Left Lanes and Right Lanes
by Charles Osborne
I shall try here to divide two broad historical virtues in political history, each founded on philosophical (ethical) grounds, which do (and always have) pulled most of us in two directions as societies or nations. (We are also conflicted in the same way as individuals.) The reason the opposing movements never go away is that we like both of them, but we must very often choose between them. One of these virtues is justice, and the other is grace. Some people might not like one or the other, or both—but normal people, regardless of the culture, class, religion, occupation, race, age or gender, see virtue in both justice and grace. If readers do not praise both virtues, they will be disappointed here, for there is nothing I can do for them.
All civilized societies move on wheels of justice, which are rather alike in the sense that they give people what is coming to them, what they deserve. This was one of the first issues raised by Plato in The Republic, and it was old then, but I will not follow his tracks much farther here. My point is not that all societies call the same actions just, but rather that they all have developed procedures and processes (rules and regulations—laws) for resolving such conflicts—in other words, they seek justice. What they have in common is trying to assure that I get what I am entitled to, and so does everybody else, and that goes for good things and bad things both, according to due process.
Kant’s “retributive justice” said that a just court system punishes if and only if guilty, and punishes in proportion to the gravity of the crime. But we also apply this in the economy of societies. I don’t have to pay everybody on payday—just those who worked for me (or otherwise met my contract with them). People ought to get what is coming to them, for good and for bad, and that is the nature of the virtue we call justice, when it comes to law and order, criminal and economic—and pretty much socially (we turn from wicked people and embrace good ones if we want to do what is just).
Justice is a primordial virtue, a balancing of unchanging and eternal wheels, that if we get what we deserve, nobody should complain—and cannot fairly complain. It is in the order of all things—the Greeks called it the Logos, the Hindus called it Karma—but I am not saying it is indeed a reality of all things, only that at least it is a good thing to seek and pursue.
But wait—a virtue just as basic is called grace. Called a virtue of kings because they have the power to practice it, we all find ourselves in life in a position to forget a debt owed to us, forgive a wrong done to us, or pity those who suffer—though they have not earned this gift. We choose to help beyond what they deserve, not because they were good, but because we are good. And that is grace. Grace is not fair—it goes above and beyond the call of justice. Some people do not have a just or gracious spirit; others may abide justice and no more (no grace). In Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, Ebenezer Scrooge was perhaps just enough (in a few ways, at least), but of course without a breath of grace. In the movie, It’s A Wonderful Life, the wicked banker, Mr. Potter (poster boy for many politicians) loved neither justice nor grace—stealing at any opportunity and showing no mercy or grace to others.
The socio-political thoughtscape which has come into view in recent times is one in which we are supposed to choose one virtue or the other, and we are under great pressure sometimes to select between only the most rabid and radical extremes. It is my contention that this is a false dichotomy. On the extremist side of justice is the fascist right, where survival of the strongest at any price is the only virtue, and on the extremist side of grace is the Bolshevik left, where everybody gets equal shares, whether they earned it or not. Only recently, starting after WW2, have societies and nations begun to work out a balance between the two good things (either of which is very wicked where people go mad over it) that begins to resemble olden times.
The idea that one extreme or the other is a law of God, or Nature, is even now easily found in America, and in other places it may be worse. (My being ignorant of the political philosophies of Native American tribal culture or Arab nomads, or others outside the traditional history of Western Civilization, makes me leave it to others to examine the universality of these two virtues.) We have all heard the gospel of people getting justice (like Sodom and Gomorrah), and the gospel of people getting grace (like The Prodigal Son), and may very well hear more of either than we care to hear, but we do not hear enough talk about how the conflicting virtues must be balanced (well, not so much since Plato’s Republic). When does a parent stop protecting the child from destruction by holding back the hand of justice with grace? It is a mistake to disinherit a child for the first mistake, but also a mistake to keep covering for him or her—forever. And that is the issue of left and right in politics, in a nutshell (perhaps where it belongs…)
Make no mistake—the world has paradoxes in it. Showing justice and showing grace are both called for, and it takes wisdom—knowledge and experience of the world, and a good spirit—to choose when they seem to be at odds. It is true to say that people deserve their rewards—and punishments (Jesus said it, “The worker deserves his pay,” etc.), but it is also true to say that everybody deserves some slack, a break, some mercy and forgiveness. A boss at work can ruin a business by not being fair and just—but also by never giving anybody forgiveness or slack. And face it, these are opposites.
A democratic republic does have the virtue, not of reaching the right decisions, but of considering the options and choosing by dialog rather than bloodshed (when it works). In some cases we punish crimes very strictly, and in others we show mercy. What is wrong is to think that grace is itself unjust (or that justice is itself ungracious). We can afford to be gracious in some cases, especially if we think that good will come of it in the end. Grace may be limited somewhat by our wealth and power—how gracious can we afford to be? We cannot afford to make everybody rich, but we can afford to provide a decent life for everybody, even if they can’t earn it themselves. So the question is, should we grant that much grace? The European nations have gone much farther in the direction of grace than America—and they can afford it. We could also afford it, but virtually all the grace would have to come from the very rich—who have almost all the money (90% or more). Abraham Lincoln’s definition of slavery was: You toil, and sweat, and make bread—and I will eat it. But of course that started a war and he was a radical.
At what point does it stop being grace, and become injustice? That too is a question whose answer is not in stone somewhere, but determined, for better or worse, through the political process. It could be argued that the people who harvest 90% of the wealth of a nation should shoulder 90% of the cost of it. (When I was young, the USA had income taxes on that basis and balanced the budgets—and we came to be called “the affluent society.” If anything entrepreneurship was more vigorous then.) When enough people get hungry enough, they bring out the guillotine again, and all the powdered wigs again begin to drop into baskets. But we don’t have to wait that long, if what we want is realistic balance.
The balance between justice and grace in our time lies in the hands of political leadership—and the will of the people. (That too is a paradox—the people need to be led, but the leaders follow the people’s will, and in any case the people choose the leaders.) People already by nature do favor justice and grace, and it is for leadership to illuminate the path. The people voted for FDR, Truman, Kennedy, Carter, Clinton, and Obama—and the same people voted for Ike, Nixon, Reagan, Bush 1 & 2. Is it even possible for us, politically, to think that both sides might be right, not as the extremes they advocate, but as balances and compromises?
Break the false dichotomy, and stop saying that any social program is Bolshevik, or any fair and just process is Fascist. Normal people throughout history have been between these two forms of madness—and wickedness. How do we draw the right line between the extremes? By the political process. A republic balances hasty passions of the moment and extreme interests, against calmer, longer term (and more reasoned) feelings and interests. It may seem ridiculous to put our faith in republican democracy today. There are reasons to doubt—such as the enhanced powers of manipulation in the media. The revolutionary spirit in America today is sound asleep—in dogmatic slumbers. The idea that we can make any radical changes no longer arises. We don’t feel like kicking in any rotted doors. Does anybody think we can pass the necessary Constitutional Amendments to fix our system for today’s realities? (Jefferson told the Congress he would sign any bill they passed, which helped the people—even if it required changing the Constitution. The same revolutionary spirit still lived in Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, FDR, but their fire is now but an ember here and there. We can’t even give equal legal rights to women.)
The first new amendments to the Constitution should be those which get people to vote. A nation that accepts rule by fewer than half the voters makes rule by minorities into a constitutional mandate.
We might consider 5 Constitutional Parties, to assure more engagement by the people and to assure more representation of the people—and also to assure compromise: Left, Moderate Left, Right, Moderate Right, and Independent Caucus. This will give everybody a reason to vote and it will make every vote count—because coalitions will be necessary.
We might consider more up to date voting processes. Taxes are both national and computerized, and so can voting be—a national identification (or the Social Security card, made more secure) can be the national voting card, exercised online at any Post Office or Federal Building.
We could also consider our original principle that corporations cannot give shareholders’ money to their own political causes or politicians. Other regulations of political contributions could be considered—for instance, that contributions by anybody must be made through an independent government agency and recorded for the public to see.
How about making the Congress much bigger, so that Representatives represent smaller neighborhoods—where huge spending is not required to be elected, and one could campaign on foot or in person at schools or door to door? America is big enough now for a House of 800 or 1000.
And senators should represent more or less equal areas, no longer perhaps defined by state lines? They could be elected by regions such as New England, Mid-Atlantic, Southeast, South Central, Mid-Western, etc. (5 per area, with comparable populations adjusted by the census).
Cities are still disproportionally underrepresented in Congress (because of gerrymandering in state legislatures), as are minorities—we could consider the California model (a bipartisan commission distributes representation into districts). Farmers are fewer than 2% of us now, yet they still control much legislation (and they are mostly big corporations now).
Don’t prohibit guns, but sell them (and ammo) only at state stores—say, at the Sheriff’s office, so felons are discouraged—and make penalties severe and non-negotiable for weapons not legally bought. (Some states do this with liquor, and it does control purchases to minors.)
You may or may not like these, or some of them, but why are all of them out of the question? Why will they never be adopted, or other popular measures made possible? Because the people are not revolutionary any more—so nobody listens to them. That is why they do not vote, and that is why the democratic republic is deep in dogmatic do-do.
The moral duty of society is to balance the will of the people as a power, with the effectiveness of representation or leadership as a power, and here, both forces have lost much of their power, and continue to lose more. Instead, we butt heads between now-fictitious (and mad)
“-isms” (Fascism and Bolshevism), and let the business of the people go. This naturally attracts the worst sort of people to government, and lets minorities choose among those.