America’s Achilles Heel

There is a flaw hidden at the very heart of the American view of values, and, therefore, at the very heart of the American system of governance.  This flaw now threatens to bring that system of governance to its knees, and, ultimately, to destroy that system of governance altogether.
     The American ideal, set forth so eloquently in the Declaration of Independence, announces a moral worldview grounded, not in individual freedom or license, but rather in a commitment to responsibility to each and every human being.  It says, not that I have the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, but that every human being has those rights, and that, since those rights are inalienable, I am obliged to recognize those rights in each and every one of my fellow human beings.  The American ideal thus states a revolutionary value system based, not on my individual needs and wants, but on my inexhaustible obligation to others.   
The genius of the founding fathers was to recognize that this was not the real moral view of the people for whom they were providing a system of governance.  They knew that the actual moral worldview of the people was egocentric.  So they built a system of governance that would, at its best, protect and grow the inalienable rights of all, but that would, at the very least, survive the battles that would inevitably arise from conflicting self-interests.   
The primary instrument used by the founding fathers to avoid the damage done by such battles was a web of checks and balances.  The power of government was divided among the three branches, and each branch was honeycombed with the weights and counterweights necessary to prevent one faction from outweighing the interests and powers of all other factions.  Things like filibusters and super-majority cloture votes, exasperating as they have sometimes been, are all there to make sure that no one faction can assert its will over all other factions.
     This whole system of checks and balances is an implicit recognition of a moral worldview radically different from, in fact radically contrary to, the other-centered value system stated in the Declaration of Independence.  In setting it up, the founding fathers were quietly recognizing that the real value system, the ethos actually espoused by the people, was not other-centered but rather ego-centered.  While we may give lip service to the inviolability of the rights of others, and while we may express deep admiration for those who dedicate their lives to the service of others, the fact is that the fundamental principle defining Western values is self-interest.  Whether it is framed in terms of the spiritual or the material, the fundamental question that is at the heart of Western man’s moral decisions is:  how will my actions best serve my interests?  There is, at base, not much difference between living to obtain eternal happiness and living to accumulate wealth and pleasure.  They differ only as to means.  The end is the same — to serve myself.
    The economist and philosopher John Rawls, in his great work, A Theory of Justice, said it best in modern times.  Each political faction, and each individual, enters into a kind of implied contract.  That contract states that we will all agree to act in such a way to at least serve the minimum interests of the least advantaged among us.  We enter into that contract for reasons of self-interest.  We are agreeing to a system in which we are guaranteed that our own interests will, at the very worst, be served in some way.  This is what we might call a kinder, gentler version of what was said long ago by the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes:  in a world defined by self-interest, the natural state of human relations is that of a war of each against all, and we submit to government to avoid that war.  If we did not, said Hobbes, our lives would be nasty, poor, solitary, brutish and short.
     So I recognize the rights of others because doing so best serves my own interests.
  But — what if that were not true?  What if I gathered to myself sufficient power that I did not have to recognize the rights of others?  What if I had so much power that it would best serve my interests to reduce or even eliminate the rights of others?  What if, for instance, I felt that my interests were best served by not sharing any of my assets with anyone, and that I could resist, or even eliminate, for instance, my government’s policies of providing aid to the poor and the sick and the elderly and all the least advantaged among us?  And what if I had the power to stop the government from pursuing those policies?  How would those who oppose my views respond?
     Herein lies that central flaw I mentioned. If you accept self-interest as the defining value, then you cannot object to someone using that same principle to serve his own interests by subjugating your interests. Sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. If your own interests were best served by violating the interests of others, you would do so. At the very least, you would have no reason not to do so.
So at the heart of every value system based on self-interest is this frightful flaw capable of wreaking havoc in a human community. It is possible that one’s self-interest could be best served by subjugating the interests of others, and in a value system based on self-interest, such power plays are perfectly justified.
Imagine how someone could go about profiting from this flaw in, for instance, the American governmental system. Some faction might decide that its interests would be best served by seizing control of the government in such a way that the power of any opposing interest is rendered ineffective. To do this, the faction insists on making its control on government immune to attack. It gerrymanders legislative districts so that its proponents cannot be voted out of office. It uses every legislative device available to install its own policies and defeat all attempts to install policies and programs to which it is opposed. It limits the rights of its opponents to vote. It works to fill the judicial positions with judges and justices whose opinions are in accord with its own. It runs a campaign of ceaseless objection and denigration of the executive branch when held by someone who opposes it, and it runs a campaign of ceaseless justification of the actions of a president whose views are in accord with it. Most of all, it abandons reason, which would give the lie to its tactics and goals, and replaces reason with rhetoric and appeals to prejudice.
If such an attack on the American system of governance were to be pursued, the system itself would be effectively destroyed. Remove the system of checks and balances, and the American democratic government can, at best, remain only a meaningless shell. The faction that succeeds in installing itself in power in such a fashion could never be removed. We would have, in practical fact, a dictatorship.
And here is the real problem, the real flaw. If, as seems to be the case, our moral worldview is grounded in self-interest, we would have no way to object to this takeover. The faction would, after all, be pursuing the same principle of self-interest on which we ground our own moral decisions. We would, of course, be tempted to cry out, “It’s not fair! It’s not just! It’s not right!” To all these cries of injustice and unfairness, the faction would respond, “We are only acting in accord with your own principle — self-interest. It serves us better to take over government, so we did it.”
To that, dear reader, what would you respond? Justice, fairness, right and wrong — all these things are subject to your first principle, self-interest. Now where do you turn?
This is, of course, all hypothetical. In the real world, no one would stoop to such despicable tactics. No one would systematically gerrymander congressional districts, load the courts and carry on a ceaseless smear campaign against the president. After all, this is America.

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