Friday, August 28, 2009

Two Wrongs Make a Right

As many of you are probably well-aware, in political debates I will sometimes find myself siding more with conservatives than liberals (and particularly when it comes to constitutional issues). And for that reason I think I often get lumped in with Republicans or the religious right when I'm engaged with people who disagree with me. As someone who considers himself very libertarian, it can be fairly disheartening and frustrating to hear a rebuttal preceded with the words "Well Bush..." when the argument comes to a head. But I want some of my more liberal family members and friends to know that conservatives can drive me just as crazy sometimes. And often it's the case that even though I might agree on a certain point of policy, I think the reasoning in support for it on the right can be just as fallacious as the support against it on the left.

I'm provided with a few good examples of this on a daily basis just taking my lunch break. I'll often tune into Andrew Wilkow's show on XM-165 and I continue to be amazed by some of the things that are touted by both him and callers. Now, truth be told, I agree with his policy views about 70% of the time. But his reasoning is often totally off track or just completely illogical and irrelevant. And if his reasoning happens to have some level of good measure, his supportive callers never fail in offering their horrible logic in the debate.

Today, Wilkow was discussing how people were using Ted Kennedy's death to push one of the health care bills that's floating around in Congress. They began to discuss the constitutional application and the idea of health care being a right. A caller called in and claimed that A.) health care is not a right and B.) this was because we wouldn't be allowed to monitor health care consumers' BMI to determine if they deserved it or not.....WHAT?!? Health care isn't a right because we don't/can't monitor BMI of recipients? What the hell does that even have to do with whether something is a right or not?

Not only is that line of logic ridiculous, even the people who hold the correct position frame the argument incorrectly by claiming we don't have a right to health care. No...WE DO HAVE A RIGHT TO HEALTH CARE. We have a right to any and all activities not specifically prohibited by or usurped by federal, state, and local governments. And for people who don't understand what I'm talking about, please refer to my previous post about Hamilton and the 9th amendment. You have a right to a TV. You have the right to a car. You have the right to a pencil. I really think people don't realize the nature of rights to a large extent because the stigma created by the Bill of Rights in our federal constitution tends to come between people and a genuinely rational view of natural rights. But I digress as I already discussed that in the previous post. Let's go ahead and assume that you're one of these people who think that rights actually come from the Bill of Rights.

Let's examine a couple of propositions. Is your right to free speech and free press protected by the first amendment? Yes. Does this mean that individuals or companies must let you use private assembly halls, billboards, TV stations, or printing presses to express that right? Absolutely not! Does the second amendment protect your right to own firearms? Yes. Does that right mean that other people can be forced to purchase those firearms for you? NO! That's because forcing someone to give you such things would violate THEIR PROPERTY RIGHTS. What rights do you hold that you believe should usurp my rights? The difference between holding a right to have something or do something and a holding a right to obligatory servitude of others to service that right is a difference between a rational view of liberty and a flawed self-conflicting bastardization of the term.

But this isn't the rationale that most conservatives use. Most conservatives will give you some rubbage about how health care isn't in the Bill of Rights...or even worse they will give you something like this particular talk-show caller offered. And there's certainly no shortage of callers like that to right-wing radio shows. In fact, no more than fifteen minutes later another caller wanted to discuss how liberals will often use religion (and Christianity specifically) to guilt people into supporting health care programs. At first I thought he was going to make a pretty cogent point, but he destroyed that hope when he came out of the box explaining that Jesus wouldn't have supported something like that because....and I quote...."Jesus didn't heal EVERYONE."

Really? That's the best point you could come up with? Are you kidding me? I realize a religious argument is largely going to be subjective in nature, but if I was going to bring up Jesus in relation to the idea of public health care coverage being compassionate, I most certainly would have started with the obvious fact that Jesus certainly never advocated stealing, coercion, and violence to help those in need but rather he called his followers to sacrifice of themselves. In fact, growing up in a Catholic family and going to Catholic schools most of my life, I'm pretty sure the very implication of purpose regarding God sending his only son to die was the virtue of HIS SACRIFICE to mankind. He most certainly called us to serve those in need, but I don't recall ever reading any part of the New Testament where he advocated violently forcing others to do so. Couldn't a caller to a talk show think of something that obvious on their own?

I can tell you with certainty, liberals and conservatives both have huge blind spots and inconsistencies in their beliefs, but sometimes the most frustrating people are those closest to your beliefs who misrepresent the reasoning for your stances. I can't promise to not continue to get upset when I get lumped in with a lot of these idiots...but given some of the ways they go about explaining their ideology, it's honestly not all that surprising that liberals will latch onto the weak reasoning of my misguided brethren when they want to make a point.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Am I a Hamiltonian? (Tearing Down the Bill of Rights)

I've been watching/listening to some of these congressional "town hall" meetings that have been taking place recently and there's a recurrent question or theme that I've been glad to see brought up. They're questions surrounding the legislative powers specifically enumerated in the Constitution. Now, granted, I would say about 95% of what the federal legislature does is not within the bounds of the Constitution, but I'm glad it's at least being brought up for debate. Maybe more questioning in this line will bring other existing or proposed federal programs under a new scrutiny in the years to come (I can only hope). But interestingly enough, this focus on enumerated powers has got me thinking about some of the amendments to our Constitution...and specifically the first ten, The Bill of Rights.

To most Americans, The Bill of Rights is as ominous a symbol of this great country as the flag or apple pie. But was the Bill of Rights really a good idea? Believe it or not, the founding fathers were very conflicted regarding these amendments. On one side you had Federalists like Alexander Hamilton proclaiming the idea to be nonsense. On the other side you had Anti-Federalists like Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry refusing to push for ratification without one. But who could be against what we've all come to know and love as the first ten amendments to our great Constitution? And more importantly, why were they against it?

To understand what the opposition was thinking we have to put the Bill of Rights in the context of the Constitution as a whole. Our Constitution was unique in that it wasn't, generally, a document meant to define the rights of individuals with regard to federal entities. Instead, in addition to defining the overall structure of the federal government, it put forth a very small list of powers that each branch of this new government had. All individual rights and powers that were not usurped by the few and enumerated powers of the federal government were allocated to the states and subsequently the people. To put it another way, the people and the states operate on the assumption that they have ALL RIGHTS with the exception of a few preceded by the powers given to federal government. Since the federal government only held purview over these few powers, the Federalists argued that securing enumerated individual rights in the form of subsequent amendments would only serve to enforce the idea that all other rights reserved by the states and the people were somehow less "sacred" and even subject to federal usurpation. Hamilton argued in this manner on behalf of the Constitution's entire basis in limited government and natural rights (particularly what was found in English Common-Law of the day).

People like Jefferson and Madison (who largely penned the idea) felt that the Federalists' influence in the construction of the Constitution had led to weak protections against the federal government. They felt that the way things were laid out, although much better than previous systems, the Constitution was still very lacking and would allow the federal government to seize large amounts of power if given enough time. They therefore wanted certain rights "carved in stone" so to speak so that they would be indefinitely out of reach of the grasp of federal government. At the Massachusetts convention the Anti-Federalists got their way when ten amendments were made to the original Constitution and the Bill of Rights was born.

On most matters of the Constitution, I find myself very much siding with the Jeffersonian interpretation of things. He's certainly a cornerstone, historically, to the modern conservative and libertarian viewpoints. But on the other hand, as much as I may besmirch some of his ideas at the time as being terrible, I find myself leaning in the direction of Alexander Hamilton on this one in some ways. Looking back through legislative history, and particularly the last ninety years or so, it's hard to wonder if the door to ignore the legislative constraints of enumerated powers was left open by the ill-conceived notions and perceptions of the average American regarding the Constitution and its relation to the Bill of Rights. I would proffer that if you conducted a poll today that most Americans would offer the idea that our only rights (federally speaking) are contained within the Bill of Rights, and that if it is not something specifically mentioned within those first ten amendments that the federal government, largely, has the power to do what it wishes. Of course this is in staggering contradiction to the views and interpretations of not only the Jeffersonians of the day but of even Federalists like Hamilton. In fact, the Federalists were so worried about this misconception that they proposed an additional amendment to address it:

"The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people."

Short and sweet, most Americans probably don't recognize this amendment, but it is the ninth amendment contained within our Bill of Rights. And its purpose was to ensure that this type of confusion regarding the Bill of Rights and the extent of all citizens' true rights would be quashed indefinitely. But, over time, I can't help but feel that the Bill of Rights and the Constitution as a whole has been misconstrued. The Congress seems to be engaged in all kinds of programs that, Constitutionally speaking, it has absolutely no business in conducting, regardless of the wishes of their constituents. And given that we're now finding ourselves in a national debate about what is essentially the introduction of (another) government-sponsored enterprise into the private health care system, a self-proclaimed Jeffersonian like me has to wonder; was Hamilton right?

Monday, August 10, 2009

Political Capital and the New Age of Irrationality

It's occurred to me, and very specifically over the last few months, that there is something off-kilter about the leveraging of political debates as of late. It's certainly not a particularly new phenomenon, but what was once the ephemeral mind-creep of the fringe in political dissertation has quickly become the heart and soul of the debate to many Americans. What I'm talking about is the nearly reflexive cries of hypocrisy by those on the left towards those with dissenting views. And it's not even the cries themselves, which in many cases espouse truth, that worry me, but instead the portrayal of such accusations as logical and just affirmations of, and even supporting evidence for, their own political views. So my question becomes, "How does a faction of society become so irrational that mere hypocrisy on the part of their opponents becomes not only forceful justification of their own beliefs, but additional political capital to successfully leverage the public?"

It's something I've quite honestly never been able to fully understand. And for those who may be a little lost on my accusations, the incidence usually unfolds something like this: Person A makes an argument against the idea(s) of Person B. Person B, maybe even rightfully so, accuses Person A of being hypocritical because Person A has supported or stood behind people who upheld said ideas. Person A fumbles to excuse himself. Public sees the hypocrisy in Person A and therefore justifies support of Person B. But what happened to the argument at hand? Surely the hypocrisy of someone's support or defiance regarding any given issue doesn't affect the deductive capabilities of the average person to critique ideas. But time and time again, and as of late in ever-increasing frequency, I see this very thing take place.

This behavior is particularly apparent concerning debates in the national political arena. I cannot even begin to count the number of times I've personally engaged in an argument in which I've been critical of the current administration's stance in which the FIRST retort was something to the effect of "Well, Bush did it too!" or "Name one thing Obama has done that Bush didn't do!" If this was a response that I'd received from a small number of people, I know I could just dismiss these people as being irrational. But this isn't a problem that's plaguing only a nominally fractional portion of supporters of the current's widespread. It's even more frustrating in the wake of the fact that I would most prominently describe myself as a libertarian. You can imagine, of course, the reflexive animus a true-blue neo-conservative Republican might feel if a leftie kick-started the attacking of Bush all over again, but just imagine my personal befuddlement when someone draws that political implication from MY critical examination of the Obama administration. In context to a conversation with me, attacks against the former administration aren't only irrelevant, they are nonsensical!

What's even worse is that I believe they make a fair point about many Bush supporters. There are certainly many policies Obama has endorsed that have merely been carried over from the previous administration. Whether it's support of the War on Terror in the middle-east, huge budget deficits, increased national debt, or Keynesian stimulus packages and bailouts to supposedly stifle economic degradation, Obama seems to be merely walking in the steps of Bush in an even bigger way. So their point, in calling out Republicans as hypocrites, may be appropriate in a general sense. But there are two looming logically irreconcilable faux pas which the left is fervently embracing with this tactic.

The first point, which I believe has been overlooked to a large degree, is that in accepting that Obama and Bush have been largely akin in taking very similar stances and actions regarding various issues, would that not make the Obama supporters who spent eight years criticising Bush hypocrites of the same magnitude? Is it not illogical to criticize a person, and then justify the candidate you supported by claiming he's doing the same things as the person you were criticizing? I think on even the most elementary levels of logic, that line of thinking shouldn't follow suit...for anyone.

The second point is probably the more pressing one, and I believe the one that should be addressed; What do ad-hominem attacks against the hypocritical nature of any group or faction have to do with whether a particular policy is right or wrong? This is at the true heart of the logical fallacy being perpetrated by so many of this administration's supporters. I understand that they hold their opponents in contention for being hypocritical...but that doesn't make their opponents' arguments simply disappear. There's an analogy (albeit a moral one) that was made a while back that really opened my eyes to that line of thinking (because it's a trap I'm probably guilty of falling into in the past myself). Typical is the story of a man of the cloth who delivers sermons about the immoral nature of adultery on Sunday mornings who is later found to be hypocritical given his own moral infortitude. Now surely his rapport with his parishioners and followers may be greatly weakened or even broken at that point. I think that's rightly justifiable. But what concerns me is that people who were predisposed to dislike these particular people will find their hypocrisy just cause to NOT ONLY disregard them personally, but to disregard or discredit anything that person was preaching. To a man of reason, the first and second reaction do not follow. If a parent teaches a child that it is not right to steal, and then commits grand theft auto, we can certainly call her a hypocrite. But then to simply disregard what she has said as being as equally inept as her own conscience would be a pretty big mistake to make in logical terms.

The point here is simple; clearly it's a good thing to point out true hypocrisy where you see it. But it's equally important to understand that simple ad-hominem attacks against your political opponents don't destroy or negate the criticisms they have of you. If your views are logical and consistent, you shouldn't have to resort to such tactics to get your point across. If your opponents' arguments are so feeble and illogical, and you feel you have the higher ground, then what greater measure of their fallibility could there be than to simply unravel it before their very eyes. On the contrary, to simply engage in personal attacks in response to what may be meaningful criticism is to admit one of two things; that you have an irrational partisan hatred of that person or group that retards your ability to engage in rational conversation with them or that you feel your position is so weak that you have no real answer to their criticisms. About the only thing more sad than seeing a political faction embracing that kind of stance is seeing the general public's apparent willingness to embrace it in lockstep.