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January 15, 2020

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How US got corrupted by pursuit of self-interest

Is our republic today what our founding fathers had envisioned? If not, what shall we do?

The Founders, informed students of history and law, were very aware of the darker aspects of human nature. They were familiar, too, with both the great political theorists of their time — including John Locke and Montesquieu — as well as with prominent critics of England’s domestic policies, such as the authors of “Cato’s Letters” in the 1720s.

From their studies, they concluded that the central problem throughout history and in every form of government was the challenge of harnessing and restricting power towards which men were inevitably drawn.

Samuel Adams, in his Diary and Autobiography II, declared that “ambition and lust of power above the law are … predominant passions in the breasts of most men.”

Power, he believed, always has a pernicious, corrupting effect upon human beings. Adams observed that it “converts a good man in private life to a tyrant in office.”

It was this innate drive for ever-expanding power by some that the Founders saw as responsible for the recent loss of republics in Venice and Sweden. They came to believe that the English constitution, upon which they had formerly enjoyed the same rights as their fellow subjects in England, had become corrupted by a small group of ministers who were acting in ways in which the king himself was unaware.

The existence of power was, itself, not evil, but it was how men inevitably came to use it. The Founders believed it was essential that power be cordoned off, restricted, and so situated that there be numerous “push-back” points by which upright men could resist the encroachments of those who had become corrupted by their lust for power.

As most Americans know, their solution was to create a federal structure that divided the exercise of various aspects of power among three separate and equal branches of government while also requiring that they concur with the policy and procedures of each other if legislation were to become law.

But even the most carefully designed government would not long endure, they believed, unless officeholders and citizens alike kept the spirit of civic virtue: the revolutionary commitment to the good of the whole rather than the pursuit of self-interest.

Civic virtue as social glue

Such civic virtue was the vital social glue that would keep republican values alive; without it, self-interest would replace pursuing the common good and citizens would become easy prey for factions and demagogues.

In our time, it is sadly clear that we have completely abandoned this sense of civic virtue, as discussions about, and legislation for, the common good have vanished.

Public policy at all levels is increasingly framed in terms of how it will benefit the “right people” who, in turn, have as their central obligation the requirement to support the faction (party) most likely to deliver the goods to them.

If we are to restore the proper power balance in this tattered republic, we must once again return to thinking, speaking, and acting with civic virtue in mind: What are those policies the common good of the United States most demands?

These run the gamut from restoring civility to our language and discourse, to addressing the threat to the republic that unregulated money poses to the integrity of our election processes, to significant public works projects devoted to repairing and upgrading our dilapidated infrastructure, to ensuring that each citizen has access to affordable health care, sound education, and decent well-paying jobs.

We need to rely more on legislative discussion and resolution of pressing issues rather than on court decisions as members of both parties have tended to do for decades.

Depending upon whose ox is being gored, resorting to “the courts” for a relatively speedy resolution may seem attractive, as opposed to the uncertain and time-consuming alternative of legislative debate and resolution, but the latter will better represent “the people” than those resolutions decided by court decree.

Greg Cusack is a retired US Congressman from Iowa. He now lives in Oregon. Shanghai Daily condensed the article for space.


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