"Justice is an affair partly of thought and partly of act. It is a very difficult virtue, because it requires giving full and exact credit to all the claims that may be presented to us. . . . The first step in justice, whether in thought or act, lies in keeping oneself in check. For where one's own claims, either in argument or in practice, come in conflict with another, the two tendencies most likely to defeat justice are the tendency to over-rate one's own claim and the tendency to under-rate the other person's. These are deep-seated biasses in all of us, and to curb them firmly is not pleasant. Still, it is an essential part of what reasonableness means."
Brand Blanshard, Reason and Goodness
"I'm doing God's work."
Lloyd Blankfein, CEO, Goldman Sachs, rating his own claim
If humanity as a whole could be graded, it would undoubtedly receive an "F" in politics; or, at least, most of its politicians and businessmen would. Politics, clearly, is not what we do best.
The basic problem, recurrent throughout history, is that political power invariably flows to wealth, yet it is precisely individuals who "tend to over-rate their own claim" who try hardest to accumulate wealth. (There's strong evidence that there is a genetic predisposition to obsessive-compulsive wealth accumulation, and that it tends to completely overwhelm the ability of those who suffer from it to "firmly curb deep-seated biasses".)
Unfortunately, once wealth is accumulated, and any sort of real need is completely forgotten, individuals of this sort often go on to lose what little contact with the social and economic realities of other people they may ever have possessed. (Bilderberg members, for example, commonly refer to ordinary people as "cockroaches". This may explain their propensity for having people pepper-sprayed.)
Once in power, whether overtly or from behind the scenes, the influence of these individuals is inevitably destructive of society as a whole, as their deep-seated biasses become institutionalized. This dismaying pattern of corruption and destruction has been repeated over and over again throughout the entire course of human history. At bottom there is little difference to be found between, say, the pharaohs of Egypt and the bankers and finaciers of New York (the global capital of societal decay, though London, Berlin, and Brussels don't lag far behind).
The contemporary result is that politics have reached a wholly unnecessary state of permanent, manufactured crisis. It would be difficult to assess what Ancient Egypt might have accomplished had it not wasted enormous sums and effort on the construction of oversized tombs for a handful of morally illiterate pharaohs. Certainly, however, the lives of most Egyptians could have been vastly better, and without any real cost even to the pharaohs themselves (though perhaps at some cost to their self-importance). The US, and indeed the world, is currently engaged in a similar bizzare mis-deployment of wealth and resources: enormous human effort is absurdly engaged primarily in making a handful of hyperwealthy individuals wealthier still.
Democracy evolved in Ancient Greece specifically as an attempt to address the problem represented by this recurrent pattern of drift to rule-by-wealthy-sociopaths. While this solution remains fundamentally sound, serious issues have developed both in the US and globally. First, these individuals do their very best to game the system. Today they have seized the mass media, central banking, policing, the courts, the FBI, the Supreme Court, and "intelligence" agencies, and use all of these as tools of democratic corruption and suppression. Second, democracy demands a well-informed and educated populace. But the hyperwealthy have no commitment to a high quality of public education, as they send their own children to private institutions. (Following education at private prep schools, a majority go on to attend private universities like Yale, University of Chicago, Harvard, Stanford, or Notre Dame as "legacy" students.) Nor do they have any interest whatever in well-informed "cockroaches". (A high percentage of school textbooks are published by corporations of fascist orientation.)
But, perhaps most fundamentally of all, there is much needless confusion concerning the nature of just governance. A majority of the very wealthy are fascists, libertarians or (strangely enough) both. Most of this "belief" undoubtedly follows directly from cynical self-interest rather than from any sort of genuine conviction. Still, setting this to one side, there does remain a real and widespread lack of political and economic literacy world-wide. This is hardly surprising. In many ways, the 20th century was the most confused and disoriented century ever experienced by humanity. Unfortunately, a number of religious leaders were among the most confused and corrupted of all; and even most philosophers had little to say that was enlightening.
But if a lack of understanding of the nature of legitimate politics is real, even in part, then this lack of understanding has real implications, and implies a rather surprising, even startling, solution, at least in part: arriving at a clearer understanding the nature of legitimate politics. Such an understanding might not lead Lloyd Blankfein to hold his claims in check — but it would, at least, make it abundantly clear that Mr. Blankfein, and others like him, are engaged in something very closely approximating "Satan's work". And a clear, societal consensus that such is the case would ultimately help lead to legislation that reins in such conduct.
Blackwell's Dictionary of Political Science defines politics in this way: "Politics is activity that involves collective conflict and its resolution." This, of course, is quite hopeless as a definition, because it has nothing normative to say. That is, it passes entirely on what sort of resolution is to be desired, as though just any sort at all would do. And the weak "involves" here fails to suggest that some resolutions are vastly better than others, and therefore must be actively pursued by every society that deserves to be called a society at all. (We've noted elsewhere at this site that contemporary definitions of economics are defective in almost the same way. It would not be too much to say that this phobia concerning norms is the most characteristic feature of contemporary economic and political thought. We believe, in both cases, that the intent of this normative abdication is to make conceptual room for unjust political outcomes and unjust economic ideas.)
When we instead restore the normative dimension of these terms, it can be seen that, at bottom, legitimate politics necessarily center on the effort to achieve just social outcomes. Economics is, or should be, the study of how to achieve modest and sustainable prosperity for all. It falls to legitimate politicians to make use of these sorts of economic principles to achieve these desirable social outcomes. But if we're to get to an economics and politics of this nature, we must first of all dispel confusion about the nature of justice. We can hardly expect this to be accomplished by corporate media; indeed, the corporate media constitute the primary source of confusion. The alternative (apart from supporting and further developing legitimate media), is for individuals to better understand the foundations of politics and economics in the philosophical discipline known as ethics.
In most developed countries other than the United States, philosophers have at least some public role to play in discussions concerning ethics in the context of the philosophy of politics. Of course, this by itself is no guarantee of insightful and honest discussion, as many philosophers are themselves confused, while others work for universities of pervasive fascist persuasion. But in the US philosophers are accorded no place whatever in public discourse, because insightful and honest discussion is the polar opposite of what is desired by the owners of the mass media.
However, while this situation is bad enough, most public discussions of ethics in the context of the philosophy of politics are carried out in the US in the corporate media by "pundits" who are politically illiterate, intellectually feeble, paid propagandists for their wealthy employers. As a rule, these individuals lack even a trace of meaningful background in the relevant issues; and, in any case, almost universally represent a fascist perspective. (Remarkably, intentional suppression of non-fascist media was planned and carried out jointly by the CEOs of: Allstate, Bank of America, Bayer, AT&T, Coca-Cola, Exxon Mobil, FedEx, General Electric - which largely controls NBC - Johnson & Johnson, McDonald's, Microsoft, State Farm and Wal-Mart. Thirteeen is, in this sense, a very unlucky number.) Needless to say, a just politics and economics are not well-served by this sort of "pundit", by these corporations, by their CEOs, or by the corporate media more generally.
In order to get the ethics of governance right, then, we must first of all consult more genuinely enlightening philosophers of ethics, and then bring their ideas forward in more responsible media.
The first major step forward in dispelling confusion about ethics was taken by the Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant. (Unsurprisingly, Kant has come under disingenuous attack by fascist-leaning "philosophers".) For a highly readable exposition of Kant's ideas, see Kant's Moral Teleology by Thomas Auxter. In the modern era, American philosopher Brand Blanshard, in his book Reason and Goodness has resolved most of the remaining sources of confusion. Typically, both of these books are out of print, but can be obtained from used-book dealers or borrowed from public libraries.
Working out a just economics and politics from this foundation is, in principle, not an especially difficult matter. Of course, it will not be welcomed by individuals who find it especially difficult and painful (as well as unaccustomed) to curb their deep-seated biasses.
Readers who aren't yet ready to take the plunge in reading philosophy will soon be able get some quick and (hopefully) painless exposure right here at Everything Progressive in our Philosophy, Politics, and Economics Field Guides, where more immediate, concrete, practical steps will also be discussed.
The Editor / Everything Progressive