Friday, November 5, 2010

Subsidiarity and First Things

Subsidiarity is a principle of sanity. It says something about where things should be done.

You are sitting behind the steering wheel of a car, for instance, and it is your responsibility to drive. The back-seat passenger, in spite of whatever anxious inclination he may feel at the moment, is not the driver. He should not be driving from the back seat. You can take this principle--that there is an appropriate context for action--and apply it to economics, or to politics, or to business, or to religion. That is subsidiarity in a nutshell.

Subsidiarity stops nonsense in its tracks. Yesterday I came across a bit of propaganda comparing terrorism with health care reform (or the lack thereof). The advertisement was presented in the following way: At the top of the poster there is depicted an enormous pile of little skulls--a veritable field of death--representing all of the people, we are told, who died because they did not have health insurance. Down at the bottom is one little skull apart from the others, and that one tiny bit of death represents all of the people killed by the terrorists.

This reveals a great mystery. The demise of Homo erectus, for example, is now perfectly understood. No insurance! It is a miracle that our species has survived. My upper-paleolithic ancestors of the Aurignacian culture surely knew the life preserving secrets of the primitive HMO. Along with cave paintings, we can now confidently count health-plan technology among the tools of the ancients. If people die because they don't have health insurance, then it is only logical to infer that the cavemen who survived to pass on their genes must have had it.

This is stupidity, of course. People don't die because they lack health insurance. They die because of great age, injury, violence, or illness. People are not made older, injured, murdered, or sickened by lack of insurance. Thus, if we want to make claims that are at least reasonable and sane, we must admit that death comes about through nature, ignorance, or misfortune. With this knowledge, we can then plan appropriately to improve our chances at life by addressing, as directly as possible, the root causes of the problem we wish to avoid. Then we can focus on a much smaller secondary problem: how to get out of a scrape. That is what subsidiarity helps us accomplish.

It isn't so simple, though. I struggle for the glory of heaven while the Buddhist seeks the tranquility of personal annihilation. Lord Rosebery might want to be filled with "spiritual tremors," but Chesterton prefers to be filled with jam.1 What point is there talking about the proper roles of drivers and passengers, if there is nowhere to go and no car to drive? We don't agree about what we want, or even about what is possible or needed.

Even supposing we have got an idea of what we want, as soon as we look closely at it, it becomes elusive--especially when we say it must be done at the right level and not just at the lowest possible one. We say we want education, but we aren't quite sure what that means. Subsidiarity can point us in a number of directions based on our view of things, and what if our view is not really what we want and we don't even know it? What if we have second or third-order ignorance? What if we are begging for the wrong gifts? This brings me to a comment I made recently in another forum, from which I extracted my aphorism #10, and which I have edited and now include here:

I notice that we talk about teaching as if teaching were a first thing. Without the possibility of learning, there is no teaching.

But there is no objective quality that one can label "learning." This, however, does not discourage us from attempting to quantify every possible aspect of teaching. What is the proper style of education? Where does the responsibility of education belong? We are adamant that our children will be taught, but cannot seem to make them learn.

Not only should subsidiarity put things where they belong, but it should also allow them to remain in the right perspective.

Should I worry if I can’t teach my children Calculus, Latin, or any other subject? I wish to bestow the best gifts on them, but what if I can’t? Is there someone who must? Is that what subsidiarity demands?

Richard Feynman learned how to calculate at the age of 13 and was rather bothered when he discovered that his own father couldn’t quite make heads or tails of it. Feynman knew he needed to learn, so he did. No one had to teach him, but he learned anyway.

Certainly a liberal education is a very beneficial thing. But it is, nevertheless terribly fortunate, for instance, that David Farragut wasn’t given a liberal education. Imagine the national tragedy that might have ensued had the boy been properly schooled. National tragedies happen every day in classrooms where some (probably most) children simply don't belong.

My daughter loves rock and roll. She once asked me for an electric guitar. I said, “Do you really want a guitar? Then make it yourself!” That ought to discourage any foolish aspirations. I have no idea how to make an electric guitar. Guess what? It seems my daughter does, or at least is willing to make the attempt. I tried to give her good advice on how to do part of it. After ruining things according to my specifications, she redid it on her own. It worked out brilliantly without my interference. And what if I, who had the power and the right to grant a wish, had given her what she asked for instead?

It seems that gifts, when trivially bestowed, offend great desires. Subsidiarity, if it is to be right, must not demand the acceptance of gifts.

Subsidiarity has to be a very passive thing. There is a potential for right action at many levels, it is true; but right action awakens only under the current of human will and when there is a possibility for channeling it. Because a thing can be done, even at an appropriate level, does not mean that it must be done or that a way must be found.

Without the desire to receive, it is an injustice to give. Without the desire to learn, it is a tragedy to teach (and a waste of precious time). Without the need to use or to enjoy, there is no directive for making. Without the possibility of ever being, why set about realizing a proper policy for becoming?

It is, perhaps, a small thing to ask if something is done in the proper way or at the proper level. The greater question is whether the thing must be done at all. That too is a part of subsidiarity.

1. Works of Gilbert Keith Chesterton from MobileReference, version 10.1, Kindle location 112,426-59.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Aphorism #10

Gifts, when trivially bestowed, offend great desires.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Time to Vote

It's time for me to make up my mind again and, as usual, I have a dozen shades of vanilla to choose from. Do I choose the obnoxious, in-your-face vanilla, or do I prefer the more subtle, sophisticated vanilla? Can I even tell the difference? I am assured by the advertisements that the differences are clear. This candidate is so sweet, the others so bitter! Or, so they all claim.

The interesting thing is the vehemence of our politics. This is interesting when you think about who is typically vehement.

For instance, I understand that identical twins are sometimes terribly desperate. Even siblings who are close to each other in age are great rivals. This disruptive tendency in children seems less when the age difference is greater.

Women frequently despise other women while men engage each other in heated competition. Often if you put the man and the woman together, though, there emerges a blissful peace! That is to say, there is peace right up until these two different people discover their relative equality. In the moment that each individual's otherness fades from the partner's view, war erupts.

At the national level, we find that most wars happen between nations that share something in common, such as a border or natural resources.

There is greater strife between religious sects that claim the same god than there is between those religions whose gods and beliefs radically diverge.

If anything, political campaigns grow uglier even as they become more alike. The polarization of the American public isn't so much about our differences as it is our equality. We cherish our equality, yet it tears us apart. The limbo-world of equality is a terrible thing; we're always looking for a way out.

I don't see spectacular differences in the political platforms of the various candidates vying for votes in my precinct. For one thing, they all seem to agree on what the issues are. Certainly they all agree that politics is about "the issues."

All of the candidates on my ballot hold the identical view that education, for instance, has something to do with economics, and that health is something dispensed from a health care provider. If their particular ideas about these things aren't exactly alike, at least they agree about what the problem is.

Where I live, all of the candidates agree that immigration is a problem and that we should do something about it. They all believe in the rule of law. They all venerate the Constitution. They all believe, quite regardless of party affiliation, in the "sanctity of life" and in the traditional nature of marriage. They all agree that government should be limited.

None of this abundant and essential agreement has made for kinder, gentler politics. Isn't consensus supposed to result in peace and harmony? Not if we are interested in personal ownership of orthodoxy and right belief. It is almost more important for similar people to tell scandalous stories about each other than it is to speak for themselves. When men, who were evidently created equal, begin to tell their own stories, there arises a terrifying possibility that all of the stories will be the same. After all, what does equal mean if not the same? Why choose between same things?

My test for political preference has become the humanist test. In other words, do people really matter to politics, or is some other ideal elevated above flesh and blood? Is government for people, or are people for government? Do we first have to discover and worship some sublime ideal--some fundamental law--before we can be of suitable service to our neighbors? What is the nature of the civic relationship between citizens and government? Is it an abstract relationship, defined primarily by money, or is it a concrete relationship, defined by the giving of ones' self through service?

Sadly, I find very little of the humanist principle in the local political landscape. Almost everyone has some other, loftier cause that must first be served in order for humanity to ultimately profit. It is said that we have to return to the right principle, which is honor, or justice, or the rule of law, or the Constitution, or the free market. We've lost faith in ourselves--in mere people--to do anything for each other. The word on the street is that, if you want things done and if you want to see change, then you have to get the right person in office. That way, money changes hands, contractors are hired, and the world is made well again.

We've always wanted someone else to save us. When the Hebrews couldn't worship their golden calf, they began to worship their laws instead. The laws would save them!

But it seems that God Himself grew weary of their oblations and their devotion to holy ideals. What a strange new thing, this god who does not care so much for cultic worship. Instead He says, "Learn to do right, seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow."

We still don't believe it; not where I live. Our most pious politicians can hardly countenance those poor wretches who are most in need of charity. An invasion is what they are. Get the filth out of here! Give the lawbreakers what they deserve. We're surrounded by them; deviants, the licentious, baby killers, illegals. Who will put an end to it? Hide them from us--cast them out! The rule of law! The Constitution! These politicians, who draw close to God with their lips, are modern-day Pharisees.

I even read a statement from one party claiming that foreign aid in the form of private charity is a great evil. I'm well acquainted with the arguments against government charity, but this was news to me. Apparently even the Catholic Relief Services and the Peace Corps are sowers of famine and destruction. I had a sudden vision of apoplectic old Gudge, who, "if you mention poverty to him, he roars at you in a thick, hoarse voice something that is conjectured to be, 'Do 'em good!'"

"It is true that there is a thing crudely called charity," continues Chesterton, "which means charity to the deserving poor, but charity to the deserving is not charity at all, but justice."

I like that quote, but I'll be called a socialist for bringing it up. I'm sour because I'm a sorry socialist who can't find the right Marxist candidate this year. I'm just bitter because of all the successful people. I want to steal their property from them and redistribute all of it in order to create even more of that maddening equality.

Nonsense. I'm just looking for something different. I want to see someone, just once, suggest that maybe the cure for education isn't more funding. Maybe learning has a more glorious purpose than to make us fit to compete with the Chinese. I want to hear a confession from a politician about how health care and disease care are two different things, and that we don't need much money, or any experts, to take care of our health. I'd like to see someone suggest, if we really believe that families are important, that we should actually live as if they were. Perhaps then all of the other arguments surrounding the purpose of families and marriages would just go away.

I want to see a politician acknowledge that economy starts at home and not on Wall Street. Maybe then we wouldn't harbor anger about government bailouts of the bankers who duped us--because we couldn't be duped in the first place. I want to see someone put the humane treatment and merciful consideration of the millions of illegal immigrants as #1 instead of #4 on his list of guiding principles for immigration policy (if he even acknowledges that illegals are human beings in the first place).

Finally, I want to hear someone tell me that, if something is wrong in the world, I don't have to wait until election day to fix it.

I'd vote for that person.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

What Is True, What Is Good

There is a nascent secular mass-movement brimming with men (and women) of words: the self-styled intellectuals. Eric Hoffer identified the conspicuous presence of such individuals as "The Temper of Our Time." Their business is a business of debunking, as is usual with all nascent mass-movements. The purpose of debunking is to disrupt the status quo, at which point there enters a towering need for new things.

What is it that these people debunk? It is a way of knowing. We are told that there is one proper way of knowing, which is called reason. This is not a new idea, merely a new movement for an old idea.

To know is to find truth, and we are taught to believe that to know the truth is to know the good. Evidence brings forth reason, which brings forth truth, which is the Good.

This last connection is never satisfactorily explained. I suppose this is because it is never explained at all. How is the truth the same as the good? This is supposed to be self-evident--an axiom of the movement--yet it is perfectly unclear. Man has known for hundreds of years, at least, that the true and the good are different things. We have come to think that the true we know, but the good we feel.

But there it is: Should we discover true laws of economics, the laws become holy. No one shall meddle. If we see a natural cause for a defect in the body, the defect itself becomes a sacred thing. If we gain the ability to create some new wonder, it must be done. If we achieve technology, it will save us. Progress is the sign of a god who is dead, or better yet, who is man.

Herein lies the abundant irony of the modern secular mass-movement, an irony that sets it apart from all other movements since the dawn of history. This new thing is apparently driven by activists who feel justified in their claims of the good simply by virtue of their method of discovering the true. They would like to legislate truth, mistaking it for goodness. This is a primitive mode of thinking; the very sort, in fact, which they seek to debunk!

It has not occurred to these intellectuals, when they speak of the Good, that they have cast aside their reason and have wholly entered the realm of those whom they despise.

Perhaps this is why they lack success. They have nothing new to offer besides a new religion.

I can't seem to find the right words to tell them this. After all, it is not easy to get through to the religiously minded with an appeal to reason.

Aphorism #9

Culture is not something defended or justified. It is something lived. Perhaps it is accurate to say that one cannot protect what one does not have.

Aphorism #8

A belief in men behind curtains produces religious people as surely as a belief in God. A man behind a curtain is any whose ideas are sufficiently remote, inscrutable, or difficult for the believer to grasp himself.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The World Has Changed Us

My wife has been reading Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables. She recently shared an interesting passage that is worth some thought:

Probity, sincerity, candor, conviction, the idea of duty, are things that, when in error, can turn hideous, but--even though hideous--remain great.  

As I thought about it, the idea reminded me of another idea that Eric Hoffer penned in The True Believer:

It is as if garlanded youths and ivied maidens were to herald the four horsemen of the apocalypse...

How is it that certain things can have so much rightness and beauty in them, and then they turn out so terrible and wrong in the end?

I have often thought that there is a difference between a beautiful platitude and a true one. There is an aphorism for you. It could also be that I sometimes mistake beauty for something else; maybe these ideas aren’t beautiful, only sophisticated. Or maybe the beauty is real and it reveals its source to be less wrong than I first imagined, and therefore I ought to consider that my own position might be the wrong one. Or perhaps some wisdom is only wise in a certain context; possibly it is always beautiful, but only correct as a second thing and not as a First Thing. Alas, we always think of beautiful things as First Things.

That last idea, which hearkens back to Victor Hugo, is most difficult for me to articulate properly, but also most intriguing. There is a tendency--I think I share it with everyone--to say that if one idea is correct, then its opposing idea is not. Or maybe it is a related idea, but there is only room in us for one “right” idea. Yet, all of these ideas are so eloquently expressed and apparently useful, and all so utterly debunked and dangerous at the same time. How now shall I believe?

This is always the joy and pain of philosophy; and you never arrive at the bottom of anything. But, you must make up your mind. For living well, at least, you have to make up your mind about something. For thinking well, perhaps it is best to remain undecided--ever learning and never able to come to a knowledge of the truth! That is what the apostle Paul tells us. The ever-learning maintain an open mind; there is no final answer for them.

The philosopher quickly comes to the realization that there must be an eternal and infinite progression of causes. As soon as he discovers some fundamental principle, as soon as its qualities and attributes have been committed to writing, he begins to wonder: whence came this principle? That was the ancient pursuit of truth.

Those seekers were like the Flatlanders1, as it were; trying to discover from within their two-dimensional geometric space (where they existed as paintings on a canvas) who it is that painted the painter. Where did it all begin? And it rarely occurred to anyone that the creator, who resides in an external and incomprehensible three-dimensional world, wasn’t painted at all!

Thus, on the periphery of our philosophy, there grew this notion of the unmade and the unknowable; some root cause that had to reside outside and beyond all other causes. This is where the intersection of philosophy and theology occurs, which I have attempted to explain through analogy.

Philosophy was anciently a pursuit of truth. It was about ontology, or what it meant “to be.” What is real and true? What is the good?

Then, in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, that pursuit changed focus. We started to ask instead, “How do we know?” The First Thing, which had been the Truth itself, became not truth, but Knowing. Knowing was a beautiful new thing that required a lot of attention, and so philosophy got another discipline called epistemology.  When that happened, all those who merely sought for truth, or claimed to have it, often became despised for being too primitive.

The theological field of Radical Orthodoxy, which has made up some of my reading lately, finds the crux of this change somewhere around the writings of John Duns Scotus, a theologian who posited an idea that the Creator must exist in the same way that His creation exists.
2 God created the universe, and then He stepped back to become a certain kind of co-equal with creation, which had become itself self-existent and sufficient. God and universe existed substantially in the same way. Radical Orthodoxy tells us that this principle came to be known as “the univocity of being.” 3

Then there was the friar Ockham (for whom the famous “Occam’s razor” is named), who came from the same scholastic tradition as Duns Scotus; and he helped to popularize the ideas of nominalism and conceptualism. We understand from those teachings that abstract things are merely ideas (or concepts) in the mind. They exist only subjectively--within the contemplating subject--and have no being in themselves at all. In other words, they are not objectively and absolutely true or real.  So, those scholastic monks were likely around at the birth of epistemology as we know it.

The end-result of this new kind of thinking was a tremendous decline in the value of things in themselves, or the loss (though not complete) of intrinsic values. Eventually there came to be an egalitarianism where everything began to appear more or less equal to everything else, and this set the stage for secularism, nihilism, and atheism.

A thing that can exist in itself, univocal with the existence of God, no longer needs a god to keep it going, nor perhaps to even get it started--there could be a simpler explanation, as Dr. Hawking has recently explained, using Occam’s razor to defeat Ockham’s faith.
4 Furthermore, if the thing is merely known through its subjective representations, there need not be any universal purpose, either. You can no longer make value-claims about something, other than as personal opinion and not as matter of fact.

Due to this change in what the First Things were, people who had once enjoyed a great deal of substantial personal value within their cultures found themselves suddenly rather bourgeois--a tragedy for them! On the other hand, so were the least valuable and most despised members of society (traditionally slaves and women) raised up to a middling status. This was a great boon to that group of people, and a victory for justice.

The fault of hierarchical and ontological societies, it would appear, then, is the tendency toward social strata that run the gamut from Brahman to pariah, or even slave. That injustice began to be reversed when epistemology entered the stage, and so it looked a lot like progress was being made.

Also, this new idea of epistemology, in which all objects are simply named representations within the observing subject, made possible our advanced money economy5 which now easily extracts the subjective values of things into a transformative substance, typically greenish and papery when we can get it!

We can now apply scarcity laws to such values, including humanity itself; and we begin to play with them according to the rules of economics. People became free to specialize and to pursue their individual interests without worrying about other details, such as one’s duty and one’s commitments to others. Those things used to consume the lives of others in more primitive societies. So, freedom has increased along that continuum as well--by leaving us potentially free of our entanglements with other people.6 

This epistemic equivocation allowed all disciplines to stand on their own, just as creation stands apart from its creator. We will no longer mingle church with state, work with pleasure, mercy with justice, or ethics with economy. We separate those things by institutionalizing them, a fact that will become important near the end of this essay.

At the personal level, where we once lived one life, now we live a thousand. We have a work life, an intellectual life, a spiritual life, a love life, a family life, a social life, a financial life, a political life, and so forth. As with our institutions, we have most freedom in each of our separate lives the less those other lives intrude on them. Hence, we now have the man who appears outwardly loving and family oriented, who is honestly pious in church, who is generous to his wife and children, and who defrauds his business partners by day and does violence to his marriage vows by night. Each of his independent and co-equal lives are seeking for their maximum free expression, competing with each other to see which is fittest; which will finally define the man. The same goes for our institutions, wherever they contend with each other.

American society has become fundamentally individualistic, and at the same time (and seemingly paradoxically), very leveled and monochromatic due to the tendency of egalitarianism to make different things the same--and interchangeable--in actual fact. Culture has become all one big thing, and it almost appears that postmodernism will take us full-circle back to the primitive unity of being.

Fully differentiated individuals are right now competing with each other on an ideally level and egalitarian battlefield. In the coming age, the victors of today’s power struggles will once again bring forth the truth. The interesting thing, it would appear, is that the new truth won’t look at all like the old truth.

This is the fascinating and subtle tyranny of egalitarian and epistemic philosophy:7 because Darwin predicted that the self-interested would not be content merely to coexist, cooperation  became a very complex and perplexing phenomenon (I understand that biologists are still arguing about kin selection, altruism, and self-sacrifice). In the egalitarian arena of free individuals--whether they are people or entire movements--a victor must arise to subject or destroy all others.

So this leveled milieu is really all about survival, and in order to survive we understand implicitly that others will not. It turns out, in this new manifestation, that the final truth is somehow genetically embedded in the beings that are most fit. That is a sort of analogy, of course. What I mean is that all others will be subsumed or eliminated until the fractured and distinct role of individual is once again part of the glorious whole. One will not need to make up one’s mind in those days.

Society, then, seems to mimic the eternal round of causes that philosophers investigate.8 We go from one extreme to its opposite, then back again. We seem to be at a tipping point right now, as we were nearly a century ago, at the dawning of a new truth when all dissenting voices will be silenced in the same manner as they came into being: in the name of justice.

Richard Weaver was one who debunked this new direction in 1948 with his book, Ideas Have Consequences. He traced the progression of modern nihilism all the way back to the rise of nominalism in medieval times. Nominalism, where things are exactly the same as their names and nothing more, was among a handful of ideas that brought all of our modern meaninglessness upon us!

It seems that Radical Orthodoxy rejects nominalism too, contending that we can’t divorce one truth from another, that it is only the fully formed and comprehended god that can be effectively debunked, disbelieved, and thrown out of creation;9 and that therefore the univocity of being always moves us in the direction of individuality, secularism, nihilism, and atheism.

Strangely, I first heard about Ideas Have Consequences from Rick Koerber, a businessman known locally as the Free Capitalist (he is said to be a pious man, a member of my Church, undoubtedly sincere, and also under federal indictment on numerous counts of fraud). The title of Weaver’s book has passed into a pithy saying, it would seem, since Brother Koerber is very fond of it. But he is also a staunch disciple of Ayn Rand, who once said a very beautiful and true thing: that man is an heroic being who has his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life. This doctrine has become the First Thing for Brother Koerber and for others of his persuasion, whereas for Adam Smith--whom Mr. Koerber claims to be among the top 25 individuals most influential to his philosophy--it was certainly only in second place.

In spite of all its beauty, truth, and usefulness, we have seen the very same philosophy carried to its logical conclusion during the mid-twentieth century when it left us at the gates of hell. This all happened along the Darwinian lines I explained above, and I will not delve into it here.

Adam Smith wrote during a time when men were individually shaped by their relationships with others and where the modern money economy had not yet fully formed. For Smith, it was fellow-feeling10 that gave men their humanity, and when they sought for themselves, it was still within a hierarchy where they exercised their individual talents in relation to familiar others--a form of subsidiarity, if you like. Thus, the “invisible hand” could be a benevolent thing, because self-striving was also a deliberate form of group-striving. The heroism of the individual enriched the lives of others out of necessity. In addition to this tendency, one could simply not do with too much of some kinds of property. Some things simply went to waste when possessed in excess.11 This is because objects still retained substantial intrinsic value and were not transformed so easily into money. Certainly nobody thought of their own abode as an investment in those days; it was a place to live! So, the very nature of things in the more primitive economy contributed to the benevolence of the invisible hand itself, merely by reducing the repertoire of greed.

In a similar vein, the contemporary theologian, Simon Oliver, observed that an individual once found a role, place, and identity and was then free to become a particular person within a social context. This “personhood” was understood more as a gift (perhaps a culmination of social heritage, which might resonate in Jewish thought) rather than an achievement to be willed.12 This is an absurd notion in 2010, where you are only likely to become what is in your best interest (something dictated by the markets)! But it was once thought that one could only truly achieve this individuality in a unique place within society: within one’s church, community, or family; a spot that no one else filled.

In contrast, the modern and wholly differentiated individual can only be superficial and shallow, because all others are equally differentiated with similar means and opportunities, and also because the individual cannot completely commit himself in specific ways to other people without losing his boundless freedom.  There is a danger, it is thought, of becoming greater or less than one deserves to be. Anything that we become must be earned through the application of will and power, and never through gifts.

Rick Koerber is one who represents an entire species of thought in which the non-duty-bound, liberated individual inhabits the position of central importance, above the importance of the group (group primacy is labeled a Marxist doctrine), and it is this philosophy that has largely shaped American reality since the industrial revolution brought financial capitalism along with it, in spite of the fact that its modern libertarian proponents tend to eulogize the American Founding Fathers and to attribute this laissez-faire philosophy to those men.

Because people are now totally differentiated from each other, and do not retain obligations to one another that cannot be completely overcome through exchange, it is now the market that shapes who we will become. If we were to bend the market according to our own desires, that would run contrary to the theory. Thus, if the market demands violins, we become violin makers. If the market demands computer programmers, we become computer programmers. Human activity and purpose are sparked at the intersection of demand and profit, only as secondary phenomena.

There is no living in growing crops, as Father McNabb was once surprised to learn. You apparently couldn’t “get token” (as he puts it) for growing wheat in those days
; nor could people any longer conceive of consuming the products of their own industry. That takes too much imagination--therefore, we are foolish to pursue such interests where there is so little chance to get token. This is what Father McNabb means when he says that we are “delivered over to the token.”13

It is in this spirit that we begin to serve our secular institutions, which are beautiful truths in themselves. Our useful institutions are now First Things. What a strange result of egalitarian individualism, to become our slaves’ slave! If the primitive ontological and hierarchical society tended toward slavery, so too does the advanced epistemic and egalitarian society of leveled self-seeking individuals. It leads toward a new form of slavery and toward nihilism.14

The purpose of politics, where I live, is to improve education. That is what our politicians say is important to give our means to. The purpose of education is to serve economy. Education is good for jobs, I am told.  In other places, the purpose of politics is to protect national security, which is designed to increase military power, which is in turn designed to protect “American interests” wherever they may be. Those interests are predominantly economic ones. Other political motives seek to protect various industry and business interests. Even where politics appears to be focused on something allegedly altruistic, it is only through moving around “token” from one group to another in order to theoretically level the playing field even more (some are uncomfortable with the monopolistic tendencies of Darwinian economics).

The purpose of economy is to get “more token”, of course, which is the means to free us from everything disagreeable, and that is the purpose of life which constitutes the happiness of the differentiated individual, and therefore is central to his moral pursuits. There is no doubt that much ease and convenience has come to us through this commitment to the institution of economy. Yet, some of us remain unsatisfied. Our souls are not filled.

For people like Rick Koerber, even Jesus was fundamentally concerned with his own success above any consideration for mankind.15 As a divine being, Jesus must have clearly operated according to the immutable economic laws, which appear to be universal truths akin to the laws of physics for someone like our Brother Koerber. In fact, he has been writing an essay on the very subject, I understand. He can only imagine that “socialist” is at the other end of “individualist”. One envisions Marcion busily editing the gospel of Luke in order to make it more amenable to his own enlightened interpretations! But I read Jesus as fundamentally humanist rather than individualist.

Jesus said that the Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath. That is humanism. Jesus said that the first great law is to love God, and that the second great law is like unto it: to love our neighbor as our self. And then Jesus tells us that we show our love of God precisely by loving other people, so even the first great law refers back to people again. People matter, and “people” is plural. That is Jesus’ humanism.

I can see Jesus saying that economy is for man and that man is not for economy. Naturally, everyone agrees with that. Of course economy is for people! It gives us token and makes us wealthy and content! It proves that we are blessed and chosen! Why else would we have it? And then economy overcomes all other means; it becomes the all-in-all; we turn godly humanism on its head and the whole point is lost. Jesus throws his hands in the air and leaves us to our economy worship, just as he left the Pharisees to their Sabbath worship and sat down with publicans and sinners who would enter into heaven ahead of those who served their institutions and forgot mankind.

This is how the world changes us: It happens when we are governed by the secular institutions that are supposed to serve us, especially the economic institution (whether it is “capitalist” or “socialist,” or something else purely economic in nature), but also the institutions of government and military and so forth. When the world changes us, we have no purposes other than what the institutions make for us.

Now, In the middle of this march to nihilism, we begin to tell stories of past truths and to say that we need to “restore honor.”16 We claim that these past truths are coming under attack from the outside. It is the fault of activist judges! Licentious people with wicked agendas! People hostile to religion! We seem to understand that this is a fairly recent development. No one can see the long root of it, extending all the way back into the middle ages (and beyond), and thus we cannot discern our own complicity in the matter, as individuals overcome by a single overwhelming institution of money that is consuming all others.

I think the problem is nicely illustrated by an introduction that I recently read in the local news. It seems that a certain notable Catholic, Robert P. George, has joined the news editorial board.17 In his introductory sketch, we learn that he holds sacred truths, among them the idea that the family--which is being eroded by evil--is the fundamental unit of society and must be advocated and defended. A few scant paragraphs later, we discover that this intelligent and well-meaning man spends his “rare” family hours pursuing his own personal interests!

There you have it: a man who believes that Family ought to be a First Thing, and he is rarely at home. 

I can imagine this typical scenario being played out: Dad is away serving glorious secular (or even religious) institutions that are not The Family, and (I speculate) his kids are likely at school learning how to get a good job--also away from family and neighbors--working for somebody else. 

I may be wrong about Mr. George, but that is the apparent shape of our advanced society, even among the most religiously inclined. Indeed, I am certainly not exempt from the thing I criticize. If this criticism in any way accurately describes Mr. George's shortcoming, then he is in good company (or poor company, as the case may be). And that, in the end, is the whole problem: too much company in shortcomings.

So, Robert P. George isn’t helping to build a culture of family; he is building a subculture18 with a compelling true story of family as its backdrop. The new sort of family is supposed to get by with a few hours of “quality time” each week. That is how we restore honor in 2010. This subculture exists within a greater, inescapable macro-culture of non-family individualism where any automaton can send the kids away to become well-adjusted so that it can be free to go out in the world to mechanically earn its fair share of someone else’s money in the pursuit of self-interest. The traditional arrangement of mom, dad, and children don’t matter one bit to the economy.

This good and sincere Catholic defender of families will be offended if any judge tries to point that out to him! Any attempt to square legal stories with the observable reality in which we all participate (where families are only second things to the individual) will be viewed as judicial activism. We blame activist judges when it is we who have fallen short of our ideals.

“In the world, but not of the world.” That phrase seems to have been distilled from various passages in the New Testament. It could mean a number of things, among them a suitable definition of subculture, such as what our defeated religions are building today. In this sense it must be rejected as a beautiful platitude and an untrue one. Instead, we appear to have adopted it to mean that we can still serve God and Mammon.

The truth is that these nostalgic, story-telling men need to stop building subcultures if they want to change the world. In the important sense, true culture isn’t in the world at all, it is the world. If you are only in this world, you will always lose. The world will eventually overcome you. Ideas only have lasting consequences when they are made First Things through actual praxis, not left to languish as a subculture. Sub-things are second things at best.

I am not Catholic, but I find that Father Lawrence Smith has some good advice for people who want to restore honor and who desire to return to a real culture of truth-seeking: 


Where will we find the means to transform the world from the den of Mammon to the House of God? Go home!19

Until we see that, we will not change the world. Our legacy will be filled with furious rallies that accomplish little more than to leave behind them a remarkable absence of trash on public lawns. Garlanded youths and ivied maidens will not change the world with pretty speeches if they, in their deeds, remain servants to the secular institutions that have turned hideous even as they remain great. Such efforts only serve to demonstrate the ways in which the world has changed us.

  1. Edwin A. Abbot wrote Flatland in 1884. The book describes a two-dimensional geometric world.
  2. The Radical Orthodoxy Reader, edited by John Milbank and Simon Oliver. Introducing Radical Orthodoxy: from participation  to late modernity. p . 23
  3. Ibid. p. 22
  4. BBC News, September 2, 2010. "Stephen Hawking: God did not create Universe".
  5. The Philosophy of Money, Exchange as a form of life. Georg Simmel. Kindle Edition. Locations 3796-826. Also see Location 4493. "For the value of things, interpreted as their economic interaction, has its purest expression and embodiment in money." This is also described in the section entitled "Money as the autonomous manifestation of the exchange relation."
  6. Ibid. See the section entitled: "Money is responsible for impersonal relations between people." Locations 8,373-404. In particular, this passage is relevant: "...we are remarkably independent of every specific member of this society, because his significance for us has been transferred to the one-sided objectivity of his contribution, which can be just as easily produced by any number of other people with different personalities with whom we are connected only by an interest that can be completely expressed in money terms."
  7. The Radical Orthodoxy Reader. Radical Orthodoxy: A conversation. p.40
  8. The Philosophy of Money, The objectivity of truth as well as of value viewed as a relation between subjective elements. Location 4297. Here Simmel says "the development of philosophy, and of individual thinking, moves from multiplicity to unity and from unity to multiplicity."
  9. Radical Orthodoxy. p.28.  For those few of us Christians who do not come from an orthodox background, and who sometimes criticize this philosophical account of the being of God, I found this discussion in Radical Orthodoxy to be very helpful in understanding this orthodox view.
  10. The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Adam Smith, 1759. See Part I, Chapter II: Of the pleasure of mutual Sympathy.
  11. Ibid. Part IV, Chapter I. For instance in this passage, "The capacity of his [the proud and unfeeling landlord's] stomach bears no proportion to the immensity of his desires, and will receive no more than that of the meanest peasant. The rest he is obliged to distribute among those, who prepare, in the nicest manner, that little which he himself makes use of." This is where Adam Smith first develops the ideas of the Invisible Hand.
  12. The Radical Orthodoxy Reader, p.8. Simmel also points out that a "personality is almost completely destroyed under the conditions of a money economy. The delivery man, the money-lender, the worker, upon whom we are dependent, do not operate as personalities because they enter into a relationship only by virtue of a single activity..." (see the section entitled "Cultural development increases the number of persons on whom one is dependent").
  13. Capitalism and Communism. Fr. Vincent McNabb.
  14. I wrote to some extent about this in my essay on Leisure. See  Georg Simmel also writes of wage laborers in a money economy that, "it seems as if the wage laborer is nothing but a disguised slave." See locations 8405-35.
  15. Jesus is a Capitalist, Rick Koerber, July 23, 2010.
  16. Here I refer to Glenn Beck's "Restoring Honor" rally on August 28, 2010. There is apparently no available transcript of the event in this illiterate age, but you can get the video and something like a transcript here:
  17. 'Most influential Christian conservative thinker' Robert P. George joins News Board. Sarah Israelsen-Hartley, Deseret News. Sunday, Sept. 12, 2010.
  18. This idea about subculture is something I received indirectly from James Davison Hunter and his book, "To Change the World." I have not read the book, but I read a review of it by James K. A. Smith on The Other Journal at Mars Hill Graduate School. The review was entitled How (Not) to Change the World, and it is a great essay in its own right. In fact, the title for my own work was taken from one of Smith's sentences in his essay. Smith also mentioned the phrase, "ideas have consequences." One of the ideas discussed is the idea of "faithful presence," which is very relevant to my point. About it, Smith writes (reviewing Hunter): "What’s wrong with both the Christian Right and Left, Hunter rightly notes, is that they have unwittingly bought into the will-to-power that characterizes disordered political life in late modern America. As a shorthand, one can say (as Hunter sometimes does) that they have fallen prey to a Constantinian desire to run the world (or at least America). The problem is that, in the name of “reclaiming America for Christ,” their “Christ” has been assimilated to what we might call “Americanism”—or what Hunter will sometimes describe simply as “nihilism”. Faithful presence, then, is not simply playing will-to-power for Jesus such that Christianity wins the culture war. Indeed, faithful presence will often run counter to the strategies of religious politics as currently played. Instead, faithful presence is the church carrying out the creational mandate to “make culture” (Gen. 1:26-31) in a way that is faithful to God’s desires for his creation." See the complete review here:
  19. Beyond Capitalism & Socialism, LTD Publications, 2008. The Economy of Salvation. p.124

Monday, July 19, 2010

Vote Fascist for a Third Glorious Decade of Total Law Enforcement

The children I teach are cruel to each other; they lack compassion for misfortune; they laugh at weakness; they have contempt for people whose need for help shows too plainly. -John Taylor Gatto
When I was young, I once smashed a little oriental girl’s face into the carpet. I hurt her on purpose, because of a feeling that was inside me. She hadn’t done anything to me, but she was new and looked different and weak, and it made me feel uncomfortable. I sensed that there was some invisible line that divided us and which left her as an outsider in an alien world of wrongness. She crawled on her knees in all of the wrong places and she breathed the wrong air. She did not belong.

At the time of that event, I had been walking for less than a year. While nearly all other memories of those early days have forever faded from my mind, yet I am left with that one remembrance: I remember the feeling I felt when I did that terrible thing.

In kindergarten, my bully friends and I told another new girl that we would be her friends if she showed us her underwear. She did, and we pointed our fingers and laughed at her. That’s how friendly we were.

When the new boy with white hair came to school, I prayed in my mind, “Please don’t let him sit by me! Please don’t let him sit by me!” Of course, he came and sat right next to me. I found out that his name was Colin. I despised Colin because he had white hair and a strange name.

I don’t know why I felt that way. Certainly my parents have never taught me such things. I don’t even know how to describe it. All of the usual words--hatred, cruelty, bigotry--seem so incomplete. We don’t have language that can adequately convey the sickness of heart that I suffered from.

Then my family moved away. I lost all of my friends and anything that had been familiar to me outside of my immediate family. Having been something of a bully as a boy, I understood well enough what it could mean to be the newcomer. I couldn’t see why the boys and girls in my new neighborhood would possibly accept me. I had stupid, fat lips and I was ugly.

So, I coped with my anxiety by staying close to the familiar. At school, during recess, I would play four-square with my big sister and her friends. Then, one day--I was in the third grade--my sister turned me away from the four-square game and said that it was time for me to go and make some friends of my own.

I turned away and I began to cry. I ran and ran, hoping to find a safe place; hoping that no one would see me crying because I knew what happens to those who cry at school. Did new friends come to my aid to strengthen and comfort me? No. I was right. I was young, but I knew what could live in the human heart. They pointed and laughed as I ran. “Look at the crybaby!”

On another occasion I accidentally broke a school rule. I made a urinal in the boy’s bathroom suck the air into the pipes. I didn’t mean to do it, but it made a terrible, disruptive noise when it happened. One of the sixth grade teachers had authorized a team of official bullies of his own to seek and capture anyone who caused this noise during school hours. I was hunted down and brought before the sixth-grade class, forced to my knees--my shirt pulled up--and I was threatened and lectured in front of everybody in that class.

The teacher did this to me, with his ruler in hand, in order to teach me a lesson and to ensure future obedience to the rules. He didn’t understand or believe my pleas--that I hadn’t meant to harm anyone when I broke the law of the school. That teacher just needed me to be broken because I was a lawbreaker and I didn’t belong. Look at all of these sixth graders! They don’t do such things. You’re not one of us, little boy.

I’m still too embarrassed to publicly share other humiliations I suffered at the hands of my peers--and sometimes my teachers. Perhaps we all have such stories to withhold.

Suffice it to say that all of my former bullying was answered back upon my own head and with interest. At school I spent some of my time in worry and desperation, weeping quietly at my desk, until one of the kind boys finally made me his friend.

At the new school, my very first friend was Howie, a Korean boy; and who knows if perhaps I mistreated his little sister once upon a time. I believe there really are people who never had that inexplicable meanness in them that I once had. In fact, it isn’t that we have meanness in us at all. Only, that some of us lack kindness.

That kindness, and a great many of my own tears, healed me of the old sickness that had been in my heart. On the last report card that a young bully had brought home from kindergarten, the teacher had written to my parents the following words: “We have discussed problems this year... I wish all of Peter’s family the best in the move. I feel it will be beneficial to Peter socially.”

She was right. I still remember that old feeling of cruelty, but now I remember it also with sadness. It is too bad that I was once that kind of boy, but now I know how to be better. Luckily for me, it was only a short chapter in my life.
* * *
...and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do. -Genesis 11:6
Some people study for the entire duration of their early lives, learning how to be cruel to each other. Those not born with a dearth of kindness, as I apparently was, may soon enough have the natural goodness erased from them. The culture of cruelty that does this violence to our souls, as far as I can tell, seems to consist in the following tenets which have in recent times acquired an aura of religious righteousness:
  1. Competition instead of cooperation.
  2. Liberal individualism with its complete dedication to negative liberty.
  3. A sense of being chosen or of having a particular and glorious destiny apart from all others.
  4. An acquisitive purpose that sees as its primary fulfillment the achievement of prosperity.
Let us consider these points one at a time.

First, the ideal of competition trains us to seek and exploit weakness wherever it is found. We develop a keen eye for the unfit, the unworthy, and the incompetent which must be overcome or cast aside. There are only limited resources and there is limited space, therefore not everyone will be able to succeed. The competitive assert their dominance by the force of will. Power and even violence are the principle tools of those who worship competition.

Second, the ideal of Individualism turns our interest to the sovereignty of the self. Self-interest demands a new, less restrictive form of interpersonal relationships based primarily in money and in talking to machines. The individual is increasingly differentiated and the sense of others as outsiders grows more acute.

The word “Freedom”, an important and ubiquitous buzzword, now means the complete removal of all obstacles impeding the individual will. True choice--free will or free agency, as we call it--can only be exercised where there are no personal obligations that were determined somewhere outside of the self! Thus, the ‘community’ of inter-dependent personalities fades into the background to be supplanted with a ‘collective’ group of leveled individuals competing on an egalitarian battlefield.

Duty toward the common good is viewed as inherently incompatible with personal pursuits and is considered coercive in nature and against the ideal of freedom. The care of the group is left to the inhuman and invisible hand of the free market, with the promise that, by seeking only for oneself, one really benefits the whole.

Third, the sense of election--of being a chosen and preferred people--throws the outsider into even greater relief. Perhaps there are determinate “slots” available for those wishing to enter into the collective, but all on the outside appear base, jealous, greedy, and threatening. Our status as “the chosen” must be protected and never sullied by lesser men. There will be only one (intrinsically mistrustful) people, one language, and one name shared among them.

Finally, the chosen are ever striving for heaven. In modern times they reach even higher--no longer to lift themselves up, but to pull heaven down to earth. They seek to establish Utopia (or perhaps Zion). And there is nothing that affirms success in this endeavor more than the attainment of material wealth!

The prosperity gospel also reaffirms the suspicion that there is not enough good to go around--because the only relevant question has become “the greatest good” (or perhaps it is “the greatest goods”). This commitment to acquisition and to prosperity brings with it a renewed inkling that others might be claiming what is not their due. If they are a burden on us--if they drag us down--then they are not our fellowmen. And so, it is not wickedness that we hate, but weakness. We hate weakness until weakness becomes wickedness. Zion will have well-guarded borders and tall walls, and that is precisely how there will be no poor among us.

The natural outcome of any society that puts these four principles among its “First Things,” is human cruelty. That these ideas are useful, or that they have some truth in them, I do not argue. The problem, it would appear, is a problem of replacing First Principles with things of secondary importance and in so doing, demeaning those things that should rightfully occupy the position of primacy: that is, human goodness and fellowship.

Alas, cruelty looks just as righteous in the 21st century as it did when Jan Hus was burned at the stake.

* * *
However unjust and unreasonable the attitude we assume toward others, we seem to set in motion an automatic process which works blindly to corroborate and justify that attitude. It is an awesome thing that when we expose people, however undeservedly, to hatred, they tend to become hateful... It is as if the world, of its own accord, furnishes reasons for our unreasonable attitudes. -Eric Hoffer
Not long ago I watched some footage of a small group of people who crossed into America illegally. The video I was watching had evidently been captured by one of the cameras on the American border with Mexico, and the footage depicted weary and destitute people whose need for help showed all too plainly. I’m guessing those people didn’t have money for the usual entrance fees, nor could they afford the decade-long wait to gain admittance--so they broke the law. The truth is, America doesn’t need them and our laws are intended to filter them out.

The theme and punchline for this video--which was doctored up and published as a joke--was that of “wild animals.” See, these mendicant humans were the same kind of thing as the wandering animals whose movements were also captured by the camera in earlier frames.

The commentary accompanying this production was predictably mean-spirited and derisive. It was the grown-up equivalent of jeering at the crying third-grader who, having been rejected, ran to find a safe place. Weakness and poverty, and the actions of the desperate who want to share in the security and prosperity of others, were things to be scorned. In America, we earn our good fortune.

Is it odd that the most differentiated and self-centered individuals are also the most leveled and predictable?

Last week, where I live, a group calling itself “Concerned Citizens of The United States” was reported in the news. They became noteworthy because they decided to publish the personal details of 1,300 suspected illegal immigrants. The need for “total law enforcement” that these people demonstrated (except, of course, for the laws they disagree with, such as privacy laws) required them to take vigilante action. Here is what The Concerned Citizens have to say:
Our group observes these people in our neighborhoods (In other words, they are our neighbors), driving on our streets, working in our stores, attending our schools and entering our public welfare buildings... We plan to provide your office with new lists on a continual basis and request — no insist — that your agency take immediate and forceful action to the individuals on this list and begin deportation now.
My wife brought this bit of news to my attention over lunch one day, and I was at once reminded of an episode of the old British television comedy, Red Dwarf.

In the particular episode recalled to my memory, the protagonists share a nightmare wherein they believe themselves to be living in a fascist society that offers “fabulous prizes to be won” for becoming a “Government Informant” and betraying “Family & Friends.” We used to laugh at that because it was hyperbole. People don’t behave that way anymore! Well, it turns out you can’t make this stuff up. It is not make-believe. It is reality, right here where I live.

Others who reacted to this same news saw the more obvious parallels to our own history and especially to Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich. Still, there are quite a few who are greatly sympathetic to this home-grown terrorism that has been directed toward illegal immigrants. The director of our local “minutemen” group, which was formed apparently to invoke the immortal memory of our forefathers mostly by running rough-shod over it, went so far as to call the person involved with this despicable and criminal list a “true patriot.” This man is one who fears that the opposing political party will benefit in the elections if too many outsiders are allowed into the country. Indeed! “No one has done more to purge the ballot boxes than the Voter Colonel!”

It is too bad that we merely interpret this sorry incident as “people being uncivil.” I am happy to hear that those involved in this inhumanity will be punished according to the laws they surely broke. Desperate immigrants who enter America illegally have nothing on these guys. However, our public reaction to this cruelty against immigrants has been only to encourage more ‘civility’ in our discussions of illegal immigration. What we really need to see is that this hateful conspiracy is in fact the logical consequence of one side of the debate carried to its natural conclusion.

The faction that tends toward this unmistakable fascism begins to tell us new stories to justify its increasingly malevolent acts and speech: The illegal immigrant really is the source of our problems! The economy falters because of the illegal immigrant! Crime soars because of the illegal immigrant! Freedom wanes because of the illegal immigrant! War on drugs? We know where to point. Der ist schuld am Kriege! In telling these stories, we will also make them true, for it is often in calling our enemy hateful that he becomes hateful in truth.

In the end, a new Devil will be born and we shall be fully justified in our treatment of him. Any last glimmer of humanity is snuffed out in the ukase that the Rule of Law must abide. “The Rule of Law!” That is what we hear in these days when conspirators publish lists of illegal immigrants who must be dealt with ‘forcefully’ (especially the pregnant, we learn, whose children will become naturalized citizens!). Miep Gies and Oskar Schindler were criminals in their day. We may very well need more of their kind before all is said and done.

* * *
“The men of Sodom had no consideration for the honour of their Owner by not distributing food to the wayfarer and the stranger... They even fenced in all their trees on top above their fruit so that they should not be seized; not even by the bird of heaven.” The law of Moses forbade doing these mean things to the olives, the wheat, and other crops, but they did them... For Abraham, such meanness, as we have seen, was the last straw, and “he cursed them in the name of his God.” -Hugh Nibley
What makes us loathe the illegal immigrant is that he walks on the wrong dirt and he breathes the wrong air. We fear that he might be stealing our individuality, our identity, our language; he is robbing us of our means, coercing us to support his needs along with our own. We will no longer prosper, no longer be chosen. Perhaps the illegal immigrant takes too much and gives too little back.

The illegal immigrant is a lawbreaker, to be sure. He comes to us with open hands and the expectation of receiving something, but not with malice to offend us. We do not care anything for his intentions, however; only that we are offended and that our laws were broken. We will make an example of these wretches and they won’t cross us again.

It may very well be the case that we need a wall to protect our border, or a fence.

But the spirit in which that wall is presently being built is the same spirit that seeped into the dirt along with Hitler’s blood and sprung up again as a different wall in another time and another place. We could tear down that wall, but not its spirit. Today, some of its remains lie in a museum in Berlin where they are misplaced. Those remains belong on the American border with Mexico, and should stand in opposition to Emma Lazarus’ beautiful poetry that is now embarrassingly found on the outmoded Statue of Liberty.

There is a big problem with illegal immigration, and if anything, it is a human problem before it is a technical one. As a purely technical problem, its solutions are all cruel. When I read the language of many of those who have aught to say about immigration, I read the language of primal cruelty that was never replaced by kindness. Or else it is the distant, learned and calculated cruelty of “isms” that have become an inseparable part of our discourse in politics and economics.

Is it ironic that I was once healed of my own cruelty in part by the cruelty of others? I wonder how America will be healed, or if she will survive the healing.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Aphorism #7

The qualities of the individual personality do not concern us. We do not ask if one is temperate, skilled, or thoughtful. We only ask whether one can afford to buy health, goods, or education. It is man's riches or poverty--his means or lack thereof--that make him stand out. Money makes inconsequential what it cannot buy.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Aphorism #6

Argument is more than disagreement. We claim a right to argue but seem to have lost much of the power to do so. Perhaps this has to do with a shift in our values: As with many other things, the value we place on speech has become quantitative in nature. It matters little what we say, only that we say much. Most importantly, perhaps, is that we can afford to speak last. One thing is certain: we will not want for lively debate.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Summary And Concluding Arguments for "Rights Abdicated", by Peter McCombs and David W. Cooney

This is the concluding article in the series on Rights Abdicated, which consists of the following previous articles:

Rights Abdicated: The 2nd Amendment and an Appeal to Logic
Rebuttal to "Rights Abdicated", by David W. Cooney
In Defense of "Rights Abdicated"
Response to "In Defense of 'Rights Abdicated'", by David W. Cooney

I am very pleased to have had thoughtful argument from David on this topic. For those of you who are interested in other work that David has written, please see his web site, Practical Distributism. David approaches a number of current social and economic topics from the standpoint of Distributism.

It seems to me that David adds more dimension to this argument than opposition. However, that is for the reader to decide. For myself, I have begun to think with more attention about the difference between rights and powers as well as the specific meaning of "a right".

In this article, I will present the summary of my arguments for "Rights Abdicated" as well as some final remarks. I will then include David's summary and his closing remarks. Although this concludes the debate, I welcome additional commentary on the subject from any side. It is often through argument that I refine my thoughts and ideas.

* * *

In my argument entitled, "Rights Abdicated: The 2nd Amendment and an Appeal to Logic", I made the following claims:
  1. That some rights are transferable, or alienable.
  2. That alienable rights are important in self-government.
  3. That once a right has been vested in another party, it can no longer be exercised except through the one authorized.
  4. That the Second Amendment describes such an alienable right as demonstrated by the logical analysis of the amendment.
  5. That we ought to carefully consider the ways in which we allow our rights to be delegated (or abdicated) to others. 
In defense of my original argument, I introduced some additional points:
  1. That the American system makes use of the Social Contract.
  2. That all rights to means are alienable rights.
  3. That rights under any contract are governed by positive law.
  4. That when contracted rights are retained by the people, it is only through an unjust act of bad faith or through provisions in the contract itself that regulate the portion of rights granted and retained based on specific contexts (casuistry).
  5. That some rights are obligations that we will choose to give up for the sake of freedom in other things.
It is not important to my argument whether or not there are other reasons for the second amendment right to bear arms other than the reason provided by the authors of the Constitution. For a natural (or inalienable) right, any reason given for the right must be completely sound. However, since the one reason given for the right to bear arms is clearly no longer relevant to our standing relative to the federal government, modus ponens is sufficient to show beyond doubt that the right to bear arms is an alienable right to a means and not a natural inalienable right to an end. I do believe, however, that the right to bear arms is an extension of the natural right to protection.

To the extent that we delegate our means of protection to armies, mercenaries, and to police forces, our right to bear arms is proportionally reduced and regulated. As an example of this, I point to the fact that we must now obtain permits in order to conceal and carry a firearm. We are also prohibited from obtaining some kinds of specialized arms, such as nuclear or biological weapons. The economy of protection has also made other specialized weapons quite beyond the reach of private individuals. We may not act as or impersonate a police officer or a soldier because we lack the proper authority to do so. We have given that authority to others.

These regulations are all part of the social contract we have entered into when we authorized others to act on our behalf. The capability to defend ourselves against the very organizations that we authorize for our protection is greatly reduced. We must therefore have faith in them always to act in our best interest. Although we may still bear arms, the right we now enjoy is governed by positive law and has become a privilege. We believe that we have better served our inalienable right to protection by vesting others with the right to defend us.

I further reiterate the nature of the social contract. While I acknowledge criticisms of the social contract that question how (or if) it may originate and what its limits are, these questions are not important to the argument. What is important is that only alienable rights are susceptible to the social contract and that these rights are no longer exercised in the context conceived by their natural reasons.

I consider the large-scale abdication of alienable rights to be a national tragedy. Such a course leaves many individuals and communities at the mercy of a "majority" with whom they do not agree. This damages and destroys self-government wherever these rights are more properly delegated at a local level.

I do not limit my argument to the right to bear arms. For example, I claim a right to raise my own children. I teach them at home and do not send them to school. A natural right is one that does not require special permission for its use, yet I must obtain permission annually if I want to keep my family together at home. If I do not get this permission, a man with a gun is authorized to visit my house and enforce compliance. I could be forced to adhere to standards that are not my own or risk losing my kids.

The truth is, I no longer have a right to my own children, but a regulated privilege. This is because the right to children is an obligation that we, as a majority, ceased to desire in favor of ever increasing options in the area of ease and prosperity. In order to gain the freedom of careers and of financial gain, the State has been granted much of the power and authority once held exclusively by parents. Those few of us who still desire to maintain our exclusive rights must struggle against a rising tide that threatens to sweep us away.

There are probably many other examples of Rights Abdicated. Some of us will refuse to acknowledge our own hand in this tragedy. Others will remain in delusion, as those who trade raw diamonds for pretty glass trinkets. Such will argue that they never lost their rights, only improved them.

It seems to me that, like Esau who sold his birthright for a "mess of pottage" and then blamed others for his loss, we prefer to resent a government perceived as oppressive rather than taking steps to make fundamental changes to our lives and to our culture in order to reclaim what we have given away.

* * *

David's summary and closing remarks are as follows:

The summary of my position in regard to our current discussion is divided into two areas.  The first area is that of the Constitution in general and the Second Amendment in particular.  The second area is the scope to which the application of the abdication of rights involved in a social or other contract may logically be applied.

The Constitution

The Constitution and the first ten amendments to it must be viewed according to the intent of the authors in order to understand the provisions and how they were intended to be applied.  The purpose of the Constitution was to define and limit the scope of the revised federal government they were proposing to the American people.  The federal government was only to have those powers explicitly and clearly given to it in the Constitution. In fact, they were so adamant about this, that they did not want to include the Bill of Rights because they feared that, if they started listing any specific rights retained by the states and the people, it would end up being interpreted exactly how it is now being interpreted; that the rights and limitations of the states and people are also defined by the Constitution.  

This is how you are presenting the Second Amendment; as though the inclusion of a reason for not disarming the public means that, if the government claims to eliminate the reason, the public no longer has the right not to be disarmed.  The Constitution was never intended to limit the states and people to any extent beyond those powers absolutely needed to be given to the federal government to perform the explicit and limited powers granted to it.  Any and all other rights and powers that can be said to exist remain with the states and the people, so it is not only not necessary to list them, but it is unwise to even start listing them because of the false interpretation that such a list would cause.

A perfect example of this is found in the Federalist and Anti-Federalist papers.  I don't have my copies handy, but when they debated Section 8 of Article 1, the Anti-Federalists argued that the term "general welfare" was too vague and could be taken to mean anything.  The Federalists pointed out that the the Constitution itself defines exactly what is meant by general welfare in that same section.  All of Section 8 is one sentence.  It starts out by stating the general purpose of the powers of Congress, and then, using no division other than semi-colons, lists those specific powers which Congress is allowed to employ to fulfill those purposes.  At the end of that long sentence, Congress is given the power to make laws to fulfill the limited powers of the federal government, but is explicitly limited to only those laws which are both "necessary and proper" to do so.

In regard to the power of the federal government to raise an army, taking into account the Second Amendment, the federal government is not empowered to disarm the public because doing so is not necessary to raise an army.  History is clear that it is entirely possible to have an army and an armed public, therefore there is no necessity to disarm the public in order to fulfill the ability of the federal government to raise an army.  If it is not necessary, the federal government has no authority to make such a law because it is specifically only given the power to pass those laws which are both necessary and proper.

The view of the Federalists, the Anti-Federalists, and of the people in general is that government in general cannot be trusted, and that a remote government (and they all viewed the federal government as a remote government) could be trusted even less.  This is absolutely clear from their writings.  They hoped the states and the people would jealously guard against any attempt by the federal government to increase its centralized power by binding it with the "chains" provided in the Constitution.  In the end, the Federalists only agreed to include the Bill of Rights because they realized that it was the only way to get the new Constitution ratified.

The Abdication of Rights, With a Particular Consideration of the Second Amendment

I do not deny that one can abdicate or otherwise forgo rights.  However, the argument you present is that abdicating rights can actually separate them from you.  The authors of the Constitution, however, believed that certain rights were inalienable; therefore, even if you abdicated them in any way, they still remained with you and you remained free to exercise them at any time you felt the need.  If you remain free to claim and exercise your inalienable rights, then you logically must also retain the right to access to the means necessary to do so.

In the case of claiming your right to self-defense, you have the right to secure those means necessary to succeed in claiming them.  This right, like the inalienable right itself, remains with you at all times as a logical necessity.  Attempts to disarm the public deprive them of the means necessary to defend themselves against armed aggressors.  It is no use to say that, once you are attacked, you "regain" this right.  Once you are attacked it is too late.  If you are standing on the street and some thug threatens you with a gun, will he wait while you go to the gun store to buy a weapon for your own defense?  Will he wait while you call the police to come and defend you on your behalf?  That is nonsense.  

The right to self defense necessarily includes the right to prepare for that defense ahead of time.  Because self-defense is an inalienable right, the corresponding right to arm oneself is also inalienable. Not only that, but the fact that the purpose of this right is self-defense, you have the right to secure whatever weapons you feel you may need to defend yourself.  It is useless, in a practical sense, to defend yourself with a sword if your aggressor is armed with a gun.

This can easily be seen in how the Second Amendment was viewed prior to the very recent arguments that the government somehow now possesses the right to disarm the public.  The government had as standing army long before these arguments were being made.  Likewise, communities had established law enforcement long before these arguments were being made.  Was the establishment of these viewed as the elimination of the right for the general public to arm themselves with whatever weapons were available?  No.  In the mid 19th century, you could not only order all manner of hand-held guns, but even cannon, through the Sears & Roebuck Catalog.  They would ship them directly to your house.  

The right to do this was assumed, therefore the social contracts establishing the police and armies did not constitute an abdication of the right to arm yourself, because they were never intended to defend everyone, everywhere, and at all times. Those social contracts were made with the understanding that there will remain times when the established law enforcement won't be available for any number of legitimate reasons, and, therefore, the people would need to be able to act in order to defend themselves, or even others when the need arose.  In order to do this, they must be allowed to arm themselves in preparation for it.  The government was not assumed to posses the right to restrict, or even track through registration, the exercise of this right.  In fact the opposite is clearly the case.  The government is assumed NOT to posses such rights because restrictions would be a violation of the inalienable right of the people and tracking is not authorized by the constitutions that limit the powers of government.