Government is not about doing the will of the people

We frequently hear in electoral debates the cry “but that is not what the people want.” In recent debates this cry has been raised concerning both the gun question and the health care question. It supposes that the proper purpose of government is to give the people what they want, or at least what a majority of them want. Opinion polls are therefore taken, and policies advanced which agree with the polls. This is a false and dangerous idea. First of all, polls are only as good as their methodology, and can be easily manipulated by the way the question is framed, and by the choice of people polled and their number. Even more importantly, their validity depend entirely on the state of knowledge about the subject on the part of those polled. This is especially the case when the subject under consideration is one that raises strong emotional reactions, as is the case with the debate about guns.

On a more fundamental level, this forms a part of the wider debate concerning the proper function of government itself. It is often claimed that the best form of government is that most closely resembling direct democracy. Under this theory the ideal form, which is in fact relatively feasible given modern advances in communications technology, would be for everyone to vote directly on every significant measure. Objections are raised to this idea on the grounds of security and accuracy, since many mistrust technology, and consider it too easily manipulated by the technologically sophisticated. There is some merit to this argument, but this is far from being the most cogent objection. For one thing, it implies that if these issues could be satisfactorily overcome then all would be well.

There is, however, a much more fundamental reason why this would be a terrible idea: it is not in fact the function of government to give the people what they want. First of all, this aim cannot be achieved. The best that can be done in this direction is to accede to the perceived desires of the majority of those participating in the election. As has been demonstrated many times, the only electoral system that could even determine the will of the majority of the electorate (as opposed to the majority of those actually voting) would be one which it was compulsory for all eligible voters to cast a vote. Even such a system would suffer from the same drawbacks as opinion polls: it would depend on the way the question was framed, and on the state of knowledge of the electorate, both of which can be manipulated. But this again is merely a surface objection, and leaves open the possibility that such concerns could be overcome if the process could be perfected.

The underlying objection to this approach is that its fundamental aim is wrong, and the proper solution lies in recognizing that government cannot and should not base its decisions and policies on the perceived desires of the people or even of a majority of the people. This is not to say that it should do the opposite, and act automatically in defiance of the will of the people, but rather that this should, if considered at all, be a minor consideration.

This may seem like a shocking assertion, but an examination of the proper nature and purpose of government soon reveals its truth. Part of our fundamental human nature is that we are a highly sociable species. This means that we are driven by our nature to form groups. This is not universal among animals; indeed one of the most intelligent animals we have found is the octopus, yet these animals show no signs of becoming a dominant species. This  is thought to be due to the fact that they are a solitary (non group forming) species. This means that there is little opportunity for the young to learn from their elders, so each generation has to learn everything from scratch. We, on the other hand, have progressed as far as we have largely because our social nature drives us to form groups of all kinds, and one manifestation of this is what we term society or culture. To understand societal behavior and rules we must examine the nature of groups in general. 

The absolute rule of social groups of all kinds is that without exception they put limitations upon the freedom of action of their members. Other than an anarchists club or perhaps a solipsists’ convention, both of which would be self-contradictory, all groups follow this rule. The trade-off is that in return for giving up some of our freedom of action we gain the benefits inherent in being members of the group. It is true that in the case of society itself we do not have a practical choice in the matter; we are automatically enrolled whether we want it or not, and for this reason we need to consider carefully how we set about making the rules of this particular group. If we join a voluntary group and then find that the restrictions are not worth the benefits we can always leave the group, but separating ourselves from society itself is in today’s world almost impossible. 

What is not changed by its involuntary nature is that society will always restrict the freedom of its members. There is no meaning to a society that does not do this. The reason for this uncomfortable situation is that the interests of the group are different from, and usually at odds with, the interests of each individual member. This can be best illustrated by looking at a different kind of group, but one which follows the same principles, namely a sports team. Other than its voluntary nature, we can observe the same tension between the interests of the individual team member and the interests of the team itself. For instance in most cases team members will want to maximize their playing time, and where there are points to be scored they would prefer that they themselves score them rather than their team mates. Frequently however the overall interests of the team might be best served by having others on the field, or by passing the ball to someone better positioned to score. The essence of learning to play on a team, therefore, is learning to subordinate our individual interests to those of the team. 

This is also the lesson of living in a society. We must recognize that we have two separate identities, and that those identities are in conflict. We are each an individual with needs and desires ot our own and at the same time we are members of a group, society, that has its own conflicting needs and desires. This on turn means that when making decisions that affect all of us we must set aside one of those identities, the individual one, and think only of the needs of the group. 

I realize that this is a very high standard of behavior, and that people will always vote at least to some extent by their own self interests, and politicians will always pander to that fact. Probably the best I can reasonably expect is that voters will at least consider the needs of the society when they vote, and accept the fact that it is not in fact, and should not be, the proper aim of government to please you. Its proper aim is to see to the orderly running of society and the protection of the interests of those least able to protect their own interests. 


The political right has been extremely successful at coopting the major symbols of what it means to be American to their own cause. The flag, the national anthem, the US military and indeed the concept of patriotism itself are all heavily used as symbology in advertising and rhetoric by the Republicans and the far right. The constant drumbeat is that those on the right are the real Americans, and those on the left are not. Taking this phenomenon under the general rubric of patriotism it is worth considering the origins and true meaning of this concept.

When we speak of loving our country, the word country can have one of two distinct meanings and it is important to distinguish between them. In Ancient Greek this distinction is illustrated by two word roots that we encounter in modern English, both of which loosely translate as country: patris and ethnos. Though the distinction has been largely lost in English these words carried very different connotations. Ethnos referred to the country in the sense of nation, as distinguished from other nations, including the idea of racial heritage, or ethnicity. Patris, on the other hand, referred to the country as a socio-political institution. So in reference to the USA the ethnos would refer to the country as distinct from, say, Canada our Mexico, whereas patria would describe the country as a socio-political system; our patria is a representative democracy with a written constitution and a certain defined system of government. This distinction, which might at first seem nitpicking, becomes of vital importance when considering government. In this context, loyalty to the ethnos would refer to support for the particular government in power, whereas loyalty to the patris would refer to support for our particular form of government. In other words it is the difference between government as a concept, and the particular government that we have right now. Between the presidency as an institution and the specific president now in office.

The Greek word patriot did not describe someone who supported their ethnos, who might be pro Greece and anti Sparta, but rather someone who interested themselves in the patria, or the affairs of their country in the sense of how the community was organized and run. Such a person might be pro democracy and anti autocracy, for instance. In the sense we use the word (the ethnos sense), the opposite of a Patriot is a traitor. In the Greek sense (the patria sense) the opposite of a patriot was someone who only cares about their own concerns and gave no thought to public affairs. The word for the opposite of a patriot was derived from the word for self, which is id. The opposite of a patriot was an idiot.

This is not a joke or a word trick I made up, it is is true. The word idiot was later adopted by the Romans and its meaning changed to something more approaching an ignorant person, and further changed in English to someone of low mental ability, but this change in meaning is a clear indication of how the Greeks and Romans regarded those who did not participate in public affairs. This is significant today because the Greeks and the Romans were the only major societies we know about that seriously experimented with democracy prior to the founding of the USA. We might do well to return to this understanding of patriotism (and idiocy). Different forms of government make different demands on their citizens. Autocracies offer the perceived advantage that the citizens are relieved of responsibility for the situation they find themselves in. There is nothing you can do about it anyway, so you may as well just get on with your life and not worry about it. Democracies on the other hand are demanding. You are expected to play your part, even if that part is just caring a vote. Government is complicated and messy. You have to decide between competing benefits and harms, and when things do not turn out the way you thought or hoped they would, you have to take (collective) responsibility for the results.

When the country was young and memories of past oppression still fresh, the general population appreciated the opportunity to have a say in their own affairs, but over time memories faded and the people lost interest. This left a power vacuum which special interests were only to happy to fill, and over time our form of government has been stolen from us.

Class Warfare is Real

Attempts even to define, let alone ameliorate, the degree of social injustice suffered by the poor at the hands of the rich are met with indignant cries of “class warfare.” This is reminiscent of the child’s explanation that “it all started when Johnny hit me back!” The plain and simple fact is that class warfare has been a clear and present reality throughout history, and it has been waged by the rich against the poor.  The primary weapon in that war has been and remains the control of the money system.

In any society more complex than a tribe there must be some mechanism for deciding how resources are to be allocated among its members. In our society that mechanism is money. All resources, both necessities and luxuries, are virtually unobtainable except in exchange for money. Therefore the struggle to survive and prosper, rather than involving the direct obtaining of resources as it was for hunter/gatherers, becomes instead the obtaining of money with which to purchase the resources. This is not in and of itself necessarily a wrong or harmful system, but it does mean that whoever has the power to make the rules concerning money and how it is distributed possesses the means of absolute control if they choose to use that power to that end. History has shown that most do. Clearly this is a socially undesirable situation, since it obviously advantages a very small segment of society over the vast majority. 

This does not necessarily imply that it is harmful to be governed by a small number of people. I am not necessarily advocating the position that the entire population should be involved with all decision making, which some conceive of as being made possible by the Internet and mass two way communications. A strong case can be made that, as with all pursuits, a relatively few are good at making decisions for the public benefit, and most are not, and we should put the right people in charge and let them lead. It is quite feasible to devise a system aimed at producing that end, and avoiding the obvious pitfalls involved in the very necessary process of giving people power. The system we have now for electing our leaders is one that is guaranteed to bring about the worst possible results for the population as a whole. This is because it is controlled by the money interests.

Money and the way we use money is perhaps the most important consideration in the field of social philosophy. It is also, not coincidentally, perhaps the most difficult consideration. Coming to a true understanding of the true nature of money, and how its use has been perverted to serve the interests of the hereditary power structure, presents enormous challenges. We must overcome habits of thought and assumptions that are so ingrained within us that we are barely even aware of their existence. We must come to terms with the seeming paradox of something that is a symbol for value, and which can be exchanged for things if actual value, yet which itself has no value. We must recognize that it is precisely the false idea that money is itself a commodity to be bought and sold that enables what should be a useful, indeed essential, tool has instead been turned into a weapon of social control.

Any attempt to upend such a deeply ingrained pattern of thought inevitably meets certain kinds of objection. “It has always been that way, and will never change.” “Power always corrupts the powerful, and nothing can be done about that.” “The system of control is just too powerful and all-pervasive, and will never give up its power.” We must examine each of these contentions (and other like them) and answer them convincingly. We must show how things came to be the way they are, which happened neither by chance nor by some inevitable process nor by wise and intelligent design, but rather was instituted to benefit those who established themselves as leaders at the very start, and who wised to retain that position and pass it on to their descendants. We must examine in detail the ever increasingly sophisticated ways this basic strategy has been implemented through history, and recognize the resulting social harm.

Only by fully understanding this history can we even define the true nature of the problem we face, let alone set about devising remedies. Much social analysis is devoted to attempts to fix the glaring inequities in our society by tinkering with the rules; indeed one common strategy of the power structure is to give way on issues that do not really address the fundamental problems in order to foster an illusion of improvement that satisfies the easily persuaded that something is really being done and progress being made, thus blunting the force of opposition. 

The philosophy of gradualism can be a very tempting one, but we must recognize that there must come a time when true fundamental change is needed. In order to reach this recognition it is not enough to define the problems or even to suggest possible solutions, however well conceived those solutions might be. In order to achieve real change we need to go beyond everyday politics. We need to be willing to tackle questions of right and wrong. We need to establish a strong ethical case for change. 

We must show, without appealing to religious beliefs or notions about an afterlife, that it is possible to define a moral basis for deciding what are our responsibilities towards our fellow humans and the other occupants of the reality we inhabit, and towards those who will have to deal with what we leave them. This seems to me to be one of the man shortcomings of the Democratic party. They have ceded the ground of the debate to those whose main concern is the interests of the powerful; election campaigns are all about policies and practicalities and plans. We get mired in thickets of detail and lose sight of the principles that should guide our actions. 

It is fashionable to regard the political spectrum as a range of possible views on how society should be governed, and to think that if we can all sit down and talk it out we can reach a reasonable compromise. This is not the case. There are two very distinct and quite incompatible points of view being represented. They are not morally and ethically equal, and we need to recognize this. Class warfare is real and has been waged by the rich in increasingly subtle ways upon everyone else for all of history. The only way the situation can ever be righted is for the overwhelming majority to recognize that their interests are in fact aligned and they have been deliberately set against each other. This begins with establishing a firm ethical case for their point of view. It is very difficult to move people by appealing to their reason, but their innate sense of fairness, once activated, will carry the day.

The True Nature of Wealth

The word wealth is derived from the old English word weal, which means wellbeing. It denoted something that increased the wellbeing of one or more people. Unfortunately over the centuries the word has come to have a quite different meaning in the general public perception, namely valuable possessions or property. The term has shifted in meaning from the actual wellbeing derived from something to the thing itself, which is (in theory at least) the agent of that wellbeing. In the process the whole idea of wellbeing has been lost. Something is perceived as wealth if it can be exchanged for other items of value or for money. Even money itself in sufficient quantities, is perceived as wealth.

The reason that this shift is unfortunate is that there is no longer a common term for what wealth used to mean, whereas the new meaning already had several words that covered it quite adequately such as treasure or riches. Wellbeing itself does not quite cover it, as it refers to the result of the creation of wealth, so it does not serve to signify the wealth (in its original meaning) itself. It has been observed that a culture can only express (and therefore encompass) ideas that it has words for. The very fact that I have to use whole sentences to explain the original meaning of wealth indicates that it is not a concept we think about much. Yet if we are to have any hope of understanding where we went wrong in the building of our social structures, and certainly if we are to hope to devise new and better ones, it is a concept that we must give a central place to in our thinking. 

For these reasons I would like to define here exactly what I mean whenever I use the word wealth. Wealth is created when someone performs an action that results in the increase in wellbeing of one or more people in such a way that the total increase in wellbeing is greater than the total decrease in wellbeing caused to other people (or indeed to the same people). In understanding this definition, it may be useful to think of wealth as if it were spelled wellth, and imagine an opposite concept called illth.  Every human action of any significance produces some wellth and some illth. As my Nanny would have said, it is an ill wind that blows nobody any good. Obviously wellth and illth are very hard to quantify, especially given the inevitability of unintended (and unforeseeable) consequences, but nothing in life is certain; all we can do is guide our actions by estimating probabilities. 

The amount of wealth resulting from any action is the total aggregated wellth produced (adding up all the people who benefit from it and the degree to which they benefit)  minus the total aggregated illth produced by that action. Now we are faced with the issue of a scale of measurement. If we were dealing with physical size we would be measuring in inches and feet, or meters or some such. Weight is measured in pounds and kilos. The unit of measurement we use for wealth (in my restricted meaning) is the dollar, or the euro, or the yen. The measuring system for wealth is money. In an ideal system the monetary value of something would reflect the total potential wellth it represents.

Clearly in our present system this is not the case. Many actions covered by my definition of wealth are not monetarily rewarded. To take one glaring omission, childcare by stay-at-home mothers yields enormous increases in wellbeing both for the children involved and for society at large in obvious ways that I need not elaborate here. Yet this activity is not monetarily rewarded. Therefore this contribution is not considered wealth generation.

On the other hand the current understanding of what constitutes wealth creation includes many activities that I would put on the other side of the scale. An example of this is the arms business. It would be very hard to argue that a bomb or a tank represents wellth. Indeed such weapons are the very embodiment of illth. Their sole purpose is the destruction of people and property. No doubt some would argue that the possession of powerful weapons serves a deterrent purpose against the potential violence of others. This argument would perhaps have more power if it were not made by a country that in many cases sold to those others the weapons we now wish to deter them from using. Even if we grant some force to this point of view, it is dwarfed by the immense harm that is caused to the world, especially to the poor of the world, by the global arms trade. Perhaps the greates social challenge facing us on a global scale is to cotinue the immense decrease in the amount of violence in the world (exhaustively documented by Steven Pinker in his book “The Better Angels of our Nature”) to the point where war is considered to be on a similar moral level as slavery is today. We may never completely eliminate it but we can reach a general agreement that it is evil and should be eliminated.

It is clear from these examples, which although among the largest of their kind are far from being unique, that there is something very wrong with the metrics we use to judge our degree of success and failure as a society. The GNP is often touted as a barometer of our economic health, but this only describes the total monetary value of all production that is monetarily rewarded. It both leaves out a great deal of value that is added but not paid for, and also includes paid for activities that cause far more harm than good.

The (Lack of) Legitimacy in the Ownership of Property

The natural state of things is that nothing is owned. It is for those who would assert ownership over resources to justify their claim, not for those who would challenge the claim to justify their challenge. This is not to say that such claims are incapable of being justified; it may well possible for an owner to present a compelling case to justify his ownership; however the burden is on him to prove his case. The assumption in all cases is that resources are not owned.

Claims of ownership rest on one of five circumstances, or some combination of them: inheritance, purchase, gift, a grant of ownership from a legal government authority, or appropriation by force. In the first three cases the person or persons bequeathing, selling or giving the property must themselves be legal owners of the property similarly legally obtained by one of these five actions, and so on back to the very first owner.

There must have been a first owner, since there was unquestionably a time in the past when nothing in the world was owned, because ownership itself had not been thought of. This does not mean that the lands were not occupied and used, it just means that nobody had thought of asserting the exclusive right to a piece of land or the right to charge others for the use of it. No doubt pre-agricultural humans, like other animals, would establish territories, but they only occupied them to the extent that they could physically assert their right to do so. They did not think the land belonged to them exclusively.

What, then, was the first owner’s legitimate claim to the property, which started this whole chain? This person could not have received it by any of the first four methods, or he (I am betting the very first owner of anything was a he) would not be the first owner. That only leaves appropriation by force, or what we would call today armed robbery. We can rule out number four, a grant from an established government, as this must have taken place before the first established authority structure; in fact the first assertion of ownership must have created the need for the means of enforcement of property claims. The only point of asserting ownership of something is to prevent others from using it unless they pay you. Naturally people who had always traditionally used the land would angrily resist such an assertion, and so the putative owner needed muscle, and so the whole control system begins.

The inevitable conclusion we must reach is that all property rights are illegitimate from the very start. Now I realize that this argument would probably not get very far in court, but this does not mean it is not correct. It just means that some things that are correct bring with them so much uncertainty and fear of deep rooted change the even those who stand to gain the most by it cannot be brought to support them, let alone those who actually make the decisions, who have much to lose from large scale change.

This may not always be the case. Ideas and attitudes die with each generation, and a time will come when it becomes quite obvious that allowing a minuscule class to continue to rule over everyone by simply asserting their right to do so is quite ridiculous. Therefore it seems important to lay the ethical groundwork for this realization.

How the Few Control the Many

There is a tiny class of people in the world today

who have incomes far in excess of what it takes to meet their necessities, who did nothing to earn this position except for having emerged from between a particular pair of legs. This is not to say by any means that they are all useless people. In many cases they work hard and use their money in socially beneficial ways. However the fact remains that they enjoy a priceless privilege denied to those not born to money, which is that any work they do is voluntary rather than compulsory. There is no condition more onerous to most of the population than the need to meet the monthly nut. It is said that money does not buy happiness but this is not altogether true. A person who is free of that burden, who has enough to live on and more without having to work for it is relieved of a constant and grinding worry. Even those who earn “good” money these days can seldom reach place where they can relax and nor have to worry about the possibility of sudden financial reversals: loss of employment or a major illness or the like. Certainly, being relieved of this burden does not ensure happiness, but it does remove a very large impediment to it. Unfortunately those with inherited money have never known what it is to have to struggle, and so have even less idea of what a privilege it is not to have do so. As Alexandr Solzenitsyn remarks: it is hard for someone who has always been warm to appreciate the position of one who is freezing.

This lack of sympathy for the poor is compounded by the fact that most of the people whose voices are heard loudest, the opinion makers and movers and shakers of the world, are themselves most often among the ranks of the comfortably off. Even if they do not start out wealthy, if they have articulate and persuasive voices they are often co-opted into the system they fight against. They land well-paid positions as commentators or columnists or perhaps as union officials or even elected representatives. In these positions they rub shoulders with the wealthy, eat at their tables, and gradually succumb to the Stockholm Syndrome. It is true that not all follow this path, and there are certainly prominent and articulate voices that continue to fight the good fight in spite of having themselves attained some degree of security, and there are wealthy people who also have sympathy for and work on behalf of the poor. However both groups are fighting an almost all-encompassing system that opposes their efforts. 

The truth is that the wealthy, the ownership classes, are able to make their voices heard effectively where it really counts, in the places where the important decisions are made. They can afford the best lobbyists and the best lawyers and the best political consultants. They can fund think-tanks that can crank out a constant barrage of well-crafted arguments for their points of view.

Meanwhile interests of the poor are vastly under-represented in these same places. In criminal court they have to rely on public defenders who are far too few and underfunded, while the wealthy can afford the highest priced lawyers. In civil cases the poor cannot afford lawyers to represent them, and so are not only vulnerable to being sued but also cannot themselves afford to sue when their rights are violated. Above all they do not have time or energy left over after what it takes to earn a living and have some kind of family life to fight a seemingly impregnable system.

One might think that the overwhelming advantage of the poor would be their sheer numbers. Yet history has shown clearly that a very small number can effectively enslave an entire population. This is achieved by several interlinked methods. Foremost among them is the manipulation of public opinion by means of what was once called propaganda, and now goes by the less threatening term public relations. This is used in a program of divide and conquer. Realizing the danger of being overwhelmed by being in a numerical minority, every effort is expended to keep the rest of the population from combining against them by encouraging them to fight among themselves.

This is helped by the fact that the political right tends to march in lockstep, since they are always seeking to promote the interests of those who pay their bills, and therefore can present a united front, whereas the left seek to promote social justice, which is a much harder concept to agree on. Our society suffers from so many different kinds of social injustice that it is very hard to get agreement on the left as to exactly what actions to take to improve the situation. Different interest groups fight for attention, and the effort is weakened by being scattered in so many directions.

In addition to these disadvantages, the wealthy are able to pursue very long term goals. When they are defeated in a particular sphere they can afford to wait a few years before trying again. The left must each time raise public awareness to once again oppose them. Their supporters become weary of constantly fighting different versions of the same battles, and must often rely on unpaid volunteers, whereas the right is always well funded.

Constitutional Originalism

A persistent error in our thinking about the enterprise of society and government and all those concerns about how we should live, and under what laws, and who should be in charge has to do with the idea that there is some golden age in the past when everything was right and leaders were wise. All we have to do is return to the values of that time and all will be well. There are those, for instance, who say that the United States Constitution should be should be read entirely according to the intentions of the original authors, as if they were endowed with some level of wisdom superior to ours. 

This is saying that the United States population reached peak wisdom in the mid-1700’s, which seems like an unlikely situation. It would mean that we have learned nothing since then, and that more than 200 years of thinking about it has not yielded any better ideas than those of a group of people who lived at the very beginnings of the Industrial Revolution, which utterly transformed our lives and gave rise to power structures that were completely new. Don’t get me wrong, I have immense respect for the Founding Fathers, and given the constraints under which they were working they did a monumental job to an extremely high standard. But they were not omniscient, and were far from omnipotent, and they knew it. If they thought that what they were writing should stand for all time, why did they build in the ability to amend it, and give that ability to both Congress and the states?

All written documents share one serious drawback: words and language change their meaning over time. We do not speak the language even of our grandparents, still less of the eighteenth century. There are concepts today that there were not even words for then, and there are words they used that now have opposite meanings.

It makes no more sense to follow the literal meaning of the constitution according to the understanding of the authors than it would to limit yourself to only wearing your grandparents’ clothes. 


We do not choose our challenges, we either face them or we ignore them. The measure by which those alive today will be judged in the future will be the degree to which we face our challenges. When we look back in history for inspiration who do we look to? The Founding Fathers, Teddy Roosevelt, FDR, MLK and so many others who faced down the challenges of their times. Not perfect, any of them, but they did the very best they could according to their lights with what they were given. They did not have to do that; they could have stayed home and left the heavy lifting to others, but they stepped up to the plate. No doubt there was always ego involved, but then it takes some kind of ego to believe that you have something valuable to offer.

We live in a cynical age, and we see public figures as power seekers with little thought for the public good. Certainly the halls of power have always been well seeded with such types, but there are many who genuinely see themselves as a force for good. Sadly today we have such a corrupt system that even the well meaning almost always get sucked into the muck, seeing it as the only way to get anything done. 

The industrial system has saddled us with a power system that seems all-powerful, that seems to control every aspect of our lives, and that seems almost impossible to successfully overcome. It owns our means of communications, it has bought our system of government. Armed insurrection in the face of the US army is unthinkable. The only answer seems to be to surrender to the system, find a comfortable berth within it and look after number one. 

I do not think the situation is so dark, and I think we have every reason, in fact an absolute duty, to get involved. The system is not impregnable; the history of empires and civilizations tells us that the empire seems strongest when it is already undermined. Empires are the victims of the sweep of history. New ways supplant old ways and make them irrelevant. Mankind has gone through two gigantic shifts in the past which completely changed society. The first was the invention of agriculture which enabled us to settle into cities and build the societal system that lasted some ten thousand years pretty much unchanged except in the details. The movement that swept all of this away so that only the barest traces remain was the Industrial Revolution. It is hard for us to even conceive of how different life was in 1850 from that of, say, 1650. And all of this happened, in historical terms, in the blink of an eye. 

What does this have to do with today? I believe that we are right now undergoing a third great shift as profound as the industrial revolution. The Industrial Age reached its peak around 1955, and since then we have been seeing the birth of the next age. Like any great movement in its early stages it is still very indistinct, but it is well underway. This is why we need to participate. We are privileged to live at one of the hinge points of history. Or to put it another way, one can imagine history as a railroad. For most of the time (ten thousand years in the case of the agrarian age) the train is thundering across the prairie, and to significantly change its direction requires putting it off its tracks. Very rarely the train of history enters a switching yard, and during this time very small application of power can have very far reaching results. This was the case in the early days of the Industrial Revolution, for instance. Today we are in another switching yard. Everything is up for grabs. We have both the tools and the knowledge needed to make the world a better place; The question is, do we have the wisdom to learn from the past and take the tools out of the hands of those who would use them to control us, and instead use them for the good of all?

Campaign Contributors and Influence

A candidate for County Supervisor has come under fire because much of her funding comes from interests that seem to be at odds with her professed values. In a local public forum she spent much of her opening statement complaining about how she is being treated, and expressing outrage that anyone should suggest that she could be bought. 

Her second line of defense was to point out all the positions she is taking that are against the interests of her contributors, and that she should be judged by her positions and programs and proposals not by her contributors.

Contributors and their money are solid fact, the rest is just words. It is easy to come up with high flown rhetoric, but it is a poor predictor of what you will do when you are elected and have to deal with the day to day grind of actually doing the work. Positions change, often quite legitimately, with changing circumstances. Campaigns are like first dates: everyone is trying to show their best face. Only later do you find out the real truth. 

With regard to the claim that she cannot be bought, I am willing to stipulate that she really believes this to be true, and that she is indeed an ethical person. But that is only to be expected. There is never a quid pro quo, especially at the start. We say politicians are bought, but that is not really an accurate description of what happens. It is much more subtle than that. You cannot usually point to any specific vote or action as having been done in return for a campaign contribution, but there are many invisible ways in which a contributor’s interests can be served. Much of the work of a supervisor is out of the public eye, and often involves monitoring the actions of officials such as those who enforce building codes, for instance. The fact that a supervisor expresses concern about a case will certainly change the way the official handles it, and it seems likely that if the supervisor shows a bias towards a particular outcome, the likelihood of that being the actual outcome is increased. Of course all of this is done with hints and innuendo, but bureaucrats become very skilled at divining the unspoken wishes of their bosses; it is an important survival skill. People with large financial interests have much more frequent interactions with officialdom than most people, and being known as a friend of a supervisor will certainly ease their passage. This kind of thing is often more important to the contributor than actual legislative matters, most of which they do not care about. 

The other thing that they buy with their contributions is access. They get their calls returned. They get to put their point of view, which is always dressed up so as to be politically palatable, directly to the politician. Everyone else has to stand up at meetings and try to get across a coherent message while the board secretly check their Facebook.  Politicians are only human, and when they are constantly exposed to a particular point of view cleverly expressed they tend to adopt that point of view. They find that these people who are portrayed by the protestors as evil are in fact charming and urbane, and really seem like quite reasonable people. They give money to charity and support the ballet. They are easy to like, unlike all those angry and rude people on the other side. 

The movie depictions are wrong: the devil never appears in smoke and flames with red eyes and a tail, he is dressed impeccably with polished shoes and is polite and solicitous. He has no need to play the heavy, he has people for that, and they make sure he is never bothered with the sordid details. 

There is no arm twisting, no threats, just the underlying realization on the part of the politician that they need to get reelected, and they need to keep that money flowing in, and people do not give money to politicians who thwart their interests. Of course everyone concerned realizes the political realities. If a politician could be seen openly voting in their favor he or she would be open to attacks on the subject, so that is saved for the direst situations. In general the contributor will not make demands that would damage his politician. But you can be sure of one thing: when the chips are down, and there is an important vote that will, say, stop a large development, you are better off having someone there voting who is not beholden to developers. 

The solution for all this is obvious: get the power of the money out of the system. One way would be public financing of campaigns. Another intriguing idea would be to erect a wall between donor and recipient. Anyone would be allowed to donate any amount to any candidate, but it would be illegal to do so directly, with very severe penalties. Instead they would pay the money to an Election Finance Board who would then forward it to the designated candidate, but broken into amounts that would not match the amounts of the donations, and with a random delay. The donor would get a receipt for the money, but the receipt would not specify the recipient candidate. Under such a system the donor could never prove to the candidate that he had given him money. Indeed donors could give a large amount and get a receipt and then go to each candidate and say that the money went to them, and the candidates would be none the wiser. With modern technology and a well designed system it would be quite feasible for no person, including those working for the Election Finance Board, to be able to identify both ends of a transaction. 

Candidates claim that their donors just want to get good people elected and do not expect any direct payback. If that is indeed the case the money people should have no problem with such a system, which allows them to support candidates as heavily as they want, but makes sure that they will not see any direct benefit for doing so. Some might object to introducing yet another government bureaucracy; to those I would say that there are some functions that are the proper function of government, and elections are most certainly one of them. Fair elections are the very basis of our power as citizens to affect the activities of those we elect.

Wealth Distribution and Inheritance

From an online debate on

Speak2Truth wrote:

Wrongs are most commonly inflicted by Government, especially seizing the hard-earned product of one’s labor to be redistributed to whomever the folks in power favor. That is one of the greatest wrongs, essentially enslaving one portion of the population to enrich another. The folks at the receiving end have no legitimate claim to ownership of what was seized and handed to them

Even if we take into account people who actually work day to day in their businesses, I would venture to state that the vast majority of the top income “earners” can not in any reasonable sense be said to labor. Managing money is not laboring. It may be hard work sometimes (though people at this level pay others to do that); it is certainly not labor. In truth, neither is being CEO of a company. Therefore we can rule out this entire class as people who are being robbed of the product of their (non-existent) labor. They are in fact, as I have pointed out in another thread, the very people who are robbing others of the well-earned fruits of their labor, while simultaneously operating a system of debt slavery. (The Company Store is alive and well, only now it goes by names like Visa and MasterCard.) I agree that these folks have no legitimate claim to ownership of what they have seized. They are also the principal recipients of the largesse of governments. Welfare for low-income people is vastly eclipsed by corporate welfare. Who do you think owns the corporations that profit from the ludicrously overpriced hardware that is so profligately wasted in constant warfare? 

So let us indeed stop seizing the product of labor and giving it to those who do not labor. Let us instead tax the income of those who do not labor, but live off the labor of others. 

And while we are on the subject of legitimate claim to ownership, I would like to know where you stand on the topic of inheritance, which is one of the mechanisms by which institutionalized power is concentrated and maintained. I would like to hear an ethical defense of this system from the point of view of a conservative who believes in personal responsibility. 

There are two ends to this, and most argument on the subject centers around the right of someone who has earned a fortune to distribute it as he wishes upon his death. I would argue that no such natural right exists. There is no natural law that mandates what rights inhere in the concept of ownership, and we are free to define those rights as we choose. We might decide, as we do with many activities that we define as crimes, that the social cost of this practice outweighs the desires of those who wish to indulge in it. We might take the view that a dead person no longer has any interest in the game, and therefore should not have any decision-making power beyond the moment of death.

This is not as revolutionary an idea as might at first appear. Several of the Founding Fathers wrote and spoke against the concept of inherited wealth, and Adam Smith himself said that it was perhaps the hardest concept to justify ethically.

But even if we concede the right for someone to dispose of his estate, we have a much harder time justifying allowing the recipient to receive it. Where is the personal responsibility there? What has this person done to deserve the money? Should he not be required to earn whatever he receives, as you are so fond of saying, by his own labor?

So other than “It has always been that way” and “People want to leave their money to whomever they want”, neither of which is a persuasive argument for the continuation of something, what justification can you offer for inheritance? 

And please, let us remain above the level of “well, what are you going to do, give it all to the Government to distribute?” stuff. If we can indeed agree on the principle, it should not be hard to come up with a reasonable mechanism. After all, the Social Security system works extremely well, and performs a similar function. It could be run like a giant mutual fund, and we are well-practiced at running those. It is untrue to say that government can never do anything right. If government departments function poorly it is because they are managed poorly by those we elect to see to their proper functioning. There is nothing inherent in the concept of government that prevents it being run properly. Unfortunately our electoral system has been hijacked by means of the campaign finance laws by people who have an interest in weakening government (which is the protection the people have against powerful interests.) So by deliberately mismanaging and underfunding government departments that do not function as money conduits for them they are able to demonstrate how badly government works.