The more civilized and cultured we humans get, the more we tend to conflate means with ends.
For instance—the First Amendment was meant to as a means to ensure the ability for citizens to openly criticize other citizens and the government so that we could identify and address potential problems impairing the security and happiness of our Republic. Nowadays, First Amendment absolutists see the Amendment as the end itself and use it to protect all sorts of obscenity while ignoring or understating the societal pressures that often silence those who may have valid and important criticisms.
The legal codification of freedom of speech is worthless if a large portion of a society finds it impractical to speak freely. If well-funded political groups can, with impunity, conjure up artificial boycott and shaming campaigns against private citizens and if big tech companies can censor speech, while libertarian dweebs repeat the mindless mantra “they are a private company, they can do whatever they want,” we are not achieving the aims of the First Amendment.
Another example—welfare programs were meant to ensure that the poorest in our society had a safety net so they could bounce back from misfortunes. The goal was to return unfortunate citizens back to independence so that they could once again be productive and self-governing members of society. Nowadays, proponents of welfare programs mostly view them as wealth-transfer programs meant to provide perpetual care for less productive members of society. If there is any concern for the dignity of the citizen in need, it is buried under the presumption of his helplessness.
Putting aside the question of whether it is possible for the United States perpetually to lift its poorest citizens to an arbitrary standard of living that seems to rise each year, we certainly can agree that the material is not the only or the optimal outcome to be desired of welfare. It would be far better for our welfare programs to effectively return downtrodden citizens to a productive and meaningful life that makes them fit and functioning citizens instead of fostering a culture of dependence and perpetual servility to politically motivated patrons.
Yet another example—bureaucracies and civil service reforms were meant to ensure the efficient and impartial operation of the government so that the day-to-day operation of the government could not be unduly disrupted or corrupted by the strong alternating political tides that roil our country every couple of years. Nowadays, the bureaucracy has itself become a powerful political force that routinely uses institutional protections to stymie anyone who would question it.
When the formalities and endless pointless minutiae of public service ensure that only the most uncreative and boring people in our society decide to go into public service, we somewhere have gone terribly wrong.
To be part of the bureaucracy is to be happier to spend tens of millions of dollars investigating potential corruption amounting to tens of thousands of dollars than it is to spend tens of thousands of dollars in questionable ways if it means saving tens of millions of dollars. In other words, it is forfeit judgment and forego wisdom in favor of a stultifying rulebook (used selectively, of course, in only the most crass, venal, and self-interested ways).
None of this is surprising. As our politics have become increasingly fractious, our politicians and political pundits have appealed more to the aesthetics of our country than to its ambitious and ennobling goals. Even in the face of increased scrutiny, freedom of speech, social welfare, and institutional protections are still generally popular. Our culture has drilled the importance of these concepts deep into our minds, even as the society they were meant to bolster has slowly eroded.
And this brings me back to the question explicit in this article’s title.
Most Americans across the political spectrum will agree that democracy is as American as apple pie. Even those who wish to “fundamentally transform” the country and subvert our society continually appeal to the aesthetics of our founding principles. Politicians paint shining images of freedom and equality until both concepts can be lampooned as cartoonish caricatures—all the while thinking that they are fooling the American people.
But as the old adage goes: “You can fool all the people some of the time and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.”
And as elected Democrats and Republicans appear to gear up for an impeachment of the first president in decades who is more concerned with results than with the thin patina of democratic aesthetics, we must ask ourselves whether or not the democracy that we have is worth the political turmoil that the hucksters who have hijacked it have inflicted on our country.
Generation after generation of politicians on both sides of the aisle have gone to Washington to drain the swamp, clean the streets, and bring fiscal stability and growth for our citizens. Or so they have proclaimed. Generation after generation have disappointed us. Some have been bought off and corrupted. Other were simply lazy or incompetent. And for a while, we have been wealthy enough to indulge the continued downward trajectory of our society.
But after a while, we have to ask a simple question: is this working?
Now don’t get me wrong. I like the Republic that Benjamin Franklin challenged us to keep. It was an elegantly designed system that had a great deal of potential. But it has become increasingly corrupt. And it has become increasingly ineffective and bloated. And it has engendered an increasingly dangerous political climate. And perhaps it is time for a change, at least a change in the sense of pretending that we’re still living under that design.
Our form of government is not an end in itself. It was designed a means to securing the end which is the safety and happiness of the American people. And if those forms stops providing us with those ends and come instead to serve as stumbling blocks to reforming to realigning it, we should have no hesitation about making the necessary changes to those forms so we can secure those ends.