Sunday, December 28, 2008

The Lie of the 21st Century

I'm tired of hearing all this talk of a "21st century regulatory framework" that Barack Obama and others so ceaselessly promise to create. Such people speak as if there is something special about the new century, as if we know something about human beings and politics that people in the twentieth century did not. This claim that there is something superior about the knowledge of the 21st century is not a particularly odd claim, though it is perhaps false. There is a further claim smuggled into it, however, that is plainly ridiculous. The more ridiculous claim is that the 21st century is, simply by virtue of the passage of time, morally superior to the past. Certainly we have advanced scientifically. We have bigger and better computers. And for reasons such as these I can understand the origin of the misguided claim that such technological advances constitute more knowledge. But even with that understood, I cannot understand what sort of foolishness it is that leads people to think that we are making moral progress. There is absolutely no reason to believe that the fashions of the twenty-first century are better than the twentieth.

What is most worrisome about this way of talking is that we talk of moral evils as if they are merely a matter of the whims of a later age, rather than of an objective standard. Behavior, this way of talking suggests, should be condemned simply because it is outdated. Some speak in this manner, for example, about treatment of women or of racial groups. There was a time, such people say, that we thought women lesser, or that we enslaved people, but now we've matured past such behavior. This talk is just as degrading as sexism and slavery. Such talk says not that the past behaviors are wrong in terms of some objective standards, but instead merely acknowledges that such behaviors have gone out of style as human beings have moved on. Such talk is akin to talk about fashion in clothes. One hopes such moral fashions are not as susceptible to vintage trends as clothes are.

A century or so ago G.K. Chesterton said this of such foolish talk:

Some fall back simply on the clock: they talk as if mere passage through time brought some superiority; so that even a man of the first mental calibre carelessly uses the phrase that human morality is never up to date. How can anything be up to date? -- a date has no character. How can one say that Christmas celebrations are not suitable to the twenty-fifth of a month? What the writer meant, of course, was that the majority is behind his favourite minority -- or in front of it. Other vague modern people take refuge in material metaphors; in fact, this is the chief mark of vague modern people. Not daring to define their doctrine of what is good, they use physical figures of speech without stint or shame, and, what is worst of all, seem to think these cheap analogies are exquisitely spiritual and superior to the old morality.

The fact of the matter is that the 21st century has no character. What we need is not a 21st century regulatory framework, nor a 21st century anything else. What we need is the regulatory framework that is simply right. We need a regulatory framework that accords with the good of human beings as human beings, regardless of time and place. It is my contention that such a regulatory framework regulates only one thing: the use of force by some citizens on others. You may, of course, disagree with my advocacy of minimal government. I must insist, however, that in doing so you make claims about what is objectively right. Whatever we conclude, we must abandon the popular sophistical foolishness about the 21st century.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

G.K. Chesterton on Practical Politics

When the business man rebukes the idealism of his office-boy, it is commonly in some such speech as this: “Ah, yes, when one is young, one has these ideals in the abstract and these castles in the air; but in middle age they all break up like clouds, and one comes down to a belief in practical politics, to using the machinery one has and getting on with the world as it is.” Thus, at least, venerable and philanthropic old men now in their honoured graves used to talk to me when I was a boy. But since then I have grown up and have discovered that these philanthropic old men were telling lies. What has really happened is exactly the opposite of what they said would happen. They said that I should lose my ideals and begin to believe in the methods of practical politicians. Now, I have not lost my ideals in the least; my faith in fundamentals is exactly what it always was. What I have lost is my old childlike faith in practical politics.

As a young man, the above passage, from Orthodoxy by G.K. Chesterton, was encouraging to read. I can't count the number of times I've been told that I'll soon abandon my ideals for something more practical. Yet, every time I'm told this all it does is convince me further that political philosophy must precede practical politics. The reason many people abandon their ideals with time is that their ideals were visions of things they really wanted to see happen, rather than developed convictions about what ought to happen. When idealists of this more shallow sort are confronted with the real world, where their vision will never be realized, they are left hopeless. Such idealists have ideals so shallow that it is believable that they might be enacted. The idealist who does not falter, however, has ideals grand enough that he would never be so foolish as to expect that we messed up human beings would actually live according to them.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Book Review - Human Rights: Fact or Fancy

This week I finally finished reading what has been perhaps the most formative book for me, in terms of my political philosophy, I’ve ever read. I’ve been working slowly through Human Rights: Fact or Fancy by Henry Veatch for some time now, and with my semester ended I finally had time just to sit down and finish it. And I’m so glad I did. It has been an immense pleasure. As with everything else in life, this book is imperfect and I don’t agree with every word Veatch writes, but he has continued to confirm and clarify my conviction that any ethical justification of liberty must be of a distinctly Aristotelian sort.

Veatch’s argument is subtle but not terribly complicated. Veatch categorizes most attempts to justify ethics into two categories: teleological or deontological. And both of these fail. Teleological ethics pursue a goal, some desired end. The structure of such ethics makes perfect sense. There is a goal, whether the greatest good for the greatest number in the case of a utilitarian scheme or one’s own satisfaction in the case of an egoist scheme, and good actions simply pursue these goals. Veatch argues, and rightly so, that such ethics have no basis in reality. There is no reason to decide what ends to pursue. The ends pursued by such teleological systems aren’t pursued because they are really good in themselves, but because they are desired, and this cannot be the foundation of any real ethics rooted in reality. Deontological ethics, on the other hand, firmly reject desires and say that we simply ought to do what we ought. We have duties, regardless of our desires. But deontological systems, so bent on the importance of duties, never seem to give a workable account of why such duties exist or are binding. Deontological systems refuse to ground duties in some pursued ends, but as a result fail to ground to duties altogether.

Veatch goes on to suggest that a natural law ethic of an Aristotelian sort escapes the problems of the other ethical strategies he criticizes. Such an ethics is teleological in form, that is, it has an end the pursuit of which is virtue, but, unlike most contemporary teleologies, the end is grounded in more than mere desire. The end pursued by such an ethics is the flourishing of a human being according to its essential nature. A good human does well the things human beings by their nature do.

Furthermore, such a task, of acting to fulfill one’s natural function, is what Veatch repeatedly describes as a “do-it-yourself job.” No one can make anyone else fulfill his own duty to act according to the essential rational nature of human beings. From this fact, that virtue is a do-it-yourself job, it follows that one ought not to act in such a way as to interfere with another’s duty to actualize his own potential to fulfill his human function. And this is the basis of the only rights we have, rights against interference. Such negative rights are the facts of the book’s title, while other rights, so-called positive rights, are the fancy of the book’s title.

I will make it no secret that I think that Veatch is simply right. The correspondence of Veatch’s claims to reality, however, is only one of many things I appreciate about Veatch’s writing. Perhaps most of all, I enjoy Veatch’s constant attention to potential counter-arguments. His habit is as follows: Make an argument at length. Constantly subtly highlight a particular claim in that argument. Conclude argument. Point out that the highlighted claim, essential to the previous point, is in some way questionable or still needs support. Support said claim. Rinse and repeat. Several times while I went on for several pages, angry that Veatch’s arguments were built on an unsupported premise only to find that the next section addressed precisely my concerns about unsupported claim. He is quite aware of the problems and tensions in claims he makes and does his best to deal with them. And such self-awareness is perhaps the greatest virtue of good philosophical writing, and one of the primary reasons I strongly recommend reading this book.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Bush's Auto Bailout Is Illegal

Photo from

The recent White House decision to give over $17 billion in loans to GM and Chrysler is monstrous. It has extended this money from the $700 billion in TARP money that was passed by Congress to bail out the financial industry. For all of the reasons listed in this blog's previous post, an auto bailout is immoral and will be ineffective, but extending it from TARP is the icing on the proverbial "crap sandwich" -an illegal, unconstitutional slap in the face to Americans, their freedom, and rule of law.

The Troubled Asset Recovery Program passed by Congress to bail out the financial industry set very clear guidelines for its money's use and the White House has blatantly violated those guidelines: "The bailout statute defines 'financial institutions' eligible for the bailout as 'any institution, including, but not limited to, any bank, savings association, credit union, security broker or dealer, or insurance company.'" Does it sound to you like automaking companies qualify?

Bush's action shows a disrespect for the rule of law and an unabating height of arrogance that you would think the last eight years might have done something to correct. It represents a giant middle finger to America, its Constitution, its liberties, its carefully crafted separation of powers. It is an autocratic order from a runaway executive branch drunk with its own power and bloated with its false sense of self-importance. Congress should be taking bold action to deal with this blow to American liberty and the Constitutionally-mandated balance of power between the branches of government, but I guess they're too busy giving themselves a raise to care. Nero fiddles while Rome burns.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Six Reasons Not To Bailout The "Big Three" Auto Companies

Photo by

1. Bailing Out GM, Ford, and Chrysler would be morally wrong.

The proper role of a government is to maintain a civil society, meaning a society free from aggression, a society in which no human being can threaten any other by aggressing against them to destroy, diminish, or expropriate their lives, or their liberty or property- which are necessary preconditions of and corollaries to a human being's right to his or her own life. When government forcibly takes from some in the form of exorbitant taxes (or inflation) to give to others, it does the very thing it exists to safeguard against happening. When it takes such an action, it becomes an aggressor. It ceases to be an impartial arbiter between free and equal citizens to ensure their liberty, and it becomes a biased, partisan advocate for some people, using the legal power and force of its laws to favor them at the expense of the lives, liberty, and property of others without their consent and voluntary cooperation, which is morally outrageous.

2. Cash flow problems aren't fixed by more cash.

If water is draining out of a container, you don't fix the problem by pouring more water in- it'll just drain out like the rest of the water. If the government wants to give more money to "the Big Three," it might as well just throw the money in a hole and burn it. This is the reason why many lottery winners are notorious for blowing through their millions of dollars in winnings, because no matter how much money they win, if they spend more than they make, they're going to start losing money until it's all gone. Likewise, no matter how much money we give to these companies, as long as they're posting major losses each month, they're just going to lose it all until it's all gone.

3. The idea that government can attach conditions to the money that will solve the cash flow problems themselves is misguided and wrong.

When a group of automobile industry executives who are intimately acquainted with the particulars of their own industry are apparently not able to return a profit on their operations, it is downright absurd to think that a group of politicians (who are hardly exemplars of efficient spending or financial management themselves) can dictate operational policies that will return profits from these auto companies. Additionally, if the "Big Three" automakers get the cash they want by agreeing to Congress' conditions, when their companies continue to lose money, they'll a have great excuse for American taxpayers to fork over more money to them. They'll say, "We followed your guidelines and lost money. Now it's your fault and you have an obligation to bail us out again."

4. It's either worth it to bail them out, or it's not.

By "worth it" I mean that it is either economically worthwhile to invest capital in these companies, or else it is not. They either create value, or they don't. If they are economically worthwhile to invest in, then private investors looking to return a profit will invest in these companies. They will do so on a private and voluntary basis of mutual consent for mutual benefit (i.e. they will do so on a moral and civilized basis, which is proper to human beings). If this is the case, then government does not need to bail them out; private capitalists will give them the financing they need to stay in business. If, on the other hand, it is not economically worthwhile to bail them out- if they do not create value and are not worth it, then why on earth would the government do so? It would be a waste of money. So if either one of the two possible alternatives is true, government should not bail out these auto companies.

5. Trying to save people's jobs is not a valid justification for subsidizing mediocrity and mismanagement.

While the desire to prevent people from going through the pain and stress of losing a job is a natural one and springs from a healthy, caring disposition towards other people, it is not a moral blank check or a justification to use whatever means to accomplish that end. For all the reasons given above, regardless of anyone's best intentions, implementing this policy would be morally wrong and practically disastrous. If we save some people's jobs (for now) with such a policy, we can then drive their cars straight to an economic hell on the road we paved with all those good intentions. On a more practical level, letting the market operate is the best thing to do for people working at these struggling companies. It will help redirect their work to stable jobs at more productive, value-creating alternatives. Last century, when people decided that automobiles were better than horses and buggies, manufacturers of buggy whips likely lost a ton of business and had to lay off a ton of workers. Should the government have bailed out the buggy whip industry to save the workers the pain and stress of losing their jobs? No! Did the world fall to pieces when the government didn't? No. Did people find more productive jobs making better money at companies that created more value for everyone? Yes. Was it actually a good thing that buggy whip companies lost business and jobs? Absolutely.

6. There are other non-statist, non-immoral, non-insane solutions to help "the Big Three."

Congress doesn't even seem to consider that less legislation might do more to help ailing companies than more of the same. Their solution is passing more laws instead of repealing the bad ones that got us here in the first place. What could Congress do to help these struggling auto companies without spending the rest of our money? They could try repealing all the expensive and unnecessary laws and regulations that cost these companies millions in compliance costs. They could try lowering their stifling taxes (with a concurrent and equivalent lowering of unnecessary federal expenditures). They could try repealing their intrusive labor laws that force American auto companies to meet the economically unviable wage demands of the United Auto Workers labor union. Instead of making these three companies (and the rest of us) less free, Congress should help them by making them more free.

Take Action:

It's not too late to tell your representatives in Washington what you think about the auto bailout and any future attempts to bailout the "Big Three." Make your voice heard! Follow this link, click your state, and scroll down for a list of your state's Senators and Representatives with their contact info. I called my Congresswoman and let her office know that I am opposed to any bailouts and it took just a few minutes of my time. Thanks! PS: Tell the White House too!

Spread The Message:

Anti-Bailout Merchandise

Too Big To Fail Merchandise