It is the nature of evil to overreach.


     It cannot help itself.


     This is why, even though justice’s arc is so often too long, justice does, inevitably, dawn. Evil is defeated, justice endures. And the overreach, so often, is in the service of nothing more interesting or special than simple greed. Yet greed always undermines evil, creates unintended, untenable consequences, and justice triumphs. I have in mind several seemingly disparate, yet fundamentally connected, American incarnations of the phenomenon. 

     We’ve front row seats right now as we watch the House majority vote, in effect, to end Medicare, signaling its intent to reverse the New Deal guarantees to the elderly and the poor. I’m clear-as-a-bell that this unprecedented overreach by those enthrall to insurance conglomerates will ultimately fail. Its demise won’t simply be that the Senate won’t now further it. Its failure will be that of the party itself when voters recoil from the idea that the people they elected last year would force them in ten years to pay out-of-pocket for their aging parents’, and later, in their own last years, their own medical care.

Raw ideology can be a moral stigmatism.

Raw ideology in the service of greed is blinding and the blind never see what’s coming.

     While most other Western nations have long since thrown over capital punishment, it is in increasing disarray here. The thirty-five states yet clinging to the death penalty like starving mutts to rotten meat have been running out of the poisons that do the dirty business. State governments and the pharmaceutical industry, largely to save and profit on labor, have depended primarily on non-union overseas manufacture and transport of the five main drugs used in lethal injections. That decision has, in delicious irony, proved deadly for capital punishment. With those drugs already in short supply, India and Britain have stopped exporting them and Britain has strongly urged the European Union to follow suit. In itself, this won’t kill the death penalty but it will save lives; states cannot easily return to electrocutions, firing squads, and hangings. Re-tooling would take far more than simple procedural shifts. Legislatures, too, won’t want to spend what it would take to defend themselves against challenges based on the Eighth Amendment’s guarantee against punishments deemed cruel and unusual. After all, lethal injection was instituted to answer those objections.

     This contemporary greed and its unintended consequences have, of course, many historical antecedents. I’ll focus on one here. It’s said that slavery is our original sin. That’s of course true. What really killed slavery, and predictable over a decade before the Civil War and emancipation, was slaveholders’ stunningly arrogant greed as expressed in its remarkable overreach, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. Prior to that law, demanded by every state later to secede, the only northerners prepared to fight over slavery were a distinct minority of deeply committed abolitionists. The Fugitive Slave Act radicalized northerners because it required the fining and imprisonment of anyone, north or south, found harboring a runaway. Until then slavery could, and even by well-meaning northerners, be dismissed as a peculiar, if immoral, southern quirk. Not many northerners had more than loose interest until slaveholders’ obsessive greed created very practical and dire consequences for the average farmer who, out of simple decency, might shield a fugitive slave. The 1850s saw a ramping up of abolitionist feeling in the north theretofore unseen. The overarching greed of the slaveholding class primed the north to see abolition and union as increasingly bound together. The justified yet unintended self-destruction of the Confederacy was guaranteed when it forced Congress to pass the act and President Fillmore to sign it as part of the doomed Missouri Compromise.

     Greed always overreaches. That’s evil’s nature, eventually to subvert itself. In time it loses, whether we’re considering the current attempt to kill Medicare (the New Deal’s legacy, really), the death-throes of the death penalty, or slavery. This holds for nearly every other societal sin.

      I’ve no idea when we’ll learn.


This was originally published in 2011 at, Nikki Stern, Editor and was published in Passionate Justice (2013, Education Press).

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