Monday, May 18, 2009

Morality and Ethics in Government

Throughout my little over half century of a lifetime, I have always been attracted to the complexities of "contradictions"...or maybe more specifically "oxymorons". You know...those two words that in practice never seem to go together. Some of my favorite examples of late are "holy war", "safe investment", "smart bomb", "bankrupt Millionaire", "easy payments", "free trade", "flexible budget", and now "moral Government". Yes my friends, it is now very difficult to point anywhere in the world to a government who you could truly call "moral".

First, what does it mean to be moral? Morality and moral "behavior" can have a wide range of meaning and connotation depending on what culture or religion you grow up in, but I think there are some basics a vast majority of the world would agree add up to acceptable or obvious attributes for being "moral". Let's try listing a few of these features:

Speaks the truth, doesn't lie
Doesn't steal
Follows the rules, doesn't cheat

I could go on but you get the point. Most moral people are good people, productive and provide balance to a world that is oft times not very moral. The biggest problem with morality is it’s not something that can be mandated or forced by rule of law. True morality is part of who a person is and what they believe. There are so many variations to it that in my opinion most morality cannot be "legislated" even though our world governments seem to be going more and more down that path...the path of heavy rule of law and the continuous battle of enforcement.

Let's back up first to a core understanding of what "purpose" government serves. From my understanding, the fundamental purpose of government is the maintenance of basic security and "public order". In the USA constitution, we establish a democratic system for government "of the people, by the people and for the people". This means government is meant to "serve" the people it governs...securing the peace and settling disputes that arise between individuals or business concerns. Unfortunately this basic, core government role has expanded greatly in modern times to many areas unforeseen by our forefathers. Government now is seen as providing economic security, Social security, Environmental security and even a further extension to "morality policing".

While I could probably turn this into a book, let me cut to some short specific views I'd like to share where governments throughout the world are now overstepping their purpose and morality. Let me preface by saying, governments normally rule at the acquiescence of those being most people in the world have the government they "deserve". Most people in the world have been well trained by their culture and or government to follow and support their government or their "nationality". It is looked at as "unpatriotic" to question or criticize your government in most places in the world, and actually in most places governments have made it ILLEGAL to do so with little respect for free speech or individual human rights. Autocratic rule, often times connected at the hip with religious intolerance, make up a large percentage of the governments ruling our globe. I fear the USA is going down that same path to its demise.

I would like to present the case of how "the State" is supposed to act and stay within its justifiable role:

Governments should never intervene or interfere with "markets". It upsets the natural order of free trade or market driven economics. When governments step in, it always favors one faction over another and normally immorally colludes with government "benefactors". In other words, big money behind governments always has the upper hand over individual or small business concerns. To me this is against core morality standards covered in natural law and most of the religious holy books. Supply and demand was a system I believe set up by God from the beginning. There is a natural order to most everything under the sun...but modern day governments and big money want to try and change that order. They want to control markets by their power and influence, not by pure trade. They want to protect losing business propositions while sucking the life out of new businesses and technologies that would destroy the "status quo" or compete with them. We see this happening in the USA major industries of automotive and financial companies. Nothing good will come from this government interference accept to put off the inevitable and make future generations pay for our mistakes of yesteryear.

Price or market fixing necessarily demands that someone will win and someone will determined by government intervention. It is immoral to tell a farmer he MUST sell his crops or livestock at a set price and MUST limit his scope to domestic sales. It is also immoral to take MY money and give it to a farmer so that he DOESN'T plant a certain crop or pursue productivity. It is immoral to place wage decrees on employers or set limits on the profits a company or individual can earn. Yet this is what our whole system has become dependent on...and in my opinion it is a "house of cards". Let the natural laws of supply and demand perform its function and level out the field of competition...both nationally and internationally. Governments need to GET OUT OF THE WAY of progressive markets and business development. Yes, governments need to intervene for CRIMINAL activity, but that is the limit.

Government should not be in the "charity" business. Charity starts at home, the local community, and state which will ultimately lead to a more healthy and charitable nation/state. Our pyramid is upside down where each individual first looks to the "state" to bail them out of difficulty or guarantee their next meal. This has never worked in the history of governments and civilizations.

Socialism is the "religion of man", a product of humanism. Instead of depending on self, our brother, or God as champion of our security...we have replaced all that with "the State" as provider and sustainer. Socialism is a power theory where the individual lives for the good of the masses, controlled by the majority State. By rule of socialism, "someone" is always left holding the bag of debt or loss to cover someone else misfortune or error in judgment. For me this totally goes against traditional truths like "he who works eats" or "it is better to teach a man to fish than just give him a fish". These are fundamental truths that haven't changed from the beginning of time.

Coercion is always required at some point to enforce and control the "will of the State"...which is why governments want to control all the guns and not let their citizens freely own any. Governments should obviously have guns and military to DEFEND their borders and security...but they should not be used in aggression or coercion of it's own citizens unless of course they are threatening the rights of another individual citizen or group. To use arms to quell dissension of a citizen or group of them who are PEACEFULLY protesting an act of government is immoral. The arms race between governments is in my opinion also totally immoral, and we are reaping what we are sowing as we continue the un-winnable arms race. The world needs some good old fashioned "turning of swords into plowshares". If we spent on the business of food production and trade what we spend on armaments, I would argue there would be no hungry citizen on Earth. Poverty and hunger is in direct correlation to our social immorality, or the enslaving borders we put up against our fellow man.

It is immoral for governments to control currencies. It would be better for the world to go back to one standard of value, whether that be gold, silver or "bananas" upon which to determine currency values. The international monetary system has become totally statist controlled or controlled by a few powerful rich factions who can manipulate currency markets. The Federal Reserve is a prime example of that in the USA. How can you have a moral, free system of enterprise if you have multiple currencies manipulated outside of the market? Impossible. Again, false manipulation of currencies always favors a winner against a "loser" just based on their geographic location...usually determined by borders of a State.

Slavery is immoral. Yet I would argue that a majority of the world lives in some form of virtual "slavery". Most governments have "taxation without representation" which means that a productive citizen in most of the world pays half or more of their income to the "government". In my opinion, it is another form of slavery to exchange your individual freedom to work or develop profits anywhere in the world for a government system of socialism. Just look at the percentages of GNP (Gross National Product) that go into covering the costs of modern day governments. Then imagine if these percentages were instead put into the local or international markets for trade and development. My observation is that Government sucks the life and profits out of business and trade. Looking back in history, only slave states gained this kind of income off the backs of its citizens. It is time for the world to put this tendency in reverse motion...before you lose what little that remains of your personal wealth and sovereignty. It will soon be revolt and revolution time all over again in this cycle of humanity, cause and effect.

Credit is immoral. Unless you have money or income to backup a loan, it is immoral to pursue credit. Yet modern day morality with government assent and even programs to stimulate more spending has put much of the developed world, and especially the USA, in a tremendous economic and moral crisis. Instead of "common sense" and natural behaviors of spending less and making more in order to correct an imbalance, our crazy world has embraced unrestrained and unlimited credit as an answer to our global economic dilemmas. As you see currently from the USA, governments are manipulating markets, running over creditors and shareholders, and entering immoral contracts leveraging potentially decades of future generation's wages and tax contributions to cover the failures and unsustainable systems of today. Governments are not allowing "some" failed institutions to fail while raising taxes and income from those few successful and profitable entities within the system to "bail out" the failures. There are no fundamental values supporting these issues of credit in either government or private I argue that our government is acting immorally and irresponsibly to the current crisis...and more importantly, a majority of citizens are going along for the ride without dissent. Reap and reward (or lack thereof) is just around the corner because of "cause and effect".

Our legal systems are immoral
. The USA is reaping its reward also in the area of justice and lack of morality in our whole culture. Without re looking up the detailed fact on this, I read a while back that lawsuits and especially tort law enforcement was eating up almost 30% of our annual GNP. The core fundamental of that means that our culture has grown to such a dishonest and immoral state of being to where only lawyers and court systems can determine or resolve conflict between people and companies. The USA has something like 75% of all the world's lawyers while having a very small percentage of the world population. What does that alone say about our morality? Every time I have a problem or disagreement with my neighbor or trading partner, I have to sue in the legal system in order to get justice? That has become part of our socialism my friends. In the Old Testament days if I had an issue with someone who was lying...or said I was lying...about an agreement we had, your first step was to get your own witness and meet with the person to try and resolve the issue with an impartial 3rd party. If that didn't work, you brought a group from the community together to hear and help settle the issues. Only after all that was the King or government of the day brought into the situation to render a judgment. Our modern system has bypassed what worked for millenniums, and justice has become a major industry within our culture, full of ambulance chasers and TV judges or lawyers all rendering their expensive a terrible financial cost to our whole economy. And every time something unfortunate or a mistake happens to us, we think "someone" needs to pay. There is no natural order in the universe that says governments or others are liable for every bad thing that happens to you. If someone steals from you, THAT PERSON should be forced to make restitution to you and pay a penalty. But, if you bought a cup of scalding hot coffee and spilled it on your lap with serious does that somehow become my responsibility or a business’s obligation to pay you MILLIONS of dollars? These things are immoral.

My final point today is that free enterprise and enormous capital investment will not alone change the status of our globally faltering economic system. There has to be a fundamental change in personal and government morality. "To whom much is given, much will be required". The "consume at all costs", me-first mentality of contemporary generations needs to be totally redirected. The focus of the culture needs to change from "things" to "values". We need to value our fellow human more than we value "things". We need to esteem "man" more than the edifices or creations of men. We need more freedom and interest in traveling to other cultures to know how to communicate and understand our neighbor before we can establish trade with them. We need to turn mutual loathing into mutual respect. We need to return to governments "of by and for the people" in place of "Uncle Sam" or "Big Brother"...which means we must take a more active role in determining those governmental forces. If we are not allowed an active role, we may need to leave them behind and vote with our feet and pocketbooks.

Morality and ethics in government start with the morality and ethics of the governed. If we want change, we must initiate it...and be living examples of how we want the world to be and interact. Only when government represents moral people will it be forced to act morally itself.


Timothy said...

Hi Ed,

I really enjoyed this post. Except for the wide gap between our philosophies of the role of Government, I agreed with everything you had to say about morality. A few thoughts though:

1 -
For a Government to provide even a very basic level of security it has to intervene in markets. Income tax, corporation tax, sales tax, hiring people into the military, and using that military overseas are all market distortions. Government has to raise revenue somehow. So I don't see how an even minimalistic Government can be compatible with your insistence on free markets.

Furthermore, if the state were to disappear, who do you envision possessing the means of production? If the state were to just disappear tomorrow, corporations will fill the power vacuum, and you'll find that the result is anything but the natural order of things. Corporations possess power that often times resembles state power, they control the behaviour and potential of each of its employees. The only thing they can't do is physically coerce their subjects, but if the state were to disappear they would be able to.

Also, if the state were to not interfere in any markets, the result would not be freer competition. Big fish eat the little ones when there is private ownership of the means of production. When legislation to promote competition (i.e. preventing monopolies from occurring) is abolished, the large corporations would be able to swallow whole entire swaths of companies. The result would be a few large ones, and they would all collude together (forming something like a cartel) knowing that competing against the other few yields no benefit for them. I think the anarchistic utopia would be a complete nightmare unless it was established in a way that allowed the general public to own the means of production (something similar to Noam Chomsky's ideal).

2 -
You're right that socialism can often become something like a religion, but I believe the ideal of the free market is a concept that is just as prone to being idolised. Take a look at our society now, it treats the market as an idol god. Every night on the news we check to see what happened to the market today, whether it's up or down, whether it's going to recover or slide. Government and companies try to work out what sacrifices they can make to appease it.

Also, if you take away state-based charity, billions more in the third world will fall into poverty (and will join the millions already there). That is guaranteed to happen. I understand that in your ideal people are giving to one another generously and in a way that gives everyone the opportunity to eat and not starve, and I think that's a very Christian idea, I just don't see how it would be achievable if state-based charity was just abolished.

I agree with you about the constant tendency for Governments to enter arms races.

3 -
I think the international monetary system is controlled by private business more than with Government. Business has such a massive influence over central banks, and now that mostly all curriences have been floated, the value of each are determined purely by supply/demand. Moves in the interest rate are admittedly controlled by the central bank, but what do you see as an alternative to that?

Timothy said...

4 -
It's interesting that you consider the economic slavery today to be in the form of Government taxation. Don't you think there is a far higher frequency of private business pushing people into economic slavery? I don't just mean third-world sweatshops, although they are a very good example, but take general business in the third world. Governments are forced to liberalise markets in order to receive foreign aid, and when that happens foreign investment moves in and takes away the necessary resources away from the hands of the people. In one striking example (I forget the countries name but I can dig it up) all of the water supply became privately owned, and the labourers had to buy water from this company with 50% of their pay checks. It's criminal, and yet it's called the free market (I don't really see what's free about it).

Marx showed how exploitation is built into the capitalist mode of production. Labourers are forced to work for longer than is required to maintain their subsistence so the landlords can have surplus value (i.e. profit). If the exploitation is pushed to high levels, it starts to resemble economic slavery.

5 -
Regarding the legal system, I recently watched an American crime show called "The Wire." I really recommend it, it's a brilliant show, and I think you'd appreciate the message behind it. It's set in the city of baltimore and looks at the police department and the drug organisations and how they both interact with each other and the community. It is an incredibly realistic show, and reveals how the 'war on drugs' has gutted the police department and hasn't caused a dent in the high-level drug traffickers (since the police are so focused on street-rips and arresting junkies).

By the way, I don't think America's obsession with lawyers and suing is a characteristic of socialism. That's a great disservice to socialism! I don't think any socialist theorist would argue for a legal culture like that, and I think many of them would have a great sympathy (as Jesus did) for settling differences privately (without any agression of course!) and not in the courts. The fact that Jesus taught the peasents to not go through the Jewish Temple courts was one of the significant reasons they hated him.


edward said... usual you make many good points and observations...and as usual I have to hold some contrarian views to your socialist agenda even though I understand it is hard for either you or I to move from the roots of our backgrounds philosophically. This is the beauty...and I believe an example...of how the world can interact with differences both within religious reference and governmental reference points.

I still don't connect where government HAS to intervene in markets in order to provide security. As I have stated, the role of government is to enforce laws and agreements between its citizens. That doesn't mean it has to determine the rules of engagement. It simply serves as the moderator of disagreements between two or more parties in contention. Its kind of life refereeing in don't make the just enforce them.

I would also suggest per your suggestion that without government, corporations would "rule"...that is already happening. I find it quite obvious that most first world governments are highly influenced and controlled by big money interests...which IS the industrial corporate complex. The government actually IS in many cases the enforcer and protector of big business. The latest example is the USA govt bailout of the Automakers at the cost of shareholders and the dealership contracts. With one swipe of executive order, it appears my govt can wipe out existing contracts and replace them with their own agreements. They think that these businesses are too big to fail...and instead of letting smaller, more productive ones grow in their place...they continue to forcefully maintain the status quo of these major industries. I don't understand how that can stand up against the country's constitution...and maybe it wont.

By the way, I am not necessarily advocating anarchy. I believe there is a just and balanced role and need for government in human affairs. Obviously the water example you mention is an extreme example of overextension for capitalist ideals. No one should own the air we breath or the worlds other core resources such as water. All governments and individuals should agree to manage those resources very carefully for the preservation of all humanity...and I think a majority of even capitalists would agree with that. All things in balance is what we need.

edward said...

In a majority of your illustrations I think you differentiate big government with big business more than is the reality. In most cases in socialistic states, big business AND government are in a happy marriage with the agenda of mutual support and survival. The individual, middle class, or small business has no chance to compete in this scenario in reality. From the monetary system to international trade is all controlled by the marriage of the corporate and government complexes. Obviously most people even in America think its too late to change that paradigm, but I for one still believe that with some time and re-eduction on how things SHOULD be in a just and free enterprise and laizze fair economics would work just fine to keep the world ticking economically. Leveling the playing field for all would definitely bring a few people down who deserve to be brought down...but I believe it would bring MORE people UP. In my experience, human nature is pretty resilient when challenged or given the chance to control their own destiny.

In my version or vision of capitalism as a system, there would be no exploitation such as you and Marx mention:). No one would be able to force people to do anything they are not willing to do...and competition for labor would reward the better laborers over the less productive or educated laborers. In Latin America the mentality is very socialistic...which makes service negligible and productivity way below world standards of competitiveness. If people were rewarded based on their efficiency and capabilities instead of tenure and longevity, these people would be richer, more productive, and have a much higher sense of self esteem. The US system has not been perfect...and in my opinion is becoming much less perfect...but it still was the most productive and equitable system of business development and productivity in history. Unfortunately, that beacon of hope and freedom is dimming more each day based on the decay of our values and culture. Yet, as we know from other life cycles...where there is death there is usually rebirth somewhere else. Some country somewhere will grab the truth of liberty...and run with it. Or maybe we just have to let these untenable and failing systems play out their course and die before the seeds of reason and hope can truly grow and find sunshine. God's nature has cycles based on cause and effect. Eventually his intelligence will shine through once evil and wrong thinking has died out. I for one believe he gave us the power to choose otherwise...and I am trying to do my part to exercise that power and sort things my own limited and imperfect way.

Timothy said...

Hey Ed,

We seem to share the same concern over the influence that big business has over Government. It's interesting that we can both oppose certain things (there are other examples) for entirely different reasons. You don't like that Government bailed out the businesses they are in bed with, and I don't like the influence due to the fact that firms on the most part are out for personal gain and are oblivious/indifferent towards the social/environmental good. I was surprised that you also agree that corporations would fill any power vacuum that the state recedes from.

So, I take it you are in favour of all Government legislation established in order to promote a competitive market and stop monopolies (or oligopolies) from slowly evolving? Some of these regulations receive little public attention, but they are important. For example, preventing a single firm from buying out a proportion of the competition, making it illegial for firms to collude together in order to manipulate the market and keep prices high, etc. Because if you are in favour of them, I think there'd be quite a few capitalists who'd disagree, especially the ones who have power in the private sphere. Firms operate in order to maximise long-run (sometimes only short-run profits, like the investment banks who bought up subprime mortgages) profits, and most of the time that involves trying to undermine the free and competitive nature of the market they operate within.

The political ideology of socialism is often perceived to be in favour of a Government that is large, powerful, and in complete control. However, I think you could appreciate the communitarianism that is at the heart of many socialistic philosophies. The ideal, or socialist paradise, would not involve a large Government that regulates/taxes everything but community ownership over the means of production. The reason you often see socialists against stripping Government control, or for increasing their power in whatever area is because they think that as bad as states can be, private business could be worse. At the very least, Government has a fraction of transparency and democracy, corporations do not. The constitution of a corporation is only relevant if there is a Government around strong enough to enforce it (like you said).

So, socialism (as did Marx with the more rigid philosophy of communism) sees the end result as anything but an all-encompassing and authoritarian state. I think there are more similarities between socialism and your own ideal than you might realise!

edward said...

You are I are getting closer and closer to agreement Tim:). Actually I think you have coined my new preference of a world order system..."Communitarianism". From what you are describing here and what I think I could support would be a system where COMMUNITY is built on smaller scales where everyone agrees on the protection of basic principles and security of the community without interfering with individuals or corporations core rights to live and grow without undo interference of a governing body. Its a healthy balance between extreme socialism or extreme capitalism. It also allows smaller units of community government to live together in peace and harmony without having to deal with all the problems a federalist or global governing body encounters when trying to govern such a wide range of differing people and cultures. Building a strong sense of COMMUNITY brings freedom with accountability and desire to see your neighbor prosper and grow along side yourself. Perhaps it is cooperative living without the pooling of resources I tend to think of in the socialist or communist model. Its getting back to the original model of family units that I think was part of the original design. Not just a bunch of lonely, competitive individuals trying to get over on each other. By jove...I think we're getting somewhere:). Thanks.