Should Government Protect the Interests of the Few or the Many?

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  Yesterday's vote by Senator Majority Leader Harry Reid and 51 other Senators to modestly amend the Senate's arcane and profoundly anti-democratic rules that permit 40 Senators to prevent any legislation or presidential nominees from ever receiving an up or down vote has been hysterically described by the media and GOP legislators as the "nuclear option." Senator Lamar Alexander (R -TN) was even quoted as having said, "This is the most important and dangerous restructuring of Senate Rules since Thomas Jefferson wrote them at the beginning of our country."



     Senator Alexander's fidelity to 18th century rules of procedure, however, needs to be viewed in historical context.  As discussed in previous posts, the concept of a Senate-- whose members before the adoption of the Seventeenth Amendment in 1913 were appointed by the state legislatures -- was created by the framers of the Constitution as a body that would serve as a check to control the popularly-elected House of Representatives. Article 1, ยง 3 of the U.S. Constitution guarantees each state two senators, irrespective of population. This peculiar and patently undemocratic provision was originally included in the Constitution as a compromise to protect the interests of property-owners in the original slave-holding colonies and to persuade them to accept the Constitution.

     Over the course of past 220 years since the Connecticut Compromise was negotiated at the Constitutional Convention, the composition of the Senate has become increasingly less representative. At present voters in rural America and in the less urbanized areas of the country exercise disproportionate political influence over this country's policies and priorities. For example, the rural and almost uniformly white state of Wyoming, with some 530,000 citizens, has the same number of U.S. Senators as the ethnically and economically diverse state of California which, as of 2012, had a population of about 38,000,000 citizens. The Senate's rules regarding filibusters have made that body even less representative as a result.

      Senator Alexander's lament raises a more fundamental question. Is the purpose of government to protect the interests of the few or to promote the public interest?  Since American politics and its political institutions have largely been constructed upon a foundation that is based upon individualism and the protection of individual rights, a concept of the whole--the public interest, what we owe to one another as citizens--is largely missing from American public discourse. Whether the issue is universal medical coverage, poverty, antiquated labor laws that harm workers and benefit employers, access to education, the need to rebuild our economy and to address decaying infrastructure, or the need to re-establish collegial ties with our European allies, the impediments remain: parochialism, special interests, and, all too often, an inability to see beyond the refrain of "What's in it for me?"

     In contemporary American society, the  individualism that is the essence and the legacy of the political philosophy of the Founding Fathers has been given free reign, unencumbered by the restraints, modifications and caveats to which it was subjected in England and in other European political systems. There the ties of the traditional society and medieval ideas that place an emphasis upon cooperation and extol communitarianism have not unraveled and continue to inform and bind the political discourse. As a consequence, in Europe, classical liberalism--John Locke's individualism -- was given nuance and context; whereas in America, in the context of the political tabula rasa of the New World, the self has become the avatar.

     The ancients insisted that there is not supposed to be anything personal or private about the political process or the policies which emerge from that process. Transparency, democracy and the concern about the public interest are intertwined. The word "politics" is derived from the Greek polis; by definition then politics is intended to be public and participatory. The root of the word citizenship is derived from the Roman concept of the civitas--the community, from which the word civilization is also derived. The word republic is also derived from the Latin res publica--the public thing.

     A willingness to recognize that the self is a social being is central to the concept of citizenship that has been an abiding part of the tradition of conservatism since the time of the ancients. In turn, that recognition carries with it an understanding that each of us, as members of a political community, enjoys rights that depend for their exercise and protection upon the existence of the polis, and upon an acceptance that we have concomitant responsibilities to one another and to the community.

     The recognition of this duality of citizenship becomes an essential predicate to the idea of a public interest--one which is separate and distinct from the definition of society propounded by Locke, Bentham, and Mill. Because of their nominalist bias, proponents of classical liberalism continue to insist that society is a mere aggregation of social atoms and personal interests; and they have thus been unable to posit or to entertain the possibility of the existence of any universal or collective entities which are more than the sums of their parts.


    The absence of a concept of citizenship and of the public interest are two of the core deficiencies of contemporary American political culture. John Dewey was persuaded that, in a consumerist, capitalist culture, "The political elements in the constitution of the human being, those having to do with citizenship, are crowded to one side." It has contributed to the emergence of the anomic man depicted by Emile Durkheim and chronicled by David Riesman.

     Indeed, the myth of the "omnipotent individual," which Walter Lippmann criticized as one the legacies of liberal individualism, blinds us as Americans to the need to devise and insist upon a political system which aspires, as its primary aim, to effect the public, as opposed to the private, good. That need, Lippmann suggests, requires that we embrace what he described as the tradition of civility, to recover the Roman sense of the civitas: "The public philosophy is addressed to the government of our appetites and passions by reason of a second, civilized, and, therefore, acquired nature....The warrant of the public philosophy is that while the regime it imposes is hard, the results of rational and disciplined government will be good."

     Lippmann, consistent with other critics, conceded that the rediscovery of the public interest, and its engrafting onto a liberal political culture predicated upon nominalism and sensory-derived epistemology that is also, therefore, quintessentially materialistic, would not be an easy task: "But beyond it lies the capacity and willingness of modern men to receive this kind of public philosophy. The concepts and principles of the public philosophy have their being in the realm of immaterial entities. They cannot be experienced by sense organs or, even strictly speaking, imagined in visual and tangible terms. Yet these essences, these abstractions, which are out of sight and out of touch, are to have and hold men's highest loyalties."

     Perhaps one place to look for wisdom and guidance on how to meld the private and the public interests in a liberal culture is to be found in communitarianism of T.H. Green, his students, L.T. Hobhouse and Bernard Bosanquet, and, later, A.D. Lindsay. By reaching back into the conservative political theory of antiquity, Green was able to reformulate classical liberal doctrine. Although his effort to modernize liberalism remained, at its core, firmly supportive of individual rights, Green sought to restore the recognition that rights and obligations were reciprocal and he argued that they were based upon mutuality and societal recognition. Green also reminds us that each of us derives meaning as citizens, and not as solitary beings. For that reason, too, freedom becomes not a "freedom from," which enables individuals to erect walls and barricades around themselves, but rather a positive power or capacity to do something worth doing in concert with others.

     "The self," Green insisted, "is a social self," and, for that reason, government, as the agent of society, should be viewed as positive instrument for the public good. As Hobhouse succinctly put it, "Democracy is not founded merely on the right or the private interest of the individual. This is only one side of the shield. It is founded equally on the function of the individual as a member of the community. It founds the common good upon the common will, in forming which it bids every grown-up, intelligent person to take a part."

      Today marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy. His legacy to us as a vigorous proponent of an activist, compassionate government should serve as a reminder that, in a robust and functioning democracy, those strident voices who seek to perpetuate the rule of the few, the special and the privileged should not be allowed to control the political discourse to the detriment of ordinary citizens.


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