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Politics. Economics. Morality. Religion. And Everything In Between.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

The Nature of the Political Organism

If any of you have wondered why I haven't been posting as regularly as usual lately, it's because I've been busy preparing for (and today, actually attending) a conference about political philosophy. In my first day there, I had a number of enlightening conversations with people who weren't as libertarian as I am. The last of these, in which I discussed the nature of society with a couple of student attendees as well as a professor who would be lecturing later, made me doubt some of my more recently taken but still staunchly defended positions.

I have always rejected the idea that society is a single unified entity. Human beings do not possess a hive mind; no community has a consciousness that can entertain thoughts or feelings that are independent of those of its members. Like Aristotle, I disagreed with Plato's assertion that a city full of unhappy people could still be a happy city. Such a city was, to me, just a bunch of unhappy people.

Instead, I believed that any city or society of any kind was just a mass of individuals. The only discrete unit of humanity that mattered on a political level was the particular human person, because that was the only thing in a state that could actually reason. This led me to adopt a lot of very libertarian political philosophies. Individual liberty was the highest political end (I still believed that virtue was the highest human end). I viewed all societal relationships in terms of person and state, and from a moral perspective, the person won every time.

The problem is, though, that while human communities do not possess hive minds, they can still form intellectual entities that are more than the sum of their parts. Often, this "social imagination" or "social consciousness" can help people like me catch liberals in rhetorical traps. Many times, when a liberal has tried to argue a secular relativist position against someone who believes strongly in an objective truth and morality, the traditionalist will force the liberal to carry his position to its furthest extent, which often justifies some really vile utilitarian exploitative practice. If this happens, the liberal will often back away from his own position because the echoes of Christianity that still permeate our culture have instilled in him an instinctual respect for the human person.

Societies are more than just aggregations of individuals. They are like individual organisms, in a way, with cells (people), tissues (classes of people), organs (organizations and institutions) and even a nervous system (the overall intellectual character of the civilization). Societies and civilizations do not speak with one voice the way Communists and other totalitarians would have you believe. This consciousness is also not best expressed or manipulated by the state the way modern progressives think it should be, either. It is more than individual, more than state, more even than Church (speaking only in the institutional sense).

The nature of corporate society, like that of the family and the mystical Body of Christ, mirrors the Holy Trinity in its simultaneous possession of unity and differentiation. Unfortunately, it also possesses the Trinity's inscrutable character. I'm not sure what to do with it, or what it means for broader political philosophy yet. Until I do, though, I'm going to stay committed to my efforts to defend it valiantly against the encroachments of the United States federal government, while realizing that I may find a higher calling at some point in the future.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

On Inequality

"We hold these truths to be self-evident-that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, [and] that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness"-- so says the Declaration of Independence. I say, however, that the first of these truths is NOT self-evident. In fact, I would go even further by saying that it is plainly self-evident that human beings are NOT all equal, and in many cases, this inequality is permanent and inherent.

One of the most readily apparent ways in which people are unequal is in physical stature. If any of you were wondering, I am 5'11" tall and weigh 175 lbs. Without taking steroids or HGH or putting on a ton of fat, that's basically as big as I can get. I will never be huge and powerful enough to be an NFL linebacker no matter how much I would like to. People also differ in intelligence. Over the past 100 years, scientists have established that the vast majority of a person's mental capacity is fixed by the time they reach adulthood. Depending on the study, anywhere between 50 and 80% of a person's "g-factor," or general intelligence, depends on pure genetics, and most of the rest is unalterably biologically determined by environmental factors such as nutrition and exposure to harmful chemicals in childhood. You can train your brain to be more efficient, but you are still limited by the brain you have.

Human beings exhibit a wide range of variation in respect to nearly every measurable characteristic. Some don't reach five feet, while others (many of whom are in the NBA) exceed seven. Developmentally disabled folks have IQs in the low to mid double digits, while the IQs of our greatest scientists may approach 200. The differences between the most and least gifted individuals in any area are staggering, and in a relatively free and open society such as the U.S., these differences are a big reason why some people possess ridiculous amounts of fame, wealth, skill, and power and others seem to fade into the background.

Average CEO pay in the United States this year was $9.2 million, or roughly 20 times the median household income. Many attribute this disparity to the "greed" of corporate executives, but these people are missing the point. There are a lot of very greedy people out there who are also very poor. Just because you want a lot of money doesn't mean you'll get it. New financial regulations gave the shareholders of publicly traded companies a chance to vote on their CEOs' compensation packages, and 98% of the time, they voted to approve it. The shareholders did this because they believed that their CEOs generated MORE than 20 times as much value for the company as the average employee did, so by paying their CEOs 20 times as much, they would still be making money. If they cut their CEOs' salaries, these CEOs might quit and force the company to make due with a less effective leader.

Like the shareholders of those companies, I believe that it is in OUR best interest if we allow the monetary value of someone's work to be determined by those who make use of it. In this way, we reward those who benefit us in proportion to the benefits they provide and thereby encourage others to follow in the same path. If we were to let Congress or some other independent group set the maximum pay for anyone in any industry, fewer extremely talented people would work in that industry, and those who benefit from that particular good or service (basically everyone) will suffer.

At the same time, though, we must realize that all people, even the most distinguished, are limited by the human condition. Bill Gates and Warren Buffett may be filthy rich, but they still don't have infinite resources. Usain Bolt may be faster than any other human being, but he still can't outrun a horse, much less a cheetah. Furthermore, the difference between a cheetah and Usain Bolt is greater than the difference between Usain Bolt and the slowest humans. Everyone, from the greatest to the least among us, is born, grows, prospers, fails, suffers, rejoices, loves, hates, and eventually dies. We should neither worship any man as a god nor demean anyone as a slave. Rather, we should organize society in a way that rewards the variety and brilliance of human ability without allowing those whose talents allow them to amass wealth, power, and influence to use these abilities to dominate others.

The modern West is currently failing on both counts. The mainstream media vilifies as robber barons people who have earned a great deal of money though honest means while hailing those who wield troubling amounts of political power as saints. "The masses" clamor for jobs but shriek and moan when the government threatens to cut their entitlement benefits to free up enough money to let the private sector create the jobs they desire. We cannot claim the rights of men while lining up to be fed like livestock at the government trough. I admit that, in many cases, people cannot earn a decent living because a crafty few have been able to monopolize the means of production in their industries by extracting beneficial regulations, subsidies, and tax exemptions from politicians they have co-opted. Before we call upon people to take responsibility for their own lives, we must give them the means to do so. Our government must end its unholy alliance with multinational corporations whereby the upper classes are kept as wage-slaves to their employers and the lower classes sell their votes to populist politicians in exchange for free education and health care. Only after we have done this can our society assume a state of pronounced yet mutually acceptable and even just inequality.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

The Two-Party System Part 2: Possible Solutions

I ended my last post with a few examples of politicians who had cracked the two-party system. These guys all had one thing in common: they were big fish in small ponds. They had enough name recognition, money, and/or campaign expertise that they didn't need the backing of a political machine to win elections. They may not all have been fantastic leaders of our nation or of their respective states, but they were alternative choices that did more than just extend the rule of the Republican or Democratic parties. To give more potential candidates, some of whom may really be transcendental leaders, a chance at running against the system, we have to replicate the conditions that allowed these aforementioned mavericks to succeed. Continuing with my fish metaphor, we need to shrink the size of ALL the ponds.

Here's an example of how we would do that. The size of the U.S. House of Representatives used to increase with the U.S. population until 1911, when House membership was permanently capped at 435. America's population in 1911 was 93,860,000, which meant that every Congressman, on average, represented 215,770 people. Today, the U.S. population is slightly greater than 311,000,000, which means that the average Congressman now represents over 700,000 people. This number looks even more outrageous when we consider that the Constitution originally specified that there should be one Congressman for every 30,000 people.

Granted, modern communication and transportation technology has greatly increased our ability to access information and stay connected with people and organizations that are important to us. Even though, we must remember that because most states restricted the franchise to property-owning white males around the time of America's founding, each congressional district would usually contain no more than 5 or 6 thousand eligible voters. Today's districts contain about 88 times as many eligible voters as our original ones did. If any of you think that the citizens of today are 88 times better than our forefathers at judging a person's character from a distance, then I have some Portuguese debt to sell you.

Capping the size of Congressional districts at 250,000 or so (a nice-sounding arbitrary number, I admit) would reduce candidates' dependence on mass communication for reaching voters. Candidates for the House would be able to build local relationships and address local issues instead of adhering to the dictates of a national party. The size of the House would increase to around 1244 members, which would have additional positive effects. It would become a more cumbersome and unwieldy body, harder to organize behind a common cause. This is a good thing since most legislation that comes out of Washington, in my humble opinion, either places unnecessary and harmful restrictions on private activities or wastes a great deal of taxpayer money. The sheer size and diversity of the House's membership would also help curb the tendency towards increased pork-barrel spending that would result from making Congressional districts smaller and their representatives more locally oriented. How would you like to try to convince 1243 people that your district REALLY needs that $300 million highway?

To find out how to reorient the Senate, we should look again to the Constitution. Originally, state legislatures chose the Senators from each state in the same way that parliaments elect a prime minister. In 1913, though, the 17th amendment declared that Senators were to be elected by the entire voting public of their respective states. This has made Senators even more beholden to party machinery and the mass media for public exposure, since their electorates are in most cases much larger than those of Representatives. If state legislatures were to choose the state's Senators once again, instead of a couple million people voting for someone they saw twice on TV, we would have at most a few hundred people choosing among candidates that they observe personally every day. Furthermore, people would once again have a reason to care about who their state legislator is since that legislator would have a hand in choosing the state's national Senator. As it is, though, a population that can directly elect all the members of every branch of national government save the Judiciary will far too often simply ignore state-level elections and get what it wants by going directly to the Feds. This destroys the authority and independence of the states, which upsets the delicate balance of our federal system.

Finally, I'd like to recommend that we restore the Electoral College to its traditional role in Presidential elections. Right now, every member of a state's electoral college delegation simply votes in lockstep with the others for whichever Presidential candidate wins a majority of that state's popular vote. Originally, electors were chosen by the state legislatures like Senators and voted for a Presidential candidate without any input from the general population. I'd like to reintroduce this form of election, albeit in modified form.

I would have the people of each congressional district choose an elector just as they choose a Congressman (though the elector will be necessarily a different person than their currently serving Congressman). Each state legislature would then appoint two more electors. This would reflect the longstanding tradition that the number of electors should equal the total number of senators and representatives combined. Thus, we would have 1344 electors. These electors would then hold their own election for the President of the United States some time later without any interference from the population. (Right now, electors are still technically free to vote for whomever they please, but in practice, they never do.)

To enable the electors to make a wise and reasoned choice, I would hold the elections for the Electoral College no fewer than 6 months before the Presidential election. This would give all of the candidates plenty of time to campaign directly to the 1344 electors. You don't need TV and radio to reach 1344 people; all you need is a phone and an email account. Virtually anyone who acquires the requisite number of signatures to appear on a presidential ballot would then become a viable candidate. In theory, we would not have to fear that the electors would make a reckless decision because they would have had to convince the people of their districts that they were the best qualified to make such a choice. This procedure, I believe, would spell the ultimate downfall of the two-party system, especially since candidates would regularly fail to achieve a majority of the electoral vote and many elections would end up being decided by the now more fractious and locally-oriented House of Representatives.

There are a number of problems with the system I have proposed. The most glaring one I can identify is that with the Presidential electors being so few in number and so visible, people and organizations will try to bribe the bejeezus out of them. Still, I think that these problems are not insurmountable and that this system for choosing our government would leave us with much better leadership than we have now. If anyone has any thoughts, criticisms, or recommendations, please feel free to comment.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

The Two-Party System Part 1: Why It Sucks, and Why We're Stuck With It ... For Now

In case you've been living in a spider hole in Tajikistan for the last year or so, there's a massive political battle over the debt ceiling going on in Washington. Supposedly, if the government doesn't raise the debt ceiling from $14.3 trillion to $14.7 trillion by August 2, it will default on its debts, the value of the dollar will plunge, the economy will tank, the dead will rise from their graves, fire and brimstone will rain from the sky, and all hell will generally break loose.

I'm skeptical that the proverbial feces will impact the rotary air impeller as hard as they say it will if we don't raise the debt ceiling in time. The Republicans in the House of Representatives are, too, which is why they're playing fiscal policy-chicken with the Democrats by refusing to vote to raise the debt ceiling until the Democrats agree to cut spending by a "significant amount." The Holy Grail for Republicans is the $4 trillion that would be cut over 10 years by the Paul Ryan budget, their own proposal to curb spending. However, like Borat's "retard brother" Billo, "they will never get this!"

Here's the deal: Republicans want to gut entitlement spending (pensions, welfare, Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security), which together accounts for a whopping $2.2 trillion in spending. They are unwilling, however, to carve up their own sacred cows by cutting defense, another $900 billion annual expenditure, or eliminating corporate subsidies and tax breaks and raising taxes on the rich as President Obama has proposed, which would raise an additional $700 billion in annual revenue. Therefore, deficit-reduction talks have stalled. Republicans and Democrats both refuse to compromise on spending that they hold dear, and the country continues down the road to fiscal insolvency.

The solution? We need people in power who don't march in lock-step with either party. This is easier said than done, though, because of the way modern elections work. Congressmen in the House of Representatives, the lowest-level elected officials that hold national office, still run in districts that contain, on average, about 700,000 people. Roughly 400,000 of those will be registered voters. Senators, on average, must run before a statewide audience of 2-10 million registered voters, while the President himself campaigns before some 200 million voters (sadly, usually only half of them will turn out). For a politician to reach his entire potential voting base these days, he has to use a TON of expensive radio and TV advertising.

Big national political machines like the Republican and Democratic parties have money. They also have nationally televised and reported on events at which prospective candidates can make names for themselves. They hold official primaries that help build candidates' recognition before elections. Furthermore, they have armies of politically astute campaign workers at the ready to give their candidate the best possible chance of winning the election. Political aspirants usually have two choices: either they pledge allegiance to a big political party and receive its money and resources in exchange, or they get steamrolled by someone who has. Thus, the political machines propagate their own philosophies across the land, while independent thinkers get squashed.

As we have seen, this leads to political deadlock, because we're stuck with two parties with completely opposite and irreconcilable philosophies that can't compromise on anything. Why? Anyone who deviates from the party line moves away from his own party's core voters and risks being defeated by a more orthodox candidate in his party's primary. If this occurs, it becomes almost impossible for him to win the general election because 1. he has lost the support of the machine, which has since been transferred to one of his opponents, and 2. he's probably still more politically similar to the person who beat him in his own primary than he is to the opposing party's candidate, so he and his replacement will split his own party's vote, allowing the other party's candidate to win a cheap victory.

The only people who can overcome the high "barriers to entry" of the two-party system are those who are rich, powerful, and/or famous enough to get their voices heard without the help of the machine. One such man was Jesse Ventura, an actor who ran as an independent for the Minnesota governorship and won. Joe Lieberman, a Democratic senator who drifted to the center and (predictably) lost the Democratic primary, went on to win the general election as an independent because his long tenure of service and national reputation as a principled centrist gave him a much higher profile than either his Democratic or Republican challengers. Ron Paul, a Libertarian in Republican guise (whose virtues I have previously extolled on this blog) continues to hold down his Congressional seat by virtue of being a very big, experienced fish in a small pond.

How do we send more unconventional thinkers to Washington so we can actually solve our problems instead of just prolonging them? Here's a hint: think about the problems such candidates faced, and how those who managed to surmount them did so. To be continued, readers...

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Imperialist Backlash Then and Now

Until recently, I was a card-carrying imperialist. Many Americans are willing to identify themselves as hawks, patriots, and conservatives. A dwindling minority still call themselves neoconservatives. I've never heard anyone willingly embrace the label "imperialist" besides me. It is clear to me, however, that the United States is currently an empire. I used to think this was a good thing both for America and for the world, but now, I'm not so sure.

The U.S. has hundreds of thousands of military personnel deployed at 820 different bases and installations in 135 different countries. There are only 203 countries in the entire world. Two out of every three nations host at least some U.S. military presence. Currently, seven nations are home to more than 9,000 U.S. troops. Three of those nations, Japan, Germany, and South Korea, have hosted no less than 10,000 troops a piece for the last sixty years. Two more nations, Iraq and Afghanistan, are being occupied by a combined 200,000 American military personnel engaged in active combat operations against enemy forces. The governments of both of these nations were created under the supervision of our military and diplomatic corps, and these governments owe their continued existence to our protection.

If that's not an empire, will someone please tell me what is? Basically, the U.S. has troops positioned throughout the globe to counter any conceivable action by any international power, great or small, that might seriously harm its interests. The sun does not rise and set on land under the American flag as it once did for the British. Rather, American spy satellites rise and set on land under EVERY flag.

In some instances, U.S. military intervention has benefited the world. It brought an end to Hitler's Reich, one of the most serious threats to human freedom and even to human life that the world has ever seen. The Nazi Party was only able to take power in Germany, though, because the European "Entente" nations imposed brutal and humiliating conditions on Germany after the United States helped them win World War I. Likewise, the Soviet Union was a grave threat to freedom and prosperity everywhere, but would it have grown as large and powerful as it did had the Nazi war machine's assault not forced it to rapidly industrialize and militarize (with a good deal of help from Uncle Sam)? I think I see a pattern developing...

Here's the deal: many of the most urgent international crises that American power has "solved" would never have occurred or would have been far less serious had the United States not misapplied its military power at an earlier time. If we had stayed out of World War I and let the Germans hold their own against the British and French, the resulting stalemate or even German victory would not have put the Entente in a position to impose its harsh punishment on the Germans. The Germans would not have suffered total economic collapse and international humiliation, and Adolf Hitler would never have been able to ride the wave of German resentment to power.

Germany would also not have conquered and oppressed the Entente nations had the U.S. not intervened. First, since the war was basically a stalemate before the United States entered the fray, the Germans, Austro-Hungarians, and Ottomans would more likely have forced the British and French to come to a mutually acceptable cease-fire arrangement than won an outright victory over them. Second, even if the "other side" had won in WWI, the Germans and Austro-Hungarians weren't oppressive totalitarians like the Nazis and Soviets. They were a lot like France and Britain, but with different languages and colonies in different places. Had they won, the German side would likely have taken a few colonies from their foes, demanded some monetary reparations for their losses, gloated about winning the war, and then left the Entente alone.

Before the U.S. decided to fight for the Entente, America had offered diplomatic and even material support to both sides. Ever greedy, early American monopolists were eager to profit off of the war no matter who they sold to. We only entered the World War I because some in the government thought we would gain international power and prestige by making one set of combatants subject to us and the other set indebted to us. Instead, we helped set the stage for World War II and possibly the rise of Communism.

Unfortunately, we may be putting ourselves in a similar predicament today. Saddam Hussein was a bad man, but he at least hated the Iranians more than he hated us. He had already fought Iran to a standstill once, and his continued leadership in Iraq held the Iranians at bay. Now, with him gone, will whatever government we leave behind in Iraq be able to resist the combination of aid and coercion that the mullahs in Tehran are sure to apply? Similarly, we wrested the Taliban from power in Afghanistan, but as Hamid Karzai is well aware, they could very well retake the country once we leave.

What's even worse is that we drove the Taliban into Pakistan and forced them to deepen their relationship with the Islamofascist members of Pakistan's intelligence forces in order to survive. If the fanatics eventually gain full power in Pakistan, we might one day see a nuclear-armed alliance of Revolutionary Iran and Taliban-controlled Afghanistan and Pakistan. Let's not forget about Turkey, which has been subtly rattling the Jihad saber as well with its support of the "freedom flotilla" that breached Israel's blockade of Gaza last summer. Who wants to see some religious lunatic gain power in a radicalized Middle East, conquer every oil-producing nation in the area, arm the increasingly radical Muslim populations in Europe for an uprising, and then proclaim a "Global Islamic Caliphate" and declare war on the West? Not me. Unfortunately, thanks to our half-hearted and incoherent military efforts in the Middle East, this might happen.

I'm not saying that we should never have invaded Afghanistan. I am saying that we should probably never have invaded Iraq. Whatever we "should have" done, though, we definitely need to be more careful with our military in the future.