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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