Category Archives: Personal Liberty

How Government Governs Best

Those of us who spend much time discussing politics have heard the saying, government governs best which governs the least. It’s often attributed to Thomas Jefferson, but in fact, the origin is the opening paragraph of Henry David Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience. Because his words are a good introduction to today’s discussion, I’ll quote that paragraph in full:

I heartily accept the motto, “That government is best which governs least”; and I should like to see it acted up to more rapidly and systematically. Carried out, it finally amounts to this, which also I believe – “That government is best which governs not at all”; and when men are prepared for it, that will be the kind of government which they will have. Government is at best but an expedient; but most governments are usually, and all governments are sometimes, inexpedient. The objections which have been brought against a standing army, and they are many and weighty, and deserve to prevail, may also at last be brought against a standing government. The standing army is only an arm of the standing government. The government itself, which is only the mode which the people have chosen to execute their will, is equally liable to be abused and perverted before the people can act through it. Witness the present Mexican war, the work of comparatively a few individuals using the standing government as their tool; for, in the outset, the people would not have consented to this measure.

The war that he refers to was the Mexican-American War, but it could just as well be any war in our history, especially including those of the present.

But let’s work out exactly what the purpose of government is. Otherwise, we have ourselves a massive answer in violent search of a question. My statement of government’s purpose comes in three parts in order descending from greatest to least:

1. The protection of liberty

The first, foremost, and fundamental purpose of government is to protect the liberties of individuals when they live in groups. We saw last week (26 June 2013) an example of this in the Supreme Court’s rulings on DOMA and California’s Proposition 8. Though the rulings were more limited than I should have liked, they did at least declare the principle that all couples have the right to marry. More gains in that arena will follow in due course.

The idea here is that when people concentrate together, the rights that they are born with run the risk of being trampled by the herd. Just as two roads intersecting require traffic lights to allow for both to cross without damage, we have to have a government that will protect the rights of each of us from the desires of others. Notice that government does not create those rights. It exists to protect what comes before and above itself.

2. Creation of an environment for human excellence

The second function of government is to create and sustain an environment in which human excellence is possible. Human beings achieve great things when they work together. This includes consumer protections that guarantee accurate labelling of products, programs that see to the health of people, and services that provide a functioning transportation and education system. Yes, these cost money and have to be paid for by taxes (but not deficit spending, let us agree), but they enhance the liberties that each citizen is able to exercise, and as long as the tax rate is reasonable and agreed to by popular vote–in our case, for elected representatives–this is consistent with the first principle. In fact, let’s recognize that taxation is required for any government action. Without taxes, we lose even the first purpose.

But again, the idea here is that by creating an environment in which humans can achieve great things, either separately or in groups, government makes possible a broader exercise of the liberties we are born with.

3. Promotion of cultural growth

By culture, I mean the arts, sciences, technology, and other such expressions of human excellence. This differs from the second purpose in that I see a job for government not only to create an environment in which culture can thrive, but also to promote new developments that are unlikely to be achieved first by individuals or private companies. NASA and the Internet are my two favorite examples of this. Without government, space, both cyber and outer, would not have been opened. The rewards were too far off into the future, and the technical difficulties meant that profit might never come.

This third purpose is the one that I see as the most debatable. It is the area most subject to risk, as we have seen with the recent kerfuffle over Solyndra. It also is the most subject to waste. But without risk there is no reward, and I’m willing to accept the chance of some money being scattered to the wind, since, in fact, the better metaphor is casting bread upon the water. Yes, some of it will sink or rot, but much will return to us in unexpected ways.

Those are the three purposes that I see. A representative republic–one in which rights are beyond public opinion and citizens vote on who will lead for a defined term–is my choice of how to go about achieving those purposes.

Now, I need a term for this political philosophy. Libertarian somewhat fits, though people who today identify as such would object to many of the areas in which I see a role for government. Liberal would be a good word, if it hadn’t been corrupted by so many on the left of the American political scene. Progressive has suffered the same fate. To shift the debate from the deep ruts of our current parties, I propose a new word, coming from the ancient Greek word, ἐλευθερία, eleutheria, meaning liberty. I’m naming my political philosophy Eleutherianism.

Now to form a tax-exempt organization and begin raising funds….

A License to Insurrection?

A while ago at a gun control blog that I frequent, namely Mikeb302000, we had a discussion about whether the Constitution of the United States authorizes a rebellion against the govenerment.

This question arose because some who advocate for gun rights have argued that the Second Amendment was written to give the American people the power to rebel against a U.S. government gone agley. This line of reasoning suggests that since the Founders had just fought a war of rebellion against the British Empire, they understood the need for that option to be available to future generations.

Of course, this thinking ignores two facts, human nature and the nature of law:

1. Rebels declare themselves to be against authority precisely until they are themselves the authorities. At that point, they see themselves as deserving the loyalty of the people they rule.

2. Legal systems rarely, if ever, include permission to overthrow them, even if pressing conditions exist.

So do we have a right to rebel against our government?

Yes–with caveats.

Whenever government overreaches, it loses some measure of its justification for existing. We in the United States have been fortunate for a long time that our government has kept itself within sufficient bounds that its excesses have been remedied–for the most part, but not altogether, alas–through the courts and legislatures. The War on Terror of the last more than a decade has called into question the legitimacy of our recent and current administrations, as we have seen within the last few days, thanks to the revelations of NSA spying on American telephone calls.

Obama’s response to this news?

If people can’t trust not only the executive branch but also don’t trust Congress, and don’t trust federal judges, to make sure that we’re abiding by the Constitution with due process and rule of law, then we’re going to have some problems here.

I do not take comfort in that. In fact, I hope that we do not come to a point at which our government loses all justification and deserves to be overthrown. But the question remains as to how such a rebellion would itself be justified. I answer that with the following two points:

1. The American Revolution was based on the premise that the new government to be created by the rebels would offer better protection of the rights of the people than the British government. It’s the equivalent of a man asking a woman to divorce her husband on the grounds that the new man can treat her better. That may be true, but the new fellow loses his claim if he falls short.

2. More than that, morality and rights are prior to law. That is to say, we are born with rights. Morality is how we protect each other’s rights while we live together. Law is a tertiary system that defends and depends upon the first two.

Governments exist to protect the rights of people living within their jurisdictions and to encourage through cooperative effort the growth in areas such as culture, technology, and so forth. Government is justified when it uses its power to the furtherance of those ends, and its legal system provides the detailed explanation of how it may operate.

Perhaps the Founders wrote the Second Amendment with these ideas in mind. But I prefer to avoid the intentional fallacy and take the text as it’s written. Beyond that, we must keep nested priorities in order and recognize that we do not justify the concept of insurrection in law but in higher sources.

Understand that this is not advocating treason or rebellion. It is instead a reminder to all of us, both citizen and government agent, that we must work within the system, so long as that system is serving its purpose. As long as we all remember that requirement, there should never be the need for anything else.

Reducing Gun Violence

Regular readers of this weblog will know that I am a believer in the basic right of all human beings to own and carry firearms. I have as much right to be armed as I do to have my tongue and my opinions with me wherever I go. I may be justifiably asked to keep my mouth shut and other matters concealed, but no one has the right to require more than that.

That being said, I do recognize that we have a problem of gun violence in America. Every year, around 30,000 of us die by gunfire. More than half of those deaths are due to suicide, but regardless of the cause, the number is too high. So what do we do?

Some propose restrictions on ownership and carry, while wanting to ban some types of firearms altogether. This approach makes no sense, given the more than 300,000,000 guns in private hands in this country and our long and porous borders. But there are things that we can do:

1. Create a functioning and available mental healthcare system. This ideally would be a part of general healthcare reform for everyone. I don’t have much faith in Obamacare, given its lack of a public option and the weak and mealy-mouthed manner of its passage and implementation, but that’s a step in the right direction. More–specifically the public option–needs to be done. Note that I don’t mean involuntary commitments or the violations of privacy. What I’m suggesting here is healthcare available to all who need it.

2. Reduce poverty. In my previous article on Alexandria, I named an educational system as a necessary element of any working democracy. I add to this the idea that education, such as I discussed here is a way out of poverty. Other intelligently run programs would have the same effect. We can debate at length whether poverty causes crime, but certainly living in poverty puts a person at greater risk–both for being a victim and an offender of violent crime. (Being wealthy brings a whole different class of crimes to commit, but that’s not generally related to guns.)

3. End our foolish drug laws. Much of our violence is related to illegal drugs. Treat drugs as a health problem, not a crime problem, and that motivating factor goes away. Al Capone didn’t sell beer nuts, after all.

We often hear from the gun control freaks that Europe is a model for good gun laws. Most countries in Europe have strict gun control–the Czech Republic being a shining exception for the moment–and those countries have lower gun violence than America. The difference is not actually that great, especially compared to other parts of the world, but the fact remains that Europe has fewer acts of gun violence than we do. But let’s note that Europe also has the three items that I just proposed. Certainly, it’s in doubt whether the Europeans will be able to afford the first two much longer, but in many cases, the problematic countries have chosen the California approach to government–lots of goodies, paid for by borrowing. Effective work for the first two can be done without requiring deficit spending–provided we are willing to pay for it. The third item would in fact save us money, both in prison and court costs and in expendatures for public health.

My three solutions have the advantage of not infringing on the rights of those who did nothing wrong in the vain hope of restraining those who make a life of doing bad acts. My answers also would show benefits in a variety of areas unrelated to gun violence. They are measured responses to a problem that has been getting better over the last two decades.

Perhaps they lack the quality of breathless bloviating, but I see that as a feature, not a bug.

La Classe È Mobile?

University of California, Davis, Professor Gregory Clark has released a study of social mobility, focusing on class in England, with some reference to other countries, including the United States. He looks in particular at English surnames over a period of the last thousand years. His conclusion is that there is a tendency to regress to the mean, no matter how high or low in social rank a family starts out. That means that the poor tend to float upward over generations to the middle class, while the rich sink into the same.

This should come as no surprise to those of us who read old books. Plato discusses this idea in his dialogues. We’ve also heard the old line about how the first generation builds wealth, the second spends it, and the third returns to mediocrity. It’s interesting to see that the poor tend toward the middle, as well.

The study is detailed, while its conclusions are tentative, but for social policy, we can draw our own:

1. The middle class is not a bad place to be. We’ve told ourselves that being on top is the only prize worth winning, and the truth of that is a matter of debate, but life in the middle can be lived. Population studies tell us that most people are in the middle, anyway, with regard to ability.

2. The study suggests that the efforts of the wealthy to provide opportunities to their children often do no good. The implication is that the children aren’t necessarily born with their parents’ abilities. That latter statement would seem to be true about children born to lower than average parents–often they are born with more potential. This suggests that we should give up on forcing every child to be equal in academic performance. There are basic skills and areas of knowledge that every citizen needs, but when it comes to more advanced levels, children will sort themselves out, and schools should let them. Trade schools after high school would be of much greater advantage to many students, and universities could return to academic pursuits. Schools should provide the opportunity for students to rise to their level of ability and be satisfied with that.

3. Another set of social policies supported here is the combination of a safety net and inheritance taxes. The poor need time to rise to the middle, while the rich will benefit little in useful ways from having wealth passed on to them. (In the latter case, it would be simple to make an exception for family farms or small businesses.)

There is one final point to make. We should know this, but the tail ends of the bell curve are tiny in terms of the number of people in them. Social policy for decades has been aimed at creating a Lake Wobegon world in which all children are above average, but that’s unrealistic. Instead, we end up with something more like Kurt Vonnegut’s short story, “Harrison Bergeron,” a world that weighs down people of ability in the name of equality. We should celebrate ability where we find it–and go looking for it everywhere.

Sing to the Tune of a Different Choir

According to a poll released yesterday (9 October 2012) by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, Americans in increasing numbers do not affiliate with any particular religious organization. The results are published here. There are a lot of data in the survey results, but the overall trend is that not belonging to a group is becoming more common among young people. That group tends to lean left in American politics. There’s no concentration in any one ethnic group, income level, or, surprisingly, education level. Almost seventy percent of the unaffiliated believe in God (or gods?) in some fashion. All told, one person out of five in this country now does not identify with an institution.

I see this as a good trend. As I’ve said before, I don’t trust large groups. Human beings, taken individually, are often good, but put them together, and they sink to the lowest level of behavior and mentality and stay there. This is true in businesses, academic institutions, governments, and religions. The megaphone of association magnifies the worst in us.

This is also a continuation of the Protestant movement that began in Europe in the late Middle Ages. The assertion of that movement was that an individual is responsible for and capable of communicating with the divine directly without the need of another person. That view was a heresy in the best sense of the word. Heresy comes from a Greek word meaning “choice.” In that way, Protestantism fits in nicely with the general trend toward individual rights that has been working its way through the minds of thinkers in the West for thousands of years. Institutions are often the antithesis of choice, and it’s good to see more and more Americans either loosening or leaving those institutions.

The trend here is reminiscent of a book by Martin Gardner, The Whys of a Philosophical Scrivener. Gardner was a noted skeptic on matters of religion and the supernatural, and yet in that book, he identified himself as someone who believed in God and the afterlife. He did this on his own, as a result of his reading and thinking and also of his personal nature. He made a leap of faith, and that leap had to be done out of his own choice, not at the calling of an institution.

In summary, this is the distribution of power that is necessary for a functioning democracy. The more of us who take on intellectual and spiritual responsibility for our own lives, the better. Carry on, my brothers and sisters in personal faith.

Whose Business Is It?

The recent shooting incident in a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado raises a question of basic rights. According to the reports that I’ve seen, the theater in question bars the carrying of firearms. Of course, we see how well a sign declaring a “gun-free zone” worked, but that’s another matter. I want to consider the broader point about the boundaries of rights.

Take my home as an example. It’s generally agreed that I have a large measure of a right to privacy within its walls. Under our laws, if the government wants to come in, there must be a warrant issued by a judge to allow that, minus a small number of exigent circumstances. Our government violates that all too often, but many of us recognize that to be a violation. In addition to privacy, I have the right to say who gets to come in and what my guests get to do while visiting.

But what about a business? If I own a business, how much control over the behavior of visitors do I have? A business operates in public. We’re not talking about private clubs here, so we’ll leave aside questions as to whether a golf course can bar blacks or women. The point is what rules a store that is open to the public can have.

It’s here that we need to distinguish between passive and active rights. Take the case of a woman walking into a store while wearing a hijab. She is practicing her religion in public, but that’s a passive practice. If she walks around speaking to customers about her beliefs or if she calls out a prayer, she’s moved into action.

I chose the example of Islam first precisely because it’s the one that many Americans will have difficulty with. But the same question applies to a Jewish man who wears a yarmulke.

As I said above, a public business is just that. It has to be open to everyone who comes to participate in the business. A store owner has the right to remove someone who is disrupting that business, but the passive expression of a person’s basic rights–in the examples given, the right to exercise of religion–is not a disruption.

How does this apply to the events in Aurora? The handgun that I carry concealed on my person is not a disruption to the normal activity of any business. Unless I’m in imminent danger, it won’t be visible. I don’t cross over into active expression of my right to self defense on a whim. Since I am passively exercising my right, the business has no justification in banning what I do, any more than it would have to ban a yarmulke or a hijab. The laws in some jurisdictions don’t comply with rights in this regard, and those need to be changed.

What this points to is how much freedom we each may have in public. As always, I seek the most freedom that we all can have while we’re together.

Words Fail Us

Weer’d World today informs us that Harvard University has hired a BGLTQ director by the name of Vanidy “Van” Bailey. That in itself is worthy of comment, and I will offer one soon, but it must be noted that The Harvard Crimson posted a correction on 3 July to the article reporting this hiring. Apparently, Bailey prefers to eschew “gendered pronouns” in reference to herself. The article and correction can be read here.

I am on record here on this weblog and in many other places in support of human rights, including specifically the right to be attracted to others as our natures dictate. I don’t care whether you’re gay, straight, or mix-and-match. As long as you act only with other consenting adults and as long as you have the discretion to get a room before you get to second base, you and I have no problem.

But it’s a biological fact that multicellular life, in the vast majority of species and particularly for mammals, is divided into male and female. That’s not a value judgement, nor is it a political or moral characteristic. Denying this only serves to make Bailey look foolish. She has succeeded in that, given the various comments posted to the article and correction (including two of my own). What I hope she comes to understand is that not all the comments are necessarily anti-homosexual. There are people in this world who wish to retain logic and science, while at the same time valuing personal liberty. I include myself in that group.

What Bailey is doing appears to be an effort to erase our awareness of the differences between men and women. What are those differences? There are the obvious biological ones, expressed in anatomy and physiology. Folklore suggests many others, but science hesitates to study those for political reasons. I am reluctant to take sides in that discussion, especially since it is also a fact that there is more diversity within a group than between groups, speaking in biological or sociological terms. But the XX genes do create structures that are visibly different from the ones created by XY. To put the matter another way, I would like my bank to use the term, millionaire, in reference to me, but facts are facts.

But what of BGLTQ? It stands for Bisexual, Gay, Lesbian, Transgendered, and Queer. That’s a mouthful, and its tastes will elicit different reactions, depending on the mouth, but I am curious as to why Harvard University feels the need for all of that to be directed. Harvard’s only job is to be an institution of higher learning. Matters of housing, civility, and law can surely be handled by the Dean of Students (or whatever strained title he or she is given) and the campus police. Students ought to be able to form such clubs as they wish, and members of the faculty ought to be allowed to organize discussions with their colleagues and with students, but the institution should have only one purpose: education.