I was afraid this would happen, that we’d get Contract with America, 2010 Edition this year. See, Republicans look back on 1994, and they think “Contract with America, that’s the ticket, that’s what got us elected!” They may not realize that a lot of others look back and think “oh, that Contract with America thing the Republicans used to trick us into voting for them?”
So it’s going to happen again this year. Everybody in the Republican Party is working on their version now and getting ready to race to unveil theirs first.
It’s looking like one that may wind up being influential is this Contract from America thing. I oppose doing this, but since I think it’s almost certain to happen, I want to at least influence it for the better. In the event that this does wind up being the Contract for the year, I’ve voted on the top 10 priorities (of the 20 they let you choose from):
- Begin the Constitutional amendment process to require a balanced budget with a two-thirds majority needed for any tax hike.
- Require each bill to identify the specific provision of the Constitution that gives Congress the power to do what the bill does.
- Adopt a fair and simple single-rate tax system by scrapping the internal revenue code and replacing it with one that is no longer than 4,543 words—the length of the original Constitution.
- Allow young Americans the choice of opting out of Social Security and Medicare payroll taxes, creating both real financial security in retirement through the freedom to own your personal retirement savings, and reducing the long-term unfunded liabilities of the federal government
- No regulation or tax on the Internet.
- Authorize the exploration of proven energy reserves to reduce our dependence on foreign energy sources from unstable countries and reduce regulatory barriers to all other forms of energy creation, lowering prices and creating competition.
- Block state and local governments that receive federal grants from exercising eminent domain over private property for the primary purpose of economic development or enhancement of tax revenues.
- Begin an audit of the Federal Reserve System.
- The federal government should not bail out private companies and should immediately begin divesting itself of its stake in the private companies it owns from recent bailouts.
- Begin the Constitutional amendment process to require Congressional term limits.
Plenty of gimmicky details, but this is the best I can cobble together from their mess.
Let’s take just one paragraph from a recent speech by Pres. Obama, beginning with the line:
Banks will no longer be allowed to own, invest, or sponsor hedge funds, private equity funds, or proprietary trading operations for their own profit, unrelated to serving their customers.
Forget for a second about whether this is a good regulation or not, because what’s way more interesting is the way our president described it. Read that again, with some emphasis added:
Banks will no longer be allowed to own, invest, or sponsor hedge funds, private equity funds, or proprietary trading operations for their own profit, unrelated to serving their customers.
Hoo-boy. So the problem, in Pres. Obama’s eyes, is not that there is some grave systemic risk posed by banks running “hedge funds, private equity funds, or proprietary trading operations” (many reasonable arguments that this is true have been advanced), but rather that it is wrong for them to do so unless they are acting on behalf of their customers (i.e. “the people”) instead of for their own profit (i.e. “themselves”). I know a word to describe this way of thinking:
Collectivism: Personal or social orientation that emphasizes the good of the group, community, or society over and above individual gain.
Don’t buy that interpretation? Well, here’s the president’s very next line, seeming to confirm it:
If financial firms want to trade for profit, that’s something they’re free to do. Indeed, doing so — responsibly — is a good thing for the markets and the economy.
Who decides whether they’re responsible with their money? Doesn’t this ring of “well if you want to do [insert discouraged action here], you’re free to do so, but….”?
This president could not wait to force public bailouts on even those banks that didn’t want them (he voted for it), and then refuse to allow them to repay as soon as they could (in his capacity as president). Why would he do that? So he can justify direct government control of the financial sector with statements like what he said next:
But these firms should not be allowed to run these hedge funds and private equities funds while running a bank backed by the American people.
This is effective nationalization, and nothing less.
Rasmussen has defined a really fantastic concept for its poll interpretations: the Political Class. The very name evokes images of power elites and pundits, fervently applauding their own efforts while peppering their language with meaningless phrases like “the American people” and “Main Street” (vs. “Wall Street”). Oh, you didn’t get all that from it? Well, I did… Maybe I’m too bitter. Anyway, the Political Class is that small group of elites and its ardent supporters, the ones who try to brand themselves as populists but are in fact concerned primarily with the goodness of their own power and authority.
- Generally speaking, when it comes to important national issues, whose judgment do you trust more – the American people or America’s political leaders?
- Some people believe that the federal government has become a special interest group that looks out primarily for its own interests. Has the federal government become a special interest group?
- Do government and big business often work together in ways that hurt consumers and investors?
The idea is that each one has three acceptable answers (the populist answer, the elitist answer, and “I don’t know”), and your category is assigned based on your responses. So if you give the elitist answer to 2 questions and I don’t know to a third, or the elitist answer to all three, you’re in the Political Class. Similarly for the Populist Mainstream. I gave the so-called populist answer for all three questions.
This interests me because it’s a definition of populism that’s very much about public sentiment. It’s not that I’m a populist because I support protectionist trade policies (I don’t) or because I support giving a small voting majority free handouts (I certainly don’t) as our elites would have us believe populism really is, but rather that I’m a populist because I think the elites — wherever they are found — are, for the most part, working against popular interests and for their own exclusive advancement.
Don’t misunderstand — I don’t have any objections to people working in their own interests in the private sector. I do, however, have a serious objection to the government acting in its own interest — because that is practically by definition against ours.
It is in the populist answers to those three questions that the true nature of the reform this country rightly yearns for can be found.
I’ve heard that Congressman Barney Frank has defined government as “the things we choose to do together”. That’s cute. Here’s the quote as I’ve seen it:
Government is the name we give to the things we choose to do together.
What a can of worms. The first thing that strikes me about that statement is that it is not limited to institutions we normally think of as part of the civil government — it could mean big banks that more or less set monetary policy, for example. I agree with that aspect, that large monopolies have the potential to (but don’t necessarily) take on governmental roles and therefore should be considered part of government.
The next thing I think is that this might be true in a real democracy. In a democracy in which everything that was done by the government was implemented after a vote (a totally impractical prospect), this would be true. We’d have majorities voting for all of the various coercions imposed upon the public, and in that sense “we” would be choosing those things.
But that’s a scary thought. The founders wisely opted to establish a republic, not a democracy. That very fact makes clear that our government is not the things we choose to do together, but rather maybe just the things we do together. We don’t necessarily choose them all — instead, we choose leaders who we trust to make those decisions for us, even if at times we would overwhelmingly oppose them. That, by the way, is a huge moral responsibility for both the voter and the elected governor.
If government really does extend beyond the traditional institutions, and include other things not necessarily run by elected officials at all, then we no longer even have a pure republic. We have something that is part republic, part oligarchy. And that only further erodes the idea that we’re choosing what we’re doing together.
Moreover, can a majority choose to impose its will arbitrarily on a minority? The answer is of course no, at least not rightly. So the warm-and-fuzzy language of “things we choose to do together” is itself toxic.
Government is probably better understood in terms of collective coercive power. The government is composed of those institutions that can coerce you and me to do what they want us to, with or without our say (the part of our government that is a democratic republic is supposed to graciously hold out for our say most of the time).
How do we restore right and proper republican government? Throw the bums out, elect new men of principle, reform the existing constitutional government to bring it back in line with its intended form and function, and begin to seriously prosecute fraud and cronyism in the private sector, focusing particularly on those companies and individuals who have colluded with the government to gain access to its coercive powers for their own advancement. Only then can we restore freedom and liberty, and work with a sensible definition of government.
I’ve been hearing more and more references lately to the Tea Party movement as a third political party. Rasmussen even polled a generic three-way ballot for congressional races, finding D-36%, T-23%, R-18%. T is for The Tea Party, the fictional third party that could be imagined arising out of the movement bearing its name. And it’s beating the Republicans.
I’m very sympathetic to this movement, because I share with it a common cause — defending liberty and the American way against a power-hungry and increasingly-gluttonous federal government. But just to be clear, I doubt that a third party will emerge from this movement, unless it is large enough to supersede the Republican Party, in which unlikely case it would just be the second party. No, Tea Partiers will mostly vote for Republicans, because that’s the party out of power and the party that used to be somewhat sympathetic to their cause, and because they know that dividing the electorate amongst these three groups would only cement their worst case: total Democratic control for years.
There’s a lot of anger all around directed at the federal government, the Democratic Party, the Republican Party, Pres. Obama, and former Pres. Bush, among countless other power-wielders inside and outside the government. Many of the angry people at these rallies are not overeducated pundits carefully articulating their grievances. They are consequently easily caricatured by a media hostile to their causes, and a widespread belief has emerged amongst the elites that they are not a movement built on coherent beliefs, but rather on rage. This is a grave error that the elites could suffer for making.
Suppose for the sake of discussion that there were such a Tea Party. We already have a left-wing party and we already have a right-wing party. The Tea Party is not some new party that falls in the middle of the two, or to some farther extreme. The Tea Party is generally right-of-center, but does not have to be (in many ways it’s not… there are strong anti-war and anti-corporate factions). You’ll notice before that I did not say it was despised by the left, but by the elites — and therein lies the difference. The Democrats and Republicans may be on different sides of the left/right, progressive/conservative split, but they do align, at least in their leadership (which is what counts at the end of the day), on an altogether different axis. Some years, the Democrats run the government. Other years, the Republicans run the government. They volley back and forth for one thing: power. The other axis is about the allocation of power — collectivism/individualism, totalitarianism/anarchy, tyranny/liberty. Being close to the side of collectivism/totalitarianism/tyranny is beneficial if you’re one of the guys sharing power, one of the elites, the tyrannical totalitarians directing the collective. Some years it’s Democrats, and other years it’s Republicans. The leadership of both parties benefits from being near the totalitarian side. The rest of us suffer.
The Tea Party may be right-of-center, but that’s not the reason it exists. Its members may not all be able to articulate it clearly yet, but they do understand this. I talk to people all the time who tell me they are angry and afraid, that they feel duped by the system, that at the end of the day, no matter who’s in power, they’re getting screwed. The Tea Party isn’t about anarchy because it recognizes that government is necessary, but it is about being closer to that extreme than to the other, it’s about valuing the individual, it’s about restoring liberty. The Tea Party wants to back away from a powerful government and restore personal liberty. History has shown that the two simply cannot coexist.
The top Democrats and the top Republicans want to control our lives. The Tea Partiers don’t want to control anything except their own destinies. And that, my friends, is the real difference. And that’s why I’d vote for them any day, even if they are gun-totin’, Bible-clingin’, unrefined hillbillies. Sounds like my kind of people.
I know this isn’t exactly earth-shattering, but I don’t like paying taxes. When I tell people this, responses tend to fall into one of three categories: “you should be okay with it because taxes are what keep things running”, “yeah no kidding”, or “well taxation is basically the government stealing from you at gunpoint”.
And wow are my reactions overcomplicated as always:
- You shouldn’t complain about paying high taxes because they benefit the country that allowed you to gather that wealth in the first place. This is a half-truth. Most of my tax dollars don’t seem to be funding the sustenance of this country (as if I have a boundless debt to the rest of my countrymen, determined not by my own state and actions but by theirs), but rather waste, corruption, and inessential luxuries for others. I’m overtaxed.
- Taxes suck. This is a whole truth — of course they suck, they’re a necessary evil! And necessary (not in an ultimate sense) things that are evil always suck. What do I mean when I say that they’re a necessary evil? Well, I accept the proposition that government is itself a necessary evil, made necessary by the general sinfulness of mankind. If there’s going to be some shadow of justice on this earth, it’s going to come through a government (civil or otherwise). So to the extent that the government is necessary, since I’m just as responsible for making it necessary as anybody else, I absolutely believe it is my duty to fund it. And that sucks.
- Taxation is basically the government stealing from you at gunpoint. This is another half-truth. To the extent that government is necessary, I have a duty to fund it and so they’re justified in taking the money (or are they only justified in requesting it, but then free to boot me out if I refuse?). But beyond that? Dirty thieves, the lot of them! I’m serious about this — people who act (vote, petition, etc) to encourage the government to take more of my money are working in support of stealing from me, and, to the extent that they understand this, I cannot pretend they have not wronged me.
I’m fine with paying taxes because I owe it to my fellow men. I’m not fine with paying excessive taxes because I’m entitled to the fruits of my hard work and good fortune. When the government extends beyond its justifiable functions, beyond its necessary role, I have no obligation to it, and I surrender my money only out of fear. After all, “all experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.”
With all this talk and controversy surrounding the “czars” appointed by Pres. Obama, I thought it would be a good time to talk about technocracy, which Wikipedia (the fount of all knowledge) characterizes as “a form of government in which engineers, scientists, and other technical experts are in control of decision making in their respective fields”. Man that’s a horrible way to start a blog entry, like when little kids write papers and quote Webster’s Dictionary in their opening sentence.
Anyway, what’s wrong with technocracy? For one, it is incompatible with the ideals of republican government. In our system, democratic principles are applied to choose individuals that we deem appropriately wise and tempered to temporarily represent our interests in a large and intentionally inefficient government. It is intentionally inefficient in order to prevent it from becoming too powerful, and in turn from becoming as oppressive as the monarchy we violently escaped. In a technocracy, the real decision-makers are appointed based on their specialized skills and knowledge, their expert status. They are not representatives of the people, they are servants of an ideal of a government that efficiently and powerfully administers their fields of expertise. This is clearly incompatible with our system.
On a totally unrelated note, here’s a list of Obama’s appointed czars:
- Afghanistan Czar
- AIDS Czar
- Auto Recovery Czar
- Border Czar
- California Water Czar
- Car Czar
- Central Region Czar
- Climate Czar
- Domestic Violence Czar
- Drug Czar
- Economic Czar
- Energy and Environment Czar
- Faith-Based Czar
- Government Performance Czar
- Great Lakes Czar
- Green Jobs Czar
- Guantanamo Closure Czar
- Health Czar
- Information Czar
- Intelligence Czar
- Mideast Peace Czar
- Pay Czar
- Regulatory Czar
- Science Czar
- Stimulus Accountability Czar
- Sudan Czar
- TARP Czar
- Technology Czar
- Terrorism Czar
- Urban Affairs Czar
- Weapons Czar
- WMD Policy Czar
The link above explains what all of these positions are actually responsible for. Many of them relate to areas the federal government has no explicit or even implicit constitutional authority to be involved in, but neither of our major parties cares about that (look up Bush’s czars to see proof). What concerns me is not so much the size of this government, but its extent. It has shown no restraint in expanding into more and more areas of our lives. This is, of course, expected under technocratic government — the experts can organize our lives better than we can. That’s why we have mandatory Social Security and unemployment insurance, for example.
It’s a natural progression toward dystopia. Taking away the rights of individuals and associations of individuals (families, corporations) to manage their own finances, make their own decisions, use their private property as they see fit, etc. Increasing surveillance and passing vague laws to be interpreted and applied by the judgment of the expert elite. This is a possible future, and when folks like me begin to worry about czars and such, it is this eventuality that we are seeking to avoid. But make no mistake, this is a path that we have already traveled far down.
We’re saved from civil war by geography. To the extent that we are a deeply divided nation (and I believe we are, albeit along different fault lines than have been acknowledged until recently), it is not a geographic division. It is not a division that roughly corresponds with existing political entities. The Civil War was possible because the South was a region of the country and it was a region of the country with political structures separate from the rest of the country. Thankfully, we have a much higher hurdle to pass today.
I picked up Thomas Paine’s revolutionary pamphlet, Common Sense. I was at the bookstore a while ago, thumbing through a big stack of books that I had little intention of buying — a typical trip for me. I was eager to crack into this one, having never read it but living in such interesting times that it could be strangely relevant once more. When I finally got past the introduction, the very first sentence (and its subsequent articulation) struck me so hard I closed the book and felt no need to read on.
SOME writers have so confounded society with government, as to leave little or no distinction between them; whereas they are not only different, but have different origins. Society is produced by our wants, and government by our wickedness; the former promotes our happiness POSITIVELY by uniting our affections, the latter NEGATIVELY by restraining our vices. The one encourages intercourse, the other creates distinctions. The first is a patron, the last a punisher.
Society in every state is a blessing, but Government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil; in its worst state an intolerable one: for when we suffer, or are exposed to the same miseries BY A GOVERNMENT, which we might expect in a country WITHOUT GOVERNMENT, our calamity is heightened by reflecting that we furnish the means by which we suffer. Government, like dress, is the badge of lost innocence; the palaces of kings are built upon the ruins of the bowers of paradise. For were the impulses of conscience clear, uniform and irresistibly obeyed, man would need no other lawgiver; but that not being the case, he finds it necessary to surrender up a part of his property to furnish means for the protection of the rest; and this he is induced to do by the same prudence which in every other case advises him, out of two evils to choose the least. Wherefore, security being the true design and end of government, it unanswerably follows that whatever form thereof appears most likely to ensure it to us, with the least expense and greatest benefit, is preferable to all others.
I don’t really believe that “liberal” and “conservative” are very useful labels for classifying the country politically. I know a lot of politically liberal people that I would say are, in their general sensibilities, conservatives. I’m not saying they’re economically conservative, or socially conservative, or somehow libertarian, but that they are conservative in the sense of having a prudent disposition and a deference to tradition. When I say that I am a conservative, it is chiefly this to which I refer. I also believe that this is something fundamental to the American system. This sort of conservatism is the natural heir to classical liberalism.
This disposition leads me to very naturally separate government and society. I can say that I love America but that I despise the government. I can say I have the highest confidence in America and the least in her government. I can say I believe that America owes her existence to Divine Providence, but also that this falls very far short of giving our government the sort of divine sanction traditionally attributed to the monarchies it overthrew. These are ideas very old and deeply ingrained in America, but are today in peril. There are many who do not draw these distinctions. When their ideological opponents are the dominant party in power, they despise the nation and are ashamed to call themselves Americans. I saw this attitude pervade the far left during the Bush years, it has always existed in the (smaller) far right.
This is the fault line. The parties may reflect a certain kind of liberal/conservative split, but forget about that for a minute. Here I’m talking about basic philosophy of government and society. It’s not liberal/conservative, Democrat/Republican. I don’t have the language to describe it, but I’m coming close saying it’s collectivist/individualist, statist/libertarian. It’s not about policy, all of that is secondary. It’s about identity. Because of that, these are groups that can and do span liberalism and conservatism and both parties.
When the government becomes tyrannical, the American thing is to oppose and if necessary overthrow it. Most of the left was very familiar with that concept during the Bush years, and most of the right is very acutely aware of it now — Americanness is not rooted in the government; in fact, the two necessarily exist in tension.
Complexity, emergence, self-organization, evolution — these are all related ideas that have been written and read about pretty extensively in the last few years. They’re good and valuable ideas, and I’m glad we’re doing a better job now of using them in our thinking. The idea that order and structure can emerge and organize based on a few basic thermodynamical laws and the inherent properties of the basic building blocks of that structure and the environment they exist in, is very powerful. And it’s very sensible.
I’ve encountered two very different types of mindsets that restrict the applicability of these ideas to what I’ll call “favored spaces” of understanding. I believe both groups are wrong to do so.
- The first group, less common amongst the intelligentsia, is that human institutions and endeavors such as free markets are self-organizing, but that natural ones are not. Members of this group are inclined toward small-government conservatism and libertarianism. At the same time, they’re mostly Christians or other religious. They look at the stunning simplicity and beauty of a complex natural world, and conclude that only a Great Being could have put it in such a spectacular ordering as what they are admiring. That Great Being, of course, is God.
- The second group is somewhat the opposite. These are academics and professional thinkers of a variety of trades. They look out into the world and see evolutionary and emergent processes at work. They see a world without a director, or at least without need of one. At the same time, they turn to fields of human endeavor, and are perfectly content to deny these principles. Free markets cannot self-organize, individual liberties must be restricted to maintain a social order and prevent chaos. They look at the monumental institutions of mankind, and conclude that only a Great Being could maintain and advance such a spectacular ordering of human endeavor. That Great Being, of course, is Them.
So why am I talking about all this? I recently read an article in the Boston Globe, Too Complex to Exist:
It may be true, in fact, that complex networks such as financial systems face an inescapable trade-off – between size and efficiency on one hand, and global stability on the other. Once they have been assembled, in other words, globally interconnected and integrated financial networks just may be too complex to prevent crises like the current one from reoccurring.
Rather than waiting until the next cascade is imminent, and then following the usual modus operandi of propping up the handful of firms that seem to pose the greatest threat, it may be time for a new approach: preventing the system from becoming overly complex in the first place.
I’ve had similar notions of my own, that these big, complex, and efficient systems are growing far too complex to be managed from above, that due to their complexity they cannot be effectively regulated by the government. But where I differ is in the conclusion I draw from it. I don’t want to shout, “Stop! Your achievements are too complex for me to orchestrate! Slow down! Do less!” I would rather accept something that used to be very hard for me to accept: that we don’t need a small elite overseeing our work and lives, that we don’t need to be managed as part of a coherent and comprehensible system of engineered order, designed to maximize a collective quality of life.
Maybe the proponents of Intelligent Design can’t prove their holy grail theory, that nature was put into order by a Great Being. Maybe they should stop trying to make that leap, from the structure of the eye to the existence of a Great Being designer. Maybe there are other things they could be doing.
Maybe trying to be prepared for every outside risk is ludicrous. Maybe it can’t be governed away. Maybe we simply can’t do it. Maybe that’s not what we should be trying to do at all. Maybe we’re not Great Beings.
On a routine basis, regulators could review the largest and most connected firms in each industry, and ask themselves essentially the same question that crisis situations already force them to answer: “Would the sudden failure of this company generate intolerable knock-on effects for the wider economy?” If the answer is “yes,” the firm could be required to downsize, or shed business lines in an orderly manner until regulators are satisfied that it no longer poses a serious systemic risk.
Officers and enlisted members of the U.S. military swear similar oaths affirming their duties before God. The variant recited by officers runs as follows:
I, [name], do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter. So help me God.
Many are taking note of just how broad this oath is, and what their duties are because of it. “I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic” has become a catalyst for protest against the enemies of the Constitution who now permeate the elected offices of our government.
These are real heroes.