Written by H. Michael Hartoonian
What greater joke can God play on a man,
than to give him what he wants.
Within the last quarter century, the precept of “We The People” has been relentlessly battered and belittled by politicians, business leaders, and the media, to the point that it almost sounds corny to utter the phrase – the Constitution notwithstanding. While dissatisfaction with government is a value that runs deep in American mythology, the recent manifestations of disgust for the nation and its democratic principles are an historic first.
The labels conservative, liberal, Democrat, and Republican have become meaningless as they are systematically used against one another with all the fury and myopia of warring barbarians. Facts, reason, and logic have given way to fear, cunning, and loathing. We are “cooking the book” of reality and replacing it with perceptions and lies that should make citizens wince; particularly when thinking of the American lives that have been given to establish and maintain the values and goals outlined in our Declaration of Independence and Preamble to the Constitution. But what can you expect from a people who know little of their history and even less of their responsibilities as citizens. Within the last twenty-five years, we have turned the United States from a culture to an economy – devoid of most values, save for greed. And, we seem to lack any understanding of the first principle of capitalism – that a free market MUST be encased in ethics or it will very soon become sluggish, expensive, and corrupt.
The relationship between a republic and the market must be understood. Everyone who can, must contribute – through taxes, rightful behavior, and the building of ethical homes, firms, and communities. If we don’t attend to the material and ethical infrastructure of our communities, society will morph into a place where the bell-shaped curve of income and wealth, so necessary for a democratic society, will change into a wealth distribution pattern we call a “banana republic.” This is where the wealth is held by the few and the very few, and the middle-class all but disappears.
Consider that within the United States right now, the top 400 richest people have more wealth than 150 million other Americans! The rich also pay more taxes and contribute more to politicians than those 150 million. For reasons beyond any sense of patriotism, people who can, now talk about moving their businesses to China. Others refuse to work on improving their life’s condition and still others want to live in a more tax friendly state. We have come to believe that the blessings of liberty, economic opportunity, and life itself are things for which we, rich or poor, are personally responsible. How quaint this is, how historically and economically innocent; how un-American. We can keep this republic only if we stay ethically engaged in the market and take personal responsibility for the civic health of every institution in which we live, work, and learn. It is in our self-interest to pursue PUBLIC happiness which is the true meaning of Jefferson’s list of inalienable rights – the pursuit of happiness. A republic means, above all else, that without a conception of the common good, personal well being is problematic.
It seems clear that politicians and citizens in several states have neglected the principles and practices of democratic government. This is certainly true in Minnesota where we have been living on our “seed corn” for over ten years – and now we have little left to plant for the future. We should all be ASHAMED.
In Wisconsin, the birthplace of progressive government where the people built a civic culture and quality of life that became the envy of other states, politicians and others are trying to disregard that history. Elected officials there are on the verge of setting their state back one hundred years. What arguments have the governor and the “Republicans” made to show that unions really diminish the common wealth of Wisconsin? What arguments have the Democrats made to show how common wealth has been enhanced by unions? Was it all about the state budget that needed repair? Is Wisconsin really broke? Was it the flexibility that local governments needed to bargain with their workers? Or was it an opportunity to rid Wisconsin of the Democratic Party? All of this aside, the best arguments must be built around the concept of wealth creation and exactly how any political action will enhance the common wealth – the material and ethical infrastructure of the state. Wealth is excellence, and creating infrastructure excellence is the only way that private wealth will grow and markets thrive. Viewing the conflict from afar, I may not understand the whole story, but I recognize undemocratic practices and sloppy arguments, be they Democrat or Republican. It should occur to us that all we have is each other. As scary as that is, the people are the only ones who can create or destroy personal and common wealth, and we do it together.
Like you, I have always wanted my family to be healthy, well educated, and to be good citizens. I want my school and team to be the best they can, my country to stand for the best that free people could conceive of and implement. Taking humble pride in all the institutions to which we belong is what gives us our identity. And that identity informs our responsibilities. The problem I see in both of these states and in the people and their representatives is that they simply have no idea of who they are. They believe themselves to be self serving, morally and financially broken warriors who want to starve the beast of government. This view of the current people in government is rather humorous because most of these individuals have never served this nation in any meaningful way. Who they should be or become, are loving critics of their state and nation who understand that meaning and happiness stem from what you contribute to family, firm, school, community, state, and nation. It is, indeed, more sacred and joyful. At least that’s what I believe my church and family taught me.
Balance, fairness, and love of community will always lead to wealth creation. But how can we create wealth when we are so removed from any working definition of excellence – whether infrastructure, management, labor, schooling, parenting, commerce, media, etc. Until we understand the true meaning of wealth we will remain mediocre and superficial at best, and so will our families, firms and states. Is this what we voted for? Is this want we want? Or is this simply what we deserve?
Michael Hartoonian is Scholar in Residence at Hamline University, St. Paul, MN and former Professor and Senior Fellow and Director of the Institute for Democratic Capitalism, in the Department of Educational Policy and Administration, College of Education and Human Development University of Minnesota. His research interests are in ethics, education and economics, and their integration in a democratic republic, as well as identifying democratic value tensions in American history and contemporary life. He can be reached via email: firstname.lastname@example.org