Thursday, October 2, 2008

Law and Collective Responsibility

Tonight the PSU Law and Philosphy Society will meet to take up the question of collective responsibility for the current financial crisis. I regret I cannot attend the meeting set for 6:00 PM at Webster's Cafe on Allen Street. My role in collective responsibility for kids, dinner and laundry interfere with my freedom to sip coffee and talk about philosophical implications of just about anything.

If I could be there, I'd add to Plato's reflections, those of columnist George Will on the financial crisis appearing yesterday in the Washington Post and elsewhere. Will observes that "[w]e are waist deep in evasions because one cannot talk sense about the cultural roots of the financial crisis without transgressing this cardinal principle of politics: Never shall be heard a discouraging word about the public."

The public, he notes, typically admonishes government to run its budget the way households supposedly do, matching expenses with income. This time, though, the public decided "it would be jolly fun to budget the way the government does, hitching outlays to appetites." This time, it is painfully clear that all of us not-so-secretly delight in deficit spending, both for our household budgets and for our collective big one.

The usual populist riposte to government action, to contrast the virtue of the people with the vice of some unpopular minority, falls flat. The rhetoric that would in the past elevate the wisdom and thrift of Main Street above the greed and excesses of Wall Street belies the new truth that the folks on Main Street have been just as greedy and excessive. They bought real estate on speculation with borrowed money for more than they could afford. They knew exactly what they were doing. Now their only pretense at preserving virtue is the last defense of scoundrels, the devil made us do it.

This time, we are all in it together, the collective and the individual. The proposed legislation snaking through the House of Representatives today marks what may be a new era in our understanding of justice, freedom and the scope of government relative to individuals.

Best wishes Law and Philosophy Society. May the wisdom of the ages be with you.


Alison M. Kilmartin said...

Love the post, love the emphasis on collective responsibility. I haven't heard many talking about this, and it needs to be addressed.

Anonymous said...

I am more excited about Will's Tory impulse to distrust the masses. It animated the Founding Fathers, too.

One of my favorite passages from Shakespeare insults the masses, and suggests why they are a poor guide for making policy. This is Octavian (destined to be Augustus) responding to Agrippa's concern with the Egypt-banished Marc Antony's rising popularity with the Roman public:

"I should have known no less, it hath been taught us from the primal state, that he which is was wish'd until he were, and the ebb'd man, never loved till never worth love, comes dear'd by being lacked;

This common body, like to a vagabond flag upon the stream, goes to and back, lackeying the varying tide, to rot itself with motion."

It is OK to suppose the truth that we are dumb in the aggregate. One can do so and still believe in Democracy. Democracy is, as Churchill said, the worst form of government, except all the others. And I agree with the late great Buckley that it would be better to be governed by the first few thousand folks listed in a phone book than by the faculty of Yale.

Alison M. Kilmartin said...

Anonymous, am I right that you are making an argument for the virtue of the Republic?

Our country took one giant leap away from that model when it passed the 17th Amendment that allowed for direct election to the Senate. Senators are now often driven by the masses, just like the Representatives in the House.

I have often wondered whether Democrats are more for Democracy and Republicans more for the Republic. I confess I do not know the origins of the party names, but it's interesting to think about.

Anonymous said...

Alison, you are quite right that the hoi polloi (to include at least me) are in the driver's seat now. The popular election of senators unmoored the selection of senators from the method intended by the Framers.

Originally, we had an executive elected by all the people, representatives elected by the voting population of a district, and the senate as a sort of House of Lords to work as a country-first check on the populist leanings of the House. At least that was the idea.

With senators elected directly by a state's population, they are rendered more like a duplication of the House, and so less like the check they were intended to be on that institution. So, this internal legislative check (and balance) was undone.

It seems however that the Senate still differs markedly from the House (witness the recent financial bailout drafting process). But it does so for historical and cultural reasons rather than reasons imposed by a reserved selection process.

And maybe the direct election of senators is a better way to go; I only know it was not intended and removes, formally if not actually, a structural check on the House.

And we are yet a Republic; at least until the fell day when someone puts 'opinion levers' in our living rooms, about one half hour before national dissolution.