Category Archives: Culture & Civilization

Golden Rule and Business Ethics

[This extensive publishing of chapter eight of Jeffrey Wattles Golden Rule was done with his permission.]

The Golden Rule of the Fatherhood of God and the Brotherhood of Man

The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in America were times of great economic expansion and inequality, opportunity and abuse, times of American power and of world war. Early scientific doctrines of evolution were being used to gain understanding of the human species and social life, and the result was a profound challenge to traditional religion. Does religion render a person less fit for the rigors of competition, or does real religion empower a person to deal in a progressive way with those very challenges? As that debate went on, America was a center of a dynamic, religiously motivated golden rule movement, affecting society, politics, economics, business, and interfaith relations. Many enthusiastic individuals chose the rule as their motto; a popular literature on the rule arose; many a store was called “Golden Rule Store”; it was the custom to bestow on exemplars of the rule the nickname “Golden Rule.” Authors expounding the maxims for the exercise of a given craft would dub their principles “golden rules,” and many books carried titles such as Golden Rules of Surgery. A Golden Rule Brotherhood was formed with the intention of unifying all the religions and peoples of the world. During this period the golden rule came to symbolize a wholehearted devotion to the service of humankind. (Wattles 1996, 90)

This movement, which spread beyond the boundaries of Christianity, held the conviction that all men and women are brothers and sisters in the family of God, and they formulated the essentials of religion in the gospel of the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man. The phrase “brotherhood of man” was used to include, not exclude women. Since the struggle to synthesize religious idealism with scientific realism had become especially urgent, the golden rule became caught up in the debate. Does living by the rule render the individual needlessly vulnerable to rugged, evolutionary competition and conflict, or is the rule itself a vehicle of evolutionary progress? (Wattles 1996, 90)

There had been a growing sense that each individual is akin to every other human being. The fabric of humanity had been torn by religious wars between Christians and Muslims during the Middle Ages and between Protestants and Catholics during the early modern period. Europeans disgusted with the slaughter turned toward tolerance, especially since it was clear that professing a religion was no guarantee of morality and that some atheists lived highly moral lives. In the eighteenth century, Hume had proclaimed that every person has a spark of benevolent sentiment toward humanity, and Kant and others attempted to distill universally acceptable basics of religion and morality. In the nineteenth century, at all levels of culture, religious and secular humanitarianism flourished. Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony used Schiller’s “Ode to Joy,” which reads, in translation: “Joy, beautiful divine spark. . . . your magic binds together what convention had strictly divided; all men become brothers where your gentle wing rests.” Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910) abandoned the life of a Russian nobleman and the privileges of literary success for a life in some ways like that of a peasant. He defined art in terms of its capacity to arouse the feeling of the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man. His radical application of the Sermon on the Mount and his critique of luxury and oppression stimulated the idealism of many others throughout the world. (Wattles 1996, 90-91)

Among German theologians, Albrecht Ritschl ( 1822-1889) drew on Kant for a conception of the kingdom of heaven as the organization of humanity through moral action inspired by love; Ritschl’s influential student Adolf Harnack ( 1851-1930) used historical study with the aim of separating the kernel of original Christianity from the husk of associated Greek philosophic dogma. Painstaking scholarship enabled Harnack boldly to read between the lines of the New Testament text and to discover afresh Jesus’ persistent tendency to speak of religion in terms of family life. He presented the teachings of Jesus as, in sum, the fatherhood of God, the brotherhood of man, and the infinite value of the individual soul. With this conception of religion, the golden rule would find new meaning and historical vitality. In interreligious relations, the new conception of religion reached an historic high-water mark at the World’s Parliament of Religions, organized in Chicago in 1893 by Presbyterian minister Dr. John Henry Barrows in conjunction with the Columbian Exposition. It is not surprising that the most frequently mentioned principle of morality at the parliament was the golden rule. Praise for the rule came from representatives of Confucianism, Judaism, and Christianity. The golden rule was perhaps the most widely shared commitment among all the religions; and it came to symbolize the participants’ commitment to live the warm brotherly and sisterly unity that most of them had experienced together during their days of the parliament. (Wattles 1996, 91)

FROM RELIGIOUS ETHICS TO BUSINESS ETHICS: ARTHUR NASH

Two sides of the American golden rule movement are represented by Arthur Nash ( 1870-1927) and J. C. Penney ( 1875-1971) respectively. Each wrote an autobiography from the perspective of a successful Christian business leader offering advice concerning the practical, moral, and spiritual principles of living that had proven themselves through years of personal experience in the competitive arena. Nash, whose story is recounted here in more detail, participated in the social drama of urban Christianity during the years surrounding World War I, and his application of the rule is religiously motivated from the start. Penney, by contrast, was a traditional, rural and small-town man who followed the golden rule as a moral principle and achieved success in business without religious motivation until his evangelical conversion later in life. (Wattles 1996, 97)

Is religion a sphere apart from business activity, or should there not be continuity between one’s religion and the way one conducts one’s business? As a bridge of continuity between religion and business was being built by those whose primary motivation was religious, it was found that the bridge could be traversed by others whose primary motivation was economic. In some cases, the intertwining of religious and business ideas resulted in an ambiguity that has lent itself to cynical interpretation. If Jesus could be popularly portrayed as the greatest advertiser and salesman in history in Bruce Barton 1924 bestseller The Man Nobody Knows, business writers could also promote religion as a tonic that would inspire an individual to conduct relationships in a way that should conduce to prosperity. Many unwitting secularists painted a veneer of religious idealism on their enterprises. (Wattles 1996, 97)

Although Arthur Nash had some tendency to let the rise and fall of his business affect his confidence in the evident, practical worth of religious principles, he remains one of the most sincere of the exponents of the golden rule as the guide to business relationships. Nash was born in a log cabin in Indiana in 1870, the eldest of nine children of strict Seventh Day Adventist parents. He referred to his parents as having a “stern, rigid, uncompromising” faith and “great and sterling character.” He was educated in Adventist schools and seminary and was sent to Detroit as an instructor in a school for Adventist ministers and missionaries. His refusal to conform to denominational boundaries led to conflict and the first of his two breaks with Christianity. He left Detroit and did not return for years. When he did, however, he was touched by the plight of the unemployed there, and with the help of others was able to open a laundry in which he was able to provide many jobs for poor people. Church people began to send him their business, and he met the Christian woman who would be his wife and the mother of his three children, and who convinced him that his objections to Christianity were not to the religion of Jesus but to the very lack of it. Inspired again, he reentered the ministry with the Disciples of Christ. But when in a funeral service he eulogized a man of considerable character who had no professed religion, he was asked to resign his ministry. He then found work to support his family selling clothing—and did very well at it. In 1909 he moved to Columbus, Ohio, started manufacturing men’s clothing, began to prosper, but lost nearly everything in the flood of 1913. He then moved to Cincinnati and was able to organize the A. Nash Company in 1916 with sixty thousand dollars in capital, making made-to-order suits for individual clients. A short while after the Armistice was concluded, he acquired ownership of the small shop that had been making his garments under contract. (Wattles 1996, 97-98)

Then came the breakthrough, the pivot of this narrative. Nash took over the limping business of a man who had leased floor space in the building of the A. Nash Company. The tenant had run a sweatshop in the depressed clothing manufacturing industry of Cincinnati. When payroll time for his new employees came around, Nash realized that some fine and vulnerable people were only earning four dollars per week. He had recently become impressed with the kind of world that could result if people would only practice the golden rule, and he had been giving speeches to that effect. He thought of raising wages substantially, but his son, freshly disillusioned from having participated in the war in Europe, resisted the idea. They had lost four thousand dollars during the previous fiscal year, but Nash decided he would close up shop rather than exploit people to stay in the clothing business. The stockholders agreed to close the company, and Nash agreed to make up their losses, but he decided to pay a living wage until they went out of business; he would put whatever capital remained as a down payment on a farm where he would at least have the satisfaction of honest earnings. He went in to announce the decision to the small group of workers. The speech is worth quoting in full (Wattles 1996, 98):

“Friends, you have heard no doubt that we have bought this shop, and I have come in to get acquainted with you. No doubt, too, you have heard a great deal about the talks that I have been giving during the War about Brotherhood and the Golden Rule, while pleading the cause of Christianity and its affiliation to my conception of true Democracy. Now I am going to do a bit of talking to you. First, I want you to know that Brotherhood is a reality with me. You are all my brothers and sisters, children of the same great Father that I am, and entitled to all the justice and fair treatment that I want for myself. And so long as we run this shop [which to me meant three or four months longer], God being my helper, I am going to treat you as my brothers and sisters, and the Golden Rule is going to be our only governing law. Which means, that whatever I would like to have you do to me, were I in your place, I am going to do to you. Now,” I went on, “not knowing any of you personally, I would like you to raise your hands as I call your names.”

I read the first name. Under it was written: Sewing on buttons—$4.00 per week. I looked straight before me at the little group, but saw no hand. Then I looked to my right, and there saw the old lady I have referred to holding up her trembling hand. At first I could not speak, because, almost instantly, the face of my own mother came between that old lady and myself. I thought of my mother being in such a situation, and of what, in the circumstances, I would want someone to do for her. I hardly knew what to say, because I was aware that when I went into the shop, that after agreeing to stand all of the loss entailed by the liquidation of the company, I could not go too far in raising wages. It seemed to be my obvious duty to salvage something for the boys who were coming home from military service, and for the daughter just entering the university. But as I looked at that old lady, and saw only my mother, I finally blurted out: “I don’t know what it’s worth to sew on buttons; I never sewed a button on. But your wages, to begin with, will be $12.00 a week. (Wattles 1996, 98-99)

Nash continued through the list, giving equal 300 percent raises for those earning the least, and raising the highest wages from eighteen to twenty-seven dollars. It was not a move made out of ecstasy, but in blunt lucidity about what it would subtract from the money he would have to invest afterward in a farm. For months thereafter he gave little attention to the clothing business, but when he needed to see how it was doing financially, he was surprised: their little business was putting out three times the quantity it had done the previous year. He then learned that after his little speech the Italian presser had concluded that if he were the boss and had just spoken like that to his employees and raised their wages, he would want his employees to “work like hell.” And that is exactly what they did. Soon the shop had more orders than it could handle. Encouraged, Nash turned his business into a laboratory for the application of the golden rule, and the business prospered greatly. (Wattles 1996, 99)

Nash’s leadership with the golden rule led to many changes in his business. He proposed a profit-sharing plan; the workers chose to take their benefits in the form of higher wages. By 1923 the workers owned nearly half of the company stock. The best-paid employees petitioned to extend the distributions based not on the wages but on time worked. “The higher-paid workers, therefore, on their own motion thus relinquished their claim to a considerable sum of money in order that the lower-paid workers, whose need was greater, could be better provided for.” Nash continued to raise wages, limited the profit of capital to 7 percent, and reinvested remaining profits in the extension of the business. He lived simply. When Nash proposed to withhold bonuses from those who had worked less than six months (since an employee had joined for a short time and left right after receiving a bonus), the workers insisted that the golden rule indicated assuming sincere motivation in every employeeand they prevailed. Nash and the workers agreed that the consumer should play a role in the setting of prices, and consequently their prices were drastically cheaper than others’ (sixteen to twenty-nine dollars for a suit instead of fifty to a hundred). They also agreed to return extra profits to the customer in the form of better goods and extra trimmings. And they proposed, during a time of unemployment, to take a wage cut and make additional work for the unemployed in Cincinnati. They had abundant sunshine and fresh air and a healthy vapor heating system, and they remodeled their plant according to a schedule that the group agreed to. The work week was reduced to forty hours, and Nash was resolutely opposed to overtime. Every change was either proposed by one of the workers or thoroughly discussed in a company meeting. Nash supported labor unions; his firm unanimously agreed to make no clothes for a firm fighting a union and looked askance at someone taking a striker’s job; but he thought there was a better way to safeguard the rights of workers, and so he had no union in his plant. An experienced factory observer visited Nash’s workers and concluded that he was watching piecework, so rapid was the labor; but those people were working for an hourly wage. In one room, however, workers were taking such painstaking care with their work, the observer was sure they were on an hourly wage; but they were in fact the only one’s getting paid by the piece. Even during hard economic times they continued to grow from around $132,000 in 1918 to $3,750,000 in 1922. (Wattles 1996, 99-100)

Nash became widely known, and in 1923 he published an autobiography, proclaiming the golden rule as his cardinal principle, telling of his path to success, and reproducing two appreciative commentaries. After writing the triumphant account of his spiritual, social, and material success, the former preacher finally had a national pulpit that could not be taken from him. (Wattles 1996, 100)

In a posthumous 1930 edition of his book, completed by an associate, we learn the rest of the story. As a result of his renown, Golden Rule Nash became overcommitted to travel and speechmaking, and during the last four years of his life his business, now grown quite large, began to weaken in sustaining its original spirit. As Nash came to employ not a few hundred but 140,000 employees, the service motive did not permeate as thoroughly as before. Previously he had estimated that 90 percent of his workers identified with the spirit of his undertaking, and the other 10 percent worked alongside them faithfully. But now some people began to take advantage of the looser system of control; some subordinate executives did not keep pace with their leader. Favoritism, discrimination, and poor workmanship became noticeable, and morale slackened as Nash was away much of the time on speaking engagements with dinner clubs, lodge and church conventions, and chambers of commerce. (Wattles 1996, 100)

Nash’s resolution of the problem led to an expansion of his management philosophy. At first he approached a group of ministers and invited them to examine every phase of his operation and to report any situation where the teachings of Jesus could be more truly put to work. They refused, deferring to his greater experience in business. At length he decided to turn to a union. Previously, despite his sympathies with the union movement, Nash had endeavored to treat his workers so well that they would feel no need for a union. The enmity between labor and management, especially in the clothing industry, had been strong during the previous decade; now, however, in December of 1925, he turned to the Amalgamated Clothing Workers Union, on account of its sustained dedication to the skills of the trade and to the welfare of the workers. The union’s technical competence, which Nash had previously rejected as deadening, proved most helpful. New methods accounting, inventory management, and finance were introduced. Thus many techniques of scientific management that he had scorned as mere mechanical substitutes for human cooperation were introduced, and he found that they in fact constituted the very extension and application of the golden rule itself. The business weathered a slump and emerged stronger than ever; sales for 1926 were fourteen million dollars. The workers owned most of the stock. It became evident that the supreme desire to apply the golden rule did not enable Nash to discover by himself every step of forward progress that he needed to take. He needed the union to show him that techniques he had opposed were in fact required by his own purposes. Nonetheless, it was by following the golden rule that he came to the union and thus to accept ideas he had previously rejected in the name of the rule. (Wattles 1996, 100-101)

He founded the Nash Journal as a forum for popular and inspirational tidbits of wisdom, business advice, editorials, news of the company and the world. In one of his rare forays in the direction of philosophy, Nash responded to an article in which his company’s success was explained in terms of the golden rule plus other factors of business judgment. He challenged the separation of the golden rule from good business judgment. (Wattles 1996, 101)

In order to perfectly live the Golden Rule, one in business, to begin with, would be compelled to buy his merchandise in such a way that he would be dealing with the seller on the basis of the Golden Rule, as well as buying for his customers on the basis of the Golden Rule. The thought I want to bring out, is that we have left most things religious and spiritual down in the boggy swamps of sentimentalism. The efforts of the church in the past have not been directed as much as they may be toward educating and equipping men and women to live large and full lives. Whatever success has come to the A. Nash Company in living the Golden Rule has come because there has been enough business knowledge to enable us to live it to just that degree, and whenever we have failed in exercising the very highest and keenest business judgment on a truly ethical basis, it has been because we did not have sufficient insight to understand our obligation measured by the Golden Rule. . . . In other words, perfect and infallible living of the Golden Rule would require infallible mentality and undaunted courage. (Wattles 1996, 101)

Nash’s book argued that religion is needed for the socially effective practice of the golden rule. Any acceptable economic success must be based not upon profit-hungry manipulation but upon good relationships between those involved. Acting in accord with the golden rule is required in order for a business enterprise to flourish in its social relations, since the rule stimulates improved service. The practice of the rule in business should not be regarded as suicidal; often it is an aid to success. Religious motivation is usually necessary to motivate the wholehearted practice of the golden rule. Therefore, religion is essential for the flourishing of business and consequently for the flourishing of society and of civilization. In sum, Nash used the rule as a symbol of his Christian ideals of brotherhood and service and as a method to discover new ways of treating his workers and his customers well. (Wattles 1996, 102)

FROM BUSINESS ETHICS TO RELIGIOUS ETHICS: J. C. PENNEY

J. C. Penney experienced the golden rule during his early years more as a symbol of the rigorous, edifying, and self-denying morality of his “good and dedicated” father rather than as a symbol of the spiritual example of his “unselfish and saintly” mother. The son of a Primitive Baptist preacher (and the grandson of a preacher), the third child of twelve children (six of whom survived to adulthood), growing up on a farm, Penney recalls learning self-reliance by having to earn the money for his clothes beginning at age eight. He ran errands. He raised pigs. But when the neighbors complained about the smell, his father obliged him to stop raising pigs—an early lesson about the unwelcome implications of living by the golden rule. The boy turned to growing watermelons, spending the last nights before harvesting in the field with a dog and a shotgun to protect his crop. He took them to the county fair to sell them, and set up his wagon close to where the crowds were entering. Sales were becoming brisk when his father interrupted and ordered him to close down and go home. The lad had unwittingly broken the norm of selling along with other merchants who had set up inside the fair and had paid for a concession to do so. This was his second hard lesson about the implications of the golden rule. (Wattles 1996, 102)

The next phase of his life with the golden rule were his early years in business. He learned to sell dry goods. “I concentrated on two points: knowing the stock and exactly where everything was, and giving the customer the utmost in service and value, making only a small profit on each sale. I was particularly interested in the idea of keeping the store sold out of old stock.” He learned how “to add service and value from the woman’s point of view.” He stayed away from the cities, feeling that he knew “how to get close to the lives of small town people, learning their needs and preferences and serving them accordingly.” He liked working where he and those who worked with him “understood our neighbors as readily as they could understand us.” In 1902 he opened a store in Kemmerer, Wyoming, with the sign: Golden Rule Store. He and his wife worked together without any help at first, working hard, too hard, as Penney recalls, from early in the morning to late at night seven days a week. They abided strictly by the golden rule, they were extremely frugal, and they made money. As they began to hire people, Penney never hired anyone who did not have a “positive belief in a Supreme Being”; he selected people with “character, enthusiasm, and energy. ” He had large ambitions: “By our service to our customers we would create in them that spring of sparkling good will which would prompt them to want to help us to serve them.” (Wattles 1996, 102-103)

The last period of his life was marked by his religious conversion. Chronically troubled by his merely external engagement with religion, he had not been able to convince himself wholeheartedly that “it was enough for a man to lead a moral and upright life.” At the age of fifty-eight, having financially overextended himself in philanthropy when the Great Depression hit, this wealthy and successful man was brought to bankruptcy, alcoholism, and despair. Through an evangelical mission in New York City, he found God in a radiant and satisfying way and could then speak anew of the golden rule. “From our spiritual wellsprings come our capacities for unselfishness.” Penney proclaimed that the world must be transformed, would be transformed, and could only be transformed by the spiritually motivated practice of the golden rule, service to all people as one’s neighbors. (Wattles 1996, 103)

As civilization grew and horizons widened, the definition of “brotherhood” took on more exact meaning, and people came gradually to understand the golden rule as a basic principle, applicable to all relationships. In former periods business was identified as secular, and service as sacred. In proportion as we have discerned that between secular and sacred no arbitrary line exists, public awareness has grown that the golden rule was meant for business as much as for other human relationships.

Penny 1950, 52

Thus Penney joined men like Nash and Jones in holding to a religious conception of brotherhood as the basis for the replete practice of the golden rule. (Wattles 1996, 103)

CONCLUSION

The golden rule has functioned to mobilize sympathies, to sustain human dignity, and to express religious experience on a diverse planet in need of unifying ideals. Despite the follies of some of its champions, the rule, interpreted through the gospel of the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man, has showed itself a sturdy player in the encounter between religious idealism and scientific realism. (Wattles 1996, 103)

Evolution means progress as well as struggle. Not only does idealism need realism to make its ideals effective, but realism also needs idealism in order to keep pace in a progressive world. The fact that the rule provided a focus for the experience of harmony among members of different religions and the fact that the rhetoric of the golden rule could be an effective lever of reform give hope for the moral sense within the human heart and an incipient spiritual community. How, then, shall the golden rule be applied in practice? There is no formula for finding the proportion of legitimate self-interest in a life dominated by the service motive. There is no formula for determining when a sacrificial deed will have great leverage. Nor is the golden rule a substitute for gifted leadership, though it can contribute the moral focus for inspired leadership and teamwork. (Wattles 1996, 104)

Simply to ridicule the follies of idealism or to expose the scandals of a narrow-minded realism may make people more cynical about the prospect of combining idealism with realism. Pointing beyond cynicism, the biographies summarized here show how some, daring to treat others as they would be treated, found their way. Arthur Nash discovered that his apparently self-sacrificing wage increases won a profitable response from his workers, and they gained national attention for joining religious and moral dynamism with business progress. J. C. Penney respected the rule as a moral constraint on profit seeking and as a guide to service, and in the end also wrote of religiously motivated brotherhood. Samuel Jones, despite relative economic and political success, continued to aim, sometimes unwisely, for social and personal objectives beyond his reach. His sense of the pathos of life’s contradictions was much sharper than that of Penney or Nash. Nash and Penney showed that an individual and a company can flourish with a profound commitment to the rule. Jones, however, also showed that a society transformed by the practice of the rule is a long way off. (Wattles 1996,104)

~ ~ ~

Computability and Economics

My incompleteness theorem makes it likely that mind is not mechanical, or else mind cannot understand its own mechanism. If my result is taken together with the rationalistic attitude which Hilbert had and which was not refuted by my results, then [we can infer] the sharp result that mind is not mechanical. This is so, because, if the mind were a machine, there would, contrary to this rationalistic attitude, exist number-theoretic questions undecidable for the human mind (Gödel in Wang 1996, 186-187)

(….) However, Wang reported that in 1972, in comments at a meeting to honor von Neumann, Gödel said: “The brain is a computing machine connected with a spirit ” (Wang 1996, 189). In discussion with Wang at about that time, Gödel amplified this remark:

Even if the finite brain cannot store an infinite amount of information, the spirit may be able to. The brain is a computing machine connected with a spirit. If the brain is taken to be physical and as a digital computer, from quantum mechanics there are then only a finite number of states. Only by connecting it to a spirit might it work in some other way. (Gödel in Wang 1996, 193)

Some caution is required in interpreting the remarks recorded by Wang, since the context is not always clear. Nevertheless Wang’s reports create the impression that, by the time of his note about Turing, Gödel was again tending toward a negative answer to the question, “Is the human mind replaceable by a machine?” (Copeland et. al. 2013, 21)

(….) The mathematician Jack Good, formally Turing’s colleague at Bletchley Park, Britain’s wartime code-breaking headquarters, gave a succinct statement of the Mathematical Objection in a 1948 letter to Turing:

Can you pin-point the fallacy in the following argument? “No machine can exist for which there are no problems that we can solve and it can’t. But we are machines: a contradiction.”

At the time of Good’s letter Turing was already deeply interested in the Mathematical Objection. More than eighteen months previously he had given a lecture in London, in which he expounded and criticized an argument flowing from his negative result concerning Entsheidungsproblem and concluding that “there is a fundamental contradiction in the idea of a machine with intelligence” (1947, 393).

At the time of Good’s letter Turing was already deeply interested in the Mathematical Objection. More than eighteen months previously he had given a lecture, in London, in which he expounded and criticized an argument flowing from his negative result concerning the Entsheidungsproblem and concluding that “there is a fundamental contradiction in the idea of a machine with intelligence” (1947, 393). (Copeland et. al. 2013, 21)

Copeland et. al.. (2013, 5; 21) Computability: Turing, Gödel, Church, and Beyond. MIT Press.

If the economy is driven by one individual choice after another in response to prices, this should be capable of being modelled on a computer. In the words of an eminent economist, consumer choice can be likened to a computer ‘into whom we “feed” a sequence of market prices and from whom we obtain a corresponding sequence of “solutions” in the form of specified optimum positions’. The ranking of preferences determines the market choices of economic man. Arriving at this ranking can be modelled as a sequence of pairwise comparisons, for example, making a choice between strawberry and vanilla flavours (taking price into account), and comparing likewise all other options in sequence until the budget is exhausted. Such choices can be embodied in an algorithm (a calculation procedure) to run sequentially on a computer and provide a numerical result.  (Offer and Söderberg 2019, 263)

But there is a snag: some algorithmic problems cannot be solved by a digital computer. They either take too long to compute, are impossible to compute (that is, are ‘non-computable’), or it is unknown whether they can be computed. For example, the variable of interest may increase exponentially as the algorithm moves sequentially through time. A generic computer (known after its originator as a ‘Turing machine’, which can mimic any computer) fails to complete the algorithm and never comes to a halt. Such problems can arise in deceptively simple tasks, for example, the ‘travelling salesman problem’, which involves calculating the shortest route through several given locations, or designing efficient networks more generally. For every incremental move, the time required by the computer rises by a power: there may be a solution, but it requires an impossible length of time to compute. In a more familiar example, encryption relying on the multiplication of two unknown prime numbers can be broken, but relies on solutions taking too long to complete. (Offer and Söderberg 2019, 263-264)

The clockwork consumer maximizes her innate preferences in response to market prices. But there is a flaw in the design: the clockwork may not deliver a result. It may have to run forever before making a single choice. This has been demonstrated formally several times. The ordering of individual preferences has been claimed to be ‘non-computable’, and Walrasian general equilibrium may be non-computable as well. Non-computability in economics is little cited by mainstream scholars. On the face of it, it makes a mockery of the neoclassical notions of rationality and rigour, both of which imply finality. Economics however averts its gaze. In practice, since standard microeconomics has never aspired to realism, it may be a reasonable response to say that it has formalisms that work, and that they constitute ‘horses for courses’. But what cannot be claimed for such formalisms is a unique and binding authority in a theoretical, empirical, policy-normative sense, in the way that scientific consensus is binding. (Offer and Söderberg 2019, 264-265)

Computation rears its head several times in Nobel economics. In the second Nobel Lecture, Ragnar Frisch described the task of the economist as validating and executing policy preferences by feeding them into computer models of the economy, and Milton Friedman expressed a similar idea in his Nobel Lecture of 1976. Hayek (NPW, 1974) made his mark in the ‘socialist calculation debate’. Defenders of socialist planning (and of neoclassical economics) in the 1920s and 1930s argued that private ownership was not crucial: socialism could make use of markets, and that the requirements for socialist calculation were no more onerous than the ones assumed for neoclassical general equilibrium. From then onwards, the debate should really be called ‘the neoclassical calculation debate’. Joseph Stiglitz (NPW, 2001) perversely framed a devastating demolition of general equilibrium economics as a criticism of market socialism. Kenneth Arrow (NPW, 1972), an architect of general equilibrium, pointed out (against general equilibrium) that in terms of computability, every person is her own ‘socialist planner’—the task of rationally ordering even private preferences and choices (which Hayek and economics more generally takes for granted) looks too demanding. Under general equilibrium, if even a single person is in a position to set a price (as opposed to taking it as given), ‘the superiority of the market over centralized planning disappears. Each individual agent is in effect using as much information as would be required by a central planner.’ (Offer and Söderberg 2019, 265)

In response to the socialist neoclassical defence, Hayek and his supporters questioned the very possibility of rational calculation. Hayek acknowledged the interdependence of all prices. But the consumer and entrepreneur did not need to be omniscient, just to make use of local price signals and local knowledge to price their goods and choices. The problem was not the static once-and-for-all efficiency of general equilibrium, but coping with change. The prices obtained fell well short of optimality (in the Pareto general equilibrium sense).29 Hayek implied that this was the best that could be achieved. But how would we know? Joseph Stiglitz (NPW, 2001) does not think it is. Regulation can improve it. Hayek’s position fails as an argument against socialism: if capitalism can do without omniscience, why not a Hayekian market socialism without omniscience? A key part of Mises’s original argument against socialism in 1920 was that that entrepreneurs require the motivation of profit, and that private ownership of the means of production was indispensable. But advanced economies are mixed economies: they have large public sectors, in which central banking, social insurance, and infrastructure, typically more than a third of the economy, are managed by governments or not-for-profit. They would be much less efficient to manage any other way. In Britain, for example, with its privatized railways, the biggest investment decisions are still reserved for government: the rails are publicly owned, the trains are commissioned and purchased by government, and a major high speed line project (HS2) can only be undertaken by government. Despite Hayek, smaller public sectors are not associated with more affluent economies: The expensive Nordic Social Democratic societies demonstrate this. (Offer and Söderberg 2019, 265-266)

Herbert Simon (NPW, 1978) pointed out that individuals could not cope with the computational challenges they faced. They did the best they could with what they had, which he called ‘bounded rationality’. The problem also appears in behavioural economics, where NPWs Allais, Selten, Kahneman, Smith, and Roth have all shown that real people diverge from the norms of rational choice, and that outcomes are therefore unlikely to scale up to ‘efficient’ equilibria. In a letter to the non-computability advocate Vela Velupillai, Simon spelled out the different degrees of cognitive capacity: There are many levels of complexity in problems, and corresponding boundaries between them. Turing computability is an outer boundary, and as you show, any theory that requires more power than that surely is irrelevant to any useful definition of human rationality. A slightly stricter boundary is posed by computational complexity, especially in its common ‘worst case’ form. We cannot expect people (and/or computers) to find exact solutions for large problems in computationally complex domains. This still leaves us far beyond what people and computers actually CAN do. The next boundary, but one for which we have few results … is computational complexity for the ‘average case’, sometimes with an ‘almost everywhere’ loophole [that is, procedures that do not apply in all cases]. That begins to bring us closer to the realities of real-world and real-time computation. Finally, we get to the empirical boundary, measured by laboratory experiments on humans and by observation, of the level of complexity that humans actually can handle, with and without their computers, and—perhaps more important—what they actually do to solve problems that lie beyond this strict boundary even though they are within some of the broader limits. The latter is an important point for economics, because we humans spend most of our lives making decisions that are far beyond any of the levels of complexity we can handle exactly; and this is where … good-enough decisions take over. (Offer and Söderberg 2019, 266-267)

This problem was also acknowledged by Milton Friedman (NPW, 1976). Surprisingly for a Chicago economist, he conceded that optimizing was difficult. His solution was to proceed ‘as if’ the choice had been optimized, without specifying how (the example he gives is of the billiards player, who implicitly solves complicated problems in physics every time he makes a successful shot). Asymmetric information, at the core of bad faith economics, is partly a matter of inability to monitor even the moves of a collaborator or a counter-party. The new classical NPW economists (Lucas, Prescott, and Sargent) avoid the problem of computational complexity (and the difficulty of scaling up from heterogeneous individuals) by using a ‘representative agent’ to stand for the whole of the demand or supply side of the economy. Going back to where we started, ‘imaginary machines’, the reliance on models (that is, radically simplified mechanisms) arises from the difficulty of dealing with anything more complicated. (Offer and Söderberg 2019, 267)

All this is just another way of saying that on plausible assumptions, the market-clearing procedures at the heart of normative economics (that is, its quest for ‘efficiency’) cannot work like computers. Having failed in the test of classic analysis, theory fails the test of computability as well. This suggests that actual human choices are not modelled correctly by economic theory, but are made some other way, with as much calculation as can be mustered, but also with short-cuts, intuitions, and other strategies. This is not far-fetched. Humans do things beyond the reach of computers, like carry out an everyday conversation. Policy is not made by computers, not by economists, but by imperfect politicians. Perhaps it is wrong to start with the individual—maybe equilibrium (such as it is) comes from the outside, from the relative stability of social conventions and institutions. This indeterminacy provides an analytical reason why understanding the economy needs to be pragmatic, pluralistic, and open to argument and evidence; an economic historian would say that we should embrace empirical complexity. Policy problems may be intractable to calculation, but most of them get resolved one way or another by the passage of time. History shows how. This may be taken as endorsing the pragmatism of Social Democracy, and of institutional and historical approaches which resemble the actual decision processes.  (Offer and Söderberg 2019, 267-268)

If economics is not science, what should we make of it? Economics has to be regarded as being one voice among many, not superior to other sources of authority, but not inferior to them either. In that respect, it is like Social Democracy. It commands an array of techniques, the proverbial ‘toolkit’ which economists use to perform concrete evaluations, including many varieties of cost-benefit analysis. It has other large assets as well: a belief system that commands allegiance, passion, commitment, groupthink, and rhetoric. Its amorality attracts the powerful in business, finance, and politics. It indoctrinates millions every year in universities, and its graduates find ready work in think tanks, in government, and in business. The press is full of its advocates. As an ideology, economics may be resistant to argument and evidence, but it is not entirely immune to them. Its nominal allegiance to scientific procedure ensures that the discipline responds to empirical anomalies, albeit slowly, embracing new approaches and discarding some of those that don’t seem to work. (Offer and Söderberg 2019, 268, emphasis added)

Trump’s Fascism is Trumpism

From the early stages of his campaign and right into the Oval Office, Donald Trump has spoken harshly about the institutions and principles that make up the foundations of open government. In the process, he has systematically degraded political discourse in the United States, shown an astounding disregard for facts, libeled his predecessors, threatened to “lock up” political rivals, referred to mainstream journalists as “the enemy of the American people,” spread falsehoods about the integrity of the U.S. electoral process, touted mindlessly nationalistic economic and trade policies, vilified immigrants and the countries from which they come, and nurtured a paranoid bigotry toward the followers of one of the world’s foremost religions. (Albright 2018, 5)

(….) He is president because he convinced enough voters in the right states that he was a teller of blunt truths, a masterful negotiator, an effective champion of American interests. That he is none of those things should put us on edge, but there is a larger cause for unease. Trump is the first anti-democratic president in modern U.S. history. On too many days, beginning in the early hours, he flaunts his disdain for democratic institutions, the ideals of equality and social justice, civil discourse, civic virtues, and America itself. If transplanted to a country with fewer democratic safeguards, he would audition for a dictator, because that is where his instincts lead. (Albright 2018, 246)

Spreading Group Hatred

The psychic health of a society can be measured by the extent to which its policies and laws exclude and constrain prejudices. One sign of social stability is the degree to which a community and the individuals who compose it are willing to acknowledge the humanity and learn from the cultures of other people. Many cultures have resorted to discrimination and prejudice despite their self-destructive consequences. Dehumanizing representations of minorities disseminated through social discourse [e.g., social media] are integral to the formation of movements bent on harming outgroups. (Tsesis 2002, 99)

The victims of hate speech are at greater risk form groupwide threats than from personal attacks. Counterspeech is less effective against a group with deeply held beliefs, which feels the power of its numbers and the passions of its hateful convictions, than against an individual expressing only his or her biased ideas. Labels reify prejudices through stories that exaggerate and falsify outgroup traits and extol the presumed advantages of excluding minorities from ingroup privileges. The broad dark strokes that are then applied to scapegoats make for an auspiciously hostile environment filled with slights and vilifications. Aggressive names schematize the world into groups of good guys and bad guys…. Destructive messages are the main vehicles for spreading ideology. Hate speech is an essential means for popularizing hate groups. (Tsesis 2002, 1010)

Hate Speech qua Free Speech

Freedom of speech is critical to the growth and maturation of societies and is a much vaunted benefit of living in the United States. However, that freedom has not always led to the collective improvement of all citizens. History is littered with examples of harmful social movements, in various countries and cultures, employing violent racist rhetoric. Such hate-filled ideologies lie at the heart of human tragedies such as the Holocaust, U.S. slavery in the antebellum South, nineteenth-century Indian removal, and present-day slavery in Mauritantia. (Tsesis 2002: 1)

Donald Trump’s Racist Rhetoric

Propaganda [link] is essential for eliciting widespread cultural acceptance of exclusionary and supremacist ideologies. When hate speech is systematically developed, it sometimes becomes socially acceptable, first, to discriminate and, later, to oppress identifiable groups of people. Racialist rhetoric has been effectively harnessed to formulate and spread racism on national and even international scales…. Bigots have rationalized all these biases through threads of thought that are subtly woven into the fabric of everyday language [i.e., dog whistles]. (Tsesis 2002: 1)

Speech plays a pivotal role in communicating ideas—both progressive and regressive. Over time, the semantics of a language will mirror the historical development of a people. The context of phrases and the subtle nuances of demonstrative messages can contain the kernels of a cultural worldview. Traditionally accepted perspectives permeate the unconscious and form an often unquestioned social “reality.” Prejudices that reflect collective outlooks gradually find their way into laws. (Tsesis 2002: 1)

GOP/Trump’s Dog Whistles

People intent on maintaining power [such as demagogues like Trump] manipulate stereotypes that echo their followers’ preconceptions. Orators [and demagogues] and authors strategically exploit imbedded cultural meanings not just to create grammatically sentences, but also to persuade their audience. They use repeatedly uttered, dogmatic imagery to influence attitudes toward particular groups of people. Large audiences more readily recognize tenets when they draw on deeply held beliefs. (Tsesis 2002: 2)

Hate speech and the prejudice it fosters deny individuals [like the] fundamental rights like autonomy and tranquility…. “Misethnicity” [i.e., the institutionalized hatred of ethnic groups, something Trump has facilitated] …. is sometimes preferable to “racism” and “ethnocentrism.” “Racism” is the diminished respect and unequal treatment of people based on their biological particularities. “Ethnocentrism” is the sense of superiority of one’s own ethnic group. “Misethnicity” is more specific in recognizing that ethnic prejudice is a groupwide hatred. (Tsesis 2002: 2)

They were innocent … which to this day Trump denies …

Misethnicity is deeply nestled within conventional practices [such as Donald Trump’s full-page ad in the Daily News on May 1, 1989 calling for the death penalty for five innocent black teenagers]. By drawing attention to the centrality of language in perpetuating discrimination, we may be able to dislodge some deep-rooted racist thoughts and behaviors. Charismatic leaders can harness subtle and explicit misethnic statements to instigate active or complicit participation in hate crimes. Expressions such as these create an atmosphere of combustible intolerance: “Most Indians are drunks, but he’s a hard worker”; “He may be a Jew, but he’s not greedy”; “I’m usually careful around blacks, but he can be trusted.” These statements reflect the same animosity as their more flagrant counterparts; “Indians are drunks,” “Jews are greedy,” and “blacks are dangerous.” Studying the linguistic development of Misethnicity and its relation to socially destructive conduct is critical to realizing, anticipating, and thwarting its potentially catastrophic consequences. (Tsesis 2002: 2)

(….) Historical analysis is crucial because it exposes the association between hate propaganda and discriminatory action. Oppressors justify inequities by making their targets out to be less than human, unworthy of fair treatment or even of mercy ordinarily shown to animals…. Negative stereotypes and ideological schemas, designed to rationalize power in the hands of dominant groups, precede crimes against humanity such as genocide. Many lives may be ruined before the views of those who rebuff popular prejudices trickle into the community conscience. Even societies striving for equality, steeped in natural rights theory, and vigilant against intolerant majorities are not wholly immune from becoming havens for supremacists promulgating aggressive ideologies. (Tsesis 2002: 2-3)

Pondering the effectiveness of anti-Semitic and racist messages brings into stark relief the dangers that purveyors of hate pose to representative democracies. Scrutinizing the foundations of genocidal hatred in Germany and of dehumanizing and devaluing dogma in the United States yields abundant information about how, particularly in times of social and economic unrest, hate speech builds upon established ideologies. By understanding the progression from hatred to destruction, we can know better how to prevent Misethnicity from being exploited by provocative rhetoricians intent on generating dangerous social movements. Studying how unjust political movements, such as the National Socialist party or the Confederate Nullificationists [or Donald Trump’s “America First” rallies in which he incites the “angry mob” with such rhetoric like the free press and democratic party are the enemies of the people, or his attacks on the justice system and separations of power, etc.], manipulated cultural stereotypes is instructive in avoiding future calamities. (Tsesis 2002: 3)

How Economics Lost Sight of Its Goal

Back in Ancient Greece, when Xenophon first came up with the term economics, he described the practice of household management as an art. Following his lead, Aristotle distinguished economics from chrematistics, the art of acquiring wealth—in a distinction that seems to have been all but lost today. The idea of economics, and even chrematistics, as an art may have suited Xenophon, Aristotle and their time, but two thousand years later, when Isaac Newton discovered the laws of motion, the allure of scientific status became far greater. Perhaps this is why, in 1767—just 40 years after Newton’s death—when the Scottish lawyer James Steuart first proposed the concept of ‘political economy’, he defined it no longer as an art but as ‘the science of domestic policy in free nations’. But naming it as a science still didn’t stop him from spelling out its purpose (Raworth 2017, 28-29, Kindle Edition):

The principal object of this science is to secure a certain fund of subsistence for all the inhabitants, to obviate every circumstance which may render it precarious; to provide every thing necessary for supplying the wants of the society, and to employ the inhabitants (supposing them to be free-men) in such a manner as naturally to create reciprocal relations and dependencies between them, so as to make their several interests lead them to supply one another with their reciprocal wants (Raworth 2017, 29, Kindle Edition).

A secure living and jobs for all in a mutually thriving community: not bad for a first stab at defining the goal (despite the tacit disregard of women and slaves that came with the times). A decade later, Adam Smith had a go at his own definition but followed Steuart’s lead in considering political economy to be a goal-oriented science. It had, he wrote, ‘two distinct objects: to supply a plentiful revenue or subsistence for the people, or, more properly, to enable them to provide such a revenue or subsistence for themselves; and secondly, to supply the state or commonwealth with a revenue sufficient for the public services’. This definition not only defies Smith’s ill-deserved modern reputation as a free-marketeer but also keeps its eyes firmly on the prize by articulating a goal for economic thought. But it was an approach that would not last (Raworth 2017, 29, Kindle Edition).

Seventy years after Smith, John Stuart Mill’s definition of political economy started the shift in focus by recasting it as ‘a science which traces the laws of such of the phenomena of society as arise from the combined operations of mankind for the production of wealth’. With this, Mill began a trend that others would further: turning attention away from naming the economy’s goals and towards discovering its apparent laws. Mill’s definition came to be used widely but by no means exclusively. In fact for nearly a century, the emerging science of economics was defined rather imprecisely, leading the early Chicago School economist Jacob Viner, in the 1930s, to quip simply that ‘Economics is what economists do.’ (Raworth 2017, 29, Kindle Edition)

Not everyone found that a satisfactory answer. In 1932, Lionel Robbins of the London School of Economics stepped in with intent to clarify the matter, clearly irritated that ‘We all talk about the same things, but we have not yet agreed what it is we are talking about.’ He claimed to have a definitive answer. ‘Economics,’ he declared, ‘is the science which studies human behavior as a relationship between ends and scarce means which have alternative uses.’ Despite its contortions, that definition seemed to close the debate, and it stuck: many mainstream textbooks still start with something very similar today. But although it frames economics as a science of human behaviour, it spends little time enquiring into those ends, let alone into the nature of the scarce means involved. In Gregory Mankiw’s widely used contemporary textbook, Principles of Economics, the definition has become even more concise. ‘Economics is the study of how society manages its scarce resources,’ it declares—erasing the question of ends or goals from the page altogether (Raworth 2017, 29-30, Kindle Edition).

It is more than a little ironic that twentieth-century economics decided to define itself as a science of human behaviour and then adopted a theory of behaviour—summed up in rational economic man—which, for decades, eclipsed any real study of humans, as we will see in Chapter 3. But, more crucially, during that process, the discussion of the economy’s goals simply disappeared from view. Some influential economists, led by Milton Friedman and the Chicago School, claimed this was an important step forwards, a demonstration that economics had become a value-free zone, shaking off any normative claims of what ought to be and emerging at last as a ‘positive’ science focused on describing simply what is. But this created a vacuum of goals and values, leaving an unguarded nest at the heart of the economic project. And, as every cuckoo knows, such a nest must be filled (Raworth 2017, 30, Kindle Edition).

Dumuzid and Enkimdu

This is a debate between Dumuzid, the shepherd, and Enkimdu, a minor deity associated with cultivation and here representing the interests of the farmer…. Shepherds and farmers coexisted in the Mesopotamian economy and, while they may have had their differences, in many ways their interests were complementary. (Black 2004, 40)

Here the debate is out in a dramatic context, since Inana’s brother the sun-god Utu is urging her to marry Dumuzid the shepherd (11-19), whereas Inana is more inclined to marry Enkimdu the farmer (7-10, 20-34). The shepherd insists that nothing which the farmer can offer—woven garments, bear, bread, or beans—is superior to the sheep, milk, curds, cheeses or butter that he, the shepherd, can produce. (Black 2004, 40-64)

But just at the point when the debate might have become heated, following provocation from the shepherd, the farmer declines to argue, and good-naturedly allows the shepherd to graze his sheep on the stubble of the fields, and to water his flocks in the farmer’s canal. The two end up friends, and the farmer will provide the shepherd with wheat, beans, and barley. He will also continue to bring presents for Inana, even when she is married to Dumuzid. (Black 2004)

Translation

20-34 ‘The shepherd shall not marry me! He shall not make me carry his garments of new wool. His brand new wool will not influence me. Let the farmer marry me, the maiden. With the farmer who grows colourful flax, with the farmer who grows dappled grain ….’

35-9 These words … the shepherd, Dumuzid … to say …:

40-54  ‘In what is the farmer superior to me …? Enkimdu, the man of the dykes and canals—in what is that farmer superior to me? Let him give me his black garment, and I will give the farmer my black ewe for it. Let him give me his white garment, and I will give the farmer my white ewe for it. Let him pour me his best beer, and I will pour the farmer my yellow milk for it. Let him pour me his fine beer, and I will pour the farmer my soured (?) milk for it. Let him pour me his brewed bear, and I will pour the farmer my whipped milk for it. Let him pour me his beer shandy, and I will pour the farmer my … milk for it.

55-64 ‘Let him give me his best filtered beer, and I will give the farmer my curds (?). Let him give me his best bread, and I will give the farmer my … milk for it. Let him give me his little beans, and I will give the farmer my small cheeses for them. After letting him eat and letting him drink, I will even leave extra butter for him, and I will leave extra milk for him. In what is the farmer superior to me?

65-73  He was chearful, he was chearful, at the edge of the river bank, he was chearful. On the riverbank, the shepherd on the riverbank, now the shepherd was even pasturing the sheep on the riverbank. The farmer approached the shepherd there, the shepherd pasturing the sheep on the riverbank; the farmer Enkimdu approached him there, Dumuzid … the farmer, the king of dyke and canal. From the plain where he was, the shepherd from the plain where he was provoked a quarrel with him; the shepherd Dumuzid from the plain where he was provoked a quarell with him.

74-9 ‘Why should I compete against you, shepherd, I against you, shepherd, I against you? Let your sheep eat the grass of the riverbank, let your sheep graze on my stubble. Let them eat grain in the jewelled (?) fields of Unug, let you kids and lambs drink water from my Surungal canal.’

80-3 ‘As for me, the shepherd: when I am married, farmer, you are going to be counted as my friend. Farmer Enkimdu, you are going to be counted as my friend, farmer, as my friend.’

84-7 ‘I will bring you wheat, and I will bring you beans; I will bring you two-row barley from the threshing-floor. And you, maiden, I will bring you whatever you please, maiden Inana, … barley or … beans.’

88-9 The debate between the shepherd and the farmer: maiden Inana, it is sweet to praise you! (Black, Jeremy et. al., eds. The Literature of Ancient Sumer. Oxford: Oxford University Press; 2004.)

American Taliban: It Is Happening Here

What was emerging from this and similar meetings was a political force — the so-called Religious Right — that injected into the Republican Party a new emphasis on the promotion of religious morality (an area of concern which most early Goldwater activists thought belonged in the private, not public, and not political, arena). The focus of this new religion-centered “conservatism” was not on liberty and limited government but on what Russell Kirk had called the “transcendent moral order.”

By 1989, the Moral Majority, the late Jerry Falwell’s organization which had emphasized religious values across sectarian lines and often shared a common purpose with many conservatives and orthodox Jews, had all but disappeared. In his place rose the Christian Coalition, led by Pat Robertson and Ralph Reed. The Religious Right had become the overtly Christian Right. (Edwards 2008: 40-41)

(….) Through aggressive grassroots activism the movement’s members and supporters won elections, took over party organizations, and dominated party conventions. Later, when George W. Bush’s political advisor Karl Rove would speak of “the Republican base,” this was who he had in mind. (Edwards 2008: 41)

The Christian Right was hardly the Republican base (the party’s voters were often much more moderate in their views than were Robertson and his followers), but because Robertson’s forces tended to dominate conventions and primaries in which voter turnout is often low, they exerted influence far beyond their numbers. In the process, they transformed the republican Party and indeed the conservative movement itself into an arm of religion, precisely the outcome the First Amendment of the Constitution was designed to prevent. There were instrumental in galvanizing the conservative opposition to death with dignity laws in Oregon, private medical decisions in Florida, and scientific advances in the nation’s medical laboratories. (Edwards 2008: 41)

A wall was erected between church and the state … as an extension of the founder’s experience with religious persecution in Europe. Placing religion in a position to dictate, or heavily influence, national policy had led to sanctions, torture, murder, and war. European battlefields were littered with the corpses of men sent to war on behalf of one religious sect or another. In a nation founded on Lockean principles of individual rights, there would be no place given to sectarian terror. (Edwards 2008: 64)

The wall between religion and statecraft serves an additional purpose. The enemy of civility (a necessary ingredient in the governance of a diverse society) is certitude. And nothing breeds certitude more than religious belief. Religion is often a positive force in the lives of individuals, but when the true believer feels compelled to impose upon the whole of the society the truths that have enriched his or her life, the threads that bind us as a nation begin to fray. (Edwards 2008: 123)

(….) Conservatism’s central philosophy has long been based on the regard for the individual rather than the collective. Yet today many are willing to support the imposition of the personal beliefs of some, be they a majority or a minority, on others, who do not subscribe to those beliefs. The title of Sinclair Lewis’s novel about a politician who rose to power on a wave of religious fervor was ironic: It Can’t Happen Here. Its message was: yes, it can. (Edwards 2008: 124)

Because the Constitution’s central premise is liberty — it is a document designed for a free people–it was created to prevent both the concentration of power in a few hands … and the ability of the majority to impose its will on the minority… The rule of law, not the rule of the masses or rulers, defines American constitutional government. But that is a lesson conservatives have forgotten. (Edwards 2008: 128-129)

The Constitution is for all Americans — Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Buddhist, Muslim, and nonbeliever alike. We are free to practice or not as we deem fit. Religion is a personal thing; government is what we hold in common, and that distinction lies at the heart of American conservatism [opposed to extremist fundamentalism as exhibited above]. Community is not the same thing as government. The U.S. government is a secular institution, and its policy decisions should not be required to conform to religious doctrine. (Edwards, Mickey. Reclaiming Conservatism. Oxford: Oxford University Press; 2008; pp. 40-166) 

Now is the time to remember that our great religious traditions, notably Christianity, once upon a time could not even conceive of reducing religious engagement with public life to a narrow list of hot-button issues. They were too concerned with the whole person and the whole of society to limit their reach to a handful of questions. Now is the time to heed the call to social justice and social inclusion embedded deeply in in the scriptures. (E. J. Dionne Jr., Forward, in Lew Daly (2009) God’s Economy: Faith Based Initiatives & the Caring State. University of Chicago Press)

We Were Warned

America’s Founders and Abraham Lincoln warned us of the danger of elevating a demagogue such as Donald Trump to the highest office in the land and the virulent nature of the “angry mob” of sycophants easily manipulated by such demagogues making up the political base of such right-wing populism as we are witnessing today at the heart of the GOP:

In an 1838 address to the members of the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois, Lincoln warned that since American democracy could never be overthrown by a foreign invader, the only enemy to be feared was one within: undisciplined passion. Pointing to several recent examples of frontier lynchings, Lincoln deplored “the increasing disregard for law which pervades the country; the growing disposition to substitute the wild and furious passions, in lieu of the sober judgment of the Courts; and the worse than savage mobs, for the executive ministers of justice.” (….) Lincoln warned the young men of his home town that during the generations to come ambitious demagogues would seek to prey upon the passions of the people, unless these were kept under stern control. “Passion has helped us” in rallying the people to the cause of the Revolution, Lincoln acknowledged, “but can do so no more. It will in future be our enemy.” He cautioned: “Reason, cold, calculating, unimpassioned reason, must furnish all the materials for our future support and defence.” Only by the control of passion could American democracy keep from degenerating into anarchy or demagogy. When Lincoln declared that America would stand or fall by “the capability of a people to govern themselves,” he meant this in both a political and a psychological sense.

Howe, Daniel Walker. Making the American Self: Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln (pp. 142-143). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.

Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Hay were the authors of The Federalist Papers:

No document relating to the Constitution of the United States has received more attention than The Federalist Papers. The papers were written in 1787–88 for the purpose of persuading the people of the state of New York to elect a convention that would ratify the proposed Constitution of the United States…. The authors of The Federalist—Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay—were practical men, writing under intense pressures, with a strong sense of the campaign strategy they were pursuing. They submerged their individual differences in the collective persona of Publius, who for our purposes may be treated as a single author (Howe 2009, 78-79)…. What Publius fears is that “a torrent of angry and malignant passions will be let loose,” frustrating all attempts at rational discourse. He himself will engage in rational argument, without impugning the motives of individuals…. However he may feel provoked, Publius will take his stance with Prospero in The Tempest:

“Though with their high wrongs I am struck to the quick,
Yet with my nobler reason ‘gainst my fury
Do I take part.” (Howe 2009, 85)

“In all very numerous assemblies, of whatever characters composed, passion never fails to wrest the scepter from reason,” and the more numerous the assembly, “the greater is known to be the ascendancy of passion over reason.” Once dominated by passion, an assembly became a “mob.” (Howe 2009, 86) (….) Publius complained that the Anti-federalists’ rhetoric suggested “an intention to mislead the people by alarming their passions, rather than to convince them by arguments addressed to their understandings.” (….) Publius’s line of argument was not unprecedented: the seventeenth-century English classical republican theorist James Harrington had argued that government should be designed to maintain the supremacy of reason over passion, and had blamed passion for the degeneration of monarchy into tyranny, aristocracy into oligarchy, or democracy into anarchy….. The Federalist quoted Jefferson with approval: “An elective despotism was not the government we fought for.” (….) The demagogue is a sinister figure in The Federalist. He lurks ready to exploit the passions and create a faction. He is the natural enemy of the statesman, who has virtue and the common interest at heart. The Constitution, Publius argues, will provide a context within which the statesman can defeat the demagogue. Fittingly, he both begins and ends his series of letters with warnings against demagogues.

Howe, Daniel Walker. Making the American Self: Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln (pp. 90-95). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.

This very generation is witnessing with the rise of Trumpism an insidious form of right-wing populist extremism and “faction” that seeks to gratify “private passion by public means.” This is the exact kind of “faction” (i.e., the elevation of personal bias and opinion into absolutist totalitarian rhetoric) our Founders feared; the collective expression of “some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.” Factions stem from passions writ large inflamed by ambitious demagogues, as we witnessed during Trump’s many campaign rallies were he regularly incites violence, boasting he could murder someone in the street and the “angry mob” would still vote for him. Hamilton warned that in this form, passions become more dangerous than ever: “a spirit of faction” can lead men “into improprieties and excesses for which they blush in a private capacity.” (Howe 2009, 95)

Donald Trump’s demagoguery directed at his ignorant base is aimed at inciting their passions and is bent upon ripping apart the social fabric of our society and tearing down our democratic institutions. The GOP has mainstreamed extremism, and by so doing has signaled the death of any semblance of classical principled conservatism. In the words of the 18th Century Irish statesman Edmund Burke, “All drapery of life is to be rudely torn off… Their liberty is not liberal. Their [anti-science] is presumptuous ignorance. Their humanity is savage and brutal.” By elevating license over liberty, zealotry and extremism over moderation and reason, the GOP has set America on a course Lincoln warned us would happen when we lost our ability to reasonably govern our own passions and prejudices. Trumpism is an existential threat to the very existence of America’s Constitutional form of government and balanced separation of powers. Time is swiftly running out and if we don’t augment our political discourse with a heavy dose of wisdom we will plunge ourselves over the cliff into another “dark ages” of the interregnum of wisdom bearing witness to the inexorable consequences of confusing license for liberty.