A More Perfect Union
“It can be said that establishing a universal and lasting peace constitutes not merely a part of the doctrine of right but rather the entire final end of the doctrine of right within the limits of reason alone.” – Immanuel Kant, Metaphysics of Morals
People rally to platforms that inspire them; that awaken their hearts to possibility, speak to their interests, and comfort their fears – so long as they are competently represented and communicated by plain speech. In Strategies for Opposing Trump’s Agenda, I stressed the importance of building such a platform rather than focusing excessively on criticism, as elections are better won, and more easily, by enthusiasm than by fear.
Today my purpose is to think through a few of the particulars of what such a platform might look like, and begin the longer process of sketching it out. I will focus on a vision of a just and equitable internationalism based on democratic norms, which strikes me as a much more desirable outcome than the chauvinistic nativism and unilateralism espoused by Mr. Trump and his ardent supporters.
Why have so many great minds of recent centuries, such as Goethe, Schiller, Kant, Humboldt, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Paine, Albert Einstein, and Martin Luther King – not just great thinkers, but great human beings – regarded openness and interchange with other nations of the world to be a general good?
It is not merely because of the enormous material benefits conferred by the easy, uninhibited flow of peoples, goods, and ideas across borders, great as that may be. But the deeper purpose is a commitment to the mutuality that dawns when many nations forge deep economic ties, and thereby bind themselves to a common destiny. In this we see a recognition of our common humanity reflected in the very fabric of our society, and that is something true and good.
Let us not forget that Europe, in the period of internationalism following World War II, has seen the longest uninterrupted peace in its recorded history. That is no mean achievement, and before we move to dismantle the political framework that has been an integral part of it, we must examine the problems that would move us to do so, and consider the best available solutions, with the utmost care.
In Europe and the United States, many people have become skeptical of globalization for two primary reasons. First, the great majority of persons have been systematically excluded from sharing in the benefits, and second, they increasingly feel out of control of the decisions being made by elites.
Attributing the economic woes of recent decades primarily to globalization is, I believe, a serious error, and retreating to a defensive posture of protectionism will not fix them. The underlying problem that I see is the failure of the global economic and political establishment to control exploding inequalities in wages and capital accumulations, and the failure to ground international cooperation in real democratic accountability. The elites who have managed globalization in the United States and Europe for the last few decades have been catastrophically indifferent to these effects – until now.
In the United States, as is well known, real wages have stagnated for decades across the board for every income group except the very wealthiest – the famous “1%,” or more accurately, the top .1% of income earners.
This economic stagnation has been exacerbated by the increased role of automation in displacing workers, and shocks such as the financial crisis of 2008. The situation is moderately better in Europe for income inequality, but wealth inequality remains extremely high.
Over the last 20 years, the EU has undergone a crisis of democratic legitimacy, because the mechanisms of economic union are strong, while the mechanisms of political union have remained weak. As the Harvard economist Kenneth Rogoff sardonically noted, “Europe is like a couple that wasn’t sure they wanted to get married, so they decided to just open a joint checking account and see how things went.”
In good times, the lack of strong democratic structures for establishing a legitimate, deliberated consensus among member states could be tolerated, but when Brussels, led by Germany and France, pushed southern states hard to adopt punishing austerity regimes as a condition for debt reduction, political tensions regarding the sovereign rights of member states have rightly exploded.
An analogous but not identical problem exists in the United States, where economic inequality is the outcome of policy decisions that are overwhelmingly monopolized by wealthy elites. In a much-cited 2014 study, for example, Gilens and Page found that “economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence.”
In the span of this blog post I wish only to achieve a cursory sketch of the problem, which I believe is deeply rooted in the crisis of democratic legitimacy and economic inequality, and to offer my thumbnail sketch of the solution, which consists, in essence, of working cooperatively toward a more perfect international union, in which conflict and trade can be mediated by nonviolent procedures and deliberation, enshrined in a basic concept of fundamental, universal human rights.
That requires progressive tax policies, reformed domestic and international political mechanisms, including the repeal of Citizens United and the establishment of a European constitutional congress with real power and real accountability to member-states, and working toward the establishment of a global tax on capital as a way – probably the only way – of combating the strategies commonly used by global corporations and wealthy individuals to circumvent their tax obligations.
I will look in greater detail at all of these proposals in future posts.