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Nate Schwab WRIT 1301 Professor Williams October 12, 2010 Never Stop Questioning In the 1950s science fiction

novel Starship Troopers, Robert Heinlein offers a jarring take on what Americans consider their unalienable rights: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. As his mouthpiece character states, “What ‘right’ to life has a man who is drowning in the Pacific? Liberty … must be redeemed regularly with the blood of patriots or it always vanishes. I can ‘pursue happiness’ as long as my brain lives – but neither gods nor saints, wise men nor subtle drugs, can insure that I will catch it.” These unalienable rights illustrate just one example of a norm that has crept into society unchecked. Just because it is never debated or challenged, should it remain uncontested? Many of our cultural norms are simply accepted because they are just that, norms. Suppose someone comes up to you and states that possessing personal freedoms and liberties inevitably leads to a decreased standard of living. Your kneejerk reaction would likely be to argue for liberties; after all, this ideal has been in the realm of American cultural consciousness for over two hundred years. Moving beyond a strong sense of nationalism, however, one could make the argument that liberties corrupt. They allow for personal choice, which, like a capitalist economy, is chiefly motivated by the invisible hands of self-interest and greed. At their core, humans exist in a state of Hobbesian anarchy. It is only through a developed cultural consciousness that they learn to quell their Hobbesian tendencies, but liberties can effectively reverse this development by allowing for diversity of thought and action. It should be noted that the above argument doesn’t reflect my personal views; it was created to illustrate the fact that norms can, and should, be challenged. In 1993, the Clinton administration nominated Lani Guinier for assistant attorney general for civil rights. Guinier’s nominated was eventually pulled, largely due to nuanced differences in civil rights policies between Clinton and the law professor. Guinier embraced a concept called power sharing. As she put it, “The rules should reward those who win, but they must be acceptable to those who win.” Under power sharing, it would be easier to subtly subvert the concept of majority rule, a critical element of democracy. Clinton, on the other hand, supported the version of majority rule “where the winners can make the rules that allow them to keep winning indefinitely.” Democratic rule and its characteristics are strongly established as the norm. It’s hardwired into our culture that the winner takes all; just look at sports – the loser walks away with nothing. This is not a liberal vs. conservative issue; this is a cultural norm that transcends politics. Now imagine power sharing were to be put 1

into effect: “Voting would then not be a straightforward market competition between two competing brands, but a social process in which cultural factors – history, psychology, power relations, artistic output – would play a role in deciding how all the parties would treat one another.” In other words, there would be less of a gap of power between the winners and the losers; the losers’ ideas would not be exiled into oblivion, but shared and improved upon by working together, a notion altogether rare in this culture. Is this concept a threat to democracy? The traditional line of thinking, wrapped up in the status quo, would argue yes. Christopher Newfield argues that, had Guinier been appointed, this culture of compromise and sharing would have fostered an increase in intellectual resources and America would have progressed in the nineties. Certainly there are those that would argue power sharing undermines all the fundamentals of democracy and spells a definitive threat to America. These people would likely have an even larger issue with a challenge to capitalism, one of the most pervasive norms in the west. Capitalism has certainly done many positive things for America: it encourages an entrepreneurial spirit, it self-regulates, and it upholds personal liberties. The words “communism” and “socialism,” on the other hand, are typically uttered with disgust, and they hold a definitively dirty connotative meaning. One should take look at the facts, however, before giving into the knee-jerk reaction of revulsion. The People’s Republic of China is an authoritarian state (which goes against another American norm, but this is not where my argument is leading), as well as communist, and by most economists’ predictions is set to reach global economic hegemony anywhere from thirty to forty years from now. Robert Fogel cites strong investments in education, the continued role of the rural sector, smooth and easily-negotiated economic reforms, and (oddly enough) strong capitalist tendencies in this meteoric rise. This all comes full circle to my original superficial argument that liberties lead to corruption. Based on the facts, could one logically assume that taking away certain liberties (e.g. communism) leads to a more robust, super-economy? It is for this reason that norms should not be just taken at face value. Cultural consciousness exists for an important reason – to shape morality in an otherwise Hobbesian wilderness – but the status quo should be constantly questioned, regardless of how deeply ingrained it is within us. Regardless of the arguments I have posed in the above text, I am not explicitly advocating the breakdown of democracy, liberties, or capitalism. I am merely stating that other theories and methods have merit, too, and it would be a fool who would automatically reject them based on principle or some misguided sense of righteousness. Always question, never grow complacent.

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