It has been a long time since I have written about politics as such. I frequently write on topics that are adjacent to politics on the spectrum of ideas (ethics, culture, etc) and I have also indicated in a handful of posts about my general worldview that I most clearly identify with a traditionalist take on religion, culture, and politics (here is a good summary of my political ideals). However, I have not gotten into the nitty gritty since I blogged through the 2012 presidential election (except for a brief comment here after Trump’s election last year). So, what I want to do in this post is walk through my approach to politics. This post is as much about me helping myself organize my ideas as it is about expressing those ideas to others. But, before we get too far in, let’s define what we mean by “politics.”
The word “politics” derives from the Greek word polis which means “city.” The Classical Greek conception of society assumed that one’s primary identity marker and ultimate loyalty was to the polis, the city in which one lived. These poleis were generally small. The largest, Athens (at its peak), had maybe 40,000 people living in the city itself and another 160,000 in Attica, the geographic area controlled by Athens. In contrast, the “ideal” polis was thought to have maybe 10,000 inhabitants. The idea, then, was that these small communities were large enough for true military and economic adventures, but were small enough that the inhabitants knew each other well and and had a sense of cohesiveness and shared identity. The word “politics,” then, described the ways in which these inhabitants related to one another when it came to the exercise of power. By the way, we still use the word “politics” in this broader context when we discuss things like office politics, for example.
Political philosophy, or the branch of philosophy that is interested in how societies ought to be run, was invented in the Classical Greek poleis because these poleis insisted that human society was itself worthy of cultivation and because the people living in the Greek poleis were expected to have a stake in it.
In his Republic, Plato famously lays out his vision of the ideal polis. It is equally brilliant and terrifying, and it reflects Plato’s ultimate concern with the polis as a macrocosm of the soul. Like the soul, the polis possesses the passions (the fickle and and arbitrary mob), reason (technocratic and passionless elites), and the will (the administrative apparatus that does what it is told to do). For Plato, the the primary conflict both in the soul and in the polis is between Reason and Passion, with each attempting to direct the Will. Plato, of course, is very much in favor of Reason and opposed to Passion. When it comes to the soul, he makes it clear that the virtuous person will act in the way he ought to no matter the temptations of the passions. And likewise, when it comes to the polis, the fickle, arbitrary, and passionate mob should not control the levers of power. Rather, the elites, the passionless deciders, should hold the reins of power. And for Plato, the Deciders (he called them the guardians) are entitled to use deceit in order to keep the mob in line. This is called the “noble lie.” Plato goes on to describe a socially stratified society in which the guardians control almost all aspects of people’s lives. All this, he maintained, was necessary for the polis to be just.
Of course, Plato’s conception of justice differs markedly from our own, but that is exactly the point. Politics is ordered around a society’s conception of justice. The Greek word for “justice,” dike, means something like “in accordance with what is correct” with correctness defined according to custom or nature. As a post-Christian society, we have retained the Christian assumption that humans are of infinite worth. We thus tend to disagree with Plato in that we define justice in terms of what people deserve based on a) their humanness (rights) and b) their actions (consequences) and not on their telos or purpose. In point of fact, our society tends to deny that humans have any sort of transcendent purpose, but that is for another blog post. Because we live in a world shaped by the Cartesian self, we also assume that the basic building block of society is the individual. This is also opposed to the older, corporate view of all ancient peoples.
I, of course, disagree deeply with Plato. As a Christian, I can affirm, without equivocation, that since all people are made in the image of God, then all people possess intrinsic worth. It is therefore wrong, a priori, to act against a human being in a way that treats him or her as less than a human being. I am thus happy to agree that human beings possess God-given rights, and that these rights precede the state. That being said, human beings, by virtue of their intrinsic dignity and the divine image on them also possess God-given obligations, and these obligations also precede the state. And just as these rights are unchosen (they are innate), so too are these obligations unchosen. For example, a child has an unchosen obligation to care for a parent, a brother for his sister, a woman for her neighbor, etc. Indeed, Christ’s clear command in Holy Writ is that humans, by nature, possess the following two obligations: 1) to love God with heart, soul, mind, and strength and 2) to love one’s neighbor as one’s self.
Of course, Christian tradition also reminds us that things are not so simple. If following the command to love one’s neighbor were easy, there would be no need for the state. But as we all know, we regularly not only fail to love our neighbor, but we also regularly work against our neighbor’s dignity. This is the result of the Fall, the plummet from innocent harmony with God and his creation to selfish disorder in which we strive against God and our neighbor. For this reason, and this reason alone, do we have need of human governments. As St. Paul makes abundantly clear in Romans 13, the purpose of state is to restrain evil and promote virtue. Essentially, the purpose of the state is to make sure that we don’t behave so evilly that it is impossible to live together. This falls well short of the command that Jesus gives us, and even falls well below the threshold of minimally acceptable ethics: don’t do to others what you would not want done to you. Essentially, the existence of the state is a concession to the fact that we are evil.
So, finally, given our two basic facts 1) Humans have rights and obligations that precede the state and 2) Humans by nature are evil and insist on their rights without fulfilling their corresponding obligations, what sort of society ought we design from the ground up? Or, to put it another way, what ought our politics be? The reason I started with all of this ethical and theoretical background is because one cannot build a coherent political philosophy without possessing an anthropology. That is, without knowing what a human being is, one cannot adequately think through the best ways to organize those human beings.
Given, then, that at its root politics is about how, given the that human beings are both evil and dignified, power ought to be exercised to retrain evil and promote virtue, it seems important that we first consider politics in its most raw form. Thus, for what remains of this post, I will describe my ideal political arrangement. This is just a fantasy, of course, but it shapes my approach down the line. Then, I will become a bit more practical and discuss my ideal political arrangement given our context in the U.S. Finally, I will zoom in closer to the present day and discuss the kinds of beliefs and policies I would like to see gain traction in American politics as we experience it now.
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My interest in laying out my ideal political arrangement is to set out, in a few broad strokes, what I perceive the best way that humans can organize themselves in order to promote virtue and restrain evil. I will not be making much in the way of policy proposals here so much as I will be suggesting the framework for a system based on some principles derived from the fact that humans are both good and evil.
1) The majority ought not be given an outsized authority. Simply because a lot of people agree to something doesn’t make it right. Votes by majorities in certain circumstances may have to carry the day in certain decisions since that will be the only way to get widespread agreement, but the ideal political system would be well preserved from day to day control by majority rule.
2) The members of any given society ought to be cohesive. That is, the members of a society ought to share a common set of beliefs and practices. A society of atomized individuals who have lost any shared cultural customs with their neighbors is a society that is no longer anything but a geographic area governed by a central authority. The state ought to promote assimilation, inclusion, and adherence to custom and convention.
3) The state should operate on the principle of subsidiarity. That is, the lowest competent authority should make decisions, pass laws, and settle disputes. The further removed the government is from the people, the less it should interfere in the day to day lives of its people. This keeps the government close to home and under the watchful eye of the citizens. It also prevents aggregation of power to one central authority. This also preserves variety because it allows people living in different places to follow different customs and laws.
4) The means of production and ownership of land ought to be spread as widely as possible so as to maximize the equal participation of the citizenry in society. This best preserves human dignity against the totalizing forces of the central planners, whether communist or capitalist. As G.K. Chesterton once said, “Big business and state socialism are very much alike, especially big business.”
5) The state ought to recognize the obligations, institutions, customs, rights, and prerogatives that logically precede the state. For example, the state ought to respect marriage, and enforce it in its traditional sense, because marriage is an institution that is tied to the people of a place rather than to the legal fiction created by the state. In respecting these things that precede the state, the state is upholding its sacred duty to conform itself to nature and to its people, the people who make up the polis.
6) The state ought to seek a balance between liberty (that preserve of man in which he both sins and reigns) and virtue. That is, the state should seek the cultivation of virtue in the citizenry, but not through the use of draconian force. Rather, the promotion of virtue should be winsome, in collaboration with willing religious institutions, and should be ordered toward the common good.
7) The state ought to be severely restricted in its use of coercive force against the citizenry. Robust rights to protection from unreasonable search & seizure, freedom of speech and religion, and equal protection under the law ought to be preserved and affirmed.
8) The state should govern in such a way as to preserve the status quo unless their is ample justification provided for change. Change for the sake of change (the myth of progress) is a lie with no merit. We are no better than the “barbarians” who came before us. Change should be gradual and organic, not quick and technocratic. The society is a living organism and cannot be changed from the outside in except that the character of that society be eliminated.
9) Some system ought to be implemented to mute the power of money for politicians. Corruption is a real problem with real consequences, and those in power ought to be preserved, as far as possible, from that which makes them unfit to lead.
10) The state, on as local a scale as possible, ought to insure that every person who wants to is able to live decently, in accordance with human dignity.
11) The state will not operate beyond its means, but will prudently stick to a budget.
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While the above lays out the principles I would want to govern society if I were starting from scratch, the truth is that we already have a political system. So, the question becomes, “what is the best way to make use of the political system in the American context?”
Given that we live in a federal, constitutional, republic, how might the above principles be applied?
1) I would like to see a return to State legislatures having control over who the senators of a given State are. I also believe that all judges should be appointed and confirmed rather than be directly elected. Direct election does not allow for an independent judiciary. Furthermore, I think political parties should have committees that nominate candidates rather than having primaries. Finally, I believe it would be a good idea for electors to the electoral college to be elected in their own right and then to trust them to decide who to vote for for president. The reduction of the power of the majority should lead to less partisanship and more focus on getting work done instead of running for office.
2) The current power of the federal government, and of the imperial presidency especially, ought to be severely curtailed. For example, there is no reason to have federal drug laws except to the extent that drugs are trafficked across State lines. But the federal government ought not have laws against drug use. Or, for another example, the FCC should not exist. States are fully capable of regulating communication within their borders. If Texas wants to end Net Neutrality but New York wants to keep it, why can’t both happen? The framers of the constitution never intended the federal government to have this much power, and giving a central authority this much power is terribly inefficient and it replaces local leaders who are close at hand and understand their areas with leaders who are far away.
3) Local and State governments (and on occasion the federal government) ought to aggressively limit the size of corporations and should pass laws that guarantee a living wage. Official local and State government policy should be that small, local, old, and concrete is better than big, global, new, and abstract. For example, cities ought to aggressively ban national and multinational chains from building within their city limits. State governments should take all of the incentives they throw at large corporations to move in and should instead use that as seed money for startup small businesses.
4) States should openly defy the federal government when it overreaches. Thomas Jefferson, among other members of our founders, believed that a legitimate check on the constitutionality of the federal government existed with the State power of nullification. The 10th amendment reserves all powers not specifically delineated to the federal government to the States and the people. States are sovereign states who have come together to form a union. A State cannot be dissolved and the federal government and the other States do not have the power to expel it from the union. The federal government draws its authority from the States, not the other way around.
5) While federal laws and regulations ought to be significantly curtailed, State and local governments should be more creative and thoughtful in their use of law to assist society in achieving the common good. I am a firm proponent of universal healthcare and I would like to see a number of experiments conducted by the different States. States should not be mini federal governments. Rather, they should understand themselves as cohesive wholes with a place inside a larger American federation.
6) Governments at all levels should ban outright donations to candidates for office. Rather, each candidate should receive a certain amount of money from the appropriate government to spend on a campaign. Further, groups outside of whatever jurisdiction is electing an official should not be permitted to spend money in that election. And political spending by outside groups ought to be capped at a small total. I do not at all agree with the silly idea that money=speech. If money=speech, then when the government taxes you, it is violating your first amendment rights. This is about having decent, fair, and non-corrupt elections.
7) In addition to passing laws that require a living wage, State and local governments ought to actively foster an environment in which all people are cared for decently well. Of course, this mostly means that State and local governments should assist non-profits and private organizations (like churches and civic organizations). If, and only if, these organizations, even with the state’s backing fails, then the government should provide the service directly. But again, that service should be provided by the lowest level competent authority.
8) There should be a constitutional amendment that forbids any government (State, local, or federal) from operating at a loss. That is, no government may borrow money. All money must come from taxation.
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However, despite my list of dreams from above, we still find ourselves in a particular time and place. Our time and place involves the following items which I detest: a) the imperial presidency, b) the national as the focus at the expense of the regional and local, c) the outsized role of the judiciary, d) the duopoly of the GOP and the Democrats, etc. So, in light of today’s realities, here are a few things I bring with me into the voting booth:
1) First, and most importantly, I will vote for the person who seems the most restrained, qualified, and professional. Prudence is the name of the game. I would rather have a prudent and cautious person with whom I substantively disagree on policy than one with whom I agree but who is volatile.
2) I find myself willing to vote for, on a national level, things I wish were left up to the States because I know good and well my State, at least, will never get around to considering them. For example, I am a proponent of universal healthcare. And while I firmly believe that this should start with neighborhoods and communities, I am willing to vote for it at a federal level if I have to.
3) Despite my misgivings about the size of the federal government or its reach, I pointedly do not believe that it should be reigned in with any kind of sudden or drastic action. I prefer an inefficient and overly controlling central bureaucracy to anything that would destabilize the country. The main enemy of society is disorder. So while I would support long term movement toward my vision, in the short term I will not vote for politicians who promise to dismantle the federal government on DAY 1! For example, in the Republican primary in 2016, several candidates promised to “tear up the Iran agreement on Day 1!” John Kasich (who I voted for) said that he would have to study the agreement in detail before making a decision. This is called being an adult.
4) As far as “the issues” are concerned, I tend to care about (in order of importance) the following:
- The right to life from conception to natural death. I oppose abortion, euthanasia, capital punishment, assisted suicide, and any other mechanism that seeks to directly end life.
- The right to free speech, the exercise of religion, peaceful assembly, and of the press. These are often called our “first freedoms” because they are enshrined in the first amendment to the constitution. I am also a big fan of the 4th amendment and its insistence that we ought to be protected in our persons, papers, and effects from unreasonable search and seizure. These are the rights (along with the rest of the Bill of Rights) that prevent government oppression of the citizens. Right now, I see the primary threat to this group of rights to be in the religious freedom arena. For example, Christian florists and bakers are being persecuted for refusing to sell their products for use in same-sex weddings. While public accommodation laws (rightly) require businesses to serve all customers, those laws, when they conflict with the first amendment, ought to be trumped.
- Poverty and access to resources that foster quality living conditions, including access to healthcare. Given the caveats listed in the opening paragraph in this section, I find myself largely sympathetic to the progressive wing of the Democratic Party (Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, etc). I support universal healthcare, for example. However, I would prefer to see some sort of Universal Basic Income (guaranteed through tax credits) in place of the sprawling, expensive, and inefficient bureaucracy. However, given a binary choice, I would happily vote for current progressive proposals.
- Protectionism. I am a bit of a protectionist. In general, I support the government passing laws in such a way that favors domestic producers. The federal government should impose tariffs and the State and local governments should build private-public partnerships ordered toward building a thriving economic community.
- Fiscal responsibility. I am with John Kasich on this. I do not support any spending that is not paid for via taxation.
- The environment. I am persuaded that if we do not act very soon, we will find ourselves in an environmental catastrophe that we will not be able to escape. So, on a national level, I support US participation in treaties (like Paris climate agreement) and federal laws regulating carbon emissions. SInce all of us are affected by emissions producers in other States, I believe this falls well within the purview of the federal government.
- Crime. I am a Law & Order kind of person. I believe there ought to be robust laws against the production, possession, and use of drugs (from marijuana on up). While I do not believe jail time is all that effective for low-level offenders, I do believe in the use of mandatory rehab and in job training programs that help people get out of this mess. I also generally think the police get too bad a rap. But, at the same time, I want any agent of the state to be held to a high threshold of scrutiny.
5) All of this, of course, means I have no real political home. I have historically had to choose between the lesser of two evils (usually voting to the pro-life Republican because that issue is so important to me). I would happily vote for a pro-life, pro-religion Democrat. That would be the best of both worlds.
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I hope this post has been helpful to you. It has certainly helped me better understand my perspective on politics.
P.S. This is what happens when you have the beliefs that I have: