Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Morality Quiz

I thought this post over at Classical Values was interesting. For starters, I too dislike the Left/Right dichotomy. There are a great many of us who have no desire to impose our wills upon other people and we do not fall anywhere on that spectrum. I am also wary of such polls, mostly because it is difficult to truly define what is being asked, but the folks at the YourMorals did a fairly good job in the Fairness Scenarios. The above graph shows my results (in green) compared to self styled liberals and conservatives. The five categories are defined as:

* Procedural Justice - Fairness is a function of how a decision is made rather than the outcome.
* Equality - Fairness is a function of how equally people are treated.
* Need - Fairness is a function of those who are in need having their needs met.
* Equity - Fairness is a function of people who contribute more getting their just reward.
* Retributional Justice - Fairness is a function of people being punished for bad behavior.

The questions asked relate pretty well to the qualities being measured, though in reality situations would be far more complex, but this does at least find which issues we consider important. My three highest outcomes highlight what I have stressed in my political philosophy: what people "deserve" is a function of their actions and results should be decided by a fair process rather than by a predetermined preferred outcome.

But look at my results compared to liberals and conservatives. Hard to place where I am on the Left/Right spectrum, huh?

As for the other tests, I've only taken a few but none were as good as the test I mentioned above. Too many ask questions that can't be answered without context. Right now, I'm trying to figure out how to answer whether "whether or not some people were treated differently than others" is relevant to my moral decisions. Depends on the situation, sometimes people should be treated differently, sometimes not, see the above chart. The next few questions are also nearly impossible to answer without context (rebelling against authority is good if the authority is evil but bad if the authority is good, so how I can't tell whether rebelling in and of itself is good or bad). Ok, the Morals, Values, and Ethics quiz is not worth taking, I do not value a person's aptitude in math when considering their moral actions. This is an example of a test badly done because we have no idea what they are asking.

Anyway, that one particular test seemed to be of value in determining how we think groups ought to distribute resources. Government is the ultimate group. I would like to know how some self described liberals, conservatives, socialists, libertarians, whathaveyou, come up with.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Thoughts Concerning Lochner v New York: Justice Holmes' Dissent

Lochner v The State of New York
198 U.S. 45
Argued February 23, 24, 1905.
Decided April 17, 1905.

Lochner is, in many ways, the most abused case ever to have been decided by the Supreme Court. While the issue of how many hours a person may work in a confectionery bakery is not particularly salient any longer, ideas such as the right of contract, judicial activism, and states' rights are, all of which are touched upon in this short case. I intend to skip over the majority decision and focus on the famous dissent of Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. For the record, I believe the Court erred in its decision. The Court overstepped its boundaries in telling a particular state what it may or may not do, so long as due process is followed.

Justice Holmes' extremely short dissent is remarkable for the heights of wisdom and the depths of folly it achieves in so short a space:

"This case is decided upon an economic theory which a large part of the country does not entertain. If it were a question whether I agreed with that theory, I should desire to study it further and long before making up my mind. But I do not conceive that to be my duty, because I strongly believe that my agreement or disagreement has nothing to do with the right of a majority to embody their opinions in law."

Consider these three sentences. In the first sentence, Justice Holmes' errs in believing the case was decided by an economic theory rather than a constitutional theory, namely that the 14th Amendment prevents states from unduly taking away liberty or property. Regardless of the merits of that philosophy, it is inherently a judicial rather than economic theory. In the very next sentence, Mr. Holmes describes what a judicial activist, legislative from the bench, would do if that justice believed the Court should base controversies based on their opinion of the facts at hand rather than on the law. He rightly condemns this stance, but then proceeds to go too far by apparently stating the majority may impose any such law it wishes, when our Founding Fathers set up our government in a way as to specifically avoid tyrannies based upon majority factions. Indeed, Justice Holmes goes so far as to say apparently tyrannical state laws cannot be overturned by the Court, which I believe goes much too far and ignores both the 14th Amendment and Article IV, Section 4 of the Constitution, providing for a republican form of government to the states.

"The liberty of the citizen to do as he likes so long as he does not interfere with the liberty of others to do the same, which has been a shibboleth for some well-known writers, is interfered with by school laws, by the Postoffice, by every state or municipal institution which takes his money for purposes thought desirable, whether he likes it or not. The 14th Amendment does not enact Mr. Herbert Spencer's Social Statics."

Whether he meant to do so or not, Justice Holmes rightly points out that all government taxation and regulation is restrictive upon personal liberty. Here we come to the crux of the matter. We establish government solely in order to safeguard the rights of Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness (paraphrased version of property, courtesy of the philosopher John Locke), as is stated in our Declaration of Independence. Governments which become destructive to those ends may be abolished, according to that same Declaration. Government requires a sacrifice of some of these rights to protect the rest, but where is the line to be drawn? At what point does the government cease to be the protector of these God given rights and transform into the greatest threat instead? Justice Holmes gives no answer, but his willingness to abide by the decision of any majority is distressing to an extreme.

"But a Constitution is not intended to embody a particular economic theory, whether of paternalism and the organic relation of the citizen to the state or of laissez faire. It is made for people of fundamentally differing views, and the accident of our finding certain opinions natural and familiar, or novel, and even shocking, ought not to conclude our judgment upon the question whether statutes embodying them conflict with the Constitution of the United States."

Justice Holmes is correct in a technical sense that our Constitution does not blatantly adopt any particular economic theory, but he is wrong to assume all economic theories can be compatible with the Constitution. A paternalistic state, by definition, removes people from the pursuit of happiness and substitutes itself in their place, assuming the government knows better for the people's well being than the people do. Every tyrant believes the same. Should individuals be debased enough to despise the pursuit of happiness in their own lives and wish to outsource those decision to another is their own personal decision, but to impose that notion, with force, on others who do not agree is to deny them one of their inalienable rights. Overarching governments leave no outs for those who wish to live their own lives; they face a government perverted in its aims, destroying our rights rather than preserving them.

"General propositions do not decide concrete cases. The decision will depend on a judgment or intuition more subtle than any articulate major premise. But I think that the proposition just stated, if it is accepted, will carry us far toward the end. Every opinion tends to become a law. I think that the word 'liberty,' in the 14th Amendment, is perverted when it is held to prevent the natural outcome of a dominant opinion, unless it can be said that a rational and fair man necessarily would admit that the statute proposed would infringe fundamental principles as they have been understood by the traditions of our people and our law. It does not need research to show that no such sweeping condemnation can be passed upon the statute before us. A reasonable man might think it a proper measure on the score of health. Men whom I certainly could not pronounce unreasonable would uphold it as a first instalment of a general regulation of the hours of work. Whether in the latter aspect it would be open to the charge of inequality I think it unnecessary to discuss."

The very reason we have this Constitution, with the Bill of Rights and succeeding Amendments, is to prevent the "dominant opinion" from being imposed tyrannically! Just about any dominant opinion is likely to be met by a minority opinion, composed of rational and fair men who believe the proposed statute infringe upon fundamental principles as have been understood throughout the history of our nation. Liberty means to be free to act or not as we see fit; a dominant opinion that forces us to act or not act in a particular way is the exact opposite of liberty.

Justice Holmes illustrates two extremely important principles for our judiciary, though he only seems to agree with one of them. In the first, justices must respect the rule of law and put this higher than their own policy judgments. We elect legislators to create the law; we place justices on the bench to make rulings based on those laws, not their own desires. But secondly, the Constitution is the supreme law of the land, which no majority may override save by a Constitutional Amendment. Wherever the government and the dominant opinion overstep their enumerated powers, wherever they cease to be the protectors of our unalienable rights and transform into the greatest threat instead, the judiciary must step in. While we cannot abide judicial activism, judicial abandonment is the equivalent of abandoning the concept of limited government and individual rights in favor of an unchecked tyranny of the majority.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

The End of the American Experiment

I am absolutely despondent at what I have witnessed.

The American People have had their liberty annihilated today. While the vast majority fought against it, our government overrode their wishes, a clear violation of the basic principles of democratic government.

But what is worse, far worse, is the number of people who voted in 2008 for this sort of bill but never put a moment's thought into it. These people, along with the apathetic, have abandoned any sort of responsibility towards their fellow citizens; none will explain where they derive the authority to make such a law, none care how it changes the relationship between government and individuals in a negative fashion. Some support out of greed, others out of a horribly misguided and arrogant sense of "helping others" by forcing apparent "goods" upon them.

America was never meant to be like this. Those who have abandoned their willingness and ability to think to the government do not deserve liberty; indeed, it is doubtful they could even survive with it. If any deserve to be considered less than human, it is those who will not think, who will not defend their personal liberties, who abandon all rights and dignities a free human being deserves for a few trifles thrown by the hands of an all powerful state, or worse still those who abandon liberty to spite those who have done better than they.

I have noticed this the whole process through: it does not matter what argument is made, it will fall on deaf ears because people absolutely refuse to think. This disgusting abandonment of responsibility is what tyrannies are made of. I can't help but think of Rome, which for the populism of Caesar bought Caligula and Nero.

For those few remaining who still hold liberty higher than a government watching and deciding our every move, what can we do?

Ten Most Influential Books In My Rather Limited World

Since everyone else is doing it...

In all honesty, I can't limit it to ten. Our "world" is so multi-faceted that I can't really rank these books, so I won't bother numbering them.

The Republic of Plato. There is no one in the Western World who has not, in some form or another, been influenced by the works of Plato, and a great deal of political philosophy can find a prototype expressed in the Republic. As with many of the truly Great Books, however, this one is extremely dangerous. Plato searched from the one true Good in the universe and according to the story told in this book a perfect city could be made if only the very wise possessed unfettered power. I highly doubt "good" is unitary and I know that no human is wise enough to be telling another how to live his or her life backed up by the threat of the state. Plato himself seems to have known that; if only modern day statists could figure it out.

Federalist by Publius: This work has had a rather amazing story behind it. For those who read it while thinking about the situation in which it was written, one has to wonder if the authors would have been surprised how we almost revere this collection of essays today, long after the issue of creating a federal government has been settled. The true value of this book lies in the philosophy of man and his imperfections; they never sought out to cure those imperfections but only to limit their abuses in government itself, namely by dividing power so much that no one person or faction could accomplish their goals without compromise. A true warning for modern times.

Anarchy, State, and Utopia by Robert Nozick. A response to John Rawls argument that the state is needed to fix perceived injustices in the distribution of goods and talents by nature. Nozick does an excellent job showing the advantages of a minimal state, the necessity of the rule of law being applied equally to all, and the impossiblity of "social justice" (which always means different things to different people). A must read for anyone who actually desires to study the proper role of government rather than just its forms.

April, 1865 by Jay Winik. This should be read by more high school students. The Civil War did not just "end" in April with everyone saying "yup, it's over, might as well go grab a beer and head home." Even with the Confederacy on the verge of collapse, it was by no means certain the fighting and the killing would end with the destruction of the political state. Guerilla war, similar to what we saw in Iraq, was rampant in places like Missouri, and some of Lee's officers recommended continuing the fight by such means rather than surrender. Lee, Lincoln, and Grant were all amazing commanders in their own way, but each showed their highest quality at the end.

Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky. I love Russian literature and Dostoevsky is a favorite. The conscience of a human being can be a dreadful thing, something I know from first hand experience but preferred immensely more from reading this book.

The Proper Study of Mankind by Isaiah Berlin. My introduction into the world of political pluralism. Berlin's understanding of the imperfection of man, even (or perhaps, especially) those in power, is a lesson I wish I could magically implant in the mind of every person. He also dismantles the idea that "the good" is unitary.

Second Treatise of Government by John Locke. The intellectual founder of our Republic. A limited government based on the consent of the governed with the purpose of protecting our rights (in particular property rights)...how radical he would seem nowadays!

The Great Divorce by C. S. Lewis. Though I am not a Christian any longer, C. S. Lewis will always be one of my favorite authors, and his explanation of personal choice in this book was nothing short of amazing. Mankind truly is petty.

Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand. I picked this book up in January of 2009, when America was taking a distinct turn towards statism. Rand predicted the failure of governments running economies before people like Barack Obama were even born, but apparently nobody every lent poor Obama a copy. More important than the technical aspects of the impossibilty of socialism, though, is the moral superiority of the free market; socialism treats men as cogs, capitalism treats men as men who are capable of determining their own lives for good or ill.

The Essential Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson. The Prophet of Nature and Man. His beautiful essays cover a vast realm of topics but always manage to focus on the pure and beautiful. While there are aspects I disagree with, in particular concerning the unitary nature of everything, I still always pick up this book when spring time comes around to help enhance the wonder of the season.

The Bible. Nobody knows exactly how long it took to write the Bible or how many people were involved, but it does seem safe to say it spans hundreds of years with dozens of authors. No book has influenced Western literature as much as this one and I highly doubt there is another which influences personal morality as much, either. The stories and themes are wonderful and far too many to list.

1984 by George Orwell. I end this list with the two most abused books in history. Orwell was a magnificent author, but more importantly he was an honest one. He looked straight into the heart of mankind and saw its desire for power, for money, for lust, the weaknesses people carry with them, but the true horror comes in the form of domination of life, and nothing is as capable of dominating life as an all powerful state. I seriously considered adding Reflections on a Ravaged Century by Robert Conquest here, which focused on the horrors of the 20th Centuries totalitarian states, but Orwell's fiction will always be more memorable than reality.

Anyway, that's my (incomplete) list of books that have significantly shaped my world view, whether on God, politics, society, ethics, economics, or any other such field.

Saturday, March 13, 2010


A great deal of confusion and frustration occurs in discussing politics. While there are many causes, one important cause we can alleviate is getting our definitions straight. Far too often, we talk past each other or use the wrong abstract phrase or fail to actually understand all of the implications behind the words. Here I intend to create a list of political words I find misused or vague and give my best interpretation of the word.

State: A state consists of any being that creates its own set of rules and holding legitimate use of force delegated to it voluntarily. While there are some 200 nation states recognized today in the world, the true number of "states" are far, far greater. Mafia's that develop their own set of rules and derive their use of force from its members is, in a sense, a state, as are separatist groups, terrorists, and lone criminals. While a state must treat its own members well (that is the reason they join the state in the first place), unless they have created a contract known as a treaty they are under no obligations to treat members of other states well. In this way, a state may arrest, imprison, or execute a criminal in their own society because that person has, in effect, declared themselves their own state.

Right: Any subset of actions an individual may demand another perform or not perform. For example, in the United States it is our right that the government not infringe upon our liberty of free speech. With the exception of the parent/child relationship, all natural rights are of a negative quality, i.e. others shall not do something. All positive rights (i.e. you shall do this) derive from contracts.

Liberty: Any action permissible to the individual. Inherent in that individual's being, not derived from any other person or group but himself, and hence owed to no one.

Power: Any action permissible to the government, delegated to that government by the consent of the governed.

Freedom: Living in a state that is not tyrannical; all actions that may be lawfully taken in a legitimate state.

Politics: A subset of ethics. Whereas ethics determines what actions are good and bad, politics determines which actions are sufficiently good or bad as to be encouraged/discouraged by the use of force.

Ethics: The study in philosophy of what actions are good or bad in a moral sense.

Contract: A voluntary exchange of rights, goods, or liberties. That which is given without a voluntary expectation of a return is called a gift; that which is decided without the consent of both parties is theft.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

The Ideologies

What are the ideologies? They are philosophies concerning politics that determine the proper relation between mankind and the institution of government. Nearly all existing thoughts of government can be included in these four categories. This is meant as mere description; criticism and evaluation of the various types will be dealt with later.

State as Bad: The ideologies falling in this category see the existence of government as a form of evil due to its use of coercion. Government is to be kept in check to the greatest possible degree.

Anarchist: No state can exist that does not compel people, with the use of force or economic coercion, against that person's will. Coercion is always unacceptable; ergo, the state is an unacceptable institution. People can develop rules with those they come in contact in without resorting to the power of the state to enforce them (social pressure, system of credit, personal use of force, etc.).

Libertarian: No state can exist that does not compel people to act contrary to that person's needs, but anarchy does not provide sufficient protection either from stronger individuals/cliques within society or from states outside of it. Compulsion exists to protect individual rights and enforce contracts, along with the minimum taxation required to pay for a minimal state.

State as Good: The ideologies falling in this category see the government as a force for good that improves people and should be given power enough to carry out those improvements.

Statist: State compulsion is less of a concern than perceived social problems. While the state needs to have some limit to its powers, it should be allowed to rearrange elements of society to create a more just system. Many means are justified by these ends that would not in and of themselves be considered good (imprisonment, taxation, compulsion, etc.).

Totalitarian: The individual is too weak and uncoordinated to exist justly outside of the state. Only the organization of the state can provide a truly just society; ergo, the state should have recourse to any means necessary to provide the most perfect form of justice. The ends of a perfectly just society justified any means.