A rather poor opinion piece was published by “News OK” (as in “Oklahoma;” I’ve several friends who are Okies) which, while unremarkable by itself, did open up some interesting topics for discussion. The editorial, written by Professor David Deming at Oklahoma University, while not very well informed, serves to illustrate several points of interest. First off, the author holds a Ph.D. in geology & geophysics, and so he has no more expertise in his opinions on matters of social and political philosophy than a plumber has speaking on medicine. We see here an example of someone using his Very Important Degree as evidently legitimizing his opinion. But compare: by the same accounts, I am a “Doctor” as well. But if you come to me for advice on, say, your cancer treatment, my response will be something along the lines of, “Pay attention to your MEDICAL doctor, and don’t ask me questions for which I cannot possibly offer an intelligent answer.” Legitimate expertise actually matters.
In his opinion piece, Deming bemoans the supposed “fact” that, “an avowed socialist is a viable candidate for president of the United States.” Deming means, of course, Bernie Sanders, and thus in his first sentence demonstrates an astonishing cluelessness about the topics he would presume to lecture others on. Sanders is an avowed Democratic Socialist, and if one hasn’t bothered to learn the difference, one has no business saying foolish things on the subject in public. Deming goes on to announce that socialism – a word he obviously has no idea as to its many meanings – is a universal and unequivocal failure, citing the examples of the USSR and, more recently, Venezuela. It is telling that Deming fails to mention Sweden, or that socialism in the two countries he does name was imposed on cultures rife with staggering and endemic poverty, and exercised with authoritarian rule. A thoughtful person might suppose that such distinctions are important. But the fact that Deming gives no weight to the role of poverty and income inequality is our segue into the point I do wish to discuss: Deming declares that, “The United States is a constitutional republic founded on political equality, not equality of income or circumstances. … The Founding Fathers considered property rights to be sacred and paramount.” The first part is childish in in its naiveté, while the second is frankly disgusting in its utter bone-headed misrepresentations. These are the topics I wish to examine here, and they all pivot on the concept of “the pursuit of happiness.” I’ll start with Deming’s second, and more easily disposed of, claim.
Obviously, the Founding Father’s (“FF’s”) considered property important enough that it could only be seized from a private person on condition of “due process of law,” and/or “just compensation.” But that is it! Other than the 5th Amendment (reiterated in the 14th), the only other mention of property is in Article IV, section 3, and that is referring to property of the United States. What is more, the FF’s offered no guidelines on how generous or restricted those rules of due process had to be, or what “just compensation” might look like. Thomas Jefferson very deliberately rewrote John Locke’s triad of the rights of “life, liberty, and property,” into the explicitly Aristotelian and Epicurean triad of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” (The article in the previous link is well worth the reading, by the bye.) If Mammon was the God to whom the FF’s bent their knee, then why would Jefferson make such a revision, or any of the other FF’s so enthusiastically sign off on it? Why would so little attention to a matter that is both “sacred” and “paramount” be given in the Constitution, which is, after all, the Supreme Law of the land? Deming’s grasp of history and of social/political philosophy seems little more than a rehash of Ayn Rand’s nonsense.
Let us now look at the first part from Deming’s statement above. It ought to be obvious that Deming assumes that political equality is absolutely independent of, and separable from, income equality. This is nothing more than an assumption, as there is not a particle of evidence that could ever possibly stand as evidence for this claim. And for those of us who live in – or, at least, periodically visit – the evidence driven world, it is quite obvious that just the opposite is the case: political equality cannot possibly exist in a world of gross income inequality.
One might justifiably suppose that the FF’s really had no grasp of this problem, living as they did on a continent with seemingly endless opportunities for White Men (because women and slaves didn’t count – well, the latter counted 3/5ths, but only for their white male owners.) And the fact of the matter is, as fabulously wealthy as your Jefferson or Washington might be in comparison to your lowliest, skint broke, dirt farmer in Pennsylvania, it remains the case that the differences between those two classes were not a patch on the differences between the top 5% and bottom 50% in this country today. (Never mind the top 1% and bottom 10%, a gulf so unimaginable that the mathematical characterization of it is largely incomprehensible as a concrete fact.) The politically debilitating effects of such massive economic inequality have been discussed quite a bit in the last few years by such persons as Thomas Piketty, Joseph Stiglitz, Robert Reich, and many others. These are not obscure ideas espoused by marginal thinkers on purely ideological grounds; these economists are highly respected members of the field working with large and solidly analyzed data sets. So if one’s reasons for not mentioning the toxic effects of extreme economic inequality on the very possibility of political equality is ignorance, then one is frankly too ignorant to have any business commenting on the subject at all. If one’s reasons are more a matter of ideological dismissal, then one is not so much ignorant as calculatedly dishonest.
Absolute economic equality is neither necessary nor even desirable, in order to nevertheless establish a (broadly conceived) “working” political equality. In this regard, it is worth noting that the “happiness” that Jefferson spoke of in The Declaration is not a matter of “pleasure” – the Greek word here is “hédoné,” from which we get the word “hedonism” – but a very different Greek word, “eudaimonia.” Commonly translated as “happiness,” eudaimonia would be better rendered as “human flourishing.” (A clumsy but somewhat more literal phrase might be “healthy ideal-spirit.” English really has no exact cognate for the “daimonia” part of the term.) Eudaimonia is not about becoming vapidly pleased, it is not about empty-headed “pleasure;” rather, it is about maximizing your potentials as a human being. No small part of maximizing that potential, is maximizing your actual participation as a citizen of the state. Because, after all, it is only as such a citizen that any of us can even hope to survive, much less flourish. (See also, Plato’s Crito.) Libertarian fantasies to the contrary not withstanding, none of us ever make it alone: we exist in, and exist because of, community.
But as Aristotle already observed (some 2400+ years ago) in the Nicomachean Ethics, no one in a condition of absolute penury can hope to even approach their potentials, much less maximize them: there can be no pursuit of “happiness” (eudaimonia) when one is scarcely able to pursue bare survival. Some centuries prior to the Common Era, Aristotle (and the Greeks in general) recognized that it was not possible to act as a full, free citizen, under the weight of crushing poverty. Crushing poverty is, of course, the obvious outcome of unrestricted privilege for the very, very few – of allowing the rich to become richer, without let or hindrance; of pretending that political equality is a mere declaration absent of any concrete connection with economic inequality.
The pursuit of happiness is not possible in the absence of political equality. And political equality is not possible in the absence of substantive economic equality.