Ethics, government, and the economy

Should a human government follow the ethical principles described by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount? The answer, in a word, is, no.

Jesus calls his followers to love their enemies, to turn the other cheek and to go the extra mile, to forgive those who sin against them and do good to those who persecute them. But the government is established by God to protect its citizens, to punish those who do wrong, to uphold the law. Instead of forgiving the sinner, the government must punish the wrongdoer, “eye for eye and tooth for tooth,” rendering justice on behalf of all its people.

During the Baroque Era (or Enlightenment), European philosophers described human rights and said that governments exist to protect those rights. John Locke wrote about rights to life, liberty, and property. (Thomas Jefferson, writing the Declaration of Independence, would fudge the third right to “pursuit of happiness.”) Governments protect the rights of their citizens—they take life only from enemies who attack the country or from the worst of criminals who threaten the lives of others. Governments protect the liberty of their citizens, only depriving criminals of freedom, and then only for a term that fits the crime. Governments protect the property of their citizens. They may claim some property as fines for misdemeanors, other property as fees for services, other property as taxes, and still other property to provide services such as roads. In general, though, governments take no more than they must take from their citizens. When they become overbearing, when they stop respecting the rights of their citizens, the citizens are entitled to change their government, to find new leaders who will respect and protect their rights.

Philosophers spoke of a social contract between citizens and their government. Citizens agree among themselves what they want the government to do, and they use their property and their energy to help the government accomplish these goals. If citizens want public schools, they agree to pay taxes to support those schools, and they agree to send their children to those schools. For protection from foreign enemies and domestic criminals, citizens are willing to limit some of their own freedoms and property. For other services from the government, some citizens are willing to accept further limits. Among any group of citizens, a range of opinions will be found: some want the government to do more, and they are willing to pay more for those government services; others want to cede less to the government, and in return they are happy to receive fewer government services.

To some Americans (including Franklin Roosevelt and Bill Clinton), some problems are so big that only the government can address them. To other Americans (including Ronald Reagan), the government is the biggest problem and life improves when government is reduced and limited. Pure capitalism demands that the government not involve itself in the economy—capitalists say laissez-faire, leave it alone. Even Adam Smith in Wealth of Nations acknowledged that some government regulation is necessary for the good of all citizens. Under socialism, the government controls more aspects of its citizens’ lives; in return, it demands more property and restricts more freedom of those citizens. In a free market economy, the government regulates what must be regulated but leaves more freedom and more property in the hands of its citizens.

The question remains: which economic system is better for all the citizens of a nation: socialism, or a free market economy? J.

Can Trump be defeated?

CNN wants to be known as the child who observes that the emperor has no clothes. Instead, CNN is increasingly acting as the boy who called wolf. Every week we receive shrill warnings about the end of the Trump administration. Investigations will reveal terrible things that happened in the White House over the last two years, or that happened during the presidential campaign in 2016. Those who have left the administration have secrets to share, and those secrets will topple Trump’s government. Congress will Impeach him and convict him, or else he will resign before that happens. President Trump has no future.

So many Democrats believe this that those in Congress are prepared to open new investigations. They are eager to question every former Trump advisor and assistant. Meanwhile, dozens of Democrats are opening campaigns to run for President. Each of them is convinced that he or she is the one who can defeat Donald Trump in a one-on-one election. They are prepared to battle each other for that privilege. They are convinced that, by November 2020, the country will be so tired of Donald Trump that they will accept any replacement.

“Those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it.” Richard Nixon was very unpopular in the early months of 1971. Many people, even in the White House, assumed that Nixon would be a one-term President. This, of course, was before he visited China and the Soviet Union. More important, it was before George McGovern was nominated by the Democrats. Nixon won the electoral college votes of forty-nine states in one of the most one-sided elections in American history.

Ronald Reagan was unpopular in the early months of 1983. The country was still struggling from inflation and unemployment. Many blamed Reagan’s economic policies for the nation’s woes. But by the summer of 1984, the economy was strong again. This time the Democrats nominated the bland former Vice-President Walter Mondale, and Reagan repeated Nixon’s accomplishment of winning forty-nine states.

Bill Clinton was unpopular in the early months of 1995. The Republicans had just taken control of both houses of Congress. Clinton’s efforts to change the national health care system had been defeated. The White House appeared to be ready for a Republican to move in. But once again, a strong national economy and an uninspiring opponent gave the incumbent President a second term in the White House.

Democrats thought that the narrow election of George W. Bush would make it easy to defeat him four years later. They failed. Republicans thought they could make Barack Obama look like Jimmy Carter and limit him to a single term. They also failed. In the 1970s, due to the turmoil following the Vietnam War and Watergate, voters resisted the reelections of Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter. But Carter was largely overturned by the popular appeal of Ronald Reagan. The elder George Bush was held to a single term in spite of his popularity in early 1991. That popularity was due to victory in the Persian Gulf conflict, but by the end of 1992, the struggling postwar economy and the centrist policies of Bill Clinton denied President Bush his second term.

If, in the next fifteen months, the Democrats are able to identify a candidate with the personal charm and middle-of-the-road politics of Bill Clinton, they might remove Donald Trump from the White House. But if the voters in the Democratic primaries favor a left-wing candidate, they will lose the general election. If they choose the candidate who promises the most from government, the candidate who offers to tax the rich in order to take care of everyone else, Donald Trump will repeat Richard Nixon’s comeback of 1972. President Trump has positioned himself well to maintain his base. He can say that he has tried harder than any recent President (indeed, than any recent politician) to keep all his campaign promises. When he failed to deliver, it was not his fault. So long as Trump can point to a strong economy, to improved trade agreements with other countries, and to similar successes, he will have the support of enough voters to keep his job.

Congressional investigations and shrill news stories about suspected corruption will not overturn this presidency. Americans are already bored by these stories. We are ready to move on. So long as opposition to the President keeps playing the same tune, fewer and fewer American citizens will join them on the dance floor. History says so. And some people have forgotten to study their history. J.