Monday, August 27, 2012

Equality and the Republican Tradition

After a short hiatus, I want to return to the theme of corruption. I have been taking my cues from Aristotle, exploring the various ways in which government -- particularly republican government-- can degenerate. The topic of corruption was one that preoccupied the founders of the American constitutional democracy. As Gordon Wood and Lance Banning have shown, American writers in the late 18th century built upon so-called "Country" opposition in England -- a tradition that extended back to the time of the English Civil War and found its paradigmatic expression in the work of James Harrington. In fact, the tradition goes back to Aristotle, via Machiavelli, and extends through Algernon Sidney and Lord Bolingbroke into the mid-18th century. As Banning demonstrates, the preoccupation of American politicians and political writers with the danger of corruption in a republic lay at the basis of the emergence of the "Jeffersonian persuasion": the oppositional ideology that emerged in the 1790s to oppose many of the policies of the Federalists in the executive branch and their congressional allies. The so-called "Republicans" led by Jefferson and Madison (the latter of whom somewhat unexpectedly switching away from his original federalist leanings), saw signs of corruption in federalist policies (such as the creation of the first Bank of the United States) that hinted at an increase in inequality through the rise and empowerment of a commercial elite closely tied with the federal government, as well as an increase in the power of the national government at the expense of the states, of the agrarian element in society, and of regions of the country not involved extensively in manufacturing and banking.

A concern about inequality is a major theme of civic republican thought. Aristotle argued that a healthy polity is one based on equality. Machiavelli, Harrington, Montesquieu, Rousseau -- all insisted that a rough equality among citizens was necessary to avoid the corruptive force of wealth. Each of them argued that laws must seek to prevent large inequalities and must seek to foster frugality and a devotion to the public interest rather than one's private interests. None of these thinkers called for complete equality; rather, they only noted that -- because a devotion to riches is a sign of corruption and because inequality inevitably leads to class warfare and the breakdown of the constitution -- the development of a vast gap between rich and poor must be prevented. Developments in the 19th century virtually put an end to this line of thinking in American political writing and in American government policymaking. As early as the 1830s, Tocqueville was noticing a tension between the urge for greater equality and the protection of economic liberty. Voices calling for equality, and for government policy to place limits on the growth of inequality, appear now and again in American history, but they have generally been drowned out by the sort of pro-capitalist boosterism that defines corporate success as national success, wealth as a sign of greatness, education as critical for economic growth (rather than, say, for active citizenship), and major corporate entities as so central to public welfare that they can be "too big to fail."

Of course, as J. Peter Euben has pointed out, in the Aristotelian framework the meaning of equality varies with the particular circumstances of the regime (oligarchic equality is different from democratic equality). What matters for Aristotle is that equals be treated equally and unequals unequally. But Aristotle was most concerned -- especially in his consideration of the best political regime -- with the quality of a person's contributions to the common good. Mere riches should never be enough to place one above others in terms of the honor and rewards handed out by society; rather, public reward and approval should be based on what one does for the community as a whole. Lining one's own pockets, or even the pockets of one's friends and the other members of one's social class, does not qualify as a significant contribution to the common good. In fact, given that, for Aristotle, the use of power for the good of the rulers rather than the good of all characterizes all perverted regimes, lining one's own pockets inevitably cuts against the common good: a nation in which many seek their own benefit (at the cost of the public interest) is a corrupt regime,  no matter how wealthy,  how powerful, or how proud its citizens may be of it. This is especially true when the behaviors required to obtain riches (always at the expense of others) are encouraged (or not discouraged) by the social order -- by its religions, its educational system, its popular culture. No republic can last long when the institutions that should encourage a commitment to the welfare of all instead praise those actions that work to benefit private individuals and to raise them above their fellows in economic, political, and cultural power. When the social order conspires to reward selfishness (however masked by protestations of concern for the public welfare) rather than commitment to the good of all, the regime is an oligarchy, not a republic. Republics reward those actions and ideals of character that foster the common good; oligarchies (i.e., perverted regimes) pass out rewards to the rich, regardless of any contribution to the common good. Oligarchies discriminate against those whose contributions to the common good warrant greater consideration and reward, while ever greater wealth flows into the coffers of the rich.

It is worth reiterating that no writer in the republican tradition called for complete equality. All of them recognized a value in commerce and the resulting inequalities; they differed only on whether those involved in commerce should have a political role to play in the republic. But all of these writers worried that the minimal inequality they were willing to accept could easily grow into considerable differences among citizens, as the few accumulated inordinate wealth and translated it into political power. Not only does such accumulation serve no particular common purpose, but it also tends to deprive the people whose habits and virtues most characterize good republican citizenship -- the middle class, according to republican theory (from Aristotle on) -- of their fair share of social rewards. Worse yet, it can lead to polarization within the society, ultimately leading to the demise of republican government and its replacement with an oligarchy or a tyranny.

To a disturbing extent, we have lost the spirit of the republican concern for equality -- which is to say that we have become corrupt. That loss confronts us with the need to think seriously about whether or not we agree with those who founded our constitutional democracy. They warned of the dangers of large inequalities of wealth; they contended that no regime could countenance such large inequalities and still remain a republic. They insisted that a social order pervaded by a glorification of economic accumulation, a society in which the rich are praised, fawned upon, and handed political power, was a land in which the people had lost their liberty, for they had given it into the hands of oligarchs. Were they right? If so, what must be do to re-found our republic on its original principles? If they were wrong, where is the political theory that explains why oligarchy is the best form of government? (Does it lie, for instance, in the dense books of Austrian economists or the nearly unreadable novels of Russian emigres?) And, if we truly think oligarchy is the best system of government, we must face the fact that we no longer believe in the same principles that motivated the founders of our nation. That is a path left open to us by republican theory, for the people can always re-found itself, reconstruct its regime, revise or create anew its constitution. But it is a path that diverges greatly from the ideas that inspired the founding of this nation.

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