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Review: “Is Democracy Possible Here?” by Ronald Dworkin

I read this book because it was written by a liberal legal philosopher I was trying to understand (see the previous review) and it promised to discuss the author’s theory of equality with specific examples from recent political developments. I was disappointed after all because, although it does discuss several topics that are still controversial, it doesn’t present very many insights I hadn’t already heard about.

The first thing I would say about this book is that Dworkin has a point about the inability of Americans to discuss controversial issues without acting like children and getting mad. He is correct in being skeptical that this situation can be addressed without something really dire occurring.

The second point is that he is fair and balanced, presenting the conservative view so well that, in most cases, it could almost convince one to change their opinion on many topics. Unfortunately, this is the case because he invokes what he considers statements of fact which are not facts at all, but only his beliefs stated as facts. Not very convincing.

Overall, it is a good, fairly short, discussion of several important topics: Terrorism and human rights; religion and dignity; and taxes and legitimacy. These are timeless and will always be disputed. But if the reader is looking for an original and thorough discussion of whether democracy can survive in America, this is not the book for you.

Review of “Sovereign Virtue: The Theory and Practice of Equality” by Ronald Dworkin

This is a book I read in my study of legal theory as part of my interest in law and philosophy. It was first published in 2000 and some of the examples from American jurisprudence are a bit dated. This is a difficult book to read because, like other legal scholars, the author is long winded. Many of the paragraphs consist of one sentence and I had to read a third of the book twice to recall the topic. Dworkin lists a lot of “principles” and “arguments”, etc., which can get confusing. There must be hundreds used in the book. Punctuation is also not great; sometimes he throws commas at the text in unexpected places and then neglects them for short stretches. I’m kind of a nitpicker about commas because I expect them to introduce prepositional phrases and the like and, when they are missing, I have to reread the entire sentence (a task made more difficult by the long sentences).

The author takes 473 pages to make his point: Every human should be the best they can be in order to have self-respect and thus respect others; and they are responsible for their decisions and must live with the consequences. The book title doesn’t refer to the virtue of kings and other governments, but rather to the sovereignty of every individual over their own life. One method by which this lofty goal can be achieved, he suggests, is by an equal distribution of resources. He attempts to explain how this can be accomplished by use of an insurance analog for programs like unemployment and health insurance. He presents this idea in terms almost as abstract as John Rawls (See my review of “A Theory of Justice”) but he spends about a third of the book applying his conception to such programs in contemporary America. I didn’t find his arguments as convincing as he does, however, and I doubt that people with a different point of view would be won over. There are a lot of bold statements of what he considers obvious facts about human behavior, of which I’ve seen little evidence outside of academic institutions.

Ronald Dworkin wrote this book in his ivory tower at Harvard University and, although his theory does make sense from a rational perspective, it strikes me as being inapplicable to a nation like the United States, not because of his liberal (he defines this differently than most modern liberals) tendencies but because it assumes that a rational discourse is possible between people who actually accept his premise of the natural right of every individual to be given a fair chance to succeed, and those who do not. I can’t recommend it unless you want to hammer basic ideas about political philosophy into your thick head as I’m attempting to do. As an aside, I finished the course book for the first-year course on Civil Procedure; if the writing skill of those authors could be applied to theoretical and thought-provoking ideas like those Dworkin presents, people might actually read these books from cover to cover.

A Review of “A Theory of Justice” by John Rawls

Let’s get the banal part of the review over first. This book is twice as long as it needed to be. The author is long winded, repetitive, and doesn’t appear to know why we use commas in prose. I had to read at least a third of it twice to understand his meaning. As a sidebar, I bought a used copy which had been read (partly) by at least one other person. Their marks ceased at less than half-way through the text. This is not a book for the casual reader.

Having said that, this is an important book, not because of its eloquence (which is negligible) but because the author has successfully presented the first theory of a “well ordered society” since Plato’s Republic. My impression is that John Rawls was tired of Utilitarianism as an approach to how to run a society. Briefly, Utilitarianism is an approach to organizing a society so that the overall good of the total population is maximized without regard to individual rights. This is the paradigm applied throughout the world today. If any particular person or group’s needs are in the way of maximizing GDP or some other arcane socioeconomic index, that’s your tough luck. You get run over by the bus. Believe it or not, that is the world we live in. John Rawls shows this model to be a myth that was accepted because it didn’t require too much thought. I guess he was so frustrated with the state of affairs in the sixties (the first edition was published in 1971) that he dedicated himself to creating an alternative…almost from scratch.

If you read this expecting to see a critique of American democracy, you will be disappointed. Although it is obvious that this is a “thought exercise” about what might have been going through the minds of the framers of the U.S. Constitution, and argued about throughout the colonies, it is not a discussion of American democracy.

This is a purely theoretical work. Rawls starts from the idea of a society constructed from nothing, what he terms the Original Position, in which the framers know nothing about their position in the society they are creating. Using the dialectic of moral philosophy, he proposes what he terms the principles of justice. It is worth mentioning these: the first and paramount principle is that every person has a right to liberty, which cannot be abrogated or in any way reduced; the second principle is that everyone has an opportunity to advance their status, no matter what their original status is. Using this simple ideas, he constructs a model of a “well ordered society,” which is the basis for his development of the theory of “Justice as Fairness.”

The book has three parts, and I must confess that I didn’t understand any of them until I had read the last section. It lays out the basic design of a “well ordered society,” based on the two principles I listed above. Despite his circular reasoning (unavoidable in philosophy I suppose), he makes a convincing argument that his theory is sound; he then puts meat on the bones (so to speak) of his basic theory and discusses the kinds of institutions necessary for a “well ordered society.” All of this is theoretical. He finally discusses the problems with such an imagined society because of the weakness of the human mind and spirit. The last chapters kind of negate the entire theory because he acknowledges and then dismisses this simple fact: people are not rational and too many of us are cheaters.

Nevertheless, the theory of “Justice as Fairness” does suggest how human frailty can be overcome in a “well ordered society” through the proper training of people from birth (no, he does not advocate state-run orphanages, although he does briefly mention it). He offers solid psychological alternatives to taking children away from their parents although they don’t sound too promising to me. I hadn’t imagined how poor our understanding of society was until I read this book; like everyone else, I thought that we were operating on something more than Utilitarian principles like “Don’t get in the way,” until I read this. Rawls’ vision may be utopian but so was the vision of a constitution and liberal democracy in the eighteenth century.

To finish, I will repeat what I’ve learned over the years: if you want to understand something, you have to repeat it again and again, and then maybe you will remember at least the basics. This book is good for that: I cannot avoid thinking of the “well ordered society” and how my country stands up. It doesn’t look too good from where I’m sitting.

Make America Great Again

I haven’t posted on this thread in a while because something has been bothering me, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. And then it occurred to me. The whole Brexit ordeal was, in my opinion, a fight between generations in the United Kingdom; as I said in that post, the older generation dreamt of the British Empire at its zenith. I don’t know how that’s all going to play out.

What I’m writing about today is the same nostalgic phenomenon playing out in America. This is something I do care about.

Donald Trump made a great stir by declaring that he was going to “Make America Great Again,” and I take issue with this bold statement, not because of any rancor I have against him; in fact, I almost voted for him because I agree with his stated view of international affairs, especially global trade. This slogan has appeared on clothing and on banners and is bandied about as if these words alone would do for America what some citizens of the U.K. imagined would happen after Brexit.

I don’t want to get bogged down on what is going on over in Europe but a quick summary will help elucidate the purpose of this post. Dreaming of a dimly remembered past filled with victorious sea battles, the conquest of far-off lands, and the defeat of the Nazis in the twentieth century, the majority of U.K. citizens, spurred on by patriotic slogans and promises of a return to the “good old days,” cast their votes to depart from the European Union. When faced with the stark reality of what that would entail, despite the rosy images painted by some politicians, the entire Brexit procedure ground to a halt. This is understandable because the U.K. is not in a position of dominance in any aspect of global relations and they haven’t been since the 1940s. The similarity of the U.K. situation to that of America ends there.

America is not an island nation that has been at war with its neighbors for centuries. Our country never had a significant colonial presence, despite President Teddy Roosevelt’s dreams to the contrary. America has seen a continuous increase in productivity and creativity throughout its two-century history, which included being “the last man standing” after the horror of World War II. The aftermath of that cataclysm created a situation in which America was positioned to become the leading economy in the world; and it has remained so to this day. America was a great place for freedom-loving people (not counting Native Americans or African slaves, which is another story), who came in droves; they made it great and it has remained so throughout our nation’s history. Let’s break it down.

America never stopped being a “great” nation with a strong economy; despite many recessions, stagflation, continuous wars, and policy miss-steps at every turn. Even the 2008 “great recession” didn’t substantially hurt the productivity of American industries (including services). There is nothing to return to, and only a cynic (or perhaps a nihilist)  with their mind firmly buried in a fictitious past would loudly shout “Make America Great Again.” So would someone with a personal or political agenda.

Any large and complex economy is going to deal with a continuous stream of problems, which sometimes appear unsurmountable when portrayed in the media (including social platforms).  America is continuing to grow as a democracy and free economy, and there is no reason for it to do otherwise in the future. We have a lot of hurdles ahead of us, and we will probably trip on some of them, just as we have over the issues of slavery, women’s suffrage, unproductive overseas intervention (which started more than a century ago), and global trade (an unplanned experiment with costly results).

I could go on for many pages, but I’ll stop here and finish with one simple idea: Let’s stop talking about the past and focus on the future. Let’s make America even greater through even broader democracy and by using every natural resource available and person living within our borders.

America has never stopped being the greatest nation on earth.

Why we should restrict the national voting age to 65

There is a crisis in American democracy today. We see this in the polarization of both voters and their elected representatives. This has led to calls to “throw the bums out”, but we have seen that this has not worked. We do not need to look far to discover why. Even though the median age of all Americans is less than 40, the average age of the House of Representatives and Senate are 56.7 and 62.2 years1, respectively. The Congress is elected by, and must respond to the wishes of, the electorate, of whom 66.8% are between 15 and 64 years, with only 13.4% aged 65 or older2. It thus appears that older people are disproportionally represented in our Congress, which has important implications for both their decisions and the voting patterns of the electorate.

It is an assumption founded on the U.S. Constitution that all men have a basic right to vote, although this national franchise took many steps to develop from the original right of only  property-owning white men in the original Constitution: white men (over 21 years) whether or not they owned property from 1792-1856; all white men in 1868 (Fourteenth Amendment); non-white men in 1870 (Fifteenth Amendment); for these men to directly elect senators in 1913 (Seventeenth Amendment); women in 1920 (Nineteenth Amendment); all Native Americans in 1924; residents of Washington D.C. for president in 1961 (Twenty-third Amendment); poll taxes were abolished in 1964 (Twenty-fourth Amendment); adults between 18 and 21 in 1971 (Twenty-sixth Amendment); and soldiers living overseas couldn’t vote for President until 1986. It is apparent that elected representatives have seen fit to change the national voting franchise to adjust to a changing world. Is there any reason we shouldn’t continue this bold experiment in democracy? I will attempt in this essay to discuss the reasons why we should consider a decrease in the national voting age to allow our democracy to keep up with the changing world.

A recent survey of Twitter posts identifies the ten most pressing issues for people who tweet, which is dominated by younger Americans: (1) job opportunities; (2) discrimination; (3) education; (4) good government; (5) political freedom; (6) climate change; (7) environmental protection; (8) sexual equality; (9) energy; and (10) transportation3. A recent survey by the AARP4 reveals major concerns for its members, who are older than 50 years: (1) health care; (2) economic issues (e.g. Social Security); (3) vacation and hobbies; (4) staying healthy; (5) consumer protection; (6) community issues (e.g. lighting and sidewalks; (7) long-term care and home-care services. These two lists are not directly comparable and it is not my intent to summarize the importance of social issues for all Americans, but there is a striking difference between them; the overwhelming concern of older Americans in health care, and not the future of American democracy.

The AARP survey shows the justifiable concern that older Americans have for health care and living in a sustainable way within their communities. Few of the long-term issues reflected in the Twitter data are reflected in these concerns, however, yet these older voters so consistently vote for representatives based on issues of public support, e.g., Medicare and Social Security, that these topics cannot even be discussed within Congress without fear of reprisal. This is an understandably selfish view that is not consistent with the real problems facing America in these turbulent times. Those of us with adult children are aware of their preoccupation with their futures as well as social issues, yet we cannot help but want what’s best for them. They will always be our children but they are no longer younglings (a phrase from Star Wars) for whom we know best.  We cannot possibly know what is most dear to them and thus we should not try and determine the world they will live in.

We humans invariably develop many long-term relationships throughout our lives and these are reflected in webs of trust as we grow older. However, as natural as this social web is and its contribution to our health as we age, it also engenders a patrimonial hierarchy of interdependence that is too often exhibited in both the re-election of well-known representatives, who support issues we find most important, and clientelism among our representatives, which we call corruption in developing democracies. The undemocratic political result of these engrained social webs is exacerbated by the natural accumulation of wealth by older Americans, which we expect and encourage in a capitalist society, but it endows them with political power beyond our demographic status. This disequilibrium is further increased by the large number of Americans born after World War II, the “Baby Boom” generation (born between 1946 and 1964), with a projected increase in those older than 65 from 15% in 2015 to 21% in 2030.

We all remember the “good old days” but any browsing of a modern history book will show that they weren’t that good for most of us; instead of remembering skyrocketing oil prices, double-digit inflation, stagflation, wage and price controls, or the Viet Nam war, we seem to recall Hollywood products like American Graffiti or Happy Days. We have a strong desire to pass this fantasy world to our children, a world that never existed. Even though Americans are living to almost 80 years, we know that we are not starting a family or a career, or entering a new field through college or a job. Thus, we cannot really feel the angst we did when we were young; the result is that we fall back on our partly imagined memories of the past. Although we see the past perfectly through our rose-colored glasses, we see the future bleakly through the cataracts on our minds and what we cannot see we cannot plan for.

Human beings also remember old animosities in a distorted manner. Those who lived through past wars, and there have been continuous wars throughout every living American’s life, remember those adversaries similarly to our fond memories, only with lasting animosity that doesn’t reflect changes in the world outside our homes and families. But these irrelevant fears are eventually exposed in our support for aggressive foreign policy based on concepts like Communism and Global Thermonuclear War (e.g. MAD or Mutually Assured Destruction) when dealing with other states. Thus, we think that solutions that avoided such calamitous outcomes as a communist world or a Nuclear-Winter will serve us well in the twenty-first century, and these false solutions become issues that are used to elect our representatives and make strategic decisions.

The importance of health on our mental state is acknowledged by the medical field and yet older Americans with a variety of painful diseases, such as arthritis and cancer, vote regularly. This has an immeasurable effect on our government and its goals. The final problem with the overblown electoral impact of older Americans on our government is that we really aren’t going to be around to see the consequences of our actions today. Action taken by Americans and their elected representatives today will not be fully implemented until into the 2030s but who is making these decisions? These same older Americans will not be here to say, “Oops…my bad”

Against this weight of evidence, older Americans have but one unambiguous response: it is un-American to restrict the voting franchise. Yet, generations of Americans have modified the franchise to keep up with the changing times. Do we have the same strength? It is an ideal of a democracy that its citizens vote for the good of all citizens rather than their own interest, but this would be contrary to human psychology. Herein lays a fundamental problem with our democracy, and one that our children will have to deal with on their own but which is made worse by the undemocratic concentration of political power in an older generation that is motivated by self-interest alone.  Adam Smith would whole-heartedly support this situation, but he lived in a time and place where suffrage was limited to Forty-Shilling Freeholders5. God help us if we cannot trust our children to keep our needs in mind when confronting their future.

Footnotes:

1 http://www.senate.gov/reference/resources/pdf/R41647.pdf

2 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Demography_of_the_United_States

3 http://www.takepart.com/photos/10-social-issues-americans-talk-about-twitter-most

4 http://assets.aarp.org/rgcenter/general/voices-america-dreams-challenges-national.pdf

5 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Suffrage#United_Kingdom