Friday, August 17, 2012

Are These Truths Self Evident?

The bedrock of this nation's conception of justice has been summed up with Jefferson's beautiful phrase 

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."
But our nation has changed greatly over the past 236 years.  Among those changes is the nation's lack of faith in Jefferson's Creator.  Now, I will not condemn that change, for as an agnostic I too hold doubts of any such Creator existing.  Any honest person will note, however, without the Creator, the source of our endowment becomes unclear, raising the question: are we endowed with any such rights at all? 

I have been sifting through the works of various philosophers of positive and natural law in search of a solid footing on which such rights might rest, but the search has largely been in vain.  A ridiculous amount of verbiage is spent to create ludicrously few solid concepts, but this much I see:

There is no natural law or natural rights in the sense that "Good" requires those laws to be and anything in contradiction is not actually law.  "Good" itself has no objective existence.  Positive laws, those that are actually imposed by men on other men, do exist, no matter how poorly expressed or even insane they may be.  Laws are judged not in objective abstract terms of how will they coincide with the philosophical concept of law but in whether it aligns with one's political philosophy.  As atrocious as it seems to me, Nazi law was in fact a legal system in that it allowed those subscribing to Nazi ideology to fulfill their goals.  We may condemn those ideologies and their attendant jurisprudence, but we cannot point to a Higher Power that condemns them.  If God is dead, so is the Devil; there will be no retribution on evil men who live out long and happy lives.  

This fact has driven philosophers I otherwise respect into flights of fancy.  Friedrich Hayek, for example, condemns positive law as the rule of those who make the rules rather than dispassionate, impersonal law.  Hayek (and my) political philosophy may very well depend on limiting the power of those making the laws, but all of the rules ever written to that effect are in vain if nobody is there to enforce them.  In any democracy, it is easy to bribe a segment of the populace by promising the redistribution of the wealth of another segment's.  Those of us who see this as both morally wrong and economically harmful to most of us (even many in the bribed party) face Plato's daunting task of convincing the tyrant with the ring of Gyges that he personally would be better off doing good, even in comparison to doing evil with absolute impunity.  

Plato did not have a particularly good answer.  Neither the Myth of Er nor the Creator have much sway these days and pushing them would be a pathetic Nobel Lie.  I believe respecting the life, liberty, and property of all citizens it he only way to preventing our government from being an organ of theft and corruption to benefit whichever party currently occupies the Capitol.  But so long as some citizens are willing to be bribed with the wealth and happiness of others while most remain ignorant and apathetic, those on the throne making our laws will reap the benefits of Gyges' ring.  All appeals to natural law will fail, as those corrupt governors are following the natural law of their ideologies.  The only appeal that will demand their attention is the use of force. 

Saturday, August 11, 2012

A Congress of Common Men?

It is "common wisdom" that our Congress lacks truly common men and women, that those who represent us are rarely drawn among a representative strata of the society they represent.  If only the more average citizens could be elected, these patriots would work wonders for the common good rather than putting politics or certain segments of society first.  I find plenty wrong with this commonly held belief, but let's put aside the supposed conspiracy keeping average folk out and the intellectual weakness of the "common good" concept.  Even if a majority of such working class heroes were elected, little would be done of use.  To create change, Congress must legislate.  This is not a patchwork of unrelated laws but rather an immense set of legislation and regulation running into hundreds of thousands of pages, dealing with hundreds of agencies and trillions of dollars, exclusive of contracts with the private sector.  Senator John Q. Public has no chance of effecting meaningful change in this labyrinth he cannot navigate. 

Perhaps more frightening, Representative Silverspoon N. Mouth, with his years of public service and elite education afforded him by his privileged status in society, cannot comprehend this interminable Gordian Knot, either.  That's a frightening thought: nobody actually understands the law.  The most studious lawyers among us only become experts in parts of that law. 

If there are so many laws written in a language only a few can understand, any pretense of our laws being subject to democratic approval should be dropped.  Our elections are never based on the laws passed by politicians but rather on whether the quality of life has seemed to improve or not; most people could no more connect the impact of laws to actual life than they could read the mind of God himself. 

In their ignorance, people call for more regulation from the government.  It has nothing to do with having a sound understanding of economics, finances, or the law, but rather a primordial gut response that the people in charge need to "do something" to prevent bad economic outcomes.  Again, the people in Congress hardly understand the law, much less our entire economic system, but because of political pressure they feel compelled to create some new law or another.  Since the folks in Congress do not understand the laws well enough to change anything in a meaningful way, they turn to the experts in those particular areas of laws to be impacted by the new regulation.  

Those people are called lobbyists.  Their entire point in existing is to understand segments of the law relevant to their interest and write proposed changes that will change those segments in their (or their employer's) favor.  The more we regulate, the more complicated the mess becomes, and the more power lobbyists end up with due to this black hole of legal information. 

"It will be of little avail to the people, that the laws are made by men of their own choice, if the laws be so voluminous that they cannot be read, or so incoherent that they cannot be understood"

~Federalist 62 (I recommend reading it in its entirety)

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Test The Test

I'm currently reading Teaching America: The Case for Civic Education, edited by David Feith with contributors ranging across the political spectrum.  A single theme is dominant in each work: civic literacy is unacceptably low for a republican government like ours to function correctly.  Study after study has revealed America's profound and distressing ignorance of its own history and Constitution.  The rule of the People is based on the notion that the People will be a strong check on government abuse.  That, however, requires the People to first know that abuse is even going on (current events), to understand the proper sphere any particular public official operates in with corresponding powers and limits (the Constitution and attending laws), with a solid understanding of what is right and wrong in politics to begin with (political theory).  Public schools fail on nearly all of these categories; those who learn them do so on their own initiative.  

I think everyone knows this.  It's not even really controversial.  And yet, we continue down the same path, perhaps more out of apathy than anything else.  I've pointed out my discontent with New York's history curriculum before.  It is a creature of bureaucracy, more bent on allowing quantification of student results than improving student knowledge.  Recalling for two years arcane factoids and writing a vapid essay qualifies as acceptable in New York.  This hardly lives up to the lofty goals of Social Studies our state's Department of Education lays forth: 

Courses of study should give students the knowledge, intellectual skills, civic understandings, and dispositions toward democratic values that are necessary to function effectively in American society. Ultimately, social studies instruction should help students assume their role as responsible citizens in America’s constitutional democracy and as active contributors to a society that is increasingly diverse and interdependent with other nations of the world. For example, students should be able to use the knowledge and skills acquired through social studies courses to solve problems and make reasoned decisions in their daily lives. Social studies courses should provide students with the background to conduct research in order to cast informed votes, with the skills to place conflicting ideas in context, and with the wisdom to make good judgments in dealing with the tensions inherent in society such as the enduring struggle to find the proper balance between protecting the rights of the individual and promoting the common good.
Not having a high school diploma in this era is an economic death sentence; failing to pass the history Regents Exams bars graduation.  When the room has a high proportion of students who may not pass, the only option a teacher realistically has is to focus on those border line cases and do whatever possible to get them to squeak by.  The highest achieving students have to hope there is an AP program in order to receive attention, the lowest students are considered lost, and those border line cases hopefully pass the test.  This hardly helps "students assume their role as responsible citizens in America's constitutional democracy" (most people could not tell you what constitutional democracy means) who will "cast informed votes" (take a look at our voting rate and those who vote on issues rather than personalities) who "conduct research" (The Daily Show constitutes the main source of news for a ridiculously high proportion of Americans). 

Ok, so we're not living up to those lofty goals, but students will at least recall some basic facts from world and U.S. history because they can pass the test, right?  Everyone should be laughing at that thought.  Once the test is passed, the information can be and usually is forgotten, except for those few who found the material interesting; those students generally knew the information prior to taking the class. 

I would love to see a study on how many voting New York residents that passed the Global and United States Regents Exams in high school could pass them again now.  We'll eliminate the essay part and give a passing grade of 30 correct responses to 50 questions.  This is the general rule of thumb as to whether a student will pass the test. A response of 2 out of 5 is required on the essays, which amounts to making some vague statement about the topic at hand that wasn't handed to the student in the written directions.  I would wager good money that less than one in four would pass. 

So, why are we doing this?  We're not creating engaged and thinking citizens.  In the long run, we're not even creating citizens who recall factoids from the class. 

We do it because we're in a rut.  Getting out of that rut would require a great deal of work and squarely facing many unpleasant truths, among them that many students do not have the aptitude to understand our government well enough to hold them accountable.  Some will never get it, no matter how much education you throw at them.  We have a strong egalitarian streak in this nation and the notion of a natural aristocracy sets many teeth on edge.  Nevertheless, it exists, and we would be better served by focusing squarely on those with the talent than in wasting our time getting uninterested and incapable students to squeak by a test that has no bearing on long term civic literacy. I mean no disrespect to those who do not have the mental aptitude to govern as voters; the theory of multiple intelligences is one I happen to agree with.  Those with the ability to become mechanics should have that ability improved and polished rather than ignored while becoming frustrated as their intelligence is measured by some other standard.  But just as I don't want somebody who does not understand mechanics (like myself) working on my car, so I don't want those without understanding of government working on that, either. 

I don't know if we'll ever be ready for that as a nation.  Until we do, though, we will continue to fail to develop potential minds by wasting resources on those without the potential.  The first step will be removing these damn state tests and the best way of removing them is to prove how worthless they are.  Some institute or college should be looking into this.  If the History Regents are so important for students to pass that their futures can be ruined without satisfactory performance, then the test itself should be tested to see if the state standards are being met by voting age citizens who successfully completed New York's curriculum.  If there's no link between passing the tests and being informed (even about the exact same material), then the test serves no purpose whatsoever.  

Let's test the test.