The Consequences of Political Gridlock

| No TrackBacks
                                                         (Part 3 of a 3 part series).

John Locke's political philosophy continues to define the parameters of what passes for acceptable political discourse in the United States. In large part, as previously discussed,  Locke's legacy has contributed to the dysfunction and gridlock that characterize American politics today, but the influence of his ideas have also had a number of broader, more far-reaching social and cultural consequences.  

     Crime and violence are among the starkest manifestations of anti-social behavior in America. Today, the United States is among the most violent and crime-ridden countries in the developed world. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, during the period between January and December 2006, more than 75 million crimes were reported to police and law enforcement officials at all levels of government. Given a U.S. population which consisted of an estimated 303,824,646 inhabitants as of July 2008, this statistic is quite startling Further, the number of violent crimes, including murder, robbery and burglary increased approximately 1.3 percent.
    Of the total of reported crimes in 2006, almost 22 million occurred in non-metropolitan areas.  In addition, as of 2006, the number of adult and juvenile prisoners in federal and state correctional institutions numbered 2,050,205, of whom 1,853,386 were men and 196, 820 were women.  By 2008, the United States had the dubious distinction of having, by far, the highest rate of incarceration in the entire world: 2.3 million Americans were imprisoned, which amounted to one in 100 adults, one in fifteen black men between the ages of twenty and thirty-four, and one out of every thirty-six Hispanic males.    

     By contrast, during the Colonial Era, potential offenders had fewer opportunities to act out. The behavior of the village criminal was restrained by the presence of his neighbors who could identify him and by the existence of a long list of swift and sure punishments for anti-social behavior. Over the past 250 years, however, these residual communitarian restraints, a legacy of the English village life that emerged during the later part of the Middle Ages, have dissipated as the influence of liberal individualism upon American culture and political thought has become more pronounced and entrenched.
    Easy access to firearms has also contributed to the epidemic of violence which has gripped U.S. culture.  According to the Violence Policy Center, more than one million Americans have died in firearm-related suicides, homicides, and unintentional injuries since 1960.  In the years between  2001 and 2011, more than 330,000 people in the United States died from gun violence, whetherby accident or intent. 

     Sadly, the inability of government to prevent gun deaths by reducing the availability of these weapons is often excused based upon a misreading of the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution. Until recently, that amendment had universally been construed to grant to the people--and not to individuals--the right to keep and bear arms as members of a well-regulated militia (today's National Guard) as previously confirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court.

    However, the Supreme Court's 2008 decision in District of Columbia, et al v. Heller, 554 U.S. 570 (2008), illustrated once again the intellectual stranglehold that the political philosophy of anti-social individualism exerts upon current federal jurisprudence. Justice Scalia's tortured constitutional analysis and his inability to comprehend the grammatical interconnection between a subordinate clause in a sentence --"A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State..."--and the main clause--"... the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed" --are a unfortunate consequence of the eighteenth-century ideological bias in which his legal analysis remains mired. Lamentably, Scalia's bias--his commitment to the tenets of anti-social individualism--is so complete that he ignores the primary duty of a government --to protect its own citizens.

    In the name of an abstract right of the individual and his putative right to own a gun, Scalia denies the right of concrete human beings--who have died and will continue to die because of handgun violence--to be safe from harm: "We are aware of the problem of handgun violence in this country," Scalia piously intoned, "but the enshrinement of constitutional rights necessarily takes certain policy choices off the table."  

    The often unconscious but pervasive imprint of this one, narrow interpretation of John Locke's political philosophy upon American political discourse may, in large part, explain the inability of many Americans to grasp the semantic and political distinctions between persons qua individuals and a collectivity called "the people." Unfortunately, because of that continuing inability and the enormous success of powerful lobbyists such as the National Rifle Association--whose incantations are often echoed by equally reactionary federal judges and legislators who compound that confusion--incidents of gun violence, including massacres such as Columbine and Virginia Tech, and Aurora, Colorado and Newtown, Connecticut will inevitably increase.

    Illegal immigration is another indication of the collapse of the rule of law in contemporary America. Depending upon whose statistics one wishes to accept, before the financial meltdown that began in 2008, there were anywhere from 12 million to 20 million illegal immigrants present in the United States. Although these individuals violated American immigration law, their crimes were compounded by the thousands upon thousands of American employers who illegally employed and exploited them while feigning ignorance of their status as ineligible employees. Current federal laws require that prospective employees present proof of citizenship or show that they are lawful alien residents.

    Once again, the fear of government control along with purported concerns about privacy and individual rights have stymied the adoption of a very simple mechanism to ascertain citizenship status and to control immigration--a national identification card, which virtually all policy analysts concede would be effective.

    By contrast, European social democracies--even Spain, which, as of 2010 still had a Socialist government--have embraced the use of national ID cards with little difficulty or divisive political debate. In the United States, however, the debate focuses almost entirely upon concerns about alleged government intrusion and threats to privacy and individual liberty. Ironically, by contrast, the enormous and intrusive amount of personal financial information and data that Equifax, Transamerica and Experian--three unelected, private, for-profit credit reporting agencies--currently compile and maintain on almost every American citizen barely elicits a critical comment.

    One explanation for these differences may be found in the differing political traditions. European democracies, in contrast to the individualism of American liberal democracy, are communitarian cultures. Even those European countries which experienced the Protestant Reformation in some form--such as England, the north of Germany, or those in Scandinavia--were able to retain a cultural reservoir of traditional Catholic conservative values--the ancien regime. To the present, those residual cultural values emphasize the importance of family and community and support the notion that there exists something called the public interest, or, to use Rousseau's phrase, "the general will," which is separate and distinct from the interests of individuals. Consequently, a number of these European democracies have successfully made the political transition to social democracies with broad safety nets. Canada has accomplished the same.

    In the United States, by contrast, the persistence of the traditional consensus constrains the ability of citizens and policymakers alike to imagine, or to advocate, policies which promote a social or public good, as opposed to the policies which are calculated to benefit only individuals or special interests.  

    The ideological constraints imposed by Locke's political philosophy have also contributed to the conviction that crime is a personal rather than a social phenomenon, and that it may largely be explained by character defects and bad morals. Consequently, state legislatures and the U.S. Congress, and, through them, citizens, have responded, in part, to the perception of increasing violence by adopting punitive laws that increase the penalties for many crimes. As discussed above, as of 2008, the United States had the highest rate of incarceration in the entire world: 2.3 million Americans were imprisoned, which amounted to one in 100 adults.  Four decades earlier, in 1970, there were fewer than 200 thousand inmates in state and federal prisons.  

    Another response to concerns about crime and violence has been for citizens to move, often in search of what are perceived to be better, safer communities with more economic opportunities. In fact, the data shows that, prior to 2008, one in five Americans moved each year.  Many of the communities into which these people moved lack basic public services. This phenomenon has inspired a host of "privatized" services, many of which were historically provided by local governments through taxpayer funds.

    Naomi Klein of The Nation magazine ("Rapture 911: Disaster Response For The Chosen," November 19,2007)  has reported that the American International Insurance Group (AIG)--which in September of 2008 was the recipient of an $85 billion dollar bailout by the U.S. Treasury, courtesy of the American taxpayers--provided a special service to the company's Private Client Group known as Firebreak Spray Systems: these wealthy clients, many of whom lived in Southern California, paid an average of $19,000 to have their homes sprayed with fire retardant; during the wildfire season, "mobile units"--in imitation red fire trucks--race around hot spots to extinguish only the fires which threaten to engulf their clients' homes. All others are on their own.  

    The constant movement of population has also contributed to an ever-increasing suburban sprawl and, since the 1980s, to the emergence of walled, gated communities. In purpose if not appearance, these gated communities are reminiscent of the response of the European population to the collapse of the Roman Empire--castles, moats and walled cities. By 1997, it was estimated that there were "as many as twenty thousand gated communities, with more than three million units."

    Mobility and gated communities compound, rather than solve, the problems of social isolation and lawlessness. As Harvard University political scientist Robert Putnam has documented in his book Bowling Alone, individuals who move frequently have lower rates of participation in the communities in which they reside.  Further, the acceptance of increased mobility as a virtue has, not surprisingly, spawned its own antithesis: anonymous mobility enables criminals and sociopaths to troll the interstate highway system in search of victims and prey.
    Crime and mobility, because each represents acts of individual behavior which carry with them attendant anti-social consequences, represent two sides of the same coin. So long as the primacy of the individual is extolled and glamorized, Locke's political philosophy will continue to hold Americans in its vice-like grip, while the ability of America's political system to devise rational, public solutions to the issues of crime, violence, suburban sprawl and ecological disaster becomes increasingly problematic.

    In his now-famous essay, The Tragedy of the Commons, the ecologist Garrett Hardin commented upon the deleterious effects which the pursuit of unbridled self-interest has upon the public interest.  To Hardin, the Commons was a metaphor for the Earth and its environment, which belongs to all, and for which each of us has a special, collective obligation to protect; and he warned that it cannot withstand the incremental effects of individual anti-social acts.

     Pollution, as one example, is often caused by individuals who, based upon purely personal, self-serving calculations, seek to maximize their individual opportunities, irrespective of the consequences. Thus, over time, the public effects of pollution are gradual and diffuse. Therefore, the harm--the disutility--is slower to manifest itself. However, the utility to the polluter who disposes of  pollutants by releasing them onto the Common is immediate and positive.

    Hardin's prophetic essay underscores the difficulties of overcoming personal predilections and self-interest, even where important public concerns are at stake. The prognosis for a political culture such as the United States in which citizens have been acculturated to think only in terms of "me, myself, and I" suggests the dangers about which Hardin warned will only worsen unless the mindset of the population changes and begins to think in terms of the first person plural, "We."

Enhanced by Zemanta

No TrackBacks

TrackBack URL: