The Solution isn’t Left or Right. It’s Citizenship.

First a little call. Vote in NPR’s poll of the 100 best science fiction and fantasy novels! The candidates include older works by Wells, Verne, Brunner, Dick, and Bester, as well as titles by Gaiman, Bear, Banks, Cherryh, and Butler…plus my own Uplift Saga… and Earth.

 Either Read Adam Smith or Stop Misquoting Him 

Adam Smith is often cited by people on the neoconservative right, who call him a founding father of modern markets and competitive/creative capitalism. That is correct so far. Only, when pressed, you’ll find that none of these folks have ever actually read “The Wealth of Nations” or “Theory of Moral Sentiments,” or indeed, anything Smith actually wrote.

Hence, lately, I’ve been urging everybody – liberal or conservative – with an attention span greater than a gnat’s to actually crack open what truly are among the founding documents of our Enlightenment revolution. Published in the very special year 1776, “Wealth of Nations,” certainly does praise competition as the great driver of innovation, productivity, prosperity and human uplift. Smith derides the notion of an extensively planned economy as ultimately foolhardy — a case proved relentlessly by the failures of Leninist-socialist states. Thus far, he seems at least compatible with an older breed of conservatives and moderate libertarians, like Barry Goldwater.

Indeed, lest there be any confusion, try reading my book: The Transparent Society: Make Us Choose Between Privacy and Freedom? whose core point is that openness and transparency empower us to hold each other accountable, through democracy, science and markets.  Competition (that’s kept moderate and human) truly is the great, creative process. Just as a less gentle version propels evolution.

So, why do I maintain that today Adam Smith would be a Democrat?  Try reading his actual words. Smith says many things that would shock and inconvenience those oversimplifying dogmatists who use his name in vain.  For example, he knew that oligarchy was the great enemy of freedom and of competition, across 99% of human cultures and 5,000 years. Think about that, next time you are tempted by the (oligarch-subsidized) line that the only foe of freedom is civil servants. 

=== Civil Servants are the Only Threat? Really? ===

All of which leads into my first suggested link… to the blog of Kent Pitman,  who in turn describes a most-disturbing trend.  

“At an extravagant hotel gilded just before the Great Depression, corporate executives from the tobacco giant R. J. Reynolds, State Farm Insurance, and other corporations were joined by their “task force” co-chairs — all Republican state legislators — to approve “model” legislation. They jointly head task forces of what is called the “American Legislative Exchange Council” (ALEC).

“There, as the Center for Media and Democracy has learned, these corporate-politician committees secretly voted on bills to rewrite numerous state laws. According to the documents we have posted to ALEC Exposed, corporations vote as equals with elected politicians on these bills. These task forces target legal rules that reach into almost every area of American life: worker and consumer rights, education, the rights of Americans injured or killed by corporations, taxes, health care, immigration, and the quality of the air we breathe and the water we drink….

“. . . ALEC apparently ignores (Adam) Smith’s caution that bills and regulations from business must be viewed with the deepest skepticism. In his book, “,” Smith urged that any law proposed by businessmen “ought always to be listened to with great precaution . . . It comes from an order of men, whose interest is never exactly the same with that of the public, who have generally an interest to deceive and even to oppress the public, and who accordingly have, upon many occasions, both deceived and oppressed it.”

Have a look at the whole posting.  Very interesting stuff.  It is part of a long indictment of the current version of conservatism, from an entirely conservative perspective.

=== Who Generally Saves The Day? ===

Likewise, my complaints about the gun lobby come from the pragmatic middle, not any leftie slant. I am no anti-gun fanatic who fears and loathes firearms. Indeed, I have some extended experience with them.  Moreover I think that a balanced compromise would entail protecting a particular kind of weapon ownership to a very strong and permanently Constitutional degree. There is a level where the gun lobby’s fanatical overkill fear of a “slippery slope” is actually rooted in a valid concern about possible erosion of Jefferson’s “Insurrectionary recourse” and I think those on the left are fools to ignore this concern. Another area where Barry Goldwater and I might have gotten along… while both of us look appalled on recent changes to his hijacked movement. 

Still, recent crazed-mass-killer shootings, like the attack on Congresswoman Gabby Giffords in Phoenix and the slaughter of eighty young people in Norway brought out the loony-tunes arguments, again. “One bystander armed with a concealed carry pistol could have ended this,” Rush Limbaugh opined. “The problem isn’t too many guns, but too few!”

This argument has deep roots in science fiction, in an aphorism pushed by John W. Campbell that “an armed society is a polite society…” based on a romantic view of the Wild West that had no basis in historical fact.  But Robert Heinlein toyed with the notion in one of his best novels BEYOND THIS HORIZON. The assertion certainly has some romantic allure. And I freely admit that, if we were all armed to apply deadly force at an instant’s whim, there would be changes!  Very rapidly, in just a few bloody generations, we would evolve as a species to become more polite! (As the indignant nuts quickly wiped themselves out.) But one has only to live for a while in any slum on Earth to know how absurd the statement is, today in the real world.

Anyway, the mantra is especially inappropriate after one of these mass-killings by crazed gunmen, spraying bullets in all directions, slaying dozens. These events always end in one of three ways: (1) police intervention, (2) the gunman’s suicide or (3) the shooter being tackled by some brave bystander while he reloads. 

The closest that such an event ever came to Limbaugh’s scenario and the only known example of an armed civilian shooting and stopping a mass-killer was… “a lesbian, defending a church that had rejected her.”  (Read the article and be amazed that life keep spilling such ironies at us!) 

Nevertheless, on reading further about that event, I see that she was actually on duty that day, as a part-time volunteer security guard.  Still a heroic civilian jumping into action.  But her status was not perfectly that of an armed-surprised bystander. The record is still clear. There has never, ever been a single case of an American bystander, armed with a concealed-carry weapon, who leaped in and used that weapon to bring down a crazed mass-shooter. Again – most such mad shooters have been brought down by un-armed heroic bystanders, who charged the gunman while he was changing ammo. 

The crux? Recent horrific death tolls, in Norway and in the Arizona Giffords Massacre, were all attributable to the huge ammo magazines that prevented heroes from taking action. Magazines that are indefensible for any conceivable reason except for mass murder.

Seriously. Other than the “slippery slope” catch-all… that ANY restriction will lead to total confiscation… is there any reason why the owner of a weapon shouldn’t have to change clips more often than once a day?

What we need is a society that negotiates, again. And the pragmatic, problem solving result will include insights from a kind of ‘right’ that was often right.



Filed under society

3 responses to “The Solution isn’t Left or Right. It’s Citizenship.

  1. Great commentary! Let me also congratulate you on correctly predicting that Congress would raise the debt ceiling. I was too skeptical about that but you were right. On the other hand, my skepticism that Congress would do the right thing led me to transfer my 401K funds from a stock-based fund to a safe account, saving me $23K (so far) when the market went into a panic. So on this I took right actions, if for incorrect motives.

  2. Jibarosoy

    Excellent commentary. I teach political theory. You are absolutely right that most people have no idea of Adam Smith’s complex understanding of capitalism. My students are often shocked by the discovery that Smith actually called for regulations. The bottom line is that Smith recognized, unlike so many today, that both the state and capitalism are human inventions that possess unique capabilities to advance the human project. Each also has their own weaknesses. Until we recognize and accept that we will find ourselves again mired in the irrationality of the recent debt ceiling debate.

  3. Matthew Squair

    On the subject of Adam Smith and those who would selectively quote his works, have you read John Ralston Saul’s ‘On Equilibrium’? He deals quite extensively with Adam Smith’s philosophy of citizenship versus the usual narrow economic treatment that Smith receives.

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