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Citizenship Sold

by ADAM WILLIAMS

In his book from early 2000, The Lexus and The Olive Tree, globalization bull-dog Thomas Friedman, amongst his other grand ideas like McDonald’s being the key to world peace, speculates that one day governments will run on a for-profit basis. Rather than privatizing education completely, they will hire other countries to run their education systems or lease out their own. This would effectively mean that newly appointed Education Secretary Spellings would act more as a CEO than national superintendent. While I find it more likely that the education system in the United States will be privatized out right than operate like a corporate consultant firm, Friedman does point out an interesting trend. Governments are being forced to act more like corporations. Business has been the business of government for quite sometime, but that line between business and government is becoming more obscured. Today, government is business.

In my home state of Indiana, our newly elected governor is a man named Mitch Daniels. Leaving his post as Bush’s director of the Office of Management and Budget in June 2003, he was effectively sent out of the beltway to oversee us Hoosiers. His time spent serving at the White House consisted of slashing all that could be slashed from an incredibly bloated Bush budget (Obviously, we are all suffering from his ineffectiveness there, as he failed to curb the largest federal deficit in history). Before accomplishing what amounts to the complete opposite of his goal of financial discipline in Washington, he served in the upper management of Eli Lilly and Company’s pharmaceutical operations from 1990-2001, chief executive of the ultra-rightwing Hudson Institute from 1987-1990, and director of the Overseas Private Investment Corporation in the 1980’s after leaving the Reagan administration. His agenda for Indiana today is financial weight loss (for the state, not businesses and his buddies). Cutting the fat from our state budget is his top priority. After all, since Bush took office, it has been steadily diminishing.

Like every other corporate Washington fat cat, Daniels plans to govern by introducing competition into government to make it more efficient. The idea is this: If free-market competition has worked so well for American business, why shouldn’t free-market competition work as well for government? Friedman’s ideas on globalization reflect this. Counties need to improve their credit ratings to attract business, because their people want free-market capitalism to come in and make them rich and happy, just like Americans. The “better” governments are, the more apt they are to receive foreign investment, and more investment means more material affluence. If governments act like good corporations, then they will be rewarded with investments – just like good corporations. While this line of reasoning is compelling (Efficiency, wealthy and happiness are good things, right?), it is nothing new and it is a dangerous framework for government.

Witnessing the end of the republic Rome, the great statesman and political philosopher Marcus Tullius Cicero became enthralled with the pen, writing almost constantly of the tragedy being acted out in his days. At the request of Marc Anthony, however, Cicero’s execution – and the subsequent public display of his severed head and hands – brought a quick end to his philosophical career. Fortunately though, he was able to complete many classics, which have now been in vogue for almost 2000 years. Machiavelli’s The Prince, as well as the work of many others, can and should be read as critical response to Cicero.

Despite the fact that Cicero held politics in the highest esteem, calling civic service a moral duty, his ideas may have led credence to some of your apolitical friend’s views. In one of his more popular works, On the Republic, he concludes that states are composed of individuals united by common interests and values. While that may sound grand and ideal, the implication he draws is that a band of robbers is just a small-scale state. Alexander the Great was simply a pirate, but with a fleet rather than a single ship. St. Augustine borrows this idea interest-composed-states in City of God, but subtracts that individuals in the same state necessarily share common values (Hence, Christians can be good Roman citizens, by sharing an interest in Rome though not sharing all the same values as their pagan neighbors). The interests that unite individuals into composing states are equally likely to be peace and prosperity or friendships as much as wanting a piece of the conquered pie. Cicero implies that the values one adheres to will be a product of these interests, while Augustine believes there is no necessary connection. The difference is between whether your interests alone will determine your values.

Under this definition of a state, we should think of Americans as consisting of one people united through their shared interest in US prosperity and concern for their families, friends, and fellow citizens. There is no implied social contract you invisibly sign after leaving the womb that makes you an America. It is merely the fact that you have an interest in considering yourself an American, and that the United States considers that interest valid. If the United States does not reciprocate an interest in you, however, you cannot be a citizen. For you to properly be a citizen, you and the state must share the same sentiment. You, your fellow citizens, and the state need not share all the same interests, just enough that all parties involved consider you a US citizen. For most of our lives, we generally just forget how contingent and immaterial citizenship really is.

A problem arises however, we when start to question the relationship between citizens, states, and each parties interests beyond national allegiance. People like Mitch Daniels and Thomas Friedman want the interests of governments to be more like the interests of corporations. Like Alexander the Great turning Greece into a giant band of robbers, Daniels and Friedman want to turn the United States into a giant for-profit organization. If an investment isn’t paying off, a good investor quits investing in it. Reagan (one of Daniels former employers) tried to follow this logic. For him and his buddies, the Environmental Protection Agency required a heavy investment, that rather than providing revenue, brought only more costs. So they continually lowered its budget trying to back out of their investment. The “No Child Left Behind” Act ­ a bi-partisan effort – is essentially enforcing the same policy. If a school fails, it gets its funding cut. This sounds like a great way of enforcing accountability, right? Well, sure, but at what costs (and by costs, I’m talking money anymore)?

I believe that without distorting his memory, I can use a quote from one Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speeches against the Vietnam War that describe these costs. “When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.” We can include sexism, classism and environmental destruction to the list. Cheney’s remarks acknowledge this reality of corporations before people, “Conservation may be a sign of personal virtue, but it is not a sufficient basis for a sound, comprehensive energy policy.” With government acting solely to facilitate the interests of corporations, restricting the impact of these ills will be a left to solely being a matter of personal virtue. Cheney is acutely aware that his pandering to corporations leaves only individuals efforts to combat the real political issues, the costs of profits. With profit-driven politics taking the place of real government mandates, the people are left to fend for themselves. But one person alone cannot stop this trend. To stop people like Cheney from selling our pristine wilderness to his oil buddies and Mitch Daniels from giving tax breaks to corporations while cutting funding education, we need organize as individuals to wield the lobbying strength of corporations. This is the only way to reseat the people’s interests in government before corporate interests. The ship’s captain who turns the vessel to pirating can be democratically and non-violently mutinied, if the crew organizes against him.
ADAM WILLIAMS studies Political Science and Philosophy at Indiana University, and works part-time as a computer programmer. He is currently finishing his senior honors thesis about Chomskyan nativism. He can be reached at: adjwilli@indiana.edu

 

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