Instead of a Sportscar...

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Circles of Empathy

Empathy, loosely defined, is the ability to appreciate another's problems and feelings—and it’s one of the things that define us as human beings. Empathy motivates us to do good deeds for others, and as an integral part of the human ethical construct restrains people from taking advantage of the weak. It could be argued that without empathy we would be little better than a pack of clever animals, every action committed in the name of self-interest—in other words, a society of borderline sociopaths.

Imagine that empathy is a circle that is around each person, with each individual at the center of that circle. Within this circle, and usually quite close to the center, are family: mother, father, spouse, brothers, sisters, and children. Moving outwards in that circle, but still fairly close to the center, are friends and coworkers. About midway out in this circle are the members of one’s community, and out on the further reaches are the members of one’s nation. Way out on the very periphery is the rest of humanity in the wider world. This is the natural order of things for a well-adjusted person in contemporary society.

Unfortunately, there are people whose circle of empathy has been so foreshortened that it draws fewer and fewer people. They care about the suffering of other people only so far as it evokes guilt or discomfort at seeing that suffering, or because it suits some crass and selfish need. There are even some people whose circles of empathy draws in only their selves. When people who have these foreshortened circles of empathy see some tragedy on TV, it’s upsetting to them—yet they don’t put any critical thought into the wider issues involved. To alleviate their discomfort, they rail against the injustice of it all—but the target of their indignation is not always the most deserving one.

This is why you see so much recent indignation about the US involvement in Iraq. As the military has gotten better at fighting against the insurgency, the insurgency has switched to attacking civilians. This disturbs the American public when they see the aftermath of the attacks on their TVs—as it well should. But where was this newfound concern for all the years that the former regime caused much more widespread death and suffering? And where will this newfound concern be if American troops leave and the insurgency rages on, as it certainly would? Sadly, the answer is that this concern was, and would be, missing—and it is this lack of context that threatens to paint us as the villain, even in our own homeland.

America is not only a powerful country, but a good country full of courageous, well-meaning and generous people. It is a challenge for us a powerful and good country to find those dark corners where evil exists and people suffer, and to help—with an open hand if possible, with a closed fist if necessary—whenever we can.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

The Conservative Case for Conservation

Conservative Thought, Liberal Thought, and Conservation

Conservatives are often portrayed as being anti-environment, and not for no reason. Very often it is conservatives that stand reflexively against the many environmental groups who tend toward the political left. This is unfortunate, because conservative and conservation don’t have the same root merely coincidentally—rather, the modern environmental movement owes its roots to classical conservative thought.

Early liberal thought held that the environment was a resource which could be assigned value by the use that could be put to, whereas early conservative thought held that the environment held value in and of itself. Oddly enough, both of these positions can be said to be true, but not in the absolute. A natural resource does have economic value, but extracting that resource may destroy a park that has more value in other terms—both factors must be considered.

Conservative thought holds that humans are imperfect and a limited level of government is necessary to restrain the more harmful impulses, which is a stance generally rejected by libertarian thinking. While an extreme libertarian position might state that a landowner should be free to do whatever they want on their own property, such sentiment ignores the fact that the landowner is part of a larger community and some actions have repercussions beyond the landowner’s own property and lifetime. For example: dumping waste oil in one’s backyard has lasting repercussions beyond a particular piece of property—the oil can seep into the groundwater and from there into the food chain at all levels. Clearly, the community’s interests trump the individual’s supposed right to do as they will on their property in a case like this—governmental regulation is warranted in the interest of the community.

Some view the free market as the best guarantor of the environment: clean and green should sell better and as a result the environment should fare better. This takes a decidedly non-conservative view of human nature. A more conservative view of human nature would hold that unrestrained commercialization is a threat to the environment, because some people do not hold to community values.

One conservative criticism of the environmental movement is that it bases its positions on bad or incomplete science, and there have been times when this is not altogether unwarranted criticism. Another criticism has been that some extremists in the modern environmental movement value nature more than humanity—again, not an altogether unwarranted criticism. There is a need for balancing the needs of the environment and the needs of people; in the final analysis humanity is another part of the natural world.

Notable Conservative Conservationists from the Past

“Conservation is a great moral issue, for it involves the patriotic duty of ensuring the safety and continuance of the nation.”
–Theodore Roosevelt, 1910
President Roosevelt, who was without question the most conservationist President in American history, had a lifelong interest in wildlife and the outdoors. During his Presidency, he more than quadrupled national forest lands. His passion for conservation was more than personal interest—he believed that carefully and efficiently using natural resources was the best way to protect the nation’s strength, prosperity, and future.


In 1929, Herbert Hoover became the 31st President of the United States. Today he is remembered for his ineffectual response to the Great Depression, but in his time he expanded the national park system by 40%. The monuments he protected are some of the most famous in America: The Grand Canyon, White Sands, and Death Valley. He also felt that conservation was a moral imperative, that outdoor recreation was the cure for excess.


“There is a need for relief for jaded minds and tense nerves, a need for the restoration of peace and the reassurance of sanity. It is a need that for many people can best be met beyond the end of the road, away from the ring of the telephone, where electric lights cannot lengthen the strains of the day, but rather where early sleep rests a man to wake at dawn and know the inspiration of the sunrise as well as the colors of the sunset.”
–Congressman John Saylor, 1956
Conservative Republican congressman John Saylor of Pennsylvania served in Congress from 1949 until his death in 1973. He co-sponsored the 1964 Wilderness Act and led the fight for the 1968 Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. He felt that unspoiled lands were important for physical and mental well-being—that everyone needed a place to get away from the noise and pace of modern life and reconnect with a more traditional pace of living.

Conservation, Energy Policy, and National Security

The Set America Free Coalition is a group of conservative hawks who feel that our dependence on oil is a threat to national security. Part of their mission is to push for serious national policies to improve fuel efficiency and develop non-petroleum transportation fuels.

America simply can’t become self-sufficient in oil; the only way to lessen our dependence on foreign oil is to lessen our dependence on oil altogether—starting with improved fuel efficiency. This is crucial because most of the global oil supply is controlled by countries that do not care about America’s best interests. Oil is the Achilles’ heel of America’s economy, and thus conservation becomes a cornerstone of our national security.

Upon leaving his office at the end of his second term, George Washington warned against being overly entangled in foreign countries. Our dependence on oil from foreign countries forces us to become entangled.

Within a matter of mere decades, China will almost certainly become the world’s largest economy—and the largest consumer of oil. Without a serious conservation effort and a drive to become energy independent, we may well find America on a tragic collision course with a nuclear rival.

The less oil we consume, the more secure we will be.

Conservation and Development
"You cannot be a conservative and be on the side of the concrete pourers and the cement mixers."
–John Lukacs
Conservative historian and speaker John Lukacs was not making a statement that conservatism should be opposed to blue-collar workers, nor was he making a call to reject development outright. Rather, he was stating that unbridled development is a threat to the present and future of the communities that we cherish.

A community has every right to live by an unstated social contract of their own design, and development that is contrary to this social contract is a threat to wellbeing of that community. In other words, Wal-Mart (to take an oft maligned example) has every right to purchase land and build a store in communities, just as every community equally has the right to enact zoning that prohibits such land use to protect a cherished standard and style of living. Some things are more valued than mere economic development, and this is the true meaning of the science of economics.

The conservative case for conservation is simple: by insuring a healthy environment and wise use of natural resources, we secure our standard of living for ourselves and future generations.

Friday, November 25, 2005

Our Center of Gravity and Victory in Iraq

In his seminal work on warfare, Clausewitz identified the theory of “center of gravity”. The center of gravity is the point of greatest importance, interest, or activity; if you destroy this center, you destroy the enemy’s will to fight and he will rapidly lose cohesion and capitulate. The center of gravity varies from enemy to enemy and from conflict to conflict.

In the first Gulf War, America and its allies found the Iraqi center of gravity in the Republican Guard. When we destroyed the effectiveness of the most elite units of Saddam’s army, the ordinary conscripts—already shell-shocked from round the clock aerial bombardment—lost the will to fight and surrendered en mass. With his most elite units taking such a blow, Saddam had no choice but to accept that the war was a lost cause.

In Vietnam, General Giap found our center of gravity—not so much in the will of the soldiers, but in the will of the American electorate. He realized he didn’t need to win the battles–as long as he killed as many American soldiers as possible, as often as possible, the will of the electorate would eventually crumble. All it required was a good understanding of war fighting doctrine and a ruthless disregard for his soldier’s welfare. Some would say that the notion that a peace movement could have handed us a defeat despite battlefield success is only strange if you reject the notion that in a representative democracy a mass movement of people can affect public policy.

Now Al-Qaeda and the Iraqi insurgents are hoping that the same strategy of striking at democracy’s center of gravity will pay similar dividends in Iraq. When calls go out to bring our troops home short of our stated objective—a stable democratic state that can defend itself against both foreign and domestic enemies—it is the understanding of this strategy that incenses those who truly want America to succeed. So while this war will be fought on the battlefield of Iraq, it will be won or lost on the American home front.

This strategy has been paying some dividends to America’s enemies, as seen in the opportunistic stances of some finger in the wind politicians calling for troop withdrawals on an artificial timetable, before we have adequately trained the Iraqi army. However, before one comes to a snap judgment as to the wisdom of an immediate troop withdrawal, it’s useful to project the possible outcomes. What follows is a possible scenario in the face of such a move.

Far from bringing more stability, an American withdrawal before the Iraqi government is able to adequately defend itself is likely to result in the break up of Iraq, a redrawing of the map of the Middle East, and spread instability beyond the borders of Iraq.

Iraq’s break up would most likely start with Syria trying to lay claim to the Sunni Arab provinces in the west on the pretences of border security and bringing peace and stability to a neighbor, much as they did in Lebanon through the 70s—a de facto annexation only just recently ended. It’s equally likely there would be a series of destabilizing incidents in Lebanon, carried out by Syrian intelligence agents, precipitating a new Syrian intervention. Make no mistake—these moves would be nothing more than blatant annexations in all but name.

On the heels of such a move by Syria, it is probable that Iran would likewise attempt to swallow up the Shiite areas in the east, and on much the same pretexts of border security and regional stability. This would put Iran in possession of vast amounts of oil reserves and give them the ability to threaten the economic stability of the entire world.

The desert bordering Saudi Arabia, which was claimed by the Saudis before the first Gulf war, may well be swallowed up in a revival of those claims. This may well trigger a savage and bloody war between the Sunni fundamentalist Saudis and the Shiite fundamentalist Iranians over theology and oil.

These moves would leave the Kurds alone in the mountains, a situation which would make Turkey feel compelled to annex the Kurdish areas of Iraq, fearing that an independent Kurdish state would cause their own Kurdish minority to break away.

All this would happen in the name of border security and regional stability–and you could kiss Middle East stability, an independent and multicultural Iraq, and the first true Arab democracy goodbye.

The best hope to head off this nightmare scenario, or any of the other myriad possible—and equally bad—scenarios, is for there to be a stable Iraqi government and a strong Iraqi army. We have been helping to build that government with great successes, as we have been helping to build the Iraqi Army with less obvious, but no less real, success. The successes on the battlefield will always be incremental and less tangible in the short run.

Al Qaeda’s center of gravity may be the repressive regimes that offer no economic opportunity and offer no outlets for frustration outside of fundamentalism. If we end these regimes and offer the Islamic world economic and social freedom, Al Qaeda might well have trouble finding recruits. Our victory in Iraq will be the successful birthing of the first true and lasting Arab democracy offering a vision to compete with the regimes that help to breed terrorism.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Morality and the Iraq War

The issues surrounding the Iraq war is something I've given a great deal of careful thought and research to. For this post I want to leave aside all the issues of WMD, terrorism, and legality—not because these issues aren't important, they manifestly are. I leave these issues aside to focus on only one aspect: the moral aspect and my personal feelings in regards to this aspect.

I've been an ardent proponent of regime change since back in '91 when, as a soldier serving in Operation Desert Storm, I saw first hand the results of Saddam's regime. The argument that the Iraqis should have deposed Saddam themselves misses entirely how utterly ruthless and depraved that regime was, and how utterly repressed the Iraqis were.

Saddam's regime was first and foremost, a danger to Iraqis. The most conservative count of people who were outright executed under Saddam is 300,000—other counts go much, much higher.

The UN conventions on genocide automatically authorize force to halt genocide. It is this fact that compels countries to perform logical and linguistic acrobatics to keep from declaring that genocide is in progress: they don't want to get involved. The fact remains that Saddam, under the eyes of the whole world, committed genocide against the Kurds for their uprising after the first Gulf War. It was only with the imposition of the no-fly zones by the US that the Kurds were able to withdraw to their mountainous redoubts and fight Saddam to a stalemate. Given the fact that further genocide was likely if the US were to cease the no-fly zones, it is arguable that the US had the right to force a regime change to end the no-fly zones at a time in a manner of its choosing.

The butcher's bill isn't fully totaled yet, for Saddam can be credited with the dead Iraqis from the Iran-Iraq war—a war started by Saddam. Once again using a very conservative estimate, and only counting the Iraqis killed (roughly 3 times more Iranians were killed), we can add another 200,000 dead to the total.

The horrible truth doesn't stop there. Sanctions were imposed after Saddam's invasion of Kuwait, which he had the power to end simply by fully cooperating with the UN inspection teams. Saddam first blocked, then mismanaged and pilfered, offers of food and medical aid. All the while, infant mortality shot up as a direct result of Saddam's actions. So the sanctions were killing people, but without the sanctions Saddam most certainly would have been pursuing WMD (see: the Duelfer report).

Every month with Saddam in power was another month that sanctions killed thousands of innocent Iraqis. Yet those are the very same sanctions that war opponents like to claim made the war unnecessary, because they were keeping WMD out of Saddam's hands. The only way to end sanctions without allowing Saddam WMD was to end Saddam. Still using a very conservative count we can add another 350,000 dead as a result of "keeping Saddam in his box".

That's minimally 850,000 Iraqis dead due to Saddam and his regime. That doesn't include the number of Iranians killed during his unprovoked invasion of Iran, and completely leaving out the deaths of Iraqis and other nationalities as a direct result of his unprovoked invasion of Kuwait.

It's tragic when the innocent die, it's more tragic when we stand by and do nothing—as we did for all of the 90s, even though we had the military force in theater, multiple UN resolutions authorizing force, and casus belli in Saddam's actions. Even using the most over-inflated casualty figures for the war and occupation, America has a LONG way to go before we can ever be said to match the carnage Saddam wrought on the Iraqi people.

The implication of the anti-war movement is that Iraqi deaths don't matter as long as Americans don't have to see it on TV, or have to face the uncomfortable reality that even a just war kills innocent people. That America has killed civilians is terrible; that some would have left a far more prolific butcher in place to salve guilty consciences is much, much worse. Saddam's killing is only in the past because we made it that way—far more people were likely to have died over the long run if we did nothing.

Bottom line: Saddam's regime was flat out evil. Not merely bad, but evil. Every day with Saddam and his demented half-wit sons at the driving wheel was another day of guaranteed theft, rape, torture, and murder. That's what he'd do to his own people, and what he exported to neighboring countries.

Indifference to the justness of this war is indifference to true evil, and is sadly self-centered. To do nothing is taking a side.

There is NO WAY, having seen the things I saw with my own eyes, that I could have opposed this war. Deposing Saddam and dismantling his regime was the morally right thing to do.

"The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing."
–Edmund Burke

Better Make That a Double

The history of the martini, as with several other popular cocktails, is a murky one. All manner of things from an opera star, to rifle, to a town in California has laid claim to being the genesis of the drink and its name.

A strong conteder for ancestor of the the modern martini was first created in 1911 by Martini di Arma di Taggia, head barman at the Knickerbocker Hotel in New York, when he mixed half and half London Gin, Noilly Prat Vermouth and orange bitters. The regulars at the Knickerbocker asked for variations and added the olive, and over the years the recipe has morphed.

During the depression years, something closer to the contemporary drink became popular. With three parts gin, one part dry vermouth, it packed enough kick to guarantee a hangover to match the economic outlook.

It's been claimed in some quarters that FDR was the first to popularize the dirty martini, wherein a splash of olive brine is added. Whoever had that happy first thought to add that little dash, good on them, for I like my martinis like I like my women: dirty, and on the rocks. Of course, my wife assures me I'm not nearly as hilarious as I think I am--but I digress.

During the cold war years, the martini called for less and less vermouth. Some go so far as to claim that the proper way to make a martini is to leave the cap on the vermouth bottle. However, that drink has a different name: just gin.

Nowadays, the avid tippler can get all manner of drinks laying claim to the name of martini. Made with vodka, or flavored: chocolate, hazelnut, raspberry...the list goes on.

For my money, the more classic is best: gin, with just a kiss of vermouth, and two olives. Some claim that you should only stir a martini, as shaking will bruise the gin--I'm afraid these poor souls are confused, it's babies that you're not supposed to shake.

So the next time you're out to enjoy a tasty recreational beverage, consider having the king of cocktails, and make it a double for me.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

On Lincoln

Without a doubt, Abraham Lincoln is my favorite President. I revere Lincoln because he was a moral man who loved freedom—he believed that if we allow the freedom of others to be denigrated we open the door to it happening to us:

“Those who deny freedom to others deserve it not for themselves, and, under a just God cannot long retain it.” –Abraham Lincoln

And yet, I occasionally come across someone who suggests that Lincoln was in reality a closet racist, and as supposed proof of that offers carefully cherry-picked quotes of his.

It’s true that Lincoln made some comments that he felt it was better that white men be in a position of supremacy:

“I as well as Judge Douglas am in favor of the race to which I belong having the superior position. I have never said anything to the contrary, but I hold that nonwithstanding all there is no reason in the world why the negro is not entitled to all the natural rights enumerated in the declaration of Independence, -the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. I hold that he is as much entitled to these as the white man.” –Abraham Lincoln, debating Judge Stephen A. Douglas in 1858.

You’ll note that he clearly articulates a belief that blacks are entitled to all the natural rights that previously had been reserved for the whites.

It has also been suggested that he was a segregationist, or that he wished to send the slaves back to Africa:

““I have said that the separation of the races is the only perfect preventative of amalgamation. I have no right to say all the members of the Republican party are in favor of this, nor to say that as a party they are in favor of it. There is nothing in their platform directly on the subject. But I can say a very large proportion of its members are for it, and that the chief plank in their platform — opposition to the spread of slavery — is most favorable to that separation.

Such separation, if ever effected at all, must be effected by colonization; and no political party, as such, is now doing anything directly for colonization. Party operations at present only favor or retard colonization incidentally. The enterprise is a difficult one, but ‘when there is a will there is a way;’ and what colonization needs most is a hearty will. Will springs from the two elements of moral sense and self-interest. Let us be brought to believe it is morally right, and, at the same time, favorable to, or, at least, not against, our interest, to transfer the African to his native clime, and we shall find a way to do it, however great the task may be. The children of Israel, to such numbers as to include four hundred thousand fighting men, went out of Egyptian bondage in a body.” –Abraham Lincoln, Speech on the Dred Scott decision, June 26th, 1857

A reading of the Dred Scott speech doesn’t truly tell one that sending the blacks to Africa was his preferred solution; he simply stated that it was the only ‘perfect’ way to prevent a mixing of the races, an issue that was of general concern to significant segments of the population. After all, Lincoln was a lawyer and a politician, and prone to arguing all manner of angles on an issue, for all manner of audiences.

It’s just as likely that the reasoning behind potentially sending the slaves back to Africa was that since they were stolen from there—ergo they should desire to go back there. It wasn’t an absurd notion, and Lincoln certainly can be forgiven for thinking that was what the slaves would have wanted; thus, it was ‘morally right…to transfer the African to his native clime’.

Sometimes, as proof of his alleged indifference to slavery, Lincoln’s statements that were given at a time when he was trying to lead the Union away from civil war are offered. It’s true that, early on, Lincoln hoped the issue could be settled by peaceful means and went to great pains to assure the south he wouldn’t tread on what they felt to be their “right”. Lincoln—and pretty much everyone else—could see a civil war coming, and desperately wanted to avoid it:

“Now I believe that if we could arrest the spread of slavery…it would be in the course of ultimate extinction. The crisis would be past…” -Abraham Lincoln, debating Judge Stephen A. Douglas in 1858.

Lincoln understood that the status quo could not be maintained:

“One section of our country believes slavery is right , and ought to be extended, while the other believes it is wrong , and ought not to be extended…This, I think, cannot be perfectly cured; and it would be worse in both cases after the separation of the sections, than before. The foreign slave trade, now imperfectly suppressed, would be ultimately revived without restriction, in one section; while fugitive slaves, now only partially surrendered, would not be surrendered at all, by the other.” -Abraham Lincoln’s first inaugural address, March 4th, 1861.

As time went by, his stance hardened:

"If there be those who would not save the Union, unless they could at the same time save slavery, I do not agree with them. If there be those who would not save the Union unless they could at the same time destroy slavery, I do not agree with them. My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union; and what I forebear, I forebear because I do not believe it would save the Union.” –Abraham Lincoln,Letter to Horace Greely, August 22nd, 1862

His belief that slavery itself was a threat to union and a moral wrong was articulated on many different occasions, particularly the debates with Judge Douglas. For example, in a follow up to his ‘House Divided’ speech:

“I leave it to you to say whether in the history of our government this institution of slavery has not always failed to be a bond of union, and on the contrary has always been an apple of discord and an element of division in the house.” –Abraham Lincoln

A little more:

“When [Douglas] says he ‘cares not whether slavery is voted up or voted down’…he is, in my judgment, penetrating the human soul and eradicating the light of
reason and the love of liberty in this American people…” –Abraham incoln

Perhaps by today’s stringent standards it can be argued that Lincoln was racist, as were the great majority of people at that time. However, the cumulative evidence for Lincoln’s alleged Racism is actually quite thin—partial quotes taken out of context—when compared to the evidence that he was not. To even a casual student of history, malice toward blacks isn’t something one can easily ascribe to Lincoln. What can be safely said is that Lincoln believed that blacks were humans and endowed with the same right to freedom, at a time when that was not a very popular view:

“I cannot but hate slavery. I hate it because of the monstrous injustice of slavery itself.” –Abraham Lincoln

Those are not the words of a man who was indifferent to the suffering of the slaves. While it may be true that even the best of abolitionists at the time of Lincoln were no racial egalitarians, it’s also true that racial attitudes have been evolutionary—you simply cannot apply today’s standards to historical figures.

For Lincoln, slavery was the gravest of threats to the future of America, and morally reprehensible. It is his staunch support for a moral stand in government, even in the face of unpopularity, his refusal to let representative democracy die, and his championing of basic human rights that still resounds today and should never be forgotten.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Rights, the Social Contract, and Libertarianism

An often unstated tension in modern politics is the difference between negative rights and positive rights. Negative rights are those that state a person has the right to not be restricted by another person, and are ably expressed in the Constitution’s Bill of Rights. Positive rights are those that state a person has a right to be provided with something by the actions of another person, and often vary according to different interest groups. Some would argue that positive rights are completely at odds with negative rights, and some would argue that they complement each other.

To live in a society, people agree to an implicit or explicit social contract, which gives them certain rights in return for giving up certain freedoms they would have in a state of nature—more rights entail more responsibilities and less freedoms. As rights and responsibilities are not fixed, the people who are party to a particular social contract may change the terms of that contract by consensus if they wish. The rights and responsibilities of individuals are the terms of the social contract, and as those rights and responsibilities become more formally codified, a government is formed which enforces that contract.

Libertarians are one group that would argue that positive and negative rights are at odds with each other—some libertarians would go so far as to argue that absolutely any infringement of negative rights is unacceptable. They seem to either not realize, or forget, that being a part of society is sometimes at odds with a strict interpretation of negative rights.

Applying the idea of a social contract versus a strict interpretation of negative rights to selected social questions:

Should the government ensure we have a safe food supply?

Some libertarians would answer no. Yet without adequate rules there is no legal recourse if someone intentionally sells corrupt meat, or adds toxic fillers to a food. When a person buys food they trust that the vendor won’t knowingly sell a bad product; were a vendor to do so, this would be a breech of the implied social contract that the vendor will not do so. This trust is core to the modern division of labor system; since a plumber, a teacher, or a police officer cannot be personally involved in the raising of livestock and the harvesting of grain, they must be able to trust that someone else is doing it in a manner that is safe to the consumer. So the food producer’s rights to do as they will is secondary to the consumer are right not to have this unstated contract violated.

Should the government provide for those who legitimately cannot provide for themselves?

It’s been argued that no, the government should not, and that private charities can provide relief to the needy better than the government can. Yet the members of society who are disadvantaged through no fault of their own outside of simple fate can’t always depend on the charity of others. To argue otherwise is to have an over inflated trust in the altruistic nature of man; one cannot always depend on someone helping because of their personal feelings of charity, but there is a greater chance of the disadvantaged getting help if it’s someone’s job.

When thinking about weaker members of society who may need assistance to survive, the handicapped spring to mind. Not all human capital is physical, especially in modern societies. One needs look no further than Stephen Hawking to know the truth of this.

Should the government mandate compulsory schooling to a pre-determined age?

Once again, some of the libertarian persuasion have argued that the government has no place mandating that children receive education, or to what level or standard that should happen.

In a modern technological society, education is a key to success, not to mention important for the proper functioning of a democratic society. Children cannot intelligently make the choice and evaluate the personal cost of not going to school. Unfortunately, some parents of cannot intelligently make that evaluation either.

While it can be argued that a parent has very broad rights in regards to their children, the right to severely disadvantage them should not be counted as one of those rights. Support for mandatory education can perhaps be viewed as a slippery slope eroding parental rights, but it’s a compromise that attempts to balance the rights of the parents against the dependent children—the cause of future generations’ rights are served at the expense of the rights of the parents.

Libertarian sensibilities are hugely appealing sensibilities, yet taken to their extreme they depend on all parties to the social contract be highly responsible and ethical—a condition that destines it for failure as an independent governing philosophy. Despite this, the libertarian admiration for negative rights can inform other belief systems and clarify thinking about social issues.

The Problem with Libertarianism

Libertarianism is based on the idea of negative liberty: that no individual should suffer coercion; all should be free to do as they will so long as it does not interfere with others. This is a deeply appealing philosophy for many.

The problem is, this philosophy ignores human nature. Libertarianism depends on everyone being responsible, or at least confining the ill effects of their poor choices to themselves, and that’s exactly where it breaks down. People’s poor choices, especially in a modern technological society, can affect others. Individuals do not need government, but societies do, because not all citizens are responsible.

Society enacts laws to codify and enforce generally agreed social values (values such as: don’t kill your neighbor, don’t steal, don’t cheat). A legitimately sovereign government, at the whim of the governed, is trusted to fairly and equitably enforce those codified values precisely because not every individual is ethically upright and responsible. Sadly, some governments do not have this legitimacy and achieve power through force or farce. Another possibility is that even in a legitimately sovereign government, the governed and the government individually or both forget that the government rules at the whim of the governed. This is when government over-reaches and begins enacting laws beyond what should rightfully be their writ to enforce those generally agreed social values of not killing, stealing, or cheating.

The proper role of government should be to ensure wide-ranging individual rights, even the right to be personally irresponsible, while protecting the individual from the irresponsibility or malice of others. This is the delicate balance that a free society must try to strike between liberty and security: the more you have of one, very often the less you have of the other–think of it like cash and insurance: you spend one to purchase the other. Yet the notion exists that as a society buys more of this ‘insurance’ they become more dependant on the government, and that over dependancy is a very bad thing. Despite this, people still find it desireable, even necessary, to give up some liberty for the smooth functioning of a society.

Libertarianism is a fine ideal, but like all ideals that fail to acknowledge human nature, it is doomed to failure as a governing and organizing philosophy unless it allows itself to be tempered by the realities of the nature of the very people it would speak for. The breathtaking ability of people to allow their individual irresponsibility to harm others and personal selfishness should never be underestimated.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Thoughts on History and Racism

It is often said that to know where you’re going you have to know from where you came. It is in that spirit that I’d like to present a condensed history of the two mainstream American political parties with regards to the issue of racism (specifically, anti-black racism). At the end, I’ll present my thoughts on the current day political implications. I don’t pretend to be an expert, so take the analysis with a grain of salt.

After a failed bid for president in 1824, Andrew Jackson formed the Democratic Party from a faction of the old Republican Party in order to defeat President John Quincy Adams in the election of 1828.

In the 1850s, the Republican Party reformed with a strongly anti-slavery platform, while the Democratic Party became increasingly associated with the expansion of slavery. Democrats in the North opposed this trend, and in 1860 the Democrats split and nominated two candidates (Stephen Douglass in the north and John Breckenridge in the south). Ironically, this split assured the victory of Abraham Lincoln who would otherwise have been unelectable due to conservative voters defecting to the newly formed, and destined to be short-lived, Constitutional Union party. The election of the eloquently anti-slavery Lincoln set the stage for the civil war, causing a further split in the Northern Democrats. On one side, War Democrats supported the military policies of Lincoln, while the Copperheads strongly opposed them.

After the war, the Democrats benefited from white Southerners’ resentment of reconstruction and hostility to the Republican Party. Once reconstruction ended, the disenfranchisement of blacks was re-established by the passage of segregationist Jim Crow laws. It was this resentment by whites and disenfranchisement of blacks that caused the south to vote reliably Democratic for several decades. In all fairness it should be noted that that neither major party tried to use federal power against the Jim Crow laws.In 1924 at the Democratic national convention, a resolution denouncing the white-supremacist Ku Klux Klan was voted down by the majority of Democratic delegates. Then, during what was to become the fateful 1948 national convention, the Democratic Party adopted a pro-civil rights platform, causing a new split in the party. Led by Strom Thurmond, many Southern Democratic delegates split from the party and formed the “Dixiecrats”; many white Democrats in the south began drifting away from the party. Up to this time, blacks, who had traditionally given strong support to the Republican Party, began shifting to the Democratic Party due to FDR’s New Deal economic opportunities and Truman’s support for civil rights. The Democratic turn-around on civil rights was completed when Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Four years later, Richard Nixon, with the collaboration of Strom Thurmond, crafted the now infamous Southern strategy, aimed at picking up conservative whites who were drifting away from the Democratic Party over the issue of civil rights.

I believe that the Republican Party missed two good chances to cement their well earned legacy as the party of civil rights. The first came after reconstruction with the failure to challenge the establishment of Jim Crow laws. There may have been some element of racism to this, but even more than that it probably wasn’t seen as being politically expedient for the Party to do so at that time. The second opportunity was missed when the Party didn’t embrace the civil rights movement in the 1960s. I feel that this was due to a reluctance to embrace what had become a Democratic Party plank. Nixon’s embrace of disillusioned southern whites may have been a politically savvy move, but at the cost of the moral high-ground on racial issues. Civil rights would have been a non-starter without Republican support, but this is not what the Party is remembered for.

As we move into the future and the demographic make-up of America shifts, the Republican Party needs to think about how to recapture the high-ground it once occupied on racial issues.

Friday, November 04, 2005

Bonhoeffer or Gandhi

The Reverend Martin Luther King Junior once said “If your opponent has a conscience, then follow Gandhi and nonviolence. But if your enemy has no conscience like Hitler, then follow Bonhoeffer.” In the clear, elegant fashion that he was known for, Rev. King articulated the moral case for action in the face of evil.

For those who don’t know, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German Lutheran theologian who was active in the German anti-Nazi resistance during World War II. During the war, Bonhoeffer came to understand that violence is justified in the face of an implacable evil, and that to love one’s neighbor is to take a measure of responsibility for their life. He followed through on his convictions and became involved the unsuccessful Wolf’s Lair bombing plot to assassinate Hitler, and was subsequently arrested by the Gestapo. On April 9, 1945, he paid for his convictions with his life in the Flossenburg Concentration Camp. Had he been successful, millions of innocent lives could have been saved.

Gandhi was successful in his bid for an independent India by non-violent means because of the nature of his opponent. Through a series of mass public demonstrations the Indians showed the British that they faced a stark choice: they could either engage in slaughter, or leave. The British chose the latter, and a newly independent India was born.

In China from April to June 1989, student protestors engaged in a massive non-violent protest for democracy in Tiananmen Square, with greatly different results. Threatened by the size, duration, and fervor of the protest, Deng Xiaoping and the Communist party leadership declared martial law. The resulting crackdown claimed thousands of lives.

These examples find relevance in current events. When the alternative to war is leaving in place a regime that has proven its lethal intents on its neighbors and its own populace, and is likely to continue to cause the deaths of more, then it is time for good intentioned people to the mental calculus: what are the odds that nonviolent action will cause a change of policy, and what is the cost, in human lives and suffering, of not taking violent action?

To engage in war is to cause suffering and death. However, it is equally true that to sit and do nothing while others are persecuted and killed is to be culpable for that very same suffering and death. One must do the calculus and determine not only what the costs of action are likely to be, but also what the costs of inaction are likely to be. Then you will know if you should be Bonhoeffer or Gandhi.