Monday, November 23, 2009

Rush to Judgment

I don't want to make a huge deal about this one but it's been bugging me since I happened to have heard it earlier. I passed the Rush Limbaugh show on the radio during my lunch break today. He was talking about an email some female associate of his had sent him over the weekend. Apparently she was having dinner with a young soldier (age 24) and he had brought up a disagreeable point during a dinner conversation. The soldier had asked her why forcing people to buy health insurance was so terrible given that we already force people to buy car insurance. The woman, somehow troubled by the question and unable to answer it herself, sent the question via email to Rush and he apparently sent back a lengthy response which he then went over during the program today.

I had been flipping around to different stations but happened to come back to him in the middle of his diatribe. He was making the obvious, yet irrelevant (in my opinion), point that car insurance is there to hedge against injuring others whereas health insurance was a hedge against our own injuries. I'm not going to make this post a tedious discussion about the efficacy of the car insurance versus health insurance argument, but his next point concerning the young man blew me away. He started haranguing about how the federal government had no authority to tell us to buy anything (I'm with him on that point). But he prefaced that argument by claiming that the Constitution was all about telling the government not what it can do, but what it can't do, and that it's a shame that civics isn't taught anymore.

I almost ripped out my XM-radio and threw it out the Goddamn window...

Granted, given the nature of the young soldier's objection, I doubt he was having any serious internal conversation regarding the Constitutional implications of such a proposal. But berating him by claiming that the Constitution is about telling the government what it can't do...that's just baffling. I'm twenty-five years young. Rush Limbaugh is damn near sixty. And I understand the Constitution better than him. And he's a political commentator no less! A part of me wants to not be so surprised but how can anyone with any reasonable amount of intellect even negotiate around the notion that the Constitution is about telling the government what it can't do. He supported it by mockingly pleading that the young man look at the Bill of Rights to discover what the Constitution is all about!

Here's a little history lesson for you, Rush. The Constitution is NOT about what the government CAN'T do. Articles 1-3 of the Constitution clearly outline not only the organization of the three branches of the federal government but their specific responsibilities and powers. This is precisely what the Constitution is and does; defining what constitutes the federal government. Hence the spiffy name; it's not just a bunch of nice looking syllables thrown together. The Bill of Rights, which are the first ten amendments to the Constitution, weren't even added until four years after the Constitution was ratified (1787:1791).

Now, of course, his view of the Constitution as a document that tells government what it can't do is predicated on the idea that these amendments...which were added years later...are somehow the core of the Constitution itself. I can't even begin to explain how frustrating it is to know how many people share that sentiment. Along with it usually comes the implication that our rights are defined by the Bill of Rights as well (I'm surprised I didn't hear this from him today as well). But in fact the Bill of Rights, in the context of the Constitution itself, is largely redundant. This was argued by the Federalists at the time of its adoption and I have to say it may have been one of the few things I would have agreed with them on.

I don't want to belabor any of these points because if you're reading my blog, you're probably already well aware of these realities. But in case you've never really been exposed to it, or maybe you're just feeling a bit rusty on colonial American history, I suggest that everyone pick up a copy of the Constitution (or find it on the internet) and thumb through the entire thing. It shouldn't take you any longer than 10-15 minutes. It's an amazingly short and concise document (especially in light of the tens of thousands of pages of federal regulation on the books today). And even better, most of it is very easy to understand. It lays out exactly what the government can do, and IMPLIES what it can't do conversely. And that obvious implication is the exact reason why the Federalists thought the Bill of Rights was unnecessary. And interestingly enough, it's also the sole reason for the 9th and 10th amendment in the Bill of Rights as well. And for those who are rusty on their understanding regarding the nature of the Bill of Rights as it relates to the Constitution itself, do a little reading on the Massachusetts Compromise. It might be kind of boring to some of you, but at least when you rest your head tonight you can take some solace in the fact that you now know more about the Constitution than the most successful political commentator in the United States. What a dolt!

Friday, November 20, 2009

Back in Black

A funny thing occurred to me earlier this week when I was listening to some give and take on a radio talk-show. The host, whom I admire more for his candor and presentation than for his actual views, was arguing with a few callers about the efficacy of capitalism as a socio-economic system. A couple of the frustrated callers were insisting that the host was being too stubborn in his defense of capitalism. They claimed that although capitalism seemed to be a decent system, that we, as we seem to do in so many fields, will devise something more perfect in the future. The host, in retaliatory fashion, then made the blanket claim that capitalism is the end-all-be-all system and that no system could or should replace it. It may shock anyone who reads my blog to know that I actually don't particularly agree with him.

My views are generally Austro-libertarian. But to that extent, I would also consider myself what people refer to as an "anarcho-capitalist" or "free-market anarchist." Both terms, of course, seem to imply a very real advocacy of capitalism. And I similarly wouldn't deny my very real advocacy of capitalism in that regard. But I believe the nature of my advocacy is a bit more subtle than that of many of my fellow travelers. By that I mean I don't believe that my "support" of the free market even has the same implication as the support that others seem to offer. When I say that I support free markets economically, I'm generally not engaging in a point about greater social utility or even general pragmatism. What I mean is that I think classical free-market economics accurately explains how people behave and how value and price is affected by the free actions of individuals. This is why I feel a strong affinity for the Austrian view of economics: a view not adopted by self-proclaimed portents of economic trends, but rather those who wish to understand human interaction and its consequences.

In that way, my economic position is not a reflection of what I think should be but what I feel actually happens. But what's more interesting is that I don't feel that belief is really the corner-stone of the anarcho-capitalist movement although it's certainly at the fore-front in conversation. I believe anarcho-capitalism is actually about ethics and a more complete socio-political view of justice. The whole core of that particular belief system is the insistence that freedom is the only appropriate condition for individuals. All other beliefs, even the prominent economic ones, are largely tangential when it comes down to it. At the end of the day, most anarcho-capitalists, even the most dire defenders, will tell you that their support of capitalism has nothing to do with how well capitalism works or to what purpose it serves but rather that their support of that system is a pure reflection of their belief in freedom. We support free markets because it represents the economic dimension of freedom to many of us. Ah, but what makes this point interesting is that it only holds true in the context of the state and imposed economic systems.

For instance, if you asked one of us what we felt about a group of people starting up a commune and living in their own self-proclaimed communistic society, we would gladly tell you how happy we would be to oblige them. Even though we so often get caught up in touting the virtues of capitalism, our belief, and the free-market system itself, allows for any kind of dissent and the presence of any kind of system, so long as said individuals do not keep others from being able to make similar decisions for themselves. And I think that points to something I find really interesting about free-market ideologies. The system of "capitalism", in that sense, really isn't a system at all. The "system" we are really talking about is freedom, and capitalism is simply the economic realization of what typically happens when people are left to be free: they develop specialized trades, barter, borrow, and invest. And in that sense, my support for capitalism is really simply my support for freedom, coupled with an understanding of how humans interact. And I think in that way, "capitalism" stands alone in that it's the only economic system that is talked about as if it is just that; an economic system...even though clearly it really isn't.

Any real socio-political system, economic or otherwise, implies an imposed structure. Take any system a government may endorse, from socialism to communism to fascism. In order for any of these systems to exist, government must subtract from your personal freedoms. You are told either what you can make, what you can sell, what you can sell it for, whom you can sell it to, or in what way you can conduct such business at all. And that only begins to touch the scope of any given system's implications to personal liberty. But in all of those systems, what is constant is that you are robbed of choice. If that government, whether through a dictator or a democratic majority, decides to adopt a system, it applies to all. You can't opt out of such systems; they are forced coercively upon you. But what's interesting is that "capitalism", or rather true free markets, aren't forced upon anyone.

Now, some people who are more left-leaning will dispute the idea that capitalism is not forced. They will claim that you really have no "choice" when you have to eat and have no education; if you have to flip burgers you will. But even that is a choice and an exertion of your free will. It's only a lack of choice in so much as you have no "real choice" as to whether you would pick up a hundred dollar bill off the ground as opposed to leaving it. You're not talking about the abolition of actual choice in that case, you're talking about the compelling quality of certain options. You are certainly free, in the most pure sense, to not pick up that hundred dollars, but it will make your life harder. In the same way, you are certainly free to not flip burgers, but you might starve if that's the extent of your productive capacity and you choose not to engage in it.

Does that negate the idea of choice though? Absolutely not. Your circumstantial needs do not circumvent free will. And if you were obliged to conclude that it did, then you can take that complaint to God himself. You were born a creature of this earth, with the biological need for food, water, and shelter. You may arrive at the conclusion that you have few ways to obtain such needs and you may also conclude that others obtain those needs much easier than you seem to be able to, but that has little to do with the presence of force and coercion on the part of other human beings. It's a shame that we carry biological processes that are beyond our control, but its not realistic to go around talking about slavery and coercion in the context of how short our legs or arms might be. The attempt to carry the discussion of freedom outside of the context of free will has become on embarrassing trend taken up by some of my political counterparts. Then again, shame and humility has never been their brightest star.

In any case, I feel that capitalism stands out in that no government structure is really required for it. In fact, capitalism is simply what happens when there is NO SYSTEM IN PLACE. I took Michael Moore to task on this as well when his movie, Capitalism: A Love Story, came out and he had been making the rounds of TV talk shows. He claimed that capitalism was invented in the 16th century. Well, no, actually capitalism wasn't invented. If so, who invented it? What did government force people to do? The answers, oddly enough, are "no one" and "nothing." Capitalism happened when feudal governments started falling apart in Europe and people began to live without a governing structure. No one has to force people to specialize in a field or to trade or barter. People do it of their own volition. They actually decide, freely, that the best way to improve their lot in life is to make something that other people want and trade it away for what they want in return. Isn't that amazing? Not that people can figure that out but that it is simply what tends to happen in the absence of force and coercion?

All of these thoughts came to mind when I was listening to the callers on this particular talk show. And it just made me think of an odd analogy concerning a general misunderstanding about colors (oddly enough). If you've ever heard people ask what different peoples' favorite colors are, you'll often hear an interesting response when someone offers black as their favorite. People will sometimes retort, "Black isn't a color." Some people understand it but a lot of people are confused by it. Disregarding pigmentation, which is kind of a different conversation altogether, black, in terms of the light spectrum, really isn't a color. All true colors derive from white, the color of pure light, as anyone who has played around with a prism can attest to. Every single color in every imaginable variation is simply some part of that spectrum of light...all except black. Black, by definition, is actually the absence of light. People often have the same misconception about "cold" which is really just an absence of heat, but that is for another conversation perhaps.

My point is that in the same way that black is really just an absence of light, free markets are really just an absence of an imposed economic system. All colors on a pinwheel share the fact that they are derived from light, with the exception of black. In that same way, all imposed economic systems are derived from some form of authoritarianism, with the exception of free markets which are simply an absence of any authoritarianism at all. Maybe that analogy really isn't as clever I thought it was when it occurred to me. But I wish that, in the same way that people so often make the "witty" retort that black isn't a color, maybe free-marketers should get in the habit of retorting that "capitalism" really isn't an economic system in the context of state imposition either. I don't think it's a point that many people have pondered.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

My Maine Objection

I was perusing through some of the returns regarding the "off-year" elections that took place last night, and there was something in particular that caught my eye. That little something was the repeal of Maine's gay marriage legislation which came about via a referendum in the previous election cycle (Fall - 2008). Of course, at the time, this was heralded by New England progressives as a huge win for the gay movement. I remember shaking my head about it and wondering if they (progressives in general) have ever really concerned themselves with the nature of the supposed victories and concessions they'd made over the years. And as many people of that movement woke up today, most likely with a sense of vitriol and disgust, I wonder if this repeal will give any of them pause.

Let me be clear here. I very strongly support the act of, or more specifically the contracting of, gay marriage. Both during times in my life when I'd considered myself liberal and conservative, I'd never had an issue with anyone's sexual preferences regardless. So it's probably not surprising to anyone that I still don't take issue with it today either. However, I find myself in the odd position of not being able to endorse the conservative approach nor the liberal approach to handling this issue. As such, I've found myself in many verbal exchanges with both gay progressives and straight conservatives about the issue. If there's anything I've learned about adopting the libertarian mantle, it's that you're going to find yourself at odds with damn near everyone. It's part of the reason why people will constantly use the handle of their opposition to describe your views, no matter how inaccurate it may be. I can't even begin to count how many times conservatives have tried to malign me by calling me liberal or how many times liberals have tried to malign me by calling me conservative. I think that's just part of the reflexive mantra you can expect from people who haven't thought about politics enough to be able to couch anyone's views outside their own as being something other than that of the opposing major party.

That being said, i disagree with both parties very strongly on their stances regarding gay marriage. Not on the act itself, but rather the ridiculous ways in which they believe it's appropriate to handle it. I had stated previously, in my comments regarding an article I posted, that it often seems like the two major political parties just seem to be fighting over who has control of the guns anymore. I proffered that maybe, just maybe, there should be a discussion regarding the scope and role of government...that maybe we should return to some of our roots as Americans and begin to question the purpose of our government in all its monopolistic glory. And what took place in Maine last night is the perfect example of why we need to stop engaging in this push-pull leveraging of our fellow man.

Of all the people who woke up ashamed of their neighbors in Maine, how many of them, at any point in their political evolution, had ever thought to consider that the best way of approaching the marriage issue wasn't through democratic legislation, but rather through the dissolution of state control regarding marriage? And I don't mean a relinquishing of marriage law to the federal government. I mean the abolition of the marriage-interface in the government apparatus. I'm going to make a crazy assumption (based on my life-long experience) and say that very few of them thought to consider this as an appropriate approach. Let's not be coy here. The conservatives, who have come to pride themselves (somehow) as being the arbiters of freedom and liberty, should be ashamed and disgusted at their own propensity to try to tell others that they can or cannot conjoin. The fact that they support the state suppressing such voluntary contracts (marriages) should be reprehensible to any proponent of individual liberty. There is no excuse for people of that ilk in my honest opinion. But for all that I may agree on, ethically, with my liberal brethren on this particular issue, I have to take them to task as well here.

The problem that I have with the approach of progressives is the same problem our founding fathers had when they wrestled with the same idea in their time; people put an innocuously (from their perspective) dangerous confidence in democracy. It seems like from the time we are born in this country we are led to the stream of democracy. And drinking from that stream is about as American as apple pie or baseball. "Democracy and freedom" have become a cliche, although they honestly have little to do with each other. There is nothing mutually exclusive about totalitarianism and democracy. Both can exist simultaneously. Think of it this way, we rightfully decry monarchies, historically, because of the structure of overwhelming power exerted against the individual. A monarchical power structure would look, typographically, like a pyramid; with the absolute ruler on top, his appointed subjects underneath him, and the masses at the bottom. So when we decry monarchy, is it the fact that we dislike the shape of such a structure, or is it the quashing of individual liberty that such a structure implies that bothers us? In a pure democracy, such a pyramid would be inverted; with everyone as a collective appearing at the top, and the lowly individual at the bottom. From an individual's perspective, in terms of true freedom, these two structures aren't entirely different. In both cases, my liberty is subject to others. This is why our founding fathers fought to actually stifle pure democracy and obfuscate its capacity...which is a point that has been dearly lost on most of us.

This brings me to my liberal friends, who often mock the concept of democracy (particularly in the last eight years). But they don't typically mock it because they believe it to be problematic, but rather because they feel that it's asinine for certain parties and/or administrations to use it as bantor when we don't even have a true democracy here. In other words, they mock it to the extent that they actually want a democracy but that they believe one doesn't exist in our country right now. On the contrary, they very much believe that democracy is not only applicable but necessary to bring about various social reforms. And yet, even on mornings like this, when they inevitably fall upon their own proverbial sword, they move not to strip such power from the purview of government but rather to expand the scope of their fight. Fraught with the early morning headlines, leader of various progressive movements have already realigned their focus towards national legislation to control marriage; to subsequently allow it in all states in the Union. But setting aside the many constitutional issues that would bring up, what would make a democratic referendum at the national level any better to you than one at the state level? Even if you achieve such legislation, and you are temporarily elated by the prospect of such a victory, how will you feel with the reigns are in the hands of your opposition, and they use the very legislation you crafted as a framework to BAN GAY MARRIAGE in every state in the Union? They've already tried it at least once. Do you really think this would be out of their reach?

As a casual observer, it seems to me that the rational approach to such an issue wouldn't be to keep trying to place your individual liberties within the perpetual tug of war within politics. The real solution to such a problem is to get government out of licensing marriage altogether! I wouldn't want to leave my right to make voluntary marriage contracts up to the whim of my fellow citizens any more than I'd want them to decide what church I went to on Sunday. It's simply NO ONE ELSE'S FUCKING BUSINESS. It's not their place to make such decisions for you and it never should be. And as has been painfully witnessed today, as long as such decisions are within the scope of your government, and you continue to frame it that way in your quest for social change, you can't be surprised when your opposition gets a hand up on you every once in a while. And when you start to realize exactly how silly the tug of war is over your individual liberties is, you may start to also realize how trying to enact federal legislation regarding marriage licensing may just put you in the hot-seat for even more regressive setbacks.

I don't intend to be too hard on some of these people. I realize the road they are walking is long and frustrating. And perhaps harder to handle than various laws and legislation is the social prejudice they have endured and must overcome on their journey. I certainly do not envy such burdens and I'm in no place to question the kind of overwhelming pressure that is exerted on them from day to day. In fact, in many ways this, often single, small sliver of sentiment that we share for the abolition of control over the individual would make us fellow travelers on some level. But that compassion is hard to reconcile when I stride for absolute liberty from afar, and often see their proposals for more government control to hold up their one-dimensional view of liberty. If it's liberty you want my friends, then I will gladly share your burden and take up arms beside you. But if you continue to only proffer the strength of the state and an extension of its role in our personal lives, even if you erroneously believe that is the path to social acceptance, then I can only stand back and shake my head in disappointment.

"Under democracy one party always devotes its chief energies to trying to prove that the other party is unfit to rule - and both commonly succeed, and are right."