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Government

Posted in liberty, philosophy, political by dingodonkey on December 28, 2009

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.

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Justice and Taxes

Posted in liberty, philosophy, political by dingodonkey on November 25, 2009

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.”

Extraterrestrial Life

Posted in Christianity, life, philosophy by dingodonkey on November 11, 2009

I am a Christian with many highly-overthought theological opinions.  I am also something of a scientific researcher through my day job.  And I believe in the likely existence of something that is recognizably life outside our planet.  None of this is in contradiction.

As I’ve written before, defining life is itself difficult.  I know that I’m alive, and I accept on a combination of faith and reason that my fellow men are also alive.  It seems only sensible to me to say that other animals are alive, especially with my modern worldview that says there is no intrinsic physical difference between us.  When I come to microorganisms, I have much less confidence in the proclamation, and with plants I’m flat-out skeptical.  What are the qualities of life?  Try to list them, and then watch this video of Theo Jansen’s beach creatures.  Are they alive?

Of course not.  Likewise, other structures exhibiting lifelike properties — whether engineered or not — are similarly dismissed.  Perhaps it is a certain holiness, a divine sanction, that separates life from the lifelike.  Or perhaps it is merely our delusion.

Some would put forward that certain well-characterized biological structures (DNA, etc) must be present for something to be considered life.  I see no reason for this arbitrary physical distinction.  In fact, I believe it is simply wrong.  Life as it has evolved on earth has centered around these structures, because it was through them that life in this self-contained system was realized.  There is no reason to believe this must be so in foreign systems (although there are reasonable arguments based on self-organization of their constituent atoms, but even that may not hold up in other regions of the universe).

So anyway, from a purely physical perspective, the case has been made many times by people smarter than me that life probably does exist out there.  I’m not completely convinced, especially because I’m still uncertain of what life is in a physical sense, but I’m reasonably enough persuaded to go along with it.

As a Christian, I believe that life on this planet is, regardless of the physical mechanisms by which it has been realized, created and sustained by an act of divine will.  I see nothing in that formula that insists life was only created at one time and in one place — in fact, it is created repeatedly, continually, in many places on earth.  Christians even believe in the creation and sustenance of unphysical lives in the angels and demons, and in the life of God Himself.  It’s all the same “life”.  What in this contradicts God’s creating life, or allowing/causing its physical forms to assemble, elsewhere?

I’m not the only one thinking about this and failing to find an argument against it.  The Vatican has also taken an interest in astrobiology.  The burden of argument is on those who say extraterrestrial life is impossible, and, until they may convince me theologically, I’m not jumping ship.

Is America a Christian Nation?

Posted in Christianity, philosophy, political by dingodonkey on September 9, 2009

Every now and then, I get into a debate over whether America is a Christian nation.  Pres. Obama says we’re not, but also seems to imply that we used to be.  I actually more or less agree with him on both of those points, but I’m quite certain that our reasons are very different and fundamentally irreconcilable.

Most people who say we are not a Christian nation are referring to separation of church and state.  I would urge them to distinguish between “nation” (unit of society) and “government” (system of imposing order on that unit of society).  Our government is not Christian.  It derives from Christian ideas about God, man, government, and rights, but it’s not a Christian institution in anything approaching the same way the Church is, and neither is its legitimacy derived from the Church.  Christianity has historically recognized a clear distinction between between Church and State, something that other major world religions (Islam in particular) have not done.  Even Christian kings claiming divine authority (with the nod of the Church, I might add) were not understood to preside over the affairs of the Church, and vice versa (of course this has not stopped individuals from stepping outside their roles).

Nevertheless, we have, and historically have had, a Christian nation with a secular government.  The government derives its authority from the consent of the governed (i.e. the Christian nation), so all this stuff about the government’s authority having its root in Christian thought is perfectly sensible despite its being essentially a secular government.  And that’s a good way for it to be.  It works for America and it works for Christianity.

This distinction has been lost, and that’s something I like to argue with people about.  But I’m beginning to look at that debate as largely academic, at least within this context (government vs. nation more broadly is still a very important distinction, one that I think lies at the heart of our political divisions).

The real question, as was pointed out by Monte Kuligowski, is whether or not we are still a single cohesive Christian nation (give me the benefit of the doubt for now on that nation vs. government distinction).  And that’s a question I’m not yet ready to answer with confidence, but, as my opening suggested, I lean toward “no, we are not”.  I’m still working through that, though, so I’ll save it for another day.

American Fault Lines

Posted in liberty, philosophy, political by dingodonkey on September 2, 2009

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.

Complex World

Posted in liberty, philosophy, political by dingodonkey on August 30, 2009

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

Life and Death

Posted in life, philosophy by dingodonkey on August 22, 2009

In humanity’s childhood, nobody ever really needed to ask “when does life begin?” or “when does life end?”  But now that we have come so far in our understanding of the mechanisms by which physical reality operates, there are no longer clear boundaries.  The problem, as I see it, is that we have a clear sense that by virtue of our minds and of our consciousness (and, depending on who you ask, of our capacity for communion with the divine), there is something that makes human life distinct from generic biological life.  But that’s not really something we can measure.  At the same time, we can keep zooming in on the components of biological life and measure them, and start to discover very fuzzy boundaries between life and death.

Demarcating the beginning and end of human life is the closest thing we have to “scientifically” measuring, quantifying, and describing it.  Toward this, many will say that we can simply take a biological definition of life, insist on the presence of human DNA, and voila, there we have our answer.  Others will swoop in and say that this is not quite the definition of life most people intend when speaking of human life — after all, we don’t mean life in the same way that bacteria have life, and many don’t mean life in the same way that simpler animals have life.  Some will tie it to another concept altogether, one that they may or may not believe transcends physical order — personhood.

A particularly nasty abuse of this latter approach is to insist on a certain socializing as a rite of passage in acquiring personhood, and therefore the fullness of life and humanity.  The abuses here are many — consider the boy raised by wolves.  He could have had human social interaction, and may still have the capacity for it, but by this requirement, he is not really a person.  What of the comatose?  What of the severely mentally disabled?  None of them are living people according to this view, all too prevalent amongst academics.  I had a class back in college in which the majority position in the classroom was in favor of this view.  And it may be gaining alarming influence outside the halls of the academy:

“The fetus, given the opportunity to develop properly before birth, and given the essential early socializing experiences and sufficient nourishing food during the crucial early years after birth, will ultimately develop into a human being,” John P. Holdren, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, wrote in Human Ecology: Problems and Solutions.

In the past, defining life had major implications for the abortion debate, as focus centered on the start of life.  Then came the euthanasia debate, which usually focused on quality of life and ownership of one’s own life.  But now, there is a real danger that if views like this one become widespread, a new debate could emerge: no longer sovereignty over one’s own life, but sovereignty of an intellectual elite over the biological lives of unpersons diverting scarce resources away from persons.  This is not eugenics, because it is not aimed at the construction of a master race, but it does share a common means in putting people down like dogs for the benefit of a larger abstraction in society.

And let’s not forget the end of life.  (I particularly enjoyed reading this rumination on it.)  We have already had this foray; if you will recall, just a few short years ago Terri Schiavo died because she lacked consciousness and was therefore not a legally-protected human life.  Her life was judged to have already ended, even though she persisted to live biologically.  A very nasty and mean-spirited eruption followed.  Those among us who believed this tantamount to murder were mocked and reviled as stupid zealots.  And a woman died.  Don’t let yourself think that debate is over.

I’ve only touched on physical (or as I’ve been calling it, biological) life and mental (conscious) life.  What about a sort of life that carries with it strong moral imperatives, but that a very large minority believes does not even exist — spiritual life?  That is the real ghost in all of these debates, but good luck measuring it by the standards of the new order of reason.

Edit: If you’re interested in how to go about thinking about when life begins, you may enjoy reading Abortion and the Architecture of Reality by some guy named Sean.