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.