Friday, December 31, 2010


Anyone who recalls anything about Greek history for their school days remembers the name of Plato. Most know that he was a philosopher who studied under Socrates and mentored Aristotle. If pressed, these people could name one or two of his books, usually the Republic and Plato's Apology. Beyond that, your average person knows nothing about the man or why he is important. Not was, is.

I, being the great nerd I am, love reading the ancient Greeks. Just to upgrade my nerd credentials, I wish I could read ancient Greek just to avoid any bias in the translators, but alas I am not that talented. Usually during the winter, I make a point of reading something by Aristotle or Plato, though I also enjoy the playwrights and historians. Plato tends to be more interesting to me for various reasons. He combines story telling with philosophy, he alone knew the three most influential people on Western political thought (himself, Socrates, and Aristotle), and it is safe to say that Plato is the father of philosophy.

And for those who think, he is also very frightening to read. Plato is frightening precisely because his vision is so alluring. Imagine, a perfect society guided by truth and justice under the tutelage of a wise and impartial philosopher king! Man is perfectible; the philosopher can illustrate the traits of perfection, giving us a goal for all to strive for. Alas, it is a pipe dream.

Unfortunately, not everyone realizes that. The totalitarian regimes that have plagued the last century have all been based on the philosophy that man is perfectible through the state and collectivization. It is hard to tell what Plato himself thinks of the actuality of the perfectibility of men. Many thinkers who witnessed the rise of totalitarian regimes during the 20th Century saw Plato as either a dangerous man who created the blueprints for modern tyranny or as a philosopher who wrote books like The Republic to warn us of the inhumanity of such schemes. I haven't studied their works in depth (though Karl Popper and Leo Strauss are high on my reading list and currently in the mail). Reading Plato, however, it becomes almost unavoidable to view his thoughts through a modern historical lens.

That is half the reason why I enjoy reading a philosopher who has been gone for nearly 2,300 years. I cannot help but imagine what Plato's reaction would have been to the tyrannies of the 20th Century. Given that he did consider tyranny to be the worst form of government, both for those who live under the tyrant and the tyrant himself, I doubt he would be surprised that such governments did exist and that they were as horrible as they were. Perhaps it would be more interesting to see his reaction to the liberal revolution that occurred during the early 18th Century, a belief in the danger of government and its inability to improve people.

I have read the Republic numerous times, but today I finished Statesman. The goals are similar in both: the government, under a true statesman or philosopher king, exists to weave men together into a perfect society. Again, his analogies and goals are beautiful, but they are wrong and misleading. Plato himself doubts whether a true statesman will ever exist, but even if he did, I would not have him rule. Plato errs in believing men can be made subservient to the needs of society. In Statesman, Plato says the true rulers may rule and that "it makes no difference whether their subjects be willing or unwilling." That is the seed of fascism and communism. We are human beings, not bees or ants, and I cannot consider a government or society just if it fails to recognize the individual value of mankind.

Despite this, I absolutely love reading Plato's works. Reading the Republic for the first time in college will probably always be among my fondest memories. Between the class that focused almost exclusively on that book (led by the most brilliant woman I ever met) and everything else that happened that semester, I felt like I was reading the mind of God. Even though I disagree with many of his ideas now and disagreed even when I first encountered his thought, he touched on a remarkable number of subjects and his genius is hard to deny. If given the chance to be anywhere in all of history for a day and understand the language, I would almost have to pick the best conversation between Plato and Aristotle. The two titans of thought debating the theory of the forms, the existence of reality and our perception thereof; I can only imagine.

Monday, December 27, 2010


Fred Hiatt at the Washington Post has an interesting article on obesity and the government. The answer to his question and title to his article is fairly simple. It became a partisan issue once people began insinuating the government should interfere.

Yes, obesity is on the rise. I don't know if anyone actually questions that (disagreeing with this policy position does not mean one denies the factual rise of obesity). The questions we should really be asking is 1) what is causing this rise, 2) what should we do about it, and 3) who is this "we?" That last question will determine how question 2 is answered and is really the linchpin to the whole argument.

Question 1 is fairly complex and Mr. Hiatt completely fails to answer it. Bad eating habits are hardly new in America. Something that is fairly new over the last thirty years is the sedentary lifestyle. Computers and video games within the home have largely replaced outdoor activity. This sedentary style itself encourages bad eating habits (it is easier to down a coke and Cheetos while watching the screen than it is while running around outside). I'm not going to claim to know exactly why obesity is on the rise, but I do want to point out that the businesses that make sugar products and hamburgers are not solely responsible.

Question 2 depends on the answer to Question 3. This is where the issue becomes partisan. If "we" means the government, than the answer is taxing sugar goods and banning fast food restaurants from operating in certain areas. Mr. Hiatt implies that Mrs. Obama was not pushing such solutions but rather a voluntary reduction; problem is, the government has already begun adopting these nanny state solutions. NY was considering a soda tax and San Francisco has banned toys from happy meals.

Conservatives and libertarians answer question 2 differently. The government has no authority or responsibility to fight obesity; it is largely a personal choice to be made by individuals. There is an important philosophical difference here. For statists, the government knows best what is good for us. The responsibility for decisions, then, passes from the individual to the government. People who support the policies tend to believe their value judgements are best, to the point where everyone else should have to follow them at the point of the gun, if necessary. That is, after all, what laws are.

On the other hand, those pushing for less government believe people know best. They hold the pluralist view that there are different forms of good that are not always compatible with each other. It may very well be that for person A, obesity is acceptable so long as they can enjoy their sedentary lifestyle and sugary goods. If the government passes laws to change person A's habits, they are actually making person A less happy overall. With 300,000,000 citizens having different preference structures, it is impossible for the government to know what will make them all happy. Any attempt to force those people into any one policy for their own good will inevitably force many people into less happiness.

Would forcing people to exercise and eat better lead to better health? Probably. But will that lead people to be happier than they otherwise would have been? No, in many cases. Those who believe health is more important are free to do so, but they need to stop and realize others may (rightly) disagree based on their personal preferences. If you are passionate about healthy living, make your best case and convince as many others as you can to change their ways, but leave the taxes and the force of law out of it.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Surplus Value and Exploitation

Modern day "liberals" or social democrats tend to want to regulate businesses based on principles found in the works of Karl Marx. I'm not going to say most of these people are Marxists, if for no other reason than because they do not know Marx's thought well enough to identify with his theory. They do, however, pick up a number of the basic ideas. These ideas are wrong and are therefore dangerous.

One of the more common complaints against capitalism and the free market is that workers are not paid the full worth of the products being produced by the company. It is assumed that the money made by the owner is exploited from the work of the wage earner. The capitalist does nothing but steals surplus value from the worker. This is seen as a form of theft and immoral; if a revolution to overthrow the capitalists is extreme, than at least the government should regulate pay to ensure a more fair distribution of wealth away from capitalists (who do not work for their money) and to the workers (who do).

I am not an expert on Marx; while I've read a few of his works, by large and away they were too dry for even me to really read and comprehend. As far as I know, however, Marx never worked a day in his life. He was an academic. This is unfortunate for Marx, as he would have learned a great deal spending time with actual workers. I have spent time with such people. I will use this experience to show why Marx (and those using the surplus value theory today) are wrong.

For the better part of a year, I worked in a factory that produced printed circuit boards for computers and servers and such. For multiple reasons, I'm going to describe only the fairly obvious aspects of the production method (I signed a waiver preventing me from describing the process in any real detail beyond the obvious, and I doubt I could do so even if I wanted to, not to mention my reader would be confused to no end). The point is this, however: the worker is benefited by the capitalist rather than exploited.

The average worker, not having much more than a high school education, would bring home about $300 a week, more if they worked overtime.

The price of one of the most common boards we sold was roughly $300.

If the capitalists are truly exploiting the worker, than the worker's labor needs to be worth more than $300 a week. Their labor needs to be worth about one finished circuit board.

Here's the rub: if the capitalist is exploiting the worker, why does the worker continue going to work? Why not work on their own? That's fairly obvious: the worker with the high school education could not produce $300 worth of circuit boards in a million years, much less in a week. The worker would have to collect the copper needed, the machinery to make that copper acceptable, would have to design the plans for the board, would have to make connections with potential buyers, would have to build the machines that would etch the proper patterns the within a nanometer (along with buying and processing the material needed to do that), would have to have the machinery and skill to put on proper finishes, would need to have all of the proper chemicals, and would need the packaging and transporting equipment to move the finished product. This, mind you, is the simplified version.

As I said, the worker will never make a single board. The worker's labor, by himself, is worth a fraction of a penny per week, if he is lucky.

All of the necessary tools come from the capitalists. They invest their money rather than enjoying it in the short run; this is a sacrifice of time and a gamble in that the investment may not pay off. Once they have assembled the proper workforce and machines, they can produce enough goods to give the worker $300 a week and still make money for themselves. The value of the worker's labor has been multiplied by an astronomical figure by the investments of the capitalists.

How, exactly, is that exploitation? The worker is better off and the capitalist is better off; this is win-win.

Marx bemoaned the fact that the capitalists own all of these "means of production." Well, they created them! It was an engineer who put in the long hours of graduate school and nights and weekends at his desk to produce the proper etching machine, not the worker. It was the capitalist who put off enjoying the fruit of their labor in the immediate time frame in hopes of having more wealth down the line. If the workers want to make their own means of production, they are free to do so. It would require the sacrifices made by the capitalists and the most talented elements, sacrifices most workers are not willing to make.

The worker is not being exploited; instead, his ability to produce is magnified exponentially. This magnification is occurring because the capitalists have put off their own enjoyment by investing wealth and because the most talented have worked hard to create the tools needed. I fail to see how this is an "evil" that needs to be remedied. If anything, workers should be more thankful for the capitalists rather than screaming about how they are exploited.

There is no surplus value being milked off by lazy capitalists. All plans to redistribute wealth supposedly gained by surplus value is therefore wrong, morally and factually. While not the only justification used to redistribute wealth, it is a common one and persuasive to unthinking minds (equating capitalists, who are not currently working with their hands, to thieves). Other arguments will be dealt with at another time.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

237th Anniversary of the Boston Tea Party

Three cheers for the Tea Party! It appears that the $1,200,000,000,000.00 omnibus bill proposed by the Democrats (who were recently beaten severely in a national election) has been pulled. The reason for this appears to be Republicans who earlier considered passing this monstrosity having a change of heart once their own earmark requests were made public.

The Tea Party is far from over. These Republicans changed their minds because they know full well that a Tea Party challenge in the primary spells death for RINOs. Senators Lee, Paul, and Rubio prove Tea Partiers can win and that people need not support establishment Republicans if those establishment officials do not pursue a limited form of government.

This is the true impact of the Tea Party movement. Liberals in moderate districts have much to fear by the mobilizing impact of the Tea Party, but the main influence will be in keeping Republicans tied to sound fiscal principles.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Sins of the Systems

Here's something you probably didn't expect. I want you to go here and watch the two minute section of Senator Sanders' filibuster from the other day. Go on, I'll wait.

To the Senator's credit, he's openly a socialist. Were that more socialists in this nation were honest about it!

This two minute section is important, because it concisely sums up the attitude of those on the Left concerning wealth and justice. The rich are crybabies; there is a limit to how much people should own; conservatives and libertarians are guilty of the sin of greed, which is like a drug addiction. Fortunately, there are those statists like Senator Sanders that will try their utmost to impose morality (as the Left sees it) on the people, with force if necessary.

I see things differently, both from the Judea-Christian notion of morality and that of socialists. Greed is no sin; rather, it is the source of all wealth and goods in the world. Should a person be driven to make more money and do so in a way that does not violate the life, liberty, or property of others, then that person has done no wrong to anyone. Indeed, that person has increased the quantity of goods in this world, a praiseworthy act.

The Senator mocks the wealthy as crybabies for wishing to preserve the fruit of their labor. Has Senator Sanders produced the wealth he wishes to redistribute? No. Perhaps if he (and those who support his position) had to work to create the wealth in the first place, they would understand why anyone, rich, poor, or in between, would be angered about being robbed. People work hard for their own good, not for Senator Sanders and his socialist supporters to redistribute that wealth.

When is enough, enough? That is a question each individual must ask themselves and impose upon themselves. It is not a decision for people to make for each other and impose at the point of a gun. That is an open door for abuse. So long as a man wishes to be honestly productive, he should be allowed to be so. If people are voluntarily giving that individual millions of dollars, then clearly that person is creating a good of immense value. Senator Sanders and his followers may believe a magical number exists as to when enough is enough, but they cannot prove where that line lies. Their argument is predicated on the idea that men should only be so productive but no more; after that point, any work should be in the form of slavery, so that any wealth created will go to anyone but the worker who created it. That is injustice. Let men be free to achieve their potential, for God's sake!

Greed created the iPod and the iPhone; heroin did not. Greed created the cars on the road; meth did not. Greed created the computer you are reading on; drugs did not. Greed causes you to go to work in the morning; cocaine has the opposite effect. Greed drives men to produce. Greed, coupled to the rule of law and the respect of property rights, is the engine that moves the human species forward.

I wish I could say that I am so valuable to the human species that people voluntarily gave me millions of dollars for the goods and services I produce. I'm honest enough with myself and with you, the reader, to admit I am not that valuable. I'm also humble enough to realize other people are. I would describe myself as a millionaire with a sense of pride for the amount of happiness I had created for other people.

Greed is not the only deadly sin that can be ascribed to economic systems, Senator. Your socialism is infected by a far worse sin: envy.

Envy is different from greed. Greed is the desire for more. That sin is largely seen as taking one's eye away from the Kingdom of God in favor of the physical world; if you do not believe in the world beyond, this is no sin at all. Envy is different. Envy is when people want the goods of another and believe they deserve it. Envy drives people to the point where they will destroy the good just so that others cannot have it.

Socialism is squarely based on envy. Socialists believe that the rich do not deserve their money, even if it was voluntarily given to them. They demand the power to take from the rich so that the socialists may redistribute wealth they did not create. Why do the rich not deserve their wealth? Why do those who receive the money without working for it deserve it? And who are socialists to know who deserves what? What criteria do they use? What impact does it have on the incentive to create and improve the stock of goods on this planet?

Socialism requires the use of force to redistribute wealth away from producers. The free market does not use force. On that ground alone, the socialist must justify introducing the use of force before doing so. Claiming outrage that another human being could possibly be more valuable than you is not a sufficient reason.

Far too often, those on the Left feel like heroes for taking away from honest producers to give to other people. They are not heroes; they are thieves. Far too often, they toss around the term "deserve" to justify redistributing wealth, though they know nothing about the origins of the wealth, the effort required to create it, or the actual morality of the recipients. They toss around the term "rights" to force obligations on people who never voluntarily accepted them. And they need to stop.

Friday, December 3, 2010

The Bush Tax Cut Fight

This current flap over the Bush tax cuts, scheduled to expire at the end of the year, perfectly illustrates some of my concerns about government and democracy. CBS has just released the following poll on this issue:

A majority believe the tax rates should be kept lower for all people save those making $250,000 a year (or their businesses if they report those receipts). Leftist commenter Eugene Robinson argues in the Washington Post that Republican insistence on extending all of the tax cuts and making them permanent is some sort of unforgivable crime. Please, stop and read that article.

There are a lot of things wrong here, mostly due to faulty assumptions. For starters, the tax rate is not responsible for the debt. These tax cuts will not, and never will, increase the deficit. Tax cuts cannot do that, period. Surprised? Consider this example:

The government charges X tax rate and pulls in $1,000,000. It spends nothing. Total balance at the end of the year is $1,000,000. Now, assume that government gives the biggest possible tax break, 100% reduction. Revenue is now $0. No money was spent, just like the previous year. Final balance is $0.

Note, that is not debt. Tax cuts cannot cause debt. Only spending can cause debt. So, no, extending the tax cuts will not increase the debt; the spending that will occur over the next ten years will be responsible for that increase in our debt by $700 billion (roughly an Iraq War's worth).

Those unemployment benefits? That's spending. That increases the debt. Also, Republicans have said they would extend those benefits if the Democrats would reduce other spending (in particular, what remains of the failed stimulus package). But note how Robinson characterizes the tax cut: " Step right up, and we'll write you a check." No! That is not what is happening! Allowing people to keep the money they honorably make is not "writing them a check!" If I refrain from robbing you at gun point, I have not "written you a check."

Robinson's article should be a must read for everyone. The paucity of thought on the Left is on full display here. Unemployment benefits, which have already been extended to 99 weeks (nearly two years worth of money without a day of work to earn it), have a "big stimulative punch." Really? Our economy is anemic with unemployment at 9.8%. There is no stimulative punch; there never was. Rich people might put their money in a bank, but if our government was friendly towards businesses the rich might invest in them instead. That investment, in turn, can be used to fund new job growth, getting people off of that unemployment list in the first place and reducing the numbers who need handouts.

There are a host of moral and practical issues supporters of taxing the rich tend to ignore. Few people will actually articulate the reasons why the rich should be taxed more, but I will deal with the one's most commonly stated:

The rich don't deserve to be that rich: Prove it. Yeah, you heard me, prove it. Time for you to stop and think about what you are saying. These people do not deserve their money? How do you know what "they" "deserve?" Those are two big terms you have not defined. Do you actually know what "they" did to get that money in the first place? Do you even know who "they" are? If not, you are in no position to say "they" do not deserve their money; you have absolutely no information to go on other than the fact that those people do indeed pull in more money than you.

Of course, even if you had that information, you still need to tell me what criteria to use in judging what people "deserve" and what they do not. If you are going to use force to take away wealth from other people (that is exactly what taxation does), you have to create a pretty damn strong case to do so. I'm not even going to attempt to tackle this because I have never heard this argument made. Without it, the whole idea that rich people do not deserve to keep their honestly made money completely falls apart. I will await one of those 56% of Americans who support only increasing taxes on the rich to explain this to me rather than create a straw man. Who wants to man up and defend what is right?

Fun fact: it is conceivable that there are people in this world more productive and important than you. They are smarter, they work harder, they produce more happiness in this world, and that is why they are valued more than you are. Keep that in mind as you try to figure out what the hell "deserve" actually means in your mind.

The rich can afford to pay more: Point being? Not enough of a reason to take away from other people with the threat or use of force. You have to prove that what you are spending money on is good in and of itself. You also need to show why everyone shouldn't chip in equally on this spending project.

Inequality is a threat to our economy: Without inequality, there is no incentive to work hard. No incentive to work hard means no hard work. No hard work means no economy.

And I will end this rant wit this question: why do these people, who already shoulder the highest portion of the taxes paid in this country, deserve to be burdened with more of the cost of running government? The top 50% of Americans pay 97.3% of the taxes. Those downtrodden poorer 50% supposedly carrying this country pay only 2.7%.

It angers me that so many people in this country would turn on the most productive elements in society. Those who produce the goods and services that make this lifestyle of ours possible should be seen as heroes, not enemies. Their rights (including that of property) should be respected rather than treating these people as resources to milk for our own gain without any compensation.

The theme of this blog, of my political philosophy, is simple. Leave other people alone. Taking more from the top producers in this nation with the threat of force is not leaving other people alone. If you are not the omniscient Philosopher King (which you are not) and these people are not actively hurting you (again, they are not), you have no right in law or in morality to use force against them. The true needs of the state should be born with a sense of equity, so that all citizens have some skin in the game. If we all pay equally (at least as a percentage of income) for the spending, we'll be much less willing to have that government spending in the first place. But when there are people who stand to gain by increased government spending, who do not have to pay a dime for it, then they will eagerly support spending every last dime other people own. Since this wealth comes from the work of others, it is, in effective, an attempt to legalize robbery.

That can hardly be considered the hallmark of a just society.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Everything in Moderation?

"All that's missing from a centrist movement that could be formidable is a leader.


Kathleen Parker argued in yesterday's Washington Post that there is a need and a desire for a moderate or centrist political movement to counter the more vocal Left and Right. This is a fairly common complaint today, that extremists have hijacked both parties and those in the middle have nowhere to go. If only these people had more influence in Washington or the state capital, partisan bickering would be put on the back burner and we could get down to fixing the problems we see today.

I'm not the kind of person who hates bursting bubbles. This is a big bubble and I'm armed with the pointy pin of reason.

The short of it is, the middle has nothing to coalesce around. The American Voter, published in 1960, is a remarkable work describing the factors that influence voting patterns in our nation. Despite being fifty years old, I am certain the same factors are still dominant and I would wager the percentage of people who are ideologically consistent (or who possess an ideology at all) compared to those with little to no political thought has not changed significantly. The people who pay close attention to what is going on and have principles to judge those facts by are primarily located on the wings of the political spectrum; those who know roughly nothing of what is going on gravitate towards the center.

"Moderates" or centrists in this nation believe so many contradictory things that it is impossible in theory or in practice to create a viable political movement out of this material. By moderate, we generally mean someone who is not aligned with either political party. Let me give you an example with four voters and two issues: abortion and the death penalty.

Voter A supports abortion, not the death penalty.
Voter B opposes abortion, supports the death penalty.
Voter C supports both abortion and the death penalty.
Voter D opposes both abortion and the death penalty.

This is very simplified, but it shows the problem. If you wish to create a movement based on these people, you have to get a large chunk of them to want to belong to the movement, i.e. they agree with the position of the movement on whatever issue they care about. With the above four voters, you can't build any support around any position without alienating half of the moderates.

Moderates will never form a political movement because they have no idea where they (and the country) should move to. These centrists take pride in the fact that they are not "ideologically blind;" ironically, they have the least clear political philosophy and tend to think least about politics in general. For the most part, people know where Republicans and Democrats stand on particular issues; nobody knows where the moderates stand, not even the moderates.

When your group is defined by a lack of political philosophy, it should come as no surprise that people are not rallying around your cause. You don't have one. Ms. Parker wants a leader, but where will this leader take them? Moderates are notorious for, and indeed defined by, not being predictable in their political positions. People will only follow a leader if they think they know where that leader plans to take them.