Paul Nevins

Paul Nevins
Boston, Massachusetts, USA
October 29
Paul Nevins is the author of "The Politics of Selfishness: How John Locke’s Legacy Is Paralyzing America "(Greenwood /Praeger/ABC-CLIO). The central thesis of this important and unconventional work is that the United States has begun to experience a number of profound, interrelated problems that are caused, both directly and indirectly, by the country's dogmatic and often unconscious adherence, collectively as a political culture and individually as Americans, to the political philosophy of John Locke. That ideology, which is the bedrock upon which the American liberal democracy has been founded, asserts that human beings are by nature solitary, aggrandizing individuals. Hence, preoccupation with the self in all of its manifestations and attributes - as opposed to the whole, the public interest - has become the primary focus by which political, economic and societal decisions are made. Consequently, the preferred form of social and political relationships with others, including the state as the organized expression of political society, is solely contractual and is designed primarily to protect private property in all of its forms. "The Politics of Selfishness" provides compelling historic and contemporary evidence that U.S. institutions, at all levels, are failing because of the country's uncritical embrace of the anti-social individualism which is John Locke’s legacy. Paul Nevins has been a trial attorney in private practice since 1982. He concentrates in public and private sector employment law and litigation, related civil rights and constitutional law claims, and contract claims. Prior to becoming a lawyer, Paul Nevins taught in the Boston Public Schools. While teaching, Mr. Nevins served as a member of the Executive Board of the Boston Teachers Union, Local 66, AFT/AFL-CIO. Paul Nevins served as a conscript in the United States Army from 1968 to 1970. In 1969, he was a founder and the first chairman of GIs for Peace at Fort Bliss, Texas.This was the first organization of active duty soldiers who publicly opposed the Vietnam War. Mr. Nevins received an A.B. Degree from Suffolk University, a Master of Arts Degree from New York University, and a Juris Doctor Degree from Suffolk University Law School. He lives and works in Boston.


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FEBRUARY 25, 2013 10:03AM

The Death Throes of a Movement or a Cuture?

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                              cross-posted at

     The Boston Globe reported this past Saturday that Maine Governor Paul LePage has announced that his administration intends to reject the expansion of Medicaid provided for under the Affordable Health Care Act, and that existing coverage provided to more than 40,000 residents of Maine will be eliminated commencing at the end of this month. Among those affected will be the elderly poor, persons with disabilities, parents, and childless adults who have incomes well below the poverty line.


     In a remarkable and important headline story (“A Message To Maine: No To Heath Billions”), the Globe’s Jan Tracy reported that approximately 13% of the state’s Medicaid population will lose coverage despite the fact that they are a part of the same group that the Obama administration sought to insure through the Medicaid extension that was a part of the Affordable Health Care Act.

      In a January 28, 2013 letter to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, LePage stated that Maine’s previous Medicaid expansion prompted people “to drop their private insurance in favor of fee coverage at the expense of Mane taxpayers” and created “an addictive-like dependence on federal dollars.”

     LePage’s comments ignored that fact that Medicaid is a means-tested government benefit program. Eligibility depends upon whether a person’s income falls within a certain percentage of the federal poverty guidelines. In other words, only those people whom the state defines as “poor” can receive Medicaid benefits. By definition, those who are “poor” cannot afford to purchase private health insurance. Thus, LePage’s rhetoric unfairly demonizes the working poor, the children of the working poor, and the disabled by likening them to addicts.

     Maine is also the poorest state in New England. It has a low-wage economy – with a median income of $48,000 per annum - that Jan reports is dominated by tourism, fishing and lumber.

     The Globe’s reporter chronicled the plight of Louis Bourgoin, a sixty-nine year old retired shipyard worker who is currently undergoing treatment for cancer of the liver. Mr. Bourgoin told the reporter that he and his wife were about to lose thousands of dollars in Medicaid benefits beginning in March.

     Tracy Jan quotes Bourgoin as saying, “The government doesn’t care. It means we’re just not going to eat very much.” Katherine Bourgoin, his wife who is also 69 and a retired paper mill worker, said that she intended to forego cortisone shots and physical therapy for chronic back pain so that her husband might continue to receive chemotherapy to try to extend his life beyond the eighteen month period that a his physicians predict.

     Jan also described the plight of Jennifer Webb, a 35 year old mother of three and her husband, a former Army sergeant. Mrs. Webb had just completed ankle surgery that will require physical therapy after she is able to walk again in a month’s time. Her husband suffers from a traumatic brain injury and a post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of his having served two tours in Iraq. He had found a job installing metal roofs, but he was laid off one week before.

     Ms. Webb said that she understood why the Tea Party’s emphasized self-reliance. “My husband’s one of those people,” she is quoted as saying. “He’s an extremely conservative Republican who comes from a hard-working family. We were raised to stand up on our own and do what you have to do to survive, which we’re trying to do.”

     Jan also reported that earlier last week a telemarketer for a private insurance company called the Webbs. However, the sales person hung up after Mrs. Webb explained her family’s financial plight and inquired about the costs of various plans.

     In response to LePage’s decision, Jan’s quotes Sara Gagné-Holmes, the executive director of Maine Equal Justice Partners, “We’re using stereotypes, rhetoric, and ideology to create public policy and that’s always easier and resonates more than looking at the facts.”

     Governor LePage himself seems to have drawn the wrong lessons from his own hard-scrabble life. He grew up in a French-speaking family. At age eleven, after his father beat him and broke his nose, he ran away from home. Thereafter, he begged on the streets of Lewiston, and sought shelter wherever he could find it, including in horse stables and at a "strip joint" He survived by shining shoes, washing dishes at a café and by hauling boxes for a truck driver. He later worked at a rubber company, a meat-packing plant, and was a short order cook, and bartender.

     As a young man, LePage applied to Husson College in Bangor, but was initially denied admission. He scored poorly on the verbal section of the SAT because English was his second language. LePage has acknowledged that Peter Snowe – the first husband of U.S. Senator Olympia Snowe – gave him a critical leg up after Snowe persuaded Husson to give LePage a written exam in French. The results of that examination allowed LePage to demonstrate his comprehension and he was subsequently admitted. He graduated from Husson College with a Bachelor’s Degree, later earned a Master’s Degree in Business Administration from the University of Maine (a public, tax-payer supported institution), and became a successful businessman.

     LePage’s politics and those of his Tea Party supporters epitomize an austere and insensitive version that Gunnar Myrdal described as the “American Creed” - a paradoxical set of beliefs in which those who describe themselves as “conservatives” seek to protect and defend a radical form of individualism that first emerged in 17th century England. 

     The central tenets of that ideology to which most Americans still subscribe, albeit in less extreme versions, evolved out of liberal political philosophy of John Locke. Locke believed that human beings were by nature motivated by the singular concerns of the self, that utilitarian calculations formed the true basis of moral decision-making, and that the desire to possess things - the acquisition of   property - was the sine qua non of human aspirations. Locke also argued that the individual is the only concrete reality, that society is merely an aggregation of individuals, and that government is an artificial construct created solely by a contract among consenting parties.

     David Hume, through his essays about the importance of money and trade, Adam Smith, with his emphasis upon the role of markets as self-regulating entities, and David Ricardo, with his concept of comparative advantage, completed the edifice of what has now become this country’s political and economic orthodoxy.

     The problem is that here in the United States, Locke's political philosophy -  in stark contrast to the English experience - has been constructed upon a foundation that recognizes and envisions only solitary selves. Hence, a concept of the whole - the public interest - what we owe to one another as citizens - is largely missing from American public discourse.

     Whether the issue today is universal medical coverage, poverty, antiquated labor laws that harm workers and benefit employers, access to education, the need to rebuild our economy or the need to repair decaying infrastructure and to invest in research and development, the impediments– which are the legacy of Locke's politics --remain: parochialism, special interests, and, all too often, an inability to see beyond the refrain of "What's in it for me?"

     Among true believers today, this extreme version of anti-social individualism has been given free reign, unencumbered by the restraints, modifications and caveats to which it was subjected in England and in other European political systems. There the ties of the traditional society and medieval ideas that place an emphasis upon cooperation and the importance of community have not unraveled and they continue to inform and bind the political discourse.

     As a result, in Europe, Locke's individualism was given nuance and context; whereas in America, in the context of the political tabula rasa of the New World and the seemingly limitless expanse of “free land” that could be claimed by hard work, the self  has become the avatar.

     Although the frontier was declared closed by the end of the 19th century and a new industrial economy emerged, the mythology of self-reliance still lingers. As Christopher Hitchens once observed, “I have always found it quaint and rather touching that there is a movement [Libertarians] in the US that thinks Americans are not yet selfish enough.”

     Why then do so many Americans still subscribe to an ideology that no longer provide answers - or any meaningful policy prescriptions-  that can possibly begin to address this country’s real political and economic problems?

     Thomas Kuhn, in his epic work The Structure of Scientific Revolutions has provided a possible answer. Kuhn, a former historian of science at MIT, has described how the paradigms in which individuals live and work - what phenomenologists refer to as a “shared field of meaning” - continue to control the beliefs and behaviors of individuals long after the anomalies have overwhelmed the paradigm and long after the paradigms have ceased to explain what is actually happening in the real world. This holds true whether the issue at hand involves a scientific hypothesis or an economic theorem.

     As individuals and societies hold fast to beliefs that no longer explain or inform social reality, fear, anxiety and anger often mount. The death- throes of these ideas is resisted with a ferocity that overwhelms civility and rational political discourse. This, at least in part, explains the rise of the Tea Party and the emergence of truculent ideologues such as Governor LePage. 

     The Governor of Maine and the countless millions of Americans who share his political philosophy refuse to live in an evidence-based world. Their refusal to extend the same helping hand to their neighbors that they once received is inexcusably mean-spirited, profoundly short-sighted, and antithetical to any concept of social justice.

     Political cultures are governed by what the French often refer to as the “flux and reflux” - the ebb and flow of culture’s life cycle as it is nurtured by competing ideas. When cultures exhaust their collective ideas and fail to find new explanations for their politics, they stagnate and ultimately cease to exist. That is the fate that befell the Soviet Union as its population no longer accepted the tenets of a Marxist-Leninist ideology that excluded large segments of the population from meaningful participation in the civic life of their society and did little to improve their standard of living.

     In a similar vein, continued reliance upon the myths that the Tea Party endorses - and that are more broadly held by supporters of the GOP -- will provide little guidance for life in an ever more interrelated and interdependent world of the 21st century. Unless a new and more inclusive paradigm emerges, the American experiment will increasingly flounder. We will all be the poorer as a result.


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The far right, the tea party, the nut cases, all long for a world that no longer exists. Sometimes I think they must me the missing link and hope that they would not have been found. Their distaste for other human beings has led them to denigrate all that marks a progressive society. They have simply become NIHILISTS.

Lyn LeJeune, author of The Mended Circle, which, through historical fiction, praises our differences and the hard won progresses .... and it's also FREE on
Ironic, isn't it, that when used by historical illiterates who understand neither nuance nor context (as you say) John Locke's liberalism re-creates the very State of Nature his ideas were intended to lead men out of.

A little learning is a dangerous thing -- and so is quoting thinkers from 200 years ago without understanding the times in which those ideas were current.

One of my favorite lines comes from Lincoln when he talks about changing fashions in politics by noting how, by Lincoln's day, "small government" Jeffersonian Republicans and "big government" Hamiltonian Federalists were like two brawling drunks who woke up to find themselves in each others' clothing!

By the time of the Civil War, the "Hamiltonian" industrialists hated the idea of federal regulation while Jefferson spoke for the vulnerable individual confronting powers beyond his control. And so anyone today who associates Jefferson with the idea that "the government which governs best, governs least," must also account for the fact that the "government" of Jefferson's day was in fact a private corporation -- the East India Company -- whose commercial interests were backed up by the full power and glory of the British Empire under that system we call merchantilism.

Today, I feel quite certain Jefferson would be an enthusiastic participant in the Occupy Wall Street movement, if not the author of its manifestos!
What an interesting point of view! Guess I've gotta spend some time reading more of your work now. You do have a way of getting one's attention!

Very good post. older/exasperated
Lyn, I agree that many of these wing nuts have little concerns for other human beings or possess a moral compass but I think, also, that the exemplify what Marx would have described as "reification" - things that were created to guide and serve human needs - such as a worldview - are no longer subordinate to those needs but have become dominant and all-controlling, destroying the capacity of those so dominated to continue to grow and to mature . To use Plato's metaphor, they have lived in the cave for so long they can no longer see or appreciate the sunlight.

Ted, thank you. Your insights as always are invaluable. I enjoyed the comment abut Lincoln. I'm still uncertain about Jefferson though: great rhetoric, but there was little to show in his life that he would surrender his comforts if the price of doing what was right would compromise those comforts. I do agree, however, that there is little about today's plutocracy that Jefferson would have endorsed and, therefore, he probably would have at least authored the Occupy tracts.

toritto, of course you're right. Not all members of the GOP are
completely deranged.

skypixieo and older/exasperated, thank you for your kind words.
Nice piece., Paul. Interesting comments about Lincoln and Jefferson. I agree wholeheartedly Lincoln stands taller against the test of time than Jefferson, who famously declared, “Occasionally the tree of Liberty must be watered with the blood of Patriots and Tyrants.” One suspects, however, that the blood Jefferson had in mind was not his own.
Have you ever read Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations? One of his main premises is that the market isn't self regulating - that it only functions properly when the wealth elite exercises moral propriety in using their wealth to create employment rather than luxuries. When they fail to do so, he argues that governments need to intervene. He also writes eloquently about the blatant inequality between the associations of entrepreneurs who conspire to screw workers over and comparable associations of workers (i.e. unions). He's also scathingly critical of monopoly.
Dr. Stuart: In my book, at Chapter V, I have tried to place Smith in historic context. Smith was a complex and personally sympathetic person as his "Theory of Moral Sentiments" shows. However, he was a disciple of Locke.

He was responsible for the popularization of liberal economic theory. His "Wealth of Nations" - which strongly appealed to the merging British middle class - was a vigorous attack upon mercantilism. It argued for a "laissez-faire" policy by government which would enable men to pursue their own acquisitive instincts, subject only to the “invisible hand” of enlightened self-interest.

As was true of Hobbes and Locke, Adam Smith fervently believed that men were motivated not by altruism or a desire to do good deeds, but by their own self-interest: "It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that expect our dinner, but from their regard to their self-interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity, but to their self-love, and we never talk to them of our necessities, but of their advantages.

In his "Wealth of Nations," Smith insisted that the institution of private property was indispensable for law and order. "Civil government,” he wrote, “so far as it is instituted for the security of property, is in reality instituted for the defence of the rich against the poor, or of those who have some property against those who have none at all.”

In "The Wealth of Nations" Smith claimed to have divined an institutional mechanism that acted to reconcile the disruptive possibilities inherent in a blind obedience to the passions alone. He defined that protective mechanism as competition, an arrangement by which the passionate desire for bettering one’s condition—“a desire that comes with us from the womb, and never leaves us until we go into the grave”—serves a socially beneficial purpose by pitting one person’s drive for self-betterment against that of others.

The unintended outcome of this competitive struggle for self-betterment is the "invisible hand" regulating the economy.

Smith described how competition forces the prices of commodities down to their “natural” levels that corresponded to their costs of production. By inducing labor and capital to move from less to more profitable occupations or areas, the competition constantly restores prices to their “natural” levels despite short-run fluctuations. Smith explained that wages and rents and profits -the costs of production - are themselves subject to this same discipline of self-interest and competition - among workers, whose compensation was their wages; among landlords, for whom rents were their incomes rents; and among manufacturers, whose reward was their profits. Smith described this as the system of perfect liberty.

Smith endorsed a model of pure competition, an abstraction that does not exist in any real economy. I do not know how Smith would have reacted to today's oligopolies. The historical record shows that the once businesses become profitable, they promptly seek to insulate themselves against competition. Over time, as a result of their anti-competitive efforts, companies become bigger, more centralized, and competition withers. Whether Smith would support a vigorous effort by government to regulate businesses and the economy in the public interest - were he alive today - is an open question although at least in Scotland and England, as I noted, there has always remained a residual communitarianism - from the feudal tradition - that is absent from the U.S. Hence, by definition, libertarianism (17th and 18th century classical liberalism) has never gained a foothold in the U.K.
I have it on reliable authority that LePage is a huge fan of Texas governor Rick Perry…and this move was just made in an effort to make Perry look good.
It's interesting how different scholars interpret The Wealth of Nations differently. It's not terribly surprising, given the work was five volumes long, took years to complete and evolved over time. According to Laurence Dickey at the University of Wisconsin, Smith was arguing for "non-interventionism" in reaction to existing mercantalist policies (and monopolies - Smith hated monopolies, both of entrepreneurs and guilds interfering with free labor practices).

According to Dickey, there is no mention anywhere in any of the books of "the invisible hand." This was a concept devised by Harris, one of his contemporaries. Paul Samuelson, who popularized Adam Smith in the 60s, falsely attributed it to Adam Smith.

In both Books IV and V, Smith calls for direct government intervention in the machinations of the free market.

In Book IV, Smith calls for direct government intervention in “facilitating” investment in agriculture - a lot of Book I credits England's agricultural innovation for their domination over the rest of Europe..

Book V – is about social injustice and elaborates on the interventions Smith would allow the government to make in the affairs of society and economy. These fall mainly into 3 categories:

1) "To protect, as far as possible, every member of society from injustice or oppression from every other member of society."
2) "To maintain certain public works and institutions, which can never be for [the benefit of] certain individuals or groups of individuals."
3) Taking charge of educational institutions to provide moral up-lift – a culture of “frugality” throughout the society – in the name of social justice.

In Book IV, Smith also calls for direct government intervention in “facilitating” investment in agriculture.

Book V – is about social injustice and elaborates on the interventions Smith would allow the government to make in the affairs of society and economy. These fall mainly into two categories:

To protect, as far as possible, every member of society from injustice or oppression from every other member of society (His use of the word “oppression,” rather than “violence,” is interesting. From the context, it’s clear that Smith is referring to economic oppression and social injustice).
To maintain certain public works and institutions, “which can never be for [the benefit of] certain individuals or groups of individuals.” (Smith makes this argument on economic grounds – if you allow rich people to be the sole beneficiaries of public institutions, it becomes impossible to recoup the expense).

In Book IV, Smith also calls for direct government intervention in “facilitating” investment in agriculture.

Book V – is about social injustice and elaborates on the interventions Smith would allow the government to make in the affairs of society and economy. These fall mainly into two categories:

1) Ensuring justice in relations between the rich and poor.

2) Taking charge of educational institutions to provide moral up-lift – a culture of “frugality” throughout the society – in the name of social justice.
Sorry about the duplication of text in my comment - this seems to be some kind of OS glitch. It happened on my blog recently.
The worst thing for Maine is that the ACA funds medicaid expansion by cutting reimbursements to hospitals for free care to the uninsured patients who can't pay for their treatment. Currently, the federal government pays 2/3 of the cost. That's going to end AND, the state already owes the hospitals 156M$ for unpaid care.

I'm not so sure how much of it that LePage "holds fast to beliefs that no longer explain or inform social reality" and how much of it is that the political reality is that he can get substantial campaign contributions from wealthy out-of-state contributors who have a theory to test and not much concern about the probable fate of the guinea pigs it's tested on.

On the plus side, the state elections were a referendum on LePage's policies and the Democrats won decisively.