Category Archives: Philosophy

The Neoconservative Mind

David Brooks penned an opinion piece for the New York Times arguing that the trouble Republicans and the Romney campaign have relating to everyday Americans is that, within the Republican Party, traditional conservatism has been all but forgotten, and economic conservatism has been ascendant. I think this argument is flawed – current Republican policy is hardly radically free-market, and Mr. Brooks ignores the corrosive effect neoconservative ideology has had on the GOP. I would argue that it has not been the ascendency of the economic conservatives but the replacement of the traditional conservatives with neoconservatives. Continue reading

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A Note on Criticisms of Chik-Fil-A Day

“The sin of the century is the loss of the sense of sin.” – Pope Pius XII

“To love is to will the good of another” – St. Thomas Aquinas

The massive show of support for Chik-fil-A brought some criticism from Christians who felt that the event ultimately would do more harm than good to the Christian witness to the LGBT community. However, a major component of this criticism is that the gay community perceives such public shows of support for true marriage to be “hate” and thus those taking part in Chik-fil-A Appreciation Day were not following the command to “love your neighbor.” The charge is that Christians are too busy “hating the sin” to “love the sinner.” While this argument may make other good points, on this particular issue it is in error, because the author has a faulty understanding of love.

What is Love? As the above quote from the Angelic Doctor states, “to love is to will the good of another.” The highest end and greatest good of man is to be united to God in the Beatific Vision. Man is fallen, and cannot achieve this end on his own. Christ came, and died for us, that we might be saved. How can we be saved? “Repent and be baptized, every one of you in the name of Christ Jesus for the forgiveness of your sins.” Further, St. Paul tells us that no one who persists in sin (“Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither the immoral, nor idolaters, …” 1 Corinthians 6:9) will be saved.

Homosexual acts (though not the orientation itself, that is merely disordered) are condemned as gravely sinful by the Bible. As long as the LGBT community maintains that such acts are not sinful or wrong, and any opposition to such acts is hate, their salvation is an unlikely prospect. To promote or fail to refute the proposition that Christianity condones homosexual acts will endanger the souls of many same-sex attracted individuals, and is thus gravely contrary to love. We can debate about the wisdom of the Huckabee-led Chik-fil-A Day. But if sinners take umbrage when we condemn their evil actions, we may not back down merely for the sake of their feelings. Immortal souls are at stake.

Is Free Enterprise Materialistic?

A common objection to the capitalist system is that free enterprise leads to or encourages materialismthe excessive desire to consume and accumulate material goods. This view is often accompanied by the idea that capitalism is based on the pursuit of profits, and thus elevates the accumulation of wealth to a kind of first-order good. However, when compared with its alternatives, the free enterprise system does not especially concern itself with the accumulation or distribution of material goods.

Free enterprise is a system whereby individuals, secured in their property rights by the rule of law, are free to exchange and produce goods in any manner that does not violate the rights of other individuals to life, liberty, and property. Goods acquired by production or exchange are owned by the individual, and cannot be taken or used without his leave. Whether a man chooses to consume his property, give it away, destroy it, or use it to produce more goods is not the concern of the overseeing State: in a system of free enterprise, the State’s role in the economy is to prevent theft and fraud. The focus is on human action: individual liberty to act, and individual responsibility for those actions.

Redistributionist alternatives are guided by whether or not the current distribution of economic goods meets some criteria – without regard to how that distribution came about. Socialist and communist endeavors taxed or confiscated the wealth of the very rich to make all men more equal in outcome, and class- and caste-based societies saw confiscatory taxation of the more successful members of the lower classes as a method of “keeping them in their proper place.” After all, it would not do for a peasant to have more wealth than a nobleman! In redistributionist systems, the State additionally tasks itself with transferring property and wealth between parties to achieve some desired wealth distribution. Here, the focus is on the outcomes of human action: did those endeavors lead to the “proper” distribution of goods and services?

The difference should be clear: free enterprise secures property rights to individuals and allows men the freedom to dispose of their goods and lands as they see fit, and the major alternative family of systems ignore, to some degree or another, the rights to liberty and property of some in order to secure a given distribution of material goods. Why then, is free enterprise maligned with the epithet “materialistic”?

The reason is simple: the system of free enterprise provides both the freedom and produces the wealth to allow people to act in materialistic ways. In some sense, capitalism civilizes materialism: the system produces so much excess wealth that it becomes possible for a man to horde goods without pillaging his neighbor. Nevertheless, the dual guiding lights of free enterprise are individual liberty and individual responsibility, and equality is equality of rights before the law. On the other hand, the more redistributionist systems view equality in different terms: the question is not whether men are equally free to act, but whether their actions lead to materially equal outcomes. The materialism of redistributionist regimes is embedded institutionally, whereas the materialism of free enterprise is not intrinsic to the system, but is engraved upon man’s Fallen and sinful nature.

Syria, Free Societies, and Decentralized Gun Ownership

Many arguments for gun control attempt to cite a tension between the rights of individuals to acquire weapons for self-defense and the safety of society. “Sensible” gun control requires that some limitations on the individual right to bear arms be enacted to protect society at large. These limitations often take the form of bans on particularly potent weapons, such as the now-defunct U.S. assault weapons ban. While such laws may seem intuitive, I argue that the good of a free society requires not restrictions on military-style firearms, but the widespread and decentralized ownership of such arms.

Syria’s bloody rebellion saw the deaths of more civilians on June 6th. Over fifty-five civilians were killed in the town of Al-Qubeir. The perpetrators of this massacre were members of the Shabiha militia. Shabiha, roughly translated as “thugs,” are regime-friendly civilians armed by the government and used by the Assad regime as a sort of deniable means of suppressing rebels. President Assad would technically be telling the truth when he claims that criminals and terrorists conveniently killed and intimidated his foes.

What does this have to do with gun ownership? Centralization. The Shabiha militia, as previously noted, was armed by the government of Syria. Also, according to gunpolicy.org, there are only 735,000 civilian-owned firearms in Syria, or 3.9 firearms per 100 persons. For comparison, there are 270 million civilian-owned firearms in America, with approximately 88 firearms for every 100 citizens. This low rate of civilian firearm ownership in Syria allows the Assad regime to selectively arm friendly segments of society, thereby creating a radical imbalance of power. Suddenly, these favored groups have weapons, and the common people do not. They can intimidate or murder a subversive majority without fear of reprisal and without assuming any significant personal risk of death.

A free society, which our Republic is designed to be, requires that democracy be limited to guarantee the rights of minorities against majoritarian depredations. Our Bill of Rights, in addition to protecting the people from the government, also allegedly functions to protect one group of people from the legislated tyranny of another group. In particular, the Fourteenth Amendment legally guarantees equal protection under the law to all persons. Unfortunately, legal guarantees do not always equate to actual guarantees. The Constitution of the Soviet Union included legal guarantees to freedom of speech, press, assembly, and religion. However, the people had no way of holding the government to these promises.

Consider a free society, with legal guarantees of equal rights to life, liberty, and property. In this imaginary republic, approximately (say) forty percent of the citizens, regardless of ethnic or social class, possess military-style assault rifles. Even relative poverty will not exclude persons from firearm ownership, if the society values weaponry. An AK-47 can be had for as little as $460, and I purchased my Kalashnikov for $300 from a private citizen (a practice legal in America and any free society). Suppose that a well-connected minority attempts to suppress dissent, Syria-style, in response to some new legislation enacting, oh, say, an unfair taxation scheme. Instead of mowing down unarmed demonstrators with no risk to themselves, soldiers in the employ of the oppressing group will have to face significant resistance. While it is certainly possible that the oppressing group will defeat the subversive group, such an accomplishment will require a war, and wars are costly in terms of both lives and money. Massacres are relatively cheap for the perpetrators. Further, while an oppressive class or regime might arm friendly groups with military weapons, the power gap between these ad-hoc militias and the general populace is merely well-equipped versus ill-equipped, rather than rifles against fists. While no sure guarantee of the rights of all people can realistically exist, distributed military firearm ownership presents a powerful deterrent to oppressive groups.

Such a society is one in which the rights of minority groups or poor majorities are more likely to be respected – not out of altruism, but out of that universal human quality: aversion to being shot. Combined with the fact that assault weapons are rarely used in crime, a compelling case for legal civilian ownership of assault rifles exists. Even if one believes that the good of society can legitimately trump or compromise individual liberty, the decentralized and widespread ownership of military-style firearms is clearly in the public interest.

Christmas Reading

G. K. Chesterton’s Heretics ended up at the head of my slightly non-deterministic reading queue. It was a quick read, due in equal parts to fascination and frustration.

Chesterton’s lament is that “everything is important, except everything” – that we had come to care more about the tiny details and positions one might hold rather than one’s overarching and all-encompassing philosophy of life. Furthermore, we have ceased to care about being right, about being orthodox. He argues that the modern man cares nothing for the notion that he might be heretical, while the ancient man would never entertain such a thought. He was orthodox, even if the entire world held a heresy.

Gilbert Keith (poor man) Chesterton proceeds to analyze and assail the dogma – or lack thereof – espoused by some of his contemporaries. In this same spirit, and possibly having some causal link with the aforementioned frustration, let me say this: Mr. McCabe’s description of Mr. Chesterton hits the nail on the head. The man “makes up facts” and “substitutes imagination for judgment.” He makes good points, but often by means of un-argued assertions and dubious chains of logic. Chesterton takes the ‘mystery or absurdity’ dichotomy route past its logical conclusion – he embraces both. One can sense that he has great things to say, but his manner of saying them is maddening to the theoretically-inclined mind. He rejects rationality, and I think he enjoys and revels in it. All that said, Mr. Chesterton was a very entertaining writer and I plan on reading his other books, starting with Orthodoxy.

Ron Paul recommended Frédéric Bastiat’s The Law. I’m a Ron Paul fan, and I usually associate Bastiat more with economics than legal or political theory, so I picked up the book. It’s a short, 55-page read with a single and very clear thesis: government may morally use force to secure the life, liberty, and property of the people, and to secure exactly that – no more and no less. A person has a right to use force to defend himself and his property. Government is the collective use of force, so therefore the valid governmental uses of force can be no greater than the permissible uses of force by any member of that body, i.e. any one citizen.

Next (in theory) on the queue is a re-read of 1984 and Dying to Win (an analysis of why people blow themselves up). Cheery, I know.

The Revolution

So I think I made the jump from being a Conservative to being a Libertarian, and I think a certain representative from Texas had a lot to do with it. Other factors would include Milton Friedman, some of my good friends, and a lot of time to rethink past positions, but Ron Paul’s Revolution: A Manifesto was definitely the leading cause. I picked it up on my Kindle when I was back in my home state of Pennsylvania, and read most of it on the flights back to California.

Three areas of his manifesto surprised me, and especially made me think.

Non-interventionism
Ron Paul echoes the advice of the early American political theorists to treat the nations with equal friendship, but to refrain from entering into military alliances. I’m not sure if Dr. Paul opposes all foreign intervention – his description of overseas adventures that he thinks were bad ideas seems to leave out Korea – but his overall theme seems to imply that. We certainly agree that American foreign policy is something of a disaster, though I have some reservations about moving to complete non-interventionism. Ron Paul’s point that non-interventionism does not by any means require isolationism is a good one, but I do wonder what he would think about the first Gulf War. There is certainly an argument for using American troops to protect American interests, but do we have a duty to go beyond that? I might wish peace and friendship with all men, and entangling alliances with none, but if I see a thug attack one of my neighbors without cause or provocation, I would think I would have a personal duty to come to my neighbor’s aid. Things get more complicated when the President is not rushing to the front lines of Kuwait himself, but ordering “our boys” into the fray, but we do have an all-volunteer army. Dr. Paul makes a lot of excellent points, and I especially appreciate his support of the requirement that we declare war when committing forces, but I’d want the President to do something the next time some short man in Europe decides to make geography easier.

Abortion Stance
“Pro-choice” is always a deal-breaker for me. Any politician who sanctions the elective murder of our unborn citizens is not worthy of my respect or support, regardless of his other positions. Given that many libertarians are apparently pro-choice, I was interested to see Ron Paul’s position on abortion. The Defender of the Constitution did not disappoint, citing a new-to-me passage from the Articles allowing Congress to set the jurisdictions of the various courts, apparently including the Supreme Court. He cites the Congressional removal of court authority over Reconstruction as precedent. The issue of abortion would then revert to the states, which have shown greater moral fortitude on this issue than our highest court. However, I have some concerns about the use of this power. Some of its past uses have been less than moral. Toward the bottom of the wikipedia page on jurisdictional stripping, there are a few examples of its more recent employment – note the one on detainee rights. The Supreme Court cannot be stripped of its original jurisdiction, so I don’t believe that this could ever be used by Congress to remove the enumerated rights we more-or-less still enjoy. I am somewhat uncomfortable with the power, but it is in the Constitution, and if there was ever cause to use it, that cause is abortion.

Money
Revolution also has a lot to say about our monetary system. Ron Paul submits the writings of the Founding Fathers and the rampant inflation since the removal  of the gold standard as a two-point indictment of our current fiat monetary system. He cites Hayek’s work on the unequal effects of inflation on the populace. I agree that the current fiat currency system has some very undesirable traits, in particular the diminishment of real savings when the government runs out of money and decides to fire up the Xerox at The Fed. While Paul’s solution of removing the ban on contracts that specify payment in gold and let Americans choose between the paper and the metal, the idea of having stayed on the gold standard raises some interesting questions for me. Since advances in manufacturing processes and efficiencies gained from economy-of-scale considerations drive down nominal prices of most goods over time (even in our inflationary fiat-money system), gold standard monetary systems must be deflationary. A corollary of this is the fact that sticking money under one’s mattress has a real – if not nominal – return on investment. I haven’t done the math on this, and I suppose this particular ROI would be very low, but it feels off that the effective value of ones savings could increase over time, even if that savings is never employed as rented capital. Perhaps this wouldn’t be any sort of problem, or perhaps my misgivings simply step from having grown up in an inflationary system, but it has made me think a lot recently.

He brought up a lot of interesting points, and won me over on most of them. Even here, when I list my contentions and misgivings, my disagreements are few. The book is well-written, well-informed, and well-argued. I would highly recommend it.

Coming up will probably be some sort of spiel about the Ames Straw Poll and the recent GOP debate (transcript here). Next on the short-term read/review queue is the Theology of the Body, so some of that might trickle in as well.