Reparations [8]: Global Accountability- Part 3

Reparations for slavery, to be carried out under international human rights law, offer an historic opportunity for the USA’s national healing of its racial troubles, but the founding myth of American exceptionalism stands in the way.

Human Rights Law

International human rights law derives from the United Nations’ founding vision.

“The term ‘human rights’ was mentioned seven times in the UN’s founding Charter, making the promotion and protection of human rights a key purpose and guiding principle of the Organization.  In 1948, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights brought human rights into the realm of international law.  Since then, the Organization has diligently protected human rights through legal instruments and on-the-ground activities.

“The UN Charter, in its Preamble, set an objective: ‘to establish conditions under which justice and respect for the obligations arising from treaties and other sources of international law can be maintained’. Ever since, the development of, and respect for international law has been a key part of the work of the Organization.  This work is carried out in many ways – by courts, tribunals, multilateral treaties – and by the Security Council, which can approve peacekeeping missions, impose sanctions, or authorize the use of force when there is a threat to international peace and security, if it deems this necessary.  These powers are given to it by the UN Charter, which is considered an international treaty.  As such, it is an instrument of international law, and UN Member States are bound by it.  The UN Charter codifies the major principles of international relations, from sovereign equality of States to the prohibition of the use of force in international relations.”[1]

Although the U.S. was one of the four U.N. founders,[2] it has consistently rejected the U.N. ideal of the “sovereign equality of States.” By doing so, it avoids accountability under international human rights law.

The Case for Reparations Under International Law

The U.S. practiced legal slavery from its creation through the Civil War, de facto slavery for a hundred years after that, and since then has maintained systemic, cultural racism. It is therefore guilty of violating International law, which identifies slavery as a “crime against humanity,”[3] It is no defense to claim that slavery was a thing of the past, since there is no statute of limitations under international human rights law.[4] International law would remedy this entire history with a multi-tiered approach to reparations that includes monetary compensation and remedial action.[5]

A recent editorial in The Wall Street Journal stated the international case against the U.S. [6] The editorial first asserts that “the U.S. is bound by international law and must be guided by the precedent set by many other countries that have recognized reparations as a means to redress injustice,” referencing the legal doctrine that formed the basis for the Nuremberg Nazi Trials.

“The prohibition against slavery has now achieved jus cogens—a peremptory norm, from which no derogation is permitted. This is the highest legal status in international law, and it means retroactive responsibility may be imposed on those who violated that norm. This is how the Nazis were prosecuted at Nuremberg: retroactively—for the jus cogens of crimes against humanity. On that basis alone, the U.S. may be held legally responsible for the historical enslavement of Africans and the consequences for their descendants.”

The Nuremberg Precedent

The Nuremberg reference is particularly apt in view of comments made by the last-surviving prosecutor, Benjamin Ferencz. 

“[Benjamin] Ferencz was 27 years old and this was his first case…. He began the proceedings with one of the most powerful opening statements of the Nuremberg trials: ‘It is with sorrow and with hope that we here disclose the deliberate slaughter of more than a million innocent and defenceless men, women and children. Vengeance is not our goal, nor do we seek merely a just retribution. We ask this court to affirm by international penal action, man’s right to live in peace and dignity, regardless of his race or creed. The case we present is a plea of humanity to law. We shall establish beyond the realm of doubt facts which, before the dark decade of the Third Reich, would have seemed incredible.’”[7]

Mr. Ferencz’s recent comments were not about slavery, but rather the U.S. family separation immigration policy — a “crime against humanity” under international law.

“The last surviving member of the Nuremberg trials prosecuting team has said Donald Trump committed ‘a crime against humanity’ with the recent family separation policy.

“Ben Ferencz, 99, made the comment during a recent interview with outgoing United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein.

“The lawyer said it was ‘painful’ when he heard about how the Trump administration had separated more than 2,000 children from their families after they had crossed the US-Mexico border.”[8]

The Rome Statute’s list of “crimes against humanity” includes “imprisonment or other severe deprivation of physical liberty” and “persecution against any identifiable group or collectivity on political, racial, national, ethnic, cultural… and other grounds,” and ends with the catch-all phrase “other inhumane acts of a similar character intentionally causing great suffering, or serious injury to body or to mental or physical health.”[9] Mr. Ferencz invoked this phrase in his comments:

“We list crimes against humanity in the Statute of the International Criminal Court. We have ‘other inhumane acts designed to cause great suffering’. What could cause more great suffering than what they did in the name of immigration law? It’s ridiculous,’ the prosecutor of war criminals said regarding the family separation policy.”[10]

American National Sovereignty vs. “The Sovereign Equality of States”

In place of the “sovereign equality of States,” the U.S. maintains what President Herbert Hoover labeled a “rugged individual” sense of national identity that it has applied to its national sovereignty. U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions provided a textbook application of rugged individualism in his defense of the Trump Administration’s family separation policy.

“If you cross the border unlawfully, then we will prosecute you. If you smuggle an illegal alien across the border, then we’ll prosecute you,,,, If you’re smuggling a child, then we’re going to prosecute you, and that child will be separated from you, probably, as required by law. If you don’t want your child separated, then don’t bring them across the border illegally. It’s not our fault that somebody does that.

“I would cite you to the Apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13 to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained the government for his purposes. Orderly and lawful processes are good in themselves. Consistent, fair application of law is in itself a good and moral thing and that protects the weak, it protects the lawful. Our policies that can result in short-term separation of families are not unusual or unjustified.”[11]

Sessions invoked the Bible to substantiate the United States’ God-derived national sovereignty. The authority of God and the Bible is totalitarian, beyond accountability. Since the United States derives its national sovereignty from God and the Bible, it enjoys the same totalitarian authority, above any law other than its own. Its laws are good and moral by definition, and its government and government officials are free from fault because its laws say they are.

Yes, a U.S., Attorney General actually said that.

“I would cite you to the Apostle Paul.”

“God has ordained the government for his purposes.”

“Orderly and lawful processes are good in themselves.”

“Consistent, fair application of law is in itself a good and moral thing and that protects the weak, it protects the lawful.”

“It’s not our fault that somebody does that.”

Sessions’ case justifies national indifference to the plight of the tired, poor, huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse. the homeless, and tempest-tossed.[12] We are therefore free to terrorize them at the border if we wish.

The same concept applies to our history of institutionalized slavery and nationalized racism.

We can do better.

Germany’s WWII Reparations

Again, comparisons to post-WWII Germany are apt:  through its reparations to the new Jewish state, Germany paid its moral debt for Nazism, substantially benefited Israel, and emerged from its own catastrophic history, free to take on a new national identity.

Germany’s commitment to reparations did not come easily.

“In 1952, when West Germany began the process of making amends for the Holocaust, it did so under conditions that should be instructive to us. Resistance was violent. Very few Germans believed that Jews were entitled to anything. Only 5 percent of West Germans surveyed reported feeling guilty about the Holocaust, and only 29 percent believed that Jews were owed restitution from the German people.

“‘The rest,’ the historian Tony Judt wrote in his 2005 book, Postwar, ‘were divided between those (some two-fifths of respondents) who thought that only people ‘who really committed something’ were responsible and should pay, and those (21 percent) who thought ‘that the Jews themselves were partly responsible for what happened to them during the Third Reich.’ 

“Germany’s unwillingness to squarely face its history went beyond polls. Movies that suggested a societal responsibility for the Holocaust beyond Hitler were banned. ‘The German soldier fought bravely and honorably for his homeland,’ claimed President Eisenhower, endorsing the Teutonic national myth. Judt wrote, ‘Throughout the fifties West German officialdom encouraged a comfortable view of the German past in which the Wehrmacht was heroic, while Nazis were in a minority and properly punished.’

“Konrad Adenauer, the postwar German chancellor, was in favor of reparations, but his own party was divided, and he was able to get an agreement passed only with the votes of the Social Democratic opposition.”

Nor did receiving reparations come easily to the Israelis.

“Survivors of the Holocaust feared laundering the reputation of Germany with money, and mortgaging the memory of their dead. Beyond that, there was a taste for revenge. ‘My soul would be at rest if I knew there would be 6 million German dead to match the 6 million Jews,’ said Meir Dworzecki, who’d survived the concentration camps of Estonia.

“Ben-Gurion countered this sentiment, not by repudiating vengeance but with cold calculation: ‘If I could take German property without sitting down with them for even a minute but go in with jeeps and machine guns to the warehouses and take it, I would do that—if, for instance, we had the ability to send a hundred divisions and tell them, ‘Take it.’ But we can’t do that.’

“The reparations conversation set off a wave of bomb attempts by Israeli militants. One was aimed at the foreign ministry in Tel Aviv. Another was aimed at Chancellor Adenauer himself. And one was aimed at the port of Haifa, where the goods bought with reparations money were arriving.”

But once made, Germany’s reparations were undeniably beneficial to the new Jewish state.

“West Germany ultimately agreed to pay Israel 3.45 billion deutsche marks, or more than $7 billion in today’s dollars. Individual reparations claims followed—for psychological trauma, for offense to Jewish honor, for halting law careers, for life insurance, for time spent in concentration camps. Seventeen percent of funds went toward purchasing ships. ‘By the end of 1961, these reparations vessels constituted two-thirds of the Israeli merchant fleet,’ writes the Israeli historian Tom Segev in his book The Seventh Million. ‘From 1953 to 1963, the reparations money funded about a third of the total investment in Israel’s electrical system, which tripled its capacity, and nearly half the total investment in the railways.’

“Israel’s GNP tripled during the 12 years of the agreement. The Bank of Israel attributed 15 percent of this growth, along with 45,000 jobs, to investments made with reparations money. But Segev argues that the impact went far beyond that. Reparations ‘had indisputable psychological and political importance,’ he writes.”

The reparations could not erase a shameful past, but they created a worthy future.

“Reparations could not make up for the murder perpetrated by the Nazis. But they did launch Germany’s reckoning with itself, and perhaps provided a road map for how a great civilization might make itself worthy of the name.

“Assessing the reparations agreement, David Ben-Gurion[13] said ‘For the first time in the history of relations between people, a precedent has been created by which a great State, as a result of moral pressure alone, takes it upon itself to pay compensation to the victims of the government that preceded it. For the first time in the history of a people that has been persecuted, oppressed, plundered and despoiled for hundreds of years in the countries of Europe, a persecutor and despoiler has been obliged to return part of his spoils and has even undertaken to make collective reparation as partial compensation for material losses.’”[14]

What U.S. Reparations Require

Reparations for U.S. slavery require an admission before the watching world that the American founding legal system created a racist regime of national cruelty, our fledgling nation shaped itself on those terms for its first centuries, this regime persisted into a Civil War that purportedly overthrew it, de facto slavery continued for another hundred years, even the landmark legislation of the 1960’s Civil Rights Movement did not eradicate either legal or de facto racism, which persisted in the form of cultural discrimination, systemic racism still persists.

In addition, reparations require a commitment to set things to right:

This history has left a toxic stain on the U.S. national identity that we wish to remedy with a fresh vision for what our national culture could be if we were to chart a non-racial course into our future and thereby redeem what it means to be “the land of the free.”

We wish to make amends, to chart a new course and see it through, and we welcome the assistance of the aspirational ideal of governments everywhere that nations exist to improve the lives of their citizens.”

In a word, reparations require humility – in particular, a formal end to the U.S. claim of national exceptionalism.

“The City Upon a Hill”

The idea of American exceptionalism is 400 years old — born in the context of colonial era belief in white European superiority. It is therefore by definition at odds with racial equality.

“In 1630, John Winthrop, the first Puritan governor of Massachusetts Bay, declared that ‘we shall be as a city upon a hill.’

“In its own day, Winthrop’s sermon [entitled “A Model of Christian Charity”] went unrecorded, unpublished, and almost entirely unnoticed. It was found and first published in 1838—at which point it continued to be ignored for another century.

“When President Ronald Reagan used Winthrop’s words to describe America, he helped transform ‘A Model of Christian Charity’ into a foundational text of American culture.[15]

President Reagan repurposed Winthrop’s sermon for the Cold War, using a reconstituted version of the Pilgrims as champions of American freedom.

“The Pilgrim story… enabled early Americans to downplay the role of slavery in our national history. Jamestown came before Plymouth. Enslaved Africans landed before the Pilgrims. Yet if the Pilgrims came for freedom, then these other beginnings could be ignored. To make the story stick, Pilgrims and Puritans—who had slaves themselves and participated in the slave trade—were washed clean of the sin altogether.

“Just as importantly, American exceptionalism has never had a place for Native Americans. Early Anglo-American historians often reimagined Native Americans as the setting against which the “true history” of America takes place. They were part and parcel of the wilderness, the stage for the story that began when Europeans first set foot on a savage and silent shore. For American exceptionalism to cohere, Native Americans had to be removed.”[16]

The popularity of American exceptionalism rises and falls with the times and the generations. Compare these polls from The Pew Research Center: 

Most Americans Think the U.S. is Great, but Fewer say it’s the Greatest (July 2, 2014) – “About three-in-ten (28%) think that the U.S. ‘stands above all other countries in the world,’ while most (58%) say it is ‘one of the greatest countries in the world, along with some others.’ Few Americans (12%) say there are other countries in the world ‘that are better than the U.S.’”

A Majority of Americans Believe The U.S. is One of The Greatest Nations In The World (July 4, 2018) — “More than eight-in-ten (85%) said in a June 2017 survey that the U.S. either ‘stands above all other countries in the world’ (29%) or that it is ‘one of the greatest countries, along with some others’ (56%). While large shares in all adult generations say America is among the greatest countries, those in the Silent Generation (ages 73 to 90 in 2018) are the most likely to say the U.S. ‘stands above” all others’ (46%), while Millennials are the least likely to say this (18%).”

Younger Americans More Likely Than Older Adults to Say There Are Other Countries That Are Better Than The U.S. (January 9, 2020) – “Overall, most Americans say either that the U.S. ‘stands above all other countries’ (24%) or that it is ‘one of the greatest countries, along with some others’ (55%). About one-in-five (21%) say ‘there are other countries that are better than the U.S.’ However, slightly more than a third (36%) of adults ages 18 to 29 say there are other countries that are better than the U.S., the highest share of any age group.”

The Trump administration redirected the idea onto another course altogether.

“The rhetoric of ‘America First’ can sometimes sound like American exceptionalism, but it offers a radically different vision of the nation…. Instead of a history of the nation, America First offers a philosophy. It claims that all countries, including the US, share basically the same goal: to win. “Greatness” is not about values; it is primarily about sovereignty, power, and wealth. The hazards of America First, therefore, come not from a misguided sense of national election, but from the absence of any higher moral good…. America First urges self-interest in a world seen as a survival of the fittest.”[17]

And in 2020. the pandemic called American exceptionalism to account in a whole new way:

“Politicians extol [American exceptionalism]. Scholars debate it. The past decade has battered it. Will the coronavirus crisis finish off this country’s golden view of itself?”[18]

Meanwhile, international law and the prospect of peer membership in the global community fall weakly against American recalcitrance.

“Since its founding, the United States has defined itself as the supreme protector of freedom throughout the world, pointing to its Constitution as the model of law to ensure democracy at home and to protect human rights internationally. Although the United States has consistently emphasized the importance of the international legal system, it has simultaneously distanced itself from many established principles of international law and the institutions that implement them. In fact, the American government has attempted to unilaterally reshape certain doctrines of international law while disregarding others, such as provisions of the Geneva Conventions and the prohibition on torture… America’s selective self-exemption… undermines not only specific legal institutions and norms, but leads to a decreased effectiveness of the global rule of law.” [19]

“Corrective Justice”

The Wall Street Journal editorial cited above continues with the non-legal case for reparations:

“The case for reparations isn’t only a legal one. It is also about coming to terms with the historical injustices that explain continuing frustration and marginalization today. America can’t heal without acknowledging its “original sin”—slavery—and implementing a reparations program that encompasses truth, reconciliation, atonement and compensation.

“The grim legacy of slavery is a form of structural racism that continues to bar social, cited economic, political and health equality for many African-Americans. That is itself a justification for reparations.

“Another is that more than half a century since the end of Jim Crow, innocent African-Americans continue to be murdered at the hands of police officers and vigilantes—apparently with impunity, unless it is caught on video. There can no longer be any question that the legacy of slavery will endure unless reparations are made as a first step toward corrective justice.”[20]

“Corrective justice” benefits far beyond some kind of arbitrary remuneration to the descendants of slaves, as is often discussed. This is far too limited. It ignores a much larger class of beneficiaries that includes the entire nation and all of its citizens.

Corrective justice… grounded in national humility and carried out in an embrace of global accountability, with an aim to heal the past and create a future national trajectory free of racism… Is it just a pipe dream?

No. It’s an historical precedent for national healing, as evident in post-war Germany and the founding of the Jewish state.

And much more, it’s an historic opportunity today for the United States to chart a new course as the Land of the Free.


[1] The United Nations – What We Do, un.org.

[2] The others were China, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union. United Nations – Dumbarton Oaks and Yalta.

[3] The Rome Statute, Article 7.

[4] Statute of Limitations, Investopedia (Aug. 29, 2020). See the Convention on the Non-Applicability of Statutory Limitations to War Crimes and Crimes Against Humanity, Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (Nov. 11, 1970).

[5] Basic Principles and Guidelines on the Right to a Remedy and Reparation for Victims of Gross Violations of International Human Rights Law and Serious Violations of International Humanitarian Law. adopted and proclaimed by General Assembly resolution 60/147 of 16 December 2005.

[6] International Law Demands Reparations for American Slavery, The Wall Street Journal (June 9, 2020).

[7] Benjamin Ferencz: The last surviving Nuremberg prosecutor, Aljazeera (Mar. 11, 2020). See also Last Surviving Prosecutor At Nuremberg Trials Says Trump’s Family Separation Policy Is “Crime Against Humanity, The Independent (August 9, 2018).

[8] Last surviving prosecutor at Nuremberg trials says Trump’s family separation policy is ‘crime against humanity,” the Independent (Oct. 16, 2018)

[9] The Rome Statute, Article 7.

[10] Last surviving prosecutor at Nuremberg trials says Trump’s family separation policy is ‘crime against humanity,” the Independent (Oct. 16, 2018)

[11] YouTube. See Wikipedia — Trump administration family separation policy.

[12] The Story Behind the Poem on the Statue of Liberty, The Atlantic (Jan. 15, 2018)

[13] Encyclopedia Britannica – David Ben-Gurion.

[14] Coates, Ta-Nehisi, The Case for Reparationstwo hundred fifty years of slavery. Ninety years of Jim Crow. Sixty years of separate but equal. Thirty-five years of racist housing policy. Until we reckon with our compounding moral debts, America will never be whole. The Atlantic (June 2014).

[15] Hoselton, Ryan, Reagan, Clinton, Bush, and Obama All Cited One Puritan Sermon to Explain America, Christianity Today (Sept.17, 2020) – an interview with Abram C. Van Engen, an English professor at Washington University in St. Louis, regarding his book, City on a Hill: A History of American Exceptionalism. See also Wikipedia – City Upon a Hill.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Will a Pandemic Shatter the Perception of American Exceptionalism? The New York Times (April 25, 2020)

[19] Natsu Saito, Meeting the Enemy: American Exceptionalism and International Law,

[20] International Law Demands Reparations for American Slavery, The Wall Street Journal (June 9, 2020).

Reparations [7]: Global Accountability – Part 2

Proposals for reparations for American slavery often focus on centuries-old circumstances, legal issues, and cultural attitudes, proposing compensation to the descendants of slaves for ancestral harm suffered. This view treats slavery as something that ended at the Civil War and ignores its de facto persistence for another century until the 1960’s Civil Rights movement and for yet another 60 years of normalized cultural racism since then. Further, it misses the opportunity that reparations offer:  a chance to cleanse the past and create an inspired future. The global community offers a framework for this kind of opportunity — international human rights law, but the USA has long resisted global accountability, asserting instead its “rugged individualism” version of national sovereignty.

Rugged Individualism Sovereignty

Herbert Hoover introduced the term “rugged individualism” into the American lexicon in a 1928 campaign speech. [1] He began by acknowledging the need for federal control of the WWI mobilization, but rejected it as a standard for going forward, demonizing it as “European” and advocating a return to the Republican Party’s decentralized agenda.

“[At the end of World War I], the most vital of issues both in our own country and around the world was whether government should continue their wartime ownership and operation of… production and distribution. We were challenged with a… choice between the American system of rugged individualism and a European philosophy of diametrically opposed doctrines ­ doctrines of paternalism and state socialism. The acceptance of these ideas would have meant the destruction of self-government through centralization… [and] the undermining of the individual initiative and enterprise through which our people have grown to unparalleled greatness.”[2]

Hoover’s perspective was untimely and off the mark. Rugged individualism didn’t pull the nation out of the 1930’s Great Depression. For that, the country needed another wave of massive federal investment in the New Deal, followed by another centralized war effort. After the second world war, federal guidance shepherded three decades of post-war recovery, but in time the nation returned to rugged individualism as politicians continued to demonize democratic socialism until it became synonymous with Soviet Communism — a characterization both intellectually and historically false.

Sovereignty Without Accountability

Rugged individualism applied to the issue of national sovereignty results in a lack of accountability which 20th Century political theorist Hannah Arendt identified as the identifying hallmark of totalitarianism, since it results in “the possession of all instruments of governmental power and violence in one country.”[3]

The historic roots of this outlook lie in a Biblical hierarchical worldview in which God reigns uncontested at the top, and national charters derive directly from the supreme divine source. God enjoys absolute sovereignty unaccountable to anyone for anything, and is therefore free to enforce divine will by any means, including holy war, genocide, temporal chastisement, and eternal torture. The derivative sovereignty of nations is similarly unrestrained. In this scheme, “the divine right of kings” protected the English monarchs with its declaration that “the king can do no wrong,” and the concept was imported into the Colonies as ”sovereign immunity,” which protects state and federal officials. The divine right of kings and sovereign immunity, like God’s rule, are therefore ultimately totalitarian.

“Many of us see the term [totalitarianism] primarily as polemical, used more to discredit governments than to offer meaningful analyses of them. Scholars often prefer the much broader term authoritarianism, which denotes any form of government that concentrates political power in the hands of an unaccountable elite.”[4]

International Accountability – The Nuremberg Trials

The Nazis in control of Germany operated under their own totalitarian version of national sovereignty, possessing “all instruments of governmental power and violence” which concentrated “political power in the hands of an unaccountable elite.” To hold them accountable after the end of the war, the victorious allies convened the Nuremberg Trials under the authority of a unilaterally-imposed instrument known as the London Charter.[5] The resulting trials defied traditional notions of national sovereignty, as described in a 1946 article in The Atlantic, written by a Federal judge.

“The Nuremberg War Trial has a strong claim to be considered the most significant as well as the most debatable event since the conclusion of hostilities. To those who support the trial it promises the first effective recognition of a world law for the punishment of malefactors who start wars or conduct them in bestial fashion. To the adverse critics the trial appears in many aspects a negation of principles which they regard as the heart of any system of justice under law.

“This sharp division of opinion has not been fully aired largely because it relates to an issue of foreign policy upon which this nation has already acted and on which debate may seem useless or, worse, merely to impair this country’s prestige and power abroad. Moreover, to the casual newspaper reader the long-range implications of the trial are not obvious. He sees most clearly that there are in the dock a score of widely known men who plainly deserve punishment. And he is pleased to note that four victorious nations, who have not been unanimous on all post-war questions, have, by a miracle of administrative skill, united in a proceeding that is overcoming the obstacles of varied languages, professional habits, and legal traditions. But the more profound observer is aware that the foundations of the Nuremberg trial may mark a watershed of modern law.”[6]

The Nuremberg Trials thus initiated an unprecedented accountability for transnational crimes:

“There were many legal and procedural difficulties to overcome in setting up the Nuremberg trials. First, there was no precedent for an international trial of war criminals. There were earlier instances of prosecution for war crimes, such as the execution of Confederate army officer Henry Wirz (1823-65) for his maltreatment of Union prisoners of war during the American Civil War (1861-65); and the courts-martial held by Turkey in 1919-20 to punish those responsible for the Armenian genocide of 1915-16. However, these were trials conducted according to the laws of a single nation rather than, as in the case of the Nuremberg trials, a group of four powers (France, Britain, the Soviet Union and the U.S.) with different legal traditions and practices.

“The Allies eventually established the laws and procedures for the Nuremberg trials with the London Charter of the International Military Tribunal (IMT), issued on August 8, 1945. Among other things, the charter defined three categories of crimes: crimes against peace (including planning, preparing, starting or waging wars of aggression or wars in violation of international agreements), war crimes (including violations of customs or laws of war, including improper treatment of civilians and prisoners of war) and crimes against humanity (including murder, enslavement or deportation of civilians or persecution on political, religious or racial grounds). It was determined that civilian officials as well as military officers could be accused of war crimes.”[7]

“I was only following orders.”

National policy is carried out by individuals, and the Nuremberg Trials eliminated the defense that the accused were merely following the orders of the state. This was an unprecedented evidentiary innovation that, like the London Charter, defied historical notions of state sovereignty, particularly with respect to the actions of military personnel.

“In connection with war crimes of this sort there is only one question of law worth discussing here: Is it a defense to a soldier or civilian defendant that he acted under the order of a superior?

“The defense of superior orders is, upon the authorities, an open question. Without going into details, it may be said that superior orders have never been recognized as a complete defense by German, Russian, or French law, and that they have not been so recognized by civilian courts in the United States or the British Commonwealth of Nations, but they tend to be taken as a complete excuse by Anglo-American military manuals. In this state of the authorities, if the International Military Tribunal in connection with a charge of a war crime refuses to recognize superior orders as a defense, it will not be making a retroactive determination or applying an ex post facto law. It will be merely settling an open question of law as every court frequently does.”[8]

“Slavery was legal at the time” and the International Statute of Limitations for crimes against humanity.

A corollary of the “only following orders” defense is the assertion that slavery was legal at the time. General Lee’s surrender at Appomattox[9] presented a question of lingering guilt to former Confederates that was quickly resolved by Presidential pardons.[10]

International human rights law presents a similar problem. The Rome Statute was created by treaty, to be enforced by the International Criminal Court, effective in 2002.[11] It established four core transnational crimes similar to those applied at the Nuremberg Trials: genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and crimes of aggression. “Enslavement” is included in the Rome Statute’s list of crimes against humanity, [12] and there is no statute of limitations. Therefore it is no defense under international law that American slavery was the law of the times.

“Under international law, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and genocide have no statute of limitations, according to the Convention on the Non-Applicability of Statutory Limitations to War Crimes and Crimes Against Humanity and Article 29 of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court.”[13]

“In the international arena, the non-applicability of statutory limitations pertains to crimes that are extremely difficult to prosecute immediately after they were committed. This is particularly true of war crimes, crimes against humanity, or genocide. Given the context in which such crimes tend to be carried out, it is often necessary to wait for a change in the situation—an end to the conflict or a change in regime—for it to become possible, in practice, to initiate judicial proceedings. The non-applicability of statutory limitations prevents the most serious crimes, and those most difficult to prosecute, from going unpunished.”[14]

As long as a nation refuses the jurisdiction of international law, and absent an extraordinary unilateral enforcement such as the London Charter, a nation can remain shielded by its own self-declared sovereignty. And since there is no international statute of limitations, the nation has every incentive to keep it that way. No surprise, then, that the United States quickly repudiated the International Criminal Court immediately after the effective date of the Rome Statute. The USA’s main concern:  to protect its military personnel from guilt associated with following orders.

“One month after the International Criminal Court (ICC) officially came into existence on July 1, 2002, the President signed the American Servicemembers’ Protection Act (ASPA), which limits US government support and assistance to the ICC; curtails certain military assistance to many countries that have ratified the Rome Statute establishing the ICC; regulates US participation in United Nations (UN) peacekeeping missions commenced after July 1, 2003; and, most controversially among European allies, authorizes the President to use ‘all means necessary and appropriate to bring about the release’ of certain US and allied persons who may be detained or tried by the ICC.”[15]

The same issue was behind the Trump Administration’s recent ICC sanctions:

“On Thursday, the president followed through on the longstanding threats by his foreign policy team, issuing new sanctions against the ICC over its provocative effort to investigate and prosecute American military, intelligence, and perhaps even former political officials for alleged war crimes in Afghanistan.”[16]

Reparations for American Slavery Under International Law

A recent The Wall Street Journal editorial argued for slavery reparations under international law.

“The prohibition against slavery has now achieved jus cogens—a peremptory norm, from which no derogation is permitted. This is the highest legal status in international law, and it means retroactive responsibility may be imposed on those who violated that norm. This is how the Nazis were prosecuted at Nuremberg: retroactively—for the jus cogens of crimes against humanity. On that basis alone, the U.S. may be held legally responsible for the historical enslavement of Africans and the consequences for their descendants.”[17]

The editorial asserts without qualification that “the U.S. is bound by international law and must be guided by the precedent set by many other countries that have recognized reparations as a means to redress injustice.” But as we’ve seen, even if the USA is accountable for slavery and there is no statute of limitations under international law, the nation can continue to shield itself from global accountability by asserting its rugged individualism sovereignty.

Interference in “Internal Affairs.”

The USA routinely vilifies the world’s dictatorial strongmen for telling us (and the rest of the world) to stop meddling in their internal affairs, failing to notice that this attitude matches our own concept of national sovereignty.

A Google search of “interference with internal affairs” turns up a fascinating look at the futility of international diplomacy on this topic. Invariably, one nation’s “interference in internal affiars” is another’s “crime of aggression.” The U.N.’s Charter tried to find a way through this conflict, but the result raises more questions than answers. Here’s a sample:

“To what extent does the UN Charter permit legitimate violation of the sovereignty of another state, in the absence of international armed conflict or acts of national self defense? Should moral imperatives override legal authority? Even assuming the mandate was soundly based in law, was it breached by the coalition and NATO in the manner of its execution?  While the mandated authority to protect civilians was interpreted most liberally, some might say it was used as a smoke screen for an intent which was subsequently revealed, that of regime change, for which there is no lawful authority under the Charter.”[18]

The USA bypasses this legal sparring by resisting international interference. The Trump administration’s recent sanctions against the ICC replay this familiar theme, as evidenced by editorial commentary from his media supporters:

“In essence, the ICC is the plaything of the European left, post-sovereign technocrats, and progressive legal elites — one-worlders who won’t provide for their own security and dream up schemes to delegitimize actions that sovereign states, especially the United States, take in their national interests.”[19]

“This sanctions regime is fundamentally misguided. It will do little to stop the ICC’s investigation, erodes the U.S. longstanding commitment to human rights and the rule of law, and may undermine one of the most powerful tools in the U.S. foreign policy arsenal — economic sanctions.”[20]

The counterpoint to this commentary is the recognition of the USA’s historical preference for unilateralism.

“Last week, U.S. President Donald Trump signed an executive order imposing sanctions on several individuals associated with the International Criminal Court (ICC). The order is the latest salvo in an ongoing battle against the ICC, which the Trump administration has long sought to undermine in order to avoid accountability for itself and its allies. The move is also part of a broader disengagement with the multilateral system.”[21]

This political preference for “disengagement with the multilateral system” did not deter Trump’s recent call for the U.N. to impose global accountability against China with respect to the pandemic.[22] Chinese leader Xi Jinping responded by citing the USA’s historic unilateralism and isolationism:

“We will continue to narrow differences and resolve disputes with others through dialogue and negotiation. We will not seek to develop only ourselves or engage in zero sum game. Unilateralism is dead.”

“Burying one’s head in the sand like an ostrich in the face of economic globalization, or trying to fight it with Don Quixote’s lance, goes against the trend of history. Let this be clear: the world will never return to isolation.”[23]

Aside from a history of slavery and following orders in Afghanistan, the USA has further issues with human rights law, as evidenced by recent accusations from the last-surviving Nuremberg Trials prosecutor. We’ll look at that next time.

Also coming up, we’ll also look beyond the legal issues of global accountability to the non-legal case for reparations and the opportunity they offer for a national reset.


[1] World History Facts, American “Individualism” Is Shallow and Immoral, Medium Dialogues and Discourse (Sept. 15, 2020).

[2] Full text at Digital History.

[3] Arendt, Hannah, The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951)

[4] Huneke, Samuel Clowes, An End to Totalitarianism, Boston Review (April 16, 2020). Samuel Clowes Huneke  “is an assistant professor of modern German history at George Mason University. His research focuses on Germany after World War II….”

[5] Wikipedia – Nuremberg Charter.

[6] Wyzanski, Charles, Nuremberg: A Fair Trial? A Dangerous Precedent, The Atlantic (April 1946) 

[7] Nuremberg Trials, History.com (updated June 7, 2019, original Jan. 29, 2010)

[8] Wyzankski, op cit.

[9] History.com – Robert E. Lee Surrenders.

[10] Wikipedia – Pardons for Ex-Confederates.

[11] Dag Hammarskjöld Library, Jan 8, 2020. See also Wikipedia – Rome Statute International Criminal Court.

[12] The Rome Statute, Article 7.

[14] The Practical Guide to Humanitarian Law, Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders).

[15] US Policy Regarding the International Criminal Court (ICC), Congressional Research Service (July 9, 2002 – August 29, 2006).

[16] International Court V. Trump: A Case Of Politics, Not Justice, The Hill (June 15, 2020)

[17] International Law Demands Reparations for American Slavery, The Wall Street Journal (June 9, 2020).

[18] Paphita, Anthony, Intervention in the Internal Affairs of States, E-International Relations (Oct 25 2011).

[19] International Court V. Trump: A Case Of Politics, Not Justice, The Hill (June 15, 2020)

[20] The Danger Of Trump’s New Sanctions On The International Criminal Court And Human Rights Defenders, Brookings Institute (June 11 2020)

[21] Trump’s Chilling Blow To The ICC With International Criminal Court Sanctions, Foreign Policy (June 17, 2020)

[23] Trump Attacks China Over Covid ‘Plague’ As Xi Urges Collaboration In Virus Fight, The Guardian (Sept. 22, 2020).

Reparations [6]: Global Accountability – Part 1

“It is our true policy to steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world,” George Washington famously wrote in his farewell address. The phrase has long been used to justify “unilateralism” or “isolationism” in US foreign policy[1] — a position which is not justifed by its historical context.

“To announce his decision not to seek a third term as President, George Washington presented his Farewell Address in a newspaper article September 17, 1796.

“Frustrated by French meddling in US politics, Washington warned the nation to avoid permanent alliances with foreign nations and to rely instead on temporary alliances for emergencies. Washington’s efforts to protect the fragile young republic by steering a neutral course between England and France during the French Revolutionary Wars was made extremely difficult by the intense rhetoric flowing from the pro-English Federalists, led by Alexander Hamilton, and the pro-French, personified by Thomas Jefferson.

“In his farewell address, Washington exhorted Americans to set aside their violent likes and dislikes of foreign nations, lest they be controlled by their passions: ‘The nation which indulges toward another an habitual hatred or an habitual fondness is in some degree a slave.’

“Washington’s remarks have served as an inspiration for American isolationism.”[2]

The US was a young nation barely twenty years old, isolated from Europe by a vast ocean. Why import the struggles we had left on the other side?

“Europe has a set of primary interests which to us have none; or a very remote relation. Hence she must be engaged in frequent controversies, the causes of which are essentially foreign to our concerns.

“Our detached and distant situation invites and enables us to pursue a different course. If we remain one people under an efficient government. the period is not far off when we may defy material injury from external annoyance; when we may take such an attitude as will cause the neutrality we may at any time resolve upon to be scrupulously respected; when belligerent nations, under the impossibility of making acquisitions upon us, will not lightly hazard the giving us provocation; when we may choose peace or war, as our interest, guided by justice, shall counsel.

“Why forego the advantages of so peculiar a situation? Why quit our own to stand upon foreign ground? Why, by interweaving our destiny with that of any part of Europe, entangle our peace and prosperity in the toils of European ambition, rivalship, interest, humor or caprice?”

Nations can and do build relationships with each other. So should we, but even-handedly.

“It is our true policy to steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world; so far, I mean, as we are now at liberty to do it; for let me not be understood as capable of patronizing infidelity to existing engagements.

“Taking care always to keep ourselves by suitable establishments on a respectable defensive posture, we may safely trust to temporary alliances for extraordinary emergencies.

“Harmony, liberal intercourse with all nations, are recommended by policy, humanity, and interest. But even our commercial policy should hold an equal and impartial hand; neither seeking nor granting exclusive favors or preferences; consulting the natural course of things; diffusing and diversifying by gentle means the streams of commerce, but forcing nothing; establishing (with powers so disposed, in order to give trade a stable course, to define the rights of our merchants, and to enable the government to support them) conventional rules of intercourse, the best that present circumstances and mutual opinion will permit, but temporary, and liable to be from time to time abandoned or varied, as experience and circumstances shall dictate; constantly keeping in view that it is folly in one nation to look for disinterested favors from another; that it must pay with a portion of its independence for whatever it may accept under that character; that, by such acceptance, it may place itself in the condition of having given equivalents for nominal favors, and yet of being reproached with ingratitude for not giving more.

“There can be no greater error than to expect or calculate upon real favors from nation to nation. It is an illusion, which experience must cure, which a just pride ought to discard.”

Unilateralism/Isolationism Today

Current American policy makes no such effort at even-handedness. Once considered the world’s “moral leader,” [3] we have withdrawn into moral isolation, abiding by a code of belief and behavior fashioned around populist nationalism. America puts America first and makes American great again – both initiatives driven by a notion of “freedom” founded on Social Darwinism applied both globally and domestically.

Globally, the US positions itself uncompromisingly at the apex of the food chain. Yes, we participated in the formation of the United Nations and other international s initiatives following WWII, but have also stand aside from them, tolerating more than participating.

Domestically, both economic and social policy are driven by the principles of free market capitalism. “Working for a living” displays good moral character and patriotism; needing a hand up signals depravity and dereliction of duty. Rugged individualism is strong and good; community-building is weak and insidious. Government is not in business to promote the public good. Life cycle needs such as education, healthcare, upward mobility, and retirement security are left to individual initiative and private enterprise.

A contrary approach of “floating all boats” powered post-WWII recovery and culture into the 1970’s. Since the 1980’s, that approach has been supplanted with hyper-competitive, hyper-privatized free market economics and social policy. The working middle class was the main beneficiary of the first thirty years, it has been the main casualty of the past four decades. Free-market evangelists promised a “trickle down” of wealth from the top to the bottom socio-economic classes. That promise has long since been exposed as bogus, but remains patterned into American culture and consciousness. As a result, American economic inequality is fast eclipsing its most extreme historical precedents — internationally, just prior to the French Revolution; domestically, in the heyday of the 19th Century “Robber Barons,” and again in the 20th Century’s Roaring 20’s.

The European social democracies were created during roughly the same time frame (1860-1930), but then reinvented themselves post-WWII to reject the Communist model, instead promoting both private enterprise and the public welfare.[4] Now, those nations are perennially the world’s happiest.[5]

Meanwhile, after four decades of free market Social Darwinism, the American electorate and its politicians now routinely demean the democratic socialists as weak and dangerous. Free market capitalism has become a form of secular fundamentalism, which now openly acts to deny citizens the most basic right of democracy – the right to vote – while brutalizing dissent with jackbooted law and order.

 “In God We Trust”

“We the People of the United States,” begins the Preamble to the US Constitution. Nowadays, the “we the People” currently supporting the reigning ideology have made it into a cult[6] of patriotism. To be “free” to believe and act as we will, without regard to global context, is our greatest national good – the fulfillment of the American founding myth of God-ordained superiority. To true believers, the USA is the shining city upon a hill,[7] one nation under God, our manifest destiny[8] to sit at the head of the table of peoples, tribes, and nations – and from there, to subjugate the rest. God’s predilection for holy war consecrates our militarism as we follow a “leader” God is “using” to bring about global dominion.

It is not a stretch to suggest that the Constitution’s Preamble had something else in mind. After “We the People of the United States,” it continues, “in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

These days, promoting “the general Welfare” has been banned from national economic and social policy-making, leaving “our Posterity” in deep despair[9] over its future. America in 2020 — two and a quarter centuries after Washington’s farewell address –revels in its “splendid isolation.”[10] Our global consciousness has shrunk to the size of Washington’s day.

It has not always been this way.

Dismantling Globalization

Not long ago, the US-based corporate nation-states exploited globalization to achieve international dominance, evangelizing the nations with free market economics and American culture. Flush with dizzying success and newly freed to invest in the electoral process[11], they underwrote the public castigation of big government even as it sponsored monopolies, skewed taxation, and relaxed regulation to unchain predatory capitalism and release it on the world. American workers denied themselves a living wage to enable the use of cheap off-shore labor, tolerated decades of flat purchasing power and the evaporation of healthcare benefits and retirement security, until now we marvel at free market capitalism’s crowning achievement:  a labor market of short-term, temporary jobs with no benefits, augmented by the side hustle. And now, business doesn’t even need to pay payroll taxes, Social Security’s primary funding mechanism.

Having achieved ubiquitous commercial and cultural colonization, America opted out of globalization. We hyped up the privatization of what used to be the public good and we slandered social democracies by stamping them with the Communism label and conspiracy theories and allegations of one world government. Global economic opportunism? Yes, of course. Global military dominance? Yes, of course — because we can. Global community and accountability? No. No way. No effing way. We’ll go it alone. We’ll do it our way. That’s what Americans do.

And then, as we settled into the delusional security of walls literal and figurative, a new international force gave globalization a completely new, unforeseeable meaning.

Globalization and COVID-19

2020 has been called the second worst year in history. (The first was 536.[12]) A new strain of Coronavirus went global, fast. But the USA was too far along in its America First retrenchment. There was no place for a pandemic in our political and social consciousness. The virus was someone else’s fault  and someone else’s problem. We doubled down on our commitment to Social Darwinism. We cut funding for an already depleted healthcare system.[13] We quit the UN-sponsored World Health Organization.[14] Patriots rose up in armed rebellion against lockdowns and Christian fundamentalists declared that masks were “the mark of the Beast.” Both groups preferred death by virus over their perceived loss of freedom.

As a result, the USA became the world’s uncontested plague victims leader. Our populist champions of freedom are unmoved that our death toll — 178,000 as I write this — already matches nearly half the number of US military deaths of WWII[15] — a number which in turn matches all the deaths of Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined. (The latter brought about by bombs we cheerfully christened “Fat Man” and “Little Boy” as we sent them on their missions of mass civilian slaughter. [16])

A New Civil Rights Movement

Into the USA’s pandemic debacle came yet one more instance of murderous police racism, and a fresh anti-racism uprising was born – supported, ironically enough, throughout the world we defiantly rejected. Protestors took to the streets, risking the thuggery of newly-mobilized SS troops, while the pandemic disproportionately affected racial and ethnic communities.

“Long-standing systemic health and social inequities have put many people from racial and ethnic minority groups at increased risk of getting sick and dying from COVID-19. The term “racial and ethnic minority groups” includes people of color with a wide variety of backgrounds and experiences. But some experiences are common to many people within these groups, and social determinants of health have historically prevented them from having fair opportunities for economic, physical, and emotional health. [1]

“There is increasing evidence that some racial and ethnic minority groups are being disproportionately affected by COVID-19.Inequities in the social determinants of health, such as poverty and healthcare access, affecting these groups are interrelated and influence a wide range of health and quality-of-life outcomes and risks. To achieve health equity, barriers must be removed so that everyone has a fair opportunity to be as healthy as possible.”[17]

Slavery reparations enjoyed a brief resurgence in the early days of the new civil rights movement. But then…

Nothing Changed

Reparations require America to humble itself to the position of one nation accountable to the many. That we will not do. Abraham Lincoln assembled his “team of rivals”[18] to advise him on slavery. We will not do likewise re: reparations for the slavery that was officially ended by the Civil War but continued in de facto form for another century until officially ended again by the 1960’s civil right movement, but still continues in American systemic racism. But America doesn’t want to hear that. To American arrogance, the nation of “truth spoken to power” is the delusion of the powerless. American sovereignty denies any duty to other sovereign nations, let alone its own citizens, nor does it acknowledge any transnational duty to the human race.

As we saw last time, it was not always this way. The USA was once considered the world’s moral leader, but has now abrogated the role.

“We have had a system of international governance since World War II that reflects the ascendance of a set of commitments to individual rights and protections rooted in the UN system, emerging over time because the United States—full of its imperfections—has been a more benevolent power internationally than most empires historically,” says [Jeremy Weinstein, a political science professor and director of the Stanford global studies division], who served as deputy to the US ambassador to the United Nations from 2013 to 2015.

“A world without US leadership and without an international architecture that’s rooted in things like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a very different universe, and not one I’m sure most people would want to live in.”[19]

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Criminal Court

The “international architecture” referred to above includes an ideological statement – the Universal Declaration of Human Rights[20] — which is backed up by criminal enforcement – the international Criminal Court[21]. These together mean that if a country’s moral compass is askew, the international community is entitled to intervene as a matter of law. This architecture emanates from the UN, created in 1945, which issued the Declaration in 1948, and convened the international conclave that produced the Rome Statute in 1998 – a treaty which created the ICC, effective in 2002.

“The ICC is not part of the UN. The Court was established by the Rome Statute. This treaty was negotiated within the UN; however, it created an independent judicial body distinct from the UN. The Rome Statute was the outcome of a long process of consideration of the question of international criminal law within the UN.”[22]

The ink was barely dry on the Rome Statute when the United States announced its withdrawal from the treaty and its rejection of the ICC.

“One month after the International Criminal Court (ICC) officially came into existence on July 1, 2002, the President signed the American Servicemembers’ Protection Act (ASPA), which limits US government support and assistance to the ICC; curtails certain military assistance to many countries that have ratified the Rome Statute establishing the ICC; regulates US participation in United Nations (UN) peacekeeping missions commenced after July 1, 2003; and, most controversially among European allies, authorizes the President to use ‘all means necessary and appropriate to bring about the release’ of certain US and allied persons who may be detained or tried by the ICC.”[23]

“As of January 2019, 123 states are members of the Court. Other states that have not become parties to the Rome Statute include India, Indonesia, and China. On May 6th, 2002, the United States, in a position shared with Israel and Sudan, having previously signed the Rome Statute formally withdrew its signature and indicated that it did not intend to ratify the agreement.”[24]

Reparations Under International Law

In 2005, the same “international architecture” issued guidelines for reparations for victims of “Gross Violations of International Human Rights Law” and “Serious Violations of International Humanitarian Law.”[25] The Guidelines contemplate consistency across national and international jurisdiction:

“(a) Treaties to which a State is a party;

(b) Customary international law;

(c) The domestic law of each State.”

Accordingly, the Guidelines impose a duty to

“(a) Take appropriate legislative and administrative and other appropriate measures to prevent violations;

(b) Investigate violations effectively, promptly, thoroughly and impartially and, where appropriate, take action against those allegedly responsible in accordance with domestic and international law;

(c) Provide those who claim to be victims of a human rights or humanitarian law violation with equal and effective access to justice, as described below, irrespective of who may ultimately be the bearer of responsibility for the violation; and

(d) Provide effective remedies to victims, including reparation….”

In 2016, in furtherance of these Guidelines, the United Nations’ Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent issued a “Statement to the Media” after an official visit to the United States.[26]

“During the visit, the Working Group assessed the situation of African Americans and people of African descent and gathered information on the forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia, Afrophobia and related intolerance that they face. We studied the official measures and mechanisms taken to prevent structural racial discrimination and protect victims of racism and hate crimes as well as responses to multiple forms of discrimination. The visit focused on both good practices and challenges faced in realising their human rights.”

The Statement begins with a careful recitation of the Working Group’s mission, requests, affirmations and denials, acknowledgments, recognitions, etc., then summarizes its observations as follows:

“Despite the positive measures referred to above, the Working Group is extremely concerned about the human rights situation of African Americans.

“The colonial history, the legacy of enslavement, racial subordination and segregation, racial terrorism, and racial inequality in the US remains a serious challenge as there has been no real commitment to reparations and to truth and reconciliation for people of African descent. Despite substantial changes since the end of the enforcement of Jim Crow and the fight for civil rights, ideology ensuring the domination of one group over another, continues to negatively impact the civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights of African Americans today. The dangerous ideology of white supremacy inhibits social cohesion amongst the US population. Lynching was a form of racial terrorism that has contributed to a legacy of racial inequality that the US must address. Thousands of people of African descent were killed in violent public acts of racial control and domination and the perpetrators were never held accountable.

“Contemporary police killings and the trauma it creates are reminiscent of the racial terror lynching of the past. Impunity for state violence has resulted in the current human rights crisis and must be addressed as a matter of urgency.

“Racial bias and disparities in the criminal justice system, mass incarceration, and the tough on crime policies has disproportionately impacted African Americans. Mandatory minimum sentencing, disproportionate punishment of African Americans including the death penalty are of grave concern.

“During this country visit, the experts observed the excessive control and supervision targeting all levels of their life. This control since September 2001, has been reinforced by the introduction of the Patriot Act.”

Specifically on the topic of reparations for American slavery, the Statement observes that:

“There is a profound need to acknowledge that the transatlantic slave trade was a crime against humanity and among the major sources and manifestations of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance and that Africans and people of African descent were victims of these acts and continue to be victims of their consequences. Past injustices and crimes against African Americans need to be addressed with reparatory justice.”

The Statement advocates the enactment and ratification of domestic legislation and international treaties to carry out reparations:

“We encourage congress to pass the H.R. 40 -Commission to Study Reparation Proposals for African Americans Act – Establishes the Commission to examine slavery and discrimination in the colonies and the United States from 1619 to the present and recommend appropriate remedies.

“We encourage the US government to elaborate a National Action Plan for Racial Justice to fully implement the International Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD) and comprehensively address racism affecting African Americans.

“In addition to the above, the Working Group urges the Government of the United States to consider the ratification of the core international human rights treaties to which the United States is still not a party, with a view to remove any gaps in the protection and full enjoyment of rights therein. It also encourages the USA to ratify regional human rights treaties as well as review reservations related to the treaties it has signed or ratified.”

As we saw above, the USA has exempted itself from international accountability, and it is obvious from the full text of the Working Group’s Statement that its visit was barely tolerated. Thus neither the Guidelines nor the Statement have had any effect on US policy.

Despite its “voluntary” nature, international law has at times been imposed on the perpetrators of egregious violations of human rights. Recently, an iconic figure from the Nuremberg Nazi trials accused the US of crimes against humanity under international law. We’ll look at that next time.


[1] Wikipedia – Unilateralism.

[2] The Office of the Historian of the U.S, Department of State – Wathington’s Farewell Adddress. “The Office of the Historian is staffed by professional historians who are experts in the history of US foreign policy and the Department of State and possess unparalleled research experience in classified and unclassified government records. The Office’s historians work closely with other federal government history offices, the academic historical community, and specialists across the globe. The Office is directed by The Historian of the US Department of State.”

[3] Patton, Jill, An Existential Moment for Democracy? As American leadership falters, scholars say, autocrats are on the rise, Stanford Magazine (December 2019)

[4] Wikipedia- Social Democracy.

[5] See the annual World Happiness Report.

[6] Hassan, Steven, The Cult of Trump: A Leading Cult Expert Explains How the President Uses Mind Control (2019)

[7] Wikipedia – The City Upon a Hill.

[8] History.com – Manifest Destiny.

[9] The Millennial Mental-Health Crisis, The Atlantic (June 11, 2020); More Millennials Are Dying ‘Deaths of Despair,’ as Overdose and Suicide Rates Climb, Time Magazine (June 13, 2019),

[10] Encyclopedia.com – Splendid Isolation. See also Warren Zevon’s take on it.

[11] Wikipedia — Citizens United v. FEC, . McConnell v. FEC, 2003 (in part). Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, 558 U.S. 310 (2010)

[12] 536 AD – The Worst Year in History, Medium (July 7, 2020). Why 536 Was ‘The Worst Year To Be Alive, Science Magazine (Nov. 15, 2018)

[13] Hollowed-Out Public Health System Faces More Cuts Amid Virus, Kaiser Health News (Aug. 24, 2020)

[14] STAT News, July 7, 2020. According to its website, “STAT delivers fast, deep, and tough-minded journalism about health, medicine, life sciences and the fast-moving business of making medicines.”

[15]  The National WWII Museum.

[16] Wikipedia – Bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. See also History.com – Hiroshima, and History.com – Nagasaki.

[17] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, July 24, 2020.

[18] Goodwin, Doris Kearns, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (2006).

[19] Patton, op cit.

[20] The United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights – Universal Declaration of Human Rights.   This is the text.

[21] The United Nations Office of the High Commissionr for Human Rights — Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court.

[22] Dag Hammarskjöld Library, Jan 8, 2020. See also Wikipedia – Rome Statute International Criminal Court.

[23] US Policy Regarding the International Criminal Court (ICC), Congressional Research Service (July 9, 2002 – August 29, 2006).

[24] Wikipedia –the United States and the International Criminal Court.

[25] Basic Principles and Guidelines on the Right to a Remedy and Reparation for Victims of Gross Violations of International Human Rights Law and Serious Violations of International Humanitarian Law. adopted and proclaimed by General Assembly resolution 60/147 of 16 December 2005.

[26] Statement to the media by the United Nations’ Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent, on the conclusion of its official visit to USA, 19-29 January 2016

Reparations [5]: Moral Compulsion

Reparations for American slavery require a sense of moral compulsion. Moral compulsion requires humility. Are we capable of it?

There is no hope for reparations if the topic is left to business and politics as usual – to the customary manner in which decisions are made, national affairs are conducted, pundits and media outlets clamor for sensationalism, social media serves up clickbait, religion and social science and academia offer their apologetics to an unappreciative public, and the elected and electorate alike close their minds to any opinion other than the one they already hold.

Reparations have no place in a culture given over to polarization, rage, and post-truth subjectivity.

The case for reparations cannot be heard by a society deafened with the noise of the daily outrage and distracted with the madness du jour.

The case for reparations cannot reach a national identity hijacked by endless competing and ever-shapeshifting agendas, histrionic accusations, and the exigencies of life ever more difficult and dystopian.

Reparations have no place where populists fan the fires of rage, and the enraged populace persists in voting against its own self-interest.

Reparations have no chance to gain the support of people long-starved of commitment to their communal welfare, unaware that their own beliefs and truths have done this to them, have dumbed them down with despair and chained them to the incessant grinding of life with no cushion against their misfortunes or safety net to catch them when they fall.

Reparations cannot capture the imagination of a nation that denies its people leisure time for renewal and reflection, that accepts as logical, normal, and virtuous that they should be compelled to labor in a state of total work without respite or gain or opportunity for improvement.

Reparations will not find a way in a nominally democratic country where the practice of democracy languishes under polarized ideologies, where systemic inequalities and social Darwinism are not merely accepted but revered as true and right and just and godly proof of their nation’s superiority.

That, and more, is why reparations don’t have a chance in contemporary America. Is there any countervailing force strong enough to pave the way for them?

Yes there is:  it is moral compulsion.

Moral compulsion is an urgency to set things to right, an overweening determination to be cleansed of an enduring ugliness, to be freed from the burden of national shame, a commitment to individual, cultural, and national transformation, an uncompromising will to transcend the mistakes of the past and meet the unprecedented challenges of today.

Moral compulsion would provide an irrepressible energy to displace the inevitable failure of reparations with robust action to ensure their implementation.

But what place does moral compulsion have in American policy-making at this time? Moral compulsion does not make the agenda of an administration devoted to consolidating its power by fomenting division and perverting the rule of law into a “law and order presidency.” Moral compulsion is also missing from the agenda of an opposition party incapable of anything other than the pathetic hope that if they stay still they will not be seen, if they remain silent they will not be singled out. Reparations have no chance when moral compulsion is unknown on one side of the aisle and a terror on the other. No conversation and compromise will ever be reached when even the least of moral consensus – common decency – cannot find common ground.

America’s current moral vacuum was not always the case.

“In the past, America has played a critical role on the global stage as a model for developing democracies, a crusader for human rights and a bulwark against the spread of authoritarian regimes. Former secretary of state Madeleine Albright once called America “the indispensable nation” for its moral leadership. But unlike ever before, scholars say, America’s commitment to democracy is flagging…. The risk, [Stanford political scientist Larry Diamond] says, is a century defined by the rise of the autocrat.”[1]

That was then.

What is now?

If the 2016 election taught us anything, it was that America had grown tired of its role as the world’s “moral leader.

Moral leadership had become tiresome, our efforts not worth the return. The catastrophes of recent decades of international policy and a lost taste for globalization suggested we were not as suited to the job of worldwide betterment as we once thought. We could pick a fight anywhere in the world and win it, therefore our strategy for bringing freedom and democracy to the world had been to impose our moral will by military force, covertly supported with the covert support of right-wing strongmen through corruption, bribery, torture, and other forms of governmental criminality. Our moral duplicitously was exposed when a raft of domestic and international whistleblowers and secret-leakers disgorged our tactics into public awareness, turning our times and technologies into apocalyptic revelation. They pulled back the facades of our imperial pridefulness, revealed the behind and beneath, ushered in a Great Revealing of ourselves to ourselves. Our secret vaults were opened, our private and vulnerable selves made known, all motives revealed, alliances betrayed, files ransacked, classified access breeched, proprietary information violated, everything hacked and made Open Source, seals all broken, all safes cracked, all containers emptied and their contents strewn across a million conference tables and chronicled in the tabloids.

By 2016, we had lost the stomach for it. Moral leadership had become a “loser.”

There was a moral lesson in all this that we could have learned, and new national self-awareness we could have gained.

    • What we will see, and what we won’t. The lenses we wear. The silos we construct.
    • What we block, recoil from. The shadows in our souls. The things we fear. The parts of us that threaten our own being.
    • Our biases, assumptions, prejudices, projections and deceptions. The cases we build to advantage ourselves, and the lengths we’ll go to cling to them.
    • The order we have imposed on life and the people in it. Rank, pecking order, winners and losers. Who we’ll talk to, friend, like, follow, ally with, and who we won’t. And why.
    • What we consider reasonable, viable, proper, possible… and their opposites.
    • What we will say, and what we won’t.
    • What we will hear, and what we won’t.
    • The secrets we carry, that we are confident will never be known by anyone but ourselves.
    • The cultivated appearances we can no longer keep up.
    • Our selective memories, choices, regrets. And resentments. Alliances betrayed and relationships broken. Forgiveness neither extended nor received.

The new, unflattering self-awareness we might have gained from these revelations could have helped us regain a newly realigned perspective on who we had become. But we didn’t want to hear it, so we didn’t learn it. There were some rare feints at remorse:  press conference confessions saying we were sorry while the betrayed stood stoically by. No one was fooled:  we weren’t sorry we did it, we were sorry we got caught.

What have you gathered to report to your progenitors?
Are your excuses any better than your senator’s?
He held a conference and his wife was standing by his side
He did her dirty but no-one died

What are you waiting for, a kiss or an apology?
You think by now you’d have an A in toxicology
It’s hard to pack the car when all you do is shame us
It’s even harder when the dirtbag’s famous

          The Killers, Run For Cover

Mostly, we stormed and swore vengeance against the prophets of our moral recrimination. We labelled them as traitors and enemies, blew their legal cover, strong-armed foreign governments to give them up to our salivating justice. We were defensive because the truth hurt. American was not as blameless as we wanted to think.

It could have been a moral reckoning, but it wasn’t.

The disorienting truth could have reoriented us as a nation, could have shown us how we had shunned and discarded our ideals to make room for the twin pillars of our foreign policy:  capitalism and militarism, We could have become freshly aware of what we had built while no one was looking and we weren’t paying attention. We could have, but we didn’t. We couldn’t separate ourselves from our need to feel good about ourselves, from our national belief — that we breathe in from childhood and begin learning before preschool — that our nation is the apex of civilization — morally, spiritually, militarily, and economically. If we were appalled at all by what we had become, it was not because of what we might have learned about ourselves but because we were terrified to see our shadow selves dredged up from our  own hidden vaults, now walking the streets; haunting and pursuing , calling us out. We completed our denial and purposeful self-deception by concluding that surely some enemy had done this, had sown tares in our heartland wheat. They had done it. And now we were on to Them, newly justified in our judgment and pure in our hatred of Them.

We had been called to reckon, but we didn’t. We still haven’t. We denied and fled – away from Them and into ourselves. Globalization became a dirty word. Among its many faults was that it had made the world too small. We had too many neighbors too close, too unlike us. We needed our open spaces back, needed to feel again our rugged individualism, the spirit that tamed the Wild West.

“Globalization may be partly to blame [for America’s flagging commitment to democracy]: In an increasingly interconnected world, governing has gotten trickier. ‘If you have a constant flow of capital, people and trade goods, it’s harder to figure out what to do in your own country,’ says political science professor Anna Grzymala-Busse, who directs the Global Populisms Project at the Freeman Spogli Institute. The increasing interdependence of the world’s economies also limits the impact of any one nation’s policies. As mainstream politicians struggle to solve ‘national’ problems that are, in actuality, intertwined with the actions and economies of other countries, voters can start to view them as inept.

“Globalization has stoked nationalism and anti-immigrant sentiment among citizens who fear not only the economic but also the cultural changes that can accompany such shifts. There again, Grzymala-Busse says, populists have stepped in, defining ‘the people’ of a country narrowly and subjugating minority interests. ‘Populist movements have this very corrosive impact on democracy,’ she says.”[2]

We abandoned the global village and rushed home to ourselves –the people we wanted to believe we had once been and still were. We put those people and their country first. We demonized and expelled outsiders, built walls against Them, withdrew trade, made capital calls, foreclosed on collateral, imposed tariffs. We imprisoned them, banned their travel, rejected them. It was our turn, our time, and we would make the best of it.

And none of that helped assuaged our national conscience, rooted as it was in the lies of lost utopia.

Lashed on by those who stood to gain the most from our disorientation, we stormed the gates of the lost Garden in hyped-up agitation, and the more we ranted, the more we became addicted, drugged with the madness of a mob that promised a return to the unjustified and unaccountable superiority we had granted to our idealized and delusional past. We reconstituted our fictional past into a delirious present, created in the image of every broken promise we had ever made.

We doubled down on a bluff, and when the other worldwide players laughed at our bravado, our national resentment turned spiteful and toxic. We turned our rage not only against Them but against ourselves. We banned the notion of the public welfare and communal good. We forfeited our rights to a living wage, to healthcare and education, to security in retirement, to home ownership, to security against our own human frailty and life cycles. We derided the notion of public welfare as weak and pitiful, and converted all of life and culture, law and economics, government and socio-economic policy over to hyper-competition. We traded moral and societal good for law and order, the triumph of power, and the ascension of socio-economic elitism. We drowned out doomsayers with chanted mythologies that placed humans, and particularly Caucasians, at the apex of Creation, crowned with the divine right to subdue it to our own ruin. We jettisoned science, objective truth, and reasonable discourse in favor of an unbridled right to mangle our own truth until it made us gods, force-feeding our starving souls with “reality” that wasn’t.

And now, into our failed and rejected moral leadership and policies of communal hatred comes the idea of reparations for slavery.

Which is why reparations don’t have a chance under America’s populist overlords and their domestic armies. The moral compulsion reparations require has been crushed in the void of our national implosion.

Reparations offer us a way out – a way to restore ourselves and our nation, to push back the night, to draw ourselves back from the brink of our final self-destruction. Paying the moral debt of slavery offers the salving of our collective conscience through restoring and recreating, repairing and remediating the stain of our beginnings and our stumbling path through our own history. It offers to fill the unfathomable moral trough excavated by the systematic brutalization of an entire class of fellow humans in ways that none, nobody, not one of the rest of us would ever. never, not ever accept for ourselves, not in a million years, but that our ancestors carried out in untroubled allegiance to what for them was normal, legal, and their divine right – an ideological tradition the nation has carried on ever since the ultimately empty “victory” of the Civil War, which officially abolished slavery but left untouched its de facto existence.

In our current moral vacuum, reparations for slavery are not just difficult and troublesome and unlikely, they are impossible – irrevocably not-on-my-watch, over-my-dead-body impossible. They have only one hope:

Reparations will be made only when
they are no longer reparations for slavery.

Not even if they are made for racism.

But when they are made for our lost humanity.

The essence of moral compulsion is humility.

America would need to do as Germany did after the Holocaust — publicly relinquish belief in the superiority of white European ancestry. Germans had to abandon the “Teutonic national myth.” Americans would need to abandon the myth of manifest destiny. Humbling ourselves in that way would be heroic.

If Germany’s example plays out in America, there would be violent opposition. And, as Germany’s example also teaches us, humility is a two-way street:  both those making reparations and those benefiting from them must humble themselves to each other and before the eyes of the watching world. Humility will not be easy on either side:

“Humility is the most difficult of all virtues to achieve;
nothing dies harder than the desire to think well of self.”

T.S. Eliot

We will look more at Germany’s example next time, also at the international mechanism created after WWWII that could help us with the difficult task of humbling ourselves – a mechanism  that America’s government has rejected.

[1] Patton, Jill, An Existential Moment for Democracy? As American leadership falters, scholars say, autocrats are on the rise, Stanford Magazine (December 2019)

[2] Ibid.

Reparations [4]:  The Essential Doubt

And so you see I have come to doubt
All that I once held as true

I stand alone without beliefs
The only truth I know is you.

Kathy’s Song[1]
Paul Simon

We saw last time that the U.S. government could waive its legal defense of sovereign immunity to pave the way for slavery reparations. It would take more than a legal reckoning for that to happen. Law lies on the surface of society, readily visible, but it has deep roots in history and ideology, national identity and mission, values and beliefs, ways of looking at the world and how life works.[2] These ancient root systems invoke fierce allegiances deeply embedded in human psyche and culture. Because the legal doctrine of sovereign immunity is grounded in Biblical doctrine,[3] laying it aside requires doubt and dissent of the highest order – national treason and religious apostasy in a single act.

Doubt of that magnitude is rare beyond description but not without precedent. Consider, for example, Germany’s reparations for World War II, which required not only the international banishment of Nazism, but also the German people’s moral renunciation of Nazism’s philosophical and political roots stretching back to the 19th Century.[4]; In comparison, the USA”s roots of slavery (and hence racism) extend back to the earliest New World settlements, which imported English common law, including the divine right of kings and its nationalistic version, sovereign immunity. Renouncing the latter to pave the way for slavery reparations would require a similar American moral renunciation of centuries of related social, economic, and political ideology and set new terms for a post-racism American state.

That, in turn, would require a reckoning with the “first cause” roots of the divine right of kings and sovereign immunity.

The First Cause Roots of Sovereign Immunity

A “first cause” satisfies the human desire for life to make sense by assigning a cause to every effect. Trouble is, as you trace the cause and effect chain to its remotest origins, you eventually run out of causes, leaving you with only effects. That’s when a first cause comes to the rescue. A first cause has no prior cause – it is so primary that nothing came before it but everything came after it. Since knowledge can’t reach that far back, a first cause is a matter of belief:  you take it on faith, declare the beginning into existence, and go from there.

Western civilization’s worldview historically identified God as the ultimate first cause.

“The classic Christian formulation of this argument came from the medieval theologian St. Thomas Aquinas, who was influenced by the thought of the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle. Aquinas argued that the observable order of causation is not self-explanatory. It can only be accounted for by the existence of a first cause; this first cause, however, must not be considered simply as the first in a series of continuing causes, but rather as first cause in the sense of being the cause for the whole series of observable causes.

“The 18th-century German philosopher Immanuel Kant rejected the argument from causality because, according to one of his central theses, causality cannot legitimately be applied beyond the realm of possible experience to a transcendent cause.

“Protestantism generally has rejected the validity of the first-cause argument; nevertheless, for most Christians it remains an article of faith that God is the first cause of all that exists. The person who conceives of God in this way is apt to look upon the observable world as contingent—i.e., as something that could not exist by itself.”[5]

God is the ultimate Sovereign from which all lesser sovereigns – the king, the national government — derive their existence and legitimacy. God’s first cause Sovereignty justifies God’s right to rule as God sees fit. The king and the state, having been set into place by God, derive a comparable right of domination from God. The king and the national government are to the people what God is to them.

The Divine Right of Kings

When kings ruled countries, their divine line of authority took legal form as the Divine Right of Kings.

“The divine right of kings, divine right, or God’s mandate is a political and religious doctrine of royal and political legitimacy. It stems from a specific metaphysical framework in which the king (or queen) is pre-selected as an heir prior to their birth. By pre-selecting the king’s physical manifestation, the governed populace actively (rather than merely passively) hands the metaphysical selection of the king’s soul – which will inhabit the body and thereby rule them – over to God. In this way, the ‘divine right’ originates as a metaphysical act of humility or submission towards the Godhead.

“Consequentially, it asserts that a monarch (e.g. a king) is subject to no earthly authority, deriving the right to rule directly from divine authority, like the monotheist will of God. The monarch is thus not subject to the will of his people, of the aristocracy, or of any other estate of the realm. It implies that only divine authority can judge an unjust monarch and that any attempt to depose, dethrone or restrict their powers runs contrary to God’s will and may constitute a sacrilegious act.”[6]

The Divine Right of Kings was a favorite doctrine of the first King James of England, who commissioned what would become the King James Version of the Bible partly in response to Puritan challenges to the Church of England’s doctrine of an ordained clergy that could trace its lineage to the original Apostles.

Divine right of kings, in European history, a political doctrine in defense of monarchical ‘absolutism,’ which asserted that kings derived their authority from God and could not therefore be held accountable for their actions by any earthly authority such as a parliament. Originating in Europe, the divine-right theory can be traced to the medieval conception of God’s award of temporal power to the political ruler, paralleling the award of spiritual power to the church. By the 16th and 17th centuries, however, the new national monarchs were asserting their authority in matters of both church and state. King James I of England (reigned 1603–25) was the foremost exponent of the divine right of king….”[7]

“While throughout much of world history, deified potentates have been the rule, in England, absolute monarchy never got a solid foothold, but there certainly was the attempt. Elements of British political theory and practice encouraged absolutism—the idea and practice that the king is the absolute law and that there is no appeal beyond him. Several movements and ideas hurried along the idea of absolute monarchy in England. One of those ideas was the divine right of kings,

“In England, the idea of the divine right of kings will enter England with James VI of Scotland who will come and rule over both England and Scotland as James I in 1603 and will commence the line of several ‘Stuart’ monarchs. James had definite ideas about his role as monarch, and those ideas included the divine right of kings. Here are just a few of James’ statements that reflect his view that he ruled by divine right:

      • Kings are like gods— “…kings are not only God’s lieutenants upon earth, and sit upon God’s throne, but even by God himself are called gods.”
      • Kings are not to be disputed— “… That as to dispute what God may do is blasphemy….so is it sedition in subjects to dispute what a king may do in the height of his power.”
      • Governing is the business of the king, not the business of the subjects— “you do not meddle with the main points of government; that is my craft . . . to meddle with that were to lesson me . . . I must not be taught my office.”
      • Kings govern by ancient rights that are his to claim— “I would not have you meddle with such ancient rights of mine as I have received from my predecessors . . . .”
      • Kings should not be bothered with requests to change settled law— “…I pray you beware to exhibit for grievance anything that is established by a settled law…”
      • Don’t make a request of a king if you are confident he will say “no.”— “… for it is an undutiful part in subjects to press their king, wherein they know beforehand he will refuse them.”

“James’ views sound egotistical to us today, but he was not the only one that held them. These views were held by others, even some philosophers. For example, the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes wrote a work called Leviathan in 1651 in which he said that men must surrender their rights to a sovereign in exchange for protection. While Hobbes’ was not promoting the divine right of kings per se, he was providing a philosophy to justify a very strong absolute ruler, the kind that the divine right of kings prescribes. Sir Robert Filmer was a facilitator of the divine right of kings and wrote a book about it called Patriarcha (1660) in which he said that the state is like a family and that the king is a father to his people. Filmer also says that the first king was Adam and that Adam’s sons rule the nations of the world today. So, the King of England would be considered the eldest son of Adam in England or the King of France would be Adam’s eldest son in France.”[8]

King James, Witch Hunter

King James had no impartial academic interest in a Bible translation that supported his divine right:  during his reign, the “Cradle King” accumulated a long list of covered offenses that included mass murder, torture, injustice, tracheary, cruelty, and misogyny.

“The witch-hunts that swept across Europe from 1450 to 1750 were among the most controversial and terrifying phenomena in history – holocausts of their times. Historians have long attempted to explain why and how they took such rapid and enduring hold in communities as disparate and distant from one another as Navarre and Copenhagen. They resulted in the trial of around 100,000 people (most of them women), a little under half of whom were 
put to death.

“One of the most active centres of witch-hunting was Scotland, where perhaps 
4,000 people were consigned to the flames – 
a striking number for such a small country, 
and more than double the execution rate in England. The ferocity of these persecutions can be attributed to the most notorious royal witch-hunter: King James VI of Scotland, who in 1603 became James I of England.

“Most of the suspects soon confessed – under torture – to concocting a host of bizarre and gruesome spells and rituals in order to whip up the storm.… James was so appalled when he heard such tales that he decided to personally superintend the interrogations… while the king looked on with ‘great delight’.

“James’s beliefs had a dangerously misogynistic core. He grew up to scorn – even revile – women. Though he was by no means alone in his view of the natural weakness and inferiority of women, his aversion towards them was unusually intense. He took every opportunity to propound the view that they were far more likely than men to succumb to witchcraft…. He would later commission a new version of the Bible in which all references to witches were rewritten in the female gender.

“Most witchcraft trials constituted grave miscarriages of justice…. If the actual facts of a case were unsatisfactory, or did not teach a clear enough moral lesson, then they were enhanced, added to or simply changed.”[9]

When the new King James Bible substantiated the King’s divine right to carry on these activities, and when the USA imported the king’s divine right into its legal system as sovereign immunity, both acknowledged God as the first cause of these legal doctrines. Like the King, the U.S. government also has a long list of covered offenses:  the treatment of slaves during the reign of legal slavery mirrors King James’ obsession with brutalizing, lynching, and murdering witches.

In the U.S., where a 2019 Gallup Poll found that 64% – 87% of Americans believe in God  (depending on how the question was asked), there remain many ”Christians [for whom] it remains an article of faith that God is the first cause of all that exists.[10] As a result, we see in the USA’s current social and political climate both explicit and implicit affirmation of the following Bible passages (which the online source appropriately expresses in the King James version) to substantiate the ability of national leaders to avoid accountability for acts of governance that sponsor this kind of horrifying treatment of citizens.[11]:

“Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God. Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation. For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same: For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil. Wherefore ye must needs be subject, not only for wrath, but also for conscience sake.” Romans 13:1-5, KJV

“Lift not up your horn on high: speak not with a stiff neck. For promotion cometh neither from the east, nor from the west, nor from the south. But God is the judge: he putteth down one, and setteth up another.” Psalms 75:5-7, KJV

“Daniel answered and said, Blessed be the name of God for ever and ever: for wisdom and might are his: And he changeth the times and the seasons: he removeth kings, and setteth up kings: he giveth wisdom unto the wise, and knowledge to them that know understanding:” Daniel 2:20-21, KJV

“This matter is by the decree of the watchers, and the demand by the word of the holy ones: to the intent that the living may know that the most High ruleth in the kingdom of men, and giveth it to whomsoever he will, and setteth up over it the basest of men.” Daniel 4:17, KJV

“I have made the earth, the man and the beast that are upon the ground, by my great power and by my outstretched arm, and have given it unto whom it seemed meet unto me.” Jeremiah 27:5, KJV

“The king’s heart is in the hand of the LORD, as the rivers of water: he turneth it whithersoever he will.” Proverbs 21:1, KJV

“For rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft, and stubbornness is as iniquity and idolatry. Because thou hast rejected the word of the LORD, he hath also rejected thee from being king. And Saul said unto Samuel, I have sinned: for I have transgressed the commandment of the LORD, and thy words: because I feared the people, and obeyed their voice. Now therefore, I pray thee, pardon my sin, and turn again with me, that I may worship the LORD. And Samuel said unto Saul, I will not return with thee: for thou hast rejected the word of the LORD, and the LORD hath rejected thee from being king over Israel.” 1 Samuel 15:23-26, KJV

“And upon a set day Herod, arrayed in royal apparel, sat upon his throne, and made an oration unto them. And the people gave a shout, saying, It is the voice of a god, and not of a man. And immediately the angel of the Lord smote him, because he gave not God the glory: and he was eaten of worms, and gave up the ghost.” Acts 12:21-23, KJV

The Ultimate Focus of Doubt:  God

In “Abrahamic” cultures — Jewish, Muslim, and Christian – the Biblical God is the first cause of the divine right of kings and sovereign immunity. The full force of patriotic nationalism and religious zeal therefore originates with God – which explains why a surprising number of European nations had blasphemy laws on the books until not that long ago, and why some nations still do.[12]

“Blasphemy is the act of insulting or showing contempt or lack of reverence to a deity, or sacred objects, or toward something considered sacred or inviolable.”[13]

God, it seems, like kings and sovereign nations, has much to be excused from. Aside from the Biblical God’s sponsorship of war, genocide, mass murder, rape, torture, and brutality to humans and animals, a list of modern labels would include misogynist, homophobe, and xenophobe. But of course you don’t think that way if you’re a believer, because that would be blasphemy, often punishable by death, often after the infliction of the kind of cruel and unusual punishment reserved for the faithful and unfaithful alike. As for the latter, the Bible makes it a badge of honor for the faithful to suffer in the name of God:

“Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated—of whom the world was not worthy—wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth. And all these, though commended through their faith, did not receive what was promised,” Hebrews 11:  35-39.ESV

Transformation Made Possible by Doubt

Nonbelievers not vexed with these kinds of rights of the sovereign and duties of the governed are free to doubt God’s first cause status and its derivative doctrines, laws, and policies. In the USA, doubt embraced on that level would open the door to any number of contrary beliefs – for example:

    • The state does not enjoy superior status — historically, legally, morally, or otherwise – that gives it a right to act without consequence.
    • The people governed are therefore not bound – theologically, morally, or otherwise – to submit to government that is not responsible for its actions.

Once you’re no longer worried about breaking faith with God as the first cause of your national institutional structure, a while new “social contract” (also discussed last time) between government and the people becomes possible – a contract that would, in effect, not be satisfied with paying only descendants of slaves “damages” for past harm, but would look to establish a fresh national vision of the duties of those who govern and the rights and freedoms of the governed. The result, it would seem, is the possibility of ending the USA’s institutionalized racism for good.

[1] Who was Paul Simon’s Kathy? And whatever happened to her? See this article from The Guardian.

[2] See the Belief Systems and Culture category of posts in my Iconoclast.blog.

[3] The Founding Myth: Why Christian Nationalism Is Un-American, Andrew L. Seidel (2019). Although the USA was not founded as a Christian nation, its core values and beliefs, like those of other Western countries, are Classical and Biblical in origin.

[4]  See Alpha History and The Mises Institute on the historical origins of Nazism.

[5]  Encyclopedia Britannica. See also New World Encyclopedia and the Stanford Dictionary of Philosophy.

[6] Wikipedia – The Divine Right of Kings.

[7] Encyclopedia Britannica and Wikipedia.. See also the New World Encyclopedia

[8] Owlcation

[9] Borman, Tracy, James VI And I: The King Who Hunted Witches,  History Extra (BBC Historical Magazine)  (March 27, 2019)

[10]  Encyclopedia Britannica. See also New World Encyclopedia and the Stanford Dictionary of Philosophy.

[11]Bill’s Bible Basics.”

[12]  Wikipedia – Blasphemy law.

[13]  Wikipedia – Blasphemy.

Reparations [3]: The Airtight Legal Case Against Them, and the Moonshot That Would Make Them Possible

“We choose to go to the Moon in this decade… not because [it is] easy, but because [it is] hard; because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win….”

JFK, Sept. 12, 1962[1]

It was 1962 and the Cold War was raging. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev gave his “we will bury you” speech to 1956[2] and his shoe-banging speech in 1960[3]. Meanwhile, the competition had turned skyward[4], and the Soviet Union had gotten a leg up.

“History changed on October 4, 1957, when the Soviet Union successfully launched Sputnik I.

“That launch ushered in new political, military, technological, and scientific developments. While the Sputnik launch was a single event, it marked the start of the space age and the U.S.-U.S.S.R space race.

“As a technical achievement, Sputnik caught the world’s attention and the American public off-guard… the public feared that the Soviets’ ability to launch satellites also translated into the capability to launch ballistic missiles that could carry nuclear weapons from Europe to the U.S.”[5]

Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson compares Sputnik’s impact to the furor that ensured when, on January 11, 2007, China blasted one of its own weather satellites out of the sky:

“The hit put tens of thousands of long-lived fragments into high Earth orbit, adding to the already considerable dangers posed by debris previously generated by other countries, notably ours. China was roundly criticized by other spacefaring nations for making such a mess: twelve days later, its foreign ministry declared that the action ‘was not directed at any country and does not constitute a threat to any country.’

“Hmm. That’s a little like saying the Soviet Union’s launch of the world’s first satellite, Sputnik, in October 1957 was not a threat — even though Sputnik’s booster rocket was an intercontinental ballistic missile, even though Cold Warriors had been thirsting for a space-based reconnaissance vehicle since the end of World War II, even though postwar Soviet rocket research had been focusing on the delivery of a nuclear bomb across the Pacific, and even though Sputnik’s peacefully pulsing radio transmitter was sitting where a nuclear warhead would otherwise have been.”[6]

JFK announced the USA’s comeback with his “we choose to go to the moon” speech[7] to 40,000 people packed into the stadium at Rice University.[8] It was visionary in concept and triumphant in tone. The USA wasn’t going to go to the moon just because the Soviets were trying to beat us there, not just to win a celestial derby for a grand prize of bragging rights, and not just to gain the ultimate battlefield high ground. We were going to do it to further America’s mission of bringing peace to the nations, including the new frontier of outer space.

“Those who came before us made certain that this country rode the first waves of the industrial revolutions, the first waves of modern invention, and the first wave of nuclear power, and this generation does not intend to founder in the backwash of the coming age of space. We mean to be a part of it–we mean to lead it. For the eyes of the world now look into space, to the moon and to the planets beyond, and we have vowed that we shall not see it governed by a hostile flag of conquest, but by a banner of freedom and peace. We have vowed that we shall not see space filled with weapons of mass destruction, but with instruments of knowledge and understanding.

“Yet the vows of this Nation can only be fulfilled if we in this Nation are first, and, therefore, we intend to be first. In short, our leadership in science and in industry, our hopes for peace and security, our obligations to ourselves as well as others, all require us to make this effort, to solve these mysteries, to solve them for the good of all men, and to become the world’s leading space-faring nation.

“We set sail on this new sea because there is new knowledge to be gained, and new rights to be won, and they must be won and used for the progress of all people. For space science, like nuclear science and all technology, has no conscience of its own. Whether it will become a force for good or ill depends on man, and only if the United States occupies a position of pre-eminence can we help decide whether this new ocean will be a sea of peace or a new terrifying theater of war. I do not say the we should or will go unprotected against the hostile misuse of space any more than we go unprotected against the hostile use of land or sea, but I do say that space can be explored and mastered without feeding the fires of war, without repeating the mistakes that man has made in extending his writ around this globe of ours.

“There is no strife, no prejudice, no national conflict in outer space as yet. Its hazards are hostile to us all. Its conquest deserves the best of all mankind, and its opportunity for peaceful cooperation many never come again. But why, some say, the moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? Why does Rice play Texas?

“We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.

“It is for these reasons that I regard the decision last year to shift our efforts in space from low to high gear as among the most important decisions that will be made during my incumbency in the office of the Presidency.”

The speech didn’t focus on the bad guys, didn’t accuse or blame them, didn’t spout media-speak about protecting our national interests. Instead, it was aspirational. It seized the high ground. We were going to the moon because that’s the kind of thing Americans do — we willingly test ourselves to see how good we are. We routinely “organize and measure the best of our energies and skills because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept.” We do hard things, we take on huge challenges because that’s who we are. We stand on the high ground – on Earth, and in space.

It’s hard to imagine someone making a speech like that today. It feels hokey in the unforgiving hindsight of all that’s transpired in the past 60 years, and especially recently. No, I’m not nostalgic for the 60’s — those were not “the best days of my life.”[9] And no, I’m not beatifying JFK or waving the flag of American superiority – a myth I’ve long since had disillusioned out of me. It’s just that I miss living in a culture, nation, and world where leaders think and act and talk like that. And in particular, if we’re going to talk about reparations for slavery, we need to do so with the kind of attitude and outlook that permeated JFK’s speech. Otherwise, the legal technicalities will shut it down.

The Open-and-Shut Case Against Reparations

Here is the insurmountable legal case against reparations:

  • Slavery wasn’t illegal. There are and never have been criminal penalties or civil remedies against those who carried it out — all of whom are long since dead anyway.
  • The only possible responsible party is the government itself, which sponsored slavery in the first place.
  • But even if there were legal grounds to prosecute or sue the government (there aren’t) you can’t do it anyway. That’s because the government is protected by the legal doctrine of “sovereign immunity,” which means it can’t be held to account for administering its own law.
  • The only tribunal with authority to override the doctrine of sovereign immunity is international law, but submitting to international law is voluntary, a matter of each nation’s willingness to give up some of its sovereignty to its national peers, and that is a choice the U.S. has not made.

“Law and order” adherence to the legal case against reparations instantly shuts down the idea. The legal case against reparations is exemplified in what Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell said about the topic:

“I don’t think reparations for something that happened 150 years ago for whom none of us currently living are responsible is a good idea. We’ve tried to deal with our original sin of slavery by fighting a Civil War and passing landmark civil rights legislation. We’ve elected an African-American president. I think we’re always a work in progress in this country, but no one currently alive was responsible for that. And I don’t think we should be trying to figure out how to compensate for it. First of all, because it’s pretty hard to figure out who to compensate.”[10]

McConnel’s comments make it clear that he views reparations in the conventional way of suing for “damages”– money –to recompense a victimized party for past losses.

I wasn’t there. Nobody who’s alive now was there. Everybody who was there is dead now. It’s not my fault. It’s nobody’s fault. The law doesn’t hold anybody accountable.

He was right about all that. The rest of what he said was legally unnecessary, a resort to the kinds of rationalization and platitudes we reach for when what we really mean is “over my dead body.”

Slavery was bad, but why dwell on the past? We’ve been trying to move on, put it behind us. We’re a work in progress. We need to let bygones be bygones.

He didn’t need platitudes. He could have gone straight to the ultimate legal defense:

The Ultimate Defense: Sovereign Immunity

“Sovereign immunity, or crown immunity, is a legal doctrine whereby a sovereign or state cannot commit a legal wrong and is immune to civil suit or criminal prosecution.”[11]

Sovereign immunity came over on the boat with the rest of English common law.

“Sovereign immunity finds its origins in English common law and the king’s position at the ‘apex of the feudal pyramid.’ In that pyramid, lords could not be sued in their own courts, ‘not because of any formal conception or obsolete theory, but on the logical and practical ground that there can be no legal right as against the authority that makes the law on which the right depends.’ Thus, lords could only be sued in the courts of their superiors, but, for the king, ‘there was no higher court in which he could be sued.’” [12]

Where Sovereign Immunity Came From: The Divine Right of Kings

Sovereign immunity is a carryover from the “Divine Right of Kings” – a legal doctrine formulated in the days when monarchies were more than ceremonial. The doctrine was derived from the Biblical worldview that underlies law and culture in America, Europe, and the U.K.

“The theory of the divine right of kings lent support to the proposition that the king was above the law-that he was in fact the law-giver appointed by God, and therefore could not be subjected to the indignity of suit by his subjects…. To Bracton the maxim ‘the king can do no wrong’ meant simply that the king was not privileged to do wrong, but to Blackstone the phrase was not so restricted, and in his Commentaries the following is to be found: ‘Besides the attribute of sovereignty, the law also ascribes to the king in his political capacity absolute perfection… The king, moreover, is not only incapable of doing wrong, but even of thinking wrong: he can never mean to do an improper thing: in him is no folly or weakness.’”[13]

The divine right of kings and non-monarchical sovereign immunity both mean that government –i.e., the people in it who determine and enforce its laws — get the same hands-off treatment as God. God can do no wrong — neither can the king or the President or their emissaries.

I still recall sitting in a law school class when I learned about this. How could it be, that government would not be held accountable for how it treats the governed? “Government needs to be free to govern,” my law professor explained.

There is, however, one powerful way through this legal barrier:

Sovereign Immunity Can be Waived.[14]

The government can volunteer to make things right – it can waive its own sovereign immunity. (It has in fact done so on other occasions, which we will also look at another time.)

Viewed solely as a legal act, a waiver of sovereign immunity would require the commitment and action of all three branches of U.S. government: an act of Congress, signed into law by the President, and upheld as Constitutional by the Supreme Court.

Beyond legalities, reparations would require a break from centuries-old notions of the right of government to govern as it sees fit. Such a break would require a new “social contract.” As one history teacher explains:

“The Divine Right of Kings represents a ‘Top Down’ approach to government, in contrast with the ‘Bottom Up’ approach of social contract theory, which claims that the people create governments for their own protection and that those governments serve the people who created them.”[15]

A New Social Contract

According to Rousseau, a social contract is the mechanism by which we trade individual liberty for community restraint. As Thomas Hobbes famously said, lack of that tradeoff is what makes life “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”[16] Or, as a recent version put it, “For roughly 99% of the world’s history, 99% of humanity was poor, hungry, dirty, afraid, stupid, sick, and ugly.”[17] A social contract suggests we can do better. As Hobbes said:

“As long as men live without a common power to keep them all in awe, they are in the condition known as war, and it is a war of every man against every man.

“When a man thinks that peace and self-defense require it, he should be willing (when others are too) to lay down his right to everything, and should be contented with as much liberty against other men as he would allow against himself.”[18]

The USA was created out of the colonists’ desire for a new social contract when their deal with England grew long on chains and short on freedom. In response, the Founders declared a new sovereign nation into existence:

“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.”

The new nation was conceived in liberty, but there would be limits. Once the Revolutionary War settled the issue of sovereign independence[19], the Founders articulated a new freedom/chains balance:

“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

That original social contract + revisions and amendments over the course of 250 years of history = the USA as we know it today.

Mitch McConnell was right: our nation’s history is always a work in progress – we are constantly revisiting and readjusting our social contract.

For reparations to happen, we need a new social contract that would enable a waiver of sovereign immunity. And for that to happen, the new social contract needs to explicitly reject a racial perspective articulated by none other than John Wilkes Booth:

“This country was formed for the white, not for the black man,” John Wilkes Booth wrote, before killing Abraham Lincoln. “And looking upon African slavery from the same standpoint held by those noble framers of our Constitution, I for one have ever considered it one of the greatest blessings (both for themselves and us) that God ever bestowed upon a favored nation.”[20]

Reparations Would Require Another Moon Shot

A new social contract is an idea of monumental proportions. People don’t rally behind small ideas. National transformation requires big, bold, decisive initiative — ideas like that are hard, impossible by current standards, that require voyages into uncharted territory and commitment to solve unprecedented problems. The USA would make reparations for slavery because that’s what Americans do — we willingly test ourselves to see how good we are. We routinely “organize and measure the best of our energies and skills because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept.” We do hard things, we take on huge challenges. That’s who we are. We don’t make ourselves the good guys and everyone else the bad. We don’t blame them, don’t spout media-speak about national interests, don’t hide behind legal technicalities. We do the aspirational. We stand on the high ground – on Earth, and in space.

If the USA is going to make reparations for slavery, we need a new moonshot.

 

[1] Here’s the full text. See also Wikipedia.

[2] See a previously classified CIA report on that speech here.

[3] See Wikipedia.

[4] See this timeline for the Space Race.

[5] NASA.

[6] Tyson, Neil deGrasse and Lang, Avis, Accessory to War: The Unspoken Alliance Between Astrophysics and the Military,

[7] Here’s the full text.

[8] Wikipedia.

[9] Bryan Adams, Summer of ’69.

[10] Axios.com.

[11] Wikipedia on Sovereign Immunity. See also Wikipedia on Sovereign Immunity in the United States.

[12] McCann, Miles, “State Sovereign Immunity,” National Association of Attorneys General, NAGTRI Journal Volume 2, Number 4. Although the article is technically about state – vs. federal — sovereign immunity, the quoted text applies to both. See also the following quote from this monograph from the law firm of Debevoise & Plimpton, a New York based firm with a reputation for its commitment to diversity” “At its core, the doctrine of sovereign immunity stands for the proposition that the government cannot be sued without its consent – that is, ‘the King can do no wrong.’ Sovereign immunity is simple in concept but nuanced in application.”.

[13] Pugh, George W., “Historical Approach to the Doctrine of Sovereign Immunity.” Louisiana Law Review Volume 13, Number 3 (March 1953).. Citations omitted.

[14] McCann, Miles, “State Sovereign Immunity” and Wikipedia on Sovereign Immunity in the United States

[15] TomRichey.net.

[16] Hobbes, Thomas, Leviathan.

[17] Rutger Bregman, Utopia for Realists (2016),

[18] Hobbes, op cit.

[19] In Hobbes’ terms, social contracts end the battle royale. Ironically, they often also create war as the ideals of one contract conflict with those of another.

[20] Coates, Ta-Nehisi, The Case for Reparations, The Atlantic (June 2014).

Reparations [2]: Slavery, Human Capital, Le Déluge, and Paying the Piper

Après moi, le déluge.
(After me, the deluge.)
— King Louis XV of France

Proposed reparations for the USA’s racial history raise complex legal, economic, and other issues. We’re familiar with these – they’ve been well-rehearsed in op-eds and speeches by politicians and pundits, activists and the media.

Less familiar are issues more subjective than objective, reflective than combative, instinctual than intellectual. These are the province of shared human experience and sensibility, particularly of virtue — a nearly obsolete concept these days. Virtue prompts change not from the outside, not institutionally, but from a transformation in shared human consciousness, a cultural change of heart, We learn its lessons not from economic models and legal briefs, but principally from truth expressed in fiction –myths and legends, fables and feature films — Aesop’s Fables for adults. As one of Aesop’s contemporaries said about him:

“… like those who dine well off the plainest dishes, he made use of humble incidents to teach great truths, and after serving up a story he adds to it the advice to do a thing or not to do it. Then, too, he was really more attached to truth than the poets are; for the latter do violence to their own stories in order to make them probable; but he by announcing a story which everyone knows not to be true, told the truth by the very fact that he did not claim to be relating real events.”.[1]

As we’ll see below, virtue asks more than legal compliance, it demands that we pay the piper.

In this series, we will look at both kinds of issues in detail.

History Lesson: The French Revolution

“After me, the deluge” is sometimes attributed to the King’s mistress, Madame de Pompadour, as “After us, the deluge.” Either way – King or mistress, me or us – the quote is usually taken as a prophesy of the French Revolution, delivered with an attitude of elite indifference that ranks right in there with Marie Antoinette’s “Let them eat cake.” (Which she probably never said.[2]) “We’re getting away with it now, but all hell is going to break loose once we’re gone.” And indeed it did, when King Louis XVI was guillotined a generation later, under the name Citizen Louis Capet. [3]

From that historical context, après moi, le déluge has come to represent an awareness of coming doom, a feeling that we can’t get away with this forever. Things are good now, but watch out, they won’t last. People thought life was good back in Noah’s time, but look what happened to them. We keep this up, we might get our own version of the Flood.

Contemporary Lesson: Economic Inequality

Plutocrat Nick Hanauer offers a modern version of the saying in his TED talk. According to his TED bio, Hanauer is a “proud and unapologetic capitalist” and founder of 30+ companies across a range of industries, including aQuantive, which Microsoft bought for $6.4 billion. He unabashedly loves his yacht and private jet, but fears for his own future, and the futures of his fellow plutocrats, if economic inequality is left unaddressed:

“What do I see in our future today, you ask? I see pitchforks, as in angry mobs with pitchforks, because while people like us plutocrats are living beyond the dreams of avarice, the other 99 percent of our fellow citizens are falling farther and farther behind.

“You see, the problem isn’t that we have some inequality. Some inequality is necessary for a high-functioning capitalist democracy. The problem is that inequality is at historic highs today and it’s getting worse every day. And if wealth, power, and income continue to concentrate at the very tippy top, our society will change from a capitalist democracy to a neo-feudalist rentier society like 18th-century France. That was France before the revolution and the mobs with the pitchforks.”

Whether French Revolution or today, the issue is “paying the piper.”

The Moral of the Story: The Pied Piper of Hamelin

Pied Piper

Illustration by Kate Greenaway for Robert Browning’s “The Pied Piper of Hamelin”

Victorian poet Robert Browning brought us the “paying the piper” idiom in The Pied Piper of Hamelin. [4] Here’s a synopsis to refresh our memories:

“‘Pay the piper’ comes from the famous 1842 poem by Robert Browning, The Pied Piper of Hamelin. The story is about a German town called Hamelin which, after years of contentment, was suddenly plagued by a huge increase in the rat population, probably due to some plague or poison which had killed all the cats. The rats swarmed all over, causing much damage. Try as they might, the townspeople could not get rid of the rats.

“Then appeared a mysterious stranger bearing a gold pipe. He announced that he had freed many towns from beetles and bats, and for a cost, he would get rid of the rats for the town.

“Although he only wanted a thousand florins, the people were so desperate that the Mayor promised him 50,000 for his trouble, if he could succeed.

“At dawn, the piper began playing his flute in the town and all the rats came out of hiding and followed behind him. In this way, he led them out of the town. All the rats were gone.

“When the piper came back to collect his pay, the town refused to pay even his original fee of one thousand florins. The mayor, thinking the rats were dead, told the piper he should be happy if he received any pay at all, even fifty florins.

“The pied piper warned the town angrily that they would regret cheating him out of his pay.

“Despite his dire warning, the rats were gone so the townspeople went about their business, at last enjoying a peaceful night’s sleep without the scurrying and gnawing of rats.

“At dawn, while they slept, the sound of the piper’s pipe could be heard again, except this time only by the children. All the children got out of bed and followed behind the piper, just as the rats had before. The piper led the children out of town and into a mountainous cave. After all the children had walked into the cave, a great landslide sealed up the entrance. One little boy managed to escape and tell the town what had happened to the children. Although they tried, they could never rescue them, and they were lost forever.”

After me, the deluge + Pay the piper = Pay the piper or risk the deluge

Virtue says don’t get greedy. Don’t be tempted. Don’t be a fraud. Keep your end of the bargain. Don’t be too smart for your own good. Don’t try to get away with it. You’re better than that. Fess up, take responsibility. Don’t invite the deluge – the sudden and terrible twist of fate, the movement of greater mysteries, the imposition of higher justice.

The rats you get rid of won’t be worth the children you lose.

The mayor and citizens of Hamelin defrauded the Piper at the cost of their own children. Justice was absolute — the mountain vault was sealed. The Piper was fully, awfully paid.

Reparations for American slavery are a proposed remedy – a way to pay the piper — for the lost humanity of slaves, stolen from them by a legal and economic framework that assigned slaves economic but not human value. Slaves were dehumanized, and virtue will not tolerate it.

Exploitation of Human Capital

Exploitation of capital assets is expected in a capitalist economy. Human labor is a capital asset, and will also be exploited — everyone who’s ever worked for someone else figures that out the first day on the job. But slavery took exploitation too far: slaves were not people, they were capital assets and nothing more. They were no longer human.

“Exploitation can also be harmful or mutually beneficial. Harmful exploitation involves an interaction that leaves the victim worse off than she was, and than she was entitled to be. The sort of exploitation involved in coercive sex trafficking, for instance, is harmful in this sense. But as we will see below, not all exploitation is harmful. Exploitation can also be mutually beneficial, where both parties walk away better off than they were ex ante. What makes such mutually beneficial interactions nevertheless exploitative is that they are, in some way, unfair.

“It is relatively easy to come up with intuitively compelling cases of unfair, exploitative behavior. Providing a philosophical analysis to support and develop those intuitions, however, has proven more difficult. The most obvious difficulty is specifying the conditions under which a transaction or institution may be said to be unfair.

“Does the unfairness involved in exploitation necessarily involve some kind of harm to its victim? Or a violation of her moral rights? Is the unfairness involved in exploitation a matter of procedure, substance, or both? And how, if at all, are facts about the history of the agents involved or the background conditions against which they operate relevant to assessing charges of exploitation?”[5]

Slavery harmed its victims, exploited them both procedurally and substantively. And “the facts about the history” of slavery’s purveyors and “the background conditions against which they operate[d]” are most definitely “relevant to assessing charges of exploitation.” Today, 165 years after the nominal end of slavery, those charges remain unanswered, and unpaid.

Slavery and Human Capital

19th Century economist John Elliot Cairnes was “an ardent disciple and friend of John Stuart Mill” and “was often regarded as ‘the last of the Classical economists.’”[6] Writing during the American Civil War, Cairnes analyzed the impact of slavery on both human and other forms of capital in his book The Slave Power: Its Character, Career, and Probable Designs: Being an Attempt to Explain the Real Issues Involved in the American Contest.[7]

“Cairnes’s shining hour was his widely-discussed 1862 treatise Slave Power.  Cairnes analyzed the consequences of slavery for economic development, in particular how it speeded up soil erosion, discouraged the introduction of technical innovations and stifled commerce and enterprise more generally. Written during the American Civil War, Cairnes warned British policymakers to think twice about backing the economically-unviable Confederacy.  Cairnes book was instrumental in turning the tide of popular English opinion against the rebels.”

Writing about slaves as human capital, Cairnes said this:

“The rice-grounds of Georgia, or the swamps of the Mississippi may be fatally injurious to the human constitution; but the waste of human life which the cultivation of these districts necessitates, is not so great that it cannot be repaired from the teeming preserves of Virginia and Kentucky.

“Considerations of economy, moreover, which, under a natural system, afford some security for humane treatment by identifying the master’s interest with the slave’s preservation, when once trading in slaves is practiced, become reasons for racking to the uttermost the toil of the slave; for, when his place can at once be supplied from foreign preserves, the duration of his life becomes a matter of less moment than its productiveness while it lasts.

“It is accordingly a maxim of slave management, in slave-importing countries, that the most effective economy is that which takes out of the human chattel in the shortest space of time the utmost amount of exertion it is capable of putting forth. It is in tropical culture, where annual profits often equal the whole capital of plantations, that negro life is most recklessly sacrificed. It is the agriculture of the West Indies, which has been for centuries prolific of fabulous wealth, that has engulfed millions of the African race. It is in Cuba, at this day, whose revenues are reckoned by millions, and whose planters are princes, that we see in the servile class, the coarsest fare, the most exhausting and unremitting toil, and even the absolute destruction of a portion of its numbers every year.”[8]

Five years after Cairnes wrote that, Karl Marx cited the above passage in Das Kapital[9] in his own analysis of slave labor as capital:

“The slave-owner buys his labourer as he buys his horse. If he loses his slave, he loses capital that can only be restored by new outlay in the slave-mart.

“‘Après moi le déluge!’ is the watchword of every capitalist and of every capitalist nation. Hence Capital is reckless of the health or length of life of the labourer, unless under compulsion from society.

To the out-cry as to the physical and mental degradation, the premature death, the torture of over-work, it answers: Ought these to trouble us since they increase our profits?

Marx believed that the ultimate culprit was not the individual slave owners, but the capitalist economic system which sponsored the exploitation of all capital – including human capital – to achieve its competitive goal of profitability:

“But looking at things as a whole, all this does not, indeed, depend on the good or ill will of the individual capitalist. Free competition brings out the inherent laws of capitalist production, in the shape of external coercive laws having power over every individual capitalist.”

Under the reign of capitalism, Marx argued, workers would be exploited – slaves and free alike — and this would be both an economic and cultural norm. This practice would become so entrenched that it could only be broken by a contrary “compulsion from society.”

The Deluge:  Civil War

“The deluge” is a form of “compulsion from society,” and civil war is a form of both.

The American Civil War was the deluge. The war ended almost exactly four years after it began, at the cost of hundreds of thousands of American lives, uncounted non-fatal casualties, and incalculable damage to the rest of American citizenry, human property, and nature.

“Approximately 620,000 soldiers died from combat, accident, starvation, and disease during the Civil War. This number comes from an 1889 study of the war performed by William F. Fox and Thomas Leonard Livermore. Both men fought for the Union. Their estimate is derived from an exhaustive study of the combat and casualty records generated by the armies over five years of fighting.  A recent study puts the number of dead as high as 850,000. Roughly 1,264,000 American soldiers have died in the nation’s wars–620,000 in the Civil War and 644,000 in all other conflicts.  It was only as recently as the Vietnam War that the number of American deaths in foreign wars eclipsed the number who died in the Civil War.”[10]

Tragically, the course of American racial history would question if all those deaths had been in vain. War – the deluge, the compulsion of society – had its day, but it didn’t change cultural attitudes — the same ones that supported Antebellum slavery only became more belligerently expressed.

In France, Louis XV saw the deluge coming, Louis XVI suffered from it, but eleven years later Napoleon was Emperor.

The piper was never paid.

In the USA, war gorged itself on the American land and population, but the Union’s victory foundered on the failings of the Reconstruction.

The Piper was never paid.

The law concerning slavery was changed, but de facto[11] slavery lived on. Before the Civil War, slavery had been, like war itself, a legal crime against humanity, justified under the law of the land. After the Civil War, slavery was simply a crime, illegal as all other crimes, but propagated by a reign of terror that eventually gained its own legal justification that would once again have to be dismantled by another compulsion from society 100 years later.

After the war, you couldn’t own slaves anymore, couldn’t buy and sell them, but you could treat legally freed former slaves just as you once treated their legally enslaved predecessors. In fact, it was much worse. Before the war, the ownership and treatment of slaves was by legal right. After the war, de facto slavery relied on a reign of terror grounded in cultural indifference and brutality. Cruel and unusual punishment had been banned by the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, but de facto slavery relied on it to terrorize society into submission.

The Piper was never paid.

The U.S. Labor Movement and Human Capital

The American labor movement’s 400-year history is a chronicle of shifting economic theories and new labor laws brought about by periodic challenges – compulsions from society – to the capitalist norm of the exploitation of human capital.[12] Changing times generated changing attitudes, and American culture demanded accommodations in often violent ways.

And now, in the middle of another deluge – this time a plague, the Covid-19 virus – we have seen the most recent and striking societal shift in the form of the Supreme Court’s ruling that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protects LGBTQ workers from workplace discrimination.[13] Few would claim that the 56-year old Civil Rights Act specifically had today’s gender sensibilities in mind, but the law shifts with cultural attitudes when compelled to do so.

The labor movement will continue to change with the times. Issues of sexism remain, and technology – especially robotics, AI, and machine learning – are threatening human labor in ever-accelerating, unprecedented ways. There will be more deluge, more societal compulsion.

The Piper was never paid.

The Racist Roots of Police Brutality

Finally – for today, at least – the Coronavirus deluge has also recharged the force of societal compulsion currently taking on mass incarceration and police brutality, both of which have historical roots in the Reconstruction’s unresolved racism.[14]

The Piper was never paid.

We have much more to talk about. We’ll continue next time.

[1] Philostratus, Life of Apollonius of Tyana, Book V:14. From Wikipedia.

[2] See Solosophie.com and Phrases.org.

[3] For more about what the saying might mean, see this is from Wikipedia: “The most famous remark attributed to Louis XV (or sometimes to Madame de Pompadour) is Après nous, le déluge (“After us, the deluge”). It is commonly explained as his indifference to financial excesses, and a prediction of the French Revolution to come. The remark is usually taken out of its original context. It was made in 1757, a year which saw the crushing defeat of the French army by the Prussians at the Battle of Rossbach and the assassination attempt on the King. The “Deluge” the King referred to was not a revolution, but the arrival of Halley’s Comet, which was predicted to pass by the earth in 1757, and which was commonly blamed for having caused the flood described in the Bible, with predictions of a new deluge when it returned. The King was a proficient amateur astronomer, who collaborated with the best French astronomers. Biographer Michel Antoine wrote that the King’s remark “was a manner of evoking, with his scientific culture and a good dose of black humor, this sinister year beginning with the assassination attempt by Damiens and ending with the Prussian victory”. Halley’s Comet finally passed the earth in April 1759, and caused enormous public attention and anxiety, but no floods.

[4]   Idioms.online.

[5] Exploitation, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (first published Thu Dec 20, 2001; substantive revision Tue Aug 16, 2016).

[6] The History of Economic Thought.

[7] Cairnes, John Eliot, The Slave Power: Its Character, Career, and Probable Designs: Being an Attempt to Explain the Real Issues Involved in the American Contest (1862).

[8] Cairnes, Slave Power, op cit.

[9] Marx, Karl, Das Kapital (Vol. 1, Part III, Chapter Ten, Section 5).

[10] American Battlefield Trust.

[11] “In law and government, de facto describes practices that exist in reality, even though they are not officially recognized by laws. It is commonly used to refer to what happens in practice, in contrast with de jure, which refers to things that happen according to law.” Wikipedia

[12] See this timeline, which runs from 1607-1999, beginning with complaints about labor shortages in Jamestown in 1607, addressed by the arrival in 1619 of the first slaves stolen from Africa.

[13] Civil Rights Law Protects Gay and Transgender Workers, Supreme Court Rules, New York Times (June 16, 2020).

[14] See, for example, The Racist Roots Of American Policing: From Slave Patrols To Traffic Stops, The Conversation (June 4, 2019) and George Floyd’s Death Reflects The Racist Roots Of American Policing, The Conversation (June 2, 2020).

Free Market Capitalism’s Assault on the Public Good (And the surprising X Factor that could stop it)

Americans rush to defend free market capitalism’s elimination of the “public good,” to our own detriment. Why do we do that?

The short (but complex) answer is that free market capitalism has become the dominant American economic and social ideology, and there’s no place for an egalitarian notion like the public good in its competitive culture.

The X Factor

Economic data suggest we’re in the advanced stages of competitive, zero sum capitalism’s systematic extermination of the public good. But a surprising X Factor could help reverse this trend.

What is it?

Happiness.

Let’s take a look….

It Wasn’t Supposed to Work That Way

Free market godfather Milton Friedman famously said that “The social responsibility of business is to increase its profits.” That was free market capitalism’s bold theory: there was no need to import the European ideal of safeguarding the public good; instead, you could give capitalism free reign and everyone would benefit — and no need for social democracy’s clumsy bureaucracy.

We Yanks thought we could do better, but we were wrong, and we were wrong because we were duped. Free market ideology staked its claim as a science, but it wasn’t — it was an ideology, a religion. For it to work, you had to believe, and to aggressively demonstrate your commitment to its ideal or a pure capitalist state.

We heard the call to discipleship, but we still remembered that the compassionate social programs of the Roosevelt New Deal, engineered by Keynesian economic theories of government intervention, had bailed us out of the Great Depression and fueled a startling worldwide recovery from the rubble of two world wars – a recovery that lifted all economic fortunes and established the middle class as the mainstay of socio-economic stability.

But that wasn’t enough for the free market idealists who had already been theorizing and strategizing at their Mont Pelerin Society meetings in the mountains of Switzerland. But their time had not yet come, and they waited, constructing mathematical models that proved they were right — in theory, at least, even though they were untested empirically — until history finally handed them their chance.

European democratic socialism’s reputation had been compromised by the abuses and miseries of its far distant relative, Soviet Communism. The free marketers must have known, but the rest of us didn’t see that they weren’t the same thing, and when the Berlin Wall came down, we celebrated the end of the Cold War by declaring capitalism the victor, and then we set out to cleanse the world of our defeated “socialist” foe. While a new class of Russian opportunists became billionaires by scavenging former state-owned assets at below bargain basement prices, Bill Clinton and Tony Blair led the charge to purge their respective countries of any taint of vanquished socialism, which they and everyone equated with Communism. National and corporate leadership snatched the keys to free capitalism’s shiny new muscle car and went peeling out, careening donuts in the cities and shredding fragile tundra in the mountains. The American way of rugged individualism and upward mobility and anybody can make it here if they have enough gumption and are willing to work hard resounded through the halls of government on both sides of the aisle on both sides of the Atlantic, and we routed the welfare queens out from in front of their TVs, put food stamps slackers back to work, created the Incarceration State, and savaged the environment… all to shouts of “workfare!” – a new translation of “hallelujah!”

Competitive capitalism became the new state religion — its competitive capitalism campaign slogans became its scriptures, and its entrepreneurial heroes as iconic as dear old Betsy Ross and her flag, and it became culturally criminal to deface them. Cultural myths and icons grow to sacred stature, snuffing out discourse and banning dissent. That doesn’t ensure success, but it does mean that the electorate will still trudge dutifully to the polls and ante up for another round, long after it has become obvious to anyone with ears to hear and eyes to see that the ideology hasn’t delivered on its promise. And thus the American electorate has done for the past four decades, believing with fundamentalist zeal in Friedman’s promise of economic utopia until today we’re left with socio-economic structures of inequality matched only by the days of the French Revolution, the Robber Barons, and the Roaring 20’s.

It wasn’t supposed to work that way, but it did.

The Unconscious Underbelly

Ideologies originate in the neural pathways of the people who create them, and spread from brain to brain until enough brains have the same wiring and, by a process known as “emergence,” they take on a life of their own in the institutions they create and sustain.[1]

Of course, most people don’t go around thinking about how their neural pathways process free market ideological biases. Instead they respond to the issues – politicians urging them to reject the public good in favor of the chance to do have it your way and forget the deep state and its non-elected manipulating – and never mind that the public good that you’re voting out of existence includes your own.

We do some things consciously, with intent and purpose, but we do much more for reasons we’re not in touch with, or for no reason at all – the latter two driven by unconscious impulses derived from the cultural biases wired into our brains. There is, for example, ample research to suggest an additional endemic cultural factor that helps to explain why we support elected officials and their economic agendas even when doing so is against our own best interests. That factor is culturally embedded racism.

“One question that has troubled Democrats for decades is freshly relevant in the Trump-McConnell era: Why do so many voters support elected officials who are determined to cut programs that those same voters rely upon?

“There is, however, one thread that runs through all the explanations of the shift to the right in Kentucky and elsewhere. Race, the economists Alberto F. Alesina and Paola Giuliano write, ‘is an extremely important determinant of preferences for redistribution. When the poor are disproportionately concentrated in a racial minority, the majority, ceteris paribus, prefer less redistribution.’

“Alesina and Giuliano reach this conclusion based on the “unpleasant but nevertheless widely observed fact that individuals are more generous toward others who are similar to them racially, ethnically, linguistically.”

“Leonie Huddy, a political scientist at the State University of New York — Stony Brook, made a related point in an email: ‘It’s important to stress the role of negative racial and ethnic attitudes in this process. Those who hold Latinos and African-Americans in low esteem also believe that federal funds flow disproportionally to members of these groups. This belief that the federal government is more willing to help blacks and Latinos than whites fuels the white threat and resentment that boosted support for Donald Trump in 2016.

“In their 2004 book, “Fighting Poverty in the U.S. and Europe: A World of Difference,” Alesina and Edward L. Glaeser, an economist at Harvard, found a pronounced pattern in this country: states ‘with more African-Americans are less generous to the poor.’”[2]

Culturally embedded racism is the same trend that developed the “Welfare Queen” stereotype, which was shaped – as all stereotypes are — from the twisted truth of a notorious 60’s case of welfare fraud that became the standard citation for the free market’s case against the social safety net.

It Wasn’t Supposed to Work That Way, Part 2

If you’re going to have a public good, you need to have a government that supports it. Theoretically we do: the USA’s republican form of government isn’t a “pure democracy” –instead we elect people to represent us, trusting that they will act in our best interests, which are represented by the word “public” right there in its name.[3]

Republic (n.): c. 1600, “state in which supreme power rests in the people via elected representatives,” from Middle French république (15c.), from Latin respublica (ablative republica) “the common weal, a commonwealth, state, republic,” literally res publica “public interest, the state,” from res “affair, matter, thing” (see re) + publica, fem. of publicus “public” (see public (adj.)). Republic of letters attested from 1702.[4]

Publica (the people, the state) + Res (affair, matter, thing) = “the people’s stuff.” The republican state holds the people’s stuff in trust, and its elected representatives, as trustees administer it for the public benefit. A more elegant term for “the public’s stuff” is “commonwealth”:

Commonwealth (n.): mid-15c., commoun welthe, “a community, whole body of people in a state,” from common (adj.) + wealth (n.). Specifically “state with a republican or democratic form of government” from 1610s. From 1550s as “any body of persons united by some common interest.” Applied specifically to the government of England in the period 1649-1660, and later to self-governing former colonies under the British crown (1917).[5]

The res publica is made up of those goods, services, and places that everybody is entitled to simply by being a citizen. Once the res publica is legislated into being, someone has to administer it in trust for the public’s benefit. If you can’t administer public goods, there’s no point in creating them in the first place, and free market ideology emphatically doesn’t want government to do either– even if that government is supposedly a republican one.

Superstar Italian-American economist Mariana Mazzucato (The Times called her “the world’s scariest economist”) describes how limited government has eliminated the commonwealth from policy-making:

“[Government is] an actor that has done more than it has been given credit for, and whose ability to produce value has been seriously underestimated – and this has in effect enabled others to have a stronger claim on their wealth creation role. But it is hard to make the pitch for government when the term ‘public value’ doesn’t even currently exist in economics. It is assumed that value is created in the private sector; at best, the public ‘enable’ [that privately created] value.

“There is of course the important concept of ‘public goods’ in economics — goods whose production benefits everyone, and which hence require public provision since they are under-produced by the private sector.

“… the story goes [that] government should simply focus on creating the conditions that allow businesses to invest and on maintaining the fundamentals for a prosperous economy: the protection of private property, investments in infrastructure, the rule of law, an efficient patenting system. After that, it must get out of the way. Know its place. Not interfere too much. Not regulate too much.

“Importantly, we are told, government does not ‘create value’; it simply ‘facilitates’ its creation and — if allowed — redistributes value through taxation. Such ideas are carefully crafted, eloquently expressed and persuasive. This has resulted in the view that pervades society today: government is a drain on the energy of the market, and ever-present threat to the dynamism of the private sector.”[6]

Ironically, while the ideal of limited government enjoys wide appeal, the actual reality has been the opposite: while the public good has been cut and slashed, the size of federal government has burgeoned during the free market’s reign, as measured by any number of economic markers, including national debt, number of government employees and contractors, size of the federal budget, and government spending — especially on national security and the military, including what some are calling the “military welfare state.”

The Public Good Wish List

Thus free market ideology has destroyed as much republican government as it could, and driven the rest into hiding. But suppose both could be restored to their places at the economic policy conference table. Beyond “the fundamentals for a prosperous economy: the protection of private property, investments in infrastructure, the rule of law, an efficient patenting system,” what might be included in a restored commonwealth trust fund? Several online searches turned up a long and illuminating list of things that used to be considered part of the commonwealth trust portfolio, or that might be added to it:

  • education
  • news
  • law
  • governmental administrative functions
  • healthcare
  • childcare
  • clean water
  • clean air
  • certain interior spaces
  • certain exterior spaces — e.g. parks
  • natural wonders
  • shoreline and beaches
  • mail and home/rural delivery service
  • trash removal
  • public toilets
  • sewage processing
  • protection from poverty – e.g., provision of food, clothing, and shelter
  • affordable housing
  • heat and lights
  • streets, roads, highways
  • public transportation
  • freight shipping
  • telephone and telegraph
  • pest control
  • use of public lands/wilderness access
  • the “right to roam”
  • the “right to glean” unharvested crops
  • the right to use fallen timber for firewood
  • security and defense
  • police and fire
  • handicapped access

Some people argue for the inclusion of additional, more contemporary items on the list:

  • information
  • internet access
  • net neutrality
  • open source software
  • email
  • fax
  • computers
  • cell phones
  • the “creative commons” (vs. private ownership of intellectual property)
  • racial, gender, national, and other forms of equality
  • birth control
  • environmental protection
  • response to climate change

What’s Wrong With That List?

Turns out that certain of the things on that list might not technically qualify as public goods, but before we look at that, what was your response to the list? Did you find some items frivolous, maybe outrageous? Did you favor things that would benefit you personally over those that wouldn’t? Did some of the items make you want you to get on your moral high horse and ride? Probably you did all of that, because there will always be investments in the commonwealth trust portfolio that you don’t value for yourself. But that’s exactly the point: the commonwealth looks to the health of the whole, not what the rugged individual might be able to do for himself if everybody would just leave him alone.

This individual vs. group conflict enjoyed a respite when the neoliberal economics of the post-WWII years picked up the interrupted impetus of the prewar New Deal, creating as a result the halcyon days of the public good, with widely-shared benefits to the middle class and the American Dream of equal opportunity and upward socio-economic mobility. But when the recovery played out in the 70’s and was then replaced with the free market’s reign, the technicalities of what is public vs. private good became more important. Which is why, when you had those typical responses to the list – questioning this, preferring that — you were putting your finger precisely on several key and complex reasons why the public good is tricky to define and administer – complexities free market capitalism avoids by skewing the balance all the way to the private side of the balance. For example:

  1. “A public good must be both non-rivalrous, meaning that the supply doesn’t get smaller as it is consumed, and non-excludable, meaning that it is available to everyone.”[7] This is largely a matter of fiat: while many things on the list could be made to fit this requirement, they aren’t currently, thanks to the free market insistence on privatization, believing that will make everything optimally available. While phones and computer and internet access could be made free, open, and universal, trillions of dollars’ worth of private enterprise would have something to say about that.
  2. Public goods inevitably give rise to the “free rider problem,” defined as “an inefficient distribution of goods or services that occurs when some individuals are allowed to consume more than their fair share of the shared resource or pay less than their fair share of the costs. Free riding prevents the production and consumption of goods and services through conventional free-market To the free rider, there is little incentive to contribute to a collective resource since they can enjoy its benefits even if they don’t.”[8] Freeriding means public radio and TV can’t prevent people from enjoying their programming even if they don’t pony up during the annual fund-raising campaign.
  3. Government solves the free-rider problem by levying taxes to pay for public services – e.g., a special assessment to pay for sewer maintenance on your street. Only trouble is, “taxes” are fightin’ words – both in free market theory and generally for many if not most Americans. We’re stuck back at “taxation without representation” and “don’t tread on me” and “give me liberty or give me death” – if we don’t want it or can’t get it for ourselves, we’d rather go without it than pay taxes so that everybody else can have it.[9] Free market capitalism is okay with enough government to legislate itself into dominance, but then government needs to get out of the way.
  4. “Market failure”[10] is the key to the public goods door. It occurs when the free market doesn’t deliver. Free market capitalism relies on the common economic assumption that consumers acting rationally in their individual best interests will generate the optimal level of goods and services for everyone. This ideal is unrealized for the vast majority of things on the wish list, and giving it a boost requires a new configuration of what is properly a public or a private good.[11]
  5. Even if we put public goods in place to override free market failures, we’ll still face the “tragedy of the commons,” defined as “an economic problem in which every individual has an incentive to consume a resource at the expense of every other individual with no way to exclude anyone from consuming. It results in overconsumption, under investment, and ultimately depletion of the resource. As the demand for the resource overwhelms the supply, every individual who consumes an additional unit directly harms others who can no longer enjoy the benefits. Generally, the resource of interest is easily available to all individuals; the tragedy of the commons occurs when individuals neglect the well-being of society in the pursuit of personal gain.”[12] The tragedy of the commons is why beaches post long lists of rules: it may be a public place, but a raucous party can ruin it for everyone else who wanted a tranquil place for a beach read.

These issues are inescapable: if you want public goods, you need to deal with them.

“Homo Economicus”

The issue of market failure ought to be the easiest issue to tackle, since it is based on a long-discredited notion of the rational economic man – the assumption that people will act rationally in their economic dealings, and that “rationally” means in their own best interests. John Stuart Mill coined the term homo economicus to explain this economic behavior:

Homo economicus, or ‘economic man,’ is the characterization of man in some economic theories as a rational person who pursues wealth for his own self-interest. The economic man is described as one who avoids unnecessary work by using rational judgment. The assumption that all humans behave in this manner has been a fundamental premise for many economic theories.”[13]

The idea has had its detractors:

“The theory of the economic man dominated classical economic thought for many years until the rise of formal criticism in the 20th century.

“One of the most notable criticisms can be attributed to famed economist John Maynard Keynes. He, along with several other economists, argued that humans do not behave like the economic man. Instead, Keynes asserted that humans behave irrationally. He and his fellows proposed that the economic man is not a realistic model of human behavior because economic actors do not always act in their own self-interest and are not always fully informed when making economic decisions.”[14]

Even so,

“Although there have been many critics of the theory of homo economicus, the idea that economic actors behave in their own self-interest remains a fundamental basis of economic thought.”[15]

Ayn Rand Would Have Approved

The concept of “homo economicus” captures the free market belief that the rigorous pursuit of self-interest improves things for everyone. It finds a philosophical ally in Ayn Rand’s “objectivism”:

“The core of Rand’s philosophy… is that unfettered self-interest is good and altruism is destructive. [The pursuit of self-interest], she believed, is the ultimate expression of human nature, the guiding principle by which one ought to live one’s life. In “Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal,” Rand put it this way:

‘Collectivism is the tribal premise of primordial savages who, unable to conceive of individual rights, believed that the tribe is a supreme, omnipotent ruler, that it owns the lives of its members and may sacrifice them whenever it pleases.’

“By this logic, religious and political controls that hinder individuals from pursuing self-interest should be removed.”[16]

Thus Ayn Rand became the patron saint of free market.

“’I grew up reading Ayn Rand,’ … Paul Ryan has said, ‘and it taught me quite a bit about who I am and what my value systems are, and what my beliefs are.’ It was that fiction that allowed him and so many other higher-IQ Americans to see modern America as a dystopia in which selfishness is righteous and they are the last heroes. ‘I think a lot of people,’ Ryan said in 2009, ‘would observe that we are right now living in an Ayn Rand novel.’”[17]

The X Factor: What Would be Wrong With a Little Happiness?

But you don’t need to be anybody’s patron saint to like the idea of the public good. You just need to be self-interested enough to want to be happy – or at least be envious of those who are.

Back to our Public Goods Wish List. Technicalities and difficulties of definition and administration aside, if we look at it from the perspective of “wouldn’t that be nice” there’s not a lot to dislike about it. While free market indoctrinated Americans seems to have a bad case of being right instead of being happy, the social democracies that feature the public good –whose citizens don’t seem to be so adverse to their own happiness — routinely score the highest in The World Happiness Report:

“Finland again takes the top spot as the happiest country in the world according to three years of surveys taken by Gallup from 2016-2018. Rounding out the rest of the top ten are countries that have consistently ranked among the happiest. They are in order: Denmark, Norway, Iceland, Netherlands, Switzerland, Sweden, New Zealand, Canada and Austria. The US ranked 19th dropping one spot from last year.”[18]

The capitalists who need our labor would do well to recall that happy workers are better workers – more loyal, productive, loyal, creative, innovative, and collaborative.[19] Further, as the following perspective on Switzerland shows, democratic socialism can still offer plenty of healthy capitalism:

“Like many progressive intellectuals, Bernie Sanders traces his vision of economic paradise not to socialist dictatorships like Venezuela but to their distant cousins in Scandinavia, which are just as wealthy and democratic as the United States but have more equitable distributions of wealth, as well as affordable health care and free college for all.

“There is, however, a country far richer and just as fair as any in the Scandinavian trio of Sweden, Denmark and Norway. But no one talks about it.

“This $700 billion European economy is among the world’s 20 largest, significantly bigger than any in Scandinavia. It delivers welfare benefits as comprehensive as Scandinavia’s but with lighter taxes, smaller government, and a more open and stable economy. Steady growth recently made it the second richest nation in the world, after Luxembourg, with an average income of $84,000, or $20,000 more than the Scandinavian average. Money is not the final measure of success, but surveys also rank this nation as one of the world’s 10 happiest.

“This less socialist but more successful utopia is Switzerland.

“While widening its income lead over Scandinavia in recent decades, Switzerland has been catching up on measures of equality. Wealth and income are distributed across the populace almost as equally as in Scandinavia, with the middle class holding about 70 percent of the nation’s assets. The big difference: The typical Swiss family has a net worth around $540,000, twice its Scandinavian peer.

“The real lesson of Swiss success is that the stark choice offered by many politicians — between private enterprise and social welfare — is a false one. A pragmatic country can have a business-friendly environment alongside social equality, if it gets the balance right. The Swiss have become the world’s richest nation by getting it right, and their model is hiding in plain sight.”[20]

Yes, the citizens of countries that promote the public good pay more taxes, but as this article[21] points out, that doesn’t mean the government is stealing their hard-earned money, instead it’s a recognition that paying taxes acknowledges what the national culture has contributed to their success. Meanwhile there’s still plenty of happiness to go around.

The X Factor, One More Time

It would take a lot to reclaim the public good from free market capitalism’s pogrom against it, and all appearances are that won’t happen anytime soon. But if it ever does, it could be a newly reinvented and revitalized homo economicus’ finest hour, motivated by the simple human desire to be happy.

Imagine that.

[1] For more on neuro-culture, see Beliefs Systems and Culture in my Iconoclast.blog.

[2] Why Don’t We Always Vote in Our Own Self-Interest? New York Times (July 19, 2018).

[3] Pure democracy — all those ballot initiatives — has joined republican lawmaking since California’s 1978 Proposition 13.

[4] Etymology Online.

[5] Etymology Online

[6] The Entrepreneurial State: Debunking Public vs. Private Sector Myths (orig. 2013, rev’d 2018) See also The Value of Everything: Making and Taking in the Global Economy (2018).

[7] Investopedia.

[8] Investopedia.

[9] This is a particularly thorny issue for philanthropy – see this article and that one.

[10] Investopedia.

[11] See Everyday Ethics: The Proper Role of Government: Considering Public Goods and Private Goods, The Rock Ethics Institute, University of Pennsylvania (Apr 15, 2015).

[12] Investopedia.

[13] Investopedia

[14] Investopedia

[15] Investopedia.

[16] What Happens When You Believe in Ayn Rand and Modern Economic Theory, Evonomics (Feb. 17, 2016)

[17] How America Lost Its Mind, The Atlantic (Sept. 2017)

[18] See the full list here. See also the corollary Global Happiness and Well-Being Policy Reporthere’s the pdf version.

[19] See The Real Advantage of Happy Employees from Recruiter.com., also this re: an Oxford study: A Big New Study Finds Compelling Evidence That Happy Workers Are More Productive, Quartz at Work (Oct. 22, 2019)

[20] The Happy, Healthy Capitalists of Switzerland, The New York Times (Nov. 2, 2019).

[21] No It’s Not Your Money: Why Taxation Isn’t Theft, Tax Justice Network (Oct. 8, 2014). And for a faith-based perspective I’ve never heard from the religious right, see Faithfully Paying Taxes to Support the Common Good, Ethics Daily (April 12, 2018).