Friday, October 20, 2006

Clank Your Chains and Count Your Change, Try And Walk The Line

On my best days, I like to believe in the ultimate ability of the human race to get it all right in the end. I like to side with the philosophy that people are inherently good, possessed of reason and the ability to govern themselves and their societies in a manner that, while not completely perfect, speaks to the "better angels of our nature." Abraham Lincoln said that last bit, in his first inaugural address on March 4, 1861. It seems that Lincoln believed in the ability of people to aspire to their best not only in governance, but in society. He was, after all, the president that weathered the American Civil War and gave Americans their "new birth of freedom."

On my worse days, and an extended Lincoln analogy is useful here, I think of the other side of the man who coined the above famous seeming endorsements of the power of people to positively govern themselves. There is much that can be said to suggest that Lincoln is not as he is commonly remembered. He suspended the writ of habeas corpus, had a rather checkered record when it came to "enemy combattants," and it is all but certain that the Northern States did not primarily enter the American Civil War to end slavery. Read more about the other side of Lincoln here.

Therein lies the problems I currently wrestle with concerning the nature of humankind and the issue of political organization. On one hand, I stand firmly with Locke, Montesquieu and Nozick in thinking that people, with their essential liberty, will naturally have their best interests (and therefore the best interests of others) in mind at all times. Self-interest leads to public benefits by encouraging enterprise and a healthy respect for the rights of others to do the same. It's too bad no-one reads Bernard de Mandeville anymore; he had a point with all his talk about bees.

This side of my thinking, therefore, believes that people (and the societies to which they belong) can, given an emphasis on the individual and their inherent rights, can be a force for good and that political systems can indeed be moral and ethical. From good people and their good actions should come good societies. Yay, Aristotle!

Then, there are those other days...

There are times when it seems like people will never get it right. Concerned with themselves and gain at the expense of the freedom and right of others, people seem inherently evil. The systems of which they are a part, moreover, seem to reveal this. Societal organizations from governments to corporations to interest groups seem bent on one thing: their agenda and damn all else. They are in the system for what they can get out of it and never mind the rights of others. It is a battle for survival and the normal state of affairs is a state of war and strife.

Who is my philosophical travelling partner on these days? Why, Thomas Hobbes, naturally. Hobbes argued that life is "nasty, brutish and short." He asserted that without a strong governing force that was not accountable to anyone, people would simply kill each other to get what they want or think they need. He also believed that politics, or at least most political systems, were inherently corrupt, immoral and fraught with bribery, duplicity and out-and-out violence. For Hobbes, politics was not a question of right and wrong, good and evil. It was a question of order and chaos and it is clear what side he came down upon.

It is not hard to see how Hobbes came to these ideas, given the times from which Leviathan emerged. His interpretation of English society in the years before the English Civil War, going back to the time of the early Tudors, exposes a world of corrupt court politics where favor and influence stand at the center of the system. Patronage was the order of the day and it is not hard to extend this, by way of Hobbes's ideas about governmental systems, through history to the present day.

Hobbes believed that, really, the system of government did not matter. Although an ardent Royalist himself, a government's form was unimportant; it was the fact that all subjected themselves to it utterly that mattered most.

In more recent times, an entire school of political history evolved around the notion that politics concerned influence-peddling to gain favor for political factions and members of parties and higher purposes be damned. This, the "Namierite" view of history (after Sir Lewis Namier and his landmark 1929 book The Structure of Politics at the Accession of George III) is a stunning comment on political systems in general and one that it is not at all far-fetched to imagine operating in our very midst.

What stemmed all of this in me, you ask? Well, when one studies politics and society in the past, it is inevitable that connections be made between human behavior in the past and that with which one is surrounded on a daily basis. More specifically, in my extensive reading into Tudor and Stuart politics, it occurred to me that political operators like Thomas Wolsey, Thomas Cromwell, John Russell, William Cecil, Robert Devereaux, Francis Walsingham and others would have been right at home in the Chicago of Mayor Richard J. Daley.

These courtly Tudor Englishmen of the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries would have fit right in with the ward-heelers and machine politicians of mid-twentieth century Chicago. They would have, come to think of it, fit right in in most eras of Chicago politics. I can see Wolsey and Cromwell getting along famously with John "Bathhouse" Coughlin and Mike "Hinky Dink" Kenna, the "Lords of the Levee." The boss? In one case it was Henry VIII, in the other it was (mostly) Chicago Mayors Carter Harrison, II and William Hale "Big Bill" Thompson.

New wine in old bottles, indeed.

So, what do I think about politics and people? I guess one might say it depends, as I have shown above. I would like to think that people will always, by doing what is right for themselves, also look out for the interests of others. History, however, provides many examples of people doing the exact opposite.

So, whether we clank our chains or count our change, it still depends what line we choose to walk. Robert Hunter's words outline the dichotomy at play here.

In closing, I invoke the immortal words of Bertrand Russell:

"It has been said that man is a rational animal. All my life I have been searching for evidence which could support this."

1 comment:

Greg_Shealy said...

You are absolutely right. I agree. Kant answered (in effect) you have no proof that we aren't improving and will one day leave it behind. Therefore you cannot give up on the destiny that Nature has given us. About the only way I can make sense of this.

PS -- I love the midwest. I really, really miss it.