Finding Common Ground
Updated: Apr 12
In 2017, I wrote a series of blog pieces to reflect both my concerns about new administration in Washington, DC and my hope that we could find ways to begin healing the political divisions revealed by the recent presidential campaign. I still have concerns, but I also still have hope that we eventually can find common ground and refocus our government on serving the common good rather than economic self-interests. This post is a compilation of the eight posts I wrote in 2017.
During the American Revolution, Thomas Paine wrote a series of pamphlets which he called: “Common Sense.” His intent was to inspire Americans to create a new nation, based on their common sense of moral right and wrong, rather than accept continuing domination by the British monarchy. My intent in the forthcoming series of blogs and posts is to explore “Common Ground” upon which we might bridge the Great American Divide – culturally, socially, and economically --and restore integrity to this still great nation.
Common Ground: 1- Consent of the Governed
“Do not discuss politics or religion in general company.” This has been a rule of etiquette at least since 1879. In my previous blog pieces and posts I have tried to respect this rule, although I have touched on both religion and politics from time to time. However, I feel that our current situation in the U.S. dictates that I risk offending some by addressing socio political issues I believe to be critically important to us all. Our economy, society, and the earth that sustain us are all at risk.
The “great American experiment” cannot be sustained without a political system firmly rooted in a moral sense of responsibility to secure liberty and justice for all – including those of future generations. It has never been unpatriotic to criticize one’s government when it fails to serve the common interest of the people – as did Patrick Henry in 1775. In fact, I believe it is unpatriotic to support one’s government or consent to one’s society when it fails to give priority to the good of the people in common over the collective self-interests of individuals.
We in the United States currently live in a deeply divided nation – divided economically, socially, and ethically. The divisions I see and feel as I travel about the country today are quite similar to those I read about in the times leading up to the Civil War. Families are divided within and among generations. The social fabric of communities are being ripped asunder. Our governments are essentially dysfunctional at all levels – local, state, and national. Those on one side of the divide see an oppressive government that is a threat to individual freedom and liberty while those on the other see a powerless government that is a threat to social equity and justice.
The government of the United States was established for the purpose of balancing individual liberty with social justice. It was committed to ensuring the freedom to pursue self-interests – as long as the actions of individuals did not infringe on the constitutional “rights” of others. Our current government obviously is failing in this responsibility, as least in the minds of the vast majority of Americans. According to numerous polls, at least two-thirds of Americans think the country is headed in the wrong direction, regardless of which party controls the various branches of government at any given time.
The American Declaration of Independence states that governments derive their “just power from the consent of the governed.” Our government has lost the “consent of the governed” and thus has lost its “just power” to govern. I have made this argument in my book, “Revolution of the Middle – and the Pursuit of Happiness,” which is available through Amazon.com in Kindle and audio formats. I plan to take a somewhat different approach in future blogs and posts. I plan to anchor my comments in the historic documents upon which our government is rooted – the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution.
I am not an academic historian or constitutional scholar. I will not attempt to review what historians have written about the evolution of our government or critique Supreme Court rulings leading up to current interpretations of our Constitution. The interpretations of our history and rulings of the Supreme Court have led our country to the crisis with which we are confronted today. I will interpret our founding documents as an interested, informed, hopefully thoughtful but admittedly fallible, citizen of this still great nation. My purpose in this endeavor is to help restore hope in the possibility of restoring the consent of the governed by focusing on the rights and responsibilities necessary to ensure liberty and justice for ourselves and our posterity.
First, I want to make clear where I stand politically and religiously. If I were asked to label myself politically, I would call myself a progressive. I believe in the necessity of effective governance. I also believe that the basic laws of nature, including human nature, must take priority over the preferences of individual societies, and the needs societies must take priority over the desires of individuals. Individuals can truly be free only within the bounds of a socially equitable and just society, and equitable and just societies can be sustained only by respecting the basic laws of nature. I respect those who disagree. I know why I believe what I believe and ask only as much of those who disagree with me. None of us is infallible.
I am a Christian but not a fundamentalist. I believed that each of us is here on earth for a purpose that in some way is meant to contribute to some greater good. No one’s purpose is any more important than any other – no matter how society might judge our different contributions to the greater good. The sense we get from our “small voice within” – our soul, our spirit, or God – is our guide along our path through life. Sometimes the voice is clear; often it is far less so. As a Christian, I believe that small voice is the Holy Spirit which Jesus said would be sent to guide people after his death. My belief is reconcilable with the beliefs of many others who are guided by a spiritual sense of good or bad and right or wrong. I respect those who believe differently, as long as they don’t attempt to impose their beliefs on others.
Finally, I think Donald Trump’s election as president of the United States was valid but nonetheless a mistake. I believe many who voted for him were trying to “send a message” rather than elect him as their president. They were saying the current system of government isn’t working for them. With different rules for nominating, Bernie Sanders could have been the Democratic nominee and would have attracted voters with similar sentiments. The numbers of people demanding fundamental change are large and growing, among Democrats, progressives, and independents as well as conservatives, Libertarians, and Republicans. We are just demanding fundamentally different kinds of change.
The danger in the Trump presidency is that he may believe the election has given him an individual mandate to rule the country as he sees fit. Anyone who doesn’t do what Trump feels he has promised his people he would do gets “fired.” If Congress or the courts try to stop him, he will find a way around them – like he has subverted the rules of business. My fear is that he believes he has a mandate to recreate government as he chooses to carry out his agenda. I applaud and support those who share my fears and are committed to preventing President Trump from carrying his corporatist, militarist, extreme-nationalist, political agenda. Their numbers are many, and I trust they will be successful with or without my help.
With Donald Trump as President, all three branches of our government are now dysfunctional. Congress and the Supreme Court have been dysfunctional since the 1980s. The political loyalties of our elected representative and appointed judges now take priority over the common good of the people. Members of Congress spend more time raising funds for reelection than working on legislation. They are forced to vote in blocks if they expect legislative or elective support from their political party. They defy their party only when necessary to serve politically powerful constituencies back home, rather than represent all of their constituents in working for the common good for the country. The balance of the Supreme Court swings back and forth with each new politically motivated appointment, as does the Court’s interpretation of the Constitution. There is no consensus in the executive, legislative, or judicial branches of government. Our government has lost its “just power to govern” because it has lost the consent of the governed.
Regardless, I still have hope that we can resolve our current crisis of confidence in governance. I believe we can find a way to continue toward the utopian vision of the founders of this still great nation. We can learn to work together through government to ensure liberty and justice for all – for ourselves and our posterity. I will continue to write on issues related to agricultural and economic sustainability – as I have done in the past. My future “political and religious” blogs and posts will focus on finding “common ground” upon which to rebuild the consent of the governed and reestablish our government’s just power to govern.
Common Ground #2: The Purpose of Government
Can we Americans find some way to come together to fulfill the Utopian promise of our pledge of allegiance to our flag and become “one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all?” A fundamental question confronting people in the United States is whether a people with the wide diversity of values and opinions as exists in the U.S. today will consent to be governed by the same government.
In early 2019, Californians are scheduled to go to the polls to decide whether their state should exit the Union – “a #Calexit vote.” The upcoming referendum, a response to the election of Donald Trump, is not the first time California has threatened to leave the Union. Texas has been exploring ways to regain its independence for decades. Encouraged by the “Brexit” vote in Great Britain, a “Texit” movement was moving toward an exit referendum, contingent on Hillary Clinton being elected.
A less-serious proposal has been made to divide the United State into two politically different unions: one of “blue states” and the other of “red states.” Colin Woodard, a respected reporter and author, says red and blue divisions are too simplistic. He suggests whole of North America could be broken into “11 separate nation-states, where dominant cultures explain our voting behaviors and attitudes toward everything from social issues to the role of government.” Regardless of whether any of these initiatives actually threaten the Union, they still reflect a wide and deepening political division within the U.S.
The separatist movement certainly is not limited to North America. The Soviet Union was broken up by internal dissent among its member nations in 1991. An independence movement among Europe democracies has been reenergized by the Brexit vote. Scotland and Ireland may now leave the United Kingdom to regain greater independence as full members of the European Union. With other member states threatening to leave the European Union, the future of the EU itself is at risk. Serious questions are being raised concerning whether the historical era of “unions” has run its course.
I believe the answer to that question hinges on an understanding of the fundamental purpose of government, which is clearly expressed the American Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed” (italics added). The founders of the United States clearly stated that the purpose of the government, as least the U.S. government, is to secure the unalienable, God-given, rights of the people.
A fundamental challenge for any government is to maintain a consensus regarding a set of fundamental rights that are to be secured for all. Questions of rights in the U.S. tend to focus on the first 10 amendments to the U.S. Constitution – the Bill of Rights. However, Amendment 9 states: “The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people” (emphasis added). So the framers of the U.S. Constitution obviously did not intend that the rights to be secured by government would be limited to those included in the Bill of Rights or elsewhere in the Constitution.
The Bill of Rights was added to the Constitution after ratification, as a precondition for ratification of the by some of the states. The purpose of the Bill of Rights was to ensure that the government itself did not deprive the people of certain rights that it was instead obligated to secure. Thus, as the 9th Amendment confirms, there was no attempt to include all of the people’s rights in the Bill or Rights or in any other part of the constitution. The most obvious intentional omissions from the Constitution were the rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” which were clearly expressed in the Declaration of Independence. These rights were, and still are, God-given, unalienable, and self-evident. Amendment 9 also makes clear that such rights were to be retained by the people -- to enforce as they see fit, including through government.
I am not a legal scholar, but it appears that the U.S. Supreme Court has attempted to address virtually all contentious questions involving rights by referring to those rights specifically enumerated in the Constitution, including its Amendments. This practice has been followed in Court decisions concerning issues such as abortion, gun control, public prayer, health care, corporate person-hood, economic welfare, and environmental protection. Such decisions have left lingering, bitter disagreements among members of the Courts as well by among the American people. How can we expect to reach a public consensus when there is no legal consensus on the Supreme Court? Such issues are all basically questions of the people’s rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. I’m not suggesting that consensus of such issues will be quick or easy. However, consensus may be far easier if we frame such questions in terms of common sense, God-given, unalienable rights rather than previous Supreme Court decisions.
The political bottom line: If we cannot reach a consensus regarding the unalienable rights of people in the United States, the U.S. government has no fundamental purpose and thus has no compelling reason to exist. Furthermore, if it continues to exist, lacking a consensus, it has no “just power” to govern. I fear we are drifting toward this unfortunate situation in the U.S. today. In his classic book, Republic, Plato wrote that democracies naturally become dysfunctional and evolve into “tyrannies.” The people become frustrated and turn to a tyrant who promises simple solutions to their problems. I am not suggesting that Donald Trump is a tyrant, although he might turn out to be one, but the U.S. obviously has become a frustrated democracy.
I believe the key to ultimate success of the great American experiment in democracy is to return to our foundational principles: The fundamental purpose of government is to secure the God-given, unalienable, common sense rights of the people. If we can agree on, or at least consent to, a common set of fundamental rights that are to be secured equally for all, we will be free to remain very different in many other respects. We can remain one nation as long as we have a common commitment to securing a common set of fundamental rights. We could have very different state and local laws, as long as those laws do not compromise the integrity of a set of unalienable rights that are to be ensured for all people in the nation. We could have a much smaller federal government, and much greater political liberty and responsibility at state and local levels. We could remain a very diverse collection of people but remain true to the promise of “one nation, under God, with liberty and justice for all.”
Common Ground #3: Questions of Rights and Responsibilities
"Every man is under the natural duty of contributing to the necessities of the society; and this is all the laws should enforce on him." --Thomas Jefferson, 1816.
There can be no rights without responsibilities. If the rights of individuals are to be secured by their society, then individuals must accept responsibility for the integrity of their society. Government is simply a means by which individuals can work together to secure both rights and responsibilities that reflect the consent of the governed. The Bill of Rights to the U.S. Constitution was not meant to be a complete enumeration of rights, as was made clear in the 9th Amendment. Neither did the Constitution attempt to enumerate a specific set of responsibilities. The purpose of the Bill of Rights was to protect individuals against the infringement of rights by government, rather than enumerate rights and responsibilities to be ensured through government.
I believe most of the contentious issues that divide our society today could be resolved by working toward consensus regarding the fundamental rights and responsibilities of individuals within our society. First, there must be an understanding that no government has the ability to ensure rights absolutely or completely, even if the rights are absolute or unalienable. The resources of the earth available to meet the needs of any given human society will always be limited. Everything of economic value ultimately comes from the earth by way of society. The absolute assurance of one unalienable right would inevitably detract from the resources available to government to assure others. For example, given current medical technology, ensuring the absolute maximum length of life for every individual would quickly exhaust the resources that support the U.S. economy, leaving no economic means of ensuring other rights.
So, reaching consensus on a common set of rights and responsibilities would be a two-step process: first, agreement on a set of fundamental rights to be secured for all, and second, agreement of the level to which society, through government, is responsible for ensuring those rights. To the extent they are able to do so, individuals would be responsible for securing rights for themselves. This does not suggest that earning money to ensure economic rights should take priority over other individual responsibilities to families or communities. A consensus would be needed regarding the nature and the extent of responsibilities of individuals to care for themselves and to contribute to the necessities of society. Obviously, the responsibilities to be carried out through government would need to be continually reassessed to reflect changes in knowledge, technologies, the economy, and society.
It would be critically important to distinguish “rights and responsibilities” from “preferences and personal choices.” The rights of all must take priority over our individual preferences, at least until our collective responsibility to ensure the fundamental rights of all has been met. In other words, individual liberty must defer to societal justice, at least until justice is secured. Once the rights of all have been protected, legally if not absolutely, the preferences of individuals can take priority over the furtherance of societal well-being without violating anyone’s fundamental rights. Our “natural duty of contributing to the necessities of the society” will have been fulfilled. Of course, individuals could continue to give priority to community and society, even when not necessary to secure justice. Regardless, true liberty and freedom can prevail only within an equitable and just society.
Whenever questions arise regarding rights and responsibilities, it matters whether the question is one of rights or preferences. In matters of rights, the burden of proof falls upon the accuser – the one who would deprive the fundamental rights of another. In criminal court cases, for example, the question of life or liberty of the accused may be at stake. The accused, the defendant, in such cases is presumed innocent until proven guilty by the accuser, “beyond a reasonable doubt.” The one whose rights would be deprived is given the benefit of any doubt. In matters arising over differences in personal preferences or opinions, as in civil court cases, issues are decided by relying on the preponderance of evidence. The burden of proof is equal for accused and accuser.
If many of today’s contentious issues were addressed from the perspective of rights rather than preferences, many decisions currently based on a “preponderance of evidence” would become decisions requiring “proof beyond a reasonable doubt.” For example, I have persistently contended that the right to life includes rights to clean air, clean water, and enough safe, nutritious food to support healthy, active lives. While none of these rights could be ensured absolutely, any threat to individual or public health due to environmental pollution or nutritional deprivation would constitute a potential violation of the “right to life.” Whenever conflicts arose over such issues, the burden of proof would on those who pose the threat rather than those who are threatened.
Current laws and regulations protecting the environment are obviously inadequate to protect public health and may be weakened or repealed without constitutional consequences. In the absence of a clear violation of existing law, those who can provide “a preponderance of evidence” of threats to public health still may not be able to prove their claims “beyond a reasonable doubt.” The burden of proof today is on those who are threatened rather than those who pose the threat. A clean and healthful environment is not currently considered a legal right. It is virtually impossible to prove scientifically that specific effects are the result of specific causes within complex, interconnected systems, such as natural ecosystems, societies, and economies. Lacking such proof, private property rights, meaning economic interests, are routinely given priority over the rights of all within society to a clean and healthful environment.
In cases of conflicting rights, the government would assume the responsibility of resolving the conflicts. If restricting an individual’s economic or property rights, would leave a polluter without the means of meeting his or her basic economic needs, the government would assume responsibility for either eliminating the health risks or providing an alternative means for the individual to meet their economic needs. However, such is rarely the case. Those threatening public health typically have far more income and wealth than needed to meet their basic economic needs. The economic rights of those with wealth routinely are given priority over the rights of those with limited economic means of securing a clean and healthful environment. Many who have good reason to feel threatened are left with little if any legal recourse.
I don’t know whether a national discussion of rights would lead to the same conclusions I have reached concerning our right to a clean and healthful environment. My point is that many of today’s contentious issues are rarely discussed in terms of rights. As a result, there is no consensus regarding how the government should resolve such issues. Other questions of rights that come to mind are the right to enough good food, right to healthcare, right to education, right to meaningful employment, right to economic necessities. As I have mentioned in a previous Common Grounds post, issues such as abortion, gun control, public prayer, species extinction, and climate change might also be resolved if they were addressed in terms of rights.
Such rights could never be secured absolutely by government, but the legitimacy and integrity of any government depends on a public consensus regarding its purpose and responsibilities. In the next Common Ground, I will suggest some ways we might go about securing our rights and fulfilling our responsibilities through government.
Common Ground #4: Self-Interest Rightly Understood
“It's not an endlessly expanding list of rights — the 'right' to education, the 'right' to health care, the 'right' to food and housing. That's not freedom, that's dependency. Those aren't rights, those are the rations of slavery — hay and a barn for human cattle.”
This quote has erroneously been attributed to Alex De Tocqueville, French author of Democracy in America. It was actually part of a “Liberty Manifesto” by P.J. O’Rourke of the conservative Cato Institute. O’Rourke added: “There is only one basic human right, the right to do as you damn well please. And with it comes the only basic human duty, the duty to take the consequences.” Regardless of its origin, this basic argument is often used to challenge those of us who would claim rights that are not clearly enumerated in the U.S. Constitution.
Alex de Tocqueville was a Frenchman who visited America and wrote his classic book in the 1830s, some 50 years after American independence. His purpose was to learn why the American democracy had lasted longer than had been expected by many European intellectuals. De Tocqueville was clearly aware of the potential threat of big government. He coined the term, “tyranny of the majority,” meaning the ability of a democratic majority to use government to impose its will upon those in the minority. He believed it was easier to escape the wrath of a tyrant than the “wrath of the people.” The only means of protecting minorities from the tyranny of the majority is through a consensus to secure a basic set of rights of all.
I respect the right of others to disagree, but I believe the 9th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution clearly states there are rights other than those explicitly included in the Constitution that are to be protected and reserved “for the people.” Among those rights are the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, as is clearly expressed in the American Declaration of Independence. I believe we have a basic human duty or responsibility to secure these rights for all. I believe that securing these basic rights would require some minimum levels of education, health care, food, and housing—not as matters of charity but of rights. The Declaration of Independence also clearly states that a primary purpose in forming a government is to provide a means by which people can work together to secure the basic human rights of all.
De Tocqueville believed Americans were committed to the common good because of a belief in what he called “self-interest rightly understood.” He thought the success of the American democracy was deeply rooted in religious values that tempered the pursuit of individual self-interests. He wrote: “It is held as truth that man serves himself in serving his fellow-creatures, and that his private interest is to do good… They boldly aver that such sacrifices are as necessary to him who imposes them upon himself as to him for whose sake they are made.” Early Americans did not deny the right of everyone to pursue his or her self-interest, “but they endeavored to prove that it is in the interest of every man to be virtuous.” They understood that it was in their self-interest to temper their right to “do as they damn well pleased” with virtue. Obviously, the dominant culture of America has changed, and our democracy is suffering the consequences.
De Tocqueville was generally in favor of the expansion of rights, particularly voting rights. However, I suspect he would have opposed any attempt to expand rights in the absence of the consent of the majority. We have no consensus in America today supporting rights to education, health care, food, or housing. Minimal government programs to meet such needs tend to be labeled as social services or “welfare” and are treated as discretionary spending in government budgets. Even “entitlement programs” such as Social Security and Medicare are under continuing attacks as being unaffordable – not as rights to be protected but as unearned government benefits. Assistance for the less able or less fortunate are treated as discretionary acts of charity—whether privately or publicly funded.
Americans seem to have an irrational fear that ensuring economic rights would mean economic equality—there would be no reward or incentive for those who work hard and earn more. However, securing rights to basic economic necessities for all would not preclude anyone from earning and accumulating far more than necessary to meet their basic needs. The Declaration of Independence was not written by socialists or communists. A vastly disproportionate distribution of income and wealth is a clear indicator of disproportionate economic opportunity, but economic rights does not suggest equal wealth or income. Opportunities to become wealthy would not be significantly constrained if people in the U.S. consented to ensuring the economic rights of all. Adam Smith wrote in his 1776 classic, Wealth of Nations, “improvement in the circumstances of the lower ranks” should never be regarded as “an inconvenience to the society… what improves the circumstances of the greater part can never be regarded as an inconvenience to the whole.”
The richest 1% of the people in the U.S. currently own nearly half of the nation’s wealth and the richest 10% own more than 75%--while the bottom 50% own less than 1%. Even the poorest among the top 10% are millionaires. The wealthiest among us would barely notice the cost of ensuring the basic economic rights of all. Even those in the American middle class have more than they actually need for the pursuit of happiness. Meeting the basic economic needs of all would remove any justification for a continuing sense of economic injustice—other than pure jealousy. The economic rights of all would have been secured, and we could begin bridging the great social and political divide.
Our differences regarding economic equity and justice are far more about ethics than economics. I dwell on economics here only because I am an economist. In fact, all of the major issues that divide us as a nation are issues rooted in conflicting moral and ethical values. The wounds that divide us cannot be healed unless the American people can find a new consensus regarding a common set of moral and ethical principles to guide us into the future.
A consensus doesn’t mean that we must all agree completely, only that a super majority of us agrees to be guided by a specific set of shared ethical values rather than remain a deeply divided, dysfunctional nation. As long as we insist on giving our individual, narrowly-defined individual self-interest priority over the basic needs and human rights of others, we will remain a deeply divided nation. To heal the great divide, we must return to the early American understanding of “self-interest rightly understood.”
Common Ground #5 – A New Bill of Rights and Responsibilities
Time is the great equalizer of human worth because we all have the same amount each day, and none of us knows how many days we have left. John I.
I believe the best hope for reestablishing a consensus of the governed might be through widespread public participation in a process of amending the U.S. Constitution. The U.S. Constitution was meant to be a “living document.” Article 5 of the U.S. Constitution describes the process by which the Constitution is to be amended. It is basically a process of consensus.
Constitutional amendments must be proposed by two-thirds majorities of both the U.S. House of Representatives and U.S. Senate. Alternatively, two-thirds of the state Legislators could call a “Convention for proposing amendments.” Amendments proposed by either process must then be ratified or approved by three-fourths of the States to become part of the Constitution. The consensus need not be unanimous, but an amendment cannot successfully complete this process unless it represents a general consensus of the American people. That was the clear intention of the founders.
I believe the best hope for restoring the “just power” of our government might be a single constitutional amendment that explicitly defines multiple constitutional rights and accompanying responsibilities. The 14th amendment provided a precedent by including a number of “citizenship rights” that needed to be redefined following the Civil War. A peremptory amendment prohibiting corporate participation in political processes would be essential to prevent corporate corruption of the amendment process. The current “Move to Amend” initiative could achieve this purpose.
My suggestion is a composite or collective amendment that addresses a range of divisive issues covering concerns of both the political Right and Left. My proposed list would include: abortion, gun control, public prayer, health care, public education, environmental health, economic necessities, and equal rights for future generations. Current initiatives are already underway for many if not all of these areas of concern. However, none of the current individual initiatives will likely succeed because they are addressing individual issues for which there is no current consensus across the spectrum of American values. By bringing all of the significant initiatives to amend the Constitution together into a single amendment, and working toward a collective consensus, initiatives that had no chance of succeeding separately would have a far better chance of succeeding collectively.
I believe the composite amendment would also need to include a constitutional responsibility to accompany each constitutional right, if it is to be acceptable to most Americans. For example, a right to basic economic needs might be accompanied by a responsibility to perform equivalent useful public services—not simply “make-work” bureaucratic requirements. The services would need to be of value to society, even if not of significant economic value. Many things essential to the well-being of families, communities, and society have little if any economic value. A commitment of the recipient’s time might be considered equivalent in economic value to the value received by typical local workers for an equal amount of time. Time is the great equalizer of human worth because we all have the same amount each day and none of us knows how many days we have left. (I have discussed this overall proposal in some detail in my book, A Revolution of the Middle.)
Local or community-level administration of such rights and responsibilities would be essential for this approach to work. Alex de Tocqueville, who was quoted extensively in the previous Common Ground blog, believed the decentralization and localization of government authority had been critical to the success of early American democracy. Federal and state laws were administered in large part within local communities. Local administrators of laws and regulations were respected as responsible representatives of the people in general rather than government’s enforcers of federal laws. The local township was the central focus of formal government administration in early America. There was no sense that a big government was imposing its will on the people. The people were simply using their local government to enforce their consent to be governed. They were pursuing their "self-interest rightly understood."
The extended national discussion necessary for approval of such a composite amendment would provide a forum for reflection and public input on a wide diversity of issues spanning the spectrum of contemporary American values. Advocates for each individual right and responsibility would need to consider the necessity of its acceptance, if not complete agreement, by previous opponents of similar proposals. If no consensus of even conditional acceptance emerged from extended discussions of a particular issue, it would not be included in the proposed amendment. There would be no logical purpose for proposing an amendment with a specific right or responsibility that doomed it to public rejection.
This process would be fundamentally different from a national constitutional convention. A constitutional convention, by its very nature, would include a limited number of people chosen through some political process. A constitutional convention could result in a complete rewrite of the constitution that would then be presented for ratification. Instead, the composite amendment could be strictly limited by its organizers and facilitators to defining a set of constitutional rights and responsibilities. The entire U.S. population could be asked to participate in the process of consensus regarding rights and responsibilities to be included in the composite amendment. The process could be extended over several years, if necessary, until the amendment has sufficient public approval to be proposed by Congress.
The composite amendment eventually would need to be acceptable to at least two-thirds of both houses of Congress and three-fourths of the state legislatures. However, if its presentation to Congress follows a true national consensus building process, any initial legislative rejection could be reversed following the next general election. The entire process might take a decade or longer to reach the broad, public consensus necessary for its official proposal and ratification by three-fourth of the states. Restoring the just power of government will not be a quick or easy process, but is nonetheless essential to the integrity of our democracy. The ultimate objective would be to create a single constitutional amendment that eventually would become the New Bill of Rights and Responsibilities.
Common Ground # 6: Plato on Democracy
“So tyranny naturally arises out of democracy, and the most aggravated form of tyranny out of the most extreme form of liberty? (Plato’s Republic, 380-350 B.C.) With apparent declining interest in my concerns about our democracy, in this post I defer to Plato. John I.
Plato, in his classic Republic, described five “inferior” forms of government: timocracy, oligarchy, democracy, and tyranny – in addition to his idealized philosophical aristocracy. More than 2300 years ago, he wrote of a natural tendency for oligarchy to devolve into democracy and democracy to devolve into tyranny. In the absence of an effective means of moderating the accumulation of wealth and power, oligarchies naturally emerge from human societies. Some people in any society will always have greater abilities and opportunities to become rich and powerful than others. Democracies emerge when the people revolt against the intolerable concentration of wealth and power in oligarchies. However, the quest for ever greater individual freedom in democracies allows the temporary reemergence of oligarchy. Rather than restoring democracy, Plato believed that people in democracies turn to tyrants to depose the oligarchs.
He believed democracy to be the worst form of government because democracies lead to the worst form of tyranny. He wrote “the ruin of oligarchy is the ruin of democracy; the same disease magnifies and intensifies liberty overmasters of democracy—the truth being that the excessive increase in anything often causes a reaction in the opposite direction.” “The insatiable desire of wealth and neglect of all other things for the sake of money-getting are the ruin of oligarchy.” In a democracy, he wrote, the love of freedom is the “glory of the State.” “The insatiable desire of [freedom] and the neglect of other things introduce the change in democracy, which occasions the demand for tyranny.” “So tyranny naturally arises out of democracy, and the most aggravated form of tyranny out of the most extreme form of liberty.”
Plato believed that insatiable public demands for ever greater independence and freedom from government restraint eventually would lead to a loss of acceptance and respect for government. Governance would then be misdirected to promoting prosperity rather than restraining individual liberties in order to ensure social justice. In the absence of restraint, a new class of oligarchs would emerge—along with a class of “spendthrifts” who feed off of their wealth. He used the term “drones” to refer to “the class of idle spendthrifts, of who the most courageous are the leaders and the more timid are the followers.” In democracies, the idle spendthrifts “are almost the entire ruling power, and while the keener sort speak and act, the rest buzzing around [them].” This the process by which Plato believed unbridled freedom inevitably leads to the concentration of wealth and power and the decline of governance.
In oligarchies, when drones gain positions of power in government, they are soon removed by the oligarchs who want to retain power for themselves. However, the drones in democracies are able to retain their power by championing government as the ultimate protector of individual liberty. Consequently, the economic disparity between the people and the oligarchs grow ever greater until the people eventually become frustrated with democracy susceptible to the lure of the tyrant. The tyrant promises to solve the dilemma of growing economic disparity through even greater individual freedoms.
Plato wrote, “The people have always some champion who they set over them and nurse into greatness.” He describes the characteristics of a tyrant: “In the early days he is full of smiles, and salutes everyone whom he meets; he is to be called a tyrant, who is making promises in public and also in private… and wanting to be so kind and good to everyone! But, when he has disposed of foreign enemies by conquest or treaty, and there is nothing to fear from them, then he is always stirring up some way or another, in order that the people may require a leader.”
“Some of those who joined in setting him up, and who are in power, speak their minds to him and to one another, and the more courageous of them cast in his teeth what is being done. The tyrant, if he means to rule, must get rid of them and cannot stop while he has a friend or an enemy who is good for anything. If he is to rule, I suppose he cannot help himself.” “He has to be master of others when he is not master of himself: he is like a diseased or paralytic man who is compelled to pass his life, not in retirement, but fighting and combating with other men.”
Plato believed that all efforts to depose a tyrant peacefully ultimately would be futile. Modern tyrannies have continued until the exile or death of the tyrant—natural or otherwise. In our American democracy, we the people still have the power to recognize our interdependence as well as our independence—our “self-interest rightly understood.” We still have the power to balance social equity and justice with individual liberty and freedom. We have a constitutional means of finding common ground upon which we can rebuild and sustain our democracy—before it is too late. After 2,300 years of human progress, we hopefully have the power to protect our democracy from its tendency toward tyranny.
Note: All quotes from: Plato, Republic, Books 8 & 9, 1871 translation by B. Jowett, (New York: Barnes and Noble Books, 2004).
Common Grounds #7: Finding Common Ground on Health Care
I had not intended to blog on any specific political issue in this series, but the controversy surrounding health care provides a compelling case for finding common ground. The proposed Republican healthcare plan is even more flawed than the failing Democratic plan. We urgently need healthcare reform, but neither plan is based on economic reality, and neither has the consent of the American people. (Note: I have posted a more recent papers on universal health care, but I still believe the basic ideas in they CG piece are sound.)
Health care is a “market failure”—in economic jargon – meaning “the market” is fundamentally incapable of providing essential health care services for everyone. Markets do many things well, in fact better than any alternative. However, there are some things markets simply cannot do. Markets can provide the discretionary things that make life better but cannot ensure equal access to the things that make life possible or livable. Among market failures are provision of the essentials of life: clean air, pure water, safe food, and medical care. If we have an equal right to life, we must also be afforded the essentials of life, including basic health care.
Some may argue that we Americans don’t agree that everyone has a right to health care—but we do. We don't let people die for lack of medical treatment – at least not in public. The federal “Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act” ensures that everyone can receive emergency medical treatment in hospitals, regardless of insurance status or ability to pay. We also have Medicaid for those deemed unable to pay medical bills or buy health insurance. Still, millions of Americans are left without adequate medical care while healthcare costs claim more than one-sixth of our total GDP and continue to rise. We don’t openly accept essential health care as a “right” for everyone because we don’t agree on the level of health care to be secured by government.
There is no reasonable means for individuals to accurately assess their future healthcare needs. For this reason, most Americans pay for health care through periodic health insurance payments—rather than individual medical purchases. We can’t leave individual decisions to either buy or not buy health insurance to the market because rational economic decisions will inevitably leave millions of Americans uninsured. That’s the reason provision of healthcare services has never been left completely to the economic discretion of individuals. The Republican plan to replace guaranteed benefits with individual tax credits gives some individuals more money to buy health insurance but leaves health care decisions to individuals. The current Democratic approach to health care also is failing because it relies too heavily on the “health insurance market.” Neither plan is capable of ensuring essential health care for all.
When we are young and healthy, the risk of a major medical bill may be quite low, and other economic needs tend to take priority over health insurance. As a result, many young people quite rationally choose not to buy health insurance. When our health deteriorates with age or we are otherwise confronted with the possibility of debilitation or death, health care takes priority over all other economic needs. The potential benefits of all other expenditures are dependent of our physical survival and ability to enjoy life.
However, if we wait until we were old and sick to buy healthcare insurance, the economic risks of astronomical medical bills during the remainder of our lives will make risk-based insurance premiums unaffordable for all but the very wealthy. The same is true for those of any age with preexisting medical conditions requiring major expenses.
No politically acceptable tax credit or government subsidy can make economically rational health insurance premiums affordable for previously uninsured older people or those with pre-existing medical conditions requiring major medical expenditures. This is the fundamental flaw in both the Republication and Democratic healthcare plans.
The only reason the U.S. healthcare system has worked as well as it has in the past is because most people have purchased health insurance through group plans that have included both young, healthy people and older, less-healthy people. Such plans work because younger and healthier group members pay premiums higher than justified by their economic healthcare risks. This allows insurance companies to accept premiums lower than justified by the economic risks from members who are old or sick.
Premiums for employee group plans may be fully paid or subsidized by employers. This makes group plans more attractive to younger workers. However, neither employer nor employees would be able afford the plans without both healthy and unhealthy people being covered by the same group plans. Some younger people are risk adverse and would willingly pay the higher premiums. However, most have joined group plans because they expected to be among the older and less healthy workers at some time in the future. They have expected to have access to reasonably priced health insurance throughout their productive years by participating in group plans.
Older workers expect to eventually become eligible for Medicare, which reduces the private cost of group health insurance plans for retirees. However, Medicare only works for older, less healthy people because they have paid into Medicare when they were young and healthy. As with private group plans, most Medicare recipients have paid more than economically justified premiums for decades before they receive benefits comparable to their economic costs of premiums. Essentially, Medicare recipients have “prepaid” the cost of their health insurance through lifetime payroll deductions.
The Republican tax credits would simply provide a substitute for an employer contribution to health insurance. The fundamental problem is that most people currently among the uninsured are young people who are reluctant to pay more than a fair market premium for insurance and older, less-healthy people who can’t afford to pay a fair market premium for insurance. Quoting from a study by Health Research Services, “After the first year of life, health care costs are lowest for children, rise slowly throughout adult life, and increase exponentially after age 50… annual costs for the elderly are approximately four to five times those of people in their early teens.” In addition, many of the health care costs of young people are associated with traumatic accidents or events for which they can receive free emergency treatment.
The economic risks for some preexisting medical costs are far greater than the costs of simply being old. If the markets actually reflected the different economic risks among individuals, our entire healthcare system would collapse. No tax credit or politically acceptable subsidy can make it economically rational for individuals to pay the fair market value of health insurance for their particular risk group. That’s why the Congressional Budget Office consistently estimates that millions of people will remain uninsured under the Republican plan and the health insurance providers are raising rates dramatically or dropping out of the Democratic healthcare program.
We ultimately have to face reality: neither the Republican proposal nor the current Democratic healthcare programs can meet the healthcare needs of the people.
Ultimately, we must reach a consensus that everyone has a right to some basic level of health care, and that we must collectively commit to securing that right for everyone. Those who support universal health care as a basic human right must face the reality that government cannot and need not provide everyone with every medical treatment or technology available. Such a program could eventually claim the entire economic output of any nation. Human rights may be absolute, but the ability of governments to secure those rights are always limited by practical realities. The responsibility of the U.S. government to secure the right to health care for all is limited to the basic level of healthcare that the American people will consent to ensure.
People who can afford healthcare services different from or in addition to those to which they have a right, would have a right to secure those services for themselves. Private individual and group health insurance plans would become supplemental insurance coverage, coordinated and funded similar to Medicare-Plus coverage today. Most people in countries that currently have government provided universal health care also have supplemental coverage. Medical services could be provided by private medical practitioners and facilities, as with Medicare and Medicaid today. People would have a right to opt out of the universal healthcare program, but not to opt out of paying their share for supporting the federal universal healthcare program. We all benefit from the government insurance of our basic rights – including life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. We all have a responsibility to pay our fair share of the costs of ensuring those rights.
The challenge is to define a specific “right to health care” to which the American people will consent, including the consent to pay the cost of ensuring that right. Individual states could provide and pay for additional benefits but could not deny residents of benefits provided under federal universal health care programs. Medicare does not cover every medical procedure or technology, and basic universal health care might ensure even fewer. If the universal benefits are less, Medicare could remain a separate federal group health insurance program. If people do not have a “right” to a particular healthcare service, they would not be deprived of their rights when such services were not provided.
The big challenge of universal health care will be finding common ground on specific healthcare treatments and technologies that are accepted as universal rights rather than individual responsibilities. The Republicans and Democrats need to quit fighting over Obamacare and Trumpcare, neither of which reflects economic reality, and get to work developing a universal healthcare program to which the American people will consent.
Finding Common Ground: Final Post—A Declaration of Interdependence
I can think of no better way to end my Common Ground series than on the 4th of July with a Declaration of “Interdependence” with each other and with the other things of the earth. On July 4, 1776, representatives of the 13 then British American colonies declared:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
With list of grievances supporting this this justification, representatives of the 13 new United States of America made the unanimous declaration: “That these united Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States, that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved…— And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.”
Today, we are again confronted with a government that seems incapable of ensuring the unalienable rights of the people or of effecting their “safety or happiness.” It has lost the consent of the governed and thus has lost its just power to govern. The declaration of independence from Great Britain has degenerated into a declaration of independence of each other. Americans may be individually committed to their nation but there is no mutual commitment to the common good of the people of the nation. We pledge our individual allegiance to the flag but there is no “mutual pledge to each other.” The future safety and happiness of the people of the United States will require a new declaration of our mutual interdependence with each other and with the other things of earth upon which we ultimately must depend.
In June, 1998, I had the privilege of meeting with a small, diverse group of individuals at the Looking Glass Inn near Kooskie, Idaho to explore ideas for a new economics of sustainability. We did not reach a consensus on a new economics at that meeting, but our discussions did lead to a “declaration of interdependence” to which we all symbolically swore “our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.” I believe the future of our nation and the sustainability of human life of earth depends on our recognition of and respect for our interdependence with each other and with the other living and nonliving things of the earth.
At the Looking Glass Inn, we wrote:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident: That all things are interconnected, that all things of creation have inherent worth apart from their current or anticipated market value, and that the worth of all things is enhanced and enriched through the abundance of love, community, and trust that arises from honoring our interdependence.
That in accordance with universal and inviolate laws of Nature and humanity, the quality and sustainability of life on Earth depends on harmonious relationships among all peoples and nations, and between humans and our natural environment, both now and into the distant future.
That humanity's pursuit of unlimited self-interest has created great inequities and disharmony among people and between humans and Nature; it has depleted and degraded natural resources; and it has denied vast numbers of people fair access to resources and opportunities required to sustain present and future generations.
That the dream of justice for all has grown dim, and that Earth and its people are imperiled. The blessings of liberty and prosperity for the privileged few cannot be sustained unless meaningful opportunities for Life, Liberty, and Happiness become accessible to all.
Therefore, we declare our interdependence with all people and with the Earth, of which we are an integral part. We acknowledge and embrace our responsibilities for ourselves, for each other, and for the Earth. We accept the responsibility for wise decisions in view on this interdependence. We dedicate our lives to sustaining the Earth, and to sustaining the well-being and harmony among all peoples, not just for ourselves, but for all generations.
This declaration was drafted by Patrick Madden—much as Thomas Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence—but was co authored by the entire group. I included a discussion of this declaration, with the full list of its authors, in my Kindle book, A Return to Common Sense.
Paraphrasing the Declaration of Independence, Whenever any government becomes destructive of the ends of ensuring the basic human rights of its people, including the rights of future generations, it is the right and the responsibility of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute a government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to ensure their safety and happiness.
We need not abolish our democratic form of government, we simply need to alter it —a proposition I have consistently defended. Through a process of consensus and with a new understanding of ecological and social reality, we can amend our Constitution to address the critical challenges to its sustainability. We can amend it to recognize and respect our inherent interdependence with each other and with the other living and nonliving things of the earth. Upon this common ground, we can restore the integrity of this still great nation.
PS: For those interested in reading more about using our common sense to find common ground, I address many of these and other issues in my Kindle book, A Revolution of the Middle and the Pursuit of Happiness — also available as an audio book.