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Stacked Deck

Stacked Deck: A Story of Selfishness in America

Lawrence E. Mitchell
Copyright Date: 1998
Published by: Temple University Press
Pages: 264
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  • Book Info
    Stacked Deck
    Book Description:

    Americans for generations have been raised with the mantra that we can grow up to be anything we want to be, achieve anything we can imagine. How many of us believe the message? Dream big. It is a fundamental ideology of unbounded opportunity underscoring our drive to succeed. Yet for many Americans the reality, no matter how hard they try, is far from the visions of glory, the unattainable dream of rags to riches that leaves them feeling like failures.To understand this ideology and its effect on society, Lawrence E. Mitchell instructs us to look at the myth of individualism that pervades our laws, our social thought, our institutions, and our philosophies. It is the touchstone of our national debates on welfare reform, salary equity, FDA regulations, and a criminal defendant's right to a fair trial -- and it even infiltrates our private lives every time we argue about the division of household chores or television time. InStacked Deck, Mitchell shows us how this artificial reality buries the way we truly live.Mithcell uses examples drawn from history, politics, law, and culture to show how our singular concern with fairness has diminished our sense of vulnerability, so that our ideas of justice, equality, and efficiency are modeled on the capabilities of the strongest in society. Large scale examples -- such as blue collar layoffs and corporate downsizing, natural disasters and catastrophic illnesses -- illustrates the rickety bridge between comfort and disaster. We must be reminded that we are all vulnerable to the forces of economics, society, politics, and nature. Thus, Mitchell proposes, those who start out at the top tend to stay there, just as the weak tend to remain weak.Stacked Deckdoes more than outline this problem of American selfishness; it proposes a solution tha tis nothing less than a massive reconception of the way we relate to one another. Mitchell retains what is productive about the myth of the self-reliant individual, while asserting what is necessary to restore a sense of community. He suggests a sweeping intellectual recovery of fairness available to all levels of American society, thereby reclaiming our true sense of responsibility to others in society.

    eISBN: 978-1-4399-0617-0
    Subjects: Law, Political Science

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Series Editorʹs Foreword
    (pp. xi-xiv)
    Gary L. Francione

    This morning, I was watching a news program on one of the many, many channels that I receive courtesy of my satellite dish. During one half-hour period, the same commercial aired three times. It was plugging a financial newspaper aimed, it said, at those “who choose to succeed.”

    “Choose to succeed”?

    Who choosesnotto succeed?

    This simple question may seem simply apparent and wholly rhetorical. Unfortunately, a defining characteristic of modern American life is the myth of autonomy and selfreliance: that people somehow “choose” much of their lot in life in much the same way that one chooses one’s...

  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-9)

    The other night I told my ten-year-old son, who is an erratic sleeper, that his bedtime would be fixed at 9:30. His response: “That’s not fair.” So I convened a meeting. My wife, my son, and I sat down to discuss the issue. He argued for a later bedtime, and we listened patiently as he presented his case. We then took a vote. Surprise! The vote was two to one in favor of 9:30, with Alex dissenting.

    If we leave aside questions about parental responsibility, juvenile judgment, and the like, we all probably would agree that it was indeed unfair...

  6. 1 The Big Myth
    (pp. 10-28)

    “I hate quotations. Tell me what you know.” So insisted one of the most quotable of all American thinkers, Ralph Waldo Emerson. Despite this admonition, the history of American popular thought shows a progression from knowledge to quotation, from substance to sound bite. My concern in this book is notwhythis may have happened but its effect on our society in general and on our understanding of fairness in particular. For, as I will show, our increasing tendency to elevate rhetoric to the level of thought has profoundly affected our sense of our obligations to each other. The result...

  7. 2 The Myth’s Dark Underside
    (pp. 29-51)

    What’s wrong with our mythology? In the first place, as we have seen, it’s not entirely false. After all, hard work, talent, and discipline make a difference to those who start out with advantages. And they sometimes even make a difference to those who start with very little.

    More important, perhaps, is the way that the myth of American individualism and self-reliance creates a climate of hope. It provides us with goals to aim for and a sense that we can achieve them. We want to believe that if only we work hard, if we apply ourselves and make the...

  8. 3 The Myth Lives in the Law: Private Law
    (pp. 52-72)

    Law has many functions in our society. At its most basic, it helps to maintain order and keep the peace. Thomas Hobbes thought that in a lawless state of nature the rough physical and mental equality of most people would lead to a war of all against all. We would spend our short, miserable lives protecting ourselves and our property from everybody else and this would give us no time or incentive to improve upon the natural conditions of life—to create industry and comfort, arts and culture, or any of the other conditions we think make our lives worth...

  9. 4 The Myth Lives in the Law: Public Law
    (pp. 73-89)

    We have thus far focused on what has traditionally been called private law.¹ There are two principal reasons we have done so. The first is that our general philosophy governing personal relationships is one of free association. We develop relationships with those people with whom we choose to do so and on terms of our mutual agreement. The areas of the law we have examined involve these freely chosen relationships. When the law imposes obligations of fairness on such relationships, the contrast of that obligation with our normal freedom is likely to throw our ideas of fairness into high relief....

  10. 5 Liberal Philosophy’s Fundamental Mistake
    (pp. 90-116)

    Where you come out depends on where you start. As computer programmers know so well, “Garbage in, garbage out.” And pollsters (and law professors) know that the way you ask a question strongly influences, if it does not determine, the answer you get. To assess our understanding of fairness, we must first isolate our starting point.

    We saw in our examination of legal doctrine that the dominant value of autonomy strongly influences even those rules that are expressly designed to govern relationships in which at least one person’s autonomy is compromised. Even where the relationship, like marriage, is itself an...

  11. 6 Vulnerability: The Heart of the Matter
    (pp. 117-138)

    My family recently acquired a cat. We didn’t want a cat—far from it. I am terribly allergic to cats, and my son is asthmatic. In fact, I don’t even like cats. But several weeks ago, on a cold winter’s day, a cat appeared on the deck behind our house. Although she was wearing a flea collar, and thus clearly was not feral, she was dirty and looked scared. Indeed, she was very timid and walked away whenever one of us would go out to look after her. She walked with sort of a limp, and her tail appeared to...

  12. 7 Vulnerability and American Liberalism
    (pp. 139-157)

    Our intuitions are at odds with the underlying assumption of liberalism. And liberalism, with its grounding in autonomy, is, as we have seen, deeply embedded in our institutions, our language, and our consciousness. The result is that our intuitions, at least at some level, conflict with our institutions.

    This conflict, I suspect, is part of what lies at the heart of the talk about rootlessness and lack of values in our society. It is what has led us to favor selfishness and fostered much of the mean-spiritedness in recent political debate—imagine taking free lunches from needy children so that...

  13. 8 The Selfishness Surplus: A Matter of Choice
    (pp. 158-184)

    Bakers in late-nineteenth-century America faced dangerous and unhealthful working conditions. Evidence suggests that the work was strenuous and subjected the workers to occupational hazards and diseases that tended to shorten their life spans significantly. The New York legislature passed a law that prohibited employers from employing bakers to work more than ten hours a day or sixty hours a week.

    In the famous case ofLochner v. New York, the Supreme Court held that the law was unconstitutional.¹ Why? Because it unreasonably interfered not only with the employ employers’ liberty but with the liberty of the bakers to sell their...

  14. 9 Fairness and Games
    (pp. 185-193)

    There is another way of talking about fairness that I have only alluded to but not yet discussed. That is the way in which we draw our ideas of social, economic, and political fairness from the model presented by games. In Chapter Eight I said that, unlikeSupermarket Sweeps, American society was not a game. But I didn’t explain why.

    The distinction between American society and games is important. Fairness in games has provided many thinkers with their models of fairness. Rawls himself describes a principle of fair play that he draws from the idea of games. It is from...

  15. 10 Fairness, Trust, and Responsibility
    (pp. 194-210)

    Let us return to Alex and his bedtime. The point, you will recall, was that formal structures of fairness can conceal deep unfairness by replicating the intrinsic advantages one group has over another. We saw, and have seen throughout this book, that the systemic advantages given to and retained by some people can turn even the fairest processes and structures into situations of fundamental unfairness. We all can sympathize with Alex’s distress at losing a vote that was procedurally fair but was in fact rigged.

    Our contemporary ways of talking about fairness ensure that arguments like his will never win...

  16. Notes
    (pp. 211-230)
  17. Bibliography
    (pp. 231-244)
  18. Index
    (pp. 245-249)