Monday, September 10, 2012

The American Experiment: A Delicate Balancing of Democracy, Tyranny, Oligarchy, and Aristocracy

As we approach the 2012 national elections, we are witnessing an interesting tapestry of interwoven interests--often coinciding with and often opposing each other.
Kenneth Burke observes: “[T]he Constitution itself is but a set of enactments (variously related to one another, sometimes even directly at odds with one another)” (DD 25). Even so, one could consider the Constitution (or, more specifically, the Supreme Court that interprets it) a form of Tyranny. Once any Supreme Court has ruled on an issue, as the Roberts court did recently regarding ObamaCare and as somewhat different Supreme Courts did earlier in the Bush-Gore election dispute and the Roe v. Wade abortion decision, the Tyranny is set. Of course, this is the Tyranny of the majority vote of nine individuals, rather than the Tyranny of a monarch or despot, but it takes an enormous effort to overturn any ruling of the Supreme Court. One may argue in vain that the Supreme Court misinterpreted the Constitution in a given case. The Supreme Court operates as a Tyrant. One rallying cry of the Occupy Wall Street protests pits the 99% against the 1%. The 1% is, of course, the wealthy. It should be clear that if 99% of the voters in a Democracy want something, it will probably occur. The 99% could vote that all of the wealth currently belonging to the 1% be given to them. But is the American Experiment a pure Democracy?
Benjamin Franklin has a famous quotation: “When the people find that they can vote themselves money, that will herald the end of the republic.” An important debate concerns whether segments of the U.S. population are paying their “fair share” in taxes. The President believes the wealthy are not paying their “fair share.” Rush Limbaugh counters that the top 1% pays 70% of the tax burden. He suggest that the 50% who pay no income taxes at all are not paying their “fair share.” Franklin correctly observed that the American system of government is a “republic.” Voters are not (democratically) free to enact their every whim. There are checks and balances. For instance, the Supreme Court may overrule the acts of the voters. So far, the Constitution—with its Bill of Rights—has held a good deal of sway over the actions of the Supreme Court.
In Book I, Chapter 8 of his book On Rhetoric, Aristotle identifies four basic types of government—Democracy, Tyranny, Oligarchy, and Aristocracy. For Aristotle, the goal or end of Democracy is freedom; of Oligarchy, wealth; of Aristocracy, things pertaining to education and the tradition of the law; of Tyranny, self-preservation. If the Supreme Court in the American system typifies Tyranny and the 99% (or, more accurately, anything over 50%) typifies Democracy, then the 1% typifies Oligarchy. The Supreme Court (Tyranny) ruled in January, 2010, that the government may not ban political spending by corporations in candidate elections. This decision effectively reinvigorated Oligarchy as a force of influence in American politics. The wealthy have freedom of speech, in America, as do the poor. The difference between the volume of that freedom of speech among the rich and the poor is that the rich may speak much more loudly, due to the availability of media messages that may be purchased. This may seem unfair to some, but it serves as a counterbalance to the right of the 99% to vote that the poor be given the money that belongs to the 1%. Oligarchy in America may be one of those invaluable checks and balances that keep the American experiment alive. It seeks to persuade voters among the 99% to be “fair” and ethical in voting--in the sense that they should not covet or steal the wealth of the rich. Aristocracy, for Aristotle, refers to education—specifically, that education that is laid down by law. George Kennedy translates Aristotle: “For those who have remained within the legal traditions [of the city] rule in an aristocracy.” There may be a sense in which Aristocracy emphasizes the divide between the well-educated and the uneducated, just as there is a divide between the rich and the poor. Yet, remaining within the legal traditions of a political entity seems to also be relevant to issues of whether illegal residents or convicted criminals are allowed to vote or otherwise influence the American system. For the past few years, such issues have been forefront. How are we to deal with these interwoven interests--often coinciding with and often opposing each other? When I was a businessman, as a General Agent for Fidelity Union Life, an important principle was presented to me. I understood the principle: If a policy is priced too high, the consumers will not buy it and the company will fail. If a policy is priced too low, the consumers may buy it, but the company will not make a profit and the company will fail. If the sales commission on a policy is too low, the insurance agents will not sell it and the company will fail. If the sales commission on a policy is too high, the product will not be competitive, the consumers will not buy it, and the company will fail. This insurance metaphor is not far from the delicate balancing act America must maintain. If America taxes the wealthy too much, they will move their businesses to another country, and America will lose tax dollars. If America gives too many welfare benefits, without the tax income to pay for them, like Greece, the country will go bankrupt. If America has a tax-friendly environment for business, more businesses will invest, more jobs will be created, more workers will pay taxes, and more income tax will be generated. If companies pay these workers too little, they will not work for the companies, and the companies will fail. Oligarchy plays a role in the success of America. Before it was government subsidized, the saying used to be: “As GM goes, so goes the nation.” Businesses and the wealthy must be kept happy or the country fails. Democracy plays a role in the success of America. If the majority of voters are dissatisfied, they will vote out the powers that rule. Aristocracy plays a role in the success of America. We are a country of laws, and those who violate the laws do not generally retain their leadership positions, as we have seen in recent years. Tyranny also plays a role in the success of America. The Supreme Court (and its evolving make-up) are virtually always issues, every election year.

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