Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Silly Me...The Census is "Pro-Market"

Hearing people go back and forth regarding the census over the past couple of weeks has been pretty interesting. I haven't decided whether to fill mine out or not (Voluntaryists unite!) but I'm not sure it's worth having even more of my paycheck yanked from me just for not filling out some piece of paper (no coercion there, right?). Of course, this is what this little bout of pandemonium is all about; a somewhat significant group of people are making a fuss over the census and refusing to answer it completely or respond to it at all. And of course their nay-sayers ensue with their own accusations. And, like always, I think both groups have it all wrong.

The majority of the people who are in supposed opposition to the census this time around seem to be Republicans or conservatives in general. There are reasons flying left and right for their position. I think it's safe to say that the majority of the real rationale just lies in a fundamental tendency to be in the opposition in relation to the current administration - no surprise there. However, what they seem to be claiming is that the census, at least in part, is unconstitutional. Of course, there's a whole strata of variation within that reasoning. The most reasonable arguments claim that the government only has the power to essentially get a straight numerical count, as opposed to a count followed by a hodge-podge of requests for additional demographic data. On the other hand you have some of these people that claim that forcing people to fill out a census form is unconstitutional altogether. These people have apparently never picked up a copy of their constitution.

And on the other side you have a group of liberals latching onto some of the demonstrably laughable ads appearing on metro transit as of late. Apparently people have been spotting census ads throwing up sophisticated questions like, "If we don't know how many people there are, how will we know how many buses we need?" That is simply brilliant. One of my favorite responses was posited by Andrew Fischer, "I mean this is all rather obvious. You determine how many buses you need in the exact same way that Apple determines how many iPads it should conducting an exacting census of every man, woman, and child in the United States." I don't think I could have responded any better myself.

While it's true that many businesses (particularly ones that operate on an interstate or international level) use census data collected by the government to direct advertising and marketing, it certainly says little about the average economic education of U.S. citizens if this has proven to be a viable PR point for people working for or defending the census. In fact, the same thing could be said for anything of relative utility the government "provides" (and on that note it better damn-well provide utility if citizens are being forced to pay for it). For instance, corporations use the public roads that people are forced to pay for to transport huge amounts of merchandise back and forth across the country. However, just because they use something that has been supplied to them for free (at the margin), it does not mean that those corporations couldn't pay for private roads to operate if the government wasn't providing it.

Likewise, if the government didn't conduct a census, there's no reason why businesses couldn't do some of the marketing research themselves, or even pay other private organizations to collect data (they already do!). This doesn't even address the fact that A.) the census is just a demographic snap-shot in time every ten years (can you imagine how bad your business model would be if you relied solely on ten-year-old data?) and B.) A simple head-count of every person in ANY area doesn't hold a direct correlation of any real demand to a product-base. Do you think a city in California with the same population as a city in Ohio will have the same basic demand for a product? Is there anything to be said about socio-cultural differentiation in preference and wealth between different geographical areas? Or is it just some homogeneous blob of demand out there? Of course it's different from place to place. The way that companies figure out how much of anything to make is simple. It's supply and demand; prices. Knowing there are 100,000 people in your town may help you determine some things, but it's certainly not going to tell your local bakery what the level of demand for their product is going to be...especially not statically over a 10-year swath of time.

And so here we stand; we have a group of conservatives who have never learned the constitution and a group of liberals who have never picked up a book on basic economics. And here I am saying that your terrible economics or silly piece of parchment don't matter much to me. I just don't believe in initiating force upon innocent people. How much more clear or concise could a position be? Psychobabble about the value of central planning and social contracts just skirt the issue in my opinion. The real crux of the issue, as always, should fall back upon ethics. But don't bring that to anyone's'll just be accused of politicization and obfuscation. It's funny how people think (or don't) sometimes.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Fiery Rhetoric and the Death of Reason

I've become increasingly frustrated and indifferent (after all, doesn't one follow the other?) over the last several weeks in light of current political events. As enthused as I am about the ideals of peace, love, and individual liberty, there is some grand sense of Sisyphustic futilism in trying to carry these ideals forward within the deep, black heart of the whirlwind we currently find ourselves in. And the ever-widening scope of that reality continues to push me further into a voluntaryist position; not because I believe that a pro-active stance in the fight against aggression isn't called for, but rather because I'm coming to believe that change through the political process is not only increasingly impossible but increasingly fruitless.

My own personal evolution towards the concepts of cooperation and non-aggression has admittedly, and unfortunately, been a slow one. I certainly don't pretend to be a genius, as I also don't pretend to have all of the answers to society's numerous problems. But what I do claim, if I can claim anything, is a growing disposition towards consistency and reason in the evaluation of various ideas and concepts. I'd like to believe that all adults move down this path, even if they ultimately reach different conclusions within their own evaluations. A little intellectual honesty and some basic logic can prove to be wonderful tools of self-restraint when checking your premises and progressing as an individual; and even more importantly when exchanging your ideas with others.

But what I've come to realize is that most people would trade any sense of intellectual curiosity or self-criticism for any number of easily accessible rhetorical jabs from the myriad of political cliches that have been forged over the years:

If it saves one human life, it's worth it....

If it wasn't for those troops dying for your freedoms...

No one should have to die because they can't afford....

America is a Christian nation...

You just want poor people to die...

Everything changed on 9-11...

Our jobs are being shipped overseas...

If you don't like it you can leave the country...

The will of the people...

_______ is a basic human right...

Sadly enough, I'd be lying if I told you that about 95% of the political discourse I've been exposed to couldn't be distilled down to one of the zingers above. Of course, that's not to say that, in certain instances, there aren't legitimate and well-thought out positions masked by some unfortunate verbiage. However, more often than not, I don't think this is the case (especially when it comes to politics in general). I think a better way to grasp reality regarding the American politico would be picturing one group of people pre-occupied with tradition and geo-centric familial tendencies and another group pre-occupied with social class and disparity in the productive capacity of individuals. These two teams that we'll call "Republicans" and "Democrats" put on their jerseys every morning and pull tired diatribes from an over-used playbook (see: above). Their fans cheer and jeer, regurgitating those same tired mantras, all the while never really seriously questioning the means by which they wish to meet their ends. Instead, good intentions will have to suffice.

Now, this description doesn't apply to everyone. There are a plethora of self-critical people on all sides that have legitimate positions. I'm not typically one for simply generalizing (it smacks of collectivism). However, it's hard to ignore the prevailing political trend. And I'm sure this is nothing new, but I believe that recent events have brought many apathetic people to the table. We already had the overwhelming majority of people in this national discussion talking past each other. Now there seem to be even more people doing it. Not only has that conversation gotten louder, it's also become increasingly tense and obtuse. Complex and integral conversations regarding legislative particulars, economic consequences, and the nature of ethics have been largely drowned out and traded for the mindless banter of those engaged in what amounts to chest-thumping in a political turf-war.

And what part do I have to play in such a wonderful and democratic system of "might makes right?"

The answer that I find myself coming to is "not much." Is that being too pessimistic? I really don't think so. In fact, I think it might bring like-minded people to a focal-point; if we acknowledge that no political process or victory there-of (this includes centuries old pieces of parchment with steadfastly ignored dictates) will ultimately result in peace and the cessation of initiated violence, then the road ahead is clear. We have no choice but to re-open a grand discussion on the nature of ethics.

It's become relatively evident, at least to me, that we're no longer stopping to check our premises; particularly when we reach the juxtaposition of the political and the moral. If we, those opposed to coercion and force, are to see our ideas through to fruition, we will move our agenda ahead for not if reason and critical thought are superseded by a tribal sense of political tradition and devotion. To put it another way, you can feed a broken engine fuel all day and it will not run. A million great ideas put before the brow of a refusing individual will prove futile in the fullest sense of the term. What we need, I think, is a new approach altogether.

If reason is in fact dead, then in order to move forward we must sew the seeds of its rebirth. People have to learn how to be more critical, not only of others but of themselves. Without people actually being capable of stopping and analyzing their own positions and the positions of others, no true exchange of ideas can take place in any meaningful sense. Note that I'm not claiming such a move would even prove beneficial in the sense of my own personal ideals. It could very well mean that we move in a new direction altogether. What I am claiming, however, is that a move towards more peaceful ideals will be practically impossible to sustain without the prevalence of true philosophical reasoning.

With this new found insight, I think that my approach to all things political may change substantially. And in that way, I certainly hope that my ideological "exchanges" with other individuals might prove to be more productive. If in passing conversation I can make one or two people in my lifetime question their own predispositions...maybe even to the point of abandoning a point of view with violent consequences...then I think I'll have pulled my weight in life. Ignoring immediate, albeit temporary, political victory may be very costly for those like me in the short-run, but if this re-evaluation in our approach gave us the tiniest glimmer of hope for achieving lasting peace, then maybe it's time to start re-writing our own tired playbook.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

The Good, the Bad, and the Evil

I think that over the years one of the largest, yet in some ways most subtle, philosophical moves I've made is in the context of ethical perception. I could drone on and on about my evolution towards personal liberty and away from the standard institutions of political, religious, and social thought, and I think I could do a pretty decent job refuting any arguments or counter-points that could be tossed in the direction of that personal movement. And yet, even though that shift and my solidarity with it is directly tied to an ever-changing understanding of ethics in at least some regard, I think the general conceptualization of ethics can be an entangling endeavor.

I was listening to a radio program earlier, and a woman was discussing "gold-diggers." Of course, the general view was a dissenting one, but the framing of the issue was classically ironic. She apparently thought that being with someone because of their wealth was an immoral endeavor (or at least a shallow one). And she expressed that view with the imposition of an interesting rhetorical device, "How much money would you have to be getting to date someone that you found ugly/repulsive?" My initial thought was centered on the obvious irony of exchanging the acceptance of one socio-cultural taboo for another. Here we have the inevitable realization of the political incorrectness in sizing someone by their wealth juxtaposed with the unbridled ignorance displayed by using the parallel taboo of sizing one by their looks.

Of course, if someone would have brought this up, I'm sure they would have back-pedaled and tried to explain that they weren't trying to size anyone by looks either. However, that tiny beam of light would have already been shed on said hypocrisy at that point. And there was a time where I would have shook my head and begun moralizing that juxtaposition in my own mind; thinking how silly and immoral it would be to generally deduce anything from a person's looks OR wealth. But I think the over-arching concepts here are a little more complex than that head-shaking kid would have been willing to consider at the time.

All of this thinking about right and wrong got me re-considering some of Nietzsche's work in the field of ethics (if you want to call it that). It reminded me of the primary difference in what he dubbed as Master-Slave moralities (I'd encourage anyone who hasn't to read Those Spoke Zarathustra to do so to get a better idea of this concept). In very direct terms, the difference between the two was that a Master Morality was based on the exercise of one's individual power and will over his environment; in accordance, one who simply devises his own morality and creates his own path. The Slave Morality was one devoted to personal subjugation and sacrifice; ultimately submission of the individual to another individual or the aggregation thereof.

Nietzsche felt that the downfall of Western society would come to fruition through its thorough embrace of nihilism and its inability to repeal it's clutch on Slave Morality. To his mind, there had been a general struggle in the West between Master and Slave moralities. The proclivity of various individuals and parts of society to gain knowledge and dominion over their surroundings (as observed in the Greek and Roman empires, the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, etc.) would eventually push us in a direction where reason and intelligence would lead society to realize the improbability of deitic overlords (gods). Believing that Slave Morality was borne out of cultural and religious institutions (the social pressure of sacrificing your own wants and needs to "serve" god, other individuals, or the "greater good"), he felt that a general evolution towards Master Morality had to be made in order to avoid societal nihilism. A group of people devoted to serving others in what they might later realize was really a godless and amoral vacuum of time and space would find their submissive sensibilities out of context. In effect, with the realization that there was no ethereal being applying tangible moral standards and that moral repercussions were within the context of an after-life that didn't exist, people who had not laid the foundations of ethics in something more personable and concrete may be led to believe that life has no meaning in its entirety. Although many self-proclaimed nihilists look to Nietzsche for inspiration, few of them realize that his damnation of religion and Slave Morality was actually a damnation of nihilism by proxy; he was warning society of the socio-cultural ramifications of adopting Slave Morality.

The distinction between these two juxtaposed moral systems lie in their axiomatic ends. Master Moralists would have a tendency to discuss things in terms of "good" and "bad" while Slave Moralists would have a tendency to discuss things in terms of "good" and "evil." Master Morality would tend to loosely center on values that are life-affirming in a personal context. Things that are good would likely be personal power, will, strength, productivity, intelligence, love, passion, humor, and so on. To the Master Moralist, these things enhance the life of the individual. Things that would be good to a Slave Moralist, on the other hand, would be sacrifice, submission, obedience, humility, mercy, faith, and so on. Now, there are some attributes that can cross over between the two. For instance, a Master Moralist can certainly have mercy or humility if it is in accordance with his own personal sense of morality. But the difference is that he is not morally obligated by the conception of society or the moral grumblings of a non-existent god, but rather he is obliged by his own morality and a general respect for other individuals' power over their own dominions. The general idea was that he wanted humanity to evolve to the point where we no longer had Slave Morality but instead that we would all be masters and tread our own paths without fear of subjugation or retribution.

I always thought this was interesting because it presents a very clear dichotomy between two moralities that are often inter-woven in Western culture today. The speaker on the radio show seemed to clearly embrace the idea that gravitating towards someone because of money was inherently "evil" to at least some extent. And this is a vestige of Slave Morality in my opinion. We reject that as a valid factor in the consideration of one's values because we have religious and social pressures that imply that wealth, greed, and material selfishness is "evil." In its stead, we propose giving and sacrifice; meekness. However, from a Master Morality point of view, wealth or productivity is "good." It's good because an individual command over one's surroundings and a capacity to furnish yourself with goods, services, and various luxuries is in the vein of life-affirmation. Being able to attain food, clothes, shelter, medicine, and so on would be the essence of what is "good" to such people. In contrast, being obedient to those demanding that you should or must sacrifice the product of your labor and will would be "bad" because it's life-denying from a personal perspective and it's not the product of your own personal moral imperatives. On the other hand, while fixation on beauty may be equally "evil" to Slave Moralists, the Master Moralist may have a problem understanding how beauty fits into the "good-bad" paradigm. To the Master Moralist, this is simply a matter of preference and exertion of personal will. Beauty is neither a life-confirming nor life-denying value. It's purely aesthetic.

There are certainly points that I disagree with Nietzsche on. In fact, I find a good deal of his contributions on individuality quite abhorrent. But I find it interesting that over time I think I've slowly gravitated towards a sense of ethics that is more in line with his sense of "Master Morality" than the societal norm. I'm sure there are a fair number of people that would think this is a terrible thing, and indeed with something as obtuse as morality and ethics, contentions are bound to appear. But I think it's even more interesting to consider that not only is our sense of morality often simplified or taken for granted, but that it may often actually be the coalescence of competing, and even more complex, ethical views, even if we rarely stop to contemplate it.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Contradiction in Terms

There is a pretty large divide among those whom consider themselves anarchists today. Ever since my conversion (if you really want to call it that) I've been made painfully aware that there are as many subsets of anarchist thought as there are non-anarchist schools of political thought. But there does seem to be a single division for which all self-proclaimed anarchists seem to fall on one side or the other. The schism would be between two general groups who would be roughly labeled as "Leftist-Anarchists" and "Anarcho-Capitalists." Although these groups share a general distrust of almost all of the current incarnations of government, they often seem like they are worlds apart. It's not uncommon to see opposed anarchists, engaging in a pedantic quibble about who the "real" anarchists are.

Leftist-anarchists are mostly united in their opposition of organizational hierarchy...of every kind. A Leftist-anarchist generally believes in a sense of equality associated with hierarchy. They do not believe that one person should hold dominion over another. So they believe that government is invalid because of the obvious hierarchical implications. But they also believe that most business arrangements are also invalid, as an employer or share-holder is situated above the employee. They generally believe in a more "Georgist" sense of commerce and social interaction in which labor, land, and wealth is owned and controlled directly by the collective of those who provide labor.

Anarcho-capitalists also believe in the invalidity of government but are not opposed to free-market operations. Anarcho-capitalists are rooted in the Lockean principles of Natural Law and the classically liberal notions of personal liberty and spontaneous order. I would classify my socio-political views as falling within this latter group.

I think the axiomatic division between the two groups lies somewhere in the idea of private property. Anarcho-capitalists tend to have a strict idea of property from which all liberty emanates. You are "free" to do as you wish with your body because you own it. Just as you are free to do what you wish with your property because you own it. Leftist-anarchists take issue with the idea of private property because it allows for hierarchy. For instance, if I own an apple tree and you want to eat apples, I can offer to let you take some apples for an hour's work. In the eyes of the Leftist-anarchist, this would be unjust, as my owning of the apple tree places me in a position over you.

I always found this view to not only be antithetical to the idea of liberty, but to be paradoxical in some ways. The initial issue with this mindset is the notion that withholding my labor or the product thereof (property) from you is somehow a positive violation of your rights as an individual. Viewing it as such, owning ANYTHING that someone else wants and/or needs yet doesn't have would constitute something "evil." Now, it is certainly true that being a human being in and of itself endows us with certain biological needs and wants which we cannot mitigate to a large degree. We all have a general need for food, water, clothes, shelter, medicine, and so on. But it isn't clear (in an ethical sense) that this demands positive obligation from each one of us to provide our labor or the products thereof to everyone else.

If I purchase a plot of land, plant an apple tree, and spend years watering and fertilizing it, trimming it when need be, until it begins to yield apples, how does this act in and of itself pose a violation of another's rights? On the contrary, if I own myself and my labor, then wouldn't a supposed forced obligation of that labor to the ends of another person actually pose a violation of my rights? The confusion stems from a sense of group rights as opposed to individual rights. Leftist-anarchists believe in the rights of the collective "we" to control as an aggregate will. But of course, the irony is that this runs roughshod over the idea of self-ownership and personal liberty if we can only agree that I own my labor and the product thereof. If I, as an individual, wish to apply my labor or use the product thereof in a way contrary to the will of the collective, then I am in the wrong in their view.

But this brings out a more subtle point that I believe might be lost in the argument. Although Leftist-anarchists do not believe in hierarchy by name, they seem blatantly unaware that they do promote hierarchy in a very real way. But what's obfuscating that reality is the complacence they find in "equality." It's true, in most Leftist-anarchist systems no one person is above another per se, but, in contrast, ALL PEOPLE are above the individual. If an individual decides to do something that is not liked by the majority of such a society, they will find out quickly that their is a very real hierarchy in which the rest of the collective has subjugated their individual will.

However, with Anarcho-capitalists, said person would be able to do whatever he wishes so long as he does not violate anyone else's property. And while our free-market devotion beckons the retort of "Hierarchy!" from our political brethren, it's important to notice that the idea of vertical organization in and of itself denotes nothing good or evil in the minds of Anarcho-capitalists. What matters is force and the violation of the individual. For instance, Anarcho-capitalists are vehemently against the forced hierarchy of government structures, which demand obedience from the individual without reference to choice. However, if an individual volunteers to offer his services to another person in exchange for other goods or services, it's not clear to the Anarcho-capitalist why such an establishment of "hierarchy" in the eyes of Leftist-anarchists would be considered evil. Some Leftist-anarchists will volley with lines like "Capitalism is the freedom to choose your own masters!" and yet without reference to individual freedom, how do such statements hold up? They seem to forget that even if you wished to view the voluntary trade of goods and services as a master-slave relationship, you still will not have made a reference to volition. An individual in an Anarcho-capitalist society can just as well withhold their labor and property from others. Interestingly, that implication isn't exactly as clear regarding most Leftist-anarchist systems.

I realize that this is speaking to a pretty narrow bandwidth of people. But I thought the dichotomy between the two is interesting nonetheless. I do find many Leftist-anarchist views more consistent than those of most mainstream views, but I admittedly find some of their arguments frustrating. Their logic can be quite convincing sometimes. But the implications of their views and the ambiguous and contradicting nature of their sense of liberty prove to be baffling more often than not. What is probably most amusing to me is the fact that under an Anarcho-capitalist system, Leftist-anarchists would be more that free to aggregate and set up such a society (or many of them) whereas under a Leftist-anarchist society, the Anarcho-capitalist vision of natural rights and liberty could not be achieved or practiced. In fact, it seems like the ONLY system in which panarchy could truly exist would be under some type of Anarcho-capitalist system, or at least a congruent system. It's kind of amazing that the term "liberal" has become associated with views that have little to do with freedom or the tolerance thereof at this point. If it still means freedom to any degree it only means it in the sense that the individual has the "freedom" to comply.