Merit is a lie. People may deserve a reward or punishment for their actions, but the reality of every situation is that the determination of the consequence is an oversimplification. Governor Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama’s ongoing debate about who built the American economy reflects this problem. Do individual business owners overcome enormous obstacles to create new enterprises? Certainly. Does government use tax revenues to make free enterprise more likely to succeed? Every day. Yet here the public stands – caught between Fox News and MSNBC views of the world that prevents the reconciliation of the debate and effective economic growth here in the United States and around the world.
In American history, the debate around slavery shows the persistence of this fallacy. Did Abraham Lincoln free enslaved African Americans? Or, did those African Americans free themselves, forcing Lincoln to draft the Emancipation Proclamation? Again, the answer is both. Black families’ escapes from southern plantations to the approaching Union Army made the issue of “contraband” — military use of human property held by the Confederacy — an issue that Lincoln could not ignore by 1862. Lincoln’s authority placed the military and political power of the United States behind this activity, legitimizing it and laying the foundation for the partial abolition of slavery in the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865.
Today, people must work harder to escape for these false arguments between arbitrary opinions. There are three areas where the efforts to revise intellectual standards have been especially difficult. In economics, we continue to use early twentieth century benchmarks to evaluate the relationships between supply, demand, gross domestic product, and national debt. In architecture, we imagine our buildings and roads as fixed and external boundaries of neighborhoods and businesses. In history, we revisit ancient narratives of religious conflict repeatedly to derive some sense of progress in the present.
Can we conceive a new civilization based on the boldest achievements of the twentieth century? Consider an economy based on the value of women’s work where Forbes magazine indexes the 500 most efficient and happy neighborhood consumer unions. Instead of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac relying on the old Federal Housing Administration categories of residential and commercial investment assessments, mixed-use, mixed-income, and multi-unit zoning would become the standard for urban transportation infrastructure. No longer would schools and landmarks emphasize the unique achievements of great individuals, instead favoring stories about how people with different perspectives and values have continually united together across time to produce each substantial advance in human rights for all.
These possibilities are the bounty of true democracy – an ideal larger than any single nation. Feminism must reinvent finance; negritude must reshape architecture; and ecumenism must forge a new history. Then, a new millennium for humanity will begin.