Securing Liberty: A Bailout for the Rest of Us

The following are preliminary notes for a talk I was invited to give at the Midwest Liberty Fest in Du Quoin, IL , 9th-11th inst. The meeting included a wider variety of views than might have been predicted; I think it testifies to the failure of the Republicans and Democrats to constrain political debate within the tenets of neoliberalism (which was constructed a generation ago to suppress the challenging and creative political ideas of “the sixties”). For at least a decade, according to Harvard’s Vanishing Voter Project, about 75 percent of Americans have felt that even presidential elections don’t matter, that they’re just some kind of game being played by rich contributors, party bosses, and the media. That seems right to me, so it shouldn’t surprise us that the politics grown outside that carefully fenced garden should contain some luxuriant varieties, along with some quite sensible critiques. They’re perhaps the beginning of a more serious politics in America, which seems to need to be repristinated every generation or so.

From May ’68: “le vote ne change rien; la lutte continue.”

The basis of a democratic state is liberty;
which, according to the common opinion of men,
can only be enjoyed in such a state; this they
affirm to be the great end of every democracy.

–Aristotle, POLITICS 1317a40f.

[1] HOW DID LIBERTY GET INTO THE RICH MEN’S CONSTITUTION?

We’ve heard the words so often that we don’t seem to need to think too much
about what they mean: our government exists to “establish Justice, insure
domestic Tranquility, provide for the common Defense, promote the general
Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity”
(Preamble to the Constitution of the United States, 1787).

We don’t notice for example, that that’s not just a list but a progression: if
we establish a just society, we “insure … tranquility” (peacefulness) inside
the country (domestically), so that we can then defend ourselves in common
against those outside; and peace inside and outside a just society can allow us
to work to make everyone better off — to “promote [that is] the general
welfare” — with the goal of securing what makes for liberty and what liberty
brings us — “the blessings of liberty” — for us and our families.

We might be surprised that liberty comes at the end of the progression, not at
the beginning, where we might expect it. But the framers of the Constitution
thought of the blessings of liberty as an achievement, not a given, for all that
we had a right to them. They were men of the Enlightenment, the great movement
of liberatory thought of the 18th century, which drew on the intellectual riches
of the past — ancient, medieval and modern: the Hebrew Bible, the New
Testament, the wisdom of Greece and Rome, and the thinkers of the thousand years
that followed.

But they were hardly dealing in the abstract. The people who wrote the 1787
Constitution, now in force in the United States, were well-to-do men dealing
with a practical challenge. A Massachusetts farmer named Daniel Shays, a
veteran of the Revolutionary War, had turned up at a county court house a year
before to object to a rich man’s foreclosure on Shays’ farm. And Shays brought
some friends who were in the same predicament. And they brought their guns.

Shays knew how to use his. He had fought in the battles of Bunker Hill,
Ticonderoga, Saratoga and Stony Point. At the end of the war, he was awarded a
ceremonial sword by the Marquis de Lafayette, for distinguished service.

When he and his friends arrived art he court, the Massachusetts authorities
called out a private militia, and when the militia arrived, many joined Shays.
Those who had wealth and power in the newly independent united states —
governed then by the Articles of Confederation — concluded that they needed a
stronger government to defend their property.

The result was the secret and technically treasonous assembly in Philadelphia in
the hot summer of 1787 (the members of which had sworn allegiance to the
Articles of Confederation and were licensed only to amend them).

Our best source for the deliberations over the Constitution (and its principal
author), James Madison, notes in his diary that the primary purpose of the new
government was “to protect the minority of the opulent against the majority” —
i.e., to protect the rich against Daniel Shays and his friends.

Madison and his colleagues may have been self-interested but they were not
stupid. Unlike many modern intellectuals, they had not cast aside the
accumulated wisdom of the human race, but had respect for it and tried to apply
it to their own circumstances. The government that they designed was based on
the principles of the Enlightenment and two thousand years of thought about the
best state of a commonwealth.

We today — most of us — have learned not to despise people on the basis of
their race, religion, gender, or place of national origin, but we still seem to
be willing to condescend to those who have the unfortunate characteristic of
being dead. We discount what they thought and said as if they were children,
not as adult as we are. I think that leads us to miss a lot, at the very least.
The framers, as men of the Enlightenment, were not that way.

In reaction against the despotic state structures of Renaissance Europe, the
Enlightenment “asserts [liberty] as its major idea — an opposition to all but
the most restricted and minimal forms of state intervention in personal and
social life. This conclusion is quite familiar, however the reasoning that leads
to it is less familiar and, I think, a good deal more important than the
conclusion itself.

“One of the earliest and most brilliant expositions of this position is in
Wilhelm Von Humboldt’s ‘Limits of State Action’, written in 1792 … In his view
the state tends to ‘make man an instrument to serve its arbitrary ends,
overlooking his individual purposes.’ And, since humans are in their essence
free, searching, self-perfecting being, it follows that the state is a
profoundly anti-human institution. That is, its actions, its existence, are
ultimately incompatible with the full harmonious development of human potential
in its richest diversity — hence incompatible with what Humboldt [and many
others] saw as the true end of man. (And for the record I think that this is an
accurate description.)

“…For Humboldt [and the Enlightenment in general] humanity’s central attribute
is its freedom. ‘To enquire and to create, these are the centers around which
all human pursuits more or less directly revolve.’ But he goes on to say that
‘all moral cultures spring solely and immediately from the inner life of the
soul and can never be produced by external and artificial contrivances. The
cultivation of the understanding, as of any man’s other faculties, is generally
achieved by his own activity, his own ingenuity, or his own methods of using the
discoveries of others’…

“He says, ‘Man never regards what he possesses as so much his own, as what he
does; and the laborer who tends the garden is perhaps in a truer sense its
owner, than the listless voluptuary who enjoys its fruits.’

“And since truly human action is that which flows from inner impulse, ‘it seems
as if all peasants and craftsmen might be elevated into artists; that is, men
who love their labor for its own sake, improve it by their own plastic genius
and inventive skill, and thereby cultivate their intellect, ennoble their
character, and exult and refine their pleasures; and so humanity would be
ennobled by the very things which now, though beautiful in themselves, so often
go to degrade it’…

“‘Freedom is undoubtedly the indispensable condition, without which even the
pursuits most congenial to individual human nature, can never succeed in
producing such salutary influences. Whatever does not spring from a man’s free
choice, or is only the result of instruction and guidance, does not enter into
his very being, but remains alien to his true nature. He does not perform it
with truly human energies, but merely with mechanical exactness.’

“‘And if someone acts in a mechanical way, reacting to external demands or
instruction, rather than in ways determined by his own interests and energies
and power,’ he says, ‘we may admire what he does, but we despise what he is.’

“For Humboldt then, man is born to enquire and create, and when a man or a child
chooses to enquire or create out of its own free choice, then he becomes, in his
own terms, ‘an artist rather than a tool of production or a well-trained
parrot.’ This is the essence of [the Enlightenment] concept of human nature.”

[2] IF THE CONSTITUTION IS ABOUT LIBERTY, WHY DO WE HAVE SO LITTLE OF IT?

To come to the present — Where, in our experience, is that concept most often
violated? I suggest our liberty is lost most notably in our work life, at our
jobs. Our work is in the first place what we freely create with the talents of
our head and hands. In this sense people want to work — indeed it is work
like that that distinguishes us from other animals, with whom what appears as
work is instinct. For us it is a matter of liberty.

In the modern world however we have to give over control of what makes us human,
our work, to someone else’s control. I can have a job — I can be employed — if
and only if it makes some rich person richer than it makes me. And in that job
I have little if any democratic control.

“[In] the modern era, economic, political and ideological systems have
increasingly been taken over by vast institutions of private tyranny that are
about as close to the totalitarian ideal as any that humans have so far
constructed. ‘Within the corporation,’ political economist Robert Brady wrote
half a century ago, ‘all policies emanate from the control above. In the
[conjunction] of this power to determine policy with the execution thereof, all
authority necessarily proceeds from the top to the bottom and all responsibility
from the bottom to the top. This is, of course, the inverse of “democratic”
control; it follows the structural conditions of dictatorial power.'”

This situation runs directly counter to the ideas that animated the framers.
Another Enlightenment thinker, Simon Linguet, wrote twenty years before the
Constitution,

“It is the impossibility of living by any other means that compels our farm
laborers to till the soil, whose fruits they will not eat, and our masons to
construct buildings in which they will not live. It is want that drags them to
those markets where they await masters who will do them the kindness of buying
them. It is want that compels them to go down on their knees to the rich man in
order to get from him permission to enrich him… What effective gain has the
suppression of slavery brought to them? … He is free, you say. Ah, that is his
misfortune. These men, it is said, have no master. They have one, and the most
terrible, the most imperious of masters: that is, need. It is this that that
reduces them to the most cruel dependence.”

“And if there is something degrading to human nature in the idea of bondage, as
every spokesman for the Enlightenment would insist, then it would follow that a
new emancipation must be awaited, what [another Enlightenment figure] referred
to as the ‘third and last emancipatory phase of history’ — the first having
made serfs out of slaves, the second wage-earners out of serfs, and the third
which will bring the commercial, industrial, and financial institutions under
democratic control.”

Von Humboldt, in 1792, sums up his Enlightenment vision as follows: he says “the
whole tenor of the ideas and arguments unfolded in this essay might fairly be
reduced to this: that while they would break all fetters in human society, they
would attempt to find as many new social bonds as possible. The isolated man is
no more able to develop than the one who is fettered.”

“And he in fact looks forwards to a community of free association, without
coercion by the state or other authoritarian institutions, in which free people
can create, inquire, and achieve the highest development of their powers.” That
was the idea of liberty behind the 1787 Constitution.

[3] CUI BONO?

It is an essential vision; it is the vision that underlies our American
institutions — and where there is no vision the people perish. But how today
do we realize that vision of the blessings of liberty, given the social and
political morass into which we have sunk at the end of the first decade of 21st
century?

Well, some of our rulers seem to be finding a way to secure the blessings of
liberty for themselves and their posterity. A year ago this week the USG began
an unprecedented bailout of the some of the richest people in the country and
the institutions that had made them so rich, the banking institutions of the
country. And the size of the bailout was unprecedented. Billions of dollars
that shored up institutions with no semblance of democratic control, billions of
dollars that found their way into the pockets of the richest people in the
country and made them impossibly richer.

“The bailout of the banks was an exercise in corruption and favoritism. The
Obama administration’s deals with the pharmaceutical industry, doctors, and
hospitals look the same.”

[4] A FIVE-POINT BOFROU

How about, instead, A BAILOUT FOR THE REST OF US — and particularly one that
restores our liberty?

As it happens, I have one here — and it consists of five points, like the
preamble to the Constitution.

It recognizes that the blessings of liberty are of two kinds, of the mind and
the body. They cannot be separated any more that body and soul can be separated
here below. The blessings that make for liberty free the body, the blessings
that come from liberty free the mind and soul.

{POINT ONE} is justice, specifically tax justice, justice regarding income. The Internal Revenue Code is said to be more than twice as long as the KJV of the Bible, and it is principal instrument for the vast concentration of wealth in very few hands that’s occurred in the last few years. (The Code, not the Bible.) So what do we do? “Get rid of the infamous thing,” as Voltaire said, during the Enlightenment. (He was in fact talking about something else.)

Abolish the internal revenue code and establish a low, flat tax on all income.
In order to begin to redress the extreme imbalance in wealth in this country, we
should perhaps abolish all income taxes. If you tax something, you usually get
less of it (that at least is the theory behind raising the taxes on cigarette
smoking, and it seems to work]. But against the idea of abolition is the sense
that in a democracy of one person one vote, we should all contribute at least a
little to the functioning of that government. So a low, flat tax — and no
Internal Revenue Code.

But we shouldn’t stop there. During the administration of President Richard
Nixon, almost 40 years ago, a bill that would have established a negative income
tax almost made it through Congress. Such a proposal joined to a low flat tax
could provide an income at the level of a living wage for all Americans. The
plan was set out in detail by the late economist Milton Friedman in 1962 in his
book “Capitalism and Freedom.”

“With an NIT, the need for minimum wage, food stamps, welfare, and even social
security would be eliminated — along with the vast and expensive bureaucracies
that administer them. The NIT would be in effect a guaranteed annual income
(GAI) at the level of a living wage.

Perhaps even more importantly, some degree of liberty would be restored to our
work. The need to take any job that’s offered in order to eat regularly and
feed one’s family would no longer exist. On the other side, the disappearance
of the minimum wage would restore employment to being a capitalist act between
consenting adults. Take the job at the wage offered if you want to — but you
don’t have to.

Our gimcrack system of minimum wage, food stamps, welfare, and social security
doesn’t even work. Today a family of four living on minimum wage cannot afford
the average two-bedroom apartment in any community in the United States.

And this aspect of the BOFROU would do far more to end the recession than the
Bailout of the Bankers. All admit that consumer spending is the crucial support
for the real economy. At the dawn of the automobile industry, Henry Ford paid
high wages so that his workers could afford the cars that they were building.
Now we can’t even employ 10% — some say 20% — of those who want to work.

A populace with a guaranteed annual income at the level of a living wage would
have to spend it, providing the demand immediately that the administration’s
stimulus program is supposed to provide a good way down the road.

But, I hear you cry, this would be expensive! How would we pay for it? It’s
interesting that that question wasn’t asked a year ago when vast sums were
required to bail out the banks. Nor was it heard during the last administration
or this one when billions of dollars were said to be needed to kill people in
the Middle East.

But we’ll do better, and answer the question with

{POINT TWO}: tax wealth (as opposed to income). Tax something and you get less
of it, as we said, and we don’t want less wealth but rather less difference in
wealth. Although real wages in this country haven’t risen in more than a
generation, the rich have gotten richer at a rapidly increasing rate while
almost all of us have at best stayed level. The concentration of wealth has
grown enormously. There has been a vast redistribution of wealth upwards, into
the top 1% of the population. We want to reverse that.

Income disparities don’t capture the real nature of economic inequality in
America, because the rich don’t take their money in income but, say, capital
gains. The distribution of wealth is much more unequal than the distribution of
income. The bottom 60% of households possess only 4% of the nation’s wealth.
The top 20% has 50% of the income but 85% of the wealth.

Wealth is concentrated in the hands of a small number of families. The
wealthiest 1 percent of families owns more than a third of the nation’s net
worth, the top 10% of families owns over 70%, and the bottom 40% of the
population owns far less than 1%.

A steeply graduated tax on wealth would exempt 95% of all Americans. Only the
top 1% would pay noticeable amounts — and toward the top of that 1%, they
should be quite noticeable.

It should be clear here that we are talking about liberty, not envy — about
bodily freedom, not about the equalization of wealth. “I cannot see the
slightest objection to other people being richer than I am; I have no urge to be
as rich as everybody else, and no Christian (and indeed no grown up person)
could possibly devote his life to trying to be as rich or richer than others.”

But there’s another source of money to pay for the GAI at the level of a living
wage that will restore consumer demand. That leads us to

{POINT THREE} Bring the troops home and stop paying vast amounts for imperial
wars. Bring the troops home, not just from the Middle East, where the
administration is killing people to secure control over world oil supplies and
is lying about what it doing; it’s not stopping terrorism but creating it.
Bring the troops home also from the more than 700 (sic!) military bases that he
US has around the world.

The US spends more on the military each year than the entire rest of the world.
A generation ago, we were told that would stop after the fall of Communism.
The peace divided could be returned to the people. It didn’t happen.

That military and those bases are supposed to be defending us against terrorism,
but the dirty little secret — in fact it’s a filthy big secret — is that the
US needs the threat of terrorism to justify its military incursion into the
Middle East.

And terrorism is a real threat, as a result of the US invasion and occupation of
foreign lands, notably the Middle East. And why? If the primary product of
Iraq were asparagus, do you think that we would have half the American army there?

If the USG really wanted to defend us against terrorism, it would do things it
has avoided doing, like securing our ports. (I have a friend who says it would
be easy to get a nuclear bomb into NY harbor: “Just wrap it in a bale of
marijuana,” he says.)

Of course, it’s no joking matter. The prospects are serious indeed, but instead
of dealing with them, our government says it’s stopping terrorism by killing
people in Pakistani villages with drone rockets.

And there is one more great cost of our government’s military adventurism,
discussed in one of the best political books I’ve read recently, Bill Kauffman’s
“Ain’t My America: The Long, Noble History of Antiwar Conservatism and
Middle-American Anti-Imperialism.” In it Kauffman makes the point that the
victims of American militarism include notably the men and women in the US
military and their families.

{POINT FOUR} We can also afford to provide healthcare, and without the
administration’s “Insurance Industry Profit Protection and Enhancement Act,” as
it has rightly been called.

Much ridicule has been heaped upon the charge that the administration’s Rube
Goldberg plan would mandate end of life decision, the dreaded “death panels.”

But “Since the major preoccupation of liberals for 30 years has been the right
to kill embryos, why should they not be suspect in their intentions toward those
gasping in the thin air of senility? [I take his matter rather personally.]
There is a strong eugenic thread to American progressivism, most horribly
expressed in its very successful campaign across much of the twentieth century
to sterilize “imbeciles.” [A distant cousin of mine was a major figure in that
campaign.] Abortion is now widening in its function as a eugenic device. Women
in their 40s take fertility drugs, then abort the inconvenient twins, triplets
or quadruplets when they show up on the scan.

“’The progress of eugenic abortion into the heart of our society is a classic
example of ‘mission creep,’ In the 1960s, we were told that legal abortion would
be a rare tragic act in cases of exceptional hardship. In the ’70s abortion
began to be both decried and accepted as birth control. In the ’80s respected
geneticists pointed out that it was cheaper to hunt for and abort Down’s babies
than to raise them. By the ’90s that observation had been widely put into
action. Now we are refining and extending our eugenic vision, with new tests and
abortion as our central tools.

“So if we have mission creep in the opening round, what’s to persuade people
that there won’t be mission creep at the other — and the kindly official
discussing living wills won’t tiptoe out of the ward and tell the hospital that
the old fellow he’s just conferred with is ripe to meet his maker?”

Instead, we already have a system, established more than 40 years ago, that
provides for medical care — if you’re old enough: in principle, you go to the
doctor or hospital of your choice, and the government pays the bill. But
Medicare is available only to those over 65. We solve the healthcare crisis by
making it available to all. But the administration is in fact instead proposing
to invade that system to pay for its plan, which has been rightly called “an
absolute gift to the [insurance] industry.”

{POINT FIVE} Liberty must be physical as well as mental. The CEO of the
yuppie grocery Whole Foods, Inc., writes in the WSJ that there is no “intrinsic
right to health care, food or shelter … This “right” has never existed in
America.” Americans in his view have only the right to starve, or die of
exposure, unless they rent themselves to people like him. But that is hardly
the blessings of liberty that the government is established to secure.

But humankind “must first of all eat, drink, have shelter and clothing, before
it can pursue politics, science, art, religion, etc.” Two years after the
writing of the Constitution, Thomas Jefferson wrote, “The earth belongs to the
living,” and he meant specifically the things needed for human flourishing.

The blessings of liberty come in two sorts; (1) the things that give us liberty,
the free use of our bodies, and (2) the things that liberty gives us, the free
use of our minds. And these things belong to us not as handouts form a Lady
Bountiful government, but as rights that it is the responsibility of government
to secure.

If we do not attend to both, we are in the situation described in the second
chapter of the Letter of James in the New Testament:

“If one of the brothers or one of the sisters is in need of clothes and has not
enough food to live on, and one of you says to them, ‘I wish you well; keep
yourself warm and eat plenty,’ without giving them these bare necessities of
life, then what good is that?”

***

IN SUMMARY, THEN, if we think of ways of pursuing the goals for government set
out 222 years ago, we find some suggestions for a bailout for the rest of us:

[1] ESTABLISH JUSTICE by a tax system — flat and negative — that would
produce a guaranteed annual income at the level of a living wage;

[2] INSURE DOMESTIC TRANQUILITY, disturbed since Daniel Shays’ time by the
conflict of rich and poor, by taxing vast wealth directly (and undue
financialization via a Tobin tax, etc.);

[3] PROVIDE FOR THE COMMON DEFENSE by bringing the troops home and actually
defending against terrorism, rather than using it as an excuse for the invasion
and occupation of foreign countries;

[4] PROMOTE THE GENERAL WELFARE by providing healthcare via Medicare for all,
and education for interest, not for employment; and

[5] SECURE THE BLESSINGS OF LIBERTY TO OURSELVES AND OUR POSTERITY — the
blessings that make for liberty, those of the body, and the blessings that flow
from liberty, those of the mind — to promote the situation of the person who is
living without hindrance the life that is becoming to a human being, the
“satisfactory” life — which means literally the life that is “sufficiently
made” — and, for that, liberty is essential, as we’ve known at least since the
Enlightenment.

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“Either you repeat the same conventional doctrines everybody is saying, or else you say something true, and it will sound like it’s from Neptune.” –Noam Chomsky