A Constitutional Democracy or Feudal Capitalism?

By Eric Menhert

When I was in Law School my classmates used to tease me for being born two hundred years too late. They would tell me that my fixation on the constitutional ideal of America as a free and just society belonged to a different time. It was easy then for me to laugh and tell them that aside from the fact that my short stumpy legs would look terrible in knee britches, I thought that we were living the constitutional ideal in the here and now, and I had no desire to live in the past.

Since that time I have seen elections stolen, the public lied to by those who owe us a fiduciary responsibility, and our constitutional rights eradicated by presidential fiat. The compact which formed our ancestors’ earliest conception of what this nation could become is under attack. That attack has not been led by a foreign power, not by some crazed megalomaniac, but by our own government. It is not led by tanks and guns. It is an insidious erosion of the pillars of our society.

It makes no difference what faction one professes; the fact of the matter is that we share a common root: a belief in the social contract. The Reverend John Winthrop spoke to the early colonists on the world’s hope for America. As the colonists embarked on their voyage to create a new society he said:

"We must delight in each other’s conditions as our own; rejoice together, mourn together, labour and suffer together, always having before our eyes our commission and our community in the work ... [so] that men shall say of succeeding plantations; the Lord make it like that of New England for we must consider that we shall be as a City upon a Hill."

In his sermon to the scared colonists just setting out, the reverend gave voice to the concept of the social contract. The idea that we have a responsibility to one another and to our government and that, in turn, other members of our society and our government have a responsibility to us. It is that concept of the social contract which forms the foundation for our constitutional democracy. The alternative to a society based on the social contract is one which is based upon social Darwinism. An economic survival of the fittest, where those who have the greatest wealth have the greatest power.

The fundamental problem with social Darwinism, particularly in a capitalist democracy is that it always leads to an aristocracy, a select group of people who have more rights and privileges than others simply because of their material acquisitions.

"All power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority: still more when you superadd the tendency or the certainty of corruption by authority." — John Dalberg-Acton

The evil of an aristocracy is that in order to support itself, an aristocracy needs a servant class. Whether it be Imperial Rome or the Antebellum South, the ultimate fact remains, an aristocratic leisure class can only survive upon the backs of a servant class. In short, an aristocracy can only exist in a feudal society; it cannot exist in a free, fair and just society.

The tragedy of our time is the demise of our constitutional democracy and the rise of feudal capitalism in America.

In 1835 a Frenchman named Alexis de Tocqueville wrote of his travels through the young United States. He put his observations down in a book titled Democracy in America. De Tocqueville sought to explore the factors that made the American Revolution a success where the French Revolution had failed. America had become a constitutional democracy after its revolution where France sank back into the absolutism and tyranny of Napoleonic Era.

One of de Tocqueville’s most compelling findings was that everywhere he went, in each town he visited, he found a school. It was important, he concluded, to the establishment of a just and democratic society that its citizens be educated. By educated he meant not that the people could recite facts and figures, but rather that they could think critically and creatively. Education was about making connections and drawing conclusions. It created the foundation for the citizens of a society to participate in their governance in a reasoned and informed manner. It was the essential glue for the social contract.

De Tocqueville compared what he saw in American schools with what he had seen in France. In France, education for the general populace had been based on the apprentice system where one was trained to do a task. Individuals were not taught to explore their universe; instead they were trained, whether it be as a dressmaker, harness maker or clockmaker, to do a specific task and to do it well. Whatever the training entailed, it served a utilitarian purpose. There was no place for abstract thought or logical reasoning; those were left to the governing classes, the aristocracy.

Our current educational system has been redesigned by our government to create an aristocracy in this country. In the name of teacher accountability, our government has pushed the ill-titled No Child Left Behind Act upon us. The act grades teacher performance and pay upon how well students do on standardized tests. When performance and pay are measured by how well students do on a standardized test, teachers teach to the test, not to the student. In doing so, teachers abandon educating, abandon critical and creative thinking, for rote memorization and trained response to the test stimuli. Teachers no longer educate, they train. The training may be in higher functions, but it is training nonetheless.

If our children are not taught to think critically and creatively, if they are not taught logic and reasoning, they have no foundation upon which to base their participation in a constitutional democracy.

Perhaps the greatest irony of the No Child Left Behind Act is that those who crafted it do not send their children to the public schools where it applies. They send their children to private schools where performance is not measured on the response to standardized tests and where their children are taught to think critically and creatively. They are shaped to be the leaders of the country, the aristocracy, while the rest of our children are being trained to serve them.

Having trained our children to be servants, the current government also has set up the second precondition for a feudal society, a crushing debt burden. Most everyone I know believes that in Maine you pay for what you get. We live, by comparison with the Mid-Atlantic states, a hardscrabble life. But what we know is that each and every one of us falters at some time. We become ill, face a family crisis, or strain under some other unexpected burden which throws us into debt. We get knocked down, but we get up again and move forward. But we can only get back up when we get some relief from a crushing debt burden.

Our ancestors recognized the importance of debt relief and mandated that there be bankruptcy proceedings in our Constitution. If you fell, you could get back up and start fresh without a crushing debt burden weighing you down.

But that has all changed. It used to be that we had usury laws. Laws which limited how much interest banks and credit corporations could charge people. Those laws prohibited the charging of interest rates designed to keep a person in permanent penury. When coupled with the old bankruptcy laws which allowed discharge of all unsecured credit debt, the founders of our country established a society where an individual could not be tied to permanent service.

Now, there is no cap on interest rates. If an individual is as little as one day late with a payment, banks and credit corporations routinely increase the interest rate to 30 percent or higher and add on late charges. It takes very little for the credit supplier to discover that, because of the higher interest rate and late charges, individuals have exceeded their credit limit, which not surprisingly leads to yet another fee. These fees routinely exceed an interest rate of 50 percent. Loan sharks used to love a 50 percent interest rate because it was almost impossible to pay off and kept people in a state of permanent obligation.

Our government officials all voiced their indignation at the credit suppliers’ practices this Spring. They brought in banks and they brought in the credit card companies and publicly interrogated them about their practices, and then, nothing changed.

We were left with a system where individuals are almost predestined to fall into a cycle of crushing debt. That might be acceptable in a capitalist system if there were a safety net. If when the burden became so crushing individuals could shrug it off by filing for bankruptcy. Unfortunately, while our government seems incapable of taking the banks and credit card companies to task, it did find the time to amend the bankruptcy law so that individuals could no longer discharge their credit card debt.

In the space of eight years, the foundation our constitutional democracy, the very essence of who we are, has been undermined. Our current government has set in place the structures to train our children rather than to educate them. It has established a system where individuals are predestined to face crushing debt burdens. It is a regression toward a feudal system. Only instead of bringing our sheaves of wheat or bushels of apples to the Lord of the Manor, we turn over our paychecks to the corporate barons.

If we value our Constitution and our Bill of Rights, if we are true to the Founders’ principles and to the social contract, it is incumbent upon us to ensure that our children are taught to think and to reason and that we find a means to prevent the creation of a debtor society.