The Road From Serfdom | The Atlantic

Source: The Road From Serfdom | The Atlantic, by Danielle Allen

The most urgent priority is addressing the corrosion of our democracy itself. If we don’t, we will lose the essence of the American experiment.

When Washington described public liberty as depending on the citizenry’s ability to ward off the despotism of faction, he was offering a profound insight: The precondition of democratic decision making is unity. … a process of mutual consultation—adjusting the interests of various parties in relation to one another—with the aim of achieving “consistent and wholesome plans” that could provide stability of direction over the long haul.

I keep coming back to Washington because his emphasis on collective accomplishment is the forgotten half of America’s constitutional ethos. We all remember what the Founders said about electoral procedures, about checks and balances, about the basic rights of citizens. We forget that all these elements were … supposed to be tools

We have shed the burden of compromise because politics has become factional. This state of affairs was epitomized by a statement from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell: “Winners make policy, and losers go home.”

As a measure of human flourishing, empowerment is more important than wealth. Wealth is merely one possible source of empowerment. It cannot buy what makes nations flourish: social cohesion, freedom, and healthy institutions. Social cohesion is created by cooperation, and cooperation occurs only if individuals have equal standing. The role of government is not to stay out of the way of markets. It is to secure the rights that undergird empowerment, cohesion, and participation. Securing these rights requires combatting monopolies. We understand what monopoly power means in the economic sense. But the issue of monopoly power applies to the political and social domains, too. Gerrymandered districts create monopolistic political power. Our current approach to education funding, which tightly links it to property taxes, has allowed the socioeconomically advantaged to establish a near-monopoly on genuine educational opportunities. People with money enjoy a position of privilege in the legal system. Corporations enjoy one when it comes to the quiet tweaking of bureaucracy and regulation. A proper role of government—nearly forgotten today, but the overriding concern of the Founders—is finding ways to prevent undue concentrations of power wherever they occur. Power tends toward self-perpetuation; where it is left undisturbed, it will draw further advantages to itself, shut out rivals, and mete out ever-bolder forms of injustice.

We have come to where we are over the course of decades, and getting someplace else will also take decades.

The way to start is by changing the policy agenda. Two issues should be at the top. The first is reviving our political system. We should direct our efforts powerfully and immediately toward what might be called “participation policy”—an umbrella term for measures and practices designed to increase the degree to which citizens vote and otherwise participate in self-government.

The second issue to put at the top of the agenda is the administration of justice. This is not about reviving the political system—it’s about reviving faith in the political system. Since the beginning of time, and around the globe, government’s first job has been to ensure that disputes and transgressions are justly dealt with. No government successfully secures the rights of the people—or maintains their allegiance—if it fails at the proper administration of justice.

We can debate the specifics. What matters is understanding the nature and scale of the task. Adjusting our directional slope so that it points a few degrees up rather than a few degrees down may seem unsatisfying—and, at the same time, a pipe dream. But small increments of change, multiplied by decades, are what put us where we are. They can also pull us out.

The challenges of participation and justice won’t be met by markets working independently of politics, and they won’t be met by the triumph of one faction over another. No great challenge can be met that way. As a nation, we have been called to be our best and most united selves by inspirational goals. The salvation of the democratic experiment must become such a goal.