The American Covenant Collection
The American Covenant
Over the past few months, I have posted a series of political essays in anticipation of the 2020 general elections. I have included the entire collection in this post. The message I have attempted to convey in this series is that the reelection of Donald Trump and a continuing Republican majority in the U.S. Senate would represent an abandonment of the fundamental purpose and principles of government expressed in the American Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States of America. The election of Joe Biden and a Democratic majority would give the nation four more years to try to return to the long, difficult road toward “a more perfect union.”
The United States was established with a republican form of government. Initially, members of the U.S. Senate were selected by State Legislatures, only white, male, landowners were allowed to vote, and the Electoral College gave states the ability to override the popular vote in presidential elections. The U.S. Senate, with two members for each state, was also given the authority to block legislation approved by the House of Representatives, whose members are allocated among states according to population. Over the decades, as previous slaves, women, and Native Americans were granted the “right to vote,” and eventually “allowed to vote,” the U.S. Government was gradually transformed into a “democratic” republic.
I believe the Founding Fathers anticipated and facilitated this transition. In the Declaration of Independence, they affirmed the God-given “equal rights of all” to participate fully in society and in the processes of governance. In Article V of the U.S. Constitution, they defined the process for amending the Constitution to facilitate the transition from a republic to a democracy. The election of senators by popular vote and the expansion and protection of voting rights were accomplished through constitutional amendments.
Thomas Jefferson wrote: "Laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, and more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths are discovered and manners and opinions change, with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors."
Over the past 40 years, the “remnants of the republic” have been used to block further progress toward democracy. Presidents have been elected with Electoral College "majorities" but with popular vote "minorities." Senate minorities have used the filibuster rule to shut down the government, and Senate majorities have proudly confirmed clearly political appointees to the Supreme Court. Supreme Court rulings have given corporations “personhood” and allowed them to dominate political processes suited only for “real persons”—ethical, thoughtful, caring people. Progress toward an American democracy has come to a halt.
The unwitting support for the current transition toward autocracy appears to be driven a genuine fear, fanned by political rhetoric, that further progress toward democracy will fundamentally change the nation. Minorities who have been excluded and oppressed in the past seem destined to become a collective political majority in the near future. Future constitutional amendments could abolish or reform the Electoral College to ensure that candidates elected as president at least receive more votes than other candidates. The balance of power could be redefined to ensure that neither the President, Senate, nor House of Representatives could block the essential processes of government. The selection of Supreme Court justices could be changed to require a bipartisan confirmation process. A constitutional amendment could abolish “corporate personhood” and return political power to the people.
The votes of the American people in the upcoming elections will determine whether the nation will resume its long-term transition toward democracy or instead will continue down its current path toward autocracy. The reelection of Donald Trump and a Republican Senate majority would validate the dysfunctional system of governance of the past four years. With a politicized Supreme Court, nothing would stand in the way of an imperial presidency. Some people may feel the need for a powerful presidency to protect them from growing racial and socioeconomic unrest. However, an autocratic government would not to stop the demographic transition to a new ethnic and cultural majority, and an autocracy would virtually ensure another violent American Revolution at some time in the future.
The election of Joe Biden with a Democratic legislature would not reverse the political trends of the past 50 years in the U.S. Neither would it alleviate the fears of those who vote against him. Without an assurance of God-given equal rights of all, as proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence, those in positions of privilege have reason for concern about future political decisions of a new demographic majority. As I have explained in previous posts, a Democratic victory would simply give patriotic Democrats and Republicans four years to build a coalition dedicated to returning the nation to the fundamental purpose and principles upon which the nation was founded. This will happen only if the American people demand it. Regardless of the outcome of this election, I will continue to believe in the Founders' vision of a “more perfect union”—a nation of the people, by the people, and for the people—dedicated to liberty and justice for all.
The following series of essays makes a much more comprehensive case for returning to the long, difficult journey toward a more perfect union, which began with a commitment to liberty and justice for all.
I. Liberty and Justice for All
This nation was founded with a commitment to secure liberty and justice for all. The current political divisiveness and governmental dysfunctionality are clear signs that we may be running out of time to turn the ideals upon which the nation was founded into tangible reality.
The American Declaration of Independence proclaims, “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.” The preamble to the Constitution of the U.S. enumerates the basic functions of government, beginning with “to establish Justice” and ending with, “to secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.” The U.S. Pledge of Allegiance, first drafted during the Civil War, is a declaration of loyalty not only to the flag but also to “one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”
In the most general sense, liberty means the freedom to act as one pleases. In the political sense, liberty may be defined more narrowly as “being free within society from oppressive restrictions imposed by authority on one's way of life, behavior, or political views.” Political liberty in the U.S. has been generally interpreted as being free from restrictions on individuals imposed by their government—as suggested in the Bill of Rights. However, individuals may also be deprived of liberty by the failure of the government to protect them from oppressive restrictions on their way of life, behavior, or political views—regardless of the source of oppression. Political liberty requires the protection of the unalienable rights of all to participate fully in society, including in the processes of governance. There can be no liberty in the absence of justice.
Justice is generally interpreted politically as “equal protection under the law” or the absence of discrimination by the government in protecting “life, liberty, and property”—as described in the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. In a classic book, Political Justice, drafted shortly after the U. S Constitution, political philosopher William Godwin defined justice as the “impartial treatment of every man in matters that relate to his happiness, which is measured solely by a consideration of the properties of the receiver, and the capacity of him that bestows.” Political justice requires not only equal protection of rights to “life, liberty, and property” but also “impartial treatments in matters that relate to happiness.” The "pursuit of happiness" was not simply a casual addition to the rights enumerated in the Declaration of Independence. Justice requires that to the extent these rights can be secured for any in society, they are to be secured for all.
This broader interpretation of justice is essential to the effective functioning of government. Whenever people are denied justice, including the essentials of life and the basic requisites for human happiness, they do not have the liberty or freedom to participate fully in society. Those denied justice cannot participate in governance in ways that are essential to secure the blessings of liberty for all. Without justice, there can be no liberty, and without liberty, there can be no justice.
There is general agreement among psychologists regarding a progression of human motivations that follows a process first advocated by Abraham Maslow—generally referred to as “Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.” The most basic human needs are those for food, water, clothing, shelter, and the other physical necessities of life. Once those most urgent needs are met, motivations progress to meeting the needs of safety and security. Only after a person feels a measure of personal safety and security are they able to focus on meeting their needs for personal relationships with others—family, friends, and community. Quite logically, there are overlaps among these various stages of development. Relationships may be formed for purposes of safety and security as well as the basic human needs for companionship and love. Only after these “personal” needs are met is the individual free to focus on “impersonal” relationships with others in their communities and society in general.
Governments are created specifically to allow individuals to facilitate “impersonal” or societal relationships within communities and societies—much as markets facilitate “impersonal” economic relationships. These societal relationships are even more important than economic relationships in the pursuit of individual well-being and happiness. Economies are simply means to more important societal ends. The higher-level needs in Maslow’s hierarchy for self-esteem, recognition, and a sense of accomplishment arise primarily from relationships within the larger society. The final stage of Maslow’s concept of human development is self-actualization, meaning the achievement of one’s highest potential or purpose in life. Life has purpose only within the larger whole of things.
The primary political implication of this assessment of human motivation is that people are not free to participate fully in the impersonal processes of governance until their personal physiological, safety, and security needs have been met—either by themselves or through their relationships with others with whom they feel a personal kinship.
Many people in the U.S. today have just cause for concern about their personal safety and security as well as access to clean air and water and enough wholesome food. How can a person focus on “liberty and justice for all” when their individual security, safety, or even survival, is threatened? Why should people in inner cities or rural communities believe the government can secure liberty and justice for them when their government has promoted the economic plunder and pollution of their communities? The “special interest groups” that now dominate politics are simply collections of individuals who have a political kinship arising from a common grievance or concern about government. Their political interest is focused on a specific grievance or concern. Few of these people have, or feel they have, the individual freedom to focus their participation in government on promoting the common good or securing liberty and justice for all. The noteworthy champions of liberty and justice among those with unmet personal needs are exceptions to this general rule.
Most of us in the U.S. do not have a legitimate excuse for failing to do our part to ensure liberty and justice for all. We have access to the basic necessities of life, we live in a reasonably safe and secure environment, and have a measure of economic security through employment and some assurance of a livable retirement. Extensive research has shown that beyond fairly modest levels of income, equality of opportunity is more important than economic status in determining the level of happiness within global societies. Economically, most of us live well above the level essential for a life of quality, well-being, or happiness.
The primary threat to liberty and justice in capitalist nations is the relentless quest for economic growth. If people are to be convinced to work harder, produce more, and keep the economy growing, they must be kept in a mental state of economic precariousness. They must not be allowed to feel “economically secure”—no matter their actual economic status. Persuasive advertising, planned obsolescence, easy credit, and privatization of government services are just a few of the tactics used to keep the political focus of Americans on their individual economic security. A strong Protestant ethic that equates hard work and economic wealth with moral worth seems to validate the nation’s economic addiction. Young families with large housing loans, auto loans, and student loans coupled with dependence on “at will” employment for income and stock market investments for retirement are economically precarious.
If the United States of America is to fulfill its inaugural promises, those of us who have the liberty to participate fully in government must work together through government to ensure a measure of personal safety and economic security for all. We must wake up to the fact an equitable and just society means far more to our own quality of life than would additional income or wealth. Special interest groups must understand their individual concerns are but symptoms of the larger failure of government to serve the common good. We must elect people to public office who will not sacrifice the common good of all for their own interests or the special interests of their constituents. Economic security does not mean that everyone must have equal income or wealth. Everyone must simply have enough to allow them to participate fully in society, including in the processes of governance. This is not socialism. These are the ideals upon which the American Democratic Republic was founded. We must find the courage to turn those ideals into reality before they are completely lost.
II. In Defense of the Founders
The “Founding Fathers” of the United States of America have been the targets of considerable public criticism as the nation struggles for stability and survival in the midst of economic disruption and growing social and political turmoil. For example, the founders are blamed for not abolishing slavery and granting women the right to vote in the process of establishing the nation. Those “original sins” of omission are often cited as root causes of more than 200 years of continuing racial and gender discrimination. The founders most certainly were fallible human beings rather than “political superheroes.” With 200 years of foresight, they perhaps would have given political morality priority over their more modest commitment to establish a “more perfect union.” However, they still laid out a clear agenda for future generations to continue their mission. The recent failures to continue doing so are ours, not theirs.
The political agenda for the nation was clearly laid out in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States of America—which I have quoted frequently in past posts and presentations and will continue to quote as long as I am able. These documents obviously were not meant to reflect the state of the American Colonies or the United States at the time they were written. They were political ideals “toward” which the founders and future generations of Americans were to aspire and strive to achieve. We should not blame the founders for the failure of future generations to live up to their ideals.
From the 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, --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.”
This statement was not an acceptance of slavery, denial of women’s right to vote, or sanction of any other form of discrimination. Instead, it was a commitment to securing the God-given rights of all people, equally, without regard to race, gender, or any other basis for discrimination. At the time, the term “men” was commonly used to refer to “mankind” or humanity—not just to distinguish males from females. However, the founders recognized that the “just power of government” was derived from the “consent of the governed,” and they simply did not have the consent of the people of the colonies to abolish slavery or grant women the right to vote at that time. They stated clearly that when any form of government failed to secure the unalienable and equal right of all, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it and establish a new government that they deem most likely to secure their “safety and happiness.” They made sure the government could be altered in the future by amending the Constitution.
The U.S. Constitution also lays out an aspirational agenda for future generations of Americans. It clearly identifies the basic functions and organizational structure of the U.S. government and its responsibility for continual self-reflection, -renewal, and -regeneration. The preamble states the basic functions of the U.S. government are to be carried out by those with responsibility for the processes of governance: “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
It begins with an admission that the original document is not perfect but instead a step “toward greater perfection.” The first function mentioned is “to establish justice”—meaning to carry through with the mission of securing the God-given, equal, and unalienable rights of all. “Ensuring domestic tranquility” refers to providing a means of avoiding hostilities among the various states. “Providing for the common defense” made clear that the military forces of the United States were to be used for national defense and not political or economic conquests. “Promoting the general welfare” meant that the government was to function for the “common good” of the people, not to promote individual or corporate political or economic interests. Finally, “to secure the blessings of liberty for ourselves and our posterity” means that the liberty to participate fully in society and governance is to be ensured for all Americans, including those of future generations.
The multiple crises confronting the United States of America on this 4th of July are all consequences of the failures of our government to carry through with its constitutional responsibilities. The disproportionate negative impacts on racial minorities of the coronavirus pandemic and persistent police brutality have revealed the continuing failure of the government to “establish justice” for all. The growing strife between “red states'' and “blue states” is being aggravated, not moderated, by political rhetoric. The nation is made less secure by “offensive” strategies for political domination and economic expansion carried out by over-sized U.S. military forces. The U.S. government consistently prioritizes the preferences of the “1%”, who control nearly half of the nation’s wealth, over the “general welfare” of the people in common. All of the looming crisis of global climate change threatens the freedom and “liberty” of both present and future generations. None of these problems are the fault of the founders of the nation.
We are at another time in American history when the survival of this “nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal” is at risk. Abraham Lincoln returned frequently to such words from the founding documents in making his case for the abolition of slavery. The Women's Suffrage movement added the words “and women” of the Declaration of Independence in declaring their equal right to vote. Theodore Roosevelt called the Constitution “a nearly perfect instrument” in breaking up the corporate trusts and paving the way for the progressive social movement of the early 1900s. Martin Luther King frequently quoted from the founding documents during the 1960s in proclaiming that all Americans, regardless of race, must be afforded equal rights to participate fully in all aspects of American society. Paraphrasing Lincoln, we are once again engaged in a great political struggle to determine whether this government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall perish from the earth.
III. Toward a More Perfect Union
The United States of America is a “work in progress”—and probably always will be. A new nation was born with the Declaration of Independence from Great Britain by the 13 American Colonies on July 4, 1776. The representatives of the colonies had met at the First Continental Congress in 1774 and proposed various means of working out their grievances with Great Britain. Their proposals were soundly rejected. The Second Continental Congress decided that a formal declaration of independence was the only means of breaking free from the tyranny of the British Monarchy. At the Second Continental Congress, the representatives drafted the Articles of Confederation, which were adopted by the colonies in 1777, confirming their commitment to form an independent union of the American colonies.
Under the Articles of Confederation, the member states retained most of their individual sovereignty while agreeing to unite for the purpose of carrying out the essential functions of an independent nation. Their primary concerns were national defense and international trade. The colonists knew they would need to form defense and trade agreements with other nations, primarily France and Spain, if they were to break free of Great Britain. They needed to be recognized as an independent nation to make formal agreements or treaties with other nations.
Under the confederation, the member states would have the ultimate authority, and the federal government would be accountable to the states. With a federation, on the other hand, the federal government would have had the ultimate authority and the states would have been accountable to the federal government. The Articles of Confederation served the colonies well in forming the international alliances needed to outlast and ultimately defeat the British army. The United States of America was formally established under the Articles of Confederation when the document was ratified by the last of the 13 colonies in March of 1781. In December of 1781, Cornwallis surrendered to Washington in Yorktown, VA, ending the Revolutionary War. The United States of America was then recognized as a fully independent nation.
Following the war, the confederation form of government quickly proved to be inadequate in addressing the many challenges and opportunities of the new nation. For example, the government had no executive or judicial branches to carry out its decisions or resolve disputes concerning state and federal authority. A Constitutional Convention was held in 1787 for the stated purpose to revise the confederation government or “to form a more perfect union.” However, most of the delegates apparently felt the nation needed a different form of government rather than a revision of the confederation.
Most of the states had already replaced their colonial governments with “republican” governments. The term republican, small r, means that government is acknowledged as a “public matter” rather than the “private concern” of a ruler. The republican constitutions of the states were based on the "separation of powers," with governments organized into legislative, executive, and judicial branches. Republics, as distinguished from democracies, allow for different classes of representation and for the exclusion of some classes of people from participation. Members of the Senate were selected by state legislatures, House of Representative members were selected directly by voters, and slaves and women were both excluded from voting. After much deliberation, the delegates to the Constitutional Convention drafted the Constitution of the United States of America, which followed the pattern of a “republic” initiated in the states. This is what Benjamin Franklin meant in response to a question concerning the kind of government the founders had established. He answered, “A republic if we can keep it”.
The Founders harbored no illusion that the U.S. Constitution established a “perfect union” or even provided a final blueprint for the evolution of the new nation. In fact, Article V of the Constitution provides specific procedures to be followed in adopting amendments to the original document. To secure ratification by the states, James Madison promised to add a set of amendments addressing states’ concerns regarding the potential abuse of the expanded authority given to the federal government under the republican form of government. The U.S. Constitution was ratified by the 13 states in 1789. The individual states then proposed a variety of amendments to address their concerns. From their proposals, the first ten amendments to the Constitution, commonly referred to as the Bill of Rights, were gleaned and ratified in 1791.
The Founders anticipated additional amendments beyond the first ten. A quote enshrined in the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, DC states, "I am not an advocate for frequent changes in laws and constitutions, but laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths discovered and manners and opinions change, with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors." A revolutionary writer and visionary, Thomas Paine, wrote in his classic essay, Rights of Man, “The best constitution that could now be devised, consistent with the conditions of the present moment, may be far short of that excellence which a few years may afford.” However, only two amendments, largely addressing procedural matters, were added to the Constitution in the 74 years following the Bill or Rights.
The next major step “toward a more perfect union” came during the 1860s. The abolitionist movement had turned the question of slavery into a defining political issue by the 1850s. The Republican political party was formed in 1854 to oppose the expansion of slavery into states to be added from the Western Territories. As a Republican candidate for President, Abraham Lincoln relied on precedents set by the Founding Fathers in proclaiming the federal government’s authority to determine the necessary conditions for statehood. Lincoln was elected in November 1860, and by February 1861, five southern states had seceded from the union. They were later joined by six additional states to form the Confederate States of America. Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, proclaiming freedom for all slaves in the United States. In his legendary Gettysburg Address later that same year, Lincoln quoted from the Declaration of Independence in describing the U.S. and a nation “conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” He described the Civil War as a war to determine whether a nation so conceived and so dedicated could long endure.
The 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, formally abolishing slavery, was approved by the U.S. Congress in January 1865 and was ratified by the states remaining in the Union later the same year. On April 9, 1865, Lee surrendered to Grant, finally bringing the Civil War and slavery in the U.S. to an end. President Lincoln was assassinated five days later on April 14. Vice President Johnson assumed the presidency and made the signing of the 13th Amendment a condition for the readmission of Confederate states to the Union. The 14th Amendment was added in 1868 in an attempt to mitigate continued discrimination by granting citizenship to “all persons born or naturalized in the United States.” It included assurances of “equal protection under the law” for all citizens, which now included former slaves, and assessed penalties for states denying “male citizens their right to vote.” Ratification of the 14th Amendment also was made a condition for confederate states to rejoin the United States. The 15th Amendment was added in 1870, going beyond assessing penalties for voter suppression and declaring “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” The remaining "unreconstructed" were required to sign the 15th amendment for readmission to the Union.
The Emancipation Proclamation and constitutional amendments of the 1860s represented a major step forward toward the “creation of a more perfect union.” The abolition of slavery confirmed a national commitment to the “self-evident truth” that “all men are created equal and are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights,” including “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” The union was still far from perfect, but it had addressed one of its “original sins” and had taken an important step forward.
Granting voting rights to previous slaves also represented a step toward becoming a “democratic” republic. Democracy is a form of government “by the people” as well as “for the people.” People in a democracy may exercise their right to govern themselves either directly or indirectly through elected representatives. Slavery had excluded about one-sixth of “the people” of the United States from citizenship and the right to vote in elections. However, the nation was still a republic. The rights of minorities were not left to a majority vote but instead were protected by the Constitution. Members of the Senate were elected by state legislators rather than elected by “the people.” The President was, and still is, officially elected by the Electoral College, which allows presidents to be elected without receiving a majority vote of “the people.” And women, about half of “the people,” were still not allowed to vote.
The nation made another major step “toward a more perfect union” during the Progressive Era of the early 1900s. An unrestrained corporate economy led to the Gilded Age of unprecedented social and economic inequity. In response, an impressive list of “trust-busting” legislation placed government restraints on corporate consolidation of power, including the power to exploit workers. Three amendments were also added to the U.S. Constitution. In 1913, the 16th Amendment authorized a federal income tax to pay for “general welfare” programs instituted by the federal government. The 17th Amendment was ratified the same year providing for direct election of Senators by “the people” rather than state legislators. The 19th
An amendment was added in 1920, for the first time giving women the right to vote, essentially doubling the number of potential participants in the democratic processes of governance. The United States was now a legitimate “democratic republic.” The “general welfare” of the people was again given priority over the private interest of corporate investors. The Progressive Era set the stage for the New Deal programs of the 1930s and the civil rights and environmental movements of the 1960s.
Another major step “toward a more perfect union” was taken during the 1960s and early 1970s. Four major pieces of “civil rights” legislation became law, widening prohibitions on racial discrimination and protecting voting rights and fair housing opportunities for racial minorities. Major environmental legislation, including the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act, reaffirmed the responsibilities of government to protect the rights of future, as well as present, generations. The promises made by the Founders in the Declaration of Independence were not, and are still not, fulfilled but neither had the self-evident truth been forgotten that all are created equal and have equal unalienable rights.
However, the late 1970s brought a retreat by the government from the responsibilities proclaimed by the founder in the Declaration of Independence. Women had been given the right to vote in 1920 but still faced numerous instances of legal discrimination. An “equal rights for women amendment" proposed in 1923, had failed to gain congressional approval. A new “Equal Rights Amendment,” was proposed in 1972 stating: “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.” Eighteen-year-olds had been given the right to vote in 1971, so the timing seemed right. The new Equal Rights Amendment was quickly approved by Congress and was ratified by 35 states, just short of the required 38. In the face of stiff opposition from supporters of the Regan Revolution in the Republican Party, it suffered the same fate as the amendment proposed back in 1923.
This retreat from the covenant made by the Founders began in the late 1970s, accelerated during the 1980s, and continues today. Civil rights and environmental regulations of the 1960s and 1970s have been systematically weakened or repealed. Restraints on corporate have been removed, weakened, or ignored. Blatant racism and voter disenfranchisement and suppression resurface during the 2016 elections and threaten the elections of 2020. A new Progressive Movement has arisen in response: a movement rooted in the principles encoded in the American Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States of America. However, it has struggled to frame a coherent message or gain widespread political support.
The 2020 political campaign and elections promise to be the most divisive the nation has endured since the Civil War. Once again, the nation is facing a very real risk of being ripped asunder by cultural and political divisions. If we fail to return to the self-evident truths and secure the unalienable rights of our founding documents in the 2020 election and beyond, this nation of the people, by the people, and for the people may well perish from the earth. We must continue the quest "toward a more perfect nation."
IV. Reparation for Three Original Sins of the Nation
The denial of territorial rights of the Indigenous peoples from whom the land was taken, the basic human rights of the African slaves who built the foundation for today’s economy, and the right of women to vote and fully participate in society are original sins of the United States of America. Each of the three sins of omission in the founding of the United States was a denial of God-given, self-evident, unalienable rights proclaimed by the Founders. None of these acts can be undone or fully atoned by acts of the U.S. Congress or the people. But neither can the continuing legacy of their denial be ignored or easily excused. It will be very difficult, if not impossible, to restore progress toward a “more perfect union” until there is a national consensus, including those whose rights have been denied, regarding reparation for these three original sins.
In my previous four blog posts, I have attempted to lay the groundwork for this discussion. In the first, Liberty and Justice for All, I made the case that liberty and justice are the most basic expressions of the initial covenant or promise made by the newly formed government to the people of the United States. All legitimate functions of government, by one means or another, are intended to secure liberty and justice for all. Most political disagreements are rooted in beliefs that the government is placing too much emphasis on individual liberty or alternatively on social justice. However, as I explained, there can be no justice for all without liberty for all and no liberty for all without justice for all. Justice without liberty is not just, and liberty without justice is not freedom.
In my second post, In Defense of the Founders, I pointed out that the Founding Fathers understood the limitations of the government they created and laid out a clear agenda for future generations to continue their mission “toward a more perfect union.” Their agenda was clearly expressed in the American Declaration of Independence and the Preamble to the Constitution of the United States of America. Both of these documents are rooted in a concurrence of core values of Christianity and Western Moral Philosophy. They understood that the “just power” of government is derived from the “consent of the governed,” and they did not have the necessary consensus of the people at that time to abolish slavery or grant voting rights to women, let alone address violations of the territorial rights of displaced Indigenous peoples.
My third post was a re-posting of a series of eight blog pieces written in 2017, Finding Common Grounds. These posts explained my grounds for believing that the American people could find means of healing the current wide and growing political divide by refocusing on the core values and principles upon which the nation was founded. I suggested a process by which we might reestablish a consensus through an extended national discussion for the purpose of adding a collective “New Bill of Rights and Responsibilities” to the U.S. Constitution. I emphasized that this collection of amendments must address the contentious priorities of both the political Left and the Right. I conclude by suggesting a “Declaration of Interdependence” to reflect our growing understanding of the interdependence of humanity with the other living and nonliving things on Earth.
My most recent post, Toward a More Perfect Union, outlined 200 years of progress in fulfilling the Founder’s promise or covenant of a government that secures liberty and justice for all. The nation was created by the Declaration of Independence in 1776 and ratification of the Articles of Confederation by the 13 American Colonies in 1781. The first major step toward the improvement of governance was the act of replacing the Articles of Confederation with the current Constitution of the United States of America in 1791. The second step addressed in my blog was the abolition of slavery and granting of voting rights to former slaves during the 1860s. Next came the Progressive Movement of the early 1900s which succeeded in limiting corporate power and finally granted voting rights to women. And finally, the civil rights, feminist, and environmental movements of the 1960s sought once again to fulfill the promise of liberty and justice for all, in the case of the environmental movement, including the rights of future generations. Paraphrasing Martin Luther King Jr. observed, “The moral arc of American history is long, but it has bent toward justice.”
Over the past 40 years, we have witnessed a retreat from the long quest “toward a more perfect union.” The Occupy Wall Street movement of 2011, in response to the financial bailout of 2009, revealed economic inequities not seen since the Gilded Era of the early 1900s. A months-long sit-in protest of the Dakota Access Pipeline initiated in early 2016 by the Sioux people of the Standing Rock Reservation in North Dakota drew thousands of supporters of Indigenous Peoples’ Rights from across the nation. The Women’s March on Washington DC in January 2017 against flagrant anti-women/sexist political rhetoric was reportedly the largest single-day protest in U.S. history. An estimated four million people around the world took to the streets in September 2019 to demand that governments take action to mitigate the negative impacts of global climate change. The movement was ignited by a 16-year-old Swedish girl who said, “We demand a safe future. Is that really too much to ask?” And then, the Black Lives Matter movement exploded into major street demonstrations in 2020 protesting continuing police brutality against racial minorities and persistent denials of “equal protection under the law.”
All of these movements are responses to the past 40 years of increasingly flagrant violations of the historic American covenant of liberty and justice for all. In my opinion, none of these movements will be successful in bending “the moral arc of American history back toward justice” unless the various movements unite in support of a common set of demands rooted in the founding documents of the United States of America. They must join with the American people in demanding that the government keep its covenant to secure liberty and justice for all, not just for those affected by their particular causes.
I believe all disenfranchised, discriminated against, or marginalized people can legitimately demand reparation for past denials of their basic constitutional rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Some will argue that legal rights are limited to those specifically enumerated in the U.S. Constitution. However, the 9th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution clearly states, “The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.” The U.S. Supreme Court has never clearly ruled regarding the specific rights left unenumerated by the Founders. However, what could be clearer than the Founders' intentions that among those unenumerated rights are the rights they earlier expressed as self-evident truths in the Declaration of Independence? The founders also declared that governments are instituted for the specific purpose of securing these rights.
It would be reasonable to ask, in what sense would providing liberty and justice for all represent reparation for the original sins of the nation? First, it’s important to recall from my first blog piece, political liberty requires protection of the unalienable rights of all to participate fully in society and governance, and justice requires “impartial treatment of every man in matters that relate to his happiness”—to the extent that such is capable of being bestowed. I am convinced that the U.S. government has a constitutional responsibility to ensure all the basic essentials for the pursuit of happiness—to the extent they are capable of being bestowed by the government. In the U.S., these essentials include clean water to drink and air to breathe, enough wholesome nutritious food to eat, sufficient education to participate fully in processes of democracy, universal access to basic health care, time to rest and recreate, and enough money for basic needs that cannot be acquired by other means. The ability to pursue happiness cannot be ensured by simply giving people money or providing economic opportunities. I will address the essentials for liberty and justice more fully in a future blog.
Who would benefit most from the assurance of liberty and justice? Obviously, those who are currently being discriminated against, marginalized, or otherwise oppressed by the denial of liberty and justice. Today’s oppressed are made up predominantly of those who are suffering from a legacy of the denial of basic human rights, going all the way back to the arrival of the first European settlers in North America. Those denied include Indigenous Peoples, African Americans, Women, and various other minorities protected by current civil rights laws. The oppressed also include many others who have been marginalized and exploited during the pursuit of economic growth and individual wealth as the expense of liberty and justice.
Who should logically bear the economic cost of this national reparation? Obviously, those who have benefited economically from the denial and deprivation. The current stock of national economic wealth is largely a consequence of past economic exploitation and the ongoing extraction of excess profits or economic rents from the economy. Certainly, some of the wealthy have benefited by contributing rather than extracting and exploiting. However, every “self-made man” has built "his" success on a foundation of past economic exploitation. Equally obvious, the future costs of reparation should be borne in proportion to the past benefits—which means by the wealthiest one percent, perhaps ten percent, of Americans.
We live in one of the wealthiest nations in the world, and we can afford the costs of reparation—even if it requires significant contributions by those of us in the middle class. In reality, reparation is not a sacrifice because it requires nothing more than keeping the covenant made by the founders of the nation. Reparation is an essential step in realigning our nation’s history with the moral arc of the universe as it bends toward justice. This is not socialism; this the “democratic republicanism”. If we still believe in the original covenant, we simply cannot afford to continue denying reparation for the past sins of the nation. If we have lost faith in that covenant, we can choose to continue our nation’s blind pursuit of economic growth and financial wealth. However, we will then have abandoned our aspiration for moral leadership in the world and will have left it for other nations to realign humanity with the moral arc of the universe as it bends toward justice. In this election year of 2020, we are being asked to make this choice.
V. Reparation and the Pursuit of Happiness
My previous blog post advocating reparation for Native Americans, African Americans, and women for past oppression drew a variety of positive and negative responses. Most who commented recognized my good intentions but were skeptical concerning whether reparation is politically or economically feasible. One comment questioned whether a different approach to reparation might compromise ongoing negotiations and legal actions by Native Americans. Others questioned whether those suffering from past oppression could be accurately identified and whether current generations should be held accountable for oppression by their ancestors. Questioners also asked whether oppressed peoples other than racial minorities and women should be compensated—or descendants of African Americans who immigrated after slavery. My proposal for reparation would avoid all of these potential difficulties.
My proposal is not to compensate those of current generations for the oppression suffered by their ancestors, but instead to compensate them for the suffering they currently are suffering as a consequence of past oppression. To the extent that the consequences of past suffering have been erased by subsequent generations, there is no need for further compensation. First, the ongoing negotiations and legal actions regarding broken treaties with Native Americans relate to specific instances of past exploitation rather than the current suffering of Native Americans. Second, there would be no need to identify specific victims of past oppression or to quantify the magnitude of their suffering. Reparation would be awarded to all people suffering from past oppression, not just minorities or women. Furthermore, no one should be required to conform to the dominant European male culture of the United States to qualify for reparation.
Regarding costs, we are already paying many of the costs of government programs that would be necessary for reparation and we could easily afford to pay for more. Both current and additional programs would simply need to be coordinated and implemented to more efficiently and effectively secure the fundamental rights of all. Finally, there is nothing unjust about asking those of current generations who have benefited most from past economic exploitation to pay most of the economic costs of reparation. It actually would not be a sacrifice for any of us to work together through the government to ensure equal political rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for everyone. Doing so would make our lives better.
The greatest benefit any government can bestow on those of current generations as reparation for oppression of past generations is to secure their God-given equal right to the pursuit of happiness. My proposal for reparation is based on this premise. In assessing the U.S. government’s responsibility, it’s important to understand what the Founders meant in their references to happiness. Those who signed the Declaration of Independence were heavily influenced by Western Philosophy, from the ancient Greeks and Romans to the Modern European philosophers of the 17th and 18th centuries. They would have been familiar with Aristotle's concept of happiness. His word for happiness, Eudaimonia, is variously interpreted as human flourishing, quality of life, and overall well-being. While experienced by individuals, Aristotle believed happiness is realized only within the context of positive relationships and is a natural consequence of virtuous living. For a contemporary definition of happiness, I like “the experience of joy, contentment, or positive well-being, combined with a sense that one's life is good, meaningful, and worthwhile” by Sonja Lyubomirsky. The pursuit of happiness is a quest for well-being, goodness, purpose, and meaning in life.
In my earlier post, “Liberty and Justice”, I related the government’s responsibility to ensure justice to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. The hierarchy of needs may be thought of alternatively as a “hierarchy of happiness.” The most basic human needs in life are air, water, food, clothing, shelter, health care, and the other physical necessities of life. Once those most urgent needs are met, human motivations progress to higher levels of meeting needs for safety and security. Only after a person feels a measure of physical security and safety is he or she able to focus on the positive relationships with others higher level essential for happiness. Admittedly, some people seem to be able to find happiness in the most destitute of physical circumstances while others find only miserable amid material abundance. For most people, however, it is very difficult, if not impossible, to find happiness until their basic needs are met.
Governments can ensure that the physical necessities are met for all and can ensure the personal safety and physical security of all. Governments can also ensure liberty and justice for all, which is necessary to participate fully in the impersonal economic and political relationships in complex societies. Governments cannot ensure the higher hierarchical levels of happiness associated with positive personal relationships with friends or family or a personal sense of purpose and meaning in life. Those are the responsibilities of individuals. No one actually needs anything more from their government to "pursue" happiness than governments can provide. We have had at least 50 years now of increasing economic affluence in the United States, with no greater national sense of physical, mental, or even economic well-being or happiness. More money is not the key to happiness, reparation, or escaping the malaise that has continued to plague the United States.
Unlike the U.S., many governments have limited capacities to secure the basic physical needs of all within their societies. However, all governments can meet the needs of all to the extent that they are met for any within their societies. Governments also can secure the physical safety and security of all, to the extent that it can do so for any. All governments can ensure that all people are treated with justice and all are free to participate fully in society. In the United States of America, the only limit to securing liberty, justice, and the pursuit of happiness for all is the unwillingness of the American people to consent to do so.
Many of those who oppose reparation, as well as other efforts to ensure equal rights for victims of past oppression, claim the primary function of government is to ensure their rights to “private property.” They believe the primary purpose for domestic law enforcement and national defense is to protect their property rights. James Madison used the phrase, “life, liberty, and property” in a Declaration of Colonial Rights, at the First Continental Congress. This phrase had been used earlier by the British philosopher, John Locke. Proponents of property rights also point to the 14th Amendment of the Constitution, which states that governments shall not deprive people of “life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.” They claim that reparation would infringe on their property rights.
Contrary to claims otherwise, Thomas Jefferson used the words “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” in his first draft of the Declaration of Independence at the Second Continental Congress. Jefferson apparently deliberately chose to use “pursuit of happiness” rather than “property,” as he would have been fully aware of Madison’s earlier Declaration. Jefferson’s choice of words agreed with the Scottish philosopher, Lord Kames, who argued for “the pursuit of happiness,” not “property,” as a basic human right. Jefferson owned a well-used copy of Kames’ book defending this position. Jefferson’s draft was edited by a Committee of Five, who left his use of happiness unchanged, and was approved unanimously by Congress. Benjamin Franklin explained later that “property” and the right to property were creations of man, rather than endowments from God. The Founders knew the Doctrine of Discovery, by which England claimed property rights to land occupied by Native Americans, was not an endowment by God but a decree by a 15th-century European Pope.
The U.S. government has generally taken the position that if people are not being prevented from exercising their rights, their rights are effectively secured. Even this minimal level of commitment to equal rights has been routinely ignored, as attested to by the various street demonstrations against government failures mentioned in my previous posts. Regardless, the current position of government fails to recognize that a person’s rights have not been secured unless that person has not only the freedom but also the capacity or ability to exercise those rights.
The right to life is not secure unless people feel secure in their homes, safe walking the streets, aren’t afraid of being beaten or killed by the police, and know they can receive adequate health care when they need it. The right to liberty isn’t secure until people have the ability, as well as the right, to participate fully in society and the processes of governance—including the ability to cast their votes. The right to the pursuit of happiness is not secure unless people have the ability to secure adequate food, clothing, shelter, health care, education, and the other physical necessities of life and the ability to interact freely and justly with others in society.
Public resistance to the concept of “affirmative action” seems a rejection of the idea that the government has a responsibility to help people to gain the abilities or build their capacities to exercise their God-given, unalienable rights. Many American people seemed to believe that is somehow unfair or discriminatory for government to give assistance to people who have suffered from decades of discrimination in building their capacity to fully participate in society and to exercise their constitutional rights. Such lack of abilities is not the fault of the people, or the descendants of people, who have been subjected to decades or centuries of discrimination. This lack of ability represents the past failure of governments to ensure the basic human rights of all Americans. Those who have benefited from oppression have a responsibility to provide reparation for those failures.
The U.S. government has the responsibility, and ability, to provide reparation by ensuring that those suffering from past oppression are provided with the essential requisites for the individual pursuit of happiness. The government is capable of doing nothing more and is responsible to do nothing less. Beyond securing life, liberty, and the requisites of happiness, the individual well-being and quality of individual life is beyond the realm of government. This level of reparation is not beyond reason or political and economic feasibility. Most of the government policies needed to accomplish this type of reparation are already in place and many others have been proposed by presidential candidates during the 2020 political campaigns. All that is lacking is re-framing, supplementing, and repackaging the progressive movement of the past 15 to 20 years into a coherent movement for reparation, revival, and re-dedication.
VI. The New Progressive Political Agenda
I understand the political skepticism of people whose memories are limited to events of the past 40 years. Nothing in their direct experience suggests the nation is progressing toward a more perfect union. The only indicators that life in the U.S. has gotten better are the abstract measures of the GDP and stock markets. Any increase in income has been necessitated by an even greater economic need, and life has become increasingly precarious. Some believe the nation is trending toward fascism while others believe it is headed toward socialism. I understand also the skepticism of people who believe the U.S. government has become so corrupted and dominated by corporate interests that it is incapable of reestablishing justice, promoting the general welfare, or securing the blessings of liberty for ourselves or our posterity.
In light of this skepticism, I began this series of blogs by defending the Founders’ covenant with the American people to create a government that would secure liberty and justice for all. I reviewed the history of the nation’s halting but persistent progress toward a more perfect union. I attempted to reframe “reparation” for past oppression as the fulfillment of the Founders’ promise of a government that would secure an equal opportunity for all to pursue a life of happiness. I don’t claim to have easy solutions to the nation’s problems. But if we are unwilling to return to the wisdom of the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution to heal the nation’s wounds, I fear this nation of the people, by the people, for the people will cease to exist.
The best hope for the future of the nation that I see on the horizon is the new progressive political movement. Past movements to reclaim and to defend the rights of Indigenous Peoples, African Americans, and women have been most successful when they have coalesced around common initiatives to reshape public opinion and elect progressive political leaders who were committed to the founding principles of the nation. The new progressive movement is broader and more inclusive than recent past movements. Socioeconomic class has joined ethnicity, race, gender, and other protected classes on the list of oppressed people. Many White Anglo-Saxon Protestant males, rural and urban, have joined the ranks of the exploited and oppressed. In addition, the rights of future generations are being threatened by environmental degradation.
This new progressive movement first came to widespread public attention in the U.S. with the eruption of street demonstrations against economic globalization in the late 1990s—notably the Battle of Seattle in 1999. The Occupy Movement, which began in 2011, was a protest of the corporate economic bailouts that left millions unemployed and homeless during the Great Recession of 2007-2009. Both of these movements are part of the ongoing class struggles of the working poor and shrinking American middle class against economic exploitation by multinational corporations and wealthy individuals—the “one percent.” Class warfare returned to general public awareness during the 2012 and 2020 presidential candidate debates between “progressive” and “moderate” Democratic candidates. Those who suffer from socioeconomic oppression and fighting for intergenerational equity are natural allies with those struggling for ethnic, racial, and gender equity and justice. All share common oppressors and can only achieve a common victory.
Their best hope for success is to join forces with the emerging progressive political movement. However, I simply do not believe the American people will ever consent to the agenda of a political movement that they believe is taking the nation toward socialism. In addition, proclamations such as "we don’t need to make American great again because it’s already great” fall on deaf ears among the disenfranchised, poor, and oppressed. In the sense of securing liberty and justice for all, America isn’t great, has never been great, and there is nothing great to go back to. I am convinced the progressive agenda must be reframed in terms of the covenant between the U.S government and the American people made in the founding documents of the nation. Fulfilling the Founders’ promises of a government to secure the God-given equal rights of all people is not socialism, it is fundamental American democracy. The nation is not perfect and has never been perfect, but it has always continued moving forward, haltingly but progressively, toward a more perfect union.
Most of the essential elements of a successful new progressive political era are already in place. The progressive agenda simply needs to be reframed to create a coherent and compelling vision of a fundamentally better future that is achievable by a government committed to fulfilling the promises in the founding documents. We are all of equal inherent worth and are endowed by our creator with equal and unalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The fundamental purpose of government is to secure those rights. The government must continue evolving toward a more perfect union by ensuring justice, maintaining domestic tranquility, providing for the common defense, promoting the general welfare, and securing the blessings of liberty for ourselves and our posterity.
The major agenda items on the current progressive political agenda all fit neatly within the framework of ensuring liberty and justice for all. Food, warmth, shelter, health care, and education are among the most important economic necessities of life. The new progressive agenda would simply ensure that these basic needs are “fully met for all,” without regard to ethnicity, race, gender, class or membership in any other protected group. Major government assistance programs already exist for all of these economic necessities. The only remaining challenge is to ensure that having these basic needs met, by one means or another, is treated as constitutional rights rather than as discretionary federal budget items to be increased or cut at the whim of Congress.
Universal access to basic health care is probably the most controversial item on the new progressive agenda. The primary concern seems to be costs to taxpayers. The federal government currently spends about $1.1 trillion for health care per year, about 30% of the $3.6 trillion total U.S. healthcare costs. Even the critics’ estimates of the costs of “Medicare for All'' put forth by 2020 presidential candidates amount to no more than current consensus estimates of future costs of health care in the U.S. As I have explained elsewhere, those currently paying for health care would simply pay for all health care through a single government payer rather than through Medicare payroll deductions, insurance payments, co-payments, and other out-of-pocket payments. The differences would be that all costs, including dental, vision, and hearing, would be covered. The government has proven more efficient than private insurance companies in administering health insurance programs. In addition, greater bargaining power of the government could be used to reduce healthcare costs significantly over time.
Income security for those disabled and elderly is another major item in the progressive political agenda. The risk of having an insufficient income to meet basic economic needs as a result of major illness, permanent disability, or aging is a logical concern even for those in the American middle-class. Current Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid benefits are barely sufficient to provide an opportunity for survival, and many slip through these social safety nets and live out their lives in abject poverty. With persistent low interest rates on individual savings, dependence on investments in the stock market for retirement income leaves millions of relatively affluent Americans in a continual state of economic insecurity or precarity.
Medicare for All, including long-term health care for the aged, would significantly reduce economic precarity by covering all health care costs for everyone. In addition, the U.S. government currently makes Social Security payments of about $1 trillion per year and spends nearly $300 billion on other income assistance programs. Government costs of Social Security and Medicare programs are currently funded through payroll deductions on annual wages and salaries up to $137,000. Those affected by this withholding cap make up only 7% to 8% of all Social Security participants but account for about 40% of all U.S. personal income. Raising or eliminating the withholding cap could significantly increase funds and allow government retirement benefits to reduce income precarity for millions of Americans. The aged and disabled still have an equal right to participate fully in society.
The Internal Revenue Service could be used to ensure a minimum discretionary income to cover basic economic needs that cannot be met efficiently by other means. This program could be administered as a “negative incomes tax” which has been proposed previously, and is similar to the current Earned Income Tax Credit. This would be a tax cut rather than an increased government expenditure. Asking those with high incomes to pay more to cover the costs of economic security programs would be consistent with asking those who have benefited more from past economic oppression to pay more of the costs of ensuring economic justice for the oppressed. Any additional costs to middle-income taxpayers would be more than offset by increased economic security.
If we have a right to life and the pursuit of happiness, we have a right to enough wholesome nutritious food to support healthy, active lives. Food security is a logical priority on the new progressive political agenda. The U.S. government already provides nearly $70 billion in food assistance, including $68 billion through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP. While SNAP payments can be used to buy food items, only about 15% of the retail costs of food in the U.S. goes to pay for the actual food. The rest pays for food processing, transportation, packaging, and advertising. In addition, government food assistance funds apparently are often used to buy “junk foods” that are a major cause of obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure and other diet related illnesses. In “food deserts”, both urban and rural, the only foods available are highly-processed, packaged, and advertised junk foods. The right of all to food security could likely be secured without significant increases in current government funding—simply by making more locally-sourced, minimally-processed, nutritious food accessible to all within their local communities. Support for such programs has been proposed by progressive candidates for president.
The government is also currently spending $51 billion for housing assistance and another $3 billion for energy assistance for low income households. These programs could be coordinated to ensure every household has access to clean, comfortable, energy efficient, modest-size residences. Recipients of housing aid and their neighbors could be given an opportunity to help with new construction or renovation of existing residences. This would reduce costs and provide a sense of home and community ownership, similar to the current Habitat for Humanity approach to providing affordable housing.
Federal and state governments are currently spending nearly $160 billion for higher education—in addition to funding public schools for preschool through 12th grades. The basic problem is that much of the public higher education budget is being spent training students for the corporate workforce rather than educate them to participate fully in a democratic society. The high cost of higher education and resulting large student debts virtually forces graduates to take the jobs for which they are trained, regardless of ultimate consequences for their quality of life. The fundamental purpose of education is to help students understand how the world works and how they fit within it so they can decide how to relate to others and to their natural environment—how best to live their lives. Current state and federal funding would likely be sufficient if funding was focused on providing an education for a successful life in democratic society. Colleges and universities could provide assistance in finding internships and apprenticeships to prepare students for meaningful employment, including employment in government and public service.
Additional government costs of many other items on the new progressive agenda would be minimal. Addressing systemic discrimination and securing equity and justice in law enforcement is a matter of changing institutional culture, not additional funding. Some of current public safety funding for law enforcement and prisons could be shifted to fund programs that address the root causes of criminal behavior—reducing the need for law enforcement. Non-violent prisoners could be released on parole and some minor offenses decriminalized, such as possession of marijuana. The public defender program probably would need to be increased significantly from the current $2.3 billion, but current funding might otherwise be sufficient to ensure personal safety and security.
Vigorous enforcement of current antitrust laws and rooting out corporate corruption would save far more wasteful public spending than they could cost taxpayers. The only constitutional justification for government funded economic development programs is to “promote the general welfare,” not to benefit specific individuals or prop up the stock market to protect corporate investors. Barring corporations from participation in political processes might require a constitutional amendment but would allow more effective use of existing government funds. The government agencies and means of ensuring the constitutional voting rights of all are already in place and a “new Voting Rights Act” has already been passed in the House of Representatives.
This post is already running long, so I will not go any further in outlining the new progressive political agenda. I will address the progressive agenda for climate change and other environmental challenges in a future blog post. My basic point is that all of the items mentioned above, as well as others, already receive significant government funding and public attention and are recognized as responsibilities of the U.S. government. The challenge of the new progressive movement is to make the case for funding these programs at levels that will ensure the “unenumerated” constitutional rights of all to an equal opportunity to pursue a life of happiness. Doing so would not move the nation toward socialism but instead move it toward fulfilling the historical covenant of liberty and justice for all.
Socialism vs. Socialist Government Policies
Obviously, there is considerable confusion, perhaps deliberate, concerning whether government social policies, or policies “to promote the general welfare,” mean the U.S. government is socialist or is trending toward socialism. However, U.S. policies that restrain corporate consolidation, provide various public services and ensure equal opportunity are simply social policies carried out within a capitalist nation. Socialism and capitalism are fundamentally different economic systems. However, nations that are called capitalist or socialist commonly use policies of both systems to moderate the excesses inherent in pure forms of either.
The short piece below explains the basic differences between capitalism and socialism as systems of government and provides examples of socialist and capitalist policies. These definitions are consistent with those I was taught more than 60 years ago and have been in common use among economists since. The United States currently faces a far greater risk of stumbling into a system of fascism or totalitarian capitalism than drifting into socialism.
Capitalism vs. Socialism: What's the Difference?
By OSI MOMOH Updated Jul 23, 2020
Capitalism vs. Socialism: An Overview
The terms capitalism and socialism are both used to describe economic and political systems. On a theoretical level, both of these terms also describe specific schools of economic thought. One of the most fundamental differences between the systems of capitalism and socialism lies in the scope of government intervention within an economy.
The capitalist economic model relies on free market conditions for the creation of wealth. The production of goods and services is based on supply and demand in the general market. This economic structure is referred to as a market economy.
In a socialist economic model, the production of goods and services is either partially or fully regulated by the government. This is referred to as central planning, and the economic structure that is created is known as a planned economy or a command economy.
In a capitalist economy, property and businesses are owned and controlled by individuals. The production and prices of goods and services are determined by how much demand they generate and how difficult they are to produce. Theoretically, this dynamic drives companies to make the best products they can for as cheaply as they can; capitalism is intended to drive business owners to find more efficient ways of producing quality goods. For consumers, this dynamic is intended to create a system wherein they have the freedom to choose the best and cheapest products.
This emphasis on efficiency takes priority over equality. An equal distribution of goods and services among all members of a society is of little concern within a capitalist system. According to the economic theories that underpin capitalism, inequality is the driving force that encourages innovation, which results in economic development. In a capitalist economy, the state does not directly employ the workforce. This leads to high levels of unemployment during times of
In a socialist economy, the state owns and controls the major means of production. In some socialist economic models, worker cooperatives own and operate the primary means of production. A worker cooperative is a firm that is owned and self-managed by its workers. Other socialist economic models allow individual ownership of enterprise and property, albeit with higher taxes and a higher degree of government controls.
The primary concern of the socialist model of economics is an equitable distribution of wealth An equitable distribution of wealth is meant to ensure that all members of a society have an equal opportunity to attain certain economic outcomes. To achieve this, the state intervenes in the labor market. In a socialist economy, the state is one of the primary employers. During times of economic hardship, the socialist state can order hiring, so there is close to full employment even if workers are not performing tasks that are particularly in demand from the market.
In addition to capitalism and socialism, the other major school of economic thought is communism. Many tenets of communism and socialism stand in opposition to capitalism, but there are important distinctions between socialism and communism.2
Most modern economies are mixed economies. This means they exist somewhere on a continuum between pure capitalism and pure socialism, with the majority of countries practicing a mixed system of capitalism wherein the government regulates and owns some businesses and industries.
In the purest form of a capitalistic system (sometimes referred to as laissez-faire capitalism), private individuals are unrestrained, and the economy operates without any government checks or controls. Private individuals and businesses may determine where to invest, what to manufacture and sell, and the prices of goods and services.
In a purely socialist system, all means of production are collective or state-owned. Some countries incorporate both the private sector system of capitalism and the public sector enterprise of socialism to overcome the disadvantages of both systems. In these economies, the government intervenes to prevent any individual or company from having a monopolistic stance and undue concentration of economic power. Resources in these systems may be owned by both the state and by individuals.
1. International Monetary Fund. "What Is Capitalism?"
2. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. "Socialism."
3. Economics Help. "Mixed Economy."
Investopedia website for links to references: https://www.investopedia.com/ask/answers/020915/what-are-differences-between-capitalism-and-socialism.asp
VII. Reclaiming the American Spirit
In the elections of 2020, Americans will decide whether we continue the quest toward a more perfect union or choose a fundamentally different form of government and the future of the nation. Americans are being asked to either reclaim or reject the historic spirit of America encoded in our founding documents. Abandoning the constitutional separation of powers by granting supreme authority to the President, will lead to the abandonment of the rule of law and the transformation of our democratic republic into an autocracy or monarchy. The reelection of a President who has aggressively defied the separation of powers and rule of law would validate his claim to the supreme authority to shape the future of the nation. Congress, having failed to limit his powers through impeachment, will be powerless to resist.
People in a democracy have the constitutional right to vote for and elect an autocrat for their President. However, once an autocracy has been sanctioned by the voters, they will have no means of re-establishing a democracy, other than through a violent revolution or military coup. Free and fair elections will become a thing of the past. The American Spirit will be on the ballot in November. Once again, the American people are being asked to decide whether this nation of the people, by the people, and for the people can endure.
The English word Spirit comes from the Latin word for "breath.” As with breath, spirit is essential to life, whether the life of a person or a nation. The spirit of a nation is defined by the principles that guide the animating force that keeps a nation alive and evolving toward its chosen future. However, the spirit of a nation is the collective spirit of its people and the people of a nation change from generation to generation. Like all living things, the life of a nation ebbs and flows, with good times and bad, but as long as its vital principles, its spirit, remains unchanged its chosen future is secure. Each generation must decide whether to reaffirm the guiding principles of the nation’s forebearers or breathe a different spirit into the nation and move the nation toward a different future. We are now being asked to make this choice.
To reclaim the American spirit, we Americans must be guided by the principles enshrined in the Declaration of Independence: that we are all created equal and are endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights, including life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. We must elect a president and congressional representatives who will continue working toward a more perfect union by securing justice for all, preserving unity among the states, defending the nation against foreign adversaries, promoting the general welfare of the people, and securing the blessings of freedom and liberty for ourselves and for future generations. The Preamble to the Constitutions defines the responsibilities of government. The Bill of Rights only defines limits to its powers.
The historical American spirit can be summed up in one simple, timeless, universal principle of moral human behavior: To treat others as we would have them treat us—the Golden Rule. To live by the Golden Rule, we must first have empathy. We must imagine ourselves confronting the same life’s circumstances as others, and imagine how we would want to be treated if we had lived and were living their lives rather than our own. Whenever we don’t know or understand the circumstances of others personally, government provides the impersonal means by which we can practice the Golden Rule. This was the spiritual aspiration of the Founding Fathers with which they founded the United States of America—admittedly not the spiritual reality of the times but their aspirations for the future.
The Golden Rule can be found in virtually all major religions and enduring philosophies through the history of the world. It is reflected also in the Native American proverb, “Never criticize a man until you've walked a mile in his moccasins.” The Founding Fathers were students of western philosophy as well as world religions, which is reflected in the structure of the U.S. government as well as the guiding principles in the founding documents. They were Christians, but they encoded “freedom of religion” in the Bill of Rights of the U.S. Constitution to prevent the establishment of a national religion or a “Christian nation.” Their Christian beliefs logically would have influenced their notion of the Golden Rule. In Mark -12:28-31 of the Bible, Jesus is asked to name the greatest commandment. He replied, “The most important one… To Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. The second is this: Love your neighbor as yourself. There is no commandment greater than these.”
The American spirit is reflected the Declaration of Independence is a spirit of love. As I have written before, the all-inclusive definition of love is “a belief in inherent goodness.” “To love” means to act on that belief. Love is rooted in a belief in goodness, regardless of whether the ultimate source of goodness is God, the Creator, the Creation, Nature, or some other higher order of things. The spirit of love embodied in the Golden rule is to see the same inherent goodness in others that we see in ourselves and to strive to give others the same opportunity to express that goodness as we would like for ourselves. This is the spirit of love that must guide us if we are to continue moving toward a more perfect union.
The historic Protestant work ethic that equates human worth with hard work and economic success is still deeply ingrained within our society, particularly among many Christian fundamentalists. Single-issue or special interest politics also dominate the voting decisions of many Americans, rather than the larger common interests or general welfare. It’s sometimes difficult to see the inherent goodness in others who have values different from ours, but we must. The American spirit requires nothing less of us.
This election is not just about choosing two men and their running mates for President and Vice President of the United States. It’s about choosing between two forms of government—autocracy and democracy. If we reelect the incumbent this November, future elections in the U.S. will be little different from elections in Russia today. The groundwork is currently being laid for a monarchical family dynasty extending into the foreseeable future. This election would be equally important if the current incumbent president was a social autocrat seeking to transform our democracy into an autocratic form of socialism. In either case, the American people would grant to a single individual the supreme authority that now resides with “the American people”—as is the case in all true democracies. The choice in this election is not between two autocrats but between autocracy and democracy.
Experiences of the past four years should have taught Democrats and Republicans alike that a dysfunctional government, regardless of the motives, creates a vacuum that eventually will be filled by a wannabe autocrat who promises to “make America great again.” We will have an opportunity to reclaim the American spirit in the elections of November 2020. May God grant the American people the wisdom to choose wisely.
VIII. "Make Us A King"
In a democracy, the people must agree to moderate their individual self-interests and work together through government for the common good. As the Founders wrote, the “just power to govern” is derived from “the consent of the governed.” The people must consent to a set of common values by which they agree to be governed. In a monarchy, the power to govern resides in the monarch or supreme ruler. The values by which the people are governed are the personal values of the ruler. The people are freed of the ethical and social responsibilities of self-government. Throughout human history, people have been reluctant to accept the responsibilities of democracy. That’s why democracies are inherently fragile and typically short-lived. That’s why democracy in the United States of America is at risk.
According to the Bible, the Children of Israel were ruled for hundreds of years by laws they believed had come directly to them from God. They chose “judges,” who were spiritual leaders of different tribes or family clans, to resolve disputes concerning spiritual matters. Under their law, the people were responsible directly to God—not to the judges. Samuel arose as a leader among the judges of the Israelites during a time of oppression by the Philistines. As Samuel grew old, he had hoped his sons would take his place as leaders among the judges. However, in the initial responsibilities of leadership they were given, his sons proved to be irresponsible and corrupt.
In I Samuel 8: 4-20, the transformation from self-government to a monarchy unfolds: “Then all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah, and said to him, ‘Look, you are old, and your sons do not walk in your ways. Now make us a king to judge us like all the nations.’ But the thing displeased Samuel when they said, ‘Give us a king to judge us.’ So Samuel prayed to the Lord. And the Lord said to Samuel, ‘Heed the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected Me, that I should not reign over them… However, you shall solemnly forewarn them, and show them the behavior of the king who will reign over them.’”
In 1776, Thomas Paine commented on this story in his classic revolutionary pamphlet, Common Sense. He wrote, “Monarchy is ranked in scripture as one of the sins of the Jews, for which a curse in reserve is denounced against them.” Paine argued convincingly that the evils were not linked to the specific monarch, but to the monarchical form of government. He wrote of the suffering of the Israelites under the rule of King Saul, who was chosen by Samuel. The Israelites fared better under King David, but as Paine notes, the Bible refers to David as “a man after God’s own heart”—which is exceedingly rare among men and monarchs. Paine argued persuasively that no people have a right to grant to a monarchy the God-given human rights of their children or future generations.
The Founding Fathers, being scholars of western history and philosophy, were well aware of the fundamental nature of different forms of government. They would have known that democracies required deference of short-run self-interest to the long run common good. They knew that aristocracies were intended to allow those to govern who were sufficiently secure individually to defer to the common good, although they had often failed to do so. They knew that monarchies were efficient means of administering laws, but not of making laws that serve the common good. In an attempt to accommodate the strengths and weaknesses of different forms of government, they created a democratic republic that over time could transition to a democracy.
In a pure democracy, everyone has an equal opportunity to participate in the processes of governance. This aspiration was expressed in the Declaration of Independence but was not reflected in the initial democratic republic. The only people allowed to vote were male landowners, and even they were not granted equal representation. The House of Representatives, the Senate, and the office of President each reflect different forms of representation.
Members of the House of Representatives are elected by majority votes of people in their districts, which include approximately equal numbers of people. The Senate is made up of two members per state, regardless of population, which provides equal representation for the states, but not for the people. Members of the Senate were initially elected by state legislatures, not the people. Presidents are elected by the “Electoral College,” whose members are allocated to each state according to their total numbers of Senators and Representatives. States are free to allocate their Electoral College votes by any means they choose. Consequently, several presidents have been elected without receiving majority direct or “popular votes” the people in presidential elections.
The House of Representatives has become more democratic with each class of eligible voters added to rolls—adding non-landowners, previous male slaves, Native Americans, women, and 18-year-olds. The House is still a representative, rather than direct, form of democracy. The Senate was patterned after an aristocracy, with members initially chosen from those who were more economically secure and engaged in political issues in their respective states. Senators also serve six-year terms compared to two year terms for House members. The Senate has become more democratic with Senators now elected directly by the people of their states.
The Presidency was patterned after a monarchy for the sake of administrative expediency and efficiency. The Constitutional powers of the President are generally limited to matters that must be handled expeditiously, such as serving as Commander in Chief of military forces and negotiating foreign treaties. The primary function of the presidency is to carry out the legislative intent of Congress. The president has the power to veto specific legislation and appoint cabinet members and federal judges, but Congress must consent to the president’s choices. A President’s ability to influence decisions of Congress is derived primarily from his or her popularity with the people, as reflected in political polls and presidential elections.
The Supreme Court and federal court system were established to facilitate the enforcement of federal laws. The court system is reminiscent of the biblical system of judges. By default, the Supreme Court became the final authority in judging whether state and federal laws enacted by Congress and signed by the President are consistent with the intent of the U.S. Constitution. In the case of democracy, the Constitution reflects a current consensus of the ethical and social values of the people and serves as the supreme authority.
The U.S. Constitution clearly reflects the democratic republican form of government in that it respects the majority rule of direct democracy but also protects the rights of minorities and establishes a division and balance of powers among the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of government. The U.S. Constitution can be amended as ethical and social values change, but only through a process designed to secure “the consent of the people.” The consent of the governed, the people, is ultimately a reflection of their collective ethical and social values—their ability and willingness to accept the responsibilities of self-government.
The reelection of a President of the United States who openly seeks the supreme power to govern would be an abandonment of the democratic republican form of government that was carefully crafted by the Founders of the nation. Thus far, neither Congress nor the Supreme Court has proven effective in limiting his powers to those defined for the presidency in the U.S. Constitution. His reelection would be a validation by the American people of his claim to supreme authority. The people of the U.S. will have “made themselves a King.” The people will no longer feel a responsibility to answer directly to God or any other higher power or moral authority in matters related to governance. They will have transferred the responsibilities of democratic self-government to their King. For those who are Christian or Jewish in particular, it might be worthwhile to reread I Samuel 8 10-20.
“So Samuel told all the words of the Lord to the people who asked him for a king. He said, ‘This is what the king who will reign over you will claim as his rights:’” Now paraphrasing: He will take your sons to fight his battles. He will select a few to oversee the work of the many who will produce his food and materials for war. He will take your daughters to be his servants. And he will take the best of all you own and a tenth of all you produce for himself, his family, and those whom he favors. “You will be his slaves. When that day comes, you will cry out for relief from the king you have chosen, but the Lord will not answer you in that day.” The people or Israel refused to obey the warnings of Samuel; and they said, “We want a king over us. Then we will be like all the other nations, with a king to lead us and to go out before us and fight our battles.”
I understand those who want a president who will fight their battles and bring an end to violent and destructive street demonstrations. However, people in nations with repressive, authoritarian leaders invariably experience continuing violent civil unrest and loss of civilian liberty and life. I understand concerns about restoring employment and economic growth. But the sacrifice of political liberty and social justice is too high a price to pay for prosperity of a few at the expense of many. I understand those who want to “make or keep American great.” But the greatness of America in the eyes of the world has always been about the moral courage, compassion, and generosity of its people—not its economic power or military might.
I agree with critics who feel the U.S. government has been dysfunctional—regardless of which political party has been in power. However, this is not the first time the American people have confronted failures in governance. In times past, its unique form of democracy has allowed the nation to restore the consent of the governed and continue toward a more perfect union. Even if we reject monarchy in November, there will still be much work to be done to restore the consent of the governed. My fear is that this time the nation has lost it’s the moral compass that has guided it through difficult times in the past. The people may no longer be able or willing to give liberty and justice priority over their individual fear and greed. My concern is that Americans will unwittingly “make themselves a king” and the nation of the people, by the people, and for the people will be lost.
IX. Government is Not a Business
“We need political leaders who will run government like a business.” This is a common refrain among “fiscal conservatives” in the U.S. I assume they want leaders who will reduce taxes, balance federal budgets, increase employment, and promote economic growth as a means of enhancing their investments in the stock markets. However, maximizing efficiency, employment, and economic growth are not the primary functions of government. According to the Declaration of Independence governments are established to ensure the equal rights of all to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The purpose of government is to ensure social equity, not economic efficiency. People need governments to do those things essential for society that businesses and the private economy simply cannot do.
The economy cannot provide an opportunity for all to participate fully in society. The economy responds to the ability to pay, not to need. We are all created equal and are of equal inherent worth, but we are all inherently unequal in our ability to do things that have economic value. There have always been, and always will be, many people in society who are inherently incapable of earning enough money to acquire the economic essentials for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. We are born with different physical and mental abilities and nurtured in different cultural environments, with different initial endowments of family wealth and connections. Governments exist to address these inequities. We need leaders who will run our government like a government, not a business.
If the U.S. government actually were a business, it would be relatively easy to cut taxes, reduce the federal budget, increase employment, maximize economic growth, and support a strong stock market—at least in the short run. It would only provide government services to those who were able and willing to pay taxes to cover the full cost of each service. It would reduce unemployment by prohibiting workers unions and reducing or eliminating minimum wages, unemployment benefits, and welfare benefits for the chronically unemployed. People would be forced to work or starve. The resulting lower salaries, wages, and fringe benefits would reduce economic costs of production, increase economic efficiency, and promote economic growth. Interest rates would be kept low and Social Security would be privatized to force people to put their retirement savings in the stock market.
If the U.S. government was operated like a corporate business, it would only consider the short run in making decisions. Businesses discount the value of expected future returns on long-term investments to account for future risks and uncertainties and their opportunity to earn money elsewhere in the short run. If a business has opportunities to earn 10% returns on its ventures, a long-term investment would need to return $1,000 at the end of 50 years to be competitive with a $100 payback at the end of one year. That’s why the planning horizons for most businesses are only 5 to 7 years. A government run like a business would maximize economic growth or GDP by removing environmental regulations and opening up federally protected lands and natural resources for drilling, mining, logging, and other forms of economic exploitation. The president/CEO of a government run like a business wouldn’t need to be “like, really smart” or a “very stable genius.”
However, if our federal government were run like a business, the nation might soon go bankrupt or collapse. If mismanagement led to a recession, a government run like a business would be still be forced to balance its budget and continue paying back loans it had taken out in an attempt to survive. Like any other business, it would be powerless to force private investors to borrow and spend or invest money to stimulate the economy during an economic recession. The government would be forced into bankruptcy. The people ultimately would be forced into economic austerity programs to pay off the federal debt—which has happened in other countries.
Our federal government is still run like a government, however, and has the ability to instruct the Federal Reserve Banks to “create new money”—by making low-interest or no-interest loans to businesses, which are deposited in banks and spent or invested to stimulate new economic activity. The vast majority of money in circulation is in bank deposits—not paper money or coins. If private businesses are reluctant to borrow money during a recession, the government can borrow and spend enough new money to stimulate the economy and restore economic stability. Contrary to the prevailing propaganda, the federal government budget is not like a “household budget” or the “financial budget” of a business. The federal government doesn’t need to be concerned with how much new money it puts in circulation or how big a budget deficit it runs, at least not during a recession.
The federal debt is simply a portion of the total money supply that the government has spent and put in circulation. The federal debt doesn’t need to be paid back, but may need to be reduced if the total money supply increases faster than the supply of things to buy with money. Too much money in circulation causes inflation in consumer prices. Inflation is not a concern during a recession, and a little inflation can help stimulate sustained economic growth, at least to the extent that resources are available to support growth. A government that is run like a government is responsible for ensuring that economic growth does not exceed the sustainable productivity capacity of its workers or natural resources.
Certainly, businesses are important to society. Businesses not only allow people to pursue their legitimate economic self-interests, but also allow them to contribute “economically” to the common good of society. The private sector provides government with the “economic” means of sustaining the ecological and integrity of the human and natural resource base upon which the economy ultimately depends for its productivity—one use of tax dollars. However, a government that is run like a business is simply not sustainable because it would result in ever-greater social and economic inequity. It would create inequity within generations, by exploiting workers and degrading the environment, and among generations, by depleting natural resources and fomenting societal incivility. Once the productivity of nature and society have been destroyed, there would simply be no means of sustaining the economy—or government.
Even if one can only see government as a necessary evil, it is nonetheless necessary. As Thomas Paine wrote it in his essay, Common Sense, "Society is produced by our wants, and government by our wickedness; the former promotes our happiness positively by uniting our affections, the latter negatively by restraining our vices." He concluded that government is "rendered necessary by the inability of moral virtue to govern the world." Whether by a monarchy, aristocracy, oligarchy, democracy, or theocracy, people throughout history have chosen some form of government to “produce their wants, govern their wickedness, promote their happiness, unite their affections, and restrain their vices.” None of the various forms of government can fulfill their fundamental purpose if they are managed as businesses.
History has verified that we humans lack the moral virtue to secure and protect the inalienable rights of others unless we form a democratic government to interpret and enforce a moral consensus by which we agree to be governed. There can be no liberty and justice for all without government. In America today, we already see many of the characteristic traits of a government that is managed like a business. If we truly care about liberty and justice for all, including for those of future generations, we must return to the fundamental purpose and principles of our democratic republican form of government—before it’s too late.
X. Reaffirming the American Covenant
If our democratic republic survives the November election, it will still not survive another presidential election without fundamental changes in the way the government is administered. If Joe Biden is elected president, Democrats cannot go back to the neoliberal policies of the Obama and Clinton eras. Donald Trump was elected president because governments under both Democratic and Republican majorities have failed to meet the basic needs of too many Americans—particularly those in inner cities and rural areas. I believe the future of our nation depends on whether like-minded Democrats and Republicans form a coalition dedicated to returning government to its founding purpose and principles. In my previous posts in this series have laid a logical foundation for this conclusion.
With a new Democratic president, congressional Republicans cannot be allowed to continue blocking every proposal put forth by the President or congressional Democrats. Another four years of dysfunctional government would likely lead to an outright rejection of the current form of government and preclude any further attempt to move toward “a more perfect union.” Enough Democrats and Republicans must find common ground to allow government to function. Democracy does not imply an equal amount of everything for everyone, and balanced budgets, tax cuts, and deregulation cannot continue being preconditions for political compromise. If our government “of the people and by the people” is to survive, government must work “for the people”—meaning for all of the people. The U.S. government must be returned to the principles and purposes encoded in the American Declaration Independence and Constitution of the United States of American.
To restore trust and confidence in government, a new coalition of patriotic Democrats and Republicans must reaffirm the “American Covenant” on behalf of the American people. In his inaugural address, George Washington affirmed his belief that the Constitution had been written under the protective care of God. He stated, “Every step, by which they have advanced to the character of an independent nation, seems to have been distinguished by some token of providential agency.” His remarks conveyed a belief that the words in the Declaration of Independence and Constitution had been divinely inspired. He continued, “It would be peculiarly improper to omit in this first official Act, my fervent supplications to that Almighty Being who rules over the Universe… that his benediction may consecrate to the liberties and happiness of the People of the United States, a government instituted by themselves for these essential purposes.”
President Washington affirmed a covenant between God and the American people: “I dwell on this prospect with every satisfaction which an ardent love for my Country can inspire: since there is no truth more thoroughly established, than that there exists in the economy and course of nature, an indissoluble union between virtue and happiness, between duty and advantage, between the genuine maxims of an honest and magnanimous policy, and the solid rewards of public prosperity and felicity: Since we ought to be no less persuaded that the propitious smiles of Heaven, can never be expected on a nation that disregards the eternal rules of order and right, which Heaven itself has ordained.”
The nation has since faced a series of crises and conflicts as the American people have struggled to fulfill the ideals expressed in Washington’s inaugural address and the other founding documents of the nation. Growing social and economic inequities, divisiveness, conflicts, and crises have been the consequences whenever the processes of governance have strayed from the pursuit of the inaugural ideals. Whenever the government has “disregarded the eternal rules of order and right,” it has violated the American Covenant, and the American people have no longer received the “propitious smiles of Heaven.” Today, we are once again confronted with multiple economic, social, and ecological crises that we have allowed to divide us and rip the social fabric of our nation, threatening its very survival. To reaffirm Washington’s covenant with our Creator, the new Congress must reaffirm the American Covenant through a pledge to the American people that their government will pursue a specific political agenda that will return their government to the purpose and principles encoded in its divinely inspired founding documents.
Governments of at least the past 40 years have given priority to the Bill of Rights, which were intended to “protect the people from government.” The Founders feared the republic they had created might otherwise degenerate back into a monarchy. Far too little emphasis has been placed on the constitutional “responsibilities of government to the people.” The protections in the Bill of Rights and later amendments are critical to the covenant and must be preserved. Furthermore, everyone must be assured equal opportunity to exercise these rights—such as exercise their right to vote and to practice their own chosen religion. The affirmation must address the responsibility of government to ensure that people can exercise their rights, not simply to protect them from government interference. Contrary to current political propaganda, “protection from government” and “responsibilities of government” are complementary rather than competitive. Both rights that are unrecognized and rights that cannot be exercised are rights denied—not secured.
The following is a draft of a pledge to reaffirm the American Covenant that provides a list of rights I believe must be secured to restore public trust and confidence in government. I believe the government of the United States of America is responsible for securing these rights because they are essential in recognizing and exercising the rights currently encoded in the Bill of Rights and other constitutional amendments and the unalienable and equal rights of all to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, as stated in the Declaration of Independence.
Reaffirming the American Covenant:
The Congress of the United States of American pledges to secure both the “enumerated rights” encoded in Bill of Rights and other Constitution Amendments and the “unenumerated rights” below, which are “retained by the people” in the 9th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The United States government will give priority and will work diligently and tirelessly to fulfill its responsibility to ensure an equal opportunity for all to express the unalienable rights of all to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Right to enough wholesome, nutritious, palatable food to support healthy, active, publicly engaged lifestyles. Participation in society and governance are major challenges for people who are hungry because they can’t afford enough food, or are seriously overweight because they can only afford food of poor quality. Federal funding should support voluntary participation in locally administered food security programs to encourage a personal sense of connectedness, responsibility, and accountability between provisioners and recipients in local communities.
· Right to clean, energy-efficient housing, with sufficient space to accommodate all members of households, safely and comfortably. People living in an unsafe or uncomfortable living environment find it difficult to focus on anything beyond their own safety and security. Public housing programs should provide a path to the security of home ownership.
· Right to clean water to drink, clean air to breath, and a safe and healthful living environment. People who are unhealthy or outright sick because they feel forced to live in a toxic environment have little motivation to trust or participate in the processes of governance. The equal right to a clean, healthful, and potentially productive natural environment extends across generations to ensuring the “blessings of liberty to our posterity.”
· Right to appropriate health care to restore health during times of illness, to the extent possible, and to maintain and enhance health during times of wellness. Public health care need not “cover everything” but must include hearing, vision, and dental procedures needed to participate fully in society. Private health insurance may be purchased to cover the cost of additional convenience, comfort, or cosmetic procedures not covered by public health care.
· Right to sufficient and appropriate public education to fully participate in society, including in self-government. Elementary schools must be relieved of current social welfare functions and focus on reading, writing, and basic concepts of mathematics, science, and sociology. Public secondary and higher education will build on these basic concepts, giving priority to helping students understand “how the world works and where they fit within it,” including their responsibilities as citizens as well as members of human society. Costs of occupational education will be paid primarily by potential employers.
· Right to employment, in either private or public sectors, with sufficient economic remuneration to meet basic physical needs, participate fully in society, and fulfill social and civic responsibilities. Minimum economic benefits from public sector employment will be sufficient to provide an alternative to current low-wage, exploitative private sector employment. Public employment will automatically expand beyond essential levels to maintain full employment during times of economic recession and will shrink back to essential levels as the private economy expands and provides better employment opportunities in the private sector.
· Right to economic security for elderly and others who are unable to participate in full time private or public employment and those who are self-employed or fully employed with “housework” and caring for children. This right could be ensured through a “negative income tax” or guaranteed tax credit—similar to the current process of paying earned income tax credits.
· Right to be protected from economic exploitation. The government is responsible for maintaining “economically competitive” markets and for providing the legal and physical infrastructure necessary for an efficient capitalist economy. The government is also responsible for protecting natural resources and the natural environment for extractive economic practices that threaten the rights of future generations.
The responsibility of the U.S. government to secure these rights is already implicitly recognized in current authorizations of government funds to address each of these needs. This affirmation recognizes these basic human needs as constitutional rights of the American people and pledges to ensure that these needs are met, through private or public means, to the extent necessary to ensure that all have an equal opportunity to participate fully in our society and democracy. Those who have signed this pledge are confident that these rights are among the “unenumerated rights” retained in the 9th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and will proceed to secure these rights for all. If deemed necessary, they will also work diligently to gain congressional approval and state ratification of a constitutional amendment to reaffirm the consent of the American people regarding their government’s responsibility to secure these rights.
Finally, I firmly believe that using the power of government to secure these constitutional rights must take priority over using its power to stimulate economic growth or development. In words of Washington: “there is no truth more thoroughly established, than that there exists in the economy and course of nature, an indissoluble union between virtue and happiness, between duty and advantage, between the genuine maxims of an honest and magnanimous policy, and the solid rewards of public prosperity and felicity.” The ability to prosper economically ultimately depends on respecting “the eternal rules of order and right, which Heaven itself has ordained.”
In my next blog I will explain how the government can and should spend whatever money is necessary to secure these constitutional rights for the American people. The only real limits to growth in government spending are the limits to potential economic productivity of the natural and human resources that ultimately must support the economy and society. Anytime the combined spending of consumers, investors, and government exceeds these limits, the result will be inflation in prices rather than further economic growth. Within these limits the people are free to instruct their government to allocate spending between the public and private sectors in any way “that to them, shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness”—again quoting from the Declaration of Independence. In a democracy, people have a right to disagree about the future of the nation, but these are the principles upon which our nation was founded.
XI. Can We Afford a New Bill of Rights?
My previous post, “Reaffirming the American Covenant,” met with more skepticism than approval or disapproval. This is understandable, given the dysfunctional state of the United States government. A recent article in the Washington Post cites “one of several ongoing projects by political scientists that have registered a weakening of democratic values in the United States in recent years… that has accelerated precipitously under President Trump.” The study concludes that “Only 1 in 5 democracies that start down this path are able to reverse the damage before succumbing to full-blown autocracy.”
One of the major challenges in restoration democracy in the U.S. is the myth that we can’t afford the “new bill of rights and responsibilities” required to reaffirm the American Covenant. That it would simply be too costly to secure the equal rights of all to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Admittedly, I have proposed a bold agenda of political rights and government responsibilities, which is described in more detail in my previous post:
· Right to enough safe, appealing, and nutritious food
· Right to a safe and comfortable residence
· Right to clean air and water and a healthful environment
· Right to sufficient health care to restore and maintain health
· Right to sufficient education to participate fully in a democratic society
· Right to employment sufficient to provide a livable income
· Right to a minimum basic income for the elderly, disabled, and self-employed
· Right to protection from economic exploitation
These rights are already confirmed as government responsibilities by current government appropriations related to these purposes. However, if accepted as rights, the government will be responsible for ensuring “specific outcomes” in these areas, regardless of expenditures—rather than “specific appropriations,” which limit expenditures. Such programs are currently called “entitlements”—a term that has been denigrated, perhaps intentionally, to suggest special privileges or undeserved benefits. A more appropriate term is “mandatory” spending, which means a government obligation or responsibility. Interestingly, military spending is commonly called “mandatory,” while Social Security and Medicare are called “entitlements.” The basic question is “How can the government pay the economic costs of fulfilling an open-ended responsibility to secure these newly acknowledged rights equally for everyone?”
First, a responsibility to secure these rights does not imply a government responsibility to ensure that everyone has “as much and as good” food, housing, air, water, environment, health care, education, income and protection from exploitation as anyone else. The majority of the people in the U.S. have far more of these essentials than is necessary to participate fully in a society. As I pointed out in a previous post, anyone who has an opportunity to participate fully in society has an equal opportunity to pursue real happiness. Governments need not provide the economic essentials for those who have the innate ability and have been given an opportunity to secure these essentials without government assistance. The specific levels of government benefits required to fulfill these responsibilities must be determined through the political process, as it is for other rights. However, it is critical to our democracy that the government accept the responsibility of securing these “rights” as “mandates”—as open-ended responsibilities rather than discretionary budget allocations.
Second, and contrary to widespread misconception, the U.S. government has the ability to pay for any level of mandatory spending that is deemed necessary to fulfill its responsibilities. A popular myth is that “the government must manage its budget the way households or businesses manage their budgets.” While this is true of state and local government budgets, it is not true for the U.S. government’s federal budget. The federal government has the unique ability to create “new money” to cover its budget shortfalls. As a result, a “federal budget deficit” is very different from a household being unable to cover its expenses or a business operating at a loss. Also, the “national debt” is very different from debts of households or businesses.
The U.S. government can, and does, create as much money as needs to meet its financial obligations. Contrary to claims otherwise, the government doesn’t have to depend on collecting taxes or borrowing money to meet its financial needs. The federal government could also create enough money to pay off the national debt, if it chose to do so. Much of the national debt represents obligations the government owes to its self, for example, future payments of Social Security and Federal Retirement benefits. The only limits to the U.S. government securing the rights essential for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness is the productive capacity of the natural and human resource upon which the U.S. economy ultimately depends for its productive capacity.
The U.S. Treasury Department creates new money by simply crediting or adding deposits to its account at the Federal Reserve or FED. The FED is made up of 12 regional banks that collectively serve as the “nation’s central bank.’ The FED uses this new money to either purchase Treasury Bills (T-Bills) or to create new deposits that serve as reserves for commercial banks in the Federal Reserve System. Technically, T-Bills represents loans to the U.S. Treasury by the FED (or by other banks or commercial investors), which are added to the “national debt.” Since the new money the FED uses to purchase T-Bills is created by the Treasury, purchases of T-Bills by the FED are more accurately described as means of accounting for the new money that is created and made available for government spending. When the government spends the new money from its FED account, it puts the new money in circulation.
The FED can also use new money to create deposits in its affiliated commercial banks. This allows the commercial banks to create new money in addition to the initial deposits, by making bank loans that are deposited by borrowers, spent, and redeposited—over and over. Banks are only required to keep about $10 in reserve, or on deposit, for each $90 they loan out. This multiple lending and spending process can add as much as $1,000 of new money for each $100 in new reserves allocated by the FED. The resulting bank deposits are just as valuable as cash and are considered part of the money supply. As a result of this process, called factional reserve banking, the vast majority of new money is created and put in circulation by commercial banks rather than by the federal government.
Only real difference between government creating and spending new money in the public sector and commercial bank creating, lending, and spending new money in the private sector is whether public or private benefits result from the “first round” of spending. After the first round of government spending, the resulting deposits by spending recipients, the new loans made available by those deposits, and further new spending and redeposit activities all take place in the private sector of the economy.
The first round of government spending creates jobs in the public sector, just like first round spending in the private sector creates jobs. With the exception of the military, government spending probably creates more jobs than private sector spending, per dollar spent. After the first round, all additional jobs are created by lending and spending in the private sector. This first-round government "deficit spending" doesn’t “crowd out” investments in the private sector, but instead makes even more new money available to the private sector. Even after a fraction of each transaction is returned to the government as taxes, about 25% on average, each new dollar of government spending provides more than two dollars for private sector spending. This process is described in detail in a new book, The Deficit Myth, by economist Stephanie Kelton.
The government can also “destroy money,” or make money out of circulation, by reducing government spending with no offsetting reduction in the national debt. The government can also instruct the FED to destroy money through the commercial banking system by raising interest rates to reduce demand for loans, or more dramatically, by raising the reserve requirement for loans. The FED destroys money by tanking it out of circulation, when it “sells,” rather than buys, T-Bills or other government securities. It can also destroy money in the private sector and create money in the public sector by selling T-Bills to commercial banks or private investors to make money available for government spending. The government can also move money from the public sector to the private sector by reducing spending and instructing the FED to “buy” T-Bills to pay down the national debt.
The nation’s “foreign debt” is nothing more than an accounting of foreign money on deposit with the FED. The foreign debt increases whenever the FED sells Treasury securities to foreign governments, which takes U.S. dollars accumulated by foreign governments out of circulation and makes the money available to the U.S. government. Foreign governments buy Treasury securities to earn interest on their deposits. The interest on T-Bills and other securities returns a fraction of the money from back to foreign governments and private sector investors. Taxing and spending provide the government with means of removing money from specific individual and commercial sectors of the private economy to allow the government to create new money through spending in specific sectors of the public economy. Taxes are more important in tapping specific sources of funding to provide general and specific government benefits than in balancing the federal budget.
This is not an economic theory. It is simply the way the government creates money and regulates the amount of money in circulation. If the government puts too much new money in circulation, it will cause “inflation” or an increase in prices. There will be too few workers to hire, inadequate economic infrastructure, and insufficient raw materials and natural resources to add enough additional production of things to buy with the new money. As a result, instead of creating jobs and providing new benefits, prices of everything will simply go up. The results in “price inflation,” which if not managed carefully, can spiral out of control. Within these limits, the U.S. government can create enough money to meet any responsibility the American people are willing to give it.
The good news is that government spending to secure the “new bill of rights” would increase the productive capacity of the national economy. Nobel Prize economist, Amartya Sen, argues that “real human 'freedoms' such as political freedoms, economic facilities, social opportunities, transparency guarantees, and protective security” not only increase quality of life but also add to the productive capacity of economies. Sen also stresses the need to abolish 'unfreedoms', including poverty, undernourishment, poor economic opportunities, systematic social deprivation, neglect of public facilities, and intolerance." A society that is well fed and housed, lives in a clean and healthful environment, receives adequate health care, is well educated, is assured of a good paying job and a livable income in their old age is not only a happier society, but also a more economically productive society.
Sen’s work echoes the words of George Washington more than 200 years earlier: “There is no truth more thoroughly established, than that there exists in the economy and course of nature, an indissoluble union between virtue and happiness, between duty and advantage, between the genuine maxims of an honest and magnanimous policy, and the solid rewards of public prosperity and felicity.” When everyone has the freedom to participate fully in society, it will have more than enough economic capacity to secure liberty and justice for all.
The economic capacity of the earth’s resources are limited, but are more than sufficient to meet the economic essentials for the pursuit of happiness by all. Once the economic essentials are met, there are no limits to the ability of people to improve their happiness and well-being through more positive relationships and a greater sense of purpose and meaning in life. As societies recognize the potential rewards of caring and sharing, they willingly accept their responsibility to care for the earth and to sustain its ability to meet the needs of future generations. Caring and sharing are not sacrifices; they are virtues that make our lives better.
Ultimately, it is not a question of whether we can afford a new bill of rights and responsibilities to reaffirm the American Covenant. We simply can’t afford to do otherwise. The truth is self-evident. We are all endowed by our Creator with the unalienable and equal rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Our democracy is slipping away. It would not be a sacrifice for any, but a privilege for all, to join the nation's Founders in a “pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor” to secure the blessings of liberty and justice for all--for ourselves and our posterity.