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This is just a brief little philosophical stroll to show how an 18th century thinker and a 21st century Supreme Court justice combined to make my vote worthless, and how a thought experiment came to life in a way that is increasingly eroding the foundations of our already shaky representative democracy.

"The greatest good for the greatest number" is a common misquotation of the founding principle of Utilitarianism. Utilitarianism is an ethical theory that states that society (and people) should maximize "utility" -- commonly defined as increasing happiness and reducing suffering.

The purpose of modern government, however imperfect in execution, is to improve the lot of its citizens. In this sense utilitarianism is a generally accepted philosophy, and governments act in a utilitarian way, seeking to maximize utility (happiness of the citizenry), just as businesses seek to maximize profit.  In our representative democracy, citizens use their votes to elect representatives who will maximize utility for them, that is, congressmen who will represent their interests, and carry out a platform that works for the good of the nation.

While the founder of Utilitarianism, Jeremy Bentham, did indeed believe in the greatest happiness for the greatest number, his more famous follower, John Stuart Mill, was less of a populist, and redefined utility to remove quantity.

For instance, Mill felt that 'intellectual' pleasure should be rated more highly than 'animal' pleasure. Thus, education would have greater utility than fornication, and a college for the few should be more worthy of communal funding than a cock-fighting arena for the many.  Some philosophers actually tried to work out formulas for determining utility.  You can understand the reason for Mill's change in emphasis, but the loss of any consideration for that idea of "the greatest number" has brought us to the pass we are at today.  

In 1974, Libertarian philosopher Robert Nozick proposed a critique of Utilitarianism in which a hypothetical 'utility monster' derived more pleasure than anyone else from his actions, so much so that his pleasure would outweigh the sorrow felt by others over whatever damage or deprivation he caused. Forty years ago, this was only a thought experiment, but thanks to the Citizens United decision, the metaphor has taken on an ugly reality (as explained below the gewgaw).

Chindlifrässer Brünna,ogre eating babies, unrestrained capitalism
Children have a right to life so they can be eaten by the rich.

As previously noted, the concept of the utility monster is that its appetites are so great that it can consume the goods of everyone else and still be regarded as 'the common good'. This can certainly be regarded as a critique of unregulated capitalism ("What's good for GM is good for the nation"), but it is now a critique of our political system as well.

With the de jure conversion of money to speech, the 1% have made their money talk in a big way -- a monstrous way, in fact, especially on Capitol Hill. The old notions of voter fraud and buying votes have been eclipsed by buying Congressmen outright, by buying their regard, buying access to their offices and their social circles. Or just using excess funds to set up organizations that write special-interest legislation so Congressmen don't have to bother.  Even if the candidate I voted for is elected, the meaning of my vote is eclipsed by the presence of these ultra-rich utility monsters, who make their needs known in the voice of money, which drowns out the voices of millions. The entitlement of these utility monsters is the true entitlement: so great, as demonstrated by their donations and lobbying, that in the eyes of our representatives, the "needs" of the rich far outweigh the needs of their more numerous, poorer constituents.

Originally posted to fleisch on Sun Mar 16, 2014 at 04:56 PM PDT.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.


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