considering the rights of LGBTQ persons against claims of religious liberty: Bowers v. Hardwick, Romer v. Evans, Lawrence v. Texas and Obergfell v. Hodges, and cases I don’t have in front of me balancing property rights against nuisance laws and other governmental regulations.

The official course description was: Considers the tension between individual and majoritarian rights in our constitutional system, and the effects of that tension on the formulation of public policy.

The course was an investigation of that tension–the right of citizens to personal autonomy, on the one hand, and the equally strong human need to be part of a cohesive community, on the other.

As I pointed out in the course syllabus, the fundamental issue in political philosophy–as well as in day-to-day governance–is who decides? What sorts of decisions must government be empowered to make, and which must be left to the individual? Answering that, of course, requires that we explore many other questions–what do we mean by “the common good?” How much social consensus is necessary for a government policy to be considered legitimate?

Can public policies encourage the the development of an inclusive “we” from America’s increasingly diverse “I’s” without violating fundamental individual rights?

The class was cross-listed, meaning that both undergraduates and graduates could enroll. Because it wasn’t a required class, it attracted students who were actually interested in exploring those questions. It was fun to teach–or more accurately, to introduce them to what important thinkers have said about these issues, and to serve as a discussion guide.

As I listened to the political debates Americans have been having this year, I’ve really missed the kinds of thoughtful analyses and debates I heard from my students. Conspiracy theories that provide easily identified “bad guys” and heroes, religious dogmas that impose answers rather than helping adherents wrestle with important questions, insistence upon categorizing everyone as “us” or “them” –these are all hallmarks of a flight from genuine engagement and civic responsibility.

I have hopes that with Biden’s election, and his choice of competent adults to head the agencies charged with doing the people’s business, we can emerge from the embrace of ignorance, the corruption and the bigotry of this horrible four-year experiment with government by tantrum, and approach policy argumentation the way most of my students did.

For those of you who wanted the reading list–I hope you’ll let the rest of us know your reactions as you plow through!

 

 

 

Pay Your Dues!

I recently saw yet another study that attempted to quantify just how much money is lost to national treasuries by reason of what is politely called “tax avoidance.” 

The report, from an organization named the “Tax Justice Network,” is touted as the first study to thoroughly measure how much money each country loses each year to corporate tax abuse and private tax evasion. Its calculations were based upon data that had been self-reported by corporations to tax authorities.

I realize that one person’s loophole is another person’s policy choice, but with that caveat…

The research found–unsurprisingly–that wealthy countries are the primary drivers of tax revenue loss. (I say “unsurprisingly” because you have to have money to evade taxes.) Wealthy countries contributed most to the total of $427 billion in losses annually. Those losses, as the report noted, affect the ability of countries all over the world to provide services to the public.

This report puts numbers to the problem, but any sentient citizen is aware of the arguably pathological aversion to taxes displayed by many wealthy citizens and corporate entities. Certainly that’s true in the United States, where politicians with straight faces equate taxation with theft, and bemoan the extraction of dollars from presumed self-made “makers” to support those they dismiss as “takers.”

Probably the best response to this mischaracterization was Elizabeth Warren’s smackdown  a few years ago:

There is nobody in this country who got rich on their own. Nobody. You built a factory out there – good for you. But I want to be clear. You moved your goods to market on roads the rest of us paid for. You hired workers the rest of us paid to educate. You were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for. You didn’t have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory… Now look. You built a factory and it turned into something terrific or a great idea – God bless! Keep a hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.

Economists are quick to point out that economic growth–and the ability of wealthy Americans to prosper in an economy heavily dependent on consumption–requires that those at the bottom of the income distribution have disposable income sufficient to spend in the marketplace. Corporate bigwigs don’t create jobs–job creation is a function of demand. (No one is going to be hired to produce more widgets if few people have the resources to buy those widgets.)

What I always wonder, however, is whether these “captains of industry” treat their country clubs and other membership organizations the way they treat their countries. How would the Orange Menace react if members of Mar-A-Lago declined to pay their dues?

Those golf courses need tending. The clubhouse roofs and mechanical systems require maintenance. The properly servile “help” won’t be there to bring you your Scotch and soda if they aren’t being paid. Etc. Why don’t the same people who presumably understand the need to pay dues adequate to keep these organizations functioning acknowledge that–as members of the polity–they have similar obligations to the country?

Because they do know better.The loss of those billions of dollars isn’t accidental.

“A global tax system that loses over $427 billion a year is not a broken system, it’s a system programmed to fail,” said Alex Cobham, chief executive of the Tax Justice Network.

The ability to evade paying one’s membership dues–the chutzpah required to be a “free rider” on the contributions of others– doesn’t mean that a businessperson is “smart.”  To the contrary, it demonstrates just who the real “takers” are.

 

Accurate, Not Funny

A friend recently sent me the following “joke:”

The Republican Congress is preparing to pass a resolution adding an “S” to WASP.  The S will stand for STRAIGHT, and “White Anglo-Saxon Protestant will henceforth be “Straight White Anglo-Saxon Protestant.”

The Democrats in Congress will respond by creating  a new acronym of their own. MAGPIE will stand for “Minority Americans, Gays, Poor, Immigrants, Educated, Seculars.”

Clever word-play, but much too accurate to be amusing.

Count me among the many Americans who heard Donald Trump’s promise to “Make America Great Again” as a very thinly-veiled promise to “make America White Again.” Trump’s appeal was grounded in a notion of “true” Americanism that equated being a real American with being a straight white Protestant male. He appealed to nostalgia for a time when those white Protestant males dominated– and women and minorities “knew their place.”

That nostalgia, needless to say, is not shared by those encompassed by the MAGPIE acronym.

There are, as readers of this blog know all too well, many kinds of inequality. We tend to concentrate on economic disparities, and there is good reason for that—if you are a member of the working poor, unable to make ends meet even though you may be working two jobs, unable to afford adequate food and transportation, let alone health insurance—that lack of self-sufficiency hobbles you in virtually every other way.

People struggling just to survive don’t go to public meetings, rarely vote, and usually are in no position to assert their legal or constitutional rights. They lack the time (and too often the self-confidence) to complain about inadequate city services or substandard schools.

Economic equity is thus incredibly important. But as we all understand, in a society that privileges certain identities over others, the people most likely to be poor, the people most likely to be economically marginalized, are the people consigned to the “Other” categories. The MAGPIES.

One of the most depressing realities about Trump’s America is the increasing division of the population into tribes contending for advantage in what most see as a zero-sum game.

Rather than a liberal democracy in which elected officials work for their vision of a common good, America is rapidly devolving into a corporatist system where elected officials decide who they will favor with tax cuts, subsidies and other governmental prizes. (Those decisions, needless to say, are not made on the basis of what is good for all Americans—they are made in exchange for campaign donations and/or partisan estimates of what is good for the official’s “tribe.”)

From time to time, someone will repeat the old story about the Chairman of General Motors who reportedly said “What’s good for General Motors is good for the United States.” What he actually said was “What’s good for the United States will be good for General Motors.”

That recognition—that we are all in this together, that prosperity must be shared to be sustainable, and that sound management of any business requires a concern for the national welfare—is all but gone, replaced by Trumpism’s far more constricted and un-self-aware concern with the immediate prospects of ones own tribe.

The SWASPs.

 

How Did We Get Here and Where Do We Go Now?

This semester, I am teaching an elective course that I “invented” some years ago; it is called “Individual Rights and the Common Good,” and the readings and class discussions center on the proper role of the state, and the optimal balance between respect for individual autonomy and the needs/interests of the society.

Because it is an elective, the students who choose to enroll tend to be engaged, and the discussions have generally been thoughtful and substantive.

The class meets on Tuesday nights, and Tuesday–today– is election day. In consideration of that fact (and, admittedly, the probability that several of them would skip class in order to watch the returns), I decided to forego our usual class meeting in favor of an effort to connect the more abstract principles we have been discussing with the very immediate realities of America’s political environment.

Here is the assignment I gave them. What would your answers be?

________________________

The 2016 election campaigns have been among the most contentious in our history, and have displayed wide—perhaps unbridgeable–disagreements among Americans not just about the comparative merits of individual candidates, but about the proper role of government and the nature of the common good.

Our next class is scheduled for election day. As these campaigns conclude, and in lieu of holding that class, I am asking you to consider the opposing views and attitudes that have been revealed during the course of these campaigns, and to write a 2-3 page essay addressing the following questions:

  • How would you characterize the Presidential candidates’ visions of the common good/national interest?
  • How would you describe their respective approaches to balancing protections of individual rights against the interests of the country as a whole?
  • In the wake of the election, how do you see Americans resolving our very different perspectives and deep disagreements? (In other words, given the incredibly acrimonious nature of the campaigns, do you see efforts at reconciliation or continued animosity, and in either case, with what result?)
  • In your opinion, what is driving Americans’ current partisan polarization and anger?

The Bottom Line and the Common Good

I’ve done my share of business-bashing on this blog–pointing out corporate overreach and bad behavior. But as Frank Bruni recently reminded us in a timely and excellent column for the New York Times, there’s a sunny side to greed.

Self-interest has contributed to sanity on a wide number of issues. As Bruni notes,

They’ve been great on the issue of the Confederate flag. Almost immediately after the fatal shooting of nine black churchgoers in Charleston, S.C., several prominent corporate leaders, including the heads of Walmart and Sears, took steps to retire the banner as a public symbol of the South; others made impassioned calls for that.

And when Nikki Haley, the South Carolina governor, said that the Confederate flag at the State House should come down, she did so knowing that Boeing and BMW, two of the state’s major employers, had her back. In fact the state’s chamber of commerce had urged her and other politicians to see the light.

Eli Lilly, American Airlines, Intel and other corporations were crucial to the defeat or amendment of proposed “religious freedom” laws in Indiana, Arkansas and Arizona over the last year and a half. Their leaders weighed in against the measures, which licensed anti-gay discrimination, and put a special kind of pressure on politicians, who had to worry about losing investment and jobs if companies with operations in their states didn’t like what the government was doing.

Bruni quotes a business consultant for the observation that successful businesses must be more responsive to the general public than politicians.

If you’re a politician and all you care about is staying in office, you’re worried about a small group of voters in your district who vote in the primary,” he told me, referring to members of the House of Representatives. “If you’re a corporation, you need to be much more in sync with public opinion, because you’re appealing to people across the spectrum.”

Does this sensitivity to the population outweigh the damage that some corporations do to the environment? Does it make up for others’ exploitation of workers? Of course not, but as Bruni notes, “it does force you to admit that corporations aren’t always the bad guys. Sometimes the bottom line matches the common good.”

And it should force those of us who think and write about such matters to make important distinctions. I get angry when people make sweeping generalizations based on race, religion or sexual orientation, because there is no monolithic group. Every human category includes assholes and saints and everything in-between.

That’s equally true of corporations and business enterprises.

The market provides many incentives for good behavior. As I noted yesterday, many existing public policies reward less salutary behaviors, and those need to change.