Friday, November 08, 2002

Society and Government: Armed Liberal makes the following comment:
Ayn Rand fans see a society of autonomous individuals who were born, fully formed like Athena.
Other folks (me) see people who are part of a larger group of people and who have reciprocal obligations which extend both laterally, and backward and forward in time.

I don't know much about Ayn Rand, so I can't say whether this is a fair treatment of Objectivism. But I can say that nobody in the contemporary political landscape really thinks like this.

Conservatives are often denounced as favoring a kind of social Darwinism--getting rich without responsibility, and ignoring the needs of the poor. This is nothing more than a crude slander. Conservatives are generally strongly in favor of faith and family; in other words, of traditional communitarian values. This is especially true of the dreaded "religious conservative," who is absolutly certain to share AL's belief in mutual obligations.

The real political fight is not over whether society has any obligations to its weakest members; everyone agrees that it does. The question is whether government is the appropriate venue for the fulfillment of these obligations, and more particularly, whether the Federal government should play Robin Hood.

I like and respect the Armed Liberal, and I believe that his comment was sincere. He was careful to say "fans of Ayn Rand" and not "Republicans." But often--even most of the time--comments like this are either pompus moral preening or cynical manipulation. They are made by people who equate "society" with the Federal government, and hold that those who oppose income redistribution orchestrated by Washington, D.C. are morally inferior.

I agree that each of us has obligations to others imposed by an implied social contract. I believe these obligations to be prior to any government, and their fulfillment to be a moral duty. But I also hold that society is distinct from government, and that confusing the two is one of the great failings of our political debate. I further hold that social obligations should be enforced by social means, that is, we should criticize and shun those who refuse to give to charity, but we should not extract money from them by force. (And in a comment directed at Republicans: we shouldn't be legislating about their sexual proclivities, either. But shunning and shaming, in accordance with moral conviction, is OK, if annoying.)

The point is, that society has coersive powers, but in the end it is mostly voluntary. That's the way human interaction should be. Government is by nature physically coersive, and it should save that coersion for things that really deserve it. This helps both to maximize liberty and legitimacy. Nothing makes people hate government more than being told to do something they don't want to. A good utilitarian case can be made for government welfare, but the Kantian "moral imperative" stuff just doesn't fly. It's offensive and ultimately indefensible.
Blogroll: I've added lefty Jeff Cooper to the blogroll, as he has become a daily read.

Thursday, November 07, 2002

Bad Pro-Choice arguments: My natural inclination is toward allowing abortions in the first trimester (for the same reason I think legal drugs are a good idea: we can't stop it from happening, so we might as well minimize the harm). I have to confess to being pretty ambivalent, though, and here's (scroll to bottom) one of the primary reasons: the arguments of the pro-choice camp generally stink.

The letter writer is complaining about this George Will column, which discusses a tricky legal case. A man punched his pregnant ex-girlfriend's stomach. She, fearing for the life of her unborn children (but not her own life), fatally stabbed him. At trial, she claimed she used lethal force in defense of another person--namely, her fetuses--and therefore should be acquitted on a justifiable homicide defense.

The judge ruled against her, but an appeals court overturned. Will points out the weird dichotomy here: the women could have paid a doctor to abort her quadruplets, but she also had the right to kill a man to prevent their abortion. Frankly, I think this (and murder charges for men who cause miscarriages, but not for abortion doctors) is one of the most difficult questions of law and morality in modern society. It can't be resolved merely by reference to the "right" of the mother to "control her body," since the law treats babies the mother wants to abort as "things" but babies the mother wants to keep as "people." It is pretty astounding to think that a woman can change something from a "thing" to a "person" with a mere act of will.

But this letter writer wil have none of these complications. He starts out with an old saw: "If men could have babies abortion would be a sacrament." And if my aunt had balls, she'd be my uncle. Seriously, could we please stop it with the stupid claim that only women get to discuss abortion, only combat veterans can discuss war, etc.? Or else we'll end up with only farmers deciding subsidies and only gun owners writing gun laws.

A further awkwardness comes in arguing the pre-birth rights of quadruplets against the post-birth rights of being born with a drug-addicted father and a repeat criminal for a mother. Funny how the anti-abortion people put the fetus status over the live babies status.

It isn't clear what this means, but I think the writer is saying that it would suck to be the child of criminals and drug abusers. On this point, I concur. But would it suck more than being dead? Is the writer suggesting that we preemptively kill people who are likely to have shitty lives? Sort of euthanasia on steroids?

A further awkwardness comes in trying to affirm the sanctity of human life over all other life. "Abortion kills something. What is it?" A sperm is something, an egg is something, meat, which I'm sure Will consumes, is something. Is Will saying we should stop the destruction of all life in order not to be considered murderers?

Again, the exact meaning here isn't clear, but what is clear is that the writer is distorting Will's words. Few people consider the slaughter of livestock or game to be the equivalent of murdering an infant. Lots of people consider abortion to be equivalent to infanticide. My problem is that I sort of want abortion to be legal, but I have never been successful in drawing the "life begins here" line to differentiate clearly between an zygote and a baby. Unfortunatly, I've never gotten any help from the pro-choice side.

The principal pro-choice argument has always been about personal autonomy, which holds little appeal for me. Personal autonomy is satisfied by the existence of cheap, effective birth control. I don't want to get into details, but I've never gotten anyone pregnant, and I have a hard time understanding and sympathizing with people who can't figure out condoms. It isn't that hard, folks!

Well, put this down as yet another personal moral struggle for me. And slap NOW around for me, they aren't helping at all.
Winona Ryder and the NRA: I had been completely ignoring the whole Ryder shoplifting thing until my wife asked me this morning: "Does this mean she can't own guns?"

Yes it does. In fact, it means more than that: it means she can't ever handle a real gun, for any reason. If she appears in a movie as a Bond girl, they'd better make sure she only gets prop guns, because she could be get 5 years in Federal prison otherwise. How does this work? Here's Robert Sanger, criminal justice prof, on sentencing, which could be as long as 3 years (no one expects her to actually serve any jail time).

Now read 18 USC 922:
It shall be unlawful for any person -
who has been convicted in any court of, a crime punishable by imprisonment for a term exceeding one year; ...
to ship or transport in interstate or foreign commerce, or possess in or affecting commerce, any firearm or ammunition; or to receive any firearm or ammunition which has been shipped or transported in interstate or foreign commerce.

Now, the weasel words about "interstate or foreign commerce" provide a legal fig leaf that allows Congres to pretend that the private possesion of a firearm wholly within a state's borders is any of their business. There's precious little Constitutional grounds to believe that's true. But I wouldn't count on any court to take that view.

In other words, anyone convicted of any crime for which the judge could have sentenced that person to more than one year in prison is barred from possesing guns, unless they get a "relief from disability" from the BATF, which is forbidden by Congress to spend any money giving such relief. It doesn't matter if the judge didn't give you a year; it doesn't matter if the prosecutor agrees you aren't a danger to society; if, theoretically, you might have gotten a year in prison, you can't own guns for any reason for the rest of your life.

Now, there's a good debate about whether felons should be allowed to own guns. Certainly it sounds like a good idea to deny them gun ownership, but we have to admit that laws won't stop them from arming themselves if they wish. And, of course, you could argue that they've paid their debt to society, and deserve to have their rights (including voting and gun rights) fully restored. Or you could point out that reformed felons might still have enemies amoung unreformed felons, and might need to defend themselves.

I generally favor forbidding violent ex-cons from buying guns. But how can one defend this principle for Winona Ryder? Is she a menace to society? To Saks, yes, but to me? I don't think so. And it seems equally foolish to deny Maryland's 2000 Citizen of the Year a gun permit because of barroom scuffle in 1969.

Here, once again, we find another reason why gun owners don't trust gun controllers: when you deny a civic leader his right to self-defense because of a 30-year-old minor conviction--or deny anyone gun rights because of shoplifting--we have to think you have something other than crime control in mind.
The "party of the people": The account of the outrageous extravagance at Gray Davis' victory party is the perfect illustration of what I meant when I wrote this:
If people near you need help, the go help them for heaven's sake! Don't waste money and time by "donating" or "volunteering" for political causes--put those resources to better use.

Via Armed Liberal. His whole post is worth reading; I suppose I should respond with a typical libertarian rant, but I don't have time.

Wednesday, November 06, 2002

Election: I hadn't meant to comment on the election, being more interested in policy and philosophy than the game-playing tactics crap which I find so unattractive. But here's lefty Jeff Cooper on his feelings:
There's really only one word for what I feel this morning: rage. Hot, nearly incoherent rage. And the target of the rage is the Democratic leadership: DNC Chair Terry McAuliffe, House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, and former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, and the rest of the crew that led the Democrats to yesterday's historic and catastrophic collapse.

I am rather bemused by the notion that Republican victory is "catastrophic," and Jeff goes on with some intemperance about how awful R's will be for the country. He makes the standard criticism: bad economy, bad stock market, why can't the Dem's win? His answer is also standard: they ran an "opposition" campaign, which focused on criticism rathar than a positive, easily understood agenda. He doesn't mention terrorism, but that has to have played a role, and I think he knows it. He calls for the creation of a positive "Contract with America"-like Dem platform.

I don't want to pick on Jeff, because I'm new to his readership and I don't know what he's been saying for the past year or so. But I want to point out that I haven't seen the kind of positive agenda he wants from Daschle anywhere. That is, I haven't seen lefty bloggers putting out concrete ideas which are worthy of debate. The Iraq debate was symptomatic of this: Hawks laid out their case, acknowledged that there were uncertainties, and waited for a response. Doves responded with lots of "questions," many of which were answered by the hawks' original case. The hawks made every effort to respond to the questions, and posed a few of their own, such as "What SHOULD we do about Saddam?" Doves then repeated their original questions, as though they hadn't heard the responses. Again and again.

I haven't seen much in the way of meaningful, sensible suggestions on Iraq from the Left, in Congress or in the blogosphere (and, of course, since most of the same objections were raised about Afghanistan, and since many lefties have reversed their opposition to that war retroactively, the credibility of anti-war types is not high). And, likewise, I'm not the least bit impressed by the domestic suggestions of most of the blogosphere. What would you do about Social Security? Don't change a thing! Should we keep the successful welfare reforms of 1996? No, let's reverse them! The entire Left seems stuck in a time warp about 30 years old. (Again, I want to stress that I'm not being fair to Jeff Cooper here--I don't know where he stands on most of these issues--but this is the impression I get from poking around the lefty blogs.)

It's easy to criticize from the sidelines, as Jeff does to the DLC, or as Daschle does to the President, or as pretty much all bloggers do all the time. But when you're the CINC of your party or your nation, the world looks different. The opposition party, bloggers, whoever--make suggestions of your own! You want a positive agenda? Propose one!

The lack of a clear, positive agenda is one of the reasons I'm not a "liberal." Conservatives had to reinvent themselves and get rid of the segregationists and sexists--thank God. Liberals haven't had to do that yet, and so the rhetoric is all retread, not new manufacture. I agree with Jeff that the Democrats need a new message--but I'd expand it. I think the entire Left has, in essence, become reactionary and ossified, and it's time to clean house, from The Nation to the DLC. Pat Buchanan's nonsense is ignored in mainstream conservative circles. How come Eric Alterman, purveyor of cliches as outdated and discredited as a polyester leisure suit, is still considered a "progressive" thinker? Doesn't progressive imply, like, progress, rather than nostalgia for (ick) the '70's?
"Anti-poverty activist": This morning's print edition of the Seattle P-I contained an op-ed about budget deficits from a man described as an "anti-poverty activist." Unfortunatly, they don't have it online yet, but as soon as they do, I'll link.

It was actually a pretty good piece, which made some very important points about the Federal budget which are rarely made or understood. The gist of the argument was that a deficit, properly managed, is just the right thing for a slumping economy in wartime, and that eliminating the deficit in a balanced-budget mania was less important than unemployment insurance and job retraining.

I'm not going to dispute the author's central points, partly because I don't have it in front of me, and partly because I'm not prepared to make a really good case. But I would like to highlight a couple of annoying features of the "liberal" side of the political spectrum. (N.B.: since I don't have the paper with me, I'll refer to the writer as "he," even though that might be wrong. Sorry.)

The first is the term "anti-poverty activist." Does this guy regularly debate pro-poverty activists? Is he bravely fighting the powerful corporate-controlled Poverty PAC? Or, conversly, is he providing employment? Is he a minimum-wage-paying business owner who takes in single mothers with no work experience and provides them with valuable training and perhaps a small loan now and then?

Of course not. When you see the words "anti-poverty activist," you know exactly what he does: he lobbies the government to spend more money on "anti-poverty" programs. Describing this writer as "anti-poverty" anything reflects the "liberal" belief that the government is the solution to all problems. Frankly, I think Bill Gates is a better anti-poverty activist than anyone who fights welfare reform, because he and his company create wealth rather than trying to redistribute it.

It's annoying to see this sort of thing on the editorial page, but it's worse to see it in the hard news sections, which is common. By casting the "liberal" (pro-government, redistributive) viewpoint as "anti-poverty," a reporter suggests (perhaps inadvertently) that the "conservative" (private sector) opinion is somehow "pro poverty," and thus baaaaaaaaad. When I say "media bias," that's what I'm referring to. There is, of course, a robust debate about the best way to address poverty, and I don't mean to imply that one side is right and the other is wrong. But language like "anti-poverty" (or "gun safety" or "campaign finance 'reform'") is loaded, and reporters ought to know it and correct for it.

The other annoying thing at work here is the insistence that the Federal government needs to take the lead in fighting poverty. This is a common problem for many politically-involved people--the notion that we need to fix the problem for the entire nation, or not at all. It is very common, during legislative debates, to hear one side accuse the other of "not caring about seniors" or "wanting to throw children into the street," or some such nonsense. But there's a huge difference between wanting to reduce poverty and wanting the Federal bureaucracy to get more funding. And there's a huge difference between funding the bureaucracy and solving the problem.

My feeling has always been this: if you care so much about the homeless, give money to a shelter. If you're worried about people going hungry, volunteer at a soup kitchen. If "at-risk youth" are a problem in your area, become a Big Brother/Big Sister. There is no such thing as a Republican food bank, and no such thing as a Democratic sexual-assault hotline. If people near you need help, the go help them for heaven's sake! Don't waste money and time by "donating" or "volunteering" for political causes--put those resources to better use.

There is great merit in charity. Despite the moral preening of big-government types, there is no merit in forced altruism. Extracting money by force (taxation) and spending it on the needy my be a good idea from a practical perspective, but it isn't particularly meritorious. You have every right to congratulate yourself for making sacrifices; you have no such right if you simply force others to do so against their will.

This isn't a boilerplate libertarian call to end welfare. I'm making a personal appeal to everyone out there whose reading (that's right, all 8 of you!). If you feel strongly about some issue, instead of giving money to candidates and big national lobbies, go out and do something direct. You can't help the poor people far away very effectively, but you can help the ones near you. One of my big issues is gun control; I can't influence the national debate, but I can teach individuals to shoot safely, and educate them on the issues. You probably can't end globalization, but you can decide to buy only from local farmers. We need to take a lot of these issues off of the national agenda--Congress can't create jobs, after all--and put them back into our communities instead.

I don't "think globally" in quite the way the environmentalists want me to. But I do "act locally," and I think I do more good by taking one friend shooting than I do by giving $10 to the NRA. I think that a modest check to the local mission is worth far more than a huge campaign contribution to the Democrats. I think we desperately need to stop acting as if every stubbed toe is a good reason for single-payer health care, and start learning first aid to help our neighbors.

Lots of people, of all political persuasions, have made this point before me. Yet we still have Congress acting as if it passes just one more law, nobody will ever catch another cold. If you want to make the world a better place, focus on your neigborhood, and let someone else worry about their neighborhood. That's a recipie for less acrimony and less partisanship in politics, plus healthier communities nationwide.

Tuesday, November 05, 2002

DON'T VOTE TODAY Lots of bloggers are busy telling you it's your "civic duty" to get out and vote. What a load of crap. I've written negatively about the "voter participation" fetish here and here.

Look at it this way: Voting is to "civic duty" as sperm is to fatherhood. To be a father, you need to give sperm (let's exclude adoption for the moment) but that's only a small part of it. Someone who runs around shoving his sperm in to every possible opening is not being a good father, and somebody who goes and votes based on how his parents voted in the '50's isn't doing the country any favors. You need to vote as part of your duty as a citizen--but the mere act of voting doesn't make you a good citizen any more than ejaculation makes you a good father. You also need to spend time and energy to understand the issues and making informed choices. Otherwise, you're just irresponsibly spreading your bad ideas and making messes for the rest of us to clean up.

Or, to put it in mathematical terms, voting is a NECESSARY condition for "good citizen" status, but it is not a SUFFICIENT condition.

Yes, lots of good men fought and died to bring you the right to vote. But one of my favorite gun-store bumper stickers puts it really well: "We Marines FOUGHT Communists. But brain-dead voters ELECTED them!" You don't honor the memories of the dead by blindly pulling the lever without knowing what's going on.

So, if you don't know what's going on, do your civic duty and leave voting to those who do (and keep it in your pants until you're ready to care for a kid!). Start reading up now for the 2004 election, when you hopefully will come better prepared.
Why gun owners are paranoid about the government: A few days back I wrote about why gun owners are paranoid about the gun-control movement's motivations. Now, thanks to Instapundit, we have good illustration of why gun owners are paranoid about the government.

Essentially, the FBI harassed law-abiding gun owners in the Maryland area and generally gave them a hard time about owning guns which could have been the sniper's rifle. As Instapundit pointed out at the time, the real sniper would have been spooked by this activity, and honest people are now far more suspicious of the FBI than they might otherwise have been. At a time when terrorism threatens, this isn't the time to be wasting law enforcement's credibility like this.
Voting for judges: Well, I voted. Given where I live, the principal choice was Republican vs. Libertarian. Hyper-socialist Democrats are going to with with 80% majorities, so the only question is Should I help the Libertarians retain major-party status? For the most part, I did just that. These were mostly local elections anyway, so the stupid isolationism of the L's isn't so much a factor.

But I also had to vote for judges. I don't like voting for judges. They can't put real opinions into their candidate statements--just lots of crap about "integrity" and "justice," as if their opponents were somehow opposed. And, unless you are a masochist, you don't want to spend your year reading Washington Supreme Court opinions about sales-tax waivers. The Bar Association seems to have rated all of them "well qualified" or better, and in any case I don't trust a bunch of urban trial lawyers' recommendations. The only guide I had was a negative ad portraying one of the incumbants as a lunatic right-wing ideologue. Naturally I wanted to vote for him.

I'm not sure what a better way to get judges would be, but I'm thinking something along the lines of Federal judge lines--the governor appoints and the Senate confirms, say. You could give them a 10-year term with no possibility of re-appointment. On the other hand, that would definitly make the process more political than it is, and we might just end up with a highly poliarized state judiciary just like the Federal one.

In the end, the current system seems like a shot in the dark, and I don't really like that. But maybe it's the best way.

Monday, November 04, 2002

Light blogging: I haven't been writing much, for several reasons. Partly, I'm busy. But mostly, with the election so near, there isn't much to say. I'm far more interested in policy than politics, and everyone has been focused on the latter. I found two good links today, though:

Jonah Goldberg on the judicial nomination and confirmation process. His basic thesis is that there isn't anything wrong with the process being highly partisan. After all, judges have tremendous power and life tenure, and it makes perfect sense to fight like the dickens over someone who has lots a power and no accountablilty. His solution: Reduce judical power. I agree wholeheartedly on this point.

Rich Lowry on land mines. I'm with Rich here. Mines can be used the right way, and the wrong way--and treaties won't stop anyone from using them the wrong way. Meanwhile, the U.S. uses them correctly--and shouldn't give up a really important weapon just to satisfy the moral pretentions of people who don't know what they're talking about.
Fun with referral logs: My favorite Google hit so far: "gay and lesbian rights from a democratic and liberals point of view."

Wow, did you come to the wrong place.