Spirit versus Letter
The Case for Ethical Restraint

__—— September 2020  What’s in a Word?  Media reports about the US Presidential elections are increasingly using the word ‘transactional’ to describe Donald Trump’s political attitude.  There is a chilling element of truth to that.  Trump dismisses all criticism or unflattering facts as fake news, so it’s hard to tell if ANY media reports are true or not.  Unfortunately, US politicians AND media outlets are now so incredibly partisan that public statements cannot be assumed unbiased.  Worse, the core support groups for the two main parties are so confused over what might or might not be true that they no longer care what the media says.  Whatever their party says is true is believed no matter what evidence contradicts that.  Then there is social media – ALL personal opinion, rarely fact at all – but always-fickle public opinion is grossly swayed one way, then another, by this potentially dangerous influence on society that ain’t going away.
Donald Trump, with no ability at traditional ‘Diplomacy’, behaves in an extremely undiplomatic way, using personal insults and character attacks like a TV Game-show host to deflect criticism and boost his personal image of authority.  ALL critics are derided and scorned, and he treats all political issues like business transactions.  Every transaction has a winner and a loser – and he must never be the loser.  The greater the loss for the loser, the greater the victory for the winner.  Transactions like international trade, arms or aid deals resulting in mutual benefit are dismissed as just weak negotiations and profit-making failures.  The other main problem is an accumulated one...  the stale, outdated nature of many laws in the USA.  They CANNOT be updated, since the complete partisanship between political parties means that no party can accept laws enacted by another, no matter how good or bad the laws might be.  Nor can they agree to enact new laws for the greater good if that means endorsing even the tiniest elements of opposing political ideology.
Most people would accept ‘ordinary’ capitalism as the backbone of all business and an essential element of any economy.  But ‘unrestrained’ capitalism – regarding greed and disregard for social ethics or responsibility as perfectly normal, acceptable parts of generating wealth – is firmly entrenched and protected by laws and constitutional rights.  Many of those rights may have made good sense several centuries ago but their legacy today rests entirely on the words used.  Those ancient legal words were written with no knowledge of future technical or social changes, so of course they have become outdated.  They have been challenged many times, but interpreted so literally and defended so ferociously that they now make no sense at all in a modern context.
Current economic dogma defining what we now call Capitalism was formed as a direct result of the Industrial Revolution, in the late 18th Century.  The focus then was on taking economic power out of the hands of Aristocrats and land-owners (social power and wealth by inheritance), and giving it to Entrepeneurs and Industrialists (social power and wealth by trade).  In our post-industrial age, the ‘Traders’ definitely hold the reins!
Whether from the political left or the right, politicians always try to structure economic activities to best suit their own ideological interests.  Communists on the left direct all economic power to the ruling elite ‘for the common good’ (that doesn’t work) while racial extremists or Fascists on the right want all power in the hands of the business elite, relying on ‘trickle-down’ wealth to flow to the masses (that doesn’t work, either).  They fiercely defend unrestrained capitalism, believing that those not actively supporting unrestrained transactions are just trouble-makers, losers, a dead weight on society, to be treated with contempt.  Donald Trump is definitely a supporter of ‘Capital C’ Capitalism and authoritarian rule with less individual rights.  NO form of ethical restraint is acceptable.  At the macroeconomic level (nation-level), that would be dismissed as ‘socialist propaganda’ – a communist plot.  Ethical restraints at the microeconomic level (business or corporate-level) would hamper entrepeneurial transactions or opportunistic profit-making, so would be equally resisted.
__—— Legal Words:  Lawyers cannot agree on the precise meaning of the words used in ancient laws and rights.  Politicians will not accept criticism of decisions based on ideology, which they regard as set in stone for eternity.  Anyone criticizing them MUST be a political enemy, to be attacked.  We all live in a rapidly changing world with technology making sweeping changes to daily activities for most people and creating a much more globalized world than ever previously possible.  Laws and regulations fall out of step with rapidly changing social standards or technical possibilities much quicker than ever before.  That gap between social need and relevant legal or regulatory control has always existed, but it is rapidly widening.  There is a need for a kind of ‘Relevance Life-span’ for every law or regulation because it WILL go stale as social and technical circumstances change over time.  One way to do that is to separate the ‘letter’ of every law from its ‘spirit’ – because the letter WILL be interpreted differently over time by lawyers representing different political ideologies, but the spirit can’t be.
Nowhere is this more blatantly obvious than in religious belief.  Whole societies based on religious doctrine that is now so OLD it is no longer relevant to current realities.  But large numbers of people insisting that faith demands treating historical beliefs and traditions as literally true (the letter of the law) rather than symbolically true (the spirit of the law) stifles social change.  Upholding long-held ‘truths’ – for which there is no proof one way or the other – becomes more important than adapting to new realities.  Charles Darwin had some firm ideas about that.
Another classic example is the disaster of American gun laws, allowing individuals to own and use military-style weapons from hand-guns to rocket launchers, completely beyond the imagination of those drafting the Constitution or its infamous Second Amendment.  The intent of that right originally had nothing to do with citizens’ individual freedoms, but the exact wording of the US Constitution is, by today’s standards, hopelessly vague.  Will those laws ever be tightened?  Not a chance.  That’s a Constitutional Right!  A divine judgment and sacrocanct for eternity.
All laws and regulations should include a premise stating the ‘intent’ of the law in simple language, so that the barrier between ideological belief and social need can be clearly judged.  Historical relevance might be legally reviewed instead of continuing to apply the precise letter of the law to situations that it was never intended to regulate.  Many of the problems associated with rapid social change could be avoided if outdated laws and regulations were routinely updated.  This is especially important for Constitutional Rights – the very laws that are almost NEVER updated.