Are You a Guard?

In Chapter 24 of A People’s History of the United States, Howard Zinn writes:

In a highly developed society, the Establishment cannot survive without the obedience and loyalty of millions of people who are given small rewards to keep the system going: the soldiers and police, teachers and ministers, administrators and social workers, technicians and production workers, doctors, lawyers, nurses, transport and communications workers, garbage men and firemen. These people-the employed, the somewhat privileged-are drawn into alliance with the elite. They become the guards of the system, buffers between the upper and lower classes. If they stop obeying, the system falls.

This would be very insightful if Zinn wasn’t so hell bent on pushing a version of morality where the only moral society is one that shares everything in common.  There are very few real socialists and communists around because the failures of this philosophy are so great.  Few people are really looking for a worker’s paradise anymore. Very few people think that human nature is compatible with such philosophies.  Unfortunately, even though people know people are motivated by self-interest, the ideas of socialism and communism are still looked to as an ideal of what is actually fair.  Since we humans are so self-interested, it is up to our moral superiors, who understand that we must all share for justice to occur, to use the hammer of the state to beat us all into compliance.

They, the people I have called our moral superiors, don’t share Zinn’s vision.  Zinn sees the establishment and the elite using the central government to keep people from realizing a better way of life.  He sees starting at the local level as the solution.

The great problem would be to work out a way of accomplishing this without a centralized bureaucracy, using not the incentives of prison and punishment, but those incentives of cooperation which spring from natural human desires, which in the past have been used by the state in times of war, but also by social movements that gave hints of how people might behave in different conditions. Decisions would be made by small groups of people in their workplaces, their neighborhoods-a network of cooperatives, in communication with one another, a neighborly socialism avoiding the class hierarchies of capitalism and the harsh dictatorships that have taken the name “socialist.”

The current progressive/liberal thinking is that change must be top down, and that we need laws at the federal level to make sure people are treated fairly.  I like Zinn a whole lot better than these people, even if I don’t agree with his socialist vision.  These top down people, these big government people, they are the guards of the crony capitalist system that lefties and libertarians decry as unjust, even as we disagree as to why we believe the system is unjust.

An Educated Populace

My kids’ history book attributes this to Plato, “A democracy had to have an educated people in it.”  The authors left out that Plato didn’t really like democracy, but this book was written for young kids, and as such,  it can’t really go into detail about political philosophy.  The book is an overview, more or less.

Since it is just an overview, I was dismayed that it decided to explain why this dumbed down quote from Plato was correct.  The kids thought the explanation was ridiculous, that it didn’t make sense.  The book gave a silly tale of how a kid could be defrauded by not knowing the laws.  It put forth a scenario where an older kid told a younger, uneducated kid that on Wednesdays, young kids must turn their money over to older kids.  It had the younger kid willingly turn money over to the older kid because they were unaware that such a law didn’t exist.  My kids thought common sense would prevent the younger child from just rolling over when they didn’t know the laws.

I was pleased that they were so willing to poke holes into their history book.

I then poked my own hole.  I brought up how the Athenians had slaves.  For all their education, they could not see the inequity of slavery.  How could their education lead them to make good laws when their very society was based on slave labor?

One of the boys imagined a foreigner, from somewhere without slaves, entering the city.  He thought that the foreigner would be appalled by the vast acceptance of slavery.  I said that was an interesting thought.

If we count on the state to educate everyone so they can properly participate in government, what happens if the state teaches them to govern in a way that is not conducive to what is best for the populace?  What if the kids are taught that slavery is acceptable?

Howard Zinn writes in his book:

A People’s History of the United States, excerpt from Chapter 11

Joel Spring, in his book Education and the Rise of the Corporate State, says: “The development of a factory-like system in the nineteenth-century schoolroom was not accidental.”

This continued into the twentieth century, when William Bagley’s Classroom Management became a standard teacher training text, reprinted thirty times. Bagley said: “One who studies educational theory aright can see in the mechanical routine of the classroom the educative forces that are slowly transforming the child from a little savage into a creature of law and order, fit for the life of civilized society.”

It was in the middle and late nineteenth century that high schools developed as aids to the industrial system, that history was widely required in the curriculum to foster patriotism. Loyalty oaths, teacher certification, and the requirement of citizenship were introduced to control both the educational and the political quality of teachers.

Other authors have written on the public education system, and it is fairly well documented that it is used as system of control of the population.  Rage Against the Machine’s la Rocha raps about it in Take the Power Back:

The present curriculum
I put my fist in ’em
Eurocentric every last one of ’em
See right through the red, white and blue disguise
With lecture I puncture the structure of lies
Installed in our minds and attempting
To hold us back
We’ve got to take it back
Holes in our spirit causin’ tears and fears
One-sided stories for years and years and years
I’m inferior? Who’s inferior?
Yeah, we need to check the interior
Of the system that cares about only one culture

The public school system has repeatedly been used to train the public to accept various things. I imagine la Rocha and I have different complaints about what the schools train kids to think, but there may be some overlap there.  With Zinn, I think there is definitely some overlap because I have found many of his criticism of the crony capitalist state to be spot on, even if we would disagree on the way to resolve it.

I think there are a number of things that people would not accept unless they had grown up in a system that told them that not only is it okay, but it is the correct order of things.  Just as an average child would not give up their spending money to a trickster, average people wouldn’t be so willing to support state solutions for everything if it had not been inculcated in them from a young age that that was the way problems are best solved.  If you doubt that schools promote state solutions to problems, you may want to pay closer attention to what your child is learning and the kinds of questions they are answering at school.  Here is an actual question asked in biology at our local school:

Which of these is a way in which governments can protect ecosystems:

a. introducing invasive species

b. setting aside areas of public land

c. increasing fish harvests

d. cutting down forests

Notice that it is a given that it is the role of government to address a thing like protecting ecosystems.

Let us go back to the idea that a democracy needs an educated populace, and forget for a minute that we are supposed to have a republic with democratically elected representatives.  Does there really need to be an educated populace?  I am all for education.  I love it.  I love learning with my kids, I love learning on my own.  I can’t get enough of it.  I want everyone to love it, too.  I think everyone benefits from expanding their minds, expanding their knowledge.  The problem I see with education is when the state is the entity doing the educating.  The schools are too easy to co-opt by those with power to push their own agendas.

People on the left and the right all know this happens.  They are keenly aware of it when an agenda shows up in the schools that contradicts their own views.  Yet neither side would ever consider not having public education.  One of the main reasons given, especially by the left, is that we need an educated population because we are supposed to participate in government.  I say this is one of the many reasons the government shouldn’t be in the education business.  Only a certain set of ideas get put across to the kids, and it serves to keep the status quo going.

Education could and would happen if there wasn’t a public school system.  I’ve yet to convince anyone of this.  Countries much poorer than ours have private schools systems were most of the children are taught.  Suggesting that we don’t need public education is tantamount to condemning children to a life of poverty.  The bias is strong in favor of state school systems, even as people understand the power the school systems hold over the youth.

On the bright side, more and more people are pulling their kids out of public school to home school.  Less people hearing the agendas being pushed means more resistance to them.  It means more voices countering bad ideas.  Technology is making home schooling much easier for the average families, so I have high hopes this trend will continue.



In his book, A People’s History of the United States, Howard Zinn says that contracts always favor the rich at the expense of the poor and powerless.  Therefore, he thinks, that law simply to enforce contracts is not just since the contracts don’t originate in just conditions.

Zinn thinks the rich party always gains a better advantage than the poor counterpart.  I think this is demonstrably false.  I would argue that the poorer counterpart, in general, has more to gain.

Rich, poor, or middle class, people enter into contracts to improve their position in life.  There is no point to doing it, if gain is not expected.  The rich already have much, materially, so a contract with a poor person is going to typically only improve their position slightly.  A poor person, entering into a contract, has more to gain because they have less to begin with.  Proportionally, based on material measures, it is easy to see the poor person gains more.

On the other hand, the poor person also has more to lose. If he contracts to work for someone, and they terminate his contract, he no longer enjoys the proportionally large gains he was experiencing.  Should the poor person not fulfill his part of the contract, it won’t be that big of a hit to the rich person, since he is already well off materially.

In essence, comparatively, the poor has more to gain and more to lose by entering into a contract with a rich person.

So what does this have to do with law, contracts, and justice?

Contracts favor both parties, because neither would enter into the contract if they don’t see an advantage to doing so.  Value is subjective, and how each party values the contract is individual, and it cannot be objectified by an outside party like Howard Zinn.  His claim that the terms are always unjust fails in the face of subjective value.

We have to assume that both parties agreeing to a contract understand the ramifications of doing so, and what failing to uphold their part will mean for them.  They both understand that the rewards of the contract also come with risks should either party not be able to fulfill their part of the contract.  It is true, that man has a tendency to act on passion, and discount risks.  He may borrow money, in a zeal to improve his condition based on a market opportunity he sees.  He may not want to think about what it would mean for him should he not be able to repay the borrowed funds.  If he doesn’t consider that conditions beyond his control may lead to his inability to repay funds, that is not the fault of the lender.  The lender is still owed the money or the collateral put up.  That collateral was put up, should indicate to the borrower exactly what he is risking.  He should have a plan B, should conditions prohibit his plan A from succeeding.

Does this mean that there will be prudent men who don’t mortgage their farms to take advantage of market opportunities?  Sure.  Does it mean sometimes imprudent men gain great material advantage from accepting risk?  Sure.  It also means that imprudent men can lose everything because they accepted risk or that prudent men take a risk and they are prepared to deal with the repercussions should the risk not pay off.  People need to be treated like rational adults who can deal with the consequences of their decisions, even when the consequences are very serious.

This doesn’t mean the fallout isn’t sad.  It doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t feel sorry for them.  We have all made poor decisions that resulted in sad consequences.  If we can, we should do our best to help them in their time of need.

What we shouldn’t do is pretend that they are victims of an unjust order that always favors the rich.  The remedy to income disparity is leveling. and leveling makes everyone poorer.  Freedom permits the industrious to improve their position.  Freedom means that you should be free to enter into contracts.  Making the choice to enter a contract means you consent to the terms and the risks of noncompliance.  Freedom doesn’t mean that you can just take whatever risks you want and not have to deal with the consequences when the results don’t pan out like you hoped.

It is hard, because it is distressful when people have gotten into debt and lose their property, and livelihood as a result.  Who can listen to Rain on the Scarecrow without feeling dejected?  Feeling bad for people going through a hard time doesn’t mean that a system that enforces contracts is not just.

If people can’t expect that the terms of a contract will be upheld, then there is no justice.  A poor person would expect a rich person to make good on their promises.  If we are to be treated equally, then a rich person should expect that a poorer person should make good on their promises.  Imagine if only rich people were expected to uphold their side of a bargain, and the poorer counterparts would be exempted for various reasons.  The borrowing opportunities for those without much money would dry up, making it even harder for them to improve their material well being.  Therefore, contrary to what Howard Zinn asserts, not only is contract enforcement just, it actually helps encourage the conditions for poorer people to enhance their life.