an obession with first principles

Libertarianism and Society

Posted: Saturday Mar 31st | Author: JohnO | Filed under: Anthropology, Philosophising, Politics | View Comments

As Ron Paul continually runs for higher office more and more people are hearing some of his policies, and thus the word libertarian. This post isn’t about Ron Paul. Nor do I imagine that people who aren’t following politics, but now hear “libertarian” actually know what this political philosophy is actually founded on. I sure didn’t, but I saw a very in depth discussion on Reddit (yes, deal with it). So I wanted to dissect the underpinnings

The poster goes on to describe libertarianism as wholly wrapped around the defense of personal property (which includes ones person) and pure utilitarian ends. Any action undertaken by anyone — including the state — to remove personal property (which, in some way, includes currency) is understood to be immoral. Taxation is thus immoral. The poster goes on to suggest that a privatized court and police is a system that will work. I want to stop and consider these elements (ignoring his talk on education, with which I am fairly sympathetic).

First, I am surprised that a political system would revolve, wholly and purely, around property rights. This means that the political system will inherently favor those with more property over those who have less. It is a system devised explicitly for the powerful. A person with more property can gain more property easier than a person with less (Especially when the property in question is land and resources).

Second, I am surprised that any political system could ever describe state-printed currency as “property”. The currency would not exist without the state, just like “free” markets. All historical societies we have studied have no markets, and no currency until a state creates them. “Primitive currencies” are not currencies at all, and are traded to resolve issues of status, dignity, and un-payable debts. If the state prints the currency it has the ability to extract from the state-created markets a percentage of that currency for creating and maintaining said currency and markets.

Third, I am surprised by the naivety of the libertarian belief that “every man is an island” is demonstrably false. We have always, are now always, and continually will always be in relation to the other around us. To act as if that is not the case is naive and ignorant. This is, again, born out by the evidence of all communities which care about one another. In the case of communities that are bound together there is often a social interplay of resolving of debt – but there is the unquestionable motive to care for the other as one’s self. With the understanding that they will do the same when it is necessary.

Fourth, I am utterly shocked by the proposition that a private court and police system will work. We have seen the slide of previously “free-er” markets into very rigged and non-free markets (as the poster admits). First, any state or private entity capable of enforcing penalties must be powerful enough to violate the guilty’s defense of personal property. Why would you trust a private system rather than a public one? I understand the argument of “once a private company violates trust they’ll lose in the marketplace”. But if the private company is capable of violating personal property rights how do you stop them? Other companies step in? What happens in the case of collusion between companies? This system slides right back down into rigging the game.

There is a nice correlation between government corruption and the rise of powerful multinational corporations which can donate endless to the political cycle. It seems only a public, and transparent state, staffed by citizens which can, and must, be mindful of how much power the state acquires. Only with true and accurate information about these people can we choose (ostensibly through voting) who to trust with dispensing the state’s abilities. The troubles with our democratic and representative system is that our voting systems, districts, etc are rigged to hold power, those elected are not representative whatsoever (either in ideology or in material wealth), and the inability — likely due to both of these factors combined with corporate money — to get true and accurate information about the people and the process.

It seems to me that property ought not be the central issue of a political philosophy — especially in our digital age when “property” is becoming a very gray area.

The End of History and the Last Man

Posted: Thursday Mar 8th | Author: JohnO | Filed under: Philosophising, Politics | View Comments

Where Marx differed from Hegel was over just what kind of society emerged at the end of history. Marx believed that the liberal state failed to resolve one of the fundamental contradiction, that of class conflict, the struggle between the bourgeoisie and proletariat. Marx turned Hegel’s historicism against him, arguing that the liberal state did not represent the universalization of freedom, but only the victory of freedom for a certain class, the bourgeoisie. Hegel believed that alienation–the vision of man against himself and his subsequent loss of control over his destiny–had been adequately resolved at the end of history through the philosophical recognition of the freedom possible in the liberal state. Marx, on the other hand, observed that in liberal societies man remains turned into man’s lord and master and controls him. The bureaucracy of the liberal state, which Hegel called the “universal class” because it represented the interests of the people as a whole for Marx represented only particular interests within civil society, those of the capitalists who dominated it.
Fukuyama, pg 65

It seems that Marx was correct: within a liberal democracy the capitalists can exert mastery over others through economic means. The bourgeoisie and the proletariat need to be defined by this relationship – not by any analogizing to histories examples. Mastery and control are what Occupy Wall Street is protesting. It isn’t about jealousy. I keep seeing discussions like “We need to get rid of money” within Occupy. I think the sentiment is correct, while the details wrong.

Money is just economic fungibility. I might be able to trade writing, or fixing a bike, or moving furniture, for food. But I can’t trade web software for it. It’s too large and unwieldy to break down into small bits. This is why money/currency is created, for fungibility. To create equivalency between work. Whether the payment is deserving or just is a whole different argument (because that isn’t the argument I’m talking about). Money needs to exist.

One thing that popped into my mind while thinking about this section – What if money and capital were not related? Capital is what exerts mastery and control. A person with $100k/yr income doesn’t have mastery over someone who makes $50k/yr, or even $30k/yr. $100k isn’t capital, its just a bunch of money. Capital is just a resource that moves institutions, powers, businesses, industries, and people. Right now, capital ends up being a lot of money. But does it have to be money? What if it were a combination of trust, responsibility, and integrity. We obviously can’t pay people with these traits. But if you think money holds back things with trust, responsibility, and integrity you’re living in the old days. See Occupy for instance. New York has half a million. Another example purely outside politics: Kickstarter.

Money is just fungibility. Capital is the problem. Once we remove the fact that money makes up capital, perhaps we’ll have achieved a solution to Marx’s paradox of the liberal democracy.

Control is Fear

Posted: Sunday Mar 4th | Author: JohnO | Filed under: Anthropology, Philosophising | View Comments

There was an odd confluence of mental events this weekend. Yesterday I had a brief, but interesting conversation with some friends about cars, cyclists, and pedestrians (abbreviated as “peds”). And this evening I decided to relax by watching The Dark Knight. To me the Joker is one of the single greatest characters conceived and executed on film in my time. The main character in the movie is not Batman at all – its the Joker. The mental explosion occurred during the scene where the Joker is talking to Harvey Dent. This conversation results in the psychological creation of the villain Two Face in the mind of Dent. I couldn’t find a transcription of the speech, so I transcribed it:

Do I really look like a guy with a plan?

You know what I am, I am a dog chasing cars, I wouldn’t know what with it one I caught it. You know, I just do things. The mob has plans, the cops have plans, Gordon has plans. They’re schemers. Schemers trying to control their little worlds. I’m not a schemer. I try to show the schemers have pathetic their attempts to control things really are. So, when I say that you and your girlfriend was nothing personal, you know that I’m telling the truth.

It’s the schemers that put you where you are. You were a schemer and had plans, and uh, look where that got you.

I just did what I do best. I took your little plan and I turned it on itself. Look what I did to this city with a few drums of gas and a couple of bullets. You know what I noticed? Nobody panics when things go according to plan. Even when the plan is horrifying. If tomorrow I tell the press that, like, a gang-banger will get shot, or a truck load of soldiers is going to get blown up, nobody panics. Because it’s all part of the plan. But when I say that one little old mayor will die then everyone loses their minds.

Introduce a little anarchy. Upset the established order, and everything becomes chaos. I’m an agent of chaos. Oh, and you know the thing about chaos. Its fear.

The more I follow politics, rhetoric, and watch the American culture the more I realize that fear is its true disease. And the symptom of fear is control. But I want to describe how these two events from this weekend coalesced to show me this.

There have been psychological tests to show why people in cars are less observant: it is because they are sitting in an entirely concealed box and thus removed from the world. And the more gadgets we add to cars (full suspensions, automatic transmissions, anti-lock brakes, navigation systems, automatic parking systems) the more we are removed even from the car itself. Experienced cyclists, however, are hyper-aware (as this recently posted comic points out). Taking a pothole with my full weight will hurt my ass (perhaps even the family jewels) if I’m not paying attention and get off the saddle. Peds, cars, dogs, and doors are all things that can seriously hurt me. I hear the car approaching me from the rear. I stare down the driver approaching on the side street so they don’t roll all the way into my lane. I even talk to myself as if they can hear me. I can feel my tires reacting to the road surface, and how that changes when I roll over paint, because I don’t have a full suspension. Because of the design of bikes I am forced to be hyper-aware of my situation. While my abilities control the bike – I have very little control over the situation and am one of the most vulnerable people on the road. As the driver of a car there are a million systems and you only have partial control over your vehicle. Because you are in a climate controlled box you are disconnected and only partially attentive to the real world outside your car. But they feel as if they are in total control. Until someone, like a cyclist weaving through gridlocked rush hour traffic, shows them they are not in control. Not at all. They’ve just built a box of illusion to keep them from their fears (other drivers, inclement weather, poor driving skills, etc.)

But perhaps the single best example of this control phenomenon is the American government. We are always told that our country is the best country (whatever that might actually mean). We are “exceptional”. And we know what that means when we see how we act. The United States can act unilaterally without any repercussions on the world stage. The only repercussions are the hate we have created around the world for our government. The government sets up puppet regimes, has military bases all around the world, and has bombed every region of the world. Why? One word: control. They need to control other governments. They need to control markets. Markets aren’t “free”. They are only allowed to do what we say they can do. Which is fundamentally true as we make the market. They market doesn’t objectively exist. We cause it to come into existence. However, as in 2008, we are finally seeing what matters. The government saved the fundamental money-making mechanisms from failing. But they didn’t save anyone else from the fallout. Not home-owners. Not business-owners. Not municipalities. Not pension plans. No one else get saved. The fear was not “what will happen to these people”, but “what will happen to our money-making mechanism”. This also goes for the auto-industry (no matter how much other influence we can attribute to our love affair with cars) we need to have a car industry for control.

It is clear, at least to me, how much the GOP thinks they need to control: almost every other country on earth (“Let’s bomb Iran”), down to every women’s uterus. I have no concept of what a small government could possibly look like when you fundamentally need to control that many different points of interest. The democrats also have their control issues. But both issues are rooted in deep-seeded fear. And this is why I love The Dark Knight’s Joker so much.

As his speech goes: “You know, I just do things.” He is doing what he is innately driven to do. He is entirely free. It is sad to watch what his freedom is being used for, but it is freedom nonetheless. The 500 channels of TV, 4 GOP candidates, and multitudes of genres within which to re-style ourselves (whether it be hipster, thug, geek, gamer, cyclist, chic, anglophile, steampunk, stoner, jock, popped-collar or whatever) are not freedom. Freedom of choice does not equate to freedom. Freedom is the condition of a person. Civilization has never been geared towards being free. Sometimes we find it where we are. Other times we have to go get lost in order to find it. But being free is the all-important bit, not the proliferation of meaningless choices. The Joker is free from having to control, because he is not afraid. The institutions of the world are deathly scared of losing their grip, their place, and their meaning. Because of that they are incredibly controlling. They have power and they will use every last bit of it to keep their place.

I grew up in a distinct culture of religious fear which required a great degree of control. It took me a long time to realize there isn’t a single reason I should be seeking control over anyone else. I was very afraid of people. All the people around me implicitly taught it to me by how much fear of others they had. So long as everything is going according to the plan we are fine. But as soon as the accepted order is disrupted we have a lot of problems. Once we were forced to look at something in the microscope it took over our entire minds to re-order the world.

It is a funny thing that we, as a civilization, are determined to control the world. When, if the biblical narrative can tell us anything, it tells us that God isn’t controlling. God acts. There is a big difference. We believe that the God we believe in is sovereign yet we approach that sovereignty with such an ignorance to believe that God must act as we do.

“You wanted God’s ideas about what was best for you to coincide with your ideas, but you also wanted him to be the almighty Creator of heaven and earth so that he could properly fulfill your wish. And yet, if he were to share your ideas, he would cease to be the almighty Father.” Søren Kierkegaard

This is not a more sophisticated attempt at the pithy: “God works in mysterious ways”. Perhaps the other way around. God is sovereign by his being, not by his action or non-action. God is not fearful and therefore does not seek control. I am not fearful, and therefore I do not seek control. I simply act. I do what I desire to do. And when that means I take my life into my hands by riding my bike through traffic with the meager skill I do have, I am free. And that freedom is why I get so much joy from doing what I desire to do. Because I am not afraid that I don’t have control over everything else. Because I don’t need that control. A truly free man is dangerous, just as the Joker was dangerous. This is why protests are violently quelled. People sitting on their couches enamored with their freedom of choice don’t see their chains. The people yelling in the streets have thrown off their chains.

If I had no joy, then I would be desperately afraid to hold on to the meager materials that I do have in order to be merely content. Content is the enemy, the illusion, of joy.