Saturday, May 29, 2010

Generational Problems

For ages, mankind has struggled to create a "perfect" society where all would be treated in a "just" and "fair" manner, leading to a high quality of life for everyone involved. As you can note by the quotation marks, the ideals we strive for tend to be vague, which makes identifying the means to those ends also vague. Though I do not believe in the perfectibility of human society, I do find such attempts fascinating. It is, in my mind, an equation without a solution, but that does not stop individuals from believing there is a solution and from coming up with intricate ways of solving the puzzle. To help those folks with their search, I will illuminate the problem of generations with two questions. I would not say this is the most difficult problem facing statist philosophies, nor that these two questions are the only ones requiring an answer for the generational problem, but I think it will help people who believe either in the possibility of a perfect utopian or those who believe government intervention can lead to more limited gains see the extreme difficulty they face. The first question is geared more towards socialists and while I would like to see the answers given for that question, I believe the second will be farther reaching in that anyone who supports the notion of a state will need to find an answer to the problem. The questions are by no means new (the first was contemplated by Plato, the second by Jefferson, among many, many others), but I hope people will be willing to examine their own ideologies in light of these questions.

1. In order to create a "just" society (by which justice means equality of conditions or equality of starting positions), inheritance beyond genetics cannot be allowed. Is it truly just to take away a parent's ability to leave their children well off? Are children in equal starting positions who have parents of different parental skills? In short, can the family exist in such a system and if not, what can replace it? What problems would exist?

Models for Utopian states tend to focus on single generations of people. Wealth and opportunity among those currently living will be redistributed as to create a "fair" balance. A great many problems have been levied against this idea, usually revolving around the idea that those who have more produced more, ergo they 1) deserve to be richer and 2) will have no incentive to work hard in a system that does not benefit them, leading to an overall decrease in the production and standard of living of society. I think it is worth pointing out that, even were this achieved, the children being born would not be born into equality with each other. For starters, children provide a great motivation to many parents to work even harder to leave their children well off; socialism destroys that motivation because all such wealth would be redistributed. Moreover, even if financial equality is achieved, parental skills, love, affection, etc., will not be equal. Genetic inheritance will also create inequalities, in particular among social and physical traits. Without the ability to become financially superior, children with social and physical weaknesses will not be as competitive in the social and romantic realms. Even with financial equality, the quality of life each child will receive will be unequal.

Can the family exist in such a "just" state? It is worth pointing out that Marx, More, and Plato all resorted to the obliteration of the family due precisely to this problem; parents will never be willing to sacrifice giving their children a better life for any ideological reason. What would replace the family, though? There is no evidence that children would be better educated, either in the intellectual or the social realm, in a state run communal setting rather than the nuclear family and a great deal of research indicating exactly the opposite.

Any theory proposing a result of equality of results will have to deal with the other forms of inequality as well, along with replacing the entire structure of the family, dealing with emotions of affection among its populace, figuring out a method of breeding future generations that does not lead to parental love leading to parents desiring better for their children, and a way of doing all of this so that those making the decisions cannot be excepted from the rules. Those arguing for equality of opportunity face an arduous road as well. These theories are particularly prone to the generational problem in that they allow for inequality so long as everyone starts equally, which is considered "fair" by those theorists. Problem is, those inequalities will lead to parents of different experiences and qualities that will lead to social inequalities for the next generation. It would also require limiting what a family could do for their own children, a law so contrary to human nature as to require extreme enforcement measures and constant surveillance to force people against their basic instincts. "Earned" inequalities by the 1st generation will lead to unequal starting positions among the 2nd unless the "earned" inequalities are taken away from those who did better to equalize the playing field for the second generation. This would certainly lead to a reduction of births among those who perform better and an increase among those who do worse, creating a system which favors breeding among the least talented and discourages it among the brightest.

Any theory proposing equality of conditions, whether as a starting position or as an end results, will need to explain how that equality will be maintained through subsequent generations, dealing in particular with the unequal division of genetics and parental love/skill and the natural tendency of parents to seek a better life for their children.

2. Laws created by one generation pass on to those born after their passage. Can we really say we had their consent to create laws over them? Is this not evidence that we ought to pass as few laws (in particular economic regulations and social spending) as possible in order to mitigate this problem?

Most of us live under hundreds or thousands of laws passed long before we were conceived. Simply put, are these laws made with our consent, and if not, are we bound to follow them? Unlike the former question I find I must attempt to answer this question, as I am one who still believes in the necessity of the state, whereas I am not a believer in the necessity of equality of starting positions or end results. This is how I deal with this problem; other thoughts are more than welcome.

It cannot be said we consented to the creation of such laws. Consent requires a conscious, sentient being, which by definition we were not prior to our own existence. To prevent the collapse of society or the need to renew every law each time a new person is born, we follow the concept of implied consent, whereby if we choose to remain in this nation we also consent to the laws passed prior to our participation in politics. This requires a free nation to allow citizens to leave who choose not to consent to the laws. While an important fix, implied consent is very, very broad in its scope. Either you accept all of the laws, or you leave. There is no getting around this problem; we cannot give a veto to each citizen upon reaching the age of majority for particular laws, for obvious logistical reasons.

Given that we cannot get rid of this problem, our only solution is to mitigate it. It is not just to impose rules, regulations, and in particular debt upon those who cannot consent, but at the same time we must have some rules and regulations. The best solution we have, then, is to reduce the number of injustices we commit to a bare minimum possible that will ensure the survival of our life, liberty, and property. By reducing the numbers of laws, regulations, and debt, future generations will need to give their implied consent to fewer laws they were not around to consent to in the first place. While the problem still exists, it will be smaller than it otherwise would have been.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Libertarian Paternalism?

This article by Glen Whitman over at Cato Unbound is a must read.

Mr. Whitman makes the argument that individuals are not in a position to be making better decisions for other people far better than I have. Those proposing legislation punishing people for not taking the "right" decisions in their own lives, not affecting others, need to read this first and prove legislators know any better what they are doing than the people do.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

The Limits of Democratic Government

Democracy is the key component of the American ethos. Since the founding of the American colonies, it has been a precept of all citizens that they have an equal say in the make up and conduct of the government. A government democratically elected by the majority of its citizens appears to have a greater claim to legitimacy to rule over the people than any other form of government. I love our democracy as much as any other citizen, which is a point I ask the reader to keep in mind. A strange request? Yes, but for most readers, this will be a strange project, as we need to take a critical eye towards democracy to define its limits and its perils. Democracy has the potential to be the most beautiful form of governments, but is also has the ability to be among the worst horrors of the world when abused.

I am by no means the first to make this distinction between a good and bad version of the same form of government. Aristotle was among the first, creating three divisions of government (monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy) with a good and bad version of each, leading to six potential types of government. The particular types of government is not relevant here; there are enough variations and mixtures in modern governments of these three types as to make them obsolete in discussing our world today. That any particular form could be good or bad, however, is an idea citizens need to understand today. Monarchy and aristocracies can be better for their people than some democracies have turned out to be; democracies can, indeed, be bad. The different types of governments have different virtues and drawbacks, but all of them can be good or bad. I believe that all governments, regardless of form, can be viewed as good or bad depending on their scope and involvement in the lives of their people. Governments that protect and respect the lives, liberties, and properties of their respective people's are good forms; governments that fail to do this or become a threat to those rights are bad.

It is my intention to disabuse my readers of a number of preconceptions about democracy that are dangerous to our society. When we are finished, I honestly believe my reader will have a stronger love for the good form of democracy and an unwillingness to accept the corrupting influences, either in their own political philosophy or on that of others with whom they discuss such subjects.

"Government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil; in its worst state, an intolerable one." ~Thomas Paine, Rights of Man

"But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions." ~James Madison, Federalist #51

Government is the institution with a monopoly on the legitimate use of force. Were there no government, each and every one of us would be the simultaneous judge, juror, and executioner in all instances in which we perceive wrong to have been done. Maybe a very few individuals reading this would honestly use that power well and never for selfish advancement, but I believe most would be like me and know in their hearts they would steal or maybe even kill for self advancement if there was not a superior force to stop us. We create the government specifically to be that superior force to stop each of us from abusing the lives of each other; the problem is, such a superior force itself is now free to abuse others because there is no superior force to keep them in check. We institute democracy to keep the government in line with the will of the people, but how will we keep the people from abusing certain factions of the people?

A tyranny is a government which does not respect the rights of its own people. While the anarchy of places like Afghanistan, Somalia, and post invasion Iraq have captured the imagination of many for their horrors, anarchy is not the worst situation imaginable. Anarchy is a situation where everyone may declare war on anyone else, Hobbes famous State of Nature, but tyranny is worse still in that it sets up a situation where everyone is at war against you. As bad as a war of all against all may be, it is preferable to a war of everyone teamed up against you.

Democracies are by no means immune from such a problem; indeed, they may be more prone to them as elections clearly define an "us vs. you" situation where the majority take power and the minority are left with few chances of defending themselves. Monarchies and aristocracies rarely capture so many people within their fold, whereas the leaders in a democracy by definition have the most supporters of any particular faction. Though democracies tend to avoid threats to life and limb, they are far more likely to abuse property rights, as elections often bring about new governments that know they will exist only for a short time and must extract as many of the rewards of having power as possible in that short time frame, usually at the expense of the minority groups or future generations. Ultimately, democracies are governments, and all governments are evil for the very reason that they force people to take actions they otherwise would not do.

Far too often, supporters of expanding the role of government in a democracy claim legitimacy for their power grabs by hiding behind the claim that they represent "the people." I ask my reader to cover this section very carefully and if I err in any respect please politely let me know, because "the people" is among the most dangerous phrases ever spoken by politicos. We are, as Lincoln put is, a government "of the people, by the people, and for the people", but what is "the people?" The most incorrect and dangerous assumption is to believe the government actually represents the will of all the citizens of a particular state. While the government does legitimately govern all of the people by their tacit consent, its actions are very likely in diametrical opposition to the will of many of its citizens. Government is indeed instituted for the good of all of the citizens, but in every circumstance the government will take actions that unjustly harm certain elements of that society.

Since nearly all democracies today are representative in nature, we need to note that elections are only brief snapshots of the political leanings of society. Elections are also not particularly precise instruments; we vote for a candidate who most closely represents our current views, almost always disagreeing on some issues with those candidates. Moreover, we do not know specifics concerning the bills that will come before those legislators. While a majority may put a legislator into office, there is no certainty that legislator will actually vote along with the majority of his or her constituents on any particular piece of legislation. After a few months or years, a legislator may not even have a majority approval of his or her own constituents, but will still be considered a representative of "the majority" because of a snapshot election some time earlier.

All of this should not be seen as me wishing to do away with elections. I cannot think of a better method of holding officials accountable to the individuals whose lives will be impacted by government action; I merely wish to show such methods are cumbersome and very imperfect. The claim of supporting particular government actions in the name of "the people" is tenuous at best.

Even in a democracy, then, with the people as close to in charge as possible, we will have situations where the government treats its own people unjustly. In most circumstances, this will come about by a majority faction in government seeking to reward its voters at the expense of those who supported others, mainly by punishing or withholding rewards from large segments of the society that generally tended not to support the current government. Ironically, members of those segments that did support the government will be punished because the government cannot act precisely enough to actually identify individual supporters.

So long as there is government, the people in those governments will be tempted to use their powers to aggrandize themselves and their supporters at the expense of others. Even in the legitimate actions of government (protecting life, liberty, property, and enforcing contracts), there will be disagreement over policies. The best solution to this problem is to limit the opportunities for government to act to those legitimate actions and little else. As I just said, this is not a perfect solution, but it will reduce the abuses of government. It is a very simple maxim of politics: the more the government can do, the more it can abuse its powers. Regardless of the form of government, the citizens of all nations best protect their liberties by denying the authority of government to take actions beyond a very small subset already mentioned. To expand beyond these realms is to open up doors of opportunity for abuse in areas government was not instituted to act in and in which it is not capable of making improvements.

I have done my best to keep this explanation simple. It is my sincere hope that those who have read this will recognize that democracy is not in and of itself a good thing. Within certain bounds, no government can be considered more just, but once those bounds are left democracy becomes a nightmare of exploitation by temporary majorities. Within those bounds, citizens will have a wary respect for the institutions and a love of the office holders; outside of those bounds, government will be an object of contempt even by the majority faction. We, as citizens, are caretakers of the government when in the majority and are honor bound to keep that government within its proper role. Those who fail to do so cannot claim to love democracy, no matter how much they may use it in their demagoguery.