Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Alternative Futures

There appears to be two disparate world views that dominate the political landscape in the United States in the beginning of the twenty-first century.  One of these philosophical orientations has at its core belief the idea that the individual is the central preoccupation of the social order and the other belief system maintains that it is the well-being of the community that is the primary concern.

The individual-based political system takes as its model the viewpoint as delineated by Ayn Rand in her seminal works, Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead.   She defined her philosophical conclusions within the framework of what she referred to as Objectivism.  Within this construct, the primary force that should propel human behavior is self-interest.  In essence individuals are to be guided by rational and ethical egoism that hold that action is rational only if it propelled by one's self-interest and that a moral agent ought to act in its own self-interest.  This philosophical point of view rejects the idea of ethical altruism – working towards the common good.  It naturally follows that this view of life supports limited government and presupposes that government should not act to address the needs of the community, especially those in need.  In addition, the belief in laissez-fare capitalism would be consistent with this overarching idea since it would benefit individual rights, especially those of the powerful.  The implication inherent in Objectivism is that the powerful members of society are rightfully privileged for they are endowed with abilities that set them apart from everyone else.

The other philosophical system is in many ways diametrically opposed to Objectivism.  I would refer to it as Liberalism or Progressivism.  Within this system, working towards the common good is of great value and importance.  It presupposes that government plays an active role in the life of the people, especially those in serious need of basic services.  At the core of this belief system is a commitment to what Vandana Shiva has often referred to as The Commons – those community-based aspects of living that encompass the quality of water, food and air, the health care system, the infrastructure, adequate housing, child care, services for the infirm and the handicapped and public security.  This political philosophy does not preclude self-interest, but it does presuppose that both self and other be a significant part of the equation.  From this worldview, it naturally follows that the dynamics of the social order include everyone and that the fate of all members of society are intertwined.

The ascendance of either of these political philosophies will naturally give rise to strikingly different futures.  An ego-centric system will inevitably lead to an extreme and inherently destructive disparity between the status of the ruling class and everyone else.  It will also produce a social order strikingly devoid of the Commons – leaving a stark, bleak and formidable world for the vast majority of individuals.  On the other hand, a social order that embraces the common good and the essential equality of all individuals, in my judgment, is more likely to lead to sane, equitable and viable future.  It is for us to choose what kind of public policies we wish to embrace keeping in mind the long-term consequences of such a choice.  

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