Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Articulating Principles

I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty, and justice for all.
Liberty and justice stand in tension one with the other—and this tension by itself provides the rationale for government. Justice for all implies limitations on liberty—lest liberty turn into license. John Locke, in Of the State of Nature, gave formal arguments for this in the seventeenth century. Limited government, similarly, arises from the same tension. Liberty must be curbed for the sake of justice—but not more than justice demands.

And what applies to government applies with equal force to the exercise of any power—be that of a parent over a child, the head of a household over a family, a corporation, agency, etc. But if power must be curbed, the national government ultimately is the point of last recourse; but of course it is itself a power—and must be curbed in turn. And thus arises the notion articulated in the Declaration of Independence that government derives its power from the consent of the governed.

Is it really necessary to rehash all these old ideas once again? We know all this, don’t we? Well, we live in an age when the meaning of words like “is” is debated in grand jury hearings by sitting presidents; thus it may be a good idea to ponder fundamentals. Not least words like “all,” as in “justice for all.” And “justice” for that matter.

You might say that every time a tension appears, parties will form to either side. This seems to be the situation in our politics today. We have a party of liberty trying to maximize the limitation of government—and a party of justice, trying to maximize the justice for all. The tendencies are illustrated in the only passages, within the 2008 platforms for the two parties, one passage in each, that mention core principles at all:

From the Democrats:
Today, we pledge a return to core moral principles like stewardship, service to others, personal responsibility, shared sacrifice and a fair shot for all–values that emanate from the integrity and optimism of our Founders and generations of Americans since.
From the Republicans:
Republicans will uphold and defend our party’s core principles: Constrain the federal government to its legitimate constitutional functions. Let it empower people, while limiting its reach into their lives. Spend only what is necessary, and tax only to raise revenue for essential government functions. Unleash the power of enterprise, innovation, civic energy, and the American spirit—and never pretend that government is a substitute for family or community.
These two most recent formal platforms are here (Republicans, Democrats).

Now the difficulties here are to determine how to measure justice for all. In effect it is impossible, but there are certain indicators that might be meaningful. A clear one, from my perspective, is income inequality. It strikes me as a meaningful pointer indicating the slippage of justice in the United States that the Gini Coefficient, which measures income inequality, stood at 0.397 in 1975 and at 0.469 in 2010. The higher the Gini, the greater the inequality. This means that in the last 35 years income inequality has increased by 18 percent. Now a certain inequality is natural, of course. But what level is too high? Consider what the military pay differentials are. A four-star general earns 11.5 times more than a private does. In our economy, the top quintile of the population earns 15.4 more than the lowest quintile. Now while the number of four-star generals is a tiny fraction of all soldiers, the top quintile of the population is a full fifth of it. Therefore that 15.4 multiplier means more.

Liberty, to be sure, will minimally produce economic inequality—so that some, but not all, will have much greater wealth. The perception, at minimum, of “justice for all” erodes when this happens; and as it does, disorder mounts. Now, of course, this is a free country. Those who wish to work to maximize justice (thus constraints on the economy) and those who wish to maximize liberty (hence inequality in wealth), are free to do so. But it would certainly help if the underlying principles were spelled out and more openly discussed in debates and punditry than they are. Some people, indeed the masses, don’t seem to understand what is is.

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