Broom of the System
This column is mostly about national politics and that my coursework tends more toward abstract issues in moral philosophy—the two do not tend to intersect often. So much so, in fact, that the philosopher with whom I most consistently agree—the 19th century Cambridge utilitarian Henry Sidgwick—held views on real-life politics that bordered on the repugnant. He, in sharp contrast to previous utilitarians, was deeply skeptical of large-scale political and economic reforms, and argued that adherence with Victorian social mores was required by the principle of utility. He even once attended a lecture on land reform by the socialist playwright George Bernard Shaw and, after Shaw finished speaking, rose to respond, stated that Shaw “advocated nationalization of land; that nationalization of land was a crime; and that he [Sidgwick] would not take part in a discussion of a criminal proposal,” and sat right back down again.
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.
Karl Marx was talking about French politics when he quipped that when history repeats itself the first time is tragedy and the second farce, so it was appropriate that this past Saturday’s French presidential election confirmed the theory. The Socialist candidate, François Hollande, came out ahead, earning a berth in the runoff with incumbent Gaullist Nicolas Sarkozy, which he is widely expected to win as well. But more startling were the third and fourth place challengers. Marine Le Pen, the neo-fascist candidate whose father Jean-Marie won a spot in the 2002 presidential runoff, earned 18 percent of the vote, only ten points behind Hollande, and Jean-Luc Mélenchon, a leftist backed by the French Communist Party who calls for a maximum income of $500,000, took in 11 percent.
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.
There’s something strange about the fact that a radical document like Rep. Paul D. Ryan’s budget—a budget that would cut taxes, primarily for high earners, by $4.6 trillion while taking health insurance away from 14 million Medicaid beneficiaries—has been welcomed by centrist elements in Washington as a sensible, hard-headed contribution to the public debate over spending. Maya C. MacGuineas, president of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, declared that the budget “puts our nation on a fiscally sustainable path.” Robert L. Bixby, who runs the pro-deficit-reduction Concord Coalition, judged that the budget “fit the magnitude of the challenge.”
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.
Everyone knows that libertarians don’t especially like it when the government, er, does stuff. But even the most doctrinaire libertarians generally accept that there are some functions that the state can justifiably perform. Apart from radical anarcho-capitalists like Murray N. Rothbard or David D. Friedman ’65, libertarians are generally comfortable with a state that enforces contracts between consenting parties, provides for the national defense, and, most importantly, stops individuals from violating each others’ rights. Robert Nozick, the late, great libertarian Harvard political philosopher, argued that only a minimal “night-watchman state” is justifiable. Among this state’s most important duties, he wrote in “Anarchy, State, and Utopia,” was “protecting all its citizens against violence, theft, and fraud.”
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.
There once was a president who proposed a national government-run daycare program, a universal health care plan almost identical to the one eventually passed in 2010, and a guaranteed minimum income for all Americans. What’s more, he got all those measures—which, taken together, would have transformed the US into a bona fide, Western European-style social democracy—reasonably close to passage. He oversaw major Constitutional reform measures, including the lowering of the voting age to 18 and the passage by Congress of the Equal Rights Amendment, which banned discrimination on the basis of sex. He created the Environmental Protection Agency and the Occupation Safety and Health Administration and signed the Clean Air Act and the Endangered Species Act into law.
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.