I ran across this fantastic article regarding classical liberalism (the notion that people should be “free”, embraced both by progressive liberals and conservatives in America today).  The article provides a thoughtful analysis, including the following:

“An idea of liberty is an essential part of the answer to that crucial unasked question [whether humans are prepared to live free]. But it is not the libertarian freedom generally voiced by today’s left and right. Surely liberation from coercion alone does not prepare us for the practice of liberal freedom. To liberate us purely to pursue our wants and wishes is to liberate our appetites and passions. But a person in the grip of appetite or passion can’t be our model of the free human being. Such a person is not someone we would trust with the exercise of great political and economic freedom.

The liberty we can truly recognize as liberty is achieved by the emancipation of the individual not just from coercion by others but also from the tyranny of his unrestrained desire.

This liberty arises when we want to do more or less what we ought to do, so that the moral law, the civil law, and our own will are largely in alignment, and choice and obligation point in the same direction. To be capable of freedom, and capable of being liberal citizens, we need to be capable of that challenging combination. And to become ­capable of it, we need more than the liberation of the individual from coercion. We need a certain sort of moral formation.”

The author’s suggestion is not that the government begin preparation of souls for freedom; rather, it is that the citizens should on their own begin recognizing the soul-forming functions of family, work, and religious organizations, and “sustain[] the space for them, and put[] them within the reach of as many of our fellow citizens as possible.”  Without attending to our souls through family, work, and spiritual relationships, democracy gets ugly.  What is the use of an election when the electorate is a mass of radically self-interested individuals?

What Do You Care?

August 30, 2013

So, why do you care about the behavior of others?  Where you are not concerned, why care about others having abortions, gay marriage, prayers in public school (or at high school football games in Texas), therapy for minors with unwanted same sex attraction, racial discrimination that does not harm you, laws in other states or countries, or anything else that would not affect your life specifically and personally?

Should any of us care about the plight of another so much that we would interfere with that person’s life (or the lives of those around them) through legal compulsion?  The answer seems to be “yes,” if we love justice, but who is this “we”?  Should “we” interfere with the behavior of others through our town’s local law, our state law, or our federal law, or leave law out of it and resort to other methods?  (One could “interfere” with the behavior of others without using law, via boycott or shunning.)  It seems more intuitively acceptable for us to interfere with or regulate the behavior in our own community based on our moral inclinations about the good of our community.  One’s interest in the behavior of the people in far away places seems more attenuated.

To push this point even further, should “we” as a society (small or large scale) interfere with other societies?  Can the people of Los Angeles decide they’ve had enough of the ridiculous laws in San Francisco and try to do something about it?  Yes, the people of Los Angeles lack jurisdiction to do anything about what happens in San Francisco, but the United States has no more jurisdiction over anything in the Middle East, yet there “we” are, interfering…

It strikes me that this is absolutely not a conservative or liberal question.  Conservatives will interfere with your ability to smoke pot.  Liberals will interfere with your ability to smoke a cigarette in a public restaurant.  Each will claim the high ground of “freedom” on one issue while claiming the high ground of “morality” on the other.  “Freedom” is just another buzz word like “equality” and “democracy” that people only invoke for convenience and sound bites, not because they are actually committed to those ideals.  It is the same with foreign policy.  Conservatives and liberals will walk the line between “respecting the sovereignty of other nations” and “taking a stand for the cause of justice” depending on the values or interests at stake in a policy decision.

So, do you care about the behavior of other people so much that you want to interfere societally?  Do you want to interfere with other societies (and do you want your own government to interfere in other societies for you)?  No doubt, there are numerous moral tragedies happening around the world right now and we are doing nothing about them.  Yet when discussing instances of interference in the past (like fighting the Nazis in WWII), people point to how evil the situation/government was to justify the U.S.’s behavior.  Wouldn’t that be like the people of Los Angeles pointing to how bad the laws of San Francisco are as justification for interference?  That doesn’t hold water unless we are going to distinguish between types of “bad” laws (whether a difference in kind or degree).  Certainly some silly laws that drive away small businesses in San Francisco would not justify usurping the authority of the San Francisco local government through force.

What kind of laws (if any) should invite the scrutiny and interference from other governments that have no jurisdiction?  What kind of behavior from other people in your community or neighboring communities invites your own scrutiny and legal interference?  Is there a difference between attempting to interfere (through force of law in matters in which you have no direct interest) with the behavior of your neighbor, or someone in a neighboring town, or someone in another state, or someone in another country?

If government A can usurp government B’s authority through force based on the bad laws of government B, can government B do the same to government A?  If government A is too strong for that, doesn’t that make government A a self-appointed “benevolent tyrant”?  What happens when government A turns bad and ignores its own unjust laws?  Would the citizens of the country of government A look kindly on the interference from the weaker government B?

America (and particularly the federal government in America) is government A.

Principled Voting

July 21, 2013

Would you vote for a politician running in an election if he/she agreed with your political beliefs in all respects except one, and that one exception was that he/she was in favor of, say, race-based slavery?

I pose this question because some media types say that Republicans should get away from the “social issues” which concern religious voters.  I’ve also heard Republicans refer to problematic “single issue voters” who would not vote for Republicans who were (for example) pro-choice.  Now, if you believe that abortion is in fact the killing of an innocent human being, these Republicans and media types are treating your views as subordinate, urging you to compromise.  But I’m going to ask again, with a different example:

If a politician espouses all of your views except one, the exception being his/her desire to initiate state-sponsored killing of the terminally ill and elderly (keep in mind, you will likely one day be elderly) because such people increase national healthcare costs, would you vote for that politician?  If your answer is “no,” perhaps you don’t think it’s such a bad thing to be a “single issue voter”.

The Bellamy Salute

July 2, 2013

What a creepy and thought-provoking picture:

The “Bellamy Salute”

Yes, kids used to utter the Pledge of Allegiance with this Nazi-style salute.  Another blogger posits that the pledge was originally drafted by a socialist and was designed to propagandize children into pledging that they will follow their government.

For the record, I don’t think there’s any merit to the common objection to the phrase “under God” in the pledge, at least from a Constitutional standpoint.  As far as that objection goes, no one is forced to say the pledge (if a school punished a child for not saying it, that would be a problem), and if a parent objects then he/she should consider a number of options: teaching one’s child to abstain from saying the pledge, visiting a school board meeting to raise the issue, and/or seeking another school or an alternate educational arrangement.  If nobody else in your community cares about your complaint, your child is going to end up in an environment of such people and such worldviews regardless whether the pledge is spoken.  The pledge (and the phrase “under God”) is not the problem, it’s a symptom of a problem that will never go away.  Communities and schools always have unspoken worldviews and I see little in the Constitution that mandates that communities be prevented from expressing those worldviews through their public institutions (they are going to do so anyway, it’s unavoidable).

Anyway, back to my point: is pledging allegiance a good thing?  Isn’t that like writing a blank check to the government, promising to follow regardless of whatever evil thing it might do?  Sure, some of us would resist an evil governmental action, but for the regular duty-following folk, a lifetime of stating the pledge of allegiance may have fostered some problematic inner attitudes (such as intolerance for dissent against the government).

For you monotheists out there (Christians/Jews/Muslims), is the pledge a form of idolatry?    Should Christians, as “strangers in a foreign land,”  pledge allegiance to any government?

Just a thought experiment, roll with me…

What if, in the American Civil War era, it was the North that insisted upon permitting slavery whereas the South opposed slavery?  So, in that vein, let’s say that the northern states began to seek to impose pro-slavery or slavery-compromising legislation upon the southern states through the federal government and supreme court, and then the southern states seceded from the United States on the grounds that they would not permit the northern states to impose their unjust pro-slavery national laws upon them.  The southern states create a confederacy which will protect each state’s ability to outlaw slavery (or not) and no other state will be able to impose legalized slavery upon them.

First question: in this situation, would you prefer that the confederates (southerners) win the civil war rather than the union northerners?  In other words, would you root for the pro-slavery north or the anti-slavery south?

Second question: if we took away the issue of slavery altogether, would you prefer confederacy or our current federal government?  What’s better, each state left to decide its own fate, or a national government deciding once for all?

Now, in this hypothetical, keep in mind that if you said you prefer a strong federal government, someone listening might call you a “racist” for supporting a form of government that once supported slavery.

Just a thought…

I was in the car with my niece yesterday and noticed two children wearing helmets ride by on their bikes.  I mentioned to my niece that when I was a boy, I rode my bike around town without a helmet because they were not required.  That prompted her very insightful question: “Why do they call America ‘free’ when there are a thousand laws?”

A “thousand” laws is a very modest estimate.  Ask any CPA about the complicated tax code.  Add to that the problems of the thousands of vague or unenforced laws, as noted by James Madison among the many threats to liberty:

“It will be of little avail to the people that the laws are made by men of their own choice, if the laws be so voluminous that they cannot be read, or so incoherent that they cannot be understood; if they be repealed or revised before they are promulgated, or undergo such incessant changes that no man who knows what the law is today can guess what it will be tomorrow.  Law is defined to be a rule of action; but how can that be a rule, which is little known, and less fixed?”
— James Madison, Federalist no. 62, February 27, 1788

The helmet law is probably clearly written, but it is one of so many ever-changing laws that I couldn’t tell you for sure.  My niece’s question stands.  Can we continue to call our nation “free” when we live under a nanny state with an ever-increasing library of statutory requirements and interpretations?

According to the U.S. Census bureau, in 1790 the United States had 3.9 million persons in 13 states from Maine to South Carolina.  New York City had a population of 33,000.

Today, the nation has 308 million people, and New York City has a population of 8.2 million.  In other words, the Mayor of New York answers to more than double the constituents that George Washington did as President of the United States at the time the Constitution was ratified.

A small number of people produced a great document that currently governs a far greater number of people.  However, at the time that the Constitution was passed, the government was necessarily closer to its people because each representative had a much smaller constituency to please.  Has the nation out-grown the constitution, not in principles but in sheer representative force?  No doubt the refrain “I’m going to write a letter to my Congressman” carries even less weight than it used to.  Should the states be divided up for federal purposes, so that perhaps even each county receives a senator?

While such a change may sound radical and unfathomable, it might pose a beneficial check to the dual-party system imposed on the nation.

A professor in the economics department at George Mason University has assembled a fantastic collection of quotes from central figures in American history regarding individual liberty and limited government.  Many of those quotes reflect a skepticism of the character of man.  While unregulated man might make evil choices, the governor with power over him is (allegedly) prone to even greater evil choices, and those choices will affect everyone.  Here is a sampling of the quotes that reflect this view:

[I]nstituting a Congress with power to do whatever would be for the good of the United States . . . would be also a power to do whatever evil they please.”
— Thomas Jefferson

“All men having power ought to be distrusted to a certain degree.”
— James Madison in The Federalist

 “No man is good enough to govern another man without that other’s consent.”
— Abraham Lincoln, October 16, 1854

“We still find the greedy hand of government thrusting itself into every corner and crevice of industry, and grasping at the spoil of the multitude. Invention is continually exercised to furnish new pretenses for revenue and taxation. It watches prosperity as its prey and permits none to escape without a tribute.”
— Thomas Paine

While I don’t share the view that government ought not regulate anything beyond the harm principle (the strict libertarian perspective), I share the view that man is so fallen that absolute power will always corrupt him.  Thus, limited government is a necessity for all, and the best way to limit it is to decentralize it as much as possible.  The greater the centralization, the greater the eventual evil.

I find this troublesome:

“What happened in our country should never happen again,” [Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner] said. “People were paid for taking enormous risks. It was a crazy way to run a financial system.” Geithner said, “It’s the government’s job … to do a better job of restraining that kind of risk-taking.”

It is?  Geithner thinks that the government’s job is to restrain risk-taking?  This, after the government has engaged in some of the most heinous forms of risk-taking I’ve ever seen (e.g. bailouts, nationalized healthcare).  Both great wealth and great loss are generated by risk-taking.  If people do not want to suffer great loss, they should not take great risks, but the decision to do so is theirs, not the government’s. 

The government should restrain unfair business practices that undermine free trade, such as fraud.  But that is not the same thing as preventing risk-taking.  The government’s intrusion into the world of financial risk-taking is questionable at best, but I suspect it will be disastrous.

A nice summary of why the burden of persuasion ought to rest against governmental involvement in private business:

The essential problem is that very few people spend other people’s money with anything close to the same degree of care and efficiency that they spend their own. This is particularly true of the sort of narcissistic, superficial individuals who are drawn to careers in politics. In the immortal words of PJ O’Rourke, giving money and power to politicians is like giving car keys and whiskey to teenage boys.

Couldn’t have put it better myself.