Politics and Principles
A primer for young people on what it means to vote responsibly

Doug McManaman
Copyright  2012 by Douglas P. McManaman
Reproduced with Permission

I am always delighted when young people show some degree of interest at election time, but the exhilaration I experience is often dampened after realizing that so many of them choose their candidate not on the basis of reason, that is, after a careful consideration of the issues, but on irrelevant factors and, most notably, on the media's popular depiction of the one person they don't want to see elected to office - almost always a conservative. In other words, rarely do young people vote on the basis of principle, but almost always on faith in what others tell them about the candidates. The following is an attempt to provide some kind of framework for principled thinking as it relates to politics, and so I would like to begin by laying the groundwork with some basic philosophical principles.

Firstly, government is for the common good. Now the common good is the good of the social whole, which is not the same as my own private good. The common good consists of the entire set of conditions that enables the members of the civil community to attain for themselves their own fullness of being. It is possible for me, however, to pursue my own good at the expense of the common good, and so in this case I oppose my own private good to the common good. [1]

Justice is the constant will to render what is due to another. Recall that there are three kinds of justice: commutative, legal, and distributive justice. Commutative justice orders relations between individuals (i.e. I willingly pay the money I owe you). I not only have a debt to certain individuals, however, I also have a debt to the civil community as a whole. In fact, that is a debt that I cannot fully repay. Nevertheless, the civil community as a whole has a right to expect a great deal from me, for example, that I remain a law abiding citizen and contribute to the common good. This is legal justice. The criminal has little or no regard for his debt towards the civil community as a whole, thus he has little or no regard for legal justice. Finally, the civil community as a whole has a duty towards the individual, for the common good is the set of conditions directed towards enabling all human persons to flourish, not just the few. And so the government is elected by the people in order to secure the common good of the civil community, for the sake of individual human persons. Thus, a republican form of government is government of the people, by the people, and for the people.

What is so unfortunate is that many people vote not so much for the candidate most qualified to restore and maintain the common good, but for the one who promises to promote their own limited interests. Furthermore, there is often a tremendous amount of bigotry behind our decision for or against certain candidates, and bigotry blinds the intellect. Publisher Frank Sheed once wrote: "Bigotry does not mean believing that people who differ from you are wrong, it means assuming that they are either knaves or fools." One of the objects of our collective bigotry is conservatives, who are almost everywhere regarded as cut-throat, cold hearted and avaricious knaves who are only concerned about their own private interests. The left leaning, on the contrary, are always regarded as the socially conscious who are always willing to put people before profit.

If we want to be critical thinkers, and not the gullible who do nothing more than follow, all the while believing themselves to be tomorrow's leaders, then we have to be willing to test these popular assumptions, investigate their historical roots, and possibly, in the end, face those bigotries in ourselves that keep us from an objective and accurate assessment of the way things really are. The world always makes sense when perceived through ideological lenses, but there is a real difference between an argument that makes sense and an argument that is true. A false conclusion validly deduced from false premises makes all the sense in the world, but the conclusion is false nonetheless (i.e., All capitalists favor exploiting the poor; All those who favor a free market economy are capitalists; Therefore, all those who favor a free market economy favor exploiting the poor). Thus, "making sense" is not the criterion for truth. Truth is a relation; it is the conformity between what is in the mind and the real. Those who see the world through ideological lenses - whether those are the lenses of a feminist ideology that interprets all conflict in the world in terms of male dominance, or the lenses of socialist ideology that interprets history in terms of the conflict between the working class and the bourgeoisie class - are indeed able to evaluate critically and make sense out of the world we live in, which is why ideologies are so attractive. The problem is that the ideology does not include the tools necessary to critically evaluate the ideology itself, thus enabling us to determine whether the world as it appears through these lenses really is pink as it appears to be, or yellow, etc. Thinking via an ideology is not the same as thinking on the basis of first principles. And you can always tell the difference between a principled thinker and an ideologue: the principled thinker is not threatened by debate because his chief end is the possession of truth; the ideologue is closed to debate, is threatened by it, may even become angry and shut it down, for he protects the ideology at all costs, because without it, the world is absurd and unintelligible, and an unintelligible world is frightening.

It is wonderful to see more and more people watching presidential debates, but one has to wonder about the use of it all when so few are able to evaluate a debate on the basis of truth and the issues, when most people today score a debate as they would a boxing match (i.e., which one was more aggressive, who threw the most zingers, who was more condescending, etc). Indeed, we do not live in a culture that fosters a spirit of genuine debate, because debate is no longer about truth, but power. And that is itself a symptom of the postmodern culture in which we live and breathe; a culture that denies any kind of objectivity to what is said to be true and good.

Some Political Implications of Individualism

Politics is a branch of ethics, and ethics is founded upon the philosophy of human nature. Behind different political parties and their different visions of the ideal state is a different ethics, which in turn is founded upon a different philosophy of human nature. It is very important to get a handle on the ethics and philosophy of human nature that underpins and governs the various political platforms if we want to understand and critically evaluate them.

Canada has been very much influenced by the philosophy of Individualism - and by Individualism I do not mean the capitalist notion of individual initiative and the entrepreneurial spirit. I am referring to the Individualism rooted in the Existentialism of French philosopher and playwright, Jean Paul Sartre, who in 1964 won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Sartre distinguishes between etre en-soi (being in itself) and etre pour-soi (being for itself). Being in itself is the unconscious material being that is the object of the sciences (trees, minerals, crystals, etc). Being for-itself refers to conscious being (i.e. you and me). The human individual is a "for self" (pour-soi).

In order to know being, which is unconscious, I must somehow stand outside of being, or transcend it. But outside of being is non-being, or nothing. Hence, it is only by way of nothingness that one can come to know being. Nothingness lies at the heart of the pour-soi. The pour-soi is a blend of en-soi and non-being (nothingness). Non-being is a hole in the heart of being, which gives rise to consciousness, or the pour-soi.

For Sartre, existence precedes essence. What this means is that at the beginning, a pour-soi is a pure existent without an intelligible nature or essence. He is a nothing and a something, a composite of en-soi and nothing. Because existence precedes essence, man is totally free to determine "what is he", that is, his essence. He determines his essence by the free choices that he makes. And so, in contradistinction to classical thought, there is no initial nature or essence that man must live in accordance with. Whereas traditionally a morally good act is one that promotes the fullness of our nature, in a Sartrean framework we have no nature; we determine our nature by our choices, and so there is no universal moral law, that is, no natural moral law, and thus no universal right and wrong. One may do as one pleases - but one must be willing to deal with the consequences of one's freely chosen acts.

This is Individualism. And this individualism becomes more radical as we consider that all relationships between human beings are, according to Sartre, characterized by conflict. As one pour-soi gazes at another pour-soi, he objectifies him, thus reducing him to an en-soi by his very gaze. The other resists this reduction of himself to an en-soi by gazing back at the other, reducing him in turn to an en-soi.

Thus, genuine love is not possible. In fact, Sartre declares that hell is the other. The pour-soi struggles to maintain himself, but doing so is destined to fail. I am most fully myself the more I escape the influence of others. But as I choose to be the person I will to be, the more I fill up my nothingness and become an en-soi. Yet I cannot help but choose. The pour-soi is destined to become an en-soi. To successfully resist this movement towards the nausea of being is to cease to be. Thus, there is no such thing as an absolute pour-soi (God), because an absolute pour-soi with no admixture of en-soi, would be absolute nothingness. In other words, it is not that there is no evidence for God's existence; rather, it is impossible for God to exist. And yet this is precisely what every pour-soi desires to be, namely one who has successfully resisted the reduction of himself to an en-soi and to be an absolute pour-soi, which is God (i.e., pure nothingness).

It follows that no one may tell me that I ought to choose this or that course of action, or that I have a duty to choose such and such, i.e., to go to battle to defend the country, remain faithful to my spouse, etc. What "ought" to be done has meaning only within the framework of an already established "essence". But the choices I make define me, thus I choose my own essence, and the duties that belong to the essence of another may not belong to that which I have determined for myself. So I have no intrinsic or natural obligations, because there are no universal obligations or precepts rooted in a universal human nature; for there is no universal human nature, only the essence that I determine for myself. I simply have the right to make myself into the person I choose to be.

We see the influence of this radical Individualism in the "meism" or "me generation" of the 60s. What is noteworthy, however, is the radically new way of conceiving human freedom. According to a classical philosophical mindset, freedom means not doing what you want to do, but knowing what you ought to do and possessing the virtues that alone enable you to do it. But within the Individualist frame of mind, I am only free when I am free from anything that ties me down, such as responsibilities towards others, commitments, the burdens of working and raising a family, etc.

It was precisely this notion of freedom that was behind the Sexual Revolution of the 1960s (to the 1980s). With the invention of the birth control pill, it was now possible to engage in sexual intercourse without having to worry about the responsibility and burden of taking care of a child, or the responsibility to love and commit to the person with whom one is having sex. The pill became a symbol of freedom.

And then the peace movement: "Make love, not war". Why not make war? Because war is bad - but not because human life is intrinsically good; for the American Law Institute, in 1959, proposed a model penal code for state abortion laws, advocating for the legalization of abortion for a variety of reasons, one of which was evidence of a handicapped child in the womb. This was one more stage in the gradual construction of the anti-life culture in which we now live and breathe. Rather, the reason war is so repugnant is that it implies a universal precept, namely the duty to serve the "common good" - as if there is such a thing - and protect the innocent, and of course such notions belong to the "old morality". Fundamentally, there is no duty to go to war to defend the freedoms that countless others who have gone before us fought and died for.

The Individualist sees only his rights, not his obligations; for these latter are burdens that deprive me of my freedom. Note that the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms makes no mention of "duties" or "obligations", that is, there is nothing in the entire Charter about what the civil community as a whole has a right to expect from individual citizens.

It should come as no surprise that we've seen a steady decline in marriage since the late 1960s; this was the result of the rebellion against conventional western principles rooted in a Judeo-Christian ethics. This period of rebellion was a very comfortable atmosphere for relativists, hedonists, as well as socialists (devotees of Marxism).

A brief summary of Marxism

Karl Marx (1818-1883) was moved by the injustices of the Industrial Revolution and he certainly had as his goal an economic system that would help rectify these inequalities. The basic premise of Marxist socialism is that private property is evil and that the state must own all means of production (capital) in order to insure a fair and equitable distribution of wealth.

Man, according to Marx, develops himself through labour, but certain economic structures and labour relations impede his development and alienate him from his product. This alienating system, according to Marx, is capitalism, for within this wage labour system, the product of a man's labour does not belong to him, but to the one who owns the means of production.

In response, the working class seeks to recover itself, to overcome this alienation, and according to Marx it can do so only through a social revolution through which it abolishes private property and brings about the transition to communism.

It is important to keep in mind that in Marxism, the basic historical reality is not the individual person, who, for the Judeo-Christian West, exists in the image and likeness of God, and who is endowed with a spiritual and immortal soul. Rather, the basic historical reality is, for Marx, social man in his economic activity in nature. The individual is merely a part of social man. He wrote: "In its reality it [the essence of man] is the ensemble of social relations." And so Marxism concerns itself primarily with social acts, not acts that lack an immediate and obvious social significance (i.e., reading pornography in the privacy of one's bedroom, having sex with someone else's spouse, having an abortion, etc).

Furthermore, it is the labour of social man, his specific method of production and the economic relations it generates that determine the form of political life, the content of law, and the prevailing morality of the period, not vice versa. It is not that the individual person is able to apprehend the nature of things, such as human nature, or the nature of the state, or the natural moral law, thus allowing him to accurately determine what constitutes just civil law, etc. Rather ideas, including religious ideas, are determined by the specific economic relations and conditions that prevail in a society. In other words, man is essentially an ensemble of social relations, and economics determines everything. Moreover, history is in process, and so too, therefore, are human ideas. Thus, for Marx, there are no "eternal verities" or absolute truths.

In a capitalist society, according to Marx, law, social structures, morality, current ideas, etc, are all shaped by the dominant class (exploiters/oppressors) for the sake of maintaining power. But such morality, for Marx, has no more objectivity than a fable. Communist morality, on the other hand, is characterized by the revolutionary imperative. In 1920, Lenin wrote: "...for the communist, morality lies entirely in this compact, united discipline and conscious mass struggle against the exploiters. We do not believe in an eternal morality, ...we say: morality is what serves to destroy the old exploiting society and to unite all the toilers around the proletariat, which is creating a new communist society...Morality serves the purpose of helping human society to rise to a higher level and to get rid of the exploitation of labour."

Marxist ethics is an ethics of results. Contrary to classical natural law morality, there is no such thing as an act being intrinsically evil or having intrinsic goodness. The goodness and evil of acts are measured by the degree to which they further the cause of the self-emancipation of the oppressed class (the working class). So, intentionally killing another human being is not "intrinsically" evil, for one may hang capitalists "from the nearest lampposts", said Marx; doing so only furthers the historical movement towards final emancipation. In short, one may do "evil" that good may come of it; for doing so is not, in the end, evil.

Combine this with the fact that for Marx, the basic historical reality is social man, it is obvious why the fundamental virtues of a Marxist worldview are class solidarity, hatred of all oppression - which means hatred of the rich, who are the oppressors - , discipline, and devotion to the construction of a classless and communist world.

Personalism and its political implications

It shouldn't be too difficult to see why the radical Individualist and the Socialist get along well and found one another in the rebellious atmosphere of the 60s. In socialism, morality is no longer a personal matter, but a matter for social man, or the communist party; in other words, all moral responsibility is shifted to the party. This is attractive to the Individualist, because in his mind he does not have any fundamental obligations, only rights, and he is entitled to those rights; the government alone has the duty to distribute benefits and wealth equally, without making any burdensome demands on him. And so the radical Individualist of the 1960s naturally favored the more left leaning or Socialist political parties who proposed to increase the size of government, raise taxes, increase spending and intensify government regulations, to provide not simply for those who cannot take care of themselves, but for all individuals. And that has been the attitude of a great many young people in Canada since that time, an attitude of entitlement, and an attitude that naturally regards all social problems as the responsibility of government, not individuals.

But where, we have to ask, will government get the money it needs to expand and spend? The answer is the individual tax payer, of course, not to mention private corporations that provide employment. But the more a corporation is taxed, the less it pays to produce, so production naturally decreases, growth slows down, and unemployment rises. As Individualism spreads throughout a culture, as it had begun to do in the mid 60s, marriage declines - why impose unnecessary restrictions on myself by getting married? And where marriage does endure, families become smaller, because it has become more difficult to support a large family, not to mention that Individualism does not foster generosity, self-sacrifice, and fidelity - these values belong to an older morality. Smaller families means less demand, and less demand means less need for things that any family would require (diapers, clothes, food, larger house, etc), and less demand means higher prices. Thus, it becomes much more difficult for families to make ends meet and for young people to find work.

But man is not a pour-soi (a for-self); rather, he is a "for another". The word "person" is from the Latin persona (through sound). A person is a communicator, that is, one who becomes fully the person he is meant to be in community. It is not true that I am free when freed from burdens and responsibilities; that is an illusion of freedom, a confusion between the freedom proper to a brute animal and a genuinely human freedom. The human person has a rational nature, and the more knowledge we possess, the more free we are, that is, the more able we are to determine ourselves towards what is truly good. And the greater our freedom, the greater our responsibility - we don't hold animals responsible for the things they do, for they are governed not by reason, but by their instincts. Genuine human freedom means knowing what I ought to do, that is, knowing what promotes the fullness of my nature, and it means possessing the virtues necessary to carry out what I ought to do. This means, of course, that I can turn out to be my own worst enemy. Hell is not the other; rather, hell is the result of never having loved others for their own sake, that is, anyone other than myself. Hell is an eternal boredom, because boredom "is the self being stuffed with itself" (Walker Percy).

The human person only discovers himself by forgetting himself, especially in the pursuit of the common good of the civil community. That is, we discover ourselves when we live for a good larger than ourselves. Moreover, "rights" are not primary; rather, they are the flip side of the fundamental responsibilities that inhere in the nature of each human person; for existence does not precede essence, rather, both are simultaneous, for each human person possesses the same nature, namely, a human nature. In other words, obligations are primary; you have rights only because I have obligations, and vice versa. For example, your right to your reputation is nothing other than my obligation not to destroy it, and my right not to be lied to is nothing other than your obligation to be truthful, etc. If I have no obligations, then you have no rights.

The civil community as a whole has a right to expect from me, the citizen, a wide variety of things, for I have a number of duties towards the civil community, for I and everyone else are the beneficiaries of the labour and sacrifices of countless men and women who have gone before us, having worked to establish the conditions that now enable us to attain for ourselves our own well being. In fact, the debt we have to the civil community as a whole - which includes those who have died - is a debt we cannot fully remit. But I am obligated to remit it to the fullest extent possible, and I do that by cultivating the virtue of patriotism and legal justice, among other virtues, that is, by loving and serving the country as a whole, and venerating those who hold public office, working to maintain the common good, etc.

The government does not exist to take care of me as a parent takes care of the child. The role of government is to maintain the entire network of conditions that enables all citizens to attain for themselves their own fullness of being, and excessive government impedes that attainment by doing for citizens and smaller communities what these latter can and should be doing for themselves; for there is no human flourishing without personal initiative, activity, and a certain degree of independence.

We need to keep in mind that politics is a branch of ethics, and the human person is a moral agent. A political party whose moral vision is permissive, i.e., allowing recreational marijuana, abortion, low age of sexual consent, pornography, etc., is one whose moral sphere does not include individual persons, but is limited to the level of "social man". This is a party that leans to the left (towards socialism). The more it leans in this direction, the less does personal morality become an issue, and whatever social problems develop in a society, they become the responsibility of the party to fix, that is, they become a matter of social policy. In other words, individuals are more or less free to do what they wish morally, just not economically.

Within a Personalist frame of mind, this is backwards. Government is "by the people". The Declaration of Independence outlines some of these fundamental principles: "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. - That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, - That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness."

In other words, existence does not precede essence, because all men are created equal, for they are of the same nature. Moreover, all men are created, and thus there is something higher than the state, namely the Creator, which means that the state is not the only source of our rights; there are inalienable rights that we received not from the state, but from God, the author of our nature. Among these rights is the right to life. Thus, the individual human person is not a mere part of the state as the cog is a part of the wheel, as Totalitarian forms of government conceive of the individual (Nazism, Fascism, and Communism). Your right to life is nothing other than my and everyone else's obligation not to kill you for whatever ends we might have in mind. And we have the right to liberty and the pursuit of happiness, which implies that I and everyone else have an obligation not to impede your liberty and the pursuit of your own integrity and well-being, which implies that you, as an individual person, are a primary moral agent, not "social man" or the state. You have a duty to pursue your own happiness, and happiness is not pleasure, but the fulfillment of one's nature (it is "activity in accordance with perfect virtue"). The people have a right to abolish the government that is destructive of these ends. That implies, of course, that the people have a duty to establish a government that serves not merely their own private interests, but a government that serves these larger ends. Thus, citizens old enough to vote have a duty to become informed, to think critically and in view of the common good, to listen carefully to the issues and be wary of their own bigotries and propensity to selfishness.

Just as it is not necessarily the case that all those who are poor are lazy, or all Jews are stingy, or all those who favor more social legislation are communists, so too it is not necessarily the case that the wealthy are exploiters. Behind this prejudice is the zero-sum fallacy, which in economics is based on the mathematical representation of a zerosum game: a participant's gain is exactly balanced by the losses of the other participant(s). When we add up the entire gains of the participants and the total losses are subtracted, the sum will be zero. A tug of war is a zero sum game, but the learning process that takes place within an educational institution, for example, is not a zero sum process. The gain of one participant (i.e., student) does not automatically result in a proportionate loss of another participant. All may gain at the same time, and if one loses, one does so not by virtue of another's gain, but by virtue of a number of other possible factors (i.e., the decision not to study, not to listen, to skip class, or lack of ability, a teacher's lack of clarity, lack of sufficient resources, etc.).

When applied to economics, the zero sum fallacy is the presupposition that the increase of economic prosperity in one party is exactly balanced by the economic loss of another party. Thus, the rich are regarded the principal causes of poverty. Or, the reasoning might run something like the following: the political, social, and economic conditions that permit certain others to become economically prosperous (i.e., the free market) are the same conditions that cause the economic hardships of the poor. Thus, the cause of poverty is precisely these economic and political conditions which allow a person to become economically prosperous. In other words, the rich (or capitalism) are the causes of poverty.

But the prosperity of some is not necessarily at all the cause of the misery of others. Those individuals with a healthy entrepreneurial spirit do a great service to the common good by providing good employment, creating community and a certain degree of interdependency, among other things. [2] Indeed, some people cannot work as a result of some debilitating condition (mental or physical illness) that they are not responsible for, and government has the responsibility of ensuring the conditions that will enable these people who cannot take care of themselves to live well and receive the care they need. But some people make choices that land them in the difficult situations in which they find themselves; some people would rather the government to take care of them so that they can remain, psychologically and emotionally, children without responsibilities, entirely dependent upon someone else, as a child depends on his parents - for we all remember how wonderful it was to be a child, free to live in the world of the imagination where everything is exactly as we want it to be, without fear, risk, and distress.

But reality is much harder, it does not so readily conform to the way we want things to be; it is often cold and bitter, but we are called to rise up and courageously and in a spirit of generosity and gratitude to God, country, and parents, to direct our lives towards the common good of the civil community, which includes the conditions for the well being of future generations. Government intervention and regulation is necessary to ensure the conditions for human flourishing, conditions that permit persons to work creatively, with initiative, to fulfill the obligations that are theirs as human persons, but government is not there to usurp what can be done by individual persons, families, and smaller communities. History has shown that heavy government regulation makes it much more difficult for these smaller communities and businesses to operate, thus increasing dependency upon the state. The complex details of economics are too much for a paper of this nature, but young people need to study the basic principles of economics in order to understand better why it is that socialist governments have always suffocated the nations or provinces they have intended to enhance, and why right leaning governments that lower taxes and shrink the size of government and deintensify regulation always improve a nation's standard of living.

It is true that a capitalist society is a society of inequalities, but contrary to a socialist frame of mind, inequality is not the same as injustice. All injustice is an inequality, but it does not follow that all inequality is an injustice. Human beings are essentially equal, but not "accidentally" so. Many people are vastly superior to me in a variety of ways (athletic, intellectual, musical, have a more astute mind for business, are superior artistically, etc). By virtue of this accidental inequality, it follows that we are not all going to get rich as the same rate, just as we do not all learn at the same rate. But if government creates and maintains the conditions for a healthy free market economy, we are all nevertheless going to get richer. [3]