Thursday, October 02, 2008

Law and Collective Responsibility

Tonight the PSU Law and Philosophy Society will meet to take up the question of collective responsibility for the current financial crisis. I regret I cannot attend the meeting set for 6:00 PM at Webster's Cafe on Allen Street. My role in collective responsibility for kids, dinner and laundry interfere with my freedom to sip coffee and talk about philosophical implications of just about anything.

If I could be there, I'd add to Plato's reflections, those of columnist George Will on the financial crisis appearing yesterday in the Washington Post and elsewhere. Will observes that "[w]e are waist deep in evasions because one cannot talk sense about the cultural roots of the financial crisis without transgressing this cardinal principle of politics: Never shall be heard a discouraging word about the public."

The public, he notes, typically admonishes government to run its budget the way households supposedly do, matching expenses with income. This time, though, the public decided "it would be jolly fun to budget the way the government does, hitching outlays to appetites." This time, it is painfully clear that all of us not-so-secretly delight in deficit spending, both for our household budgets and for our collective big one.

The usual populist riposte to government action, to contrast the virtue of the people with the vice of some unpopular minority, falls flat. The rhetoric that would in the past elevate the wisdom and thrift of Main Street above the greed and excesses of Wall Street belies the new truth that the folks on Main Street have been just as greedy and excessive. They bought real estate on speculation with borrowed money for more than they could afford. They knew exactly what they were doing. Now their only pretense at preserving virtue is the last defense of scoundrels, the devil made us do it.

This time, we are all in it together, the collective and the individual. The proposed legislation snaking through the House of Representatives today marks what may be a new era in our understanding of justice, freedom and the scope of government relative to individuals.

Best wishes Law and Philosophy Society. May the wisdom of the ages be with you.

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