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Thread: On Cynicism in Politics

  1. #1

    Post On Cynicism in Politics

    I'd like to take a moment to preface what I have written. I am a professional political scientist; most of my work is concerned with what is, what actually is and not what should be. Most political scientists are apolitical personally, but that is not my case. I am political, and while it doesn't color my work, I tend to think in normative terms about what my work means. While this writing deals with theory, I am not a theorist by training. I study international relations, a subject that involves equal parts knowledge of politics and knowledge of math; this writing is somewhat new to me. However, by pure chance, I was assigned to teach a course in political theory to ninety college students and have been doing so since August. I do enjoy it. I do find it interesting, and among my colleagues I am considered the authority, at least within our department (which is not a small one).

    From our weekly discussions, and from this board, I sense more than just a distrust of government. I sense cynicism and along with it come some of the worst impulses common the cynic. There are cultural reasons for this mistrust; there is some justification for it. And for the cynicism to. But my concern is that people are giving up when, to my mind, all of the evidence means that we should try harder.

    I'd like a good discussion of this topic. I imagine that it will provoke a good deal of it. As I caution my students, respect in what we say and how we say are crucial if this is to be a fruitful exercise. I've noticed an unfortuante tendency in some threads for people to conclude that others have the worst possible motives, the least possible knowledge, and to take every word very literally. While I have not included much metaphor or hyperbole, there is some there, and I expect there will be some in what other people post. Recognize it for what it is: a literary device.

    I am more than aware of the counter arguments to what I have written below (I teach those too, and with equal enthusiasm when in front of a class). I am aware of the failings of my subject. I am secure in what I believe. I want to know what other people believe and why. I don't imagine I will comment much as the thread develops, but if I do, I'll maintain that same objectivity that I use in the classroom, though I may ask for further development of someone's post in a manner that seems like critique. I assure you, it's just a way of teasing out more information.

    Lastly, I want to make it clear that the word "liberal" is used in a classical sense. Classical liberalism is not the same as the contemporary version, and the authors I mention are common to both sides of the American and British conetmporary political spectrums. In fact, in American, John Locke bears more resemblenace to conservatism and Republicanism than the democratic party. The works I allude to are the foundations on which modern democracy has been built

    I understand cynicism. I'm not interested in its source. I'm not looking for other explanations of it. What I am curious about is what you think of government and why. What about its past, its future, and its potential? __________________________________________________ _______________
    On Cynicism in Politics

    Some four hundred odd years ago, a man named John Locke sat down to write a book on politics. His writings became the foundation of what is known as classical liberalism, the idea that men are by nature capable of self-government and by birth entitled to it. The world, Locke said, was once a state of nature in which all were born free and equal, each with like opportunity to develop one’s property, defined as his life, his liberty, and his estate. All forms of property are attained through work, and as ennobled beings we are intrinsically called to do this work, to better ourselves, to acquire wisdom and knowledge, to pursue splendid and gallant things. This pursuit, philosophers say, is what makes us human. Our humanity is in the things we create, the good things, the great things, love, life, wisdom, acumen, those things that make life’s grief and pain worth suffering.
    Synonymous with the state of nature is the state of war. Our base impulses are to cheap gain, to power and to dominion. These impulses are inherent but suppressed in the vast, vast many of us who live our lives honorably and admirably. Yet the few who seek power do so at the expense of the rest. Locke tells us that a man defending from these cannot also develop his property, cannot elevate himself, and since that few will never stop, his only recourse is to murder. So men found states.
    A state is to protect us. To protect the very many from the very few who would harm them. States allow us to make ourselves better. States provide us with things we could not provide for ourselves. If fidelity to our children demands that we leave to them better than we ourselves received, fidelity to mankind requires that we, as a society, ensure that no one is left behind, no one is left out, no one is hungry or ill-clad or ill-housed or ill-educated, that no one is left sick, no one is left disadvantaged, that from the moment a child is born each of us does our utmost to ensure that that child is given by his birthright every opportunity for all of the good and pure things that we value, those things that make humanity the sacred thing that it is.
    This covenant has not yet been fulfilled. Government is often blamed for our failure, but what is government if not an aggregation of individuals? What are vices of government if not the vices of all of us collectively? Another classical liberal, John Stuart Mill, argued that power of the state must be constrained even though the power of the majority is beyond our ability to control. Society, regardless of law, regardless of the state, executes its own mandates. Majority tyranny is a threat to democracy and to the rule of law everywhere. Majority tyranny created Jim Crow and kept it alive long after it was banished from our laws. Majority tyranny tells homosexuals that they are not capable of the same love as heterosexuals and so are not entitled to marriage. Tyrannical majorities are mobs guided by self-interest and passion without regard to a minority who demands only those rights and opportunities that that majority regards as their birthright and theirs alone. From time to time, we all are the minority. From time to time, we all are the tyrannical majority.
    How do we alleviate the tyranny of the majority? For the state to do so would restrict the liberty of us all. Civility, Mill says. I’ll be civil to you, and you be civil to me. Civility. We treat one another with respect; we recognize the rights of others to disagree, to implicitly violate our own values because their rights are of greater importance than our beliefs; the simple and basic idea that we do not impose upon each other any standard or rule or demand or restriction that we would not have placed upon ourselves. We are born with some rights and have others granted to us, yet we only truly have those rights that someone or something more powerful allows us to keep. We are entitled to all of them. Ensuring that we have all of them is the true purpose of government.
    “Government is not the solution; government is the problem,” say some. But it was a government that said white and black are equal; it was a government that said men and women are equal; it was a government that lifted millions of the elderly out of poverty, made sure children had access to vaccines, makes sure that children can go to school, that the poor can feed their sons and their daughters and put a roof over their heads. By birth we are entitled to these things; it was government that said that everyone would receive, not just those who could pay, not just those that a pernicious and capricious self-appointed tyrannical majority allowed. Poverty is a social disease created by us. We so often blame the sufferers, but surely there is enough blame for us all to claim our part. If my contribution, no matter how small or how large, feeds a child or clothes an adult, then I have not paid too high a price. It is a mitzvah. And by serving others, I have served myself. It is the nature of a society that what benefits one, benefits all. But if my contribution leaves one hungry, then I have paid too little. Do not say, “I have given enough; I have done enough.” It is never enough.
    Those that give all the blame to government often give all the credit to other elements of society, to family or church or charity or the invisible hand of the market. With the exception of this last, these too are mitzvahs, but they happen by chance. They cannot always be depended upon. The economy, on the other hand, can always be depended upon, but not for everyone. Not for those who by misfortune were born less able or who were made less able by their own deeds or by our collective misdeeds. An economy is self-correcting, but when? How many die of hunger or exposure in the meantime? Who can be sacrificed? Who do we decide is beyond our ability to help and when do we give up? People are born and people die in the time it takes the market to correct itself. We abandon our covenant when we rely on these things.
    Government is not a solution to every problem. Government is not fool-proof. Far from it. But neither is it destined to failure. Locke conceived of government as an enforcer, a police force used solely to ensure that the very few who would harm us, the very few who would cheat us could be stopped and punished. But Locke conceived a state of nature, that state where all are born free and equal, as a fiction. It is a useful fiction, but it is a fiction. Government ought not only to protect us from the very few, but to extend to all the freedom and equality that Locke dreamed of, freedom from chance circumstance that would deprive us, freedom from the majority that would not have us exercise our rights. Equality of opportunity. Opportunity to make ourselves better, to make each other better, to leave better for our children. What else but government, on a scale so wide and in a time so short, can provide us, all of us, with these things? The slow grind of social development is of no use to those it never reaches.
    Sometimes government fails to uphold these ideals; sometimes the democratic process yields that tyranny that it was designed to prevent. But government at its best is that one element that is never selfish, that never reflects the selfish impulses of its many parts; it is that element that says, “When you need help, I will help you.” It is for that purpose that we create governments in the first place. What good is government if it does anything else? Yet nothing is perfect. Government often fails us; the leaders we select often fail us. But we cannot so easily separate ourselves from these others; we cannot parse out the blame without taking our share. No one is free of the guilt of our social ills. Some people will tell you that these failures are evidence that we need to abandon government as we know it, to scale it back to fit a role so narrowly defined as to make it all but inconsequential. I tell you that the failures of government are evidence that we need to do better. A cynic tells you that failed government means we ought to have little government at all. I tell you that it requires better government. And it’s our responsibility to make that better government. We must do better, and we can do better.
    Last edited by harris; 14-Feb-2009 at 07:34.

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    This is an interesting topic (once upon a time, I was a student, and political science was one of my majors...probably why I never shut up about stuff like this on here )

    Anyways, why are people cynical about the American political system?
    1. The Media: Do we ever see stories on the news about something good that is going on? No, of course not. Well, maybe one out of every 15 stories. They groom us to expect the worst out of life.
    2. Government Isn't Always The Best Example : Well, there's all kinds of scandals to show you, but I think the case of the recently ousted Illinois governor is the best (living) example of what people like to do with power in the wrong hands. Of course, there's fiscal irresponsibility (I don't need to say anything there).
    3. A Sign Of The Times: When you are worrying about your job or your house/car/utility/tuition (all of the above?) payment, are you really going to be happy and perky about everything? The media can only groom us so much before we eventually find out for ourselves that things are bad.

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    Steve,
    I'm not surprised or confused at the reasons why people may be conditioned to be cyncial, but the response they have when it comes to solutions to problems. In other words, why is government, of which there are over one hundred thousand in the United States, blamed ad nauseum and not other elements of society? What do people think of government and specifically why? I'm not interested in the cultural reasons, just what they mean in practical terms. How do you feel about government and it history? its future? Its potential?

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    Government isn't always the best example is right.

    FedGov seems to screw up everything it touches. Seriously, name me one exclusively federal program that doesn't suck.

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    Social security, medicare/medicade, the civil rights act, the national endowment for the arts, the national parks, the highway system, the rail road system, the telephone system, the telegraph system, the national science foundation, the perkins loans that pay for my students to take my course...

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    Quote Originally Posted by harris View Post
    In other words, why is government, of which there are over one hundred thousand in the United States, blamed ad nauseum and not other elements of society?
    Locke suggested that people invest labor into things, and by this virtue make it theirs. This seems to make sense to a lot of people, hence the desire to go out and do something, or the earlier desire to homestead when the government made this idea a reality (you till/turn the land and build your home on it, and it's yours).

    However, to work and invest yourself and your time into something and in turn have your wages vacuumed up by taxes causes people to start to question and resist investing themselves into a system that does not represent their needs, desires, or causes. The government itself tends to paint a huge and unnecessary target on its back by acting in a way that no private - or corporate - entity may, and practice deficit spending.

    The system starts to break down - and this is the reason for resentment - whenever "you" as the government permit yourself privileges unavailable to the common man, and indeed imprison plebeians who attempt to follow suit.

    To distill:
    1. Government is acting in counter-intuitive ways at this point (e.g. against Locke).
    2. Government makes itself a larger target through its own (in)actions.
    3. Government officials and figure(head)s do not act in accord with the rules handed down to the commonwealth.
    4. Government is failing to carry out some BASIC principles, such as defense and unification of commerce.
    5. Government has wiped its ass with the social contract notion, especially in recent years.


    These things make people resentful, irritated, and hopefully will lead to demonstration in the streets and someone's head on a platter.



    Quote Originally Posted by harris View Post
    But my concern is that people are giving up when, to my mind, all of the evidence means that we should try harder.

    Some people will tell you that these failures are evidence that we need to abandon government as we know it, to scale it back to fit a role so narrowly defined as to make it all but inconsequential. I tell you that the failures of government are evidence that we need to do better. A cynic tells you that failed government means we ought to have little government at all. I tell you that it requires better government. And it’s our responsibility to make that better government. We must do better, and we can do better.
    I agree (see above comment). The one thing that surprises me when I see news footage of other countries is the amount of open-street demonstration taking place. Unfortunately, we in this country now have entered into a period where the mere whiff of someone being an "undesirable" is toxic - made so with the phrase "enemy combatant."

    We have, in short, abdicated our right to peaceably assemble, favoring making our increasingly desperate living and hoping that no one will notice us. Anyone with a funny name will be greeted openly - and in a public forum - with cries of, "terrorist!" If we cannot expect more than this from a screened arena of people listening to a potential president, then clearly we have no such right to expect anything greater in public.

    Unfortunately, the cruel fact remains that the upper echelons of our current government has a high price-tag - the typical price of admission is Yale Law, powerful lobbyists, and mud-slinging. Oh, and you have to look good on television, too.

    I fall into the camp, above in your quote, that would advocate the reduction in size and scope of government as well as a return to our philosophical roots. I do so only because it has become painfully clear that the separation of powers and oversight that this should cause just isn't working, nor are the branches of government concerned when they overstep their bounds. Government has shown that it's good at making major cock-ups of the "bigger picture" things, even when it does initiate/fund/support/tolerate other things like NSF, NEA, the highway system, and the railroads. However, even many such examples were born out of petulance and greed in their own right: NSF and friends gain IP and potential weaponry through funding - effectively, the government gets to hire contractors; the highway system was born out of military necessity; the cross-country railroads were born out of a desire to unify the country and consolidate its wealth.

    I cannot correctly attribute the quote, but a government should be afraid of its citizenry, not the other way around. Without representation we are an "ocracy" of some description, yet Joe Sixpack is still being sold the notion that we're a republic (although "democracy" is usually what you'll hear people reply).
    Last edited by h3g3l; 14-Feb-2009 at 13:31.

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    h2g3l,
    Interesting insights. I've had many students tell the same. I would like to point out two fact about deficit spending though. 1-just like individuals and corporations, sometimes governments need to go into debt to buy the things it needs. Citizens would be equally unhappy to do without these things or have their taxes raised many percent to prevent taking on debt. 2-While it is most often associated with neo-conservatives, deficit spending as an economic strategy (for the lean times, not all the times) is good science. For some, this means spending projects to get people employed and get money flowing again (consider Roosevelt); for others, this means lowering taxes (again, to get money flowing). The idea of getting the money flowing is that it lubricates the economy by allowing consumers to spend and businesses to make money and become good credit risks, in turn asking for and receiving the loans they need to expand their business. The idea is to get the credit markets flowing again. In other words, the money that government either spends or dolls out in tax breaks allows the economy, by getting those credit markets flowing, to correct itself sooner. It shortens recessions. Rest assuered, a lot more sociology, political science, and economics go into this idea than what I've written.

    Also, don't rip on the NSF:P. They give grants to political scientists too. Kidding (I see where you're coming from), but I don't bite the hand that pays for my research.

    Just food for thought. Good post. What do think of state, county, municipal, and other forms of government?

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    Quote Originally Posted by harris View Post
    h2g3l,
    Interesting insights. I've had many students tell the same. I would like to point out two fact about deficit spending though. 1-just like individuals and corporations, sometimes governments need to go into debt to buy the things it needs. Citizens would be equally unhappy to do without these things or have their taxes raised many percent to prevent taking on debt. 2-While it is most often associated with neo-conservatives, deficit spending as an economic strategy (for the lean times, not all the times) is good science. For some, this means spending projects to get people employed and get money flowing again (consider Roosevelt); for others, this means lowering taxes (again, to get money flowing). The idea of getting the money flowing is that it lubricates the economy by allowing consumers to spend and businesses to make money and become good credit risks, in turn asking for and receiving the loans they need to expand their business. The idea is to get the credit markets flowing again. In other words, the money that government either spends or dolls out in tax breaks allows the economy, by getting those credit markets flowing, to correct itself sooner. It shortens recessions. Rest assuered, a lot more sociology, political science, and economics go into this idea than what I've written.
    Ah, but this is the problem. Were money banked during "good" times and borrowed during lean times, this would be reasonable. Indeed, it would likely mirror our own lives. But this doesn't happen.

    It just occurred to me where my concern and disgust lies: the government should have less oversight and control over the treasury. Meaning this: the government should unite the states under a "common currency," but should have far less ability to deflate or inflate the economy than I think they do today. This is one of the battles that Jefferson fought - against the bank president (for the life of me I can't remember his name; I'll leave it here and then edit later if I feel up to looking it up).

    What I'm pointing to is this: I've lost faith in our fiat currency, and this faith is the ONE thing that gives it value. I'd rather a hybrid system (like the gold standard, but one that would allow for the massive expansion and growth we have seen since then) where I can trade dollars for a finite, durable, valuable resource. At this rate, I fear we're a breeding-ground for the next Venezuela (I think that's who it was; I'm not referring to Argentina, though that'd be another good example).

    We forget that Mussolini went through this, and Italian banks and citizenry came through it quite nicely. They, however, did things a bit differently:
    Mussolini told the banks to do business as usual; they'd be bailed out, but they were to shut the hell up and not give one whiff of trouble.

    I'm feeling feisty, so I'll reduce taxation to this: There are two ways to look at the collection of private capital into a government account:
    1. It may be looked upon as "insurance," similar to what you point to in your quote above. I accept this - I pay you and in exchange you defend me and provide basic services.
    2. It is something far less savory, and may be viewed to run the gamut of taxation-without-representation to outright lining the pockets of those at the head of the organization (or, I suppose, NWO / Illuminati theories).

    I like to look at my taxes as insurance. However, I think I could do better privatizing, and I'd like the option to try at this point (I couldn't do much worse, I think). I suspect this is not so much an issue of malfeasance as it is scale - it may well be that things that lubricate the social wheels at local levels just do not and can not scale to the national level.



    Also, don't rip on the NSF:P. They give grants to political scientists too. Kidding (I see where you're coming from), but I don't bite the hand that pays for my research.
    Hey, I wasn't ripping on NSF so much as pointing out their origins and prevailing principles. I'd never rip on NSF - they brought us Bill Nye the Science Guy! Seriously, though, it's a decision that every investigator makes - where you draw the battle-lines between check-in-hand and Intellectual Property. I'm glad they exist; hell, if I'm lucky enough to land an NSF grant, I'd make sure it was in an area I would develop basic research only. The "applied" part would come later through private channels. The check-in-hand/IP argument boundaries in point: I have been on a couple of NIJ grants as a Co-Investigator. It was interesting to go out and learn all about different things (crime lab information systems, and later RFID), and I think we earned our keep and didn't defraud the taxpayer (yay, us!), but all the knowledge discovered and created was nothing that I felt especially "attached" to.



    Just food for thought. Good post. What do think of state, county, municipal, and other forms of government?
    The truth?

    I think it's a good way to experience and exert local control and representation. Ideally, the closer we get to our neighborhoods, the closer we get to elected officials that represent our desires. And if not, it's a faster, cheaper, and simpler process to boot them out and elect a better representative. For example, if I were in Tom Daschle's district, I could physically go to his house and picket day and night and demand why I am paying my taxes when he apparently feels he doesn't have to.

    Please understand; it is not that I am anti-government, but rather that I am particularly alarmed, disenfranchised, and disgusted with our recent crowning of what amounts to Federal officers as being untouchable. I think we're better than this, and I'm angry that our current system doesn't allow people who "look like us" entry into the hallowed halls of government (yes, both word choices - "crowning" and "hallowed halls" are intentional, to demonstrate how far we've come).

    This is something that is right up your alley: it is my position that the Federal government has utterly and completely abandoned its duty to protect us. It has done this by opening us up to land-grabbing by China should they ever lose faith in our ability to repay them ... and start asking for land as payment.

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    Quote Originally Posted by harris View Post
    Social security,
    Nearly bankrupt, won't last until I retire.


    medicare/medicade,
    A bloated morass of beaurocracy that couldn't find its own ass with the hubble telescope


    the civil rights act,
    not a government program


    the national endowment for the arts,
    Why are taxpayers paying for art?


    the national parks,
    FedGov policies of the past make huge fires of the present possible. They also let companies log areas when its profitable for politicians


    the highway system,
    Maintained by the states with federal monies


    the rail road system,
    lolamtrak? The company that couldnt turn a profit if someone gave them a golden goose? The bloated government owned corporation that consistently sucks so hard it generates its own gravity that derails its trains on a monthly basis?


    the telephone system, the telegraph system,
    Uhhh...not government owned or controlled? Last time I checked, Western Union, Bell, AT&T, MCI, Sprint, and Verizon are not government entities, and were never government entities.


    the national science foundation,
    lulz pr0n at mah NSF?


    the perkins loans that pay for my students to take my course...
    Which costs the government far, far more then commensurate private loan programs. No to mention the paperwork ad nauseum.

    Anything else?

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    Sparkmaster,
    Your readings of these programs are different than mine, and that's fine. I understand where you are coming from, but I disagree on, well, all of them. But I'm not looking for agreement; in fact, I find most people's views of these programs to be different than mine. The future may well prove you right and me wrong.

    So here's my real question. You say government fails. Ok. So why does that mean we should scrap government or scale it back drastically and why does it not mean we should do our best to improve government?

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