Community and family at heart of civil society

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Having watched the first Republican panel of presidential contenders, it seemed that an evil villain is running our country.

They might have been talking about Syria’s Assad who “must go,” as they chanted about our own President. What happened to civility in public discourse?

Think about growing up in a so-called typical American family. As a baby, you contribute nothing to the household, while your parents work to feed you, invest in you because they chose to have you. Will they have a good return on their investment? Are they taking some risks? Will you repay them when they become old?

The notion that a civil society is based on some basic principles of mutual support gets lost all too often in public debates about budgets or entitlements. Even religious advocates of family values forget their own rhetoric when thinking about financial matters. What causes such amnesia? Why has the financial been divorced from the moral?

Adam Smith advocated a moral setting in our chosen communities, so that our commitment to our extended family would be practiced in our villages. As early as 1759 he posed the idea of Impartial Spectator that would observe our social and moral behavior, like a divine guide. Some think he talked about God. The Impartial Spectator ensured that our sentiments extended into the commons, the public sphere.

It’s only much later in 1776 that the same Adam Smith focused on the marketplace and coined the term Invisible Hand to describe how markets could operate freely with equal access to anyone who wanted to engage with others. The Invisible Hand could be invisible because an Impartial Spectator was already in place. When you build trust, as should be the case in family settings, business exchanges can be honest.

It’s with this in mind that Karl Marx a hundred years later proclaimed an old Christian principle found in Matthew 25: “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.” Whether under religious tutelage or that of political economists, it’s clear that to have a functioning marketplace we all need to be in it together, whether in Colorado Springs or the United States. A strong moral fabric is the foundation of business networks.

So, when our mayor (or any councilmember) wants to be “off the record” or not have public access to his Task Force meetings about Memorial hospital, he forgets that we care for and respect each other as if we are members of one extended family (without power-plays, guilt trips, or personal agendas). He may be the first among equals, but he still remains a citizen with one vote and one heart. The same goes for all politicians, Republican and Democrats alike.

Legitimate disagreements over ideas or policies do arise. In order to tease out the differences, we must ask for the principles that guided them, rather than the people who happen to advocate them. For example, when we discuss what part of the collective pie Defense budget or Social Security deserve to retain, we assume the pie is of a fixed size. If less revenue is collected through taxes and fees, the pie will shrink; if more, it’ll grow. As the Super Congressional Committee commences its deliberations, this issue should be addressed first, rather than some pledge about no tax increases.

Similarly, the size of the economy isn’t fixed, because it’s subject to market fluctuations and business cycles; the economy expands and retrenches under market conditions. To speak, then, of job growth in a vacuum as if all other variables remain constant is foolish. Right now adding jobs is in fact making up for lost jobs; as new jobs are added, some companies, like Bank of America, are announcing massive layoffs. Is anyone doing the math in DC?

Can a President really promise to expand the job market? Or is he catching up to the realities of corporate layoffs and hiring? Perhaps he should follow Governor Perry of Texas who rightfully claims to have contributed about 40 percent of all the new jobs the country added since the official end of the Great Recession in 2009. But since about 47 percent of Texas’ new jobs were government jobs, is this a model we should follow? It’s difficult to remain principled in this economy.

Perhaps we should lower the rhetorical volume and focus more on the changing realities of the marketplace, adapt as we go along, maintaining integrity and cordiality. Without the kindness of others, as consumers, employees, government clerks, police officers, bankers, and lawyers, no business could have ever succeeded. This lesson every helpless baby knows all too well.

Raphael Sassower is professor of philosophy at UCCS and is the author of Postcapitalism (2009). He can be reached at Previous articles can be found at