Political Debates 7: (She said)

So I have lots of specific points of clash to the arguments you are making, and I will address them (probably to the detriment of the unwieldy documents once again), but I also have some higher level thoughts unrelated. There were a number of points I made in that last unwieldy email that were left unaddressed; neat rhetoric, slightly problematic argumentation.

1)      Namely, the danger of allowing an individual to pursue personal ends, specifically when there is a lack of social fabric that contains the ways that individual pursuit can have detrimental effects on society. The individual unaware (or uncaring) of fellow citizens can be highly destructive and we have little in the way of a collective conception of good to contain that. Constitution notwithstanding that is a very real danger in society that you left completely unaddressed. The individual as a locus of power also fails to address many of the collective issues we currently face: how does the free-market solve for environmental harm? Or historical disenfranchisement and disempowerment?

2)      Levels of inequality in our system are both highly problematic and increasing in disparity- this has consequences both on the individual and on the functioning of society. Violence and crime are often the manifestation of structural unaddressed violence and infringe on many citizen’s ability to exercise both positive and negative rights.  The majority of your arguments are predicated in a private sphere in which individuals can fairly negotiate, but you have not addressed a single one of the points I previously made about the impossibility of that function for many of our fellow Americans.

3)      I would be very interested to hear how you address the previously disenfranchised groups in society. It is simple to dismiss the fact that the framers were largely racist, misogynist elitist people. In and of itself that isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and I recognize they were a natural product of their time. In fact, the privilege afforded them by that place in society allowed them more time to think and formulate ideas about societal structures that are more robust and have lasted incredibly long. Overall their privilege was a benefit to pretty much everyone that came after them. That being said, there are still a number of issues to which they (and many contemporary equivalents) were able to be blind while those less privileged are unable to ignore. (see new Harvard class on privilege)

4)      Similarly, I am surprised that the crux of your argument seems to begin and end at the constitution. While I agree that it is a pretty amazing piece of legislation, and the Framers were more intelligent individuals than most of us could ever hope to be, ignoring the context within which it was written, as well as the context within which we find ourselves is problematic to interpreting the document itself and applying it to current socio-economic realities. It is also dangerous to ascribe to the current narrative of the framers original intent. I may be more attuned to this (y’know, writing a dissertation on it and all), but the reality is that the story we are told (and continue to tell) is significantly different than historical fact bears out. The fact that almost a third of the colonists retired to Canada demonstrates the ambivalence with which the revolution was greeted. It has been the central tenet of the ongoing debate about Jefferson’ original intent with the Declaration ever since; the tension between the form of governance required for such a large state, and the levels of autonomy espoused as justifications for the Revolution. The Declaration was intended basically as an opening argument in an expected legal battle against Westminster. They had no idea it meant an actual split with Parliament. They saw themselves as an evolution within the canon of the Magna Carta, the establishment of Westminster and Cromwell.

5)      That canon has continued to evolve (albeit slowly and not without problems) but looking at alternative models of democracy can offer instructive lessons and we are naïve if we don’t consider the significant pitfalls we might be able to avoid. The expansion of bureaucracy throughout the EU, while problematic in myriad ways, has contained high potential levels of violence and xenophobia at the very least in Greece and likely in other states as well. Also, what is it specifically about socialism that is so terrible? Cooperative enterprise seems pretty important these days and making sure we continue to recognize use-value as well as symbolic-exchange-value ensures our system of exchange remains grounded in the material- pretty important for things like sustenance and making sure the environment doesn’t completely implode and kill us all 🙂

6)      I think most of my specific points of rebuttal are related to the previous overarching point, but I’ll go slightly deeper and rebut a few specific items.

  1. It’s disheartening that you don’t believe fully in natural rights. That essentially says that individuals really have no meaning without the paternalistic hand of government/the majority to tell us what we can/cannot do”: It’s not that I don’t believe in them, it’s that I recognize that the practical realities of human nature make it almost impossible to practice them, and while in the abstract there is value in recognition, if there is an impossibility of exercise I’m not totally sure of the actual value to society. It actually recognizes that there is the possibility of infringement of rights in a variety of ways that must be recognized and guarded against, if only through vigilance.
  2. “there are rights that existed before the creation of government”:  Totally agree, which is why I am a Constructivist, but I also recognize that almost all of history chronicles groups infringing on the rights of others. The only peaceful societies that are allowed to live without infringement are externally violent or serve as hubs for resource/ economic trade and are left alone because those militarily powerful recognize the value of a neutral sphere within which business can be done. We ignore this historical reality to our potential detriment, regardless of the laudable reasons for doing so.
  3. So for most, my arguments about individual liberty are an utter abstraction”: I think where I keep hoping to get to is an elucidation of what that would actually look like in practice. I think I don’t disagree with you completely in the abstract, but when attempted in practice, it rarely functions as the ideal, and more often disenfranchises those already less privileged.
  4. Inequality has not gone down despite an increased social safety net that spends more money every year… today’s liberals pursue more of the same” : Because it worked! In the 1950s and 60s redistribution policies grew the overall economy and led to much greater equality from all disenfranchised groups in society. Inequality overall had gone down and civil rights expanded across most groups, until a huge amount of deregulation during the previous administration increased income inequality and allowed those with power in society to continue amassing it while simultaneously disenfranchising those without power on a number of levels (income, general prosperity, voter rights etc) (if you want citations I’ll give them, but decided it was better to actually send this)
  5. Again, while an abstraction, if government were smaller and played less a role in our day to day lives, you’d find that the exercise of those negative rights will lead to improved social and economic outcomes.”  : So, wow. How is my previous statement hogwash?  Rhetorically strong, but doesn’t actually address the argument in the sentence just previous to that you quoted “Allowing all individuals access to some base level of provision/ safety net allows them to exercise all the other rights and improves civil society in precisely the way you advocate”   I’ll say it again more clearly. The two kinds of rights are fundamentally intertwined. It is impossible to exercise a right to free speech, or even to vote, if one doesn’t have a roof over one’s head. Moreover, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs demonstrates that if you don’t have dinner, or a safe place to sleep, you are probably going to put your energy there, instead of attempting to sway others in society to support your party of choice. Even if government were smaller, and some were able to exercise negative rights to the extent that it improved society overall, the group with that potential is a small and relatively privileged one. The extent to which their ability to exercise negative rights detracts from many others positive rights, and consequently their secondary ability to exercise negative rights must be taken into account when assessing the overall well-being of the body politic. To be clear: It wasn’t a mistake to intertwine them, it is rhetorical acrobatics to attempt to separate them when in reality they are fundamentally related to each other.
  6. The federal government was constructed as the least powerful governmental entity – not the most”: The difficulty with this statement is that while it is true in the letter of the law, in order to forge some kind of multi-national identity it was necessary to expand both the conception and the practice of federalism. It is not an accident that the federal government expanded at precisely the same time civil rights were being expanded to many groups oppressed for centuries. Integration was the only possible answer when so many were so disenfranchised that coercion by the dominant group was impossible. As that hegemony broke bureaucratic institutions expanded to codify the balances of power that have emerged as a result.
  7. “let’s not try to skirt around it with more and more regulation that doesn’t fit at all with how our country was founded – on the individual, on natural rights, with government there to protect those rights – not to create new-fangled ones because we can’t imagine an individual doing something ‘the majority’ doesn’t like.” : I think this is part of the difficulty of this argument, and my earlier point about grounding it in the Constitution without reference to either the context of writing or the context or interpretation. It wasn’t founded completely on the individual. The rhetoric used to justify the case against Westminster was highly individualistic, but the reality was then and continues to be that the negotiation between the individual and the mechanisms of state was intended as an ongoing dialogue and to ignore that (and proclaim the  individual as the only possible locus of authority is highly problematic)

7)      I think my last point is related to the non-sequitur question I posed some time ago. I am genuinely interested in what the statement ‘we are all in this together’ means to you. My conception is that as citizens, fellow members of the body politic and travelers of this particular space in time, there are things that we have in common with our neighbors and there are common problems that are best faced together. I’m interested in what the statement means to you. To what extent does ‘together’ mean only those to whom we bind ourselves by choice? To what extent are we bound by forces beyond our control? To whom are we bound? What obligations do we owe others in society and on what are those obligations founded? I think the difference in our answers might point to the deeper causes of our disagreement and actually, strangely to possible solutions. (and after all- aren’t we all solutions oriented people? J)

As an aside- I will defend to the death your right to say whatever you want and I actually agree that those who seek to shut down free speech are problematic, but I would also draw your attention to the recent controversies over policy debate rules. There are many ways of shutting down free speech, or failing to recognize how the rights of others to speak can be undermined by historical power imbalances 🙂 Totally agree that attempts to redress that imbalance must be done very carefully, but I would say that the issue is not totally one-sided…

Looking forward to all of your free speaking in return!!

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