Tag Archives: politics

Rights Are Rights

Recently, I watched the Ken Burns documentary, Prohibition. It was typical for Burns’s work, quotations from ordinary people about their lives, talking heads one after another to tell us what it’s all about, and a heavy dose of earnestness. But one thing stood out for me–namely, the link between the prohibition of alcohol and the women’s suffrage movement.

Now, I’d known about that before, but in thinking about it while watching the film, I was struck by how the push for recognizing one type of right

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was tied to the denial of another.

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In fact, votes for women were delayed in part because women’s suffrage and temperance leagues were so closely related.

But that wasn’t the only questionable link. The Ku Klux Klan also supported votes for women, given their common interest in banning alcohol.

But why should that matter? Unsavory characters sometimes endorse good candidates and good ideas, and politics is the mother of strange bedfellows, as the saying goes. The problem, though, is the expansion of one kind of freedom at the expense of another.

Pay attention to that last sentence. By no means am I saying that women should be denied the right to vote. It is the right of all citizens to participate in the running of their country. At the same time, there is a basic dissonance in demanding your own rights be recognized while seeking to deny rights to others.

Is drinking alcohol a right? I’ve discussed the subject of rights many times before. Regular readers will have seen my discussion of gun rights in particular. But on what basis can we ground a given right?

The old answer was that God gives us our rights, though that answer no longer satisfies the modern world. A more recent model is that society grants us rights by consensus, but this is especially insufficient, since whatever society decides to give, society can also take away, as the twentieth century reminded us all too often.

My solution to this question is to say that rights are an expression of our power to choose. As an individual, I am able to make decisions for myself. I can act autonomously. As long as I am not harming innocent others, I must be free to do as I wish, and the same goes for you, Dear Reader. This is why many things ought not to be subject to a vote. We have no business directing the private choices of others, and we must employ the lightest of touches when guiding actions in public.

An example of how this is forgotten is found in Marian Wright Edelman, the president of the Children’s Defense Fund and frequent author on The Huffington Post. She advocates for protection and aid of children, and in that, she has a noble cause. When she ventures into pushing gun control, however, she commits the same error that the suffragists did a century ago in wanting to curtail some rights to support others.

Better it is to seek to do good unmixed than to mingle good with evil. We do not defend one right by violating another. We do not breathe life into one right by strangling a different right. And when we permit one right to be denied, we deny them all.

Enough seriousness. Lift a glass, and celebrate freedom.

I Know You Are, But What Am I?

I’ve raised the question of civility in discourse before, but it’s time to revisit the subject. Of late, I have been trolling the The Huffington Post–well, I say trolling, but really what I’ve been doing is expressing a minority opinion there. The editorial stance and the position taken by much of the commenters leans hard to the left. As my regular readers know, I’m a pogo stick on the traditional political spectrum. That’s because my core political philosophy is aimed at securing liberty for the individual, something I’ve taken to calling eleutherianism. Politics is best represented not as a spectrum, limited to one dimension, but as a multi-dimensional space.

Nevertheless, since at times the comments that I make feel to the right of many opinions expressed on the HuffnPuff, I get a chorus of replies intending to educate me on some point. The problem here is that said commenters have presumed that I don’t know what they do and thereby take it upon themselves to call me ignorant–and occasionally to correct the perceived deficiency.

What they apparently cannot comprehend is that people can have the same body of facts but arrive at different conclusions. They write comments in the manner that many of my students write argument essays by dumping a pile of facts into a posting and leaving. What they fail to understand is that facts don’t speak for themselves.

Let’s take the hot topic de jour, global warming. Some doubt the science, but rationally speaking, the facts are that the Earth is heating up, and human activity is the cause. But notice that those facts tell us precisely nothing about what we ought to do. There are a variety of responses that can be taken, from nothing at all to a radical restructuring of human societies. One can be fully aware of the facts and yet reach different answers regarding the appropriate action.

I’m not seeking consolation here. Politics, just like any other serious human endeavor, is a messy and occasionally ugly business. What I am suggesting is that we will all do better in arriving at solutions if we lay aside the urge to smugness and cease to presume that we know the facts of which our opponents must be ignorant.

Of course, there are some about whom we cannot escape the realization that they are willfully ignorant. Aye, there’s the rub. Separating the fools from the worthy adversaries is not easy. I’m asking here to give everyone a fair chance first before jumping to the conclusion that the person isn’t deserving of being heard.

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….

Bringing In the Outlaws

This year’s political theater over gun control included a yearning for more background checks. The idea there is to keep felons on the loose (and certifiably crazy people) from having access to firearms. This brings to my mind David Codrea’s statement that if you can’t be trusted with a gun, you can’t be trusted without a custodian. But more than that, it reminds me that the way we do “criminal justice” in this society makes little sense.

Our primary response to everything from possessing small quantities of the wrong plant to murder is to put the person who done the deed in prison. Of course, if you’re into financial crimes, you stand in good chance of getting away with that. It helps to have a number of politicians on your payroll, naturally.

But this system couldn’t buy a gun legally in this country, thanks to its clear insanity. Here’s my suggestion for a reformation of our criminal justice system:

1. Violent crimes warrant an extended stay on the state’s dime, to include a program of re-education while in the government’s custody. No early release. No cable television. No parole, furlough, or other nonsense about how the prison is overcrowded so we’re letting the thug go. If you offer violence to someone who was doing no wrong to you, you deserve to spend a long time away from society.

2. Crimes of negligence, financial crimes, or property crimes that don’t involve violence should be punished through compensatory and punitive damages being paid in restitution. There is no sense in putting someone who commits check fraud in prison, only to let that person learn how to be a better criminal from fellow inmates. That person also cannot do anything useful to pay back those who were defrauded while in custody. Bernie Madoff, for example, may be getting what he deserves, but if he were cleaning the toilets at minimum wage of the people whose finances he ruined, that would be some measure of justice.

3. Malum prohibitum “crimes”–in other words, all the things that are crimes because today’s Puritans don’t like them–should no longer be crimes. Significant portions of prisoners at all levels are incarcerated for drug offenses. If you want to smoke weed, eat Cheetos, and listen to Pink Floyd records, that’s fine with me. As long as you don’t drive or involve children or otherwise put someone who doesn’t want to participate at risk, it’s no hurt, no foul in my book.

These all probably sound reasonable, or at least consistently libertarian. Here’s where the radical part comes:

Once the sentence or restitution is complete, the person should return to full rights and ability to take part in society.

I mean everything–voting, toting guns, working in a bank, whatever. Perhaps there could be a restriction on working in nuclear weapons labs or the like, but that’s iffy. My point here is that we learned a while ago, or so we claim, that our kind of society can’t have second-class citizens. But that’s exactly what having a criminal record makes a person.

But what about child molesters? What about repeat offenders? What about the incorrigibly violent or fradulant?

I can see a place for keeping a record on file about a person’s criminal activities. A second visit to the system could be noted and would earn a longer or more detailed sentence. But the decision that someone no longer needs to be locked up must mean exactly that–the person no longer needs to be supervised by the state for the good of us all. For example, a child molester, so far as I understand things, can never achieve that status and should be removed forever. (I would accept the death penalty here, but a life sentence can be good enough.)

What I’m saying is that we have to choose here. Is the person in question ready to be a full citizen or not? If yes, then no waffling about that. If no, then why are we allowing that person to wander the streets?

An Open Letter to David Horsey

David Horsey is a political columnist and cartoonist for the Los Angeles Times. In that capacity, he wrote and drew the following, titled, “While most Americans shun guns, the fearful keep buying more.” I’ve added a link, but since articles disappear from the Web, I’m adding the following quotation from what he wrote:

Gun owners make up half of the GOP. I would be surprised if there is not a correlation between that half and the half of Republicans who, in other polls, expressed the belief that Saddam Hussein was responsible for the 9/11 attacks and that weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq. I would bet they are also many of the same folks who believe Barack Obama is a Muslim or a terrorist sympathizer or a socialist or Kenya-born or all of the above. They are likely the ones who think that liberal scientists have concocted the global-warming hoax and that the Justice Department and the United Nations are plotting to disarm Americans.

Dear Mr. Horsey:

Your article drips with prejudice, and as is typcial for people afflicted with that condition, your sneering attitude has blinded you to reality. I have known quite a few gun owners since I joined their ranks. What I have seen is a subset of America that is just like the whole of the country. Some gun owners are jerks. So are some Americans. Make any disparaging remarks about gun owners you like, but the same statement would be true about any other group you care to name. What I have seen, though, and what you’d see if you took the time, is that a great many gun owners are friendly people who welcome newcomers. At shooting ranges, I’ve had the chance to shoot several types of firearms that I don’t own, thanks to the openness of others. Given the prices of ammunition these days, that’s not as small a thing as you might imagine. I’ve learned things from my fellow enthusiasts. Whatever you would picture as being the case among a group of model train collectors, the same is true about gun owners. We share with each other and with anyone who wants to be a part of our group.

But, yes, we also involve ourselves in the politics of our country. What would you do if proposals floated around constantly to limit what a columnist or cartoonist might say or draw? We do stand up for our rights. And we stand up for yours. I made my voice heard in a variety of fora when a Danish cartoonist was attacked for his cartoons about Muhammed and Islam. As a writer and college English instructor, I care a great deal about freedom of expression and academic thought. As an Other with regard to religion, it is in my interest to live in a country that respects the right of each person to make individual choices about spiritual beliefs and practices. Before you say that I’m only acting in each case in my own advantage, I am a straight man, but I support equality in marriage for gays and lesbians, and I support the right of a woman to decide what she wants to do with her body and her pregnancy.

Contrary to the quoted paragraph above, I am more of a Libertarian than a Republican. In fact, on some issues, I’m Green. I wanted a public option in the healthcare reform act, and I wanted it to take effect immediately. While I recognized Saddam Hussein as a dangerous dictator, I had strong reservations against the invasion of Iraq and was aware that he had nothing to do with the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Barack Obama is an American citizen, having been born in the State of Hawaii. He identifies himself as a Christian, and while I’m satisfied as to his honesty there, I also know that under our Constitution, there can be no religious test for holding the office of president. On the question of climate change, I accept the scientific evidence and consensus, as I do on evolution by natural selection. The Libertarian in me wants government to have strictly defined and limited powers. I want government to protect the rights and liberties of all people in this nation and to create opportunities for everyone where such creation is possible.

When it comes to the idea of some power attempting to disarm Americans, do recall that Dianne Feinstein once said in a 60 Minutes interview that if she had had the votes, she would have pushed a bill to demand that all of us turn in our guns. The treaty that the United Nations is discussing is a thicket of bureaucratic language, but the implications of the proposals are clear. Senator Schumer’s recent bill regarding background checks includes language that if taken literally would make felons out of a great many gun owners just for doing ordinary things such as loaning a gun to a friend or leaving one stored in a home with a roommate–things that are not harmful acts. But perhaps you regard suspicion of the government as paranoia. If so, please tell me how much you trust a government that over the years has done many things that any clear-headed human being would find despicable. Suspicion and watchfulness aren’t paranoia. They are necessary and healthy states for all citizens in our kind of society.

To show you how I am not the person that you depicted in your cartoon, I make this offer: If you’re ever in northwest Arkansas, you’re welcome to join me for a day of firearms instruction and freewheeling discussion. I offer this to you, someone who showed no generosity of spirit with regard to people like me. Now, is that the action of a paranoid sociopath who resides in some alternate reality?

Greg Camp

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.

Stand Up!

Once again, we’ve had an election, and the results of various races remained in doubt for weeks. There were also squabbles in several states over the question of voter ID laws.

After watching a year and a half of campaigning, I’m tired of stupidity. I’m tired of lazy eligible voters who can’t decide for whom to vote and can’t get the required documents. I’m tired of technological solutions that create more problems than they solve. Here are my answers:

1. Election Day will be a national holiday. Polls will be open the full twenty-four hours of that day. Only essential services such as hospitals and power generation stations may operate.

2. Anyone who wishes to vote will be allowed to do so anywhere the person chooses. If I care enough to vote for mayor of Seaford, Delaware, so be it. Upon voting, the voter’s thumb will be marked with dye as was done in Afghanistan.

3. In the polling place, there will be a wall with slots to represent each candidate in every race in that district. The slot open on a tube that leads to a container of standard weight. The voter will be given enough ten gram metal disks to cast a vote in each race. Voters will be made to change into plain robes without pockets and asked to pass through a metal detector. The slots will be covered and will open one at a time, closed when the voter chooses. Each container will be weighed at the end of Election Day, and the weight will be divided by ten, giving the number of votes.

This is my Luddite, contrary, take-responsibility-for-your-own-society solution to voting. We’ll have to count the chad and check the Diebold programming when the ballot initiative for the change shows up in the next election.