Saturday, May 9, 2009

The Sovereign Individual; OR, The Failure of Politics

Our political situation is a disaster. Everywhere we turn, in any land, there are different political factions (based on various social, economic, and religious groups) seeking power over the citizens of their respective nations, hell bent on "helping" those people and "fixing" society. Nowhere is there a consensus on how people ought to live; therefore, everywhere we find a government obnoxious to some portion of the people condescendingly trying to improve them. For ages, we have looked for the miraculous political philosophy that would in one glorious motion earn a perfect consent from the people while improving the lives of all. Both always fail, the first being apparent to everyone by the existence of dissent, the latter only apparent to those not deluded by their own political ideology.

Surprisingly, coming from an agnostic like myself, the answer comes from Jesus of Nazareth. From the Book of Matthew, Chapter 7, verses 3-5, we find "And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother's eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye? Or how wilt thou say to thy brother, Let me pull out the mote out of thine eye; and, behold, a beam is in thine own eye? Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother's eye." Were that every politician understood and lived by this precept! The failure of politics does not derive from our failure to find the best way to improve one another; the failure comes from the very notion that we can and should force each other to be better.

I am writing this essay for two particular reasons. The first is, unsurprisingly, to convince you the reader of the superiority of my position with the hope that you will live by it. The second reason, more important in respect to me, is to find the principles that underlie my political positions that I may be as consistent and accurate in my own political actions as possible. Where I find conflict, either my understanding of my own principles or my political positions must change if I am to consider myself an intelligent political being. As I cannot hold that the color before me is both white and black at the same moment in time, I cannot be conscious of and ambivalent to contradictions in my own thought.

Before I begin, I should note that unless I directly quote or refer to another author, I will not bother citing them and I do not intend to bother tracing out a background on this subject. The influences on my thought are vast and various, and were I to bother detailing the pedigree of each of them, I'd hardly find time to express my thoughts, while my poor reader would certainly be bored to death. Charges of plagiarism will be pointless here; this is my political philosophy, what I subscribe to, not a claim to anything novel outside of the arrangement of many well known ideas. Discerning readers will be able to note the influences (both those I agree with and those with which I differ) of different writers, in particular John Locke, John Stuart Mill, Aristotle, Plato, Isaiah Berlin, Thomas Hobbes, Nicolo Machiavelli, Robert Nozick, Marx, Rawls, de Tocqueville, "Publius", Calhoun, Jefferson, Paine, Burke, "Cato", Cicero, Montesquieu, Churchill, John Marshall, Thoreau, Emerson, Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, and numerous others.

I. What is Man and Why Does He Have Value?

A. Let us start from the very beginning. Throughout history, different groups have tried to literally dehumanize other groups of people by defining them as sub-human, a different and inferior species. It isn't often that political disputes can be resolved with hard scientific fact, but when that is the case we must not pass it up, and this is one such situation. There is a definite, scientific definition of what constitutes a human being. If I were to bring in a pinky toe I found by the side of the road, genetic tests could be performed to tell me what species that pinky toe belongs to. Anyone who possesses this genetic code conforming with what is scientifically defined as human will be considered a human being. Attempts to sway us beyond the scientific definition to exclude certain groups from being defined as human are ridiculous and those who make such claims are dangerous. We have a hard and fast scientific definition; let's use it rather than redrawing lines in the sand every time the historical tide comes in.

B. Human beings are unique on this planet (and potentially the universe) in that we are sentient creatures. Most, if not all, other creatures have a very limited concept of themselves, their value, their potential. We seem to be the only creatures capable of looking beyond our own lifetime to ponder how the next generations will rate us. We equally seem to be the only species capable of looking into the past to rate what came before. Our complex language plays a huge role in allowing us to be sentient, to see and converse about more than just what is. I am not a psychologist or an expert in this field so I will not dwell on it, but to put it simply, we have value and we know we have value, which sets us head and shoulders above every other species and limits the use of politics to us.

One of the most important questions mankind has to ask itself comes into play here: do I have free will? Value implies that, at least to some extent, we can make decisions about our own lives as we see fit, thereby molding the world around us and leaving our own impression. The value disappears, however, if the universe is deterministic. Think of it this way: if all of our decisions are the result of physical chances decided billions of years ago during the Big Bang, is our creating Mount Rushmore really anymore impressive than a blade of grass growing, rain falling from the sky, or a monkey scratching his rear end? If everything that has and will happened was determined by how matter was ejected by the Big Bang and is incapable of being changed by will, then we are just along for the ride. A murderer could not help murdering; a rapist could not help raping; I could not help writing this; you could not help reading it. We can no more hold a murderer accountable for their action than we could an asteroid falling from the sky and killing someone. Both are now acts of nature without any moral bearing.

Here we run into one of the many weaknesses of human thought: we cannot actually know whether we have free will or if the world is indeed deterministic. Every action taken by a human being can be called willed by those who support Free Will and determined by those who support Determination. This dispute will never be solved because both theories say that whatever happens proves their case. While I would rather have more solid ground to stand on, this issue will be present in any theory of human beings, so I do not believe that making an assumption here will be fatal to my theory. I assume that mankind does have free will and that they can be held accountable for their actions, whether they be good or evil. To assume the deterministic theory would be rather pointless, in that I would actually not be trying to influence anyone (they could not be influenced anyway, being predetermined) but rather just going along with the motions preset for me billions of years ago. If there is free will, then I can change the world, or at least part of it, and how I change it is something you can praise or damn me for.

C. The application of politics is necessary because human nature is both social and egotistical. Being social has many advantages. Love, friendship, baseball, movies, music bands, pencils; all of these require multiple human beings acting in concert. All of these things are goods that bring people happiness that they could not possess without society. Aristotle argues (correctly, in my belief) that we are social by nature. Even extreme introverts like myself cannot deny that most of our pleasures are a product of some form of society. The bookworm reading this who thinks society brings little to no pleasure must remember that, in a way, we (the reader and I) are being social, that the medium I write this on was produced by other people, that the roof over their head and the food in their stomach was produced by others. Man does not last long alone.

With very few exceptions, all boats rise when we choose to enter society. However, not all boats rise equally. Man is, by nature, competitive: we want more rather than less both in an objective sense (I'd rather have a car than not) and in a subjective, competitive sense (I'd rather have a better car than my neighbor). Our conception of how well off we are is rarely based on the objective standard; the "poor" in rich nations own cars, cell phones, and televisions, while the "rich" in some parts of the world have multiple goats and probably won't have to worry about starvation this year. This works in the same mind on multiple levels. An engineer may boast to his neighbors about his sweet ride but still be the low man on the totem pole at work, leading to pride and envy in the same person about the same material condition.

So all boats rise higher in society, but not equally, and we all want to rise highest. The rewards of society are not predetermined (even if they are, people believe otherwise). People can work harder to earn or make more in order to become more wealthy or they may go about sabotaging or stealing from others. If the latter action happens too much, society breaks down and all of its advantages are lost. Unfortunately, this fear will not stop people from grabbing silverware on the sinking ship rather than bailing out water. In academic circles, this is known as the prisoners dilemma: it is better to screw over somebody else than take a slight loss and cooperate. Unfortunately, that also applies to the person you are screwing over, leading to a situation where both people screw each other at maximum loss rather than cooperating at a gain. Government steps in here to prevent people from screwing each other over by denying people certain actions. Individuals give up the ability to do certain things (steal, kill, rape, etc.) which allow society to exist, which in turn benefits the individual.

This, then, is the great problem: where do we draw the line between man and society? What exactly is society supposed to do? What is society not supposed to do? Getting to this point was easy; it's in our nature to be social and to form political organizations. Setting the demarcation between man and his city, however, has been the bane of mankind for thousands of years. Ironically enough, the problem has come from our misguided attempts to help one another.

II. The Failure of Positive Liberty

A. I must begin this section by recommending my reader read Isaiah Berlin's "Two Concepts of Liberty." The concepts of pluralism, positive liberty, and negative liberty are key to understanding the debate between modern day liberals and conservatives. His essay has influenced my political beliefs like no other. My own thoughts on the matter, which follow below, are heavily influenced by Mr. Berlin.

Plato had a knack for embarrassing the leading intellectuals of his day by proving they had frail conceptions about matters we would consider obvious. Right, wrong, justice, courage, the nature of God; these issues were not clouded by Plato but rather proven to be vague concepts to most people. The better part of 2,500 years has not seen much improvement in this respect. One of the most meaningless words we have is the word "good." Numerous examples can be found of something being "good" for you, at least according to someone else, but what exactly is it that they all share in common that makes them all "good?" I think the answer most people would give is that it is good because it will help us enjoy life more and I think that is a reasonable position to take. The abstract, moral concept of good has eluded us for ages and I lack the ability to describe it, so this simpler concept of "it will bring us pleasure" is what we shall describe as good.

(One quick aside: I understand how crazy this sounds at first. Is the act of raping a child "good" in any sense? According to the definition I use, yes, it is good for the rapist, though obviously bad for the rape victim. This isn't a moral judgment. Please keep that in mind as we proceed.)

"Whatever brings us pleasure" opens up an almost infinite number of possibilities to describe what is good. Some people may not like salt; others may like it a little; others may like to just eat salt, straight out (no joke). Some may prefer wearing socks, some prefer going barefoot, some prefer sandals. Some prefer being celibate, some are gay, some are straight, some are both, some are monogamous, some are swingers. Some are non smokers, some smoke occasionally, some light up every chance they get. I could write a book of a million pages about the different things that bring different people pleasure in their myriad of forms and degrees and not begin to scratch the surface. In the most literal sense this is true: happiness is different things to different people.

We are human, however. We can only exist in one place at a time and our existence in total generally runs less than 80 years. The sheer amount of pleasure we can enjoy is limited; I cannot both skydive and go scuba diving and play poker and play a guitar at the same time. We cannot sample all forms of happiness and not everything would strike us as happy. Somebody may be insane enough to own a snake zoo; I'd sooner die. The point being is that we rank our options from happiest to least happy, with an eye towards the future, and try to get as much happiness out of life as we can.

B. Here we run into the problem of mankind being social by nature and competitive. There just flat out isn't enough of everything to make everyone happy. Not everyone can own a Porsche; in fact, if we could, its value would decrease as some of us find a "good" in having things others don't. We agree to government for one simple purpose: we find it to be "good" according to our definition, which is it will make us happier in the long run. There are a great number of risks in giving people power over us; most of us don't want to live under a Nero or a Hitler. By and large, we're pretty good at looking out for that in a stable democratic republic like the United States.

There is, however, a less sinister and better hidden risk in the form of populism. The best way to get elected (indeed, probably the only way) is to promise to improve the lives of the constituency. We see this all the time in political ads: "I, John Q. Jackass (D or R), will lower your taxes, create jobs, make better schools, lower the national debt, improve the environment, all at the same time!" Never mind the obvious contradictions; think about the very concept of what they are saying. These politicians promise to increase the good in our lives.

How, exactly, do they even know what is "good" for each individual in a constituency of hundreds of millions? The answer is, they don't. They can't possibly do that. In all honesty, most individuals could not express their own desires well enough to make sense. How in blazes, then, will some complete stranger be able to give you more of what you don't even know you want?

This is the problem of the concept of positive liberty. Per Isaiah Berlin, there are two different notions of liberty, positive and negative. Negative liberty is freedom from constraint; positive liberty is being given the resources necessary to achieve goals. Every demand of the government to provide something (education, roads, health care, pensions, social security, etc.) is an example of positive liberty. People want these things and they want them without directly paying for them. These goals then become couched in terms of legal "rights": people claim they have a "right" to health care, for example. Two massive problems: how will the government know what goods each person wish to pursue, and who is going to provide it if not the person benefiting from it?

C. The answer in modern day governments has been to construct certain priority projects, assume everyone wants them, and then force everyone in the nation to pay for them. No government on Earth ever has been or ever will be informed enough to know each citizen's wants and needs. Advocating these positive liberties via the government is much like a physician assuming the answer lies in giving every patient penicillin; the problem there is that while it may help some, it won't help others and it may kill people allergic to the drug. The government prescribes "penicillin" (universal health care, social security, banning drugs, sin taxes, etc.) even though many of its "patients" (aka its citizens) don't need need it and some will certainly be hurt by it.

Take hypothetical government project "Utopia" as an example. "Utopia" is a good that just about everyone wants; in fact, a rather large chunk of the population already have "Utopia" (let us say 70%). 30% don't have it; some can't afford it, some just don't want to buy it. A political candidate looks at this and realizes a great way of getting 30% of the electorate to support you, regardless of your qualifications for the position, is to bribe them with free "Utopia." Of course, that's not enough, so you promise to make it less expensive via taxes on, say, 25% of the populace. 75% are now in a position to get a free or less expensive good!

But what about those other 25%? They now are forced to work to provide goods for other people. How, exactly, is that different from slavery? It's not. You might not have people in chains, but it is not the chains that make slavery: slavery is by definition forced labor for the benefit of others, which is exactly what happens in project "Utopia."

Of course, the majority don't care. So the clever politicians, facing reelection or trying to get into power, propose new populist programs providing free or cheaper goods to the public at the expense of some economic minority. Usually they couch this as leveling the inequality between rich and poor, helping the middle class, etc. What happens, though, when that 25% are taxed into oblivion or, more likely, move away to an state or nation with lower taxes (per the Laffer Curve) and stop paying taxes to the government in question? The programs like "Utopia" still exist; they are still insanely expensive; and no politician in the world is going to even hint at reducing them, much less removing them entirely. Massive debt is only a stopgap as the programs never become less expensive and those bearing the load continue to be whittled away by taxes and emigration. Eventually, the government will be forced into drastic measures, either issuing fiat currency or defaulting on its loans; in either case the result is catastrophic failure.

Positive liberty then is an unsustainable form of slavery. The slaves suffer in the short term and all suffer in the end. A nicer, cuddlier form of slavery to be sure, but slavery none the less. Any defender of redistribution of wealth must deal with the fact that he is trying to steal what belongs to another person for his own benefit and that no argument ever put forth will wipe away the probability that the redistributionist is not in it for society's sake but for his own.

D. Let us examine the positive liberty goal of "improving society." For starters, society is a concept, not an actual physical entity. Society is the interactions of all the individual people within that particular community. As we have hinted at, most people do not even have a full grasp of their own lives; to believe anyone has a working understanding of society is a bit of a stretch. Nevertheless, we always hear about the need to improve society, from teachers and politicians and our annoying uncle who won't shut up at family gatherings. Utopians are worse still in that they think they can perfect society rather than merely improve it.

This view of society is quite simplistic. It's like comparing society to a house; both need improvements which surely can be made, right? You can repaint a room, change the carpets, add a new room, and presto! long term improvement. Society doesn't work like that. Houses are generally static and barring disasters don't change much from day to day, month to month, even year to year. Society changes every moment. Every single day, thousands die in this nation; thousands are born; thousands get married, get divorced, have kids, strike it rich, lose it all. Society is dynamic. Even if a positive liberty theorist or any Utopian could have their wish granted and mold society into their conception of perfection, within a day it will mutate into something else. Robert Nozick gave a great example (which I'm tweaking a little for my modern audience): even if everyone were to be made perfectly equal financially today, tomorrow thousands of people will pay good money to pay A-Rod to hit a baseball while the local teacher and cop won't make as much in a year.

Society, in short, is not something we can really improve by collectivist efforts. Society is also not a sentient being that cares. The only thing that can be made happier is the individual (as an individual) within society. Society exists for the individual, not vice versa.

E. This is not an attack on cooperative action. Amazing things happen when groups of people with a common cause come together. From personal experience, I can recount many instances where the community came together to help folks who had suffered from loss of homes, loss of loved ones, diseases, and other calamities. There is this difference: nobody forces us to do these things. We participate in these community actions of our own free will. We also do not force our help upon people.

To sum up everything concerning positive liberty:
~ There are a vast variety and degree of things that make us happy.
~ Each person is different in what makes us happy.
~ No government on Earth has ever been informed enough to determine what makes us (as individuals) happy.
~Ergo, no government should be imposing its conception of happiness upon others. All instances of utopian thought and compulsory social engineering come at the expense of loss of happiness to some individuals.

Our current understanding of politics and the role of government is pretty well deconstructed, but taking down what we have is the easy part. The problem between man's social nature and his egoism requires an answer if we are to avoid anarchy. We have reached the difficult part of our task: a better theory of politics must be put forth.

III. The Individual Sovereign

(I should point out the above term comes from John Stuart Mill's On Liberty)

. My first assumption requires us to look at politics through the eyes of an agnostic. As I admitted above, I actually am an agnostic, which makes this easy for me but will obviously generate problems for those who have a different religious viewpoint. Bear with me; there is a reason why this theory is agnostic outside of my own religious views, which I am not all that passionate about. The basic premise of agnosticism is that we as humans cannot know whether there is a God or not. Atheists will disagree with me about this by saying they know God does not exist, but our disagreement is not important for this theory as they will accept the premise I will put forth.

My reason for assuming an agnostic viewpoint is that we cannot know for certain what happens after death. Some beliefs hold that our souls will find eternal bliss or damnation; others, that we will be reincarnated. The problem here is the very concept of a world beyond this one that we cannot know for certain exists. Pascal's wager famously holds that even if the choice between faith and rejection of faith are perfectly equal in terms of evidence, the bet must be placed in favor of faith, because the payoff of having faith when there is no god (oblivion, just like an atheist) is higher than not having faith when there is god (resulting in eternal hell for the non-believer and paradise for the faithful). That is a perfectly reasonable way of looking at personal faith, but what we are describing is politics of the many, not the faith of one individual.

Ironically, Pascal's wager is turned on its head when we apply it to politics. If this life is merely a precursor to an eternal afterlife or is one of an infinite number of reincarnations, then what happens here is immaterial; we'll get another shot at happiness again. However, if we assume that there is no afterlife or reincarnation, this one life becomes our only chance. This is our only ride on the merry-go-round; it becomes extremely important that we protect it.

Those who believe faith in a divine being is key to our salvation will obviously take umbrage at what I have said. They need not; I am not saying you must reject your faith to subscribe to this political theory. All I am saying is we have to treat this one life as if it will be our only one because we don't actually know that it won't be. So for this theory, we will assume the worst case scenario (this is our only shot at existence). If we are wrong, then my mistake in assuming this for this book won't matter a thing.

B. The next assumption for this theory is that absolutely nobody knows me quite like me. Everyone in the world can say that and be speaking the truth. What I like, don't like, hate, how I would rank one like compared to another, what I know, don't know, experience; only each individual knows all of this about themselves. The most perfect couple in the world can never know for sure what is going on in the mind of the other. Even if I were to spend every single moment of my life with another person (like conjoined twins), I still can't say with 100% certainty what goes on in that person's mind. Sometimes we keep information from one another out of shame and secrecy; others not out of shame but out of decency; and some things just never come up in conversation, even between siblings, best friends, or lovers.

Seeing as I am the only one who can make an informed decision about what will make me happy or not, it follows that I should be the one making that decision. What I do, what I buy, what I don't buy; nobody has a right to compel me to do any of these things for my own good. You may not like the decisions I make, but unless I interfere with your body, your ability to act, or your possessions, you cannot compel me to change my ways. By all means, use reason or social pressure, but you may not use force to change my ways. This is the one chance I get at life; I alone know what will make me happy; I alone, then, should make those decisions and bear the responsibility and the glory for the results thereof. If I am a great success, that is my doing and nobody can take credit from me; if I fail by my own standards, I can blame no one but myself.

C. Government exists to protect life, liberty, and property of each individual, and to enforce consensual contracts. It exists solely for the purpose of negative liberty; it checks individuals from crossing into the boundaries of other individuals. It is NOT a vehicle for positive liberties; you will provide for yourself, you will borrow or accept gifts from those who will voluntarily give them, but the government will not compel others to do for you what you should do for yourself (a very few exceptions exist, namely a public fund for those who physically or mentally cannot take care of themselves and those who have been injured serving the public, such as soldiers, policemen, firefighters, etc.). Our own bodies may not be violated without permission; I may do with my own body what I choose but I may not make that decision for others without their consent.

Potentially the most important part of this theory (as in most legal theories) is the Roman concept pacta sunt servanda: agreements must be kept. A contract is a voluntary exchange of rights over liberty and property (theoretically, life could be traded as well, but it is hard imaginaging that situation). I grow apples; you clean carpets. We agree to trade a carpet clean for a bushel of apples. Once you clean the carpet, I am bound to transfer what is now your property to you. Government exists to enforce this contract and keep me from not living up to my end of the deal.

The extent to which government must make provisions for the people rather than keeping them in check is very narrow and limited to instances of indivisible goods. Divisible goods are those that I can purchase without anyone else doing so; if I want a hot dog, I can buy one without the entire nation also purchasing one. Indivisible goods exists for everyone or for no one. A great example of this is defense. If our nation has an armed force that protects us from foreign threats, both I and my neighbor benefit. It is not possible for my neighbor to forgo defense spending and risk being attacked by another nation while I on the other side of the street buy the defense and am safe. Either we both have it or both of us don't. In this instance, it makes sense that everyone should have to pay for it, as everyone benefits from it. The legitimate functions of government cannot be performed without it. Legal systems, police forces, and such also fall under this heading. Make no mistake, though: it is a necessary evil to compel the citizens to pay for these services and those who sincerely do not wish to have them must be allowed to leave.

This pretty effectively concludes the legitimate use of government. The theory can be summed up to this:

1. This is my one chance at existence.
2. Only I know what truly makes me happy.
3. The government exists solely to prevent others from infringing on my life, liberty, and property, so that I may make the most out of my one existence as I see fit to the best of my ability and fortune.

D. It seems necessary to explain why life, liberty, and property are so important as to warrant the protections offered in this theory.

Life- If our own lives are not protected, nothing in them can be protected, since the enjoyment of those other things requires that we first be alive. Murder over personal quarrels would be legitimate if life is not protected; seeing as nearly everyone quarrels, we would all be in mortal danger. This would be a return to the State of Nature of Hobbessian lore that we sought to escape by creating society and government in the first place, a war of all against all. Protecting the right to life ends the war of all against all, which all entering the government must agree to (hence this is a benefit to everyone). Those who do not consent do not have to participate but obviously cannot stay and should they act aggressively against the state, the entire state with all of its resources may respond.

Liberty- The ability to act as one chooses while not violating the rights of others. This, along with property, are the rights this work has been dedicated to restoring. As was said before, this may be the only chance we get at life; individuals alone know what individuals want; ergo, individuals should not be constrained except so far as to respect the rights of others, so that in turn their own rights are respected. This is not a promise of success; it is an opportunity to play the game of life in conjunction with millions of others, all of whom will be seeking their own gain, which will lead to opportunities and challenges that the inidivdual will navigate according to their own ability and fortune. Your right to strive for your own self will not be infringed by an outside force save for other people legitimately living their own lives.

Property- That which you discover, produce, or possess. Much of the varied goods in life we strive for come in material possessions. Those who play by the rules of the game as set forth will not be punished for their success; those who are not successful will not be rewarded for their failures. That which you possess comes from your mind, your body, or from others who voluntarily give the riches of their mind and body and gifts unto you. Only a tax to maintain the smallest possible government can be allowed, though this should be regarded as a necessary evil. No effort should be made to punish the successful through redistribution of wealth. People will not be penalized for living their lives well.

E. That is it. The legitimate use of government is to protect life, liberty, and property from threats internal and foreign, and to enforce contracts. My philosophy, if followed perfectly, has an interesting difference from most other political philosophies: I cannot tell you what it would look like. Thomas Moore could describe his Utopian Republic, Plato his Kallipolis, but my world is beyond description. Agreeing with Robert Nozick, there is no teleological outcome or even a preferred outcome of society, so long as the rules are followed. It is not the outcome itself but the process that leads to the outcome that decides whether the system is just. That the Buffalo Bills have not been able to win a Super Bowl is not evidence that the rules of football are unjust; the rules are just because they apply evenly to all teams, regardless of who wins. This is the very definition the Rule of Law according to Hayek: the rules, whatever they may be, apply equally to all.