Thursday, November 29, 2012

Music to Work To

A friend of mine asked me for a list of some of the instrumental music I've collected over the past several years, stuff that I find very convenient for when I need to get work done but still want something going on in the background. I figured that some other people might benefit from this, so here goes. Links are to YouTube videos that contain some sample of the artist in question, but I believe that all of this is on Amazon for purchase/preview and I am told that you can find it on Spotify as well. Enjoy.

Acoustic Guitar:
Andy McKee
Antoine Dufour
Ewan Dobson
Hunter Van Larkins (and just Van Larkins for one of them doing solo stuff)
Stefano Barone

Piano (and accompaniment):

Fariborz Lachini
George Winston
Ludovico Einaudi
Ryuichi Sakamoto (Has a lot of different stuff out there, what I recommend is his album "BTTB - Back To The Basic")

Mixed Instrumental or other:
Aaron Copland
Aaron Koppel Quartet (video quality isn't good, listen on Amazon instead)
Billy Cobham
Chris Green Quartet
Explosions in the Sky
Mannheim Steamroller (They do some non-Christmas stuff, as well)
Mike Oldfield (This video is apparently the whole of his album "Tubular Bells II", which is a great place to start)
My Dad Vs Yours
Oz Noy
Shadowfax (the lead instrument is called a lyricon and is more or less an electric saxophone/clarinet thing that is awesome)
Steffen Schackinger

And, though not instrumental, you should totally check out The Reign of Kindo. Or really anything on their label, CANdYRAT (which includes lots of stuff above). The label owner posts lots of stuff to YouTube under the username rpoland

Monday, November 5, 2012

Pre Election Musings

In "honor" of tomorrow's festivities (clearly I mean playing Halo, right?), I thought I'd spend a few minutes on a special write up that's been more or less in the making for the past 10 months. This is by no means complete, but it's a fairly comprehensive understanding of what I feel is a proper way for Christians to look at modern US politics. While my musings are probably not 100% accurate (and I ask to be called out on any errors I've made here), what follows is a drastically different take on politics from what I see from others in the church, but I fully believe this position to be defensible both logically and from scripture. I've tried to distill many different thoughts down into a single short article. I know that "brief" is not really in my vocabulary, but trust me when I say that every sentence below is something I consider critical to a Christian approach to government. And again, please contact me for any questions or complaints, as I'm desperately interested in finding any flaw in my position. Thanks in advance for that.

With regards to the actual role of government, I think scripture and logic are both quite clear. The institution of government (a social institution with the monopoly on the initiation of force in a geographical area) serves only one purpose, and all actions it takes are ultimately extensions of that purpose: the use of violence to punish wrongdoing and scare potential wrongdoers into compliance. Paul echoes this point when he warns us that the governor does not bear the sword in vain, clearly stating that governmental authority is appointed by God to dispense wrath for the cause of justice. This type of violence, which I'll call "legitimate violence" because it is solely as a response to actual wrongs that have been committed, also brings with it a less acceptable brother: collateral violence. Because the government is solely an embodiment of violence, all of its actions are by necessity violent. This includes many supplemental ways in which it operates. For instance, every time the police arrest someone, they run the risk of detaining or even punishing an innocent man, and our law is full of ways in which we grant them power to investigate that infringes the rights of innocent people. Taxes are likewise an example of collateral violence, as they are collected under threat of punishment.

However, as Romans 13 makes clear, Christians ought to pay their taxes (Peter supports this position more generally as well). But that in and of itself does not make taxes good, rather this is instead an opportunity for Christians to minister to others by loving sacrificially. It should be noted that Christ's own commands include actions like turning the other cheek and giving both our coat and shirt to someone who demands just the coat that fulfill the same sort of principle: peacefully giving of our blessings (of which we are God's appointed stewards) in order to avoid conflict and thus improve our own witness to a fallen world. Indeed, everything about government can need exist only in a fallen world: without evil, government serves no purpose. The closest thing to perfect government we've ever seen would be the period of the Judges where no formal government existed. God gave His commands directly to the people, who then acted to punish evil themselves with the occasional support of God's appointed arbiters called Judges, but to be fair the Judges themselves were mostly raised up after Israel's disobedience had lead the people into sin and captivity, further reinforcing my thesis that government itself serves as a fallen response to a fallen world.

Why do I make a big deal about the fact that government is violence? Because I think that this fact is something that we as a church have forgotten. If government is violence, the each and every position on which you advocate bringing the government to bear you are advocating and affirming the use of violence. Now, I'm no pacifist, so I admit that given the state of the world there are times when violence is regrettably needed to prevent greater violence. But I do think that the realization that every government action you affirm is inherently violent should be a sobering thought, for as Christians we ought to bring the sword to the table only in the most extreme of circumstances. In fact, if you read the chapter before Paul goes into government, he makes several interesting comments:

"Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another."

"Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all."

"Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good."

 While the above quotes certainly leave room for appealing to the government to violently repress evil, I think that in light of these passages it's clear that such should only be a last resort, and that even in cases where it's justified Christians should be quite wary of being the ones to pass judgment. I'm particularly skeptical of the movement within the church that seeks to make the government into a tool of enforcing general standards of right living: how much violence is acceptable in the "praise of good?" To be fair, there is not a clear biblical standard of what sort of evil ought to be punished, but personally I find that the only times I can even possibly see a scriptural justification for government intervention is in the case where violence has been initiated against another party. What does this mean? It means that all sorts of things like drug policy, sexual behavior, and social welfare are not valid applications of the sword, and I think that by supporting this sort of governmental power the Church has gone far beyond the limits of what is proper and in doing so we've only hurt our own ability to serve as God's ministers to the world outside our doors. 

Some of Christ's harshest words were for the Pharisees who "tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people's shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger." How is that not what we try to do with our "religious right" voting bloc? Granted some issues, particularly abortion, can be defended as valid in the pursuit of justice, but by getting distracted by these cases we miss the larger picture: we expect the government, made up of many people who do not share our faith, to be the enforcer of the laws that we ourselves cannot follow for all people. If there's a single verse that clearly justifies this sort of behavior, I've yet to find it. Even more damning, look how Jesus ends his statement: "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel across sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves."
  
I've attacked what I consider the modern mindset of the church and showed why I think we've fallen victim to the same arrogance that Christ attacked in the Pharisees, but I've yet to provide the other half of what I promised: a look at what the Christian perspective ought to be. If we expect to put Paul's admonition to "if possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all" into action, how should we go about it? I think he already gave us that answer, so long as we don't stop reading at Romans 13:7. He continues:

"Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.  For the commandments, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law." 

As I understand it, Paul makes a clear distinction between the government and the Church. The government will be God's tool of judgment, but as we've already seen it's incapable of any other end. The Church, then, gets the better end of the deal: we are freed from having to worry at all about the unpleasantness of dealing judgment and punishment. And that frees us to be what God truly desires for the world: agents of His love who can freely practice good because of the peace that the government has brought about. Tell me, do we as a church really want to be God's executioner? But that's the image so many of us seem hell-bent (pun completely intended) of conveying for the Church. And that doesn't just reflect poorly on us as individuals or as a group: it only serves to reinforce the idea of God as some sort of hateful being only out to make sure we never enjoy ourselves.

Penn Jillette, a well known atheist and libertarian, describes his political philosophy always seeking to solve problems by asking "Is it possible we can solve this with more freedom?" To steal that, I'd like to propose that we approach problems by asking "Is it possible we can solve this with more love?" As a libertarian, I honestly think Penn would be more than satisfied with the results. The beauty of this approach is two-fold: first of all, once you stop using violence to force people to live like you want them to act some people suddenly lose the desire to "misbehave." How many times has a child done what his parents told him not to do simply because he wanting to break the rules? To only solution to that problem is an arms race of rapidly increasing punishment that must rapidly outpace the actual severity of the infraction. But far more important is that by acting in love to solve problems whenever we are able, we gain uncountable opportunities to preach Christ through our actions, opportunities that would not exist if we were busy solving those problems with the sword of the State.

In short, while I certainly think that it is the duty of Christians to follow all edicts of the State unless they directly conflict with that of God, I also think that, as Christians blessed to live in a nation where we have at least some control of the government placed over us, we should work to reduce the size and scope of that government as much as possible, not help it to grow into the bloated mass it is today. Every time we look to the government, we should be perfectly clear that we are admitting our own failings as a Church: the problem we've found is one we can't solve with love. The criminal we accuse is a man with whom we cannot make peace. Keeping those thoughts in mind should drastically change the way we think, act, and vote. But the other half of that realization should be far more frightening: every act we don't leave to the State is a duty we take upon ourselves. I believe it's immoral to use the government as a tool to feed the poor. But it's also immoral for us to ignore their plight, and thus it is our duty to act with love just as much as it is our duty to oppose those who would rather act with violence.

In closing, I just wanted to look at one point in particular. I mentioned abortion earlier, as it's certainly one of the hot-button topics in the upcoming election. We can debate the theological foundations for whether the government should allow or punish such a practice until we're blue in the face, but at best all that will result is seeing the government answer violence with violence. But why are we not spending a hundred, or a thousand, or even a million times the effort and money on solutions that we can work towards regardless of who is elected (besides, no matter what happens tomorrow, abortion is not suddenly going to cease...). We should be far more concerned with finding ways to love the mothers seeking abortions, showing them how what they desire will not redeem their broken lives and that only the love of Christ we practice can ever truly make them whole. And so, contrary to a certain popular post making its way around Facebook, I don't think that when I stand before God I'm much more interested in His appraisal of how I treated the poor and needy than my voting record. 'Cause, you know, actions speak louder than words. And your vote doesn't even count as very many words.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Taking a Break

So I've not been very active at writing entries for this blog as of late. I still constantly think about these sorts of things, but with how crazy my life has been as of late I just haven't had much time for writing. Specifically, what time I have had has been dedicated to a side project that seems now to be moving into the spotlight as my main writing project. So, for the time being, I'll be on extended hiatus from political blogging and focusing instead on my new blog, Overleveled. Feel free to check it out if you're interested in a deeper perspective on gaming in general and some specific analysis of games that I've been playing. I promise it won't just be a list of game news, but rather a thoughtful series of essays that I've been writing on gaming as a medium and the inherent advantages and challenges that it brings into play.

Thanks to all who have read and commented on this blog in the past, and I'm sure I'll get around to reviving it at some point, but for now I think I'll focus on things a little less depressing.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

More on Justice and its System

I don't need to go into detail with regards to the current Zimmerman/Martin mess, but I did want to comment on a few things about it. First of all, please keep in mind that you don't know anything at all about the case. I mean that literally: you do not really know anything. Yes, you may have read a few articles online, or seen a segment on the news, but at this point you are taking that on faith. Remember last time we had a huge group of ignorant people decide the facts of a case they they had absolutely no connection with? When public outcry literally led to a prosecutor looking for reelection to start a case where there was not actually sufficient evidence (that is, almost exactly zero evidence) that any crime had even been committed? Three athletes from the Duke Lacrosse team certainly do. I don't claim to have any more knowledge than most (though I guarantee that I've read more accounts of the story than 95% of the people who are up in arms about it), and I expect that at least some of the blame falls on Zimmerman. I'd say there's a better than average chance that he is guilty of manslaughter. But, simply put, anyone who asserts that he murdered Martin is claiming to have some sort of near-omniscient level of knowledge as right now the people who know if Zimmerman actually murdered the boy can be counted on one hand (and likely on one finger).

Yes, I want justice to be done. But I say that in a purposeful way: I do not say I want Zimmerman to be "brought to justice" for murdering someone because that presupposes his guilt. And at least here in America, we assume that people are innocent until they're actually found guilty. Unless they're rich white boys from Duke. In which case there's no reason to do so. Or zealous Hispanic neighborhood watch members. I'm pretty sure that the Constitution doesn't guarantee due process to them. On the subject of due process, I want to point one thing out. You see, when police respond to a call, they can arrest those they have reason to suspect have committed a crime and file a complaint against them. They don't press charges, though. That's the prosecutor's job. In Zimmerman's case, he was taken into custody for a period of time (more than four hours, from what I've read) and after that time the police did not consider the circumstances to be sufficient to continue his incarceration. Maybe they did a crappy job and missed obvious details. Maybe they're corrupt, or racists, or nepotists. But they declined to file a complaint. So, for better or for worse, they had to let him go. That's how the law works. It's called "due process" and without it there is literally nothing stopping police from arresting you at any time because you might commit a crime. This is what we call "rule of law." Another word for it is "freedom." I'm kind of a fan of it.

Now that the police declined to file a complaint, it is up to the prosecutor to decide if he will press charges anyway. He also declined to do this, instead scheduling a grand jury where a group of Zimmerman's peers will weigh the evidence and determine if there is enough evidence available to go forward with a trial. If so, Zimmerman stand trial, the court will decide if he has been proven guilty, and justice will be administered. The whole "arrest him and lock him up forever" movement completely ignores this vital step, and as such misses the entire point of our Constitution. To anyone who is up in arms urging for an immediate arrest so they can somehow feel some sort of emotional fulfillment: what would happen if I went to the police and told them that I saw you come into my yard every night and kick my puppy. Initially the cops ignored me because I had no evidence, but then I somehow got all my friends and family to go on TV and denounce the injustice of letting a known puppy-kicker walk free to continue to kick puppies as much as he wanted. Then suppose that video went viral, and all of a sudden you have 2.5 million people who have no tie to the case at all screaming for you to be arrested and punished for your vile puppykicking ways. I imagine you'd be disgusted with the blatant disregard for our justice system. Now consider that you might be asking for this exact same thing.

Listen, I get that people are angry. Regardless of what lead to Martin's death, the loss of anyone is a tragedy. His family is hurting right now whether Zimmerman is guilty of first-degree murder or is innocent because it really was an act of self-defense. I personally want justice done as badly as anyone else, because as a strong supporter of gun rights I think it is very important that anyone who misuses a gun face the consequences. The responsibility to use a gun properly is an integral part of the right to keep and bear it. But you have to have patience and let the system work as intended: until a trial is set and Zimmerman suddenly disappears rather than stand trial you have no grounds to say otherwise. We've become enough of a police state lately that I'll gladly accept a few weeks of freedom for a guilty man as a price for having a real justice system. Because remember that every innocent man who is arrested (or even detained for a few hours) in an incontestable evil. It is wrong, it is a violation of justice. We accept it because it is the price we pay for having a formal system for discovering and dispensing justice, but it is still a violation of liberty and personal rights in the same way that a tax is a violation of liberty and property rights.

And before I go, one other thought. I wonder how many of you will know anything about this picture. What you see before you is a pair of young boys, both killed by someone else, both unarmed at the time, both on their way somewhere and not doing anything to anyone. The one of the right was with friends and relatives heading to a barbeque. His is an American citizen named Abdulrahman al-Awlaki and he was purposely killed, without any trial, because he was suspected of being a member of al-Qaeda. Does that bother you at all? Should our government have the power to kill anyone they want because they think there's a pretty good chance that he might at some point perform a terrorist act? How about simply because he's of a certain ethnicity or related to a certain other terror suspect? There is a reason we have due process: it's because people aren't perfect, and it's to protect other (potentially innocent) people from abuse by those imperfect people. Until we're ruled by God directly, there will be mistakes in both directions by our justice system. That's not reason to try to subvert it.

So I urge you to pray for this whole mess. Pray first for the families involved, for comfort and healing for their loss. Then pray for justice to be discovered, and for wisdom and guidance for all those involved. But don't pray for Zimmerman to be punished or to be brought to "justice." That's arrogant, and it's putting yourself in the place of God, the one who is perfectly just and is all-knowing. Give Him time to work through our flawed human system. But, above all, remember that ultimately Justice will be done, and our poor excuse for justice here on earth is completely inconsequential compared to the Lord's perfection.

EDIT: So I highly debated comparing what's going on to crowds that incited lynch mobs in the past, but ultimately I concluded that would be in poor taste. Instead, I'd just like to reference that some people literally do want vigilante mobs to act on their outrage and that some even go so far as to discover and broadcast Zimmerman's address (though not explicitly urging any action on the information he provided, a sizable portion of his 200k followers certainly showed no such restraint...) Does anyone else see the irony of denouncing Zimmerman as a "vigilante" and calling for vigilante mobs to "TURN UP THE HEAT ON HIS BITCH ASS!!!" It's a wonder they can hear anything over all that cognitive dissonance...

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Justice and the Individual

This post is a specific response to comments raised by my friend Dan on his blog, as well as in the subsequent Facebook discussion. The major gist of this post is a general bit of theorizing on the nature of justice and how it pertains to individuals and their rights. The end is a direct response to Dan's question regarding vigilantism in three scenarios.

First of all, I want to distinguish between different types of "justice." AS I see it, there are four different kinds of justice, and they all ultimately stem from basic rights but have different caveats and stipulations. First, there's the interruption of aggression, then deterrence of aggression, followed by the enforcement of restitution, and finally the concept of retribution.

The interruption of aggression refers to actions that specifically stop a crime that is in progress (this time period is somewhat vague, so technically this also stretches a bit along the time axis and where exactly preventing a crime becomes exacting restitution becomes a bit sticky). This is the "man breaks into your house and you shoot to kill" situation, but it also applies when you are not the direct party being attacked (you see a woman's purse being snatched and tackle the would-be thief, preventing a crime). While certain limitations obviously apply, it is my firm belief that this sort of action must be permissible in virtually all circumstances. First of all, it is important that you should be able to personally defend your rights, because any time where your rights can be violated without affording you the right to defend them leads to a situation where rights are "permitted" by the government, which is contrary to the founding principles of this country and most of western civilization. An important misconception here is that this task is specifically a job for the police. Many states reinforce this misconception through "duty to report" laws, but except in very extreme circumstances I find it difficult to support the idea that it's not OK to stop a crime that is currently in progress. There is one important caveat here: for an average citizen, the fact that a crime is in progress does not grant permission to violate anyone's rights other than the actual aggressors. This means that trespassing is still trespassing, even if it's to stop the thief leaving your neighbor's garage. Now, presumably the neighbor would not prosecute you if your actions helped to minimize his losses, but it is important for all private individuals to know that they risk opening themselves up to reprisal if they accidentally become aggressors instead of defenders. I mention this because of an equally important point with regards to government agents: as government is an institution where certain rights are sacrificed under the premise of preventing much larger potential violations. Because of this, police and other government agents have a special dispensation, subject to very specific limitations, to violate certain rights in order to pursue and apprehend criminals. When on official duty, certain cases of trespassing and detainment (kidnapping when not official) are permitted to increase the chance that crimes are stopped. On these special powers, it's also important to notice that any time when an agent is acting outside of the narrow limits on his powers, then he is not subject to their protections. A cop who enters a house without a warrant is a trespasser and subject to being treated as one (in addition to any evidence he gathers not being admissible in court).

Slightly different is the deterrence of aggression, which involves actions taken when no aggression has (yet) taken place, but are designed to prevent it from being possible or to mitigate the adverse effects of aggression automatically. One example would be laws against speeding: while such driving is potentially dangerous, no actual aggression must be demonstrated before a penalty may be assessed. So-called "aggressive" driving is a stickier matter, as simply being reckless would fall into the same case as speeding, while actual threat against another person or his property would be legitimate aggression and as such punishing force could be justified without appealing to the principle of deterrence. What sorts of things are permissible here are a little more difficult, but in general I tend to side with property owners: without violating the property or rights of anyone else, you are free to do what you like to your own property to deter aggression. If this means owning a gun, that should always be permissible. Putting up a fence and razor-wire is also the right of the owner. Booby-trapping your garage would also be fine, but at this point we start getting to a point similar to the one I made in the previous paragraph: you rights do not permit you to violate the rights of anyone else, so any non-aggressor who is harmed by your deterrence measures would have standing to initiate force against you. As to public legitimacy of this tactic, my only comment is that it must be used only rarely, as punishing those who have not yet committed aggression is a very dangerous path to walk. Speeding is usually considered acceptable, but it should be noted that this is necessary only because of the public nature of the roads. Without enforcing very clear rules in this regard, we eventually end up with the Minority Report style "precrime", but with the caveat that people can be punished without ever "knowing" that they would commit a case of aggression.

The concepts of restitution and retribution are where things really start to get less clear. When one person's property has been violated, it becomes difficult to draw the line as to what actions he may take to resolve that injury. Restitution is the act of making right or of evening a debt. When one person backs into another person's car, the first owes the second the cost of making the car as good as it was before, plus a potential premium for difficulty his (presumed) carelessness caused. While in many basic circumstances it is completely justified for an aggrieved party to obtain restitution on his own, these cases are the ones that blur the line between stopping aggression and exacting retribution. for instance, you might not initially prevent a pickpocket from getting your wallet, but you're certainly within your rights to chase him down and retrieve your property. Things get more complicated as time and other people get involved, and it as at this point that the state's additional power to bypass rights begins to come into play. Say you were robbed and the item in question ends up in a pawn shop. Unless the thief is the owner (unlikely), you cannot justly seize your property back from him, as he in a non-aggressive party. The law, on the other hand, has certain provisions that can lead to your reunion with your property. Where the line starts to get really blurry is when it comes to helping another person secure restitution from a third party. In theory I have no problems with this, but recognize that things are murky because you're ultimately trusting one person over another (maybe for good reason), and like with most things you are liable to end up an aggressor without knowing it.

Retribution is a very difficult area to deal with, simply because there's really no way to clearly define just retribution. While restitution is the act of making whole, retribution is the act of asserting vengeance, or punishment, upon an individual who has wronged another. While some degree of punishment can be considered catharsis to help make the injured party whole (especially in cases where the crime cannot really be made "right"), opening of the Pandora's box of retribution as a right for an injured person is very dangerous. Sometimes it can pull double-duty as a deterrent, but this is a case where I would definitely limit these actions to those with governmental authority, and even then I'd be very hesitant to consider most acts of retribution as valid.

The point of the preceding paragraphs was mostly that there are many parts of "justice," and as individuals we are certainly justified in taking certain matters into our own hands. Other actions, however, inherently violate rights and should either be avoided entirely or performed only within the careful adherence to limitations present in the law. An important note is that the US Constitution really has little to say about most standard "law enforcement" details, so this is almost wholly up to the constitution of whatever state you happen to live in. This makes it very difficult to comment on real details of the "justice system" as we have today in the US, so I really won't even try.

Finally, to get to Dan's original question. If it's right to fight back/kill an intruder in one's own home (based on my comments above you should be able to deduce that I believe it is), is it also right for someone to take it upon himself to end Joseph Kony's life? How about an abortionist who makes his living killing the unborn? As with most things, the exact details of the situations presented make a one-word answer insufficient, so instead I'll spent a little time unpacking both scenarios.

For those of you who don't have the internet (not sure how you're reading my blog, buy whatever), Kony is currently the subject of a massive viral campaign to bring recognition to his two and a half decades of remarkable human rights violations in Africa. Dan's question is a response to many who have mentioned their wish that "someone" would simply take it upon himself to go over there and end matters with a bullet to the head. Would such a vigilante be justified? Let's look at the question not in stark yes/no terms, but rather in the framework of the types of justice I've outlined above. In a situation where the hypothetical someone was legitimately and peacefully in Africa when Kony personally initiated violence against someone in that person's immediate vicinity, then I say yes, it's perfectly justified to step in and stop that crime from occurring. This applies whether the "somebody" is an African local or an American mercenary, or any other sort of person. Deterrence would be a similar case, and I can definitely see why people would want to help the local people being terrorized by Kony and his army, whether this be achieved through aid or by physically traveling to Africa and helping to protect the lives and homes of the people there. But note that this is different from someone who sits down, watches the video (which is propaganda, by the way. It may well be true, but it's still blatantly designed to grab the emotional hooks of its audience and manipulate their actions. Whether this is justified is another question entirely) and decides to head over there and take matters into his own hand, as this implies either pursuing restitution or retribution. And let's be honest: at this point, restitution is simply not possible. The damage has been done, and there's no way it can be made right. Lives have been lost, families destroyed, houses burned to the ground. There's no making whole, there's only punishment and end to the problem. And while if there's any case where it's right for an injured individual to pursue retribution on his own then this would be an example of it, honestly this is a problem for the society itself to deal with. Note that I said society, not government. If government is willing to step in then that's great. I'm even actually fine with the government seeking support, and the US providing some (very) limited tactical aid to help them deal with their own problem (I'm not for the commitment of any substantial group of US troops, though I've not decided if I find the troops already deployed to Congo and as advisers fall into the permissible category or not). Were one person who'd suffered under Kony to suddenly snap and decide to end things himself, I don't know that I would really be able to condemn him for it, but ultimately it's the responsibility of the communities that are effected to come together and support the rights of each and every one of them. Not for some gung-ho American cowboy to ride to the rescue.

As to Dan's other question on abortion, I really could do a whole post here (and plan to, once I feel I've gotten things nailed down as much as possible), but the short answer is this: because law and legality is ultimately dependent on rights rather than morals, pursuing such a drastic solution to something you consider morally wrong but is not, in fact, aggression would be completely unjustifiable. Now, the problem here is that the question of abortion is so incredibly convoluted and difficult to analyze from any sort of objective viewpoint that this really makes having any sane discussion problematic, but let me try to defend my reasoning here. Abortion is clearly a moral issue, and I think Christians are completely right to assert that the killing of an unborn child is a sin and should never happen. But the point of the law is not to match any particular moral code, it is to protect certain core rights and to enforce their defense equally to all. So the question is really if abortion is a violation of those core rights, and this is where things start to get impossible. Anyone who tries to reduce the question of abortion down to a single issue (be it "choice," "life," or any other single concept) is so grossly over-simplifying things that the conversation pretty much has to grind to a halt. However, there are plenty of reasons from a rights/libertarian perspective to oppose abortion, just as there are many arguments against state intervention preventing it, and this is not a debate that will be solved any time soon (or ever, for that matter). So my point is that anyone who chooses to exercise violence against someone who performs abortions cannot make the argument that he is using violence to prevent aggression, as that requires one to make assumptions about the law to get the law to support his position. Even under the standard of preventing imminent aggression, his actions aren't justified because that requires the assumption that abortion is aggression, and if he assumes that the another party can use the same process to assume that his actions are aggression and justify violence against him. This is simply an unfortunate consequence of the fallen world in which we live.

That ended up being quite wordy, but I hope that it makes my points fairly clear. Justice is not the sole province of the state, but the state does have the monopoly on using coercion against non-aggressive parties to further justice, so in many cases the state can do what individuals cannot. But the sword cuts both ways, and the state can violate the rights of individuals by not staying within the confines of its limited powers, and in doing so it actually justifies the use of force to resist its actions (since they are therefore being committed by individuals no longer under the protection of authority). Likewise, it is important for any individual to realize that he never has the right to violate the rights of a non-aggressor to achieve justice, and even his rights against an aggressor are limited.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

What is Libertarianism?

Well, after a few weeks of taking it (relatively) easy, I figure that Super Tuesday is as good a day as any to get back into writing here. As people have probably figured, today I cast my vote in the Republican Primary (though I'm registered as "Unenrolled") for Ron Paul. Not that I think he's a perfect candidate, nor that I've ever expected him to snag the nomination. However, of the candidates available, Dr. Paul is the only one who really stands for liberty, and having written about rights and liberty lately, I think it's time that I weigh in on what exactly the libertarian (note the small "l") really is.

First of all, I do want to clearly state that I consider myself libertarian in the philosophical sense. I'll get to what specifically that means in a minute, but I do want to make it perfectly clear that I do not know very much about the Libertarian policy or what many of the specific candidates there represent. I plan on acquainting myself with the party a bit more as the real election approaches, but as of this point I'm not sure if I would ever vote for any of them as I don't know what specifically any of them stand for. On the subject of Ron Paul, I'm sure most of you know that he did in fact run as a Libertarian at one point, though now he runs as a Republican, in part due to our system's inherent limitations that virtually guarantee offices to members of one of the two major parties. Those issues are all out of the scope of this article, however, so I won't spend any more time dealing with them.

Now, on to the subject of libertarianism itself. The term itself is slightly more self-descriptive than most of our other political terms (conservative, liberal, progressive), and as is usually the case there are many different philosophies that all tend to fall under this umbrella. Generally, however, the unifying element of those who would consider themselves libertarian is adherence to the Non-Aggression Principle (NAP). As it pretty clearly states, this prohibits the use of aggression to manipulate behavior, thus leading to a system where all action is voluntary. More specifically, aggression is defined as the use of coercive force (or the threat thereof) to directly influence an individual's actions or the disposition of his property. Stealing property is thus aggression, as is mugging at gunpoint, or a host of other threats that can influence an actor to do things he would not do of his own accord. It is very important to note that what specifically constitutes "coercion" depends heavily on what one has accepted as a basis for property rights, an issue I've already tackled and don't plan to revisit at the moment. It is important to note, however, that it is not aggressive to refuse service or exchange if conditions don't completely satisfy you: that simply a case of trade not happening, not rights being violated.

While the NAP is conceptually quite simple and straightforward, it's the minute details of what it means and how it should be acted out that really define most libertarians' actual day-to-day actions. Philosophically, it's easy to define a libertarian by this principle, but in practice there are a lot of people with a lot of different ideas about how exactly it should play out. There's ultimately quite the gap between theory and practice. Because of this, any discussion of libertarianism faces a difficulty in nailing down a specific group of adherents, so rather than trying futilely to narrow things down I'm instead going to provide a brief look a several different "schools" of libertarian thought as I understand them. This is not exhaustive, nor do I claim to be an expert on(or even a student of) all of these "flavors," and I'll try to give all a fair overview without any editorializing. Anyone who knows more about any of these, feel free to give me feedback and I'll see about editing your comments/further reading into this post if it seems appropriate. Ultimately libertarians fall on a spectrum, but for simplicity's sake I'll look at what I consider to be the three "factions," as well as a few narrow groups that have their own defining characteristics. Note that most of these are generally applicable to different countries, but in some cases I'm focusing on what is mostly an American phenomenon, so your mileage may vary.

On one end we have what many would say is the most pure strand of libertarian: they believe that the NAP applies in all cases and any sort of aggression cannot be permitted. Because the state is a body of government imbued with authority over its citizens and a monopoly on the initiation of "legitimate" coercive force, these libertarians oppose any state at all. Appropriately called "anarcho-capitalists," they usually advocate a system of pure voluntary exchange where the tasks we generally ascribe to the state (policing, courts, disaster recovery) are instead handled by private, voluntary organizations. The state cannot do anything for free, and thus it must tax to provide anything. But taxes are the coercion (by threat of jail and ultimately by violence) of individuals to surrender their property to another body, which is aggression and is not permitted. Thus no government can be brought into existence to provide any of these services, hence the need for private insurance companies.

Without getting too bogged down, the general idea is that these organizations would offer many levels of service, and each individual would be free to choose exactly how much risk he wanted to transfer, then work out a deal with a company to do just that much. Anyone who felt confident that he didn't need insurance would be free to keep all of his money, but in the event of something unforeseen, be it natural or an act of aggression, he would be on his own to recover from the loss. In this world, they postulate, the forces of the market would drive down prices as insurance companies competed, and the resulting increase in prosperity would provide a damping effect on crime and violence. However, since most people would rather not be robbed than being paid back for things that are stolen, insurance companies would soon end up offering preventative services, such as police patrols, either to lower their expected payout or to use as an advertised feature of their plan to attract more customers. This same sort of reasoning is applied to all "government" services, and the supposed result would be a society where insurance is cheap and effective, but no one was forced to contribute for anyone else, nor even to give up his own money unless he wanted to. No coercion, no state.

A related term is "voluntarist" or "voluntaryist," which I believe relates to the same concept. A common claim from people bearing this label is that many services, such as security, would be provided on a voluntary basis but benefit everyone, even those not paying (for instance, the richest inhabitants of some region might finance a police force that protects their property as well as the property of others to deter crime as a whole, thus making everyone safer). There may be a slight different between these two groups, but for our purposes I'll leave them as one general end of the spectrum.

Moving further along the spectrum of libertarianism are those who agree that aggression is bad, but argue that since some aggression will always exist we can permit the development of a state that makes limited use of coercion to prevent greater abuses of rights. The term usually used here is "minarchist," literally meaning "small state" or, more appropriately, "minimal state". While opinions within this movement differ, one area that generally falls under the purview of the state is the court system, providing a single universally available body to punish all other rights violations. Some minarchists hold that this is all that is necessary in a state, some even going so far as to suggest that, by permitting the state to impose its costs on those who are found guilty, the state could exist without needing to coerce the innocent. This sort of funding, they argue, is not aggression because the people being coerced are (most likely) aggressors themselves, and that by violating the rights of another they have forfeited their own property rights until the injured party is made whole. This sort of structure is usually called an "ultraminimal state."

More typically, minarchists tend to differ on what exactly is a "minimal" state, but justice (courts, law enforcement, prisons) and defense (foreign and domestic) are fairly standard answers for state authority. Some economic/trade elements are usually accepted (treaties with other nations, since the minarchist state doesn't exist in a political vacuum) also tend not to raise too many eyebrows. Welfare and schooling may be permitted by some, but I get the feeling this is exceedingly rare, except maybe in a bare minimum sort of way (and I know for certain that many minarchists oppose even these). To fund these minimal endeavors, some sort of tax can be allowed, but this again is a point of divergence for many who call themselves minarchists. Taxes are by nature a market distortion (since the transfer of money by definition alters the function of the market), so most common forms of taxation are excluded. Income tax, which is rightly viewed as disincentive productive labor, is almost certainly banned. Sales tax likewise skews action away from consumption, though a minimal tax here might be permitted. Often proponents point to the early United States' practice of adding small duties on imported goods, arguing that a flat duty on all goods can be fair and minimally invasive to the economy while still raising some money. Still others counter that these all violate the property rights of individuals and propose a different approach (and with it, a slightly different take on property rights).

Land, they argue, has inherent value for its owner that stems from purely natural factors (location, resources, climate, etc). Other than what the owner uses directly for his own needs, that value is actually imparted by society itself (oil reserves beyond what the owner personally uses can be sold at a market, for example.) This natural worth is not something the owner created, which he is certainly able to provide enhancements that benefit himself and others. Thus, rather than taxing the market value of the property, both natural and enhanced, taxes can be applied to the base value of the land without the owner's added labor, since this natural value belongs to the society that imparts it. By collecting taxes on the lands base value, the state can be funded for its basic duties and no one needs to have any rights violated. But as opposed to standard property/real estate taxes, the owner is not penalized for any use of that property he may pursue. Followers of this school of thought are generally called Geo-libertarians, due to their focus on the base land. Details on how the tax is handled differ, and I've heard some advocate a sort of "land rights auction" idea put forward where people bid for the rights to use certain bits of land, with the most eager buyer ultimately gaining the rights.

At the other "end" of the libertarian spectrum are "Constitutionalists", that is those who favor limited government as explicitly declared in the Constitution (or, for those of you outside the States, whatever guiding document would apply). Now, before I get in to details here, I should point out that many libertarians wouldn't consider this a valid level of their philosophy: the Constitution authorizes many different cases of aggression, and in the US at least it puts barely any restraints on the States, permitting them to act in blatantly anti-libertarian ways. While the concessions of the minarchist may have merit (and some ancaps would deny even this), clearly this is going too far to still be considered libertarian! While I sympathize with this point, my reason for diving into this movement is twofold. First of all, I simply assert that the faithful Constitutionalist is so much closer to the libertarian end of the spectrum than either mainstream US party that I think it more appropriate to count him as a libertarian rather than an authoritarian. Second, I personally think it reasonable for those pursuing a more pure form of liberty, specifically the minarchist movement, to make use of the Constitutionalist movement as a sort of staging ground to reverse the disturbing trend of our government away from liberty. Because the Constitution was created with a provision for amendment, it is fully possible to support it and still reduce the power of the government to violate rights and limit liberty. However, this is useless unless the government actually abides by the Constitution, hence a necessary step is to unite people and make that a possibility.

A common theme amongst Constitutionalists is that of returning power to the states where the Constitution specifies it resides. This entails reversing decades (even centuries) of abuse of clauses such as Interstate Commerce and General Welfare to give the federal government responsibilities that violate the actual intention of the Constitution. While many critics rightly point out that doing this on the most literal level actually authorizes the states to violate basic rights, like those specified in the Bill of Rights, Constitutionalists usually counter that the way to resolve that is either attack it at the state level or pass a legitimate amendment that addresses the problem. Supporting the Constitution except when it doesn't work the way you want is hypocritical and undermines the ultimate movement. Presumably, affecting change at the state level would prove less of a challenge than doing the whole country at once, and getting even a few states to actively stand for liberty would likely start a chain reaction of people moving to states that supported their rights, hence leading states to compete over inhabitants by getting their act together.



Conclusion:

This post, while fairly long (I know, I talk too much), really just scratches the surface of what a libertarian really is. I hope that my very general overview (and very limited understanding) have made things a little clearer for at least a few people. But my real point of posting is actually a bit more important than that. While I've glossed over differences quite a bit, and there certainly are some substantial chasms between the various positions (as well as some unanswered questions that even otherwise similar stances can argue about, such as the permissibility of abortion), I think one thing should be clear: there are still plenty of similarities between the groups I've described. More importantly, there are substantial differences between the groups above and either mainstream political party. While the libertarian community may differ on the details, the substance is the same, and I think it's very important that we start working together more closely. This election has shown just how similar most Democrat and Republican politicians seem to be: they may quibble over details, but they are both authoritarian to nearly the same degree. The political fight of our day is not over left or right, but over liberty or statism. And while liberty's numbers are growing, we can't afford to waste all our energy fighting over minutiae while the real battle goes unheeded. There will be plenty of time to sort out our differences once we're on much more solid footing with regards to liberty.

Monday, February 13, 2012

On Rights: Why Do I Care? (Part 3 of 3)

Apologies, I wanted to get this out yesterday, but after writing it I felt it deserved a bit more polish/rational thought/general pondering than normal, so I held it and have done some tweaking and a little restructuring. 

Picking up where I left off Saturday, I'm going to look into the concept of rights from a Christian perspective and explain why I believe Christians have a special interest in defending rights for everyone. Specifically, my premise is that it is better for Christians in modern society to have their own rights respected, but also that it is just as important (perhaps more so) for us to understand and properly respect the rights of everyone else.

Since I started with the right to self ownership, I'll emphasize that the concept of self ownership goes hand in hand with the concept of self responsibility. One must face the consequences of his own actions and that one must make choices for himself. The key point is that regardless of where you fall on the free will/divine election spectrum, you have to acknowledge that the choice to accept and follow Christ is between two entities: God and that individual. Because of this, it is important to avoid attempts to coerce Godly behavior (coerce implying the use of force or threat of punishment. Encouragement in the positive sense is completely different.) This is why morality based laws, as opposed to rights based laws, are very dangerous: trying to legislate people into a right relationship with God is useless, and likely not going to do a better job than Constantine's order for all of his soldiers to march through a river and be baptized did in bringing people to Christ.

So am I saying that Christians should, for fear of encroaching upon the rights of others, simply avoid confronting anyone? Of course not. But my point is that rather than attempting to restrict the rights of others (which is, quite naturally, viewed as an attempt to impose our religion upon them), we should be constantly be working to win them through evangelism. After all, God cares about the heart not the actions, so even if we magically succeeded in getting everyone to act Christian on the outside, what exactly would have been accomplished? To extend this point, I want to make it clear that the duty to bring people to Christ belongs to Christians, not the government. And yes, while it's clear from scripture that the government is still under God's authority, that still does not excuse us from our duty. Or, more bluntly, voting for a law that forces the entire country to care for the poor does not fulfill our duty to care for the poor, so the same holds true with everything else. I guess my major point is that, as Christians, we need to be very careful about how we attempt to use the government to fulfill our own responsibilities. Remember, any power the government has to infringe upon the rights of someone who is doing something we don't agree with is also power the government has to infringe upon our rights to worship God. Government is a two-edged sword, so I'd rather keep it as dull as possible so that I can fulfill my duty, not sharp so that I can lazily pretend that it fulfills my obligations for me.

As an aside, I'd like to bring the case of the HHS contraception mandate up one more time (yes, I know I'm a stuck record). While my other posts have mostly been pointing out the damage it does in an economic and political regard, let's look at it from a religious and rights-based perspective for just a minute. First of all, we have a group of people arguing for something they consider a moral necessity ("free" access to birth control and related services), and the government sides with them and decides that such a moral cause is worth violating people's rights and further intruding into voluntary, private exchanges.

Now it's clear that the property rights of the employer (note, all employers, not just the Catholic churches/charities) are being trampled pretty significantly. Now, as I've argued, the essence of government is taking away some (small) element of rights to ensure that a much greater violation of rights doesn't occur (or is properly punished). However, what rights are being defended by this action? Proponents of the mandate argue that it's a woman's right to have birth control, which is tied back to the right to control her own body. But, as we've already discussed, what is the matching obligation that they assert? Apparently, it's another individual's obligation to give of his property to provide that "right." But this does not follow from any of the rights I've already discussed. As a matter of fact, it's logically incompatible with the right of private property. The point is, this is a case of a group trying to use government to enforce what they believe to be right at the expense of the rights of people who disagree (many of which happen to be members of the Catholic church), and Christians everywhere are up in arms about it. We need to be very careful to avoid hypocrisy in this matter, as there are plenty of people just waiting to call us out on it.

Now, what about private property? Everything's God's, right? So Christians don't really believe in private ownership, so we don't need to worry about respecting that aspect of rights, right? Yesterday we touched on the very important concept of stewardship: yes, everything we have is a gift from God, but as the parable of the talents tells us we are responsible to use what we've been granted to benefit the one who gave it to us. Thus, I hold that it is especially important for Christians to support strong individual property rights, as breaches here inhibit our ability to properly steward what has been entrusted to us. Am I urging Christians not to pay their taxes? No. As I've said already, government has been given authority here on earth by God, and as a Christian I am called to obey it so long as it doesn't violate my primary responsibility to God. But here in America we have a great blessing in that we are (supposedly) able to vote for and change our government, and it is through this that I see the legitimate way to regain both our rights and our moral obligation to use those rights to further God's purposes here on earth. Note that here I'm speaking not of a basic rights-based obligation (the term negative obligation is often used to indicate one is required not to interfere in the right of another), but a moral obligation that we bear as Christians.

In this way I argue that state-run welfare should be problematic to Christians on two levels. First of all, it requires the appropriation of resources entrusted to us by God and thus prevents us from bearing the responsibility of using them correctly. The early church is presented as having a highly effective "social safety net" on its own, and this is a very good thing, being both far more efficient than the crazy machine that is "welfare" and being a powerful witness to Christ's work within the church. My second opposition is along slightly different lines, and is instead based on the principle that we are called to give to God joyfully and without coercion with regards to tithes, so why not apply that principle to charity as well? While I think that tithing (and giving above and beyond 10%) is a very good thing, I am equally opposed to instituting any system of mandatory giving, because I think it destroys the whole point of the act. In the same way, by willingly conceding more and more of our God-given property into the State's possession, we're robbing the Church of potential resources and ourselves of the ability to worship God with such giving.

The bottom line here is that I believe firmly that it is the responsibility of the individual, before God, to manage his own property in a manner that is pleasing to Him. Even if the State were excellent in using money properly (which it isn't), the argument would still be the same: each man's property ought to be protected so that he might choose to do the right thing with it. As Hayek said well, "the desirability of a particular object is not sufficient justification for the use of coercion."

Obviously this short (for me at least) piece is based pretty heavily on some presuppositions, and I do not apologize for that. But, based on my reading of scripture, I cannot see any conclusion but the fact that, as an individual accountable first to God, it is quite necessary to my faith to work within the system God has created to pursue the cause of individual rights, for by maximizing the rights of myself and others I work towards a world more conducing to fulfilling my calling as a Christian. But even if things should continue to decline, and our rights are further eroded, my obligations before God are not diminished. So while my foremost responsibility will always be to glorify God and to proclaim Him to the world, I feel no conflict in my stance that second will be my mission to advance the cause of personal liberty (and the corresponding responsibility) through the means that God has granted to me.