Wednesday, November 12, 2014
The American Nation
An interesting essay by Michael Konczal in Boston Review discussing three books, by Nicholas Parillo, Dana Goldstein and Radley Balko, and tying them all together.
Per Parillo, I never learned in my American history courses -- and I did take quite a bit -- that until the 19th Century, judges and government clerks and prosecutors and so on did not receive salaries. If you wanted your case heard, you had to pay the judge -- they worked on commission. Prosecutors were paid by the conviction. And if you wanted your homestead application or your deed processed, you had to pay the clerk, and he (always) could set his price. Really. Seems bizarre, but there was no idea of public service as a right of citizenship -- it was, by and large, for sale.
Per Goldstein, of course we didn't have universal public education for most of the country's history either, but as it began to come in, teachers had very low status. They gained more eventually, but now they are losing it again.
Balko discusses the militarization of the police, and the increasingly adversarial relationship between police and public, in recent decades. This kind of gets wedged into Knoczal's argument, because what he is really looking for are the civil forfeiture programs whereby police get to grab all kinds of cool stuff when they bust people, and the privatization of jails. We are also returning to the privatization of education, and of course rich people are buying judges and politicians.
The grand picture is that we are losing the consensus belief in national community that grew up in the 20th Century -- that all citizens have a stake in government and that government exists for the good of the people. Instead, whatever benefits government may offer are for sale to those who can afford them, while many services we used to depend on government to provide are no longer public goods at all. You get what you can pay for.
One would think this can only go so far before the civil order disintegrates. We shall see.