Broom of the System
But Sidgwick also wrote brilliantly and rigorously about moral philosophy, and in particular about one specific problem that has come to mind often as I consider, two weeks before graduation, what Harvard has come to mean to me. Sidgwick once jokingly noted that he had written a book where the first word was “ethics” and the last word was “failure.” What he was referring to was his conclusion to The Methods of Ethics: that there was no way to prove that one should act a utilitarian (that is, on behalf of the well-being of all) rather than as an egoist (on the behalf of only one’s own well-being). They both appeared to be rational positions, and Sidgwick could not for the life of him prove that one has more reason to be a utilitarian than an egoist.
Given the circumstances, one’s mind naturally turns to the last time Europe flirted seriously with far-left and far-right movements. And that, unsurprisingly to those of us who take an economically determinist view of political cycles, coincided with the last time that Europe had to deal with a financial meltdown and ensuing recession in the 1920s and 30s. Radical movements proliferated, with fascists gaining power in Germany and Italy and leftist and fascist governments ruling Spain in succession. Even the U.S. saw an uptick in interest in radicalism, with the quasi-fascist priest Charles Coughlin gaining widespread support.
But then again, the budget was written in language that deficit hawks love. Ryan writes that, “At its core, this plan of action is about putting an end to empty promises from a bankrupt government.” The Ryans, MacGuineases, and Bixbys of the world say stuff like this all the time. We can’t afford the government we have. We’re going bankrupt. It’s unsustainable. And to this day, I have no idea what any of them are trying to say. That may sound like feigned incomprehension, but statements like theirs are truly vague, and none of the things they could mean make much sense.
No one would mistake Florida for a night-watchman state, but on Feb. 26, it failed to fulfill that basic duty that Nozick identified. One of its citizens, Trayvon Martin, was pursued and fatally shot by another private citizen, George Zimmerman, and, because the police agree with Zimmerman’s claim of self-defense, the killer was not arrested. As has been widely noted, this outcome likely has something to do with Florida’s extremely expansive “Stand Your Ground” law, under which one is allowed to use deadly force if they feel threatened even when they could have peacefully retreated instead.
If you read enough articles like this one, you know that the president in question isn’t Franklin D. Roosevelt, class of 1904, or Lyndon B. Johnson, or anyone else you’d expect; that’d be too easy. No, it was Richard M. Nixon, enemy number one of the left for upwards of a decade and also the person who came closest to closing the gap between the American welfare state and those of all other developed nations. The fact that we cannot even imagine a conservative Republican advocating policies remotely similar today can tell us a lot about what has happened to U.S. politics since the 1970s. And the fact that Nixon failed in bringing the U.S. in line with its peer nations can tell us a lot about how hard it is to make real progress even when the fundamentals are on the side of change.