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Friday, July 17, 2015

Steer or Drift? (Part Two)

(Editor’s note: This is the second and final segment in this two part series.  The first segment explained how the founding fathers provided the ship (our federal government) with a precise yet sophisticated steering mechanism.  Given a record level of wealth disparity in society today, the problem devolves to one main consideration: whether to steer the ship --- or simply to drift.)

In the present context, the promise of economic freedom and prosperity has exhausted its supply of natural opportunities.  Its redemption, attempted unsuccessfully by T.R. in 1912, fully 100 years ago, may prove to be beyond the patience, the power and the wisdom of the American people and their leaders.  But if the promise is not kept, democracy, as it familiar to us, will no longer exist.

What a wage earner needs, and what the interests of a democratic society require, is a constantly higher standard of living.  If it is to earn the wage earner’s loyalty, a democracy must recognize the legitimacy of his demand, and make the satisfaction of it the essence of its public policy.

Many say we have passed the point of critical mass where the drift of indiscriminate individualism requires the increasing control of property in the public interest.  A more scrupulous attention to federal responsibility naturally follows the concentration of corporate and individual wealth, dedicated only to the further proposition of perpetuating its gains.

Unless American independence emancipates itself from its traditional illusions, its spirit vanishes.  Perhaps the American people understood this if only instinctively by the 2008 election, choosing to seat a leader who has begun a new chapter in the process of steering once again.

But it doesn’t necessarily have to be either all steer or all drift.  The two principles can and should peaceably co-exist, working together if not always in perfect harmony.  Each, however, must make a legitimate concession to the other.  Both the individual and national interest must sacrifice their extreme elements for the joint benefit of individual distinction and social improvement.  The two principles must become subordinate to the higher principle of human welfare.

However, it can be expected that the privileged classes will be hospitable only to those reforms which spare their privileges.  But their privileges cannot be spared, to the extent that rational ideas may achieve any decisive influence in their political life.  The consequences would be the cultivation of contempt for intelligence, the excessive worship of tradition and complacent social subserviency.

It would be intriguing to view the vexing problem of inequality of opportunity through the lens of human welfare ahead of any other legitimate interest.  The goal would secure the benefits of the existing organization, while casting the net of opportunity over a larger social area.

Conservative principles, traditions and national history require only the gradual alteration of adverse social conditions in the name of progress.  Perhaps a people can best exhibit its common sense so clearly as to be contemporary without breaking the ties of historical anchorage.  To move too suddenly by uprooting any essential element of the national tradition would come at a severe penalty, as ordinary citizens discovered when they decided to cut slavery out of their national composition.

It is assumed the people wish to escape the need to regain their health by means of another surgical
operation.  They must then consider carefully how much of a reorganization of traditional
institutions, policies and ideas are necessary to achieve a new, more stable national balance.  They must also consider that any disloyalty to democracy by way of national policy will in the end be fatal to national unity.  In steering the ship toward meaningful equality of opportunity to complete our great unfinished business, seldom has so much been at stake.

-Michael D’Angelo

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Steer or Drift? (Part One)

(Editor’s note: This is the first article in a two part series on how we resolve complex problems here in America under our democratic system.)

How do we keep our American core values in a continuous state of progress?  Is it prudent to charge ahead proactively?  Or should we delay and react passively to conditions?

Fortunately, the founding fathers provided the ship (our federal government) with a precise yet sophisticated system of navigation.  Over the succeeding generations, the problem of forming a more perfect union came to be simplified to one main consideration: whether and when to steer the ship (Hamilton) --- or simply to drift (Jefferson).

The stated goal has never varied much, an equality of opportunity for all citizens, regardless of status, with special privileges to none.  When that equality was at risk, it was time to steer.  Once achieved, it was time to leave it alone and drift.  The aim was “a better quality of human nature effected by a higher type of human association.”  Its foundation was “mutual confidence and fair dealing.”

But some say Hamilton was guilty of over-steering, to the extent that his capitalist system is dogged by the ill effects of preferred status, unscrupulous competition and selfish materialism.  Others say Jefferson’s fundamental principle gave rise to an indiscriminate individualism, fatal “to both the essential individual and the essential social interest.”  Over-drift was akin to abandoning ship.

Yet liberty and equality of opportunity, each a desirable principle, are often at odds.  Insofar as equal rights are freely exercised, they are bound to result in inequalities, made to be perpetual.  The “marriage,” which the free exercise of equal rights is designed to consecrate between liberty and equality, “gives birth to unnatural children, whose nature it is to devour one or the other of its parents.”

Consequently, the principle of equality of opportunity cannot be “confined to the merely negative task of keeping individual rights from becoming in any way privileged.”  It must go further.  The nation’s task in its collective capacity must progress to a selection among the “various prevailing ways of exercising individual rights” those which contribute to national and individual integrity.”

As a threshold matter, whether and when to steer the ship demands a national consensus.  But when does an issue become national, requiring centralized action?  To be sure, there were those in the 19th century who believed that human bondage was merely a local issue which failed to meet the threshold.  Others in the 20th century believed similarly in the throes of economic depression.  When is the line crossed wherein action in one’s own best interest is in fact unreasonable?

Such is the suspicion of reasonable men to subject themselves to the corruptive and abusive effects of political power unacceptably concentrated.  Better to stall and prostrate the legitimate legislative function with a jammed circuit board of competing economic special interests.  Better yet to neuter the executive function, while decrying the judiciary to stick to legal interpretation and refrain from activist law making.

Perhaps human nature is such that there will be those who deem the ship to be in a safe port, sheltered from
the storm, where steering is not necessary.  Just as soon as there will be others who, with a sense of alarm, see the same ship as careening toward a direct confrontation with rocky shoals or the Titanic’s iceberg.  Perhaps there can be no effective reconciliation between these contrasting visions.

All the while, the pendulum swings back and forth.  We steer, then drift.  The process repeats itself.  Each cycle brings us arguably closer to a more perfect union.

(Editor’s note: The second and final part in this two part series contemplates how our society can steer its way back to good health, given a record level of wealth disparity.  By moving too suddenly, the danger of uprooting any essential element of the national tradition would come at a severe penalty, as ordinary citizens discovered when they decided to cut slavery out of their national composition.)

-Michael D'Angelo