Practicality

In a Facebook conversation about my “Three-Letter Worldview” series of posts, a friend and relative of mine, Carla, challenged me to write out “how I would put the worldview into practice in a country . . . how does my worldview translate to governing?”

She applied it to my self-described libertarianism and asked, “What is the practical application for governing in a democracy such as ours? . . . How would a Libertarian or libertarian [Ed: big or little “L” . . . for the record, I consider myself the latter, not the former] set up a system of government for 300 million+ diverse human beings to live under?”

I promised to respond, and then things got a bit crazy . . . My job got very busy, and then the area got hit by two major snowstorms in the course of a single week. On top of that, I’ve been helping my wife with the advertising and graphic design for a benefit concert she and a friend are planning for Save the Children to aid earthquake victims in Haiti.

So I’ve had very little time to write. But now that things are slowing down, I wanted to respond to Carla’s question.

First, my worldview is primarily that – a view of the world . . . an interpretation of what I see around me and how I see it working (or not working, as the case may be). It is not intended as a political system or a treatise on government.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that my worldview has no implications for what I consider “ideal” government. What it does mean is that, in choosing what form of government I will assent to live under, I am willing to settle for less than ideal, if in the meantime I can work – and encourage others to work – in directions consistent with that ideal.

But all that is not answering the question – it’s merely talking around it.

That said, Carla has posed a question that is really three:

1) How does my worldview translate to governing?
2) What is the practical application of my worldview toward government in a democracy such as ours?
3) How would I (or any libertarian) set up a system of government for 300 million people?

First: How does my worldview translate to governing? To tell the truth, my worldview as I have laid it out here doesn’t really speak much to how governing works, except to follow the advice of my favorite founding father, Thomas Jefferson, who said, “The government that governs least governs best, because the people discipline themselves.”

Note that this commonly repeated quote is usually truncated. Generally only the first half is recalled, but my worldview is dependent on both halves – a government that is restrained, and a governed citizenry that are restrained themselves . . . by themselves.

That’s basically the only broad implication my worldview as I have laid it out here has on governing, but the question that you are surely asking at this point is, “how is that practical??”

This threads very neatly into Carla’s second question “What is the practical application of my worldview toward government in a democracy such as ours?

To begin with, as I stated fairly explicitly in my worldview series, the views I hold are fairly government-agnostic. I believe that the views I hold are just as true in a democracy as they are in a dictatorship. The only difference is that, under some governments, the penalty for living a live consistent with those views may be more or less severe.

That being the case, one of the most hospitable forms of government to this worldview is that of a representative republic. Contrary to Carla’s assertion, we do not live in a democracy. This makes a tremendous difference because a republic is by far friendlier to the views I have espoused. In a democracy, a whimsical populace can inflict whatever it wishes, as long as it persuades a majority of its members to agree. In a republic, that populace is far more restrained by several factors – the supremacy of codified law, the separation of power into multiple decision-making bodies, and restrictions on how far even a legitimate majority is allowed to go in imposing its will over the minority.

But that’s only a side discussion. The main discussion on this question is one of practicality. How is it practical to expect that people control themselves, rather than relying on the government to control them?

The problem is that this question presumes some sort of government that is not, itself, made up of people – subject to the same whims, faults, limitations and errors as any others. The only really just government would be a government ruled by one truly perfect human being . . . and no such thing exists, or ever can.

This being the case, any government at all is a concession . . . a surrender of control over our own choices. But it is a necessary concession if we are to live in relationship with one another. Anarchy – the absence of any government – simply pits everyone against each other in a harsh, primal struggle for survival.

What, then, should we look for in our government on a practical level? I believe that perhaps the most harmful force in our current national character has been the drive toward relativism . . . the belief that everything is subjective, and that nothing is universal.

Don’t get me wrong. I believe that at least 99% of all the standards anybody holds – including, probably, some of my own – are misguided and wrong. But 99% is not the same as 100%. In order for a society to function . . . indeed, in order for there to be any concept at all of justice, good, or right . . . something must be universally true. Otherwise, these words are just so many letters combined in an aesthetically pleasing order.

So yes . . . I believe most of what each and every one of us believes to be true is, in fact, probably wrong, either by virtue of being incomplete or being off target. On a practical level, this means that we should not endeavor to impose our beliefs, behavioral systems or tastes on each other. The laws of this country should strive to respect the choices each of us make for ourselves. The only laws I would like to see . . . the only ones I believe to be truly “just” . . . are those which prevent us from imposing our will on each other . . . those which prevent us from *eliminating* one another’s choices.

Therefor, my answer is that, in our democracy, we should strive to eliminate as many laws, bureaucracies, and systems of control as possible. And where it is not possible, we should maximize the ability of those under the laws to make choices within them. If there must be politicians, then let us strive to elect politicians who believe this, rather than those who are simply out for more control. And where there are none who truly believe it, let us elect those who at least find it in their best interest to pretend that they do.

Carla’s final question is a bit different. Her first question had one foot still firmly in the theoretical world, and one in the practical. Her second question moved fully to the practical realm, but dealt with how to apply my worldview politically to our existing nation-state.

Her third question starts from scratch, and asks how a libertarian would set up a system of government for 300 million people such as those living in this country.

I cannot answer for all libertarians, but I will answer for myself, and my answer will be similar to the one I gave for the last question . . . that is . . . it’s the wrong question. How would I set up a government for 300 million people? I wouldn’t.

This may seem like a cop-out, but really it is not. A government is not something I believe can be legitimately “set up” for people. In order to be legitimate, they must set it up themselves – whether by electing representatives, choosing the strongest warrior to be their king, selecting the best hunter to be their tribal chief, or simply allowing citizens to participate in a direct democracy.

To be honest, I think it would be easier to establish an ideal government from scratch than it would be to try to turn our country, with its history, its many diverse cultures, its baggage and its existing power structures into that ideal government. While I don’t subscribe to the view that “we can’t get there from here,” I do think it’d be one hell of a trip to do so.

The problem with this whole discussion is the fact that it focuses too much on government. This is, I think, one of the key problems with small “L” liberalism . . . that is, the left wing political viewpoint in America today. Like Carla did in asking these questions, liberalism focuses on government for everything. See a problem? What can the government do to fix it? Have a good idea? Let’s pass a law and have the government put it into practice! See someone in need? Let’s have the government help them out.

Frankly, I just don’t see the government that way. A government is just a particular structure put in place by people who seek to protect themselves. But in doing so, they sacrifice complete control over their own choices, and once they have given the government a little of that control, it will always seek more.

That’s where the liberal comes in . . . the typical liberal trusts the government, trusts it enough to willingly hand over his or her own control to solve that problem, to make something of that good idea, or to help that person in need. The typical liberal truly believes that the government is the entity best suited to make those decisions.

I think that’s giving the government . . . and the people who operate it . . . way too much credit.

What’s the alternative then? How do we build up a truly effective system of self-government?

The key is not government, but culture. Whether we’re talking about an existing system or one built from the ground up, the key is to start with the broadly-shared cultural belief that what we’re building is a good thing.

“But,” you say, “doesn’t that fall afoul of your earlier assertion that we shouldn’t force our beliefs on one another?”

Not at all. I don’t advocate forcing this belief on anybody . . . I simply believe that my ideal culture cannot exist in its absence. Besides, the belief I’m talking about is already broadly shared among much of western civilization. Those who believe in God call it the “golden rule,” but it is known by various secular aphorisms as well, “live and let live,” “let sleeping dogs lie,” “don’t tread on me.” These are all manifestations of the same thing. I prefer the Biblical expression because it is somehow fuller . . . deeper than the others. “Do to others as you would have them do to you,” is just another way of stating the foundational libertarian principle. It says, “I would like to be allowed the freedom to make my own choices, and because that is what I would like, I will give you that freedom as well.”

So the very first thing I would do to move this country – or ANY country – toward my ideal is work to instill within its people the importance of this vital principle. Right now, we have no central guiding principle . . . quite honestly, we have very little by way of cohesive culture at all, any more. Some of us operate on the hippocratic, “first, do no harm.” Others operate on the principle of “take what you can get.” Still others operate on various manufactured ethical codes that claim to have their basis in some form of religion or moral code, but few if any of these are truly internally consistent. Most are contradictory, and virtually all – when they find themselves with a hand on the strings of government – simply pull those strings in their direction, figuring that when an opposing viewpoint recaptures the reins it will do the same. All of these codes are, in some ways at odds . . . either with themselves, with each other, or both.

I’m afraid, Carla, that I probably haven’t really answered your questions. I suspect what you were looking for is an outline of how to restructure our government along libertarian lines, according to the worldview I outlined on this blog. The problem is, that is not - and was never - the point. The point is to outline how I, myself, try to live. Personally, I believe that if more people lived this way, we would all be happier, healthier, and more alive than we are now, but that’s not my choice – it’s theirs.

I can wish they would choose as I have, but truly I don’t have a lot of hope for that. So in the meantime I will simply keep developing my thinking, and keep sharing it with others. I may not be able to impact 300 million people, but perhaps I can impact one or two.

If this doesn’t scare you, you’re not paying attention

This story is quite bothersome to me. Indeed, it seems that the author has specifically written it to be bothersome to her readers. I suspect, though – given that her audience is the liberal blogging community “Huffington Post” – that they are not likely to share my reasons for concern.

An excerpt:

“The high-flying execs at Citigroup caved under pressure from President Obama and decided today to abandon plans for a luxurious new $50 million corporate jet . . .”

Oh, the horror. These uppity executives – fresh off a government bailout – are now spending your money and mine on a new jet. Well, we can’t have that. Good thing the new sherriff in town just called them up and told them to “fix it.”

. . . except that, as it always is, the real story is more complicated than that.

If one reads the actual article from which this HuffPo writer is getting her ideas, one sees the following:

“Citigroup had argued it was selling two of its four other planes to pay for this one, that the new jet would be more efficient and, besides, it had already signed a contract for the jet. Breaking that deal would cost the bank millions in penalties.”

So let me get this straight. Instead of selling off two old, inefficient, probably less-environmentally-friendly jets to buy one newer, more efficient one, this troubled financial institution will break its contract and lay out millions of dollars in exchange for . . . nothing.

Why? Because “The One” has spoken.

This is, to me, the most disturbing piece of the whole episode. No laws were passed, no regulations were signed, no hearings were held . . . the President just had his spokesperson call up these guys and tell them to “fix it.”

. . . and as a result of his demand, a major U.S. company altered a multi-million dollar business decision and backed out of a major contract.

That, my friends, is scary. I thought we lived in a (relatively) free market society.

From the article again (as the ABC news writer apparently can’t resist injecting a little political commentary into his “news” story):

“It doesn’t help to win votes when corporations appear to use taxpayer cash on luxury perks and outsize bonuses for Wall Street titans.” (emphasis added)

There you have it. The White House has to keep up appearances, and the free market be damned! It doesn’t matter that the federal government had no business shelling out your money to save these companies in the first place (and this extends to both the Bush and Obama administrations, and both parties in congress – all of whom are equally to blame).

Frequently over the last year or so, I’ve gotten the feeling that when I am old, I will look back and fondly remember the America I used to live in – an America which . . . particularly with this week’s latest $800 billion-and-up boondoggle . . . is rapidly spending its way out of existence. We can debate endlessly the question of whether financial execs really need a corporate jet at all . . . but at the end of the day, that’s for their stockholders to decide, not the President.

Predictions . . .

This afternoon, millions of Americans turn out to cast their ballots and determine who will lead this country for the next four years. I have strong feelings about this election, and cast my vote for my candidate of choice this morning at around 8:45. I have, however kept those views off the pages of this blog because I do not want this to become a political platform, or a forum for airing partisan talking points.

However, I am writing today because I am troubled by the fact that a great many people on both sides seem to misunderstand the point of this election – along with, in fact, the entire election process.

Today, we are presented with two candidates who have diametrically opposing views on nature of economics, the proper road to national security, and the role of government in our lives. Millions of us have gone or will go to the polls to vote for the candidate who, we believe, has the greatest potential of advancing views that roughly resemble our own on these and other topics.

We will NOT go to the polls to cast a personal slight on those friends and acquaintances of ours who happen to disagree with us – or with our candidate. We will NOT be voting to undermine society as we know it, regardless of what those on the other side think. We will NOT be voting to enslave, silence, or otherwise disenfranchise those who disagree with us.

In short, THIS IS NOT PERSONAL. You who read this – each of you – have people you love and care about, who will vote in a way you believe to be foolish and misguided. Get over it. Love and care about them anyway.

For a bit of perspective, consider a few election predictions of mine. On this Election Day 2008, I predict:

1. A man who has made politics his life mission will become the new President-elect with something roughly approximating 50% of the popular vote.

2. Approximately 50% of the country will also vote against him.

3. He will give a gracious victory speech congratulating his opponent on a well-run race, and reiterating many of the things he has promised us during the course of this campaign. Parts of his speech will even be sincere.
4. Some of the things he has promised will be accomplished in the next four years. Some will not.

5. We will be told by the losing side that operatives on the winning side committed fraud in various locations throughout the country. They will be right in some instances and wrong in others.

6. We will be told by pundits in the news media and the political elite that this result was inevitable from day one of the campaign, and that they saw it coming the entire time. These assertions will contradict other, equally emphatic statements they made in recent months.

7. We will be told by other pundits that this election is a disaster for the losing party, and the country as a whole. They will be wrong in both cases.

8. The party that loses will regroup, blame their loss on poor marketing and messaging, and come back in four years with a candidate who may not look like the one running today, but who sounds awfully familiar.

9. The party that wins with the support of roughly half the voting public will proclaim a mandate, and will hold the election results up as proof that the American people are completely in support of their policies.

10. Those policies will necessitate more government spending than the winning candidate promised during the campaign, and he will try to get his hands on more of your money than he promised during the campaign, in order to pay for them.

11. Over the next four years, the government, as a whole, will get bigger.

12. Over the next four years, many new laws will be made. You will approve of some, and disapprove of others.

13. Two years from now, you will still believe that Congress as a whole is a bunch of corrupt criminals, but that your individual congressman is not all that bad, if not a pretty decent guy or gal.

14. Two years from now, the new President will NOT have abolished the opposition party, shut down the free press or abolished freedom of speech, expression or assembly. Millions of Americans will respond to this lack of oppression by going to the polls again and voting for their Congressman and/or Senator. Millions more will vote for some other guy who wants to be a Congressman and/or Senator. Still more millions will respond by doing nothing at all.

15. Some of your friends who voted for the other guy will accuse you of being an idiot, and will claim that you are part of everything that is wrong with this country. They will mostly be mistaken.

16. On Wednesday morning, the sun will rise. It will do so in the east.

These are my election predections, and they hold true whether the vote I cast earlier today was for the winner or the loser. So go exercise your right to vote – or, for that matter, exercise your right to go on about your day and stay as far away from the polls as you choose.

Whatever your choice, though, realize that the people next to you are just muddling through this journey we call “life,” in the best way they can – making choices just as you are – with an eye toward what they think is best for themselves, and occassionally what they think is best for you as well. Are there people who are trying to subvert this election and cheat their party’s way into power? Probably, and they probably exist on both sides. But elections in this country have been stolen before – even at the Presidential level – more than a few times. And guess what? Even with this flawed system, dependent on millions of flawed people, we Americans still live in one of the freest, most prosperous nations history has ever known.

Regardless of who wins tomorrow, that is not likely to change during the course of – or as a result of – his administration.

So vote, or don’t vote, as you see fit.

But in the meantime, Chill out.

On Consistency

I am finding that the various streams of my life seem to run in some similar directions. I don’t go to church. I don’t like doctors, I don’t like public education, and I don’t like government entitlement programs (or think very highly of governments in general). I work in an industry (Strategic Communications) where most of the jobs are government ones, yet I am employed as a private consultant.

I don’t identify with either of this country’s major political parties (or any of its minor ones, for that matter). I received both my Bachelor’s and Master’s Degrees from very small, private schools, neither of which could truly be called “institutions” in the truest sense of the word, given that both were less than ten years old at the time.

In short, I don’t really fit. Those of you who know me or are accustomed to reading this blog will hardly be surprised by that, but it is still jarring to admit sometimes, given how much of my life I used to spend trying to do just that.

I think that all of this comes down to the fact that I value consistency far too much to be as inconsistent as is required to truly “belong” to any of these institutions. I live a fairly consistent life – and I strive to be more consistent than I am.

I think the problem with much of our world today is that people don’t value consistency nearly enough. Our most prominent government leaders certainly do not. The two major Presidential candidates’ reactions to the recent Supreme Court decision in the case of D.C. vs. Heller are very instructive in this regard. Readers of this blog may have very strong feelings about politics in general, and about the issue of gun control in particular, but the simple fact is that however you feel, you can learn a great deal about both candidates by how they reacted to this touchstone decision. John McCain’s statement praises the decision as “recogniz[ing] that gun ownership is a fundamental right — sacred, just as the right to free speech and assembly.”

McCain calls these rights – speech and assembly – sacred . . . despite the fact that he spearheaded the campaign finance reform effort that severely curtails these same two rights . . . the freedom to use one’s money to promote the speech one agrees with, and the freedom of political parties – private organizations – to use their money to convince others to “assemble” with them.

Obama, on the other hand, begins his reaction to Heller by saying, “I have always believed that the Second Amendment protects the right of individuals to bear arms . . .” The same Obama with a history of opposition to such an individual right.

Of course, the fact that our nation’s – or any nation’s – politicians are prone to inconsistency should come as no great surprise to anyone who is paying attention.

One might expect better of our nation’s spiritual leaders. But if one did, one would be mistaken.

Take, for example, Josh Harris, the senior pastor of Covenant Life Church, and a leader in Sovereign Grace Ministries. In a post on his blog, Harris quotes my old pastor, Mark Dever, who takes issue with the assertion that the church is responsible for social justice – claiming that while individuals can and should practice social justice, the church has no business doing so, and should instead focus on evangelism.

I happen to disagree with this premise, and I personally think he is creating a false dichotomy or two – but that’s not my point in bringing it up. A commenter on Harris’ blog says it perfectly,

If we say we will only do good to those immediately around us or in the church, then we relegate the role of all social welfare to the government, which most of us do not want to do. If we get involved in “civilian affairs” then we can easily compromise our faith. Added to this, many churches say they are against para-church ministries, but they also don’t want their own churches to have ministries (as you state above). So what happens when I have someone who needs somewhere to stay?

Whatever the answer, we as the church can’t have it both ways. We can’t say neither the government, the church, nor parachurch organizations are allowed to do social justice.

The position Dever and Harris (and most ultra-conservative spiritual leaders, in fact) advocate is untenable. It is religious NIMBYism. “Someone should be doing social justice, just not MY organization.”

But the leaders of the evangelical left are no better. Take Jim Wallis, the leader of Sojourner Ministries, who commented on a recent dust-up between Barack Obama and Dr. James Dobson by accusing Dobson of engaging in “attacking discourse,” saying that such language should have no place in politics.

Again, you may agree or disagree with Wallis, but it seems that he himself does not fully agree with his own statement, having used the same sort of “attacking discourse” himself.

I was asked once, recently, what I would say to those who find certain beliefs and positions “too extreme.” What I would say is that extremism is nothing more than a product of consistency in a belief system.

There are, of course, good and bad belief systems – Osama Bin Laden has a fairly consistent one, for example – so a philosophy’s consistency cannot be used as the sole judge of its merit. But I think its inconsistency can.

No human being can live 100% consistently – it’s part of what makes us human . . . but the inconsistencies should be acknowledged as either human failures or conscious concessions to practicality, rather than core tenets of our beliefs, as they appear to be in the cases of Barack Obama, John McCain, Josh Harris and Jim Wallis.

As Ayn Rand would say, if you come upon two concepts that seem to be equally valid and are yet contradictory, you’d better check your premises.

Filters

Greetings.

Whereas my dear wife began this blog with a biography, I will begin with a challenge. Many of the salient points of my story that do not appear in my biography (found on this blog’s “About” page) will come out in future posts.

The challenge I issue to those of you who read this blog – be it one time, or regularly – is this:

Before you begin, ask yourself this question, “What assumptions am I bringing to the reading of this post (or page, or comment, or forum entry)?”

The beauty of this particular medium of communication is that I do not have to pretend to be impartial or unbiased. Those in the journalistic realm often claim objectivity. Those in spiritual pursuits often claim to be reading unvarnished truth into their preferred sacred text.

The truth, however, is that not one of us is truly impartial. We approach every interaction – be it with another person, a piece of literature, a point of view, or even a blog like this one – with our own presuppositions.

To make it easier for you to read and understand what I write, I will lay mine out on the table. If you like, I would be more than happy to converse with you on any or all of these subjects in the comments section or the forum:

  • I believe in the existence of absolute truth – and in my inability to grasp it completely.
  • I believe that matter, time, and logic are all creations of an eternal being who is all-knowing and all-powerful.
  • I believe that the writers of the Bible were inspired by that eternal being to craft the writings they did.
  • I believe that humans were made to be free.
  • I believe that definitions are important.

The last of these presuppositions is the key to all of them. One must define one’s terms if one is to engage in anything remotely resembling reasonable conversation. There is a reason I chose the word “absolute truth,” rather than “right and wrong.” There is a reason I chose the word “logic” rather than “knowledge,” or “wisdom.” There is a reason I chose “inspired” rather than “infallible,” and there is a reason I did not elaborate on what I mean by “free.”

I hope each of these reasons will become clear to you in future posts, but please understand that when you (or I) use a word, it is in the context of our presuppositions. For example, in the previous paragraph, it might be your presupposition that the words “inspired” and “infallible” are synonymous when referring to Scripture. It is my presupposition that they are not. In order to have a meaningful discussion on this topic, you need to know that about me, and I need to know the same about you. I’m certain that when I said, “I believe humans were made to be free,” it brought a thousand connotations to your head – probably both positive and negative. I would love to discuss further with you what I mean by that, and how I think many people misunderstand it. I will certainly address it at length in future posts.

For now, though, just ask yourself, “what are my filters? What am I assuming to be true as I read this post?”

Do that, and it will make this conversation that is Unedited Life much, much easier and more enjoyable for all of us.