Le jeu n’en vaut pas la chandelle

“The game is not worth the candle.” It’s a favorite phrase of mine; it says so much, so economically.

The last time I used it was well over a year ago.  The phrase is said to have originated with a French (hence the title of this post) writer, Michel de Montaigne, though the concept behind it is far older than the phrase itself.

The original point of the phrase, as I recall it, was in reference to an evening card game in which the value of the pot was less than the expense of a candle to provide light so the players could see the cards. Le jeu n’en vaut pas la chandelle.

Today, the phrase refers to an endeavor whose outcome is not worth the effort invested in achieving it or whose outcome will be worse than the present state of affairs.

When last I used the phrase, I was frustrated by this country’s political prospects and disillusioned with both major political parties.   Here’s what I wrote in September 2012, before the presidential election:

Though I have just enough hope left in me to vote for the Democratic candidate and wish for the best, I believe the outcome of the election will have few truly meaningful results. Sure, a Republican win will mean a sharp turn toward selfishness, imperialism, and class hatred, but a Democratic victory will mean that we will continue to slog through the porridge, making no appreciable progress toward tackling the real issues that face humankind, the environment, and every country on the planet.

I gave my support to the Democratic Party in the 2012 Presidential election, but I committed to abandon both major parties once the election was decided because I viewed both parties as corrupt, useless, and vile.  Unless the two major parties change, radically, between now and the next presidential election, I am sure I will be joined by many hundreds of thousands of others who will withhold their votes from the candidates of both parties.

In the interim, though, President Obama has three years to show me he’s the man I believed him to be when this country first elected him.  I am a realist, though; I do not expect that to happen.

By electing the government that exists today, a government with such a heterogeneous mix of political perspectives, I believe the American people have collectively tried to sent a message to the people they elected: “We do not want a government controlled by any single political perspective.  We demand that members of our government work TOGETHER to get the job done! ” The American people are tired of stalemate, tired of mindless political animosities, and tired of their elected representatives caring more for their own political careers than for the welfare of the country.  Yet by electing people with conflicting points of view, we did not achieve compromise; instead, we got stalemate and inaction.

I believe the American people, regardless of their political leanings, would very much like to eliminate the problem by throwing the bastards out.  If ballot boxes had been equipped with syringes filled with lethal cocktails that could be delivered to select candidates, the outcome of the last election might have been different. Today I look around at the political landscape and see what could have been the carcasses of rabid political animals.  But, instead, they have been kept alive thanks to extreme measures, probably involving powerful chemicals, dirty needles, and stolen money.   Regretfully, preemptive political euthanasia is illegal.

Today, more than a year after the election, I remain utterly disillusioned with the political machinery that continues to burn through what little humanity and integrity and practicality remain in our three branches of government.  I’ve come to the conclusion that my favorite phrase applies with respect to any support I may have considered giving to the Democratic Party. Why invest time, money, and even hope in a party whose only alignment with my principles is its vague assertion that it is “progressive?”  Its claims of progressivism are empty, hollow statements utterly disconnected to facts.  And, though I’ve never had much, philosophically, in common with the Republican Party, I tried to look at it to see if there may be kernels of logic and validity buried beneath the rotting fecal matter on its surface.

No, the Republican Party has gone off the rails with insanely loathsome attacks on people who dare express compassion for the less fortunate among us.  Not only that, the Party is attempting to starve the country into prosperity and lead us into goodness through religious bigotry, forced adherence to spiritual fantasy, and massive infusions of corporate welfare to the richest and meanest companies. On top of that, the Republican machinery is intent on transferring what little wealth remains in the middle class to the oligarchy that no longer even tries to hide its lust for money and power.

But the Democratic Party has gone off the rails just as badly with vapid promises of “looking out after the people” without even considering the social and economic costs of bungling everything it touches.  I’m not referring here just to the Affordable Care Act, about which I have reached an ugly conclusion (it’s bad to the core and can hardly be worse). I’m referring to efforts to buy its way out of a spiraling social and economic calamity.

I am the first one to say government (as in we, the people) has an obligation to provide a social safety net for people who are unable to look out after themselves, whether permanently or on a temporary basis.  But we MUST ask and attempt to answer this before running out and attempting to serve those in need: Where do “want” and “need” diverge in the context of a societal safety net?  Put another way, if society has an obligation to provide for those who cannot provide for themselves (as I believe it does), at what point does an individual’s inability to “provide” cross the threshold to warrant society (viz, government) stepping in? I would argue that there is, today, no truly satisfactory answer to those questions; and that lack of an answer requires a healthy assessment of the admixture of compassion and capability.

There are so many variables that a single response, or even a lengthy string of responses, cannot anticipate all the circumstances in which it is required that society step in. Conversely, there is no simple way to know when it is “time” for society to stop providing support.  Obviously, we cannot wait for the answer; we have to act, but act in ways that allow us to backtrack if we must. We must act when it is vital to act, but we must be prepared to require the individual benefitting from society’s assistance to participate in the process and not simply be a recipient.

The Republican Party insists it is fiscally responsible, yet its every effort seems not to be responsible but to be miserly and harsh to the majority of Americans (especially those in real need), while overly generous toward those for who generosity is utterly unwarranted and unneeded.  While Democratic mistakes can cost money and economic turmoil and general chaos, Republican mistakes can cost lives.  That, alone, is reason enough for me to loathe Democratic approaches a bit less; but I still find it utterly wrong to approach problems with the unreasonably positive attitude that money we don’t have can fix every problem.  If a doctor happily told me I’ll be just fine as soon as I get a transfusion when he knows full well there is no blood to be had, I’d be reasonably confident he belonged to the Democratic machine. If a doctor told me I need a transfusion, but it’s up to me to provide the blood that I should have been setting aside all along, I’d be confident she is part of the Republican oligarchy.

So, from my perspective, supporting either of the two main parties is fruitless: the game is not worth the candle.

What, then, am I to do?  If I can’t support either major party, shall I simply retreat into my shell, knowing I have no power to make change, or should I throw my support behind another political party that might have a chance of generating sufficient support in the coming months and years so as to actually get things done?

There are other options, of course.  I could focus my assessments not on the party, but on the person running for office.  I might be able to support a Democrat whose stances are more in line with mine and who is openly willing to challenge party doctrine.  I might be able to support a Republican under the same conditions.  But I would be concerned in both cases that the individuals have aligned themselves with parties that I have written off as corrupt, useless, bloated, greed-fueled beasts.

As I began trying to crystallize my thoughts about creating and/or supporting one or more alternatives to the Democratic and Republican Parties, I read the 2012 platforms of the Green Party, the Democratic Party, the Libertarian Party, the Republican Party, and the Socialist Party.

Before reaching any conclusions about which party(ies) to support, I believe it is necessary to clearly understand and articulate the proper and legitimate roles of government and how those roles come to be granted to government.  I need to comprehend, too, the nature of our Constitution and to understand what it says about the role of government.  Finally, I need to understand how each party views the roles of government and how each party justifies the view it holds of government’s roles.  Then, and only then, can I begin to formulate my support for one or more parties if, indeed, I can support any of them.

I’d done this before. When I did it again, I left the process with no more certainty than when I started it.

During the process of researching the various parties, I came to the conclusion that only by examining the platforms of the different parties can one surmise how they define the proper role of government.  I could find no explicit statements in any of the party platforms that clearly stated that party’s position on the role of government.  The party’s position on the role of government became obvious, if not absolutely clear, on reading its platforms, but I wondered whether the people who wrote the platforms actually gave any thought to the legitimate role of government while they were writing it. In fact, in some cases I wondered whether the fundamental role of government had ever been considered as the party drafted its platform.  I have come to believe some of the platforms were, indeed, written without sufficient consideration being given to the role of government and how that role intersects with the party’s platform.

As I learned during this process, I have not given sufficient thought to government’s role, though I had adopted a number of “positions” that I believed government should take.

One might think that someone of my age (60) would have long since clarified his beliefs about the role of government.  In my assessment of the parties to which I could conceivably throw my support in the future, though, I learned that I had long since clarified what I wanted my society to look like, but not what role government should play in achieving the objective.  And, during my assessment, I was deeply surprised at how my wishes for my society and my rational determination of the proper role of government frequently are at odds with one another.  In other words, many things I want in my society do not fall within the province of government as I have come to define that role.

I’m still not there; I don’t know whether any of the parties I mentioned above have it right. I don’t know whether any of them can count on my respect, much less my support, in the coming years.  I have not delved deeply enough to know whether the ones toward which I am leaning have truly practical approaches to dealing with economic realities.  And I may have to concede, ultimately, that my choice(s) may be among the lesser of many evils. Utopia does not yet seem to exist.

But I’ll share a secret.  Today, as of 11:38 a.m. Central, I am leaning toward the Socialist Party USA.  but a look at the organization’s principles reveals wishful outcomes that, in too many cases, offer no clear path toward achievement.  Here, for example, is a statement on Full Employment from the organization’s website:

Under welfare capitalism, a reserve pool of people is kept under-educated, under-skilled and unemployed, largely along racial and gender lines, to exert pressure on those who are employed and on organized labor. The employed pay for this knife that capitalism holds to their throats by being taxed to fund welfare programs to maintain the unemployed and their children. In this way the working class is divided against itself; those with jobs and those without are separated by resentment and fear. In socialism, full employment is realized for everyone who wants to work.

A lofty goal, reaching full employment.  And how is it achieved?  Ah, there’s the rub; if wishes were horses, we’d all have wings, as my wife is fond of saying! (I know it’s “if wishes were horses, beggars would ride;” I like hers better.)

In the final analysis, is my effort to try to understand the pros and cons of each party worthwhile?  Will it make any difference?

Is the game worth the candle?

Only time will tell.

About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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