Steel City Cowboy

Monday, March 31, 2008

Why do you love the government?

Lately, I've been confronted with a growing number of people in both my church and work experience who are expressing a point of view that seems bizarre to me. Their view, though I'm not sure how far they've followed their premises to their eventual conclusions, is that there is a man, Mr. Barack Obama, who will be "good" for our country. As in, morally good. Capital "G" Good.

I have heard them speak adoringly of him, such that the phrase used in conservative circles, the "Obamessiah," really does seem to hit the mark.

"Oh, I love Obama," they say. "He's great. He's what this country needs."

Verbatim quote, that.

I have seen some people on the right note that Obama seems to be functioning as a secular spiritual leader for many on the left who have abandoned or never felt a religious spirituality. That may be true, but it doesn't explain the fervor I see in the eyes of otherwise religious people who appear to think of him as really something special.

From directly questioning people who express a great hope in Barack Obama, I have gleaned that they believe that Mr. Obama:

  • Is a moral man;
  • Wants to help people;
  • Will use the power of the Federal Government to give aid to the poor and needy;
  • Will use the power of the Federal Government to allay the negative aspects of capitalism;
  • Will stop a pointless, immoral war; and
  • Will increase the morality of the Federal Government.

That is my best attempt at an honest appraisal of the situation, stated as neutrally as I can manage. I don't think you would find too many Obama supporters who would disagree with those statements. That being the case, I now present a treatise on a different point of view. It's not so much a classically conservative perspective as it is a different way of looking at many of the basics that people who label themselves "progressives" take for granted.

Progressives purport to be open minded. Free thinkers. Compassionate. Tolerant of other views. My own experience has shown that there is a great divide between what they preach and what they practice regarding their tolerance of other viewpoints, so I have to wonder how many of them will be able to make it through this without simply discarding it because it differs from their orthodoxy at such a basic level.

Organizations are not moral entities
The first mistake that progressives make is that organizations and groups of people simply are not moral entities. To most people, there is no doubt that each individual human being is a moral entity, responsible for their actions and words, with a sense of right and wrong and good and bad. And most people, liberals and conservatives alike, would probably say that organizations (churches, community groups, corporations and governments) are also moral entities. They would be wrong.

History is replete with examples of the difference in moral volume between individuals and groups. It is as simple as looking to the diffusion of individual morality in a group that leads to no one taking action in a bad situation when many individuals in the group might have acted differently if presented with that same situation alone. But what about churches and community groups? Certainly they are moral actors in the world.

What is morality, though? Where is it located? For those of us who profess a religious belief, we would say it is a generational product of the soul and the mind. For are atheistic friends, we can say that morality lives in reason, which is a product of the mind.

What mind does a church have? What business has a soul? And what are the consequences of treating things that lack the basic building blocks of morality as though they had them?

Certainly, you can say that a church, a business or a government has organizations and structures analogous to a mind. But is it close enough to a mind and a soul that it meets the qualifications for admission to the sphere of moral entities?

If you believe that businesses, governments and organizations are moral entities, you believe as a consequence that their decision-making bodies qualify as a mind, and that, if you are religious, the "spirit" of the organization qualifies as a soul. Of course, that's an argument neither side can prove. We can't see the mind or soul of an individual or of a group, and the discussion would quickly descend into "yea-hu/nyu-uh" territory.

A different way to look at the problem, though, is through outcomes. We know the outcome of treating individuals as moral entities. It entails holding people responsible for their actions and words, rewarding those who we have deemed "Good" with our approval, and punishing those we have deemed "Bad" with our disapproval. The outcome is a fairly stable society of individuals, where good behavior is in general socially encouraged, and behavior that is detrimental to society is generally discouraged. A large part of that punishment and reward system is based on moral pressure.

But what do we get when we treat organizations as moral entities? As organizations cannot have morals, you lose the leverage of moral pressure, while at the same time expecting the organizations to behave as individuals. I'd suggest that what you get is the 120 million souls extinguished in the 20th century at the hands of people attempting to implement socialism, far more than religious wars have killed in the entire history of humanity, and far more than have died of want in a capitalistic society. The drive for socialism is the drive to hold government to the moral imperatives of the individual.

Why do people persist in a belief in socialism?
I suggest to you that capitalism -- the private ownership of property and the ability to dispose of that property as the owner sees fit without interference from outside powers -- is the natural state of humanity. "It's mine" is one of the basic of human impulses. Socialism, even of the ideal variety, flies directly in the face of that. Socialism, in which nothing at all belongs to the individual, is the exact opposite of one of the most basic human understandings. Is it any surprise that any time it has been tried, force has been needed to make it stick? In what other realm would we be so foolish to force a way of being on people which simply is not?

This isn't to say that all human impulses are good, or that we do nothing as a society and as individuals to try to mitigate the darker impulses we have. In fact, coupled to "It's mine" is also the natural empathy we feel (and yes, it's embedded in us at a bio-mechanical level) when we see another human being unjustly (or maybe even justly) suffering. "It's mine" is balanced by "Let me help you." That is a good thing, and it is so because we are moral creatures.

The great experiment of socialism was nothing more than an attempt to ignore "it's mine" -- to take the moral imperative of "let me help you" away from the individual and assign it to an organization. The results of that experiment are well known, and are to me the greatest indicator that attempting to do such a thing, to supersede the morality of individuals with the morality of an organization, end in disaster. The failure of socialism and socialistic policies is due to the fact that they require moral actions and accountability from an entity, the government, that is definitionaly amoral. Requiring a dog to be a good cat will not produce a good cat. It only makes a confused dog.

How can we decide which form of government and economic system to use, then? Certainly, socialism is seen as more moral than capitalism because its stated intentions are better. Socialism hopes that everyone should have everything, in plenty, and there should be no failure or competition. Capitalism doesn't care one bit. All it cares about is that individuals (and groups of individuals) can dispose of their property as they choose. But see how quickly looking at economic systems in those terms devolves into silliness? Capitalism doesn't actually "care." Socialism doesn't really "hope." They are philosophies, and describing them in this way, as I've heard almost every progressive I've ever talked with about this do, ascribes to them qualities they simply do not have. Thinking about philosophies in such a flawed fashion leads directly to bad policy decisions.

If we can't judge economic philosophies based on their supposed moral imperatives, what they "care" about, then what metric can we use? As I said before, I would look at outcomes. One of the things that progressives tend to go on about is the plight of the poor, and how socialism in the form of government action and programs will help them. Looking at history, though, which economic system has helped the poor the most? It turns out that national economies that lean to socialism create poverty. That's right. They actually create it, foster it and grow it. National economies that lean to capitalism, though they are less "moral" in the eyes of progressives, actually raise the standards of living for everyone, the poor included.

It can be argued that the citizens of the United States of America, through technological innovation driven by capitalism, are responsible for a greater increase in the standards of living for more human beings than any other group of people combined in the history of the world. Period. Socialism has produced almost nothing useful to the alleviation of human suffering. Capitalism is responsible for the simple fact that you and I live a life beyond the wildest imaginings of even the rulers of the world as recently as a hundred years ago.

So, when looking at outcomes, the choice is clear. If you can ignore that voice in your head that tells you the system you choose must be moral, even though systems are definitionaly amoral, you might just change your mind. Ask yourself, as a progressive, why you think that systems and groups are moral entities. If you cannot answer that question adequately other than saying "well... they HAVE to be!" you may need to rethink the way you look at economics and government policy.

What are governments good at?
If governments cannot be moral actors, then what are they good for? What purpose do they serve? The brief answer is that governments exist to project force. For and against whom they project that force helps to differentiate the types of governments. The Federal government of the United States has very few positive mandates (as originally constructed), but they all involve the application of force. Besides the normal powers presented in the Constitution (raise an army, declare and fund war) that are obvious uses of force, the rest, too, involve force involve force in more or less obvious ways. The levying of taxes and the ability to settle disputes between the states (and other financial powers and issues) are all backed by the use of imprisonment and lethal force. Never forget that taxes are collected at the barrel of a gun.

The Bill of Rights can be read quite directly as explicit limitations on the ways that the Federal government can apply force to the citizens of the United States. This is really basic civics class, but I find myself amazed at how few people remember those early lessons. The first governments formed to instill the authority of force within an individual or individuals to carry out the sense of justice of a local community. It was, essentially, field deputization. And although the scale of things has changed, that original purpose has not. Government, large and small, is there to use force or the threat of force to accomplish a goal. In the case of a legitimate government, that force will be used in accordance with law, as it is in most of the modern Western world. In an illegitimate government, that force will be used almost exclusively against the very people who live within the governmental system for the sole purpose of the retention of government power, as it is in places like Zimbabwe and China. This is not a binary situation, and all governments ride a line between these two extremes.

Even the most noble end of government, which according to progressives is helping the poor and oppressed, has at its basis the use of force. No government program with a grounding in socialist philosophy (the redistribution of wealth) would be possible without the taking of private property in the form of taxes. As was mentioned before, taxes are collected under the threat of force, whatever anyone may say about your duty to pay them. And so, we find ourselves in a situation where in order to have our government act like a moral individual and provide aid to the poor, we must use force against our neighbor to do so.

Of course, some amount of taxation is necessary. It is not good, but necessary. In America and other capitalist societies, we agree to give up a small portion of our private property (under threat of force) in order to ensure that the government can project enough force on our behalf against foreign and domestic powers that we can maintain our right to the rest of our property. The rest, from the standpoint of government, is all cost, and no benefit.

If you use a gun to feed a person and don't realize you're using a gun, it's not going to work out how you planned.
It stands to reason that to engage a entity like the Federal government to attempt a moral action, of which morality it cannot know, will produce a paradoxical result. You intend to help the poor. But all you do is take from others by force, without even accomplishing your primary goal.

If helping the poor were as simple as giving them money, this might actually create some net good. Unfortunately, that is obviously not the case. How many hundreds of millions of dollars in goods and services have been taken from people then redistributed (once the government eats away a percentage in its massive inefficiency) to no avail? What has it bought us? It seems that when you spend large amounts of money on poverty, you get what you pay for. More poverty. In your attempt to impose a moralistic structure on something that is by its nature amoral, you not only use force against your neighbor to take from them, but you don't even accomplish your original goal.

Yes, we should be helping our brothers and sisters in need. But as individuals, and groups of like-minded individuals who want to pool their own resources to do so. As soon as you step over the bounds of what is yours, though, and start requiring by force of government that others help, the battle is lost. You are no longer helping, because you have abrogated your own moral duty to an entity that is amoral. When a person asks another for help, it is the beginning of a psychological process in them and a personal engagement on the part of the helper that benefits both and has a great chance of success. When a person applies to a government agency for cash benefits, no such process begins. It is faceless. Soulless. There is no help -- only property that has been taken from someone else.

Here is the point where my understanding fails. In the face of the massive failure of socialism and government programs to allay poverty, how can anyone continue to put faith in the efficacy of such things? I think it is their overwhelming need for the government to appear moral to them. The actual outcomes don't matter or can be wished away. It is a horrible temptation to abandon our moral responsibilities and hope that somehow the government that never succeeded in doing so in the past will somehow work it out for the good, for the moral way, this time.

Direct Admonition From The Bible
Now is the point where progressives, especially religious ones, begin to look for justification for their faith in government power, because the facts are clearly not on their side. They say that Jesus advocated the changing of governmental systems. He was a rebel. He shook up The Man. Indeed he did, but that was by the way he lived his life as an individual and in the way he helped other individuals. The textual message of Jesus in the Gospels is very very personal. Of course, you can extrapolate things from his life. Almost any message you like, including the message that Jesus admonishes us to work for governmental change. Of course, most of the people I've met who argue that point of view want governmental change that advances "progressive" ideals. But the truth is one that I learned in college: don't ignore the plain meaning in favor of the one you've dug up.

I saw it innumerable times in literature classes, and it seems to be the same thing today. The professors would find some scant textual evidence for a contrarian point of view that was in vogue while they worked on their theses. No matter that the point of view was in direct contradiction to the clean meaning of the text. Somehow, that top level meaning was downplayed, as they strove to make points about the anagogical context with their fellow intellectuals.

I clearly recall hearing a professor who I know for a fact to be a very good person and self-sacrificing humanitarian go on and on about his theory that in Paradise Lost Adam and Even had not had pre-lapsarian sex. He found all kinds of things he considered hints, and deep hidden meanings that implied it. It was his pet theory, and he went on and on about it. In class one day, I had really had enough, so I asked why, if his interpretation were true, Milton had said straight up that Adam and Eve had "laid" together "in connubial bliss?" To this professor's credit, he took a moment, thought about it and said "You're right." He promised to reconsider his theory in light of the fact that the literal text shot it down.

I think that people who live deep within a text on a daily basis sometimes lose sight of the very plain meaning it presents. Jesus asks us to change ourselves, and to show that change to the world so others can have a chance to experience it. He demonstrates and explicitly advocates dealing directly with people and personally helping them. The only mention he makes of the government or larger systems is to say that they are what they are, and if we choose to deal with them, we will get what they have to offer.

It is no surprise to someone like myself who knows what government is good at (projecting force) why Jesus did not attempt to save people by signing up with the ruling powers, setting up salvation committees and sending centurions to every corner of the globe to preach his word. He chose to walk among individuals, to touch them, eat with them and help them as individuals. The text is plain about that. The message of salvation, the conviction of human sin and our duty to love our neighbors as ourselves is not one that will survive if we attempt to spread and enact it by force. To extrapolate the text into a message of "social justice" which by its very nature requires the iron fist of government runs directly counter the plain message. Now, if someone talks about "social justice" simply as the removal of legal barriers to equality that is one thing. I have rarely heard it used in such a limited fashion, though. Are they really ready to spread their interpretation of the Good News by force? I am almost sure that they have not considered that this is what they are doing, this is the true conclusion of their premises, whether they realize it or not.

The real problem, and what should not be done about it
I've already mentioned my take on taxation several times, so I won't repeat it. But with that in mind, it suggests both the real problem and a solution. We are told by both Republicans and Democrats that the problems we see in the world -- poverty, racism, violence, inequality -- can be solved through the judicious use of government. Problems in government like corruption and disenfranchisement can be solved through a more judicious use of... government. An interesting notion.

Could it be that these things are not problems in search of government solutions, but instead symptoms of the problem of governments that are too large and powerful themselves? I've written before about the deleterious effect of the tax code on business. When changing the tax code or regulatory structures becomes a route to a greater return on investment than conducting actual business, businesses will attempt to change the tax code and regulatory structure. Business, like other organizations and systems, is naturally amoral. Like the wind, it is a generated effect. "Business" is the overall picture we perceive when we look at the billions of data points that are individual financial decisions. You can control it as well as you can control the wind.

Capital is like electricity in a circuit or packets on the Internet. It will flow through the path of least resistance and greatest return. That is a law of nature, just like "It's mine." And just like the fact that organizations are not moral entities. Cut off the money, and you cut off the power. If you reduce the income of government and its ability to raise further income, you destroy its ham-handed attempts to be moral that are always doomed to fail. If you can manage to reduce its power, though, to shrink the caliber of the Big Gun, you return moral responsibility to the individuals of our nation, while at the same time destroying the government as a valid revenue stream for business, consequently removing the corruption.

Organizations are not moral actors. Why then would you put your faith in someone who promises to bring "better" morals to entities like business and government that cannot even have them, especially when we have seen what happens when you try to do so?

The government is a gun. Why then would you put your faith in someone who promises to use that gun to do things other than project force?

Rather, I would choose to elect as my public servants (not to follow as a leader as I hear so many progressives tout) people who understand that business is an amoral effect, the net result of individuals exchanging and disposing of their property as they see fit. People who understand that the government is indeed a gun, and attempt at every step to minimize its scope and power, and therefore, its ability to be used against us. Certainly, there is no one like that on the left. I see people filled with rapture at the thought of Senator Obama becoming President of the United States, and I have to wonder what they are thinking. Why do they put such faith in both a man and a government to solve problems whose solutions have already been presented to us two thousand years ago? Of course, there is no one like that running on the right at the moment either, but at least their words coincide with bits and pieces of this from time to time.

I urge anyone who thinks that Senator Obama will help to "heal" our country or help certain groups of people, to reconsider why they think that government is even capable of such things, and to look at the cost in history of trying to force it into being so.

From the standpoint of someone like myself who advocates for drastically smaller government, this standpoint is, ironically, just more of the same. There is no change here. Just a desire to make the government something that it simply is not, and the inevitable side effect that the Big Gun grows stronger. We need personal responsibility, within ourselves and to our fellow humans, but without the weapon of government prodding our backs. No one at all is preaching that this year, but I know whose message is the furthest from it.