The Morality of Socialism

For some reason in the news recently there has been a great deal of discussion about socialism, most often with respect to the Obama health care plan. Before I start ripping into socialism as an idea, I think it’s important for me to point out that I see virtually nothing in any Obama policy that smacks of socialism.

Socialism as a theoretical framework is quite simple to disprove on moral grounds- by any classical argument in favor of the inalienable right of property. However, the people who advocate for welfare programs tend to disagree on the grounds that property is not an inalienable right. Moreover, they will argue that there are people who need help, who are unable to help themselves, and that the agency to help them may as well be the government. Especially since the government is in the business of taking responsibility for its citizens. So the issue is not as clear-cut as many conservatives will claim it is. In fact, I would say pretty much everything is more complex and nuanced than any conservative in the media has the neurons to understand. On the other hand, conservatives do tend to be conservative because deductions from moral frameworks make sense to them, where a liberal instead prefers arguments from emotion, relativism, and pragmatism in chaos. This is not to say that the political strategies they use reflects these paradigms, in fact it tends to be the opposite, where conservatives use smear campaigns, evocative language, and outright lies, and liberals use deliberate logical arguments from effect, which are principally arguments from pragmatism. It is somewhat sad that nobody seems able to reconcile theory with pragmatism- it’s not terribly difficult as long as the theory is sufficiently complete and the points where it is flexible are known.

Anyway, modern “socialism” is really a question of whether liberal democratic welfare programs are morally justified. The conservatives throw hissy fits and cry socialism, and the liberals claim it will address the issues. The conservatives claim the government is going to increase taxes to finance wasteful programs, the liberals claim big business is screwing everyone over and Big Daddy government must step in to save us.

First of all, I would like to point out that both sides of the argument are intrinsically linked, like two sides of a coin. Capitalism allows for owners and shareholders to profit from their businesses and holdings, which can through some wrangling be framed as waste. Conversely, the government can take some of the money in circulation through commerce and salary in sales and income tax, and that can be framed as a waste. There is a finite amount of money in circulation, and claiming that it is a waste when party :X acquires it is erroneous. My reason for this is that it is the nature of money to be spent. Government taxes, in large part, recirculate back into the economy because the government pays for services, in very large part to parties in their own country. Similarly, big business takes its money and either reinvests into itself, pays off its suppliers, or ends up in its employees and executives’ bank accounts. It could be said that overseas commerce and outsourcing “leaks” money, but that is absurd. In the act of paying for labor, a service or act of production is purchased in return, which presumably is worth more than the cost of the labor or it wouldn’t be worth making. If this product is then sold, a profit is made, and also the worker now has a little cash to spend which will recirculate. This process in economics is called the multiplier effect, where one dollar actually does a great deal more than one dollar’s work in the course of a year because it changes hands many times. So this issue of “it’s a waste if X acquires money” is really a question over who has control of that money. The one who controls that money has just that measure of extra power. So, which entity would you vest that power in? This is the fundamental question of welfare programs.

Now, as much as it pains the anarcho-capitalist in me to say this, you don’t necessarily want a company as they exist today to handle some concerns. Development of civilization proceeds in many dimensions, not just technological. The invention of the check caused a revolution of the “web of trust” between people and financial institutions. Before that network existed, credit as we know it was inconceivable. It was a recipe for being ripped off, and the economy was locked into a coin-or-barter mode, except between friends. In truth, it’s not as clean as the development of a technology, for example laws against usury and distrust of Jews and all this nonsense. Anyway, my point is that social development of society allows things which could not have happened before in a similar way that technological development does, it’s just as absolute as “the invention of the airplane- 1904- now we can fly!” It is my belief that government is one of those features that has been evolved over time, and whose evolution is not yet finished. At some time in the future we will not need it anymore, but given our current level of societal development and technological capability, it is most likely a necessary evil. This is not to say we should not try to develop past it as quickly as possible.

Karl Marx was unquestionably a brilliant man, although his theories are not exactly the font of human social development. Nevertheless I think he may have contributed at least one very important idea to the body of human knowledge. When the power of production drastically outstrips the wants and needs of an entire society, then we will have a utopia, materially at least, where everyone has everything they want. The social side is a separate issue, and is in my opinion infinitely more important to creating the sort of utopia that all theoretical political science is predicated upon producing. Now the question is, what is the best method of reaching a stage when we have that sort of productive power at our fingertips? Is it welfare programs, or by technological innovation? My favorite new and upcoming technology is rapid prototyping- check out RepRap. This one technology has the power to obviate material products at a stroke, by having a ubiquitous machine that can produce nearly anything. More advanced later versions will follow quickly, using that very device, and we may well have a true make-anything-machine very soon after that. Now, Marx believed that this world would be Communist in nature. I would react that communism is essentially capitalism where money is no longer relevant in day-to-day life. The best explanation for this is that goods and services change hands so easily that the monetary system is not worth its upkeep.

Those who argue that there are people who are poor and destitute need to be helped by the government providing welfare programs are reacting instinctively, their conscience is grating against the injustice. To some extent that’s fine, although it gets a little out of hand when you see this righteous indignation that some people are fabulously wealthy while others are poor. In any reasonable world there will be a set of choices which anyone can choose from, some of which will result in poverty. I don’t mean to say that all poverty is controllable- there are many, many unfortunates who had no opportunity to do anything else. The mentally ill, the handicapped, the people saddled with medical bills unexpectedly, there are all kinds of possibilities for being poor beyond all control. One stance is that the problem then becomes to differentiate between the deserving and the undeserving. My issue with this position is that any judgment on who is deserving and who is not is made by an agent who will lack a clear and objective metric. So whoever chooses to help one or more of these people is excluding others for subjective reasons. The only way this could possibly work is if it is entirely acceptable for those subjective reasons to be valid, and subjectivity is not something a government should EVER mix itself up in, because then corruption and misuse of public resources will run rampant. So private organizations should pick up the slack, offering resources where they can or choose to, and if they exclude someone for subjective or arbitrary or even completely bone-deep-corrupt reasons, it’s not morally nice but it is entirely within their purview. The government, on the other hand, by reserving the use of force restricts itself to a much higher moral standard that is virtually impossible to meet for beings with human-level intelligence, much less a conglomerate of them. A corruption of the use of force is a terrible, terrible moral crime, while a refusal to give alms to a beggar, however deserving, is not a big deal. Any policy the government might use to help the poor is subject to a host of issues stemming from this problem. But then, so does everything the government does, so it’s not like this will deter them.

My central point is that pragmatism at the expense of ethics is a bad idea in the long run, no matter how good your intentions. The poor and the underprivileged are much better served by advancing technology and social progress than by any attempt to simply hand them their daily bread. Now, I would be open to an argument that instituting government health care is itself a push towards social progress, but that is a very different type of argument than nearly all arguments being put forth in its defense, which tend to run something along the lines of “evil insurance companies! government good! Simple solution!” With the other side pretty much barking the reverse, and decrying that the solution is just as simple. It is not simple, and I hope to hear some real arguments for a change, instead of catering to the reptilian brain of people too stupid to think their way out of a wet cardboard box.

Axiomatic Human Properties

In any philosophy of human nature there are certain parameters of the human condition which are inserted axiomatically. These properties are extremely significant to the formulation of any philosophy governing people, namely ethics and politics, but usually aren’t addressed in a uniform and clear manner. The following elements are single pieces that might be composed together to create complex ethical theories or political philosophies. Simply rattling off a list of beliefs about human nature being one way or the other in reactionary mode is pretty much a waste of time. Connecting them together to create a model that accurately reflects the world, or some piece of it, can be very important to the advancement of human knowledge. Big names in political philosophy like Hobbes, Locke, and Nietzsche have built their ideas up from the same basic elements, but they’ve done it in such a creative, novel, and useful way that reflects the way many people see and interact with the world. I believe that spreading a little understanding about what exactly the building blocks of such thinking can improve the quality of thinking in the US and around the world.

The first and most commonly addressed one is whether people are fundamentally good or evil. This question has so many ramifications for all aspects of any philosophy. If people are inherently evil then it is necessary to use some form of philosophical machinery to control, alter, or ameliorate the evil nature of humanity. This is a totally different viewpoint from someone who believes people are fundamentally good, who doesn’t need their philosophy to do much to control human behavior. Indeed, the entire realm of philosophy, particularly ethics, is more focused on what individuals decide virtue is, and each person can have their own philosophy and you can trust them to be virtuous anyway. Their virtue is given, the philosophy is a result instead of the other way around. If human nature is evil, however, then philosophy must come before human virtue can be achieved, and it is necessary to identify the philosophy most conducive to society and then enforce that point of view on everyone. If they can’t be forced to accept it, they must be forced to at least obey it through the application of laws and punishments. Most political philosophers of sufficient import are in the camp of humans being evil, and most of the governments derived from their philosophy depend upon coercive application of laws and police and courts in order to control their population. Whether people or philosophy come first is the ultimate chicken-or-the-egg question, and its primary embodiment is the debate over whether human nature is good or evil.

There is also a question about whether one man is competent or not, regarding whether one man has great powers available to him or if one man is nothing by himself. It is reasonable to have a point of view where human nature is good, but naturally stupid. This is more akin to the Stoic idea, where everyone has virtue as a driving force. Every murderer has a justification for why they saw fit to commit murder (assuming they aren’t innocent), and they really believe their justification. If they were fundamentally evil, they could care less about virtue. They may still be trying to dress up their actions as virtuous to cynically try to escape punishment, and we arrive at a Chinese Room dilemma of having to verify whether or not someone “really believes” something or if they’re just pretending. In most all cases, however, they truly believe their rationale, despite the fact that it is highly irrational. Murder and other crimes, viewed in a broader context by a rational being, are all stupid, even discounting the additional punishments inflicted by laws. If you lie for your own benefit, then nobody has the incentive to trust you. In the extreme short term, perhaps you don’t care, but if such a person was actually rational they would realize the immense value of having a perfect reputation and rock-solid name can yield far greater dividends for their own success than simply cheating and running. The law is an attempt to make this choice “more obvious” by putting a direct penalty on undesirable actions, making the line of reasoning a little easier for the less rational in the populace.
It is also possible to have a worldview, and this is the particularly sinister Hobbesian or Machiavellian view, that people are both cunning and malevolent. If this is the case, the only recourse is to make people act outside of their nature. Indeed, not only is distrust of everyone to be expected, but there’s no authority to look to for protection who isn’t subject to the same rule- they can’t be trusted, they will seize power and abuse it. Hobbes is the more primitive philosopher, and his answer to the cunning-and-evil dilemma is to put the most cunning and evil of them all in charge, the better to protect the people under the power of the ruler. Obviously he didn’t phrase it like that, but in effect creating a single all-powerful ruler in such an environment will only magnify the problem. Machiavelli addresses the issue more accurately by saying yes, it is the most cunning and evil who will be in charge, and the more cunning and evil he is the better a ruler he will make because cunning and dirty tricks are the best way to get ahead. An extremely pessimistic view, but at least it’s internally consistent. It’s actually very difficult to disprove that argument because it contains within itself its own genesis, but I believe it fails on the grounds that people would shy away from a world like that and attempt to make it a more pleasant place to live in for themselves and others.

Whether people are rational, whether people are social, whether people are natural leaders, natural followers, etc. Indeed, there is always a huge debate over what properties we can ascribe as natural to humans, and which ones are learned or inculcated, and by whom they are or should be conditioned by, whether it’s the parents, the community, the government, the religion, etc. Different philosophers have proposed different traits as being innate, and I imagine that at some point some thinker has claimed each and every imaginable aspect under the sun must be natural and innate. The oldest anachronism of this type is that humans are innately social beings, and indeed this is backed up by recent discoveries in biology, anthropology, and genetics. If we are innately social creatures, then we will congregate into groups and there is no modification you can make to the human condition that will overcome this. You can compensate for it by conditioning behaviors, but the natural tendency will still exist. The idea of human nature is actually a special case of the naturalness argument which argues that people have both a natural ethical decision-making faculty and also makes a statement about the tendencies of that faculty. The argument that there is no such faculty can be used to construct nihilism, pragmatism, and numerous other theoretical frameworks. The same can be said of any given property that you wish to ascribe as natural to humans.

What properties are innate to a person, and what properties can change through the course of their lives. This is a similar issue, but quite distinct, from the question of whether a person has the capability to change themselves, and to what extent such willed self-change is possible, or what properties or aspects can be changed this way. The same question applies to other vectors such as parents, the state, etc. Innateness is distinct from natural appearance in that a property that is innate is dependent entirely on physical (or other immutable) composition. A naturally emergent property is merely said to exist, with no particular emphasis on how or why it is that way. If it’s innate then it is a product of the human physical (possibly soul or spiritual) existence. If it’s not innate then it is acquired at some point over the course of your life. Note that non-innate properties can still be natural. For example, humans lack the capability to walk at birth so it’s not truly innate (I use a philosophically difficult example because this is highly debatable, I apologize, but there is no example of something that is obviously not innate but is natural) but it is natural because it is a naturally emergent behavior. A better example may be language, where it could be argued that a natural faculty for languages in general exists, though perhaps not innate, but the faculty for any particular language such as English is definitely not innate (although it also probably isn’t natural because saying “humans naturally speak English” is obviously wrong. We can get around this by citing a particular unspecified instantiation, such as “Humans naturally speak some language” but this is rapidly becoming too complicated to use as an example).
An argument for extreme nativism puts total emphasis on innateness. The entire course of your development is preprogrammed into you as a baby, and is fully contained within your existence at any point in time. Extreme nativism is a more or less extinct line of reasoning. The opposite end, what has been called “tabula rasa” or “blank slate” is the idea that you have zero internal programming at birth- you are totally blank, and you acquire a mind and life over the course of your life. While this seems a lot more reasonable, purist tabula rasa thinking is also more or less extinct. It’s clear that there is some mixture of the two going on, but exactly how much of each is present is not entirely clear. I dislike this phrasing of the issue, but this debate has been called “Nature vs Nurture.” I hate saying that because nurturing is a natural process- indeed humans have certain parameters for raising children encoded into our genes (preying mantises have different ones…).

Part and parcel of the natural human condition debate is what is mutable about human nature, and what is immutable, which of course form a continuum between hard wiring and total flux. A certain trait might be imparted at birth, but still be changeable such as through changes in gene expression. My hair color is different than it was when I was eight (I was blonde, now I have brown hair) and this is a property that is usually associated with genes and assumed to be immutable. We usually assume that the Nature side of the debate assumes immutability, and the Nurture side likes mutable traits. There is no requirement that these assumptions be the case, but nevertheless they tend that way. It makes intuitive sense because after all, if you were born without a certain trait, it must have been installed at a later time and must therefore be reversible, right? Wrong. Conditioning received as a young child is often highly immutable and tough to change, and mental models touching core beliefs are often very difficult to change as well, even if they are destructive.

The reason why these human properties are axiomatic is that for the most part you can come to any conclusion you like and have it result in an internally consistent model. These are fundamental building blocks from which you can construct any theory you like. While someone may disagree with you on axiomatic grounds, a direct proof of their argument will not be sufficient to disprove or otherwise dislodge your position. As it should be, an argument made from such axiomatic points can be incorrect from premises, or improper in logic, and pushing an alternate position will not influence the impact of an argument made by someone else. There is an immense possible composite-theory space that can be created just from the extremely few basic axioms I have chosen to mention here, and there are many, many, many more that can be used reasonably.

The Contradiction of Freedom

Freedom appears to be the favored subject among my readers, so here we go into greater detail.  First of all we need to establish what I mean when I use the word.  By “freedom” I am referring to unencumbrance in the transformation from desire to reality.  This is distinct from the idea of “liberty” or the fulfillment of all intrinsic rights to the satisfaction of the individual being considered.  I believe the issue of maintaining liberty to be a solved one- however, the issue of freedom certainly is not.  The fact that there are no slaves, no wanton executions in the developed world, etc. etc. indicate to me that the fulfillment of basic liberty is not even particularly difficult if the conditions are right.  Freedom, on the other hand, is more difficult to work with.  The reason for this is that reality itself necessarily impinges on our freedom.  I want to be able to fly around, but gravity says I am not free to do that.  In my common definition of “freedom” I don’t consider such possibilities on the grounds that they are physically impossible.  It is a childlike idea that we should have absolutely everything that we want in a direct transmission from wanting to having.  However, it is not at all a childish idea of freedom that you should be able to make any choice you wish, including both the costs and the gains from that choice.  For example, I could choose to invest millions of dollars in inventing a sleek, compact jetpack that would enable me to fly around to my satisfaction- there is a considerable cost to this venture, and no certainty of success (risk is itself a cost), but I am free to try and free to succeed if that’s how the dice fall.

In this line of thinking, a direct transition from desire to actualization should be the default state of reality.  If an item I want has a cost associated with it, then I can pay that cost and have it without qualms.  This is not the situation of “I want, therefore I should have”- I cannot stress this enough.  Too many people are walking around in that sort of entitlement-based fantasy world.  However, if the demand is reasonable and I am prepared to deal with whatever costs, risks, or other consequences that arise from my decision, then the only thing standing in my way is a bunch of unnecessary human barriers.  If I want an apple and am prepared to endure the cost, given the circumstances, then I should have one.  Now, the circumstances can cause the cost to vary tremendously.  If there’s a grocery store then I only have to pony up the dollar or so required to buy it.  However, if I’m in the middle of nowhere, then the desire to eat an apple requires a more complex plan involving obtaining an apple seed, growing the tree, and then harvesting the apple and eating it.  It just so happens that this is a great deal of cost and effort for quite a small reward, which is why it is much more efficient to have consolidated apple farms which grow apples efficiently in large numbers and sell them to distributors.  Rather than the large investment of personal energy to acquire a tree’s worth of apples, I only have to pay for a fraction of that effort due to the scale of apples being produced.  If I’m an apple grower, this system is also to my advantage because if I grow a lot of apples, each apple costs me less to produce, and because I make a profit on every apple (or else I wouldn’t sell them) then the more apples I sell the more money I make.

This is all fairly typical free-market capitalist thinking so far.  However, the crunch comes when we consider that the government must necessarily introduce barriers to this system in order to do, well, anything at all.  Let’s suppose the existence of a government that has no barrier-producing authority.  Nobody has to take it seriously because it has no money since it can’t institute taxes, and even if it did institute taxes, nobody has to pay them because it has no power to enforce compliance.  THe only type of action such an agency is useful for is advising, and concerned parties can listen and take its advice when it is to their advantage to do so.  If this government started a campaign using volunteers to spread awareness about brushing your teeth, and it worked because it demonstrably improves your dental hygiene and health, that’s all it’s good for.  However, my usual case is that this is all government should be good for, because this isn’t actually a government- it’s a very weak and ineffectual DRO choosing to occupy the nonprofit niche instead of actively pursuing customers.  The idea that government should somehow be fundamentally nonprofit is just laughable.  Most people say that if you have a for-profit government, well that’s just loosing the dogs for corruption the likes of which has never before been seen.  They actually have a point, but the tricky bit is- that’s my point.  No company has a police force with the authority to arrest you if you don’t comply with that company’s policy.  If they did, they would be in exactly the same position as any typical government, minus the checks and balances that most modern governments have.  However checks and balances are like band-aids on a gangrenous wound- government just fundamentally will not be ethical, non-corrupt, balanced, fair, what have you, because it has the authority to seize as much money and power as it can grab.  It may have to disguise its efforts, but under the guise of national security or some other necessity it will do what it pleases.

So now we arrive at the contradiction of freedom that political scientists agonize over so much.  People want freedom, but they appear to need a government to secure those freedoms.  At the same time, in the act of securing their freedoms, the government itself must necessarily impinge upon those freedoms.  I understand the difficulty of wrestling with such a dilemma, but you’re wasting your brain cycles.  What you’ve got there is a conundrum of the first order- totally unsolvable with the same type of thinking that created it.

Here is the logical analysis of the argument in question: 1) People want to be free.  2) Freedoms are insecure in a state of nature.  3) Governments secure freedoms.  Conclusion: We should have a government.  The solution is brutally simple: the premise that governments somehow reduce a state of nature, or that governments act to secure freedoms.  Indeed, governments have only ever acted to reduce the freedoms of individuals beneath them.  Perhaps at times those citizens were under the impression that they were being aided in some fashion, at times perhaps a large majority of them were so deceived.  However the simple fact of the matter is that if what a government offered was so valuable then rational individuals would sign up voluntarily.

The proof that individuals can create extremely complex systems that are able to fulfill their needs is evident in government itself.  Government’s methodology is fine, with the single vital exception that participation is mandatory, and will be backed up by force.  In return, however, the government promises not to take everything you have, only a fraction such as one quarter or one third, which will be put toward projects you have essentially no control over.  Once again, I have no issue with any of these projects in and of themselves.  There may even be circumstances where actions as severe as the war in Iraq become necessary (they definitely were not in this case, but government idiocy is a side effect of the fact that the government retains power no matter what, even if the parties in it change).  Governments should offer services at a fair price, in a manner that its citizens will be prepared to pay for them.  One possible strategy is to have a single subscription model, requiring a third of your income, to which you must subscribe in order to legally inhabit land that the government in question owns.  As a subset of this government’s ownership, it is possible to own land.  We are approaching a fixed model of the US government where it’s essentially the same, with the critical exception that participation is voluntary.  Granted, the costs involved depend on your circumstances.  If the (rather impractical) stance of having a subscribe-or-leave policy were instituted, then you would probably stay just to keep what property you have, such as a house.  However, this solution presumes the existence of a government with the power to simply lay claim to your property as desired, and can use that threat to coerce you to subscribe in one final death throb to stab its superior and would-be-ethical successor in the gut.

So we arrive at the same contradiction for iteration round two.  In order to create a free society it is necessary for people already living under governments to somehow act as though they were not, at exactly the same moment that the government decides to relieve itself of its coercive power in favor of a voluntary or contractual model.  This is never going to happen.  So, the statist theorizes, in order to make a free society, you have to use coercive force to make them free, yes?  So we need a government to, not secure our freedoms, but force us to participate in our free society.  No.  Absolutely, definitely not.

The whole issue here is the idea of power.  The idea that a problem requires power to solve it, or that power is ever a solution worth choosing.  I am referring to power as the exercise of coercive power.  This is to distinguish it from freedom, which is the ability, or the facility, to accomplish something.  Using the definition from earlier, technology very clearly extends our freedom by enabling new courses of action that were previously physically impossible.  However, actions are morally neutral.  By creating new actions that were previously physically impossible, new crimes and new options for the use of power exist as well.  This is a cliche, but the invention of the blade creates both kitchen knives and swords.  The same holds true for everything up to and including F-22’s, although it’s hard to see how some of the more elaborate and expensive pieces of military hardware have any use at all beyond blowing stuff up, if that.  I digress here, but I am actually referring to the fundamental technological components in each case.  Technologies such as avionics systems in advanced fighter jets can be used in civilian planes and other places as well.  Simply that the F-22 and civilian planes are superficially different is taking advantage of the fact that, unlike primitive tools like kitchen knives and swords, they look and act very differently.  Although, if you looked into it, you would likely find that the design of cookware and the blacksmithing of military edged weapons were, and are, extremely different, although the fundamental technologies were the same.  Anyway, my point is that an increased availability of facility and options doesn’t actually get you anywhere in terms of the freedom versus power conflict- it only allows the scale to tip farther in either direction, irrespective of which way it is currently tipping.

I am aware that framing the discussion as “freedom versus power” seems to present a foregone conclusion, but keep in mind that I am referring to freedom as the ability to do subjective work, whereas power is the ability to have others do subjective work on your behalf.  While it is highly likely that the subjective work you have them do will not serve their own interests, there is no reason why this could not be the case.  I believe the origin of centralized authority was in the fact that disparate forces united to a common purpose can accomplish far more than they could individually, even though this means a subsuming of the individual’s judgment to whatever authority is making the decision about what must be done.  So when the scale tips toward freedom, by this logic, it appears that we are being modest in our desires.  We can’t accomplish as much in total.  I suspect this is why, in times of distress such as World War II, nations bond together.  States tighten up and hunker down, and the civilians set to work for the greater good, for fear of annihilation due to defeat in global war, but still a unified and powerful force.  It appears to me that this outcome is simply a result of economy of scale.  The issue, though, is that people are not cogs in machines, and we don’t necessarily respond well to economy of scale on the human level.  We don’t all want to eat the same food, even though it would be most efficient in the grand scheme of things to consolidate all the vast sprawling food industries into a single entity (if we utterly disregard politicking, management inefficiency, balance in parallelism, competition, and a ridiculous number of other factors) and have everyone eat well-designed vitamin and carbohydrate supplements with tap water.  It would cost virtually nothing, and free up so much human capital, labor, and time to other pursuits.  Unfortunately, as a side effect, everyone would have to live on vitamins and carb pills, which is clearly an undesirable situation.  However, on the other side of power, it’s clear that if we consolidate power too much, then human error becomes magnified.  If we consolidate absolute power in one leader then there will be fluctuations not only in that leader’s mood and ability, but also in the variation between leaders, where one person’s thought and personality can have profoundly different effects than another.  We get the good-king bad-king effect, with the good kings working steadfastly for the good of the people, and the huge contrast with the bad kings merrily chopping everyone’s heads off, starting wars and economic crises, and putting a pall of fear over the whole country.  So we see a continuum between power creating efficiency in terms of economy of scale, but inefficiency in terms of the magnification of human error.  Freedom, by contrast, limits the absolute utility available to the sum of the group in question, but also limits the effects of human error to the bounds of the party concerned.  If you want to smoke crack until you overdose- feel free.  You’ll probably be dead, but that will be the total extent of the damage you cause.

The issue with this description is that it isn’t entirely accurate.  In the freedom scenario, people still form together in groups and organizations, they just do so voluntarily only.  As a result, people in control of those large groups might still have a significant amount of power to direct and affect a large number of people.  However, and here is the critical difference, every single one of those people is free to leave at any time.  As a result, we get both the benefits of applying centralized power, and the benefits of freedom’s damage control.  If the leader is being totally ridiculous and irrational, he will either be replaced by those sensible enough to recognize it or everyone the crazy bastard has power over will jump ship and do business with someone else.  This creates a huge incentive for leaders to be effective, but also limits the damage if they are not.  It is the judgment of each person with whom they become involved, and also who they permit to have power over them, and to what degree.

Mandatory participation where each person has significant involvement and power, such as democracy in small communities, approaches this situation, but unlike mandatory democracy it scales to societies of any size.  With the possible exception of small groups in isolation.  However this is because it is assumed to be true in small groups in isolation, so the complex contracts are not worthwhile to make, resulting in stereotypical independence anarchy- the desert island scenario that statists like to employ so much.  However this fails too because the same system could be applied, and in fact would be if the situation became dire enough.  The Lord of the Flies scenario is unrealistic for rational beings (of course, there is some possibility that the circumstances caused them to become irrational) because when a problem arose, a solution, whether systemic or responsive, would be created even if there was only one individual to implement it.  This only fails when the rest of the group is behaving similarly, but treating each other as problems to be solved, resulting in never-ending conflict.  Eventually they’ll figure out how to trust one another, or kill one another first, just as barbarians of old did.  However the idea that appointing a leader prevents this type of worst-case scenario from playing out is shortsighted because the leader could easily be the cause if he tries to direct them in ways their own reason tells them are bad, and they have the independence to resist.  Anyway, this whole paragraph addresses an edge case which is increasingly rare in modern society, and irrelevant with regards to any community, city, state, national, or global scale.

The Bailout

Dammit.  I usually find the reserve to just keep on talking about timeless issues, the human condition, and problems that persist and grow.  But this is just too much.  While I’m still going to avoid talking about the election and such, I just have to talk about the bailout.  It can no longer be avoided.

The source of my agitation is this article (http://www.thesmokinggun.com/archive/years/2008/1007083aig1.html) from the Smoking Gun.  Essentially, the executives of AIG have, days after the $85 billion bailout, thrown a massive executive party at a resort in California.  Now, let’s be honest, this article does slant the situation in the obvious direction.  But don’t they just bloody well deserve it?  I mean, seriously.  These people are seriously threatening even my steely impartiality and objectivity, if I do say so myself.  What on earth are these executives thinking?  Was the whole thing a scam and they simply no longer care because we’re all going to economic hell anyway?

OK, first, let’s be fair.  The invoice tells us that the vast majority of the funds were spent on either rooms or food and not on luxury services like spa services, exploding cakes, urinating ice statues, and the like.  Although there were sizable figures under those categories, to say that they spent a fortune (relative to the $450k price tag) would be improper.  I don’t want to pore through their invoice because it’s a limited source of information anyway, and you can only extract so much information from it.  Anyway, it seems to me that the exorbitant cost of their retreat resulted from their choice of location rather than any particular absurd excess.  Whether or not they might have simply gotten a convention hall for an executive summit is debatable, but any argument we might have lacks all basis because we have no context.  It’s highly probably there is a good reason why that location was chosen, possibly to secure ties to some other company or maybe something as small as associates of the company involved with the resort.

All that said, dammit, do you guys care that little about our money?  That $85 billion is supposed to be saving your asses, not letting you party like it’s 1929.  They must have known how this would look, which only strengthens the possibility that there is a good reason we aren’t seeing.  Of course, Occam’s Razor says they’re just partying because they feel like it and don’t give a damn if we despise them for it.

The basic issue at hand here, though, is not corporate irresponsibility.  In a perfect world, CEOs and executives can do whatever they want with their money.  However, the critical point here is that it must be their money.  The second that they control money they don’t actually own or have legitimate authority to manage, we have a problem.  Of course, that’s exactly what the government has done.  The government extracted that $85 billion from us against our will with the vapid promise that it was *still ours.*  Of course that’s nonsense because we have absolutely no control over how it’s spent.  So they give it to big corporations because those big corporations can incentivize the people in power however they need to in order to get a piece of that pie.  They’ll figure it out if it’s possible.  You can’t build a system that will get the job done properly that will not be open to willful subversion to the same degree.  If you count on intent, then intent will be its weakness.  If you count on structure and checks, then structure and checks will be its weakness, and so on.  If you count on open violence, then open violence will be its weakness.  It doesn’t matter on what motive power the government is managed, it can be subverted by an appropriate strategy because the only way it can’t give money to the wrong hands is if they can’t give money at all.  Anyway, I’m getting off topic.  My point is that those bankers now control a great deal of “our” money, so it pisses us off when they do stuff like this, and rightly so.  We’ve been robbed on the promise that we would get something in return, and later we were deprived even that (as usual I might add).  If there were no public money floating around, then why should it irritate you if these CEO’s throw flagrantly irresponsible parties?  You already got your goods or services rendered.  Just like how they don’t care if you burn that plasma TV after you buy it, you don’t care if they burn your money once you’ve paid for that TV.  It’s not yours anymore- you willfully parted with it in exchange for your new TV.

There are so many unfortunate fools who will blame the companies for this type of fiasco.  What bullshit!  Imagine if you were handed $85 billion dollars on a silver platter.  Well, that’s not strictly true.  Imagine that you could spend all of your assets and have some probability of pulling down $85 billion from the government cloud funds, and it pays off for you.  You’re A) going to party like a wild animal because you’re set, and B) you’re going to keep on using that money to try to get more.  It is obviously a very effective strategy.  Not only that, but there comes a time when they don’t even need to provide the same level of services.  Because when things are in the shitter, they get free money.  Does this sound like a good plan to fix the economy?  No.  These banks are going to do their damnedest to keep that free money flowing.  The only way they would stop would be if they could make significantly more money by actually working.  There must be a significant enough difference that their profits from being honest will exceed the free funds they get while cutting expenses at the same time.  Which probably is never going to happen.

My point is that these executives are being completely reasonable given their environment, even if they’re just being 100% wasteful.  Imagine if you were paid to spend money.  The more money you spent, the more you earned.  In fact, if you were so bad that you were in a constant state of poverty, you would get even more.  I’m not trying to argue that the poor don’t deserve aid, but I am trying to say that this incentive structure is just insane.  It will literally incentivize insanity.  Doing the exact opposite of the preferred behavior is rewarded.  Total madness.  “We want people to be wealthy, so we should give money to people who are poor.”  What the hell?  The banks are actually in this situation.  The worse they are at managing their business, the more money they get from the government, on the grounds that if they fail it will be bad for the economy.  Haha!  It would be hilarious if it wasn’t so sad.

Now a lot of people think that incentives are a crude way to look at humanity.  I would agree.  However, incentives provide a direct model upon which complications can be built.  It’s like how we discovered algebra before we discovered complex numbers, but the discovery of the complex numbers doesn’t invalidate the process of algebra.  Deeper structure to the human mind and personality doesn’t change the fact that they judge by application and comparison of incentives or utility functions.  If the deeper structure would predict that someone would pick a free $5 over a free $10 then your model is broken, no matter how complex or interesting or otherwise intuitive.

In fact, models tend to be constructed to formalize specific inconsistencies in the way that the world is filtered.  Fallacies are easily communicated through analogy, models, and other constructions.  For example, it seems perfectly logical that gun ownership would cause crimes involving guns.  Very intuitive, right?  The more guns there are, the more likely people will be to use them because they will be more available.  Actually, this is not the case.  In fact, I would wager that gun crime goes down if you decrease, or increase, the supply of guns.  The gun-control-slanted middle area is where the most crime involving guns will take place.  Those who really want to can legally acquire them, and they can be reasonably sure that nobody else will have one.  If you make them harder to acquire, it goes down a little.  Although crime might remain equally high- it’s just crime with guns that would probably go down.  However, if you increase the supply of guns, then the thugs no longer have the same certitude that they will not be met with lethal force.  Even if the probability that the person they’re mugging will be armed and belligerent are small, they only have to do it numerous times before statistics kills them.  Knowing this, a whole slew of crimes such as violent crime, muggings, robberies, etc. all would be expected to drop.  This is of course a theory only moderately supported by evidence, but it’s a reasonable hypothesis that deserves further testing.

Before I end this post, I want to talk about positive obligation.  There is no such thing.  Who cares?  Well, how come it’s possible to take out a loan which your children are then responsible for, even though they never spent a penny of it?  Irresponsible and morally reprehensible for the person, sure, but how come it’s even possible?  Simply put, it’s because the people lending the money are the people with the money.  They get to decide how those loans are paid back.  And it is true that if some loans where the client dies are paid back, it makes capital cheaper and more available.  This somewhat stimulates the economy, and at the expensive of only a little moral questionability.  This is acceptable to the people lending the money, and they have a legitimate case to make.  However, the day my government can spend money it doesn’t have on the good faith that I’ll pay interest on it?  Not a chance.  I’m not old enough to have a stake in the vast national debt.  So I just won’t.  If they make me pay for it, I will, but not because I want to.  I’m not going to put myself in a difficult position or enter direct conflict with the government- that’s just foolhardy.  You can’t fight them- they’ve got everything from the army up to and including the nuclear option.  So don’t.  Just do what they say, but keep to principles.  They can threaten you.  Let them, and accede to their demands.  Very simple.  It’s the mob.  You don’t pay, your life gets difficult.

The Fallacy of Composition

The fallacy of composition is an especially effective and insidious mental tic that affects many decisions made in society.  To go over the basic nature of the fallacy quickly, it means to ascribe properties to a group as a logical result of the composition of that group.  When described that way, it seems perfectly logical.  However we arrive at such propositions as “I shall get all the strongest men in my army, and they will form my strongest unit.” (example originally used by Madsen Pirie in How to Win Every Argument)  Now in a sense this is true.  If you are looking to make a military unit that is adept at moving large amounts of freight.  However military units aren’t strong in the same sense that men are strong, and this misapplication of semantic significance leads to the fallacy.  If you wanted a strong military unit you need things like discipline, competence, efficiency, morale, ability to survive in tough conditions, and so on.  If you were to convert the desired properties appropriately, such as specifying that you want to select men for their ability to work together, keep morale up, survive, or whatever else you’re looking for, and those skills are commutative, then you might be getting somewhere.  As I said earlier, if you got 100 men who are adept at lifting things, it is the case that the group of 100 men will be adept at lifting things because every member within it is, and direct action is commutative.  For example, if you have 100 people playing ping-pong, it is correct to say the group of 100 are all in the act of playing ping pong.  However, I didn’t specify if they were playing each other, other people, or if there are only 100 people playing ping pong (they could be 100 among many more).

This seems like an obvious fallacy, used as above.  How could anyone fail to notice that?  Well this same logic, or illogic, is used in countless places in modern public discourse.  For example, whenever anyone argues that it is moral for the government to give money to group X, they are probably utilizing it.  For example, charity.  There is a soup kitchen that feeds homeless people and needs money.  Or some other program to help the homeless, the needy, the hungry in foreign countries, etc. etc.  They probably say or otherwise imply something along the lines of “it’s a kind act to give your time or money to help other people, therefore it’s moral for us to help them.”  Consider the actual significance of the statement: because it’s moral for an individual to give money to charity, it’s moral for society.  Now, while that might (arguably) be a proper application of individual-group semantic conversion, consider that the “society” as a semantic identity is not a decision-maker.  “Society” cannot actually do anything because it is just a vague/y specified conglomerate of individuals.  Things can happen to a society, in the same way that I as an agent can drop a ball or eat a sandwich.  But the sandwich cannot act in such a way to determine whether or not I eat it.  In order for “society” to do anything, there must be some agent controlling that group- implying the existence of a government or controlling body.  So what you’re really asking is whether it’s moral for the government to give money to charity.

This is a sticky issue for many people, but consider where the government gets its money from.  Taxes are involuntary.  If taxes were optional, nobody would pay them.  If you presented people with the option of A) Taxes, get complete government services, or B) No taxes, no government services, a great many would choose to live independently.  This is unacceptable for governments because it actually puts competitive pressure on them.  They actually have to offer value to get people to stay with them, they have to somehow convince recalcitrant customers that their product will help them.  Every company would really rather have a guaranteed income backed by threats of persecution.  Now, among the people who gave their money voluntarily, knowing the mechanism through which it will be filtered before eventually being spent,  I have absolutely no issue with that money being spent on anything at all.  I can have an issue with things they might do with it, of course.  If they use that money to buy tanks and attack people, we’re going to have a big problem.  But I don’t have an issue with the basic operation of such an entity.  However, government taxes are basically bold-faced theft.  Worse, they’ll try to convince you they’re doing it for your own good.  If it really was for my own good, then you wouldn’t have any issue with me choosing or not choosing your service.  If it’s really going to help me, I would choose it anyway, wouldn’t I?  Even the Mafia at least has the good decency to be honest with you.  They want your money, and they’ll beat you up if you don’t give it to them.  The greatest subtlety of the mob is calling it “protection money.”  The government actually believes it is protection money- it’s called National Security and Homeland Defense.  I’ll be totally honest with you, I really don’t see any significant threat that isn’t actually created by the government itself.

While it is true that there are terrorists, who may or may not hate America, it is certainly true that they are ascribing specific characteristics to Americans that are based on actions taken by the US government.  By the same token, many Americans are ascribing characteristics to Muslims or Middle Easterners based on the actions of a few extremists.  While some would call this simple generalization and stop there, I think it’s more detailed than that.  The thought process is a back-and-forth interplay between the individuals in the group and the conception of the group itself, a sort of repeat fallacy of composition, over and over again, getting worse and worse each time on both sides.  Like telephone played with abstract sketches in a kindergarten art class.

I’m getting a little off topic, and just found another instance of the fallacy of composition somewhere in the tangent sea.  Anyway, the government is not subject to the same type of moral analysis as an individual.  Neither are corporations.  They are groups, not individuals.  Moreover, moral laws as applied to individuals will apply to each individual in that group.  Moral laws for groups will apply to the entire group.  So, the government, as any group, would be virtuous in giving to charity if the money belonged to it in the first place.  Using charity as a justification for theft is just ridiculous.  However that’s exactly what the “generous” politicians are asking you to do.  Let’s say they convince some people that it’s a good thing for people, and therefore the government, to give to charity.  Fine.  Then why isn’t the politician, and why aren’t the individuals so convinced, going and donating money to charity instead of voting to force others to do so against their will?  And why isn’t the politician simply asking people to donate to a particular charity, as opposed to asking for taxes to be spent in that fashion?

Seizing Property

I just read an intriguing article which talks about Bush’s recent executive orders to enable the secretary of the treasury to seize the assets of anyone who is in any way, directly or however indirectly, interferes with Iraq or Lebanon.  While I agree that this is the utmost insanity, I have a more interesting argument to make than merely discussing the lunacy of the politicians of the day.  Here is a quote from the article linked above:

“While both orders bypass the Constitutional right to due process of law in giving the Secretary of Treasury authority to seize properties of those persons posing a risk of violence, or in any vague way assisting opposition to US agenda”

Oh, so the problem is that the Secretary of the Treasury now can do it without due process.  Meaning that they don’t have to notify you about how they’re just about to freeze and then steal all your assets.  It’s that they won’t permit you to hire a lawyer that this article is bemoaning.  While this is indeed bad, I think we’re all missing the point somewhat.  Shouldn’t the Secretary of the Treasury simply not have the power to just reach out and grab whatever they feel like?  Shouldn’t the government simply be unable to outright steal everyone’s assets?  The offhanded way that this article ignores the fundamental crime that is being committed here is disturbing.

On other current news, the government is handing out $700 billion to banks.  OK, so let me get this one straight.  You reserve the right to steal from citizens at will, and you restrict yourself by having little bits of paper which sometimes say you do, and sometimes you don’t.  However . . .  Unfortunately this makes perfect sense because the average citizen hasn’t the capital to siphon down from the great pie-in-the-sky that is government funds.  Fiscal governments raise barriers to entry.  Laws.  It’s what they do- they make regulations and restrictions, and they throw money around.  The bailout, the executive orders, everything, the whole deal is just business as usual.  Can you imagine how poorly the American government would be doing right now if it were a company?  If citizens had the option to leave and go to a competitor without dealing with the huge barriers to entry which are actually barriers to exit, they would be gone.  All the features the US government offers have become corrupted in recent years, from the Constitution to the balance of powers to the services rendered.  However they don’t care, quite simply because no matter what, they will keep their revenue stream alive.  That’s the purpose of taxes.

I’m going to cite Stefan Molyneux’s example, perhaps again, but I can’t be bothered to check.  Let’s say there’s a paperboy.  He goes from house to house and delivers papers.  Part of his job is to try to sell subscriptions to more houses.  If the paper offers more value to consumers then he sells more papers, and everyone is better off.  The consumer gets the paper, he gets paid, and the publisher makes money.  Now, let’s give this model a twist.  Let’s turn the paperboy into a government force- say the paperboy has the force of arms to walk up to someone’s house and tell them, flat out, that they are now subscribed to his paper and will pay the subscription cost.  He doesn’t care what they do with the paper- they can burn it for all it matters.  But they must subscribe and receive the paper, or there will be consequences.  For example, let’s say he can have them thrown in jail for failure to comply.  In the short term, you’ll see a massive increase in the number of subscriptions.  This looks like a fan-fucking-tastic idea.  True, some people get thrown in jail, but on the whole the economy is being stimulated, and so many more people are getting newspapers than they used to.  They’re keeping up to date, they’re reading, they’re becoming more international.  Of course, the paper no longer has any incentive to print anything at all- they could give out blank sheets of paper for all they care.  They have more subscriptions than ever, and are growing explosively.  If the paperboy is ethical, he might exercise his power to make the newspaper print good stories, but how do you judge that, and are you need boards and standards, and so on…  Of course, the paperboy is making a lot of money since he’s the crux of the operation- or at least him and others like him.  Of course, this puts the paperboy in a powerful position, giving him the option to push hard for more money, exploit his employer, turn corrupt, etc. etc.  Crime- at least, white collar crime, is a result of this crevasse created by the government.  For example, if the paperboy is trying to help people with his power, he might demand that people receive the paper in order to give the publisher more money with which to hire more reporters, editors, etc. to make more and better stories.  So everyone enjoys the paper more, lots of people are receiving it, and everything is just dandy.  This puts our paperboy squarely in the naive liberal point of view.  This is fantasy.  You can’t put the cart before the horse and expect it to go.  You can’t legislate that the machine will work.  You let people who want the machine to work fix it so it goes.  If nobody wants the machine to go- if it’s uneconomical to run it, then it shouldn’t be run anyway.  By demanding that people receive the paper, you’re skewing the incentives to screw over the consumer, or buyer, and thereby alleviate the burden on the seller.  If you expect them not to take advantage of that, you’re stupid.  The way to stop them is to regulate the seller, too, but now that crevasse is widened and you’ve made everyone worse off, and introduced counterproductive protocols and immense complication.  If it gets too complicated, you might even create niches for specialists to help people navigate and cope.  It’s madness.

Can you think of any parallels between this example and, say, the school system?  The stock market?  Other systems or government programs?  Can you guess why they use contractors whenever they actually need to get stuff done, and done well?  I have a thought experiment for you.  Let’s say that the government didn’t issue defense contracts.  Do you think that the defense contracting companies would even attempt to make weapons the way they do when they’re being paid for their effort?  How do they expect to make money?  Do you think these people just want to make weapons, and they would do it anyway even if they wasted millions or billions doing it?  Of course not.  Now, if there was a legitimate reason for those weapons to be built, agreed upon on a sufficiently massive scale to make the general public want to pay for their production out of their own pockets, they could be made.  But I don’t believe a situation like that has ever occurred without being created in the first place by one or more governments screwing their citizens.  I don’t want a company representing me to attack anybody- what a complete waste!  But of course that’s just the point.  The government doesn’t actually represent anybody.  Even if you wanted them to stop representing you, you can’t.  QED, they don’t represent you.  The reasoning behind this is very simple.  Let’s say you’re in a conversation with three other people, and one of them is telling the other two about your opinions.  At any point you can simply declare that person incorrect and retract their right to represent you, granted on a very temporary basis.  If they keep going and say, “No, I represent you.  You don’t get to argue with me,” they are clearly the problem.  I mean, seriously, does anyone actually think this is a sane way to run a conglomerate of millions of people?  At the end of the day, this stuff is truly simple, but so many people are being misled.  Like the “terrorist fist jab,” it would be hilarious, if it weren’t so sad.

Conservatives

Keeping the more progressive sections of the populations from running off into whatever fad madness strikes their fancy.  Without them, we would waste countless resources every year reacting to every whim or fashionable cause to grace the earth, and we would waste ourselves uselessly.  Of course, if you actually let them push their own policies they can range from pointlessly restrictive to outright draconian or criminal by today’s standards.  The design of most modern governments deliberately incorporates a slow-down mechanism.  For example, the American government’s House of Representatives can be subject to large and sweeping change with the times because each representative sits for two-year terms.  If public opinion sways massively enough, half the house could be toasted in one cycle.  On the other hand, the Senate features six-year terms, putting the brakes on any movement without sufficient staying power to stick around to replace senators.  To go even further, the Supreme Court is appointed for life by the President of the day, so justices can put the brakes on movements decades later using mindsets that are hideously out of date and out of touch.  Some might say that they counteract the impulsiveness of electoral politics because nobody has the power to remove them and can act impartially.  While these are all good points in the design of a governing body, and I believe that the American government was, in its day, the finest form of government that 1776’s brightest could create.  I am not going to go off on my usual tack of how these same design features could work for a non-coercive power such as a DRO, and indeed these types of traits are one of the main reasons to choose one DRO over another.  However, I am instead going to analyze the nature of government today in a more conventional fashion.  To say the least, times have changed.  The old system of government really is out of date.  The world is changing faster than the government can accommodate.  Technology is the greatest and most prevalent difference between the age of governments- there was a large string of revolutions around the time of the American revolution- and the modern world.

First, let’s talk about the effect of technology’s dramatic extension of our life spans.  Firstly, the minimum age for office in the United States varies but generally it’s about 30 or so, maybe a little older.  Convention often requires a few more years.  Google tells me the average lifespan in 1776 was 33 years.  Now, keep in mind that this factors in infant mortality, so children who live through the first year or two would probably live to be much older than 33.  Let’s say for the sake of argument that the average adult in average health around the time of the American revolution would live to be about 50 or 60.  if you could expect to live to 55 then that meant you had about 25 years in office before making way for the next generation.  While that’s a long time, it’s manageable.  The turnover is approximately the same length as one generation, about 20 years.  Today, however, the average lifespan in the US is known much more precisely to be 78.14 years.  Also, let’s not forget that the infant mortality rate has lowered dramatically in the last 300 years to just 6.3 per 1000 live births, so that number is much more reflective of the actual age of the population.  So now the possible political impact over time of any given person is increased from a scant 25 years to a full 50, if not more.  Especially in the case of Supreme Court justices, they can live to be even older than 78 and further extend their influence.  The median age in the US is now about 38, or 40 years behind the life expectancy.  I would like to note here that this effectively sets the political decision-makers back as much as two generations from the modes of the age, rather than less than one.  This gap is more significant if society is changing rapidly because being behind will produce behavior that seems irrational and ridiculous.  I’m not being unkind here, I’m simply stating that actions that seem reasonable to a mind which is perceptually based in a time that is sufficiently different will make poor decisions.

My basic point here is that while a small restraint on the whims of today are a good thing, yet too much restraint will produce a resistance to the needs of the modern world, a stubborn refusal to accept reality that will cause serious problems.  The important thing to realize about at least some of the old-fashioned, outdated generational phenomena is that the new phenomena exist for a reason.  At least, the ones that we care about.  Fads or the awesomeness of anything are insignificant and while there may be a reason it’s not a substantive one, it’s a subjective one.  What I’m talking about is stuff like the terror threat.  We don’t need to be afraid- the world is not a scary place.  Virtually all its people want to cooperate with us, not attack us.  The whole threat is just blown so far out of proportion it’s disgusting.  But we’re talking about a generation ago- the Cold War.  This generation is accustomed to having a massive threat hanging over them.  In fact, they probably don’t feel comfortable unless there’s an enemy out there which they can try to defend against or outmaneuver.  Now, if there actually is a massive and frightening enemy out there then that sort of mindset is quite useful.  But if you don’t, the security measures and the paranoid aggression and the “preemptive strikes” against enemies that couldn’t possibly harm you are just insane.  Yet these Cold War babies are the ones running our government, and the people voting them into power are generally about the same.  The young are generally credited with having more energy and are therefore more politically active.  Yet that is simply untrue.  The young adults who actually care are probably about the same proportion of the population as older age groups.  Yet they have a large amount of political pull for two reasons- 1) Their time is cheap.  They don’t have high-paying jobs that require constant attentiveness and leaves them worn out at the end of the day.  And 2) they are generally in line with the zeitgeist of the time because they were raised in it, recently.  The thinking intellectuals of the time tend to flow with the times, they enjoy progress immensely.  Conservatives, on the other hand, are averse to change and risk.  So progressive, liberal, etc. tends to get the young, the academics, and the intelligent.  Conservatives get the uneducated, the super-rich, and those who just don’t know any better.  Once again, I’m not bashing conservatives.  There are a lot of intelligent conservatives, but as a general voting population you have the very successful and intelligent who are very wealthy, and then the trailer park crowd, the rednecks, etc.  Part of the reason why the Democrat/Republican debate is so fervid is that it is by definition impossible to resolve.  This goes a long way towards explaining both parties’ successes.  Republicans tend to be economically and socially conservative, where Democrats are liberal.  Democrats want to give out services and taxes are a necessary evil to fulfill that goal.  Republicans want to get rid of taxes, and the abolishment of services is an unfortunate side effect.  There can be no compromise here in the same way that two sides of a tug-of-war can’t agree to disagree.  When one side wins, the other one must necessarily have lost.
(all numbers in above paragraph courtesy of the CIA World Factbook)

So while being modern is fantastic, it’s vital that we understand why we’re being modern and progressive.  We vet with rational choice which elements are improvements, and which are just madness.  In a way, that’s what I’m trying to do with this blog.  The biggest issue is that everything anyone does has secondary, tertiary, and other ripple effects that nobody can predict.  For far-reaching changes like the invention of a new product or new capacity in technology, or new discovery, the effects are rapid.  For slower phenomena like cultural drift and parenting artifacts, such as the behavioral effects of being raised with a single mother, the effects take longer to take effect, are more subtle, and more enduring.  Older people tend to be conservative because the environment they grew accustomed to, in their opinion anyway, worked well.  Even if they believe it was a nightmare, they still bought into it.  The old guard act as a fallback position.

Think of it like this.  When you’re designing a product you keep meticulous records of everything you try.  When you try something and it works a little bit, you’ve made progress.  You incorporate elements of the improvement into your future experiments.  But if the next experiment doesn’t work at all, you haven’t lost anything because you retain the information from the previous experiment which worked.  In fact, you have gained some critical data which you can use to further discriminate between functional and useless designs to try.  However, due to the term of cultural shifts, this same type of rational analysis doesn’t necessarily take place.  It is possible to go backwards as generations forget or are conditioned into behaviors that a previous generation improved upon already.  In fact, because at certain stages of psychological development we rebel against parental or authority figures, there is a certain subsection of the population that is actively resisting progress and striving to regress at any given time.  If the forces for progress falter substantially, there will be a serious loss of ground into ignorance and barbarism.

Now we arrive at the real issue.  Technology, only a product of the more enlightened sections of society, has the effect of amplifying the regressive parts as well.  The Internet has the effect of strengthening communications and sharing of information, which makes it easier for the regressors to organize and entrench their positions.  Groupthink is strongest among the regressive elements, since rational and intelligent individuals recognize and avoid groupthink communities, and the artificially elevated levels of certainty and social proof that go with it.  I think it’s important to point out right now that the regressive sections of society don’t think of themselves as regressive.  They believe themselves to be seeking the “good old times”- a return to good old American values of family and patriotism and freedom.  It’s the “good old” part that is mistaken.  Historical categorizations tend to be extremely positive, such as the noble savage description of the Indians, or the free-and-easy cowboy reputation of the wild west.  They are all wrong.  There has been progress in virtually every year since the Industrial Revolution, technologically, socially, morally, and in so many other ways as well.  The devaluing of nationalistic and family values is one of those advances.  They were necessary to group mankind together into cohesive tribal groups, but in a global community they are destructive forces which must be overcome.  The hard part of removing them completely is that a majority of the population believes there is a moral imperative behind these principles.  You cannot convince such people that they are incorrect because they will interpret any attempt as an immoral person’s attempt to corrupt them.  Interestingly, they tend not to recognize the same effect in others and believe religious conversion to be effective on its own merits.  They ignore the marketing, conditioning, and manipulative elements of the conversion process.  But I digress.  Anyway, moral imprecations produce circular logic.  That’s their purpose.  You cannot violate a moral imperative and remain a moral person.  Therefore, questioning the limits of morality is itself an immoral act.  I’m not saying it’s a logical conclusion, just that it’s the way moral imperatives work.  Particularly so for religious moral imperatives where there is a power base being challenged by questioning their commandments.

I need to find a way to wrap this up.  My basic point is that conservatives serve as a pacifying force for turbulent times, mitigating the effects of rapid cultural shifts.  However, at the same time and as a result of the same properties, they also resist positive progress.  They slow down the social experimentation that advances society socially, they slow down the scientific experimentation that advances technology, and they slow down the cultural shifts that make lasting change possible.  By the experiment model used previously, they limit how much you can change after each experiment, and limit the number of experiments.  This helps because society doesn’t necessarily remember all the data of previous experiments to reconstruct a perfect fallback position at the latest, most effective model.  This hurts because we could go so much faster if they weren’t around- in either direction.  Progressive elements don’t work like conservatives, however.  When progress is made, the conservative only get that much more fodder with which to feed their conservatism.  Yet when the conservatives regress society, the progressives have fewer tools with which to push forward.  We’ve been caught in such feedback loops before- the Dark Ages were the worst one, broken only by the Black Plague killing a third of the population.  This brought basic survival drives into play and overpowered the conservative elements because it was simple: change or die.  Let’s not get into that situation again.