Thursday, August 19, 2010

Reading Plan: Year Two

In the GBWW program, year one was a general introduction into great works of literature and philosophical thought. The next nine years have more direction, which each year orientated to a specific theme.

Year two is focused on literature concerning the development of political theory and government. From the reading list below I can see that I will be returning to some authors and books that I read selections from last year, such as Aristotle, Plutarch and Shakespeare as well as more Bible reading.  I am particularly looking forward to reading the political philosophy of Hobbes, Rousseau and Kant who I know have been very influential.

Aristotle: Politics
Plutarch: The Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans
Old Testament: Samuel, Kings
New Testament: Matthew, Acts
Tacitus: The Annals
Aquinas: Summa Theologica
Machiavelli: The Prince
Hobbes: Leviathan
Shakespeare: King Henry IV
Montesquieu: The Spirit of Laws
Rousseau: The Social Contract
Locke: Concerning Civil Government
Kant: The Science of Right
J.S. Mill: Representative Government, On Liberty
The Federalist (selected readings)
Hegel: The Philosophy of Right
J.S. Mill: On Liberty

Here is the rub.  Over the next nine years I will read select readings from specific works, but in some cases I do not finish the entire piece.  For example, it was suggested by GBWW that I only read 50 pages of Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire . When will I finish the rest?  (another 1750 pages!).  Do I want to spend two months reading that and slow my progress on other books?  Will I get diminishing returns by reading the entire work?

My tentative plan to is finish year two of the GBWW program ahead of schedule and return to Decline and Fall as well as reading Marx's Das Kapital (and perhaps some others).  Of course plans only survive as long as they don't meet reality.   

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Year One - A review

On January 9th, 2009 I started reading GBWW following the Year One schedule.  It took 19 months rather than 12 to finish the first year, but I'm still pleased to have completed everything.  Admittedly, writing a thoughtful blog entry about each book seems to double the effort.   

From my list, I think I enjoyed reading Hamlet the most. However the Communist Manifesto and Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire were the most stimulating.

Here is the list of GBWW that were finished this year:
Plato: Apology, Crito, The Republic
Sophocles: Oedipus the King and Antigone
Aristotle: Nicomachean Ethics, Politics
Plutarch: The Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans
Old Testament: Book of Job
St. Augustine: The Confessions
Montaigne: The Essays
Shakespeare: Hamlet
Locke: Concerning Civil Government
Swift: Gulliver's Travels
Gibbon: The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire
The Declaration of Independence
The Constitution of the United States
The Federalist
Marx-Engles: Manifesto of the Communist Party

Communism in America

I found the Communist Manifesto to be quite thought provoking and it also made me eager to read Das Kapital to learn more about Marx's economic theories. I agree that many workers today are still exploited as "wage laborers", including ones with PhDs and MDs. Certainly the problem has been greatly rectified since 1848, but I thought it would be worth seeing what Communist ideas Marx had that have been implemented in America.

What Marx wanted to see:

1. Progressive income tax. We have this in America, however some people do not think it is nearly "progessive" enough for the super rich. We also tax inhertances, which retards the growth of a wealthy ruling classs. 

2. Free education. We have publicly supported schools for K-12 and state sponsored universities. However a free college education is unrealistic, even in "socialist" Europe.

3. A national bank. We have this and the Federal Reserve regulates the short-term interest rate which means there is quite a bit of governmental control over our economy (especially lending).

4. Labor unions. We did cultivate many of these over the last 150 years. Although they are not nearly as powerful as in years past, they still retain their influence and protect workers rights.

5.  Public Ownership of Business.  The goverments currently owns many "companies" such as the post office, mortgage companies (Freddie Mac, Fanny Mae) and we own 60% of General Motors following our bailout of that company.

Marx saw history as a grand and natural transition from old ideas to new ones. It was a mix of Hegel's inevetable march of time and a twist of social Darwinism. The final outcome would be a great class struggle with Communism emerging dominant. He probably did not predict that we would instead incorportate many of his ideas in our capitalist governments.

Marx and Engels: The Communist Manifesto

"The theory of the Communists can be summed up in the single sentence: abolition of private property." Not the property of peasants but "the kind of property which exploits wage labor and which cannot increase except upon condition of begetting a new supply of wage labor for fresh exploitation."

Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels believed that there has been a long historical struggle between the working class of "wage laborers" (the proletariat) and the ruling class who control capital (the bourgeoisie). In other words, most of us are working for someone for money and the people paying us control how much compensation we receive for our labor. This "callous cash payment" has "converted the physician, the lawyer, the priest, the poet, the man of science, into its paid wage laborers".

What is wrong with being a wage laborer? One problem is that the wage laborer is not fairly compensated. For example, in an 8-hour work day we pay for ourselves in only 5 hours and the rest of the wage-labor we generate goes to the bourgeoisie. Worse yet, many wage laborers only earn enough money to survive and reproduce, but never enough to elevate themselves out of their position. This just perpetuates the cycle of dependency on the bourgeoisie. If a laborer tries to ask for more money the bourgeoisie will find cheaper labor elsewhere, since wage earners are just a "commodity".

The proletariat "is set upon by the other portions of the bourgeoisie - the landlord, the shopkeeper, the pawnbroker" (think “Cash Now” or “Check & Go” money-lending stores today). The bourgeoisie do train and educate the proletariat, but only to help the bourgeoisie compete with other bourgeoisie, foreign and domestic. However, the Manifesto suggests that the preliterate should be using this knowledge against the bourgeoisie who keep them suppressed.

How are communists different those other working parties? They support all national struggles and they represent the movement as a whole. This is in contrast with nationalist worker parties. The Communists want all workers to unite.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Karl Marx

Karl Marx (1818-1883) was a radical political figure who advocated the abolition of private property and the overthrow of the ruling elite. Marx called his idea of goverment Communism, as as we know today it had a profound influence on the events of the following century. Born in Germany, Marx was not a stellar university student although he had a keen interest in philosophy. During his early life he developed a great sympathy for the alienation of the working classes of Europe which was occurring during the Industrial Revolution.

Marx wrote many publications supporting his beliefs, but the two most well-known are The Communist Manifesto (1848), which outlined his thoughts and called for a worker's revolution, and Das Kapital (1867) which explains the deficits in the capital mode of production which lead to class struggle. 

The publication of his ideas were not popular with most governments and Marx was forced to leave Germany and later France before finally settling in London.  He lived in almost total poverty with his wife and children helped only by the financial support of his close friend and intellectual counterpart, Friedrich Engels.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The Federalist Papers

If men were angels there would be no need for government.  The great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed: and in the next place oblige it to control itself"     Alexander Hamilton, The Federalist                   

The Federalist Papers were a series of 85 articles supporting the ratification of the United States Constitution.   The papers were written by Alexander Hamilton, John Jay and James Madison and were published for general readership.  The authors used the pseudonym "Publius," in honor of the Roman consul Publius Valerius Publicola, who helped overthrow the Roman monarchy (509 BC) and established a popular and fair justice system in ancient Rome.  (Incidentally, many publications in early America were printed under Roman pseudonyms (e.g. Cato, Caesar, &c) perhaps to establish the credibility of the authors or as innuendo. 

The Constitution was designed to promote a stronger union among the states, prevent inter-state disputes, help the government raise money and give us a strong executive (i.e. president).  However the Constitution was not greeted with uniform praise. 

Many regional leaders feared the enervation of states rights and powers. The two most powerful states, Virginia and New York, had the most to lose and were the last ones to ratify the Constitution.  The Federalist papers were written to appeal to the sensibilities of these recalcitrant people and mollify their concerns of a monolithic federal government dominating the country. 

Hamilton, Madison and John Jay

Let's see if I can briefly summarize the Federalist papers:

Most of the Federalist papers praise the merits of the Constitution, going into the details of its workings and the new government, as well as defending and attacking detractors and other governments. 

"Publius" states that the Constitution was written by men who studied many other forms of government and chose the best ideas of each, similar to what Lycurgus did for 7th century BC Greece.  However, the main reason for creating the Constitution was to promote unity. States need a unified code of laws and fiscal policy in some areas, as well as a single voice in treaties and foreign negotiations.  Solidarity would also discourage neighboring states from becoming rivals, a natural outcome of having regional powers in close proximity.  We also needed to deal with Spain and England who threatened to block our expansion to the west. 

The legislative branch of government is naturally the most powerful, but a strong executive is needed to provide balance and to give us one voice.  To help divide the power of the legislature, we have a Senate and a House of Representatives.  In addition, this division helps protect the minority by inhibiting the majority from acting in a concentrated manner. 

Other_governments, such as Great Britain, do not have truly independent legislatures, "executives", and judicial systems.  This may be one of the greatest contributions of the American Constitution to modern government.  Interesting, we are one of the few countries that does not have its executive chosen by the legislature. Compare this with the Prime Minister of the UK.  

Are term limits a bad thing? Hamilton says that if a president or other elected official is not going to be re-elected it encourages deviant behavior since the elected official will not be held accountable to the voters.  It also enervates the power of the elected official - what we call a lame duck. We also lose an experienced official.
 The Founding Fathers would probably not have approved the Twenty-second Amendment.

All Men are Not Equal.  Despite what the Declaration of Independence suggests, Jefferson meant that all men should have equal opportunities.  Hamilton praises the diversity in America, saying that one of our greatest strengths is that we are not equal in every ability.

It is ironic that Hamilton suggests the Constitution will discourage the need for standing army and the likelihood of war when later in life Hamilton played an active role in establishing a national army and trying to provoke a war with Spain.  Of course this only one of several ironies that the Founding Fathers could not have predicted. 

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

The Constitution of the United States

Even though we declared ourselves independent in 1776, we did not have our Constitution until 1787. During that time the weak Articles of Confederation held our country together, which allowed  individual states a wide latitude in their own governance.  When it came time to write a new more unifying Consitution, many people (such as Madison and Hamilton) realized that we needed a stronger federal government and their convictions earned them the appellation "Federalists".  Opposing the Federalists were the "Republicans", who favored a weaker central government with more states rights.

The Constitution seems to always be in the news. A familiar cry from belligerent talk show guests is for us to "read the Constitution". OK, I will. Of course that doesn't mean I can deduce what the Founding Fathers meant in the Second Amendment by the right to bear arms.  The newest buzz is over the Fourteenth Amendment which states that anyone "born" in the USA is a United States citizen. It was designed to complement the Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery. However, it is now thought to be antiquated since illegal aliens giving birth in the US automatically give their children US citizen status.  I could see an amendment to this, since other countries such as the UK don't allow this.  Also, I think we may also be able to allow citizens not born in the US to become president. 

Most of the original Constitution lays the groundwork for the new government: qualification for senators and representatives, term lengths, the judicial systems, etc. It is all interesting and I probably read it before when I was twelve. However, you do gain a better appreciation for the ingenuity of the architects of this document after a certain age.

Not surprisingly there is no mention anywhere of the President of the United States being elected by the popular vote. Of course everyone is aware of this now, but it is comforting to see that I wasn't lied to back in 2000. One interesting note is that the president can pardon ANY crime (e.g. murder, treason) except impeachment!  Since Nixon was not impeached he could be pardoned - but Bill Clinton who didn't commit any crimes (?) cannot be.

Reading the Amendments I felt like there was some missing. I reached twenty-four, but there are in fact twenty-six Amendments. I then realized that this edition of the GBWW I am reading is from 1952. The Constitution, as they say, is a living document, and has moved on.

The Articles of Confederation

About the time the Declaration of Independence was being signed, the Continental Congress was writing up our first constitution, which would be known as "The Articles of Confederation".  This document united the states into a single country, but it was not approved officially by all the states until 1781. 

Not to be confused with the "Constitution of the United States", this agreement established a weak federal system, which reminds me of an early "European Union".  There was no president, no national court system, the states could raise their own militias and states could coin their own money (value was set by the Fed however).

There were thirteen articles in all.  I found article eleven amusing as it states no colonies can enter the union without the approval of the other states except...Canada!  Canada has free admission to the union if they want to join, but I guess they turned us down. 

Overall, it was not a very strong union, but it was enough to get us started.

Declaration of Indepedence

The next few works I am reading concern the development of our government in the United States of America.  These include the Declaration of the Independence, the Articles of Confederation, the Constitution of the USA and finally the Federalist papers.

I recently finished a biography on one of our founding fathers, John Adams, by Pulitzer Prize winner David McCullough. I highly recommend this book and it has given me a broader perspective into the events that were occurring when these documents were prepared.  I also think I understand the motivations and personalities of the men who contributed to these great works including: James Madison, John Jay, Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson

The Declaration of Independence has its famous and powerful preamble.  The lesser known portion of this document is the list of grievances that follow. The signers cite these as justification for their succession from the oppressive British Empire.  Ironically, the Declaration was heavily influenced by the British.  It is partially modeled after the declaration of Scottish Independence (1320 AD) and reflects thoughts by the British philosopher John Locke.  As  I mentioned in a previous blog post, John Locke advocated that the role of government is to help preserve "Life", "Liberty" and "Property".  That's not quite the same as "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness", but it's close enough for most people.

Continuing with this theme, this statement is worthy of further thought: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness".  What is it that makes these truths self-evident?