For Whom

I was at a meeting recently – actually about three years ago now – at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. The discussion was focused on what will happen to Cuba after Castro. All of the panelists believed that post-Castro the government there will be run by the (current) dissidents. I was surprised by the agreement amongst the expert opinions on the panel, in part because it didn’t match up with my (limited) understanding of Cuban culture. More than anything, I left thinking that:

Capitalism always thinks its right; its governments job to keep Capitalism in its place.

I love capitalism. I love capitalism, but it just doesn’t solve every problem. Capitalism is not necessarily a good model for education, science, the arts, or government. The purpose of government is the service of its people. All of them. The purpose of capitalism is the service of whoever owns stuff, or wants to own stuff. This is not everybody.

Capitalism is great, in part, because it encourages efficiency. Efficiency is necessary to provide the greatest good for the greatest number. But capitalism can’t tell us how to spend our money. Capitalism isn’t an ethos, or a system of governance. The founders established a system of governance that promises we will all have the opportunity to pursue the lives we want. They didn’t promise well get the lives we want, and they didn’t specify many of the details of the economic system we should use.

Increasing opportunity for achievement is the measure of a great society. For whom does the government toil? It toils for thee. The recent G-20 summit, and the peaceful transition now occurring in Cuba, make clear that the modern U.S. interpretation of Capitalism’s relationship to government is not universal.

Post-script: 4/13/09: It’s wonderful to see that our President gets this. HuffingtonPost just reported that Obama is (simply, quietly) easing restrictions against Cuba.

Part 2 of a small series on “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness”. You can see Part 1 here.

All Day Every Day

I love the romance of our founding fathers. “One if by land, two if by sea”. Dressing up as native Americans and dumping tea in the harbor to protest taxes. It’s very easy to get carried away with their romantic inspirations. A perfect example is the Declaration of Independence. After asserting the reasons for creating new political bonds, and establishing the method by which such assertion is made, the Declaration of Independence states:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these rights are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.

It’s a good line. It’s a GREAT line. But I visited Thomas Jefferson’s pad – Monticello – some time ago, and was struck by the clever way that the slave quarters were removed from view. The main house is at the top of a hill, with a wonderful view. The slave quarters are buried in tunnels on the side of the hill. When he said – when we say – that our country is dedicated to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness – what are we talking about? Who are we talking about? (I’m now wandering into Con Law territory, but come with me.)

I’m guessing everyone reading this agrees with the Brown v. Board of Education decision that abolished the ‘separate but equal’ policy, which segregated schools based on race. Every child deserves the same opportunity to learn. At what point might it be appropriate to stop teaching a child math, and start teaching them a trade? How do we define – ‘the same opportunity to learn’? How do we decide what we can offer, and to whom?

I visited Philadelphia some time ago, and got to meet F’s grandfather, who has now passed. He was in a nursing home. F’s mother stated that putting him in the home allowed him to have “some kind of quality of life.” Which made me think that there is no expiration date on the promise to provide life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

The inscription on the Liberty Bell reads,

“Proclaim LIBERTY throughout all the Land unto all the Inhabitants thereof”,

which is very romantic. And then you remember that most of the Founders had slaves.
‘The promise of America’ is something that each generation defines, all day, every day.

Part 1 of a small series on “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness”.