Moral Imperatives

…not to be read by anyone except my grandchildren
            That might mean this is all wasted cyber ink.
The other day, as I watched, Erin Burnett of MSNBC was puzzled by a mention about restaurant prices in NY as compared to $8 to $12 dollar economy ones. Somebody said: “We have two different economies….”
Today, I heard that one hedge-fund manager made $4.9 billion, not million, but billion, and paid 15% income tax.
            For good reason, this is to be posted under “Memoirs.” Or maybe I should even open another category called “Do not open until my death.” In that way, I will not be violating my commitment not to put anything political on my blog. Well, at least during my lifetime. In that way, anyone – grandchild or other – who wants to argue a point will be arguing with a ghost.
            Who am I to be a moralist? I have lived beyond life expectancy, that’s why, and I have nowhere to go but to look back. I do not mean to lecture anyone, but I wish to say that I want my grandchildren to be more thoughtful about the world they live in than many who make the rules today. I claim not only the right but also the duty to guide my grandchildren.
            I would like them to bear in mind that the country in which we are taught to be proud is still a young democracy – evolving, imperfect, impetuous and haughty. In many ways, a government is like a child; it must be guided by its citizens, but it is presupposed that they have the common good as their direction. With proper respect for those governments which came before, we may find that they can indeed contribute to our experiment.
            And, it must be considered, no government lasts forever. Some just take longer than others to destroy themselves.
             Conservatives are fond of quoting Jefferson, or Paine, or Thoreau (it doesn’t seem to matter who really said it first): “That government is best which governs least.” They see that statement as summed up best of all by Reagan, when he said government is the enemy. How ridiculous! If that were so, the best government logically would be none at all! Would Reagan, of all people, really have desired chaos?
            Maybe conservatives don’t do syllogisms.
            I will now tell you what I think Jefferson or whoever was thinking: That government is best which need not govern its citizenry very much. Maybe men with ideals thought about other men as being moral enough to know that before every right there was a precedent duty.
            That might need to be repeated as the reader is blinking: for every right there is a duty, and the duty comes before the right.
            There is meaning, deep and profound meaning to those few words.
            The scholastic philosophers at Loyola taught me that in college. An open question in my mind is whether the concept came from Plato/Aristotle or Aquinas. On balance, I guess it really does not matter. I had to wrestle with it for some time before accepting its truth. Finally, perhaps reluctantly, I bought into it.
            Today we hear people clamor for their rights that are being taken away. Not once have I heard of someone standing on a soapbox, screaming “Give me back my duties!”
            The other day, a friend of one of my daughters replied to something I said on Facebook about Title X (Family Planning Program). He said that as a Libertarian, he is against such. As I know Libertarians only as they appear on TV, I thought I’d better find out from Google what they really believe. Here is what I found in their own Platform: “We seek a world of liberty in which…no one is forced to sacrifice his or her values for the benefit of others. We believe that respect for individual rights is the essential precondition….”
            Not exactly the corporal works of mercy, you know, like feed the hungry, clothe the naked, give drink to the thirsty, give shelter to the homeless.  (Those used to be taught as part of Christianity, certainly by the Catholics, and I guess even now they might still be in the books.)
            What sticks out to me like a twig in my right eye are the Libertarian words, “no one is forced to sacrifice…” A retort from the Libertarian is probably, “But we are talking about sacrificing values.” I might answer that many people consider money and wealth values. Some even think that their right to a living wage is a value. Others believe that their children see not being hungry as a value. 
            I think back to George Bush’s press secretary, Ari Fleisher, who said plainly that no one would have to sacrifice anything, that the invasion of Iraq would not cost anything, that lower taxes for the wealthy would increase government revenues, etc.
            He and the administration he represented went on to get tax reductions for those in the highest brackets, thus contributing enormously to our present national debt for every year since, and making it impossible even now for Obama to reverse this.  Most other people I know are still sacrificing, regardless of Ari’s promises.
            I wonder how many contemplate that our huge national debt includes interest on the Reagan and Bush deficits, still on the books, never having been paid-for.
            And is it worthy of mention that the promise to pay for Iraq war by selling that country’s oil was just an illusion created so that voters – the ones who worry most about “values” – would in their conscience allow that the war was OK?
            If we are to attain a level of governing which is really fair, it is necessary that precedence of the duty over the right must be accepted. Many examples can be given for this need, but perhaps the sorriest involves the subject of voting. How little preparation is given to the duty a person has to inform himself of the issues and all their attendant complications before casting a vote. I am reminded of an election is Louisiana for governor years ago. One of the candidates was a well-known legislator. He was well known by his nickname, “Bubba.” Promotions of his candidacy had little to say of his platform; the billboards simply said, in big letters, “Bubba.”
             Bubba didn’t make it, but he got a lot of votes.
            And then there was Senator Ellender. He had been in office for many years, but he died when he was up for reelection and his name was already on the ballot. He got tens of thousands of votes. Some commentators said it was a sympathy vote; I know better: the voters just recognized the name, and were too ill-informed to know that the man they were voting for was dead.
            Back to the Libertarians, I wonder if I should ever desire for a soldier or a policeman or a fireman to be a Libertarian. Do we all remember about the fire department that allowed a house to burn down last year because the owner had not paid a $75 fee? Yes, he had a duty to pay the $75, but what about the duties of the firemen? Did they decide that they had a right to let the home be consumed? Was that right not subject to a superior duty?
            Of enormous consequence to our judicial system in recent years and now to the detriment of the election process was the choice by the first Bush of his “best man for the job” to fill a Supreme Court vacancy. The man named Clarence Thomas always finds it best to be the 5th vote in a 5-4 decision. And his syllogisms, if in fact there are any other than to vote with the other conservatives, remain secret to most, as he writes very few analyses. We don’t even have a hint as to his reasoning, as he never even asks a question.
            But he has a right not to ask questions, right? And he has no duty under court rules to explain his decision, and, by the way, no duty to retire. George H W Bush knew these things, and he had a “right” to make his appointment.
            I look back to Reagan, whom the conservatives have essentially canonized, and recall his question of 1980: “Are you better off than you were four years ago?”
            I would be if I were a hedge fund manager. They make millions and pay only a 15% tax. Some people in and out of our government planned it that way; they were not comparing rights and duties. They put it into the revenue code because they could.
            Reagan said what he did more than four years ago, and I have not been better off still. In fact, if deficits are so important, why do not his idolaters think about the fact that he doubled the national debt during his tenure, and I don’t mean to compare a year-to-year deficit. I mean to say that before Reagan, it took the entire history of this country to accumulate $1trillion of debt; he did the next trillion in just eight years.
            In my way of thinking, the answer to the question is no, no, no, no and four times no. It has been so every four years. A better question is whether we are better off than our grandfathers and great-grandfathers. Looking back before two wars and several police actions and other undeclared non-wars, they were better off. That is easy to see: they paid little or no tax, the air was cleaner, the horse did not cost four dollars per gallon, and there was no fear that the Spanish-American War would be settled with an A-bomb on Puerto Rico.
            Of course, one could in those days die from a burst appendix. On the other hand, extending one’s life surgically and with a hospital stay of 10 days did not cause the loss of the farm.
            How does all this relate to moral imperatives? To be sure, I am no longer a member of a formal religion, but I admit to having been influenced by Christian ones, particularly the Catholic one. I attended Catholic grammar and high schools, and graduated from Loyola of the South. In the latter pursuit, I had four years of theology courses, in addition to several classes in philosophy. If there is any one teaching that stands out as a principle by which to live, it is embodied in the corporal works of mercy, a few of which are listed above.
            Strange. They sound like duties to me.
            This brings me to another list, similar in some ways. It is the list of spiritual works of mercy. Among others, they include: admonish sinners, instruct the ignorant, counsel the doubtful. There are others, but if you want to see how they work in practice, try out those first few on Fox News watchers.
            Don’t try it in a bar.