More than two centuries ago, Jeremy Bentham explained the virtues of moderation. If you cut off people’s heads for the most minor infraction, you encourage the petty thief to kill. Criminal sentencing needs to be graduated. Pure vengeance puts society more, not less, at risk.
Decades after the Rockefeller Drug Laws were past, we seem to have learned that lesson with regard to sentencing for minor drug crimes. But now apparently we need other villains whom we can punish without restraint.
One such villain we label sexual offenders. We make it almost impossible for an offender who has served his sentence to find a place to live or work, virtually guaranteeing that they will join the ranks of the underworld. They have no choice. And we label people sexual offenders whose crime was to open the pages of the wrong magazine. Our punishments are so out of proportion that finding ways for people to reintegrate into society, and live productive lives, is now a major issue.
Of course we don’t just do it with drug crimes and sexual offenders. Cigarettes are clearly bad for the health of all those who breathe the smoke. So we give ourselves the privilege of constantly heaping more restrictions. But it’s not OK to encourage a black market, with all their criminal trappings. And I’m not thrilled at turning on the Native Americans every time they get their hands on something that makes them any cash, casinos, now cigarettes, and saying sorry we want that. There is such a thing as going too far.
Of course the newest villain is BP. They certainly are blameworthy. But the pleasure at having a whipping boy is blinding too many people to the larger issues, the larger record of spills from off-shore wells and the transportation of petroleum by ships, trucks and pipes, and the larger record of global damage from hydrocarbons. No it’s not the case that heaping enough penalties on BP will solve our problems with off-shore drilling or any drilling for oil.
The larger issue seems to be that we have lost the politics of proportion. It’s all or nothing. The tea-party movement can’t think of anything worth paying taxes for or any government regulation worth having. Vocal business interests shout shrill slogans about squelching innovation – as if innovation was the same thing as good and didn’t also come as clothing for fraud, foul play and dangerous products. And no you can’t count on the fact that most people are decent because in too many areas of life, the bad drives out the good unless we have watchdogs who are able to stop it.
The tea party makes a tea party of the Constitution. They see a clarity to two century old text that just skips over all the complex questions of meaning and intention and how the founders and the Constitution they wrote adapts to new problems in new situations – and conclude that they wrote a Constitution designed to keep us in the 18th century and unable to adapt to the 21st or to govern ourselves democratically in response to our current problems and issues. It must be nice to see things so clearly, so simplistically, that the Founders would not recognize those who claim to be their accolytes.
All or nothing is easy. Good or bad. One or the other. Moderation takes more sophisticated thought. There are more things to think about. Problems aren’t so easy and answers aren’t so clear cut. But we have lost the politics of moderation. Some people call that moral clarity. But attaining clarity by driving blind is immoral. Woe be to us.