Monday, May 18, 2009

Wal-Mart: The Enemy of Jeffersonianism

The essence of Jeffersonianism, in his own time and in ours, is individual freedom. The federal government should be empowered to do only that which it alone can do (i.e. foreign affairs and national defense), while state and local governments should handle those lower-level matters that the members of those respective communities decide are necessary (i.e. public education). Whenever possible, the people should not turn to the government at all, but work together cooperatively to achieve common goals. But the bottle line in everything must be individual freedom.

Jeffersonians talk a great deal, and rightly so, about unnecessary government infringements upon individual freedom. We talk rather less about corporate power, which poses at least as much danger to individual freedom as government, if not a greater one. And of all the corporations that threaten the Jeffersonian vision of America, none is more dangerous and more sinister than the retail and grocery giant Wal-Mart.

Wal-Mart is the world's largest corporation, with a massive share of the retail and grocery market in the United States and a strong presence overseas as well. Since its founder, Sam Walton, died in 1992, the company has steadily evolved into a monster that destroys local communities, tramples on the rights of its employees, and attempts to strangle the Jeffersonian dream of America.

Wal-Mart's modus operandi is simple, brutal and effective. It opens a store in a community, often a small town or a compact neighborhood. Because of the massive scale of its operations, its ruthless exploitation of foreign workers, and its disregard for such things as environmental quality, it can offer prices much below those of locally-owned independent businesses. When a Wal-Mart opens, locally-owned independent businesses are unable to compete and are gradually forced out of business. The old main streets of innumerable American small towns now stand empty and deserted, victims of Wal-Mart's greed.

The destruction of locally-owned independent businesses is far more than a simple economic matter. "Mom-and-Pop" hardware stores, retail establishments, and small grocers were once the backbone of communities across this nation. It is establishments like these which give communities their unique local characters; without them, every American community would look like every other American community, dominated by the same bland chain-stores. In destroying these locally-owned independent businesses, Wal-Mart is attacking the very heart and soul of America.

Wal-Mart also brutally exploits its own workers. Pay is minimal and the "benefits" provided are pathetic. Stories abound of workers being told that they would be fired if they didn't do hours of work off the clock, women subjected to regular sexual harassment, and even of Wal-Mart taking out massive life insurance policies on their workers without their knowledge or consent (literally making these workers worth more to Wal-Mart dead than alive).The way this business treats its own people is an affront to human dignity as well as to individual freedom.

Watch this powerful documentary, titled Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price. It was done by the outstanding documentary filmmaker Robert Greenwald, and should be watched by every Jeffersonian.

This is the kind of stuff that should make the blood boil in every 21st Century Jeffersonian. We should encourage our friends to boycott this monster of a corporate store and, if they attempt to move into our communities, we must fight to keep them out with every means at our disposal.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Gerrymandering Must Be Abolished

The principle of government in a republic is that the voters choose their legislators. In most of modern America, however, we are faced with the absurd reality that legislators choose their voters.

This is due to the process of partisan redistricting, also known as gerrymandering. Essentially, it involves the majority party in a legislative body deliberately drawing the lines of legislative districts in such a way as to maximize the number of districts their party will win and minimize the numbers of districts the opposition will win. In pursuit of partisan advantage, absurd district shapes are created, usually taking no account of such things as natural borders or keeping communities such as towns or cities within the same legislative district.

This is nothing new. During elections for the very first Congress in 1788, Patrick Henry tried to gerrymander James Madison out of a congressional seat. Indeed, the very term "gerrymander" comes from Elbridge Gerry, a contemporary of Jefferson who, as governor of Massachusetts, made the gerrymandering of his political enemies a standard policy for his tenure in office. But the fact that it has been done for a long time is no justification for its continuation, for gerrymandering is blatantly undemocratic and should be abolished as soon as possible.

Because of gerrymandering, the vast majority of congressional districts in America have become extremely skewed towards one of the two major political parties, usually by a ratio of around 70% to 30%. This means that if a person is unfortunate enough to be a Republican in a Democratic district or a Democrat in a Republican district, he or she has no real representation.

Another, even worse consequence of gerrymandering is that shockingly large number of representatives face no competition on election day. Since the minority party in a gerrymandered district sees little chance of victory, they often decide it's not worth the effort and resources and simply don't run a candidate at all. This means that the incumbent need not fear the judgment of the people, and can act in ways that would otherwise get him thrown out of office by his constituents. The easier it is for an incumbent to remain in office, the less attention he needs to pay to the wishes of his constituents, thus degrading the very principles of representative democracy.

Gerrymandering also contributes to voter apathy. Seeing the incumbent win reelection over and over again, citizens often see little or no value in casting their vote on election day. Why bother, when the outcome has already been settled by the gerrymandering process?

It is a commonplace practice for a member of a state legislature who is planning on running for Congress to use his influence to create a congressional district for himself, including the areas where his support is already the strongest. Thus he not only gains an unfair advantage over any candidate from the other party, but against any potential opposing candidate from his own party. While legal, it is still immoral and corrupt.

The essence of a Jeffersonian democracy is that the wishes of the people form the basis for the actions of the government. Through gerrymandering, however, partisan factions can achieve decisive political power even if the majority of the people do not want them to have it. Gerrymandering stifles political debate and allows incumbents to be free from the threat of defeat by their constituents. It should come as no surprise that well over 90% of Congressmen are reelected every two years, a fact which would have dismayed Jefferson.

Rather than allowing state legislatures to keep the power to draw congressional and state legislative districts, which will inevitably result in the continuation of the practice of gerrymandering, each state should have a nonpartisan committee of citizens to undertake the redrawing of district maps after each census. Legislation creating such commissions must include language to ensure that these commissions should be made up of citizens who are not elected officials, active supporters of elected officials, officials of any political party, or who otherwise have some personal advantage to gain by gerrymandering.

Twelve states, including Iowa, Arizona, and Washington, currently have such commissions functioning. It's no coincidence that their elections have become more competitive, resulting in greater attention paid by incumbents to the wishes of their constituents and more fruitful debate and discourse in their political campaigns.

Under the Constitution, Congress would have the authority to require the states to create independent redistricting commissions. Indeed, during the last Congress, House Resolution 1365 was proposed by Representative John Tanner (D-TN) and Representative Zach Wamp (R-TN), which would have done exactly that. However, it should come as no surprise that the bill went nowhere in Congress. After all, because the members of Congress are the ones who benefit from gerrymandering, how can we expect them to vote against their own individual interest?

It seems clear that, if any successful action is to be on the issue of gerrymandering, it must be done by the individual states. This presents obvious problem, due to the partisan divide currently splitting America. Consider the four largest states: California, Texas, New York, and Florida. If California and New York, which are dominated by Democrats, were to implement redistricting reform, it would be to the advantage of Republicans, whereas of Texas and Florida were to do so, it would be to the advantage of Democrats. Unless it was done everywhere at the same time, which seems extremely unlikely, one party or the other would gain an advantage, and this prospect would likely derail the entire process.

What must happen is a comprehensive grassroots efforts by Jeffersonian citizens to put enough pressure on their own state legislators to get them to get these bills passed. Twelve states have already done so, and as more follow suit momentum will be built to the point where it will be like a snowball rolling down a hill. If enough momentum is built, it can overcome the political inertia that holds the process back.

We, as citizens, must make this a priority, because until we do, the idea of a true Jeffersonian republic will remain a mere dream.

Monday, May 4, 2009

A Jeffersonian View of the Gay Marriage Debate

Jeffersonians believe that the role of government should be carefully limited, and that its primary functions are to preserve public order and protect citizens from harm. Government is merely one aspect of society, rather than the entirety of it. Government should have the power to do only that which society wants done and which government alone can do- that, and no more. As such, 21st Century Jeffersonians hold to the opinion that the government should have no opinion whatsoever in the current debate over gay marriage, as it is not the government's place to step into disputes about morality.

Of course, homosexuality was not something widely discussed in Jefferson's time. Everyone knew about it, but it was not considered proper to discuss it openly. The only policy decision Jefferson made in his life which has any bearing on the modern public debate about homosexuality was during his time as a Virginia state legislator, when he removed sodomy from the list of crimes for which a person could be subject to the death penalty.

Jeffersonians oppose laws that attempt to ban so-called "victimless crimes". If no one is harmed by an activity, how can that activity be considered a violation of the public order, or a threat to the security of a citizen? If a man marries a man, or a woman marries a woman, how does this action victimize me? How does it victimize the person reading this blog entry? It simply does not, and therefore it should be no business of the government. After all, it is not the government's job to regulate public morality.

Under the law, citizens have the right to enter into contracts with anyone they please. If the terms of the contract do not harm anyone and if they do not disturb the public order, they cannot be considered illegal. In terms of constitutional law, it seems perfectly obvious that any laws against gay marriage are an infringement on the right of citizens to enter into contracts with other citizens, and hence are unconstitutional on the face of it.

Thomas Jefferson would rightly see the present efforts by religious fundamentalists to politicize the cultural and religious debate about homosexual marriage as the efforts by demagogues to stir up public anger purely for partisan purposes. He would see through the antics of men like Pat Robertson and James Dobson within seconds, dismissing them as the monsters they are. They and their followers of the American equivalent of Saudi Arabia's Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice.

If Jefferson were alive today, he would keep his own personal opinions about gay marriage private, but he would oppose any efforts by state or national government to ban gay marriage as an unconstitutional assertion of power that the government does not have. From a Jeffersonian point of view, the government has no more right to regulate morality than it does to order citizens to support a particular football team.