Sunday, April 15, 1990

John Locke Believed Wealth Must Benefit the Common Good

John Locke subscribed to the view that God gave man the earth and everything on it to use for his own benefit. Thus, our planet can be thought of as common property, belonging to all of us. However, since we all are distinct individuals, we have the right to property in one respect - we do own ourselves, and may enjoy whatever benefits our labors produce.

In Locke's view, private property is created when value is added to that which was formerly unimproved. Common property then becomes personal property. For example, if a man expends the time and energy needed to pick a bushel of apples, then the apples literally become his. They become something entirely new by virtue of being acting upon by his labor - no longer are they merely apples, but instead become apples that have been picked. However, there are limits to how much of the earth's riches one has the right to accumulate. According to Locke, "nothing was made by God for men to spoil or destroy" and therefore, one is prohibited from taking more than their fair share, i.e., more than it is possible to use.

Fundamentally, though, Locke feels that private ownership of property is justified. He extends his argument to land as well as to material possessions and goods, excluding, of course, land that has been set aside specifically by law as common property. In his opinion, the common welfare is not decreased, but increased when individuals labor to "till, plant, improve, cultivate, and use the product of" land that they lay claim to as their own. Land which is cultivated is more productive than land which is not.

Nowhere does Locke exhibit concern about there not being enough land for all individuals to use what they need. This is understandable, since when he was writing in the mid-seventeenth century, there was little need to worry about overpopulation or the earth having finite resources in danger of being used up. With this in mind, it is easy to see why Locke feels the size of a man's estate should not be subject to regulation, only that nothing should be allowed to perish uselessly while in one's possession. His conception of property properly put to use includes that which is bartered with others for mutually beneficial ends. Again, the important thing to remember is that acquired property must be put to use in order to benefit the common good.

Locke saw one of the main purposes of government to be the preservation and regulation of individuals' property rights within a society. He believed there were limits to how much a government could interfere with such property rights.

Locke's conception of property is radical because it justifies the accumulation of private property, yet realizes that it can only be beneficial to all if the wealth acquired by individuals is put to good use. If Locke were alive today, I think he would consider most of the wealthiest individuals in our society guilty of misusing their naturally given and socially sanctioned property rights, for two reasons. Firstly, because the sheer magnitude of their overconsumption approaches obscenity in comparison to the impoverished standards of living most people in the world are forced to suffer under every day. If some of the very rich today are not guilty of accumulating more than they need, then no one has ever done so, in the entire history of mankind. Secondly, because much of the wealth the truly rich acquire is not put to any use, but accumulated simply for the sake of accumulation.

I do not think that Locke would find fault only with the lifestyles of our country's very rich. Just as they enjoy a far greater share of our society's riches than most ordinary Americans, so do the rest of us live beyond our means compared to the rest of the world. We are no different in this respect than other late-twentieth century inhabitants of the industrialized nations. In some ways, the first world resembles a multi-tentacled cancer eating away at the planet, selfishly siphoning resources from other regions and peoples.

Overall, the standard of living our nation enjoys is extremely comfortable. What are we, as average wasteful Americans, to do? How can we change our consumptive habits in order that we might stop living at the expense of others we share our world with? The challenge is to get people to think more responsibly about the consumption choices we make in our everyday lives.

It is fast becoming clear that we can no longer afford to maintain the fast paced, cutting edge consumer lifestyles that characterize life in our society today. The many modern conveniences and technological advances that we have surrounded ourselves with - are they all truly necessary, or designed solely with manufacturers' profit-making in mind? Substantive change will only come about when people also bring pressure to bear upon corporations to adopt socially responsible production methods and market non-wasteful products. Then, and only then, will we inhabit a world in which property rights play a supporting role in treating our earth and our fellow men with the respect that both deserve.

Friday, April 6, 1990

Rafael Trujillo: Latin America's Worst Dictator

Rafael Trujillo, ruler of the Dominican Republic from 1930 until 1961, was very ingenious in maintaining his hold on power. His wide-ranging powers were constitutionally granted...that is, granted to him by a revised Dominican constitution and constitutional reforms that he himself had authored. In doing this, Trujillo always maintained a facade of constitutional legitimacy. His regime could more properly be called a tyranny than a true dictatorship.

He saw to it that his younger brother Hector and other cronies loyal to him were elected to the presidency during two intervals in his reign, while continuing to hold behind-the-scenes power, in order to create the impression that political competition existed in the Dominican Republic. Nepotism, in fact, was one of Trujillo's most identifiable characteristics. Dozens of his relatives occupied posts at every level of the government, or were granted controlling interests in major Dominican industries such as the media and sugar processing. He hoped his dynasty would live on forever, and groomed his oldest son "Ramfis" for the presidency almost from the day he was born in 1929. At the age of three, "Ramfis" was made a colonel in the army, and was only nine years old when promoted to the rank of brigadier general.

Extreme megalomania was another of Trujillo's traits. He granted himself a lengthy list of official titles, including "The Benefactor" and "His Excellency." He named provinces, villages, squares, the capital city, even mountaintops after himself. The degree to which he cultivated national worship of his greatness was rivaled in modern times only by that which Hitler and Stalin commanded.

His graft surely rivaled that of the Phillipines' Ferdinand Marcos. Trujillo's eventual fortune was estimated in 1961 to be $800 million. He reaped profits from the production of staples such as milk, meat, salt, and rice; from the domestic sale and export of goods such as sugar, tobacco and wood products, and exercised controlling interests in Dominican banking, insurance, and all media concerns. For most of Trujillo's reign, he felt bold enough to claim that the regular elections which kept returning he and his candidates to power were unanimous, with no dissenting votes at all cast. In the 1930 election, before he perfected his later election stealing techniques, he claimed to have been elected by more votes than there were people in the country at that time!

One of the methods he used most effectively to control the Dominican Republic's entire political system was requiring all legislators, judicial appointees and officials to submit their own signed resignations upon taking office, so that any one of them could be fired whenever Trujillo wished. Government turnover was incredible, with officials constantly being shuffled from one position to the next.

Immediately after World War Two, several Central and South American dictators fell from power (Ubico in Guatemala, Martinez in El Salvador). Trujillo feared that his reign could be next, and was very alarmed at stirrings of a Dominican labor movement. There was a week-long strike in the sugar fields in January, 1946 by workers demanding better conditions and pay.

In order to mislead international opinion into believing that his rule was benevolent, Trujillo relaxed his iron grip on power for a brief period. He allowed two opposition labor parties and even a small communist party to form in time for the 1947 elections. Votes were manipulated to elect one candidate from each of the two labor parties to congress, but of course Trujillo himself was overwhelmingly again elected president.

Following the elections, he cracked down hard on the small Communist party and a fledgling opposition student movement, but he did preserve some of the benefits granted to labor during this brief period. Like Peron in Argentina, he won support from workers because of this. Also like Peron, Trujillo set up a female branch of his ruling party. He encouraged a Dominican feminist movement in the early 1940's, granting women civil and political rights, including the right to vote, in hopes of ensuring new legions of electoral support for his regime.

His rule was maintained for as long as it was not because of massive repression but because he kept the country's living standards at subsistence levels, which ensured that mere survival, rather than demands for political participation, would be foremost in the minds of most Dominicans. By exercising the right to demand a sizable share of every economic activity/business enterprise in the country, Trujillo made certain that no one could make a living without demonstrating obedience to his regime.

All the same, the army, police force and security apparatus commanded by Trujillo was enormous. Political murders, tortures and disappearances occurred frequently enough to discourage any public opposition to Trujillo throughout most of the thirty years he remained in power. The gruesome murder of Jesus de Galindez in 1956 serves as proof of the brutality with which he dealt with his enemies and rivals. In closing, it seems clear to me that Trujillo truly was the most absolute, tyrannical, iron-fisted dictator that Latin America has ever known.

Source: The Era of Trujillo, Dominican Dictator (1973) by Jesus de Galindez (published posthumously)

Thursday, April 5, 1990

Forum aim turns to student power

"Forum aim turns to student power," Daily Tar Heel, 4/5/90


Student power in grass roots movements, not just student government reform, turned out to be the focus of a forum Wednesday intended to bring about better communication among student activists and to discuss possibilities for the future of a student coalition.

Brendan Mathews, a junior English major from Albany, N.Y., and one of the sponsors of the petition signed by more than 1,100 students in the Pit last Tuesday, opened the forum by reading a statement of his ideas about the problem he and his group wanted to address. "Last week's petition proved that there are lots of other students who are concerned, who see problems with the way things are, not just in Suite C, but on campus and beyond," he said. "We looked for some current issue that dramatized the loss of student power. Student government seemed the obvious choice."

Student government reform was not the sole purpose of the coalition that wrote the petition, Mathews said. Concerned students need to be unified, he said. "We all have different interests, but if we are to get what we want then we need to work together." The group first met two weeks ago, Mathews said, and got started by a few students making phone calls to get some people together to discuss concerns. "Now we want to get input from other people. We're still in the talking stage, trying to get some solid things going."

Brien Lewis, former SBP, said he misunderstood the purpose of the group that started the petition. "I thought the petition was going in a different direction than it apparently was. I saw the petition as being the direct result of people wanting to do something about problems with campus elections. "In a sense, this (reaction from students) is the best response, the kind of response that students and administrators need to see. The worst would be no response, if people were willing to just let things die."

Elizabeth Kolb, a freshman from Raleigh, said she was led to believe the petition and the group that wrote it were emphasizing the flaws of student government. "I came here tonight with the understanding that there would be discussion about how student government could improve." But Mathews said the group's purpose was to build unity among activists and to empower students, not to be an adversary of student government. "I think it's self-centered of you to think that student government is our only focus."

Emily Lawson, a freshman from Washington, D.C., said, "Student government is merely a symbol of dissatisfaction, and the petition served its purpose to alert people to one specific problem." Ericka Kurz, a junior from Middleton, Wis., said she wanted to form an organization that would be the base for many different activist groups. "This grass roots organization could have a complementary relationship to student government. But student government cannot tackle a lot of issues which such a group could."

Bill Hildebolt, student body president, said he thought the meeting had an overall positive result. "Although we didn't get very far today, a lot of people left there knowing where a lot of other people were coming from. A lot of promise was shown for future meetings." The group will hold its next meeting April 10 at 4 p.m. in the Union, and all students are welcome.

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