November 15, 2011

Principled Anarchy or a Nation losing its Way?

National Public Radio aired two notable stories this morning. The first was a report on the ways in which current Republican Party (GOP) rhetoric has come to reflect the very radical thinking of the philosopher Ayn Rand. Rand argued that any tax represented an infringement on the individual rights of the citizens asked to pay it and that, in consequence, only a complete laissez faire regime could be considered anything like legitimate. Her position was and is extreme in historical and theoretical terms, but the reporter rightly argued it is now mainstream among many members of the Republican Party in the House of Representatives, including their Speaker.

The second notable report was a commentary by ABC and NPR Political Analyst Cokie Roberts who observed, very much in passing, that Congress is now held in such low esteem by the general public in polling that many GOP House members especially, otherwise disposed to act to block all initiatives the President might press to improve the nation’s economy, in the hope that continued joblessness and anemic economic growth would anger voters who would then blame the President and replace him in next year’s election, are now rethinking their efforts.

Much might be said of these two accounts, but perhaps four points will suffice. First, it is noteworthy that neither Roberts nor the show’s host condemned the prevailing “take no prisoners politics” to which her comments pointed. Taken at face value, Roberts’ observation suggests these partisans would literally allow hundreds of thousands to suffer needlessly if it might mean political advantage. Instead of condemning such officials, however, Roberts, like many (but thankfully not all) modern media analysts, appears to see all of politics as a horse race without rules in the same way that legislators themselves now apparently can countenance suffering if it might portend power. The dangers of this pass are obvious for democracy and deeply ethically repugnant, in any case. To the extent Roberts and other’s accounts are true, they suggest a Republican Party leadership that has lost all interest in anything but power.

Second, if more members of the press cannot help hold officials to a standard demanding accountability to broader interests than their perceived near-term electoral or partisan advantage, it is an open question where such oversight will arise. If indeed, respected commentators do not stop to remark on the perceived ethical bankruptcy of those whose actions they report, we may have a broader problem afoot.

Third, if any taxation or regulation on behalf of the public weal is per se now not to be countenanced in principle, it is worth asking what sort of society might result. Unfortunately, it is easy to contend that the product of such action would represent no society at all, but instead a calamitous aggregation of individuals advantaged (or not) in constant conflict and fear. Anarchy in principle or in practice should not be an option for a democratic people.
Finally, a radical individualism neither accords with how human beings in fact live their lives (in families and communities of all stripes-humans are deeply interdependent beings, arid theorizing notwithstanding) nor represents a viable option for how they might find ways to organize themselves for the future. A polity that cannot find ways and means to work to serve its collective interests will not long be free. It is that simple and that scary.

Sadly, the irony is obviously rich. H. L. Mencken and W. C. Fields would doubtless have lots of material for their acerbic political commentaries were they alive today.

About the Author

Max Stephenson Jr.

Max Stephenson, Jr. presently serves as Professor of Public and International Affairs at Virginia Tech and Director of the Virginia Tech Institute for Policy and Governance. He has published widely on policy, civil society and governance concerns. He is the author most recently, with Laura Zanotti, of Peacebuilding through Community-Based NGOs: Paradoxes and Possibilities, Kumarian Press (2012) and editor with Laura Zanotti of Building Walls and Dissolving Borders: The Challenges of Alterity, Community and Securitizing Space. Ashgate Publishers, 2013.

Max Stephenson Jr.

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