We address the British people as they consider their electoral decisions on December 12. We are not sure reason will prevent reactionary forces and folly from the inside and outside, from destroying our western democracies. And will our great western political-economic- government system, the product of the great confluence of events that resulted in the American Constitution of 1787 founder on the shoals of a ludicrous “Brexit” on the very shores that gave birth to modern democracy with the Magna Carta and the Declaration of Rights? We can only sound the warning.
By our writings, we hope to spur conversation about threats to democracy in Britain as well as in the rest of the Western democracies in this challenging age. Traditional ideological and political fault lines fall away amidst this new upheaval.
Human beings discovered, not long after they climbed out of the trees in Africa to cultivate the seemingly limitless savanna below, that they (we) could better achieve our ambitions if we cooperated with our fellow sentient beings. It was within a flash of time, at least within the context of the unlimited time and space of the cosmos, that mankind discovered that we could better achieve peace in society and channel our unlimited ambitions toward constructive development for society as a whole if we worked together.
The apotheosis of this development arguably occurred in 1787 when the United States brought to fruition a Constitution for the ages to satisfy the needs of a people who had floundered in their efforts to meld the conflicting geographical and social interests of a largely frontier society. The miraculous result was a mixed economic system that mixes capitalism and socialism by an elected government (“by the people and for the people”), where the people decide the mix. It was designed to allocate unlimited human ambition and limited (human, natural and capital) resources that have alternative uses into products and services that the society needed, wanted and could afford.
This creation mixed private business (capitalism), “the market”, whose motivation was personal profit, with the socialism suggested by provision for the general welfare, as fostered by a strong government sector. It was recognized that the economy ideally functions in several guises, that of a capitalist sector, that of a consumer sector, and finally that of the mass of voters.
It all added up to a functioning “allocation mechanism” whereby human, natural, and capital resources combined to produce needed products and services while mitigating negative social impacts that could be expected from maldistribution or environmental damage.
Businesses, in pursuant of profit, produce the products and services that society needs, wants, and can afford. Businesses also employ people for wages that allow wealth to be distributed widely in a constructive manner rather than leaving the masses to subsist on public welfare, and crime.
Miraculously, personal consumption helps to drive the economy in a virtuous circle as gainful employment increases. The government, as time has shown the need, regulates excess consumption and imbalances in the monetary picture through taxation and regulation. Without educated legislators, looking toward the future well-being of a people rather than to juiced consumption that threatens the overall stability of the system, we are doomed. We should ideally look to science and educated experience to reign in damaging developments such as a highly leveraged housing market as we witnessed in 2008, at which time the whole economy nearly capsized from know-nothing “unregulation.” Life is short and people have unlimited ambition and cravings, but if their chosen representatives simply encourage the party-making, the whole system goes belly up. We recall the old Danish proverb: “Would it not be good the day we can afford to live the way we do!” . Reality has a way of intruding upon wishful thinking.
Broadly the government’s responsibility is to levy taxes on personal income, using the proceeds to provide all the things that the private sector fails to provide, not because of any defect in the private sector’s social concern, but simply because the private sector is not responsible in a mixed economic system for the overall welfare of society nor should it be. Therefore, government’s most critical responsibility to society in a western democracy is to understand the “economy’s allocation mechanisms” and to regulate the economic free-for-all that would inevitably ensue, while making up for the lapses of private business in terms of providing necessary goods and services.
Organized into s three government branches, the elected representatives ( legislative), the executive, and the independent judicial branch. Each branch had both exclusive and shared responsibilities with the other branches, all designed to provide checks and balances to assure the continuation of prosperity for the vast majority. The government was charged, as a whole, with conducting a monetary system with an independent Central Bank (i.e. the Federal Reserve, the Bank of England, or the European Central Bank), to ensure that there was adequate liquidity in the economy to facilitate transactions between businesses and individuals, but also with guarantees for stored monetary capital resources, to assure the continued value of the currency and to facilitate commercial transactions.
Our democratic systems throughout the Western world bore more or less a resemblance to the American model for the next 200- plus years. There have certainly been stumbles along the way — wars, economic collapse, the advent of demagogues who would subvert the democratic spirit of the enterprise. But the remarkable thing is the resilience with which this model of government righted itself time after time, as prosperity increased throughout Western domains.
Of critical note, what happened in America as colonists started to revolt against Royal autocracy, became a new experiment in allocating society’s resources in order to secure broad social satisfaction and stability in society.
The pursuit of happiness that was so elegantly embodied in founding documents of the new Republic, was a vision of free people pursuing their own economic, religious, and intellectual dreams without hindrance from an unelected autocracy. In later years, as the country developed, the responsibility of the government for the “general welfare” began to flesh itself out, as ameliorative social and public works programs modified the unfettered private pursuit of profit that a more empty land, as a matter of economic necessity, encouraged in its citizens.
Leaping forward a few years to recent times wherein we observe parallel though varied political/economic systems taking shape across the European continent and throughout the Americas, a few notable characteristics define them all. Western democracies rely upon sustainable economies of viable private businesses and a government sector that facilitates the conditions for prosperity, including the rule of law, the development of public resources, and the maintenance of the general welfare.
Finally, and of equal importance with the other legs of the democratic stool, is the university and the right to free speech. The maintenance of a democratic society relies upon an educated electorate and a free flow of information vigorously discussed. Only under the auspices of a vibrant university sector can the historical rigor of human systems of advancement be fostered. Without education and wide exposition of the principles of democratic government to the mass of society, we are no more competent for democratic sustenance than a gaggle of school children on the playground. The law of the jungle gym is an apt metaphor for the ignorant politics that are currently subverting our western institutions.
We trust that the foregoing explains why our driving concern is “the global ethical responsibility of Universities”, and is the reason why we write and invite discussion. We are concerned for democracy because we are concerned about the conditions for humanity’s continuation as communities of civilized people. Universities must assume a great deal of responsibility for democratic failure. An uneducated public is, in the end, the cause of a mindless Brexit vote in Britain. ( We reference, as well, a 2015 letter to The Danish PM and German Chancellor. )
In our current paper, we simply offer an educated opinion from a Dane/Canadian and an American, both of whom recognize that the future of Europe hangs in the same balance as the American democratic system. The challenges that seem to be tearing us asunder reflect deterioration of the social discourse, thanks to an unregulated social media on the internet (why on earth can people convey the most outrageous and uneducated falsehoods on the internet, without having to identify themselves as the authors of this rot?), the diffusion of authority from educated and unbiased academics and journalists to denizens of the lower reaches of society in terms of their meagre educational and ethical underpinnings, and the consequent dumbing down of the standards for civilization, which venerable standards have been hundreds of years in constructive development. Torn away in a mere instant!
Both the United States and, today, the European Union are, at their essence, federal systems, whereby a central government exercises the authority over matters that affect an agglomeration of nations (or states) that have differing parochial interests, but which also share certain common interests. The crux of that division of authority between the Central government and the constituent states (or nations, as the case may be) has become more glaring in recent times as population pressures, economic divergences, and social and ethnic infighting threaten ruptures on both sides of the Atlantic.
The essential strength of the federalist idea is its adaptability to differing local concerns that surface inevitably in the course of a nation’s history. It relies, as well, on strong democratic underpinnings. That is implicit in its reliance on accurate soundings from the people and from local jurisdictions. Finally, in an economic sense, this system parcels out scarce resources of a society that have alternative and competing uses, by mixing private sector capitalism with what could be called government socialism inasmuch as government performs a redistributive function in order to ameliorate the excesses of unfettered capitalism. The society itself decides the proper mix through the power of representative democracy.
Such a system of government depends upon broad social satisfaction in society. And that satisfaction, in turn, depends upon economically sustainable businesses in pursuit of profit, which satisfaction cannot be achieved unless businesses produce the goods and services that the society wants and can afford. A happy side effect of business activity is that businesses employ people who would otherwise have to rely upon welfare or illicit activity to sustain themselves. State-run economies, on the other hand, lacking feedback from the consumer or the prowess of the entrepreneur who seeks his own profit, quickly run the whole state “enterprise” into the ground.
For those who never witnessed the absurdities of the Soviet economy, we ask them simply to imagine the absurdity of a shoe-making industry that produced during one period enough left shoes for the whole population but didn’t bother with the right shoes. The quota was met. That was all that mattered. A non-democratic command economy is a quick route to the poor house. When governments mix apples with pears, both rot. We can see in our own time how political expediency leads to government laxity in performing its proper regulatory functions, consequently failing society, as government climbs into bed with the private sector; witness the “illicit romance” between the FAA and Boeing, resulting in the Max 8 fiasco.
We can just now observe the corporate attempt to take over the currently virtually public “‘nonprofit” management and registration of the Internet. Such an important mode of social discourse, with implications for the continuance of free speech, which free societies must guarantee, cannot be parceled out to profit-making businesses who might just sell off our “free speech birthright” to an authoritarian country (China?) which gives not a whit for the survival of our democratic institutions.
Ultimately, a sustainable economy of viable private business, a competent government that recognizes its proper regulatory role, and an engaged populace that engages with its political leadership, results in a sustainable democracy.
None of this is possible without adherence to the strictures and guarantees of the Constitution. Academic freedom is also a necessity, as well as a vigorous educational sector that meets its crucial ethical responsibilities both to its own people and increasingly to global sustainability.
Engagement by the population is the key to government success. It will not occur in the absence of vibrant, socially-engaged discussion. Refer back, please, to the earlier discussion of our modern juvenile forms of social intercourse on the internet.
If a proper balance between government and the private sector can be maintained, and the government meets its responsibility early enough to prevent social dislocation, the ship of state sails on. Microsoft, Apple, and Google will never have this concern. They have private fish to fry, even if they equate their success with the public good (again, only to a degree). The balance of interests within the European Union shares a similarity with the balance of a democratic state.
Government failure is government failure, whether it occurs in a single country or in a conglomeration of states. The key factor of failure, in either case, is the loss on the part of the central authority of its calibrating fine touch upon its constituent forces; the result can be civil war, social or economic dislocation and division of other sorts, or perhaps even a phenomenon like Brexit, wherein a constituent state elects to sever its ties with the larger body and go its own way. This is a particular tragedy when such a separating state is in geographical contiguity with its federalized neighbors.
The European Union, of which Britain was a founding member, was an imperfect creation from the start. Britain never signed the Treaty of Rome in 1957 and first became a full member in 1973. But what it did represent was an acknowledgment that contiguous nations, with histories of bloody wars amongst themselves, might live in greater peace and prosperity if they joined together in a federalist union than if they continued to beggar one another through competing economic and military policies.
Modern-day Britain, very much a creation of Winston Churchill, with his broad-minded and optimistic fortitude, in the face of much greater forces of dissolution than currently threaten Britain, surely recognized that Britain’s future lay with Europe, not with some idealized go it alone British exclusivity, in the face of marauding authoritarianism on the continent.
Still extant, for many in Britain of more mature age, is the recollection of a deluded British Empire, facing Nazi Germany, thinking they could go it alone, only to fall back in reliance upon the mother-lode of modern democracy, the United States.
To paraphrase Martin Luther King, discussing racial divisions in the United States some years ago, we suggest that “Britain and Europe are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly”.
And our thoughts turn as well to General George Marshall, soldier and statesman who inspired the dictum of one of us way back in our own military days, namely that “the military can win battles, but only economics as a science and democracy can win lasting peace.” Winston Churchill lauded General Marshall as the “organizer of victory”. Where would Europe have been without General Marshall and his Marshall plan— the model for peace?
The British people would be well-advised to consider Marshall’s example as they ponder their upcoming elections. The immigration pressures that have bedeviled Europe in recent years, as well as the economic dislocations that have resulted from unfettered multi-national capitalism that favors the accumulation of money in fewer hands, oblivious to local needs or international borders, are certainly threats to British well-being, just as they are to French well-being and Italian well-being, etc., etc. , etc…. But the chintzy appeal of Brexit is its self-centeredness and withdrawal from historical reality.
Only more “global” solutions (think “European Union”) can grapple with such a multi-national calamity as internationalized capitalism is turning out to be. The nation-state is the only solution, and the bigger and more authoritative it is the better. Brexit thus represents a retrenchment from historical experience in Europe and will prove to be a tragedy of immense proportions.
We would be more confident that Britain had learned the lessons of the Marshall Plan if they chose to stick it out with the European pan-nationalist experiment and helped to devise “global” solutions to the immigration problem that was probably the impetus for the “drawing in” represented by the Brexit vote. The obvious solution to this problem is not to close the doors of Europe to the needy and impoverished of the world. The solution is to bring prosperity to the destroyed lands from which so many hopeless human beings emanate.
A Marshall Plan for the Middle East and Northern Africa to help the “tired and poor yearning to breathe free”, on their own soil? NATO and the European Union could do worse than to ponder that possibility. North America, Canada, the US, and Mexico might consider the same remedy for Central and South America. Treating symptoms doesn’t cure the disease. China tried the Great Wall of China approach, seeking to wall out the rest of the world — it didn’t work, and 2500 years later, the US tries the same measure.
Let us not mistake the reality that the immigrant refugee’s problems in North America, Europe, and elsewhere can obviously only be solved by solving the political and socioeconomic maladies that fuel or force people to leave their home countries. it is justified that society should inquire whether the modern-day politician is making his living off of the exploitation of adversity rather than from service to his constituents. Truly representative democracy gone off the rails.
There are many ways for politicians in western democratic representative governments to avoid their responsibilities. Thus we have the old standby outlet: “Refer it to a committee.” Or, God forbid, the ultimate cop-out: “Let’s have a referendum!” What occurred in the ill-conceived Brexit vote was an abomination in a representative and arguably constitutionally-driven republic such as Britain.
The finely tuned document that Adams, Franklin, and the other greats fashioned would never have countenanced the exercise in mob-rule in the face of Nigel Farage that the Brexit referendum exemplified. (Some have suggested over the years that if the United States called a referendum to repeal the rights to free speech and due process, that the public would vacate the most important provisions of our Constitution.) Now Britain argues that it is the captive of “popular will.” Perhaps their next trick will be the resurrection of Robespierre. Maybe some of the current “thought” leaders of Britain should brush up on their Edmund Burke. Or is he a tiresome relic of an irrelevant age of wisdom?
To particularize this discussion, and without wanting to introduce personalities into the mix to any great extent, we must, however, note that Boris Johnson, when in his childhood was asked what he wanted to become as an adult; he answered, revealingly, “King!”. It could explain why he seems more willing to consign Britain’s future to some kind of alliance with an autocratic leaning Donald Trump’s America. Perhaps he would trust Donald Trump to help an old woman to cross the street. We think that perhaps he should first ask the old woman whether she would trust Donald Trump to perform that task. It might sober up Mr. Johnson. Churchill, his idol, would never be so foolish. Nor should the British people be on December 12, 2019!
We can only sound the warning and invite discussion!
November 29, 2019
Kell Petersen and Gina Schrank