Archive for August, 2013

Original(ism) Sin

Posted in Uncategorized on August 27, 2013 by thebluebros

When I taught 8th Grade Social Studies, I did not offer much in the way of extra credit. On my Constitution final exam, however, I always offered up the following multiple choice question for extra credit. In my four years of teaching over 500 students, I can recall just one 8th grader getting it correct (way to go Ryan K.).

Which of these issues does the U.S. Constitution not address:

a. Punishing of pirates
b. $10 limit on slave taxes
c. Prohibition on calling members of congress dukes, barons, and knights
d. Public education

If you guessed “d” you are correct, and even if you found it an obvious answer, you can likely appreciate how this is a pretty difficult question for a 13-year old. After all, how could our founding fathers go to such lengths to mention issues that now seem so minor or ridiculous (e.g., What do we do with pirates?), but make no mention of education—an issue most Americans consider to be “very important.” And I didn’t have to pick education. I could just as easily have used health care, abortion, terrorism, telecommunications, energy, or the environment. Most of these issues now have their own executive department, or at least a major agency, and yet the Constitution can’t spare nary a word on them.

We of course understand it is not fair to fault our founding fathers for not adequately addressing these issues. These men wrote the Constitution 226 years ago and things have changed a wee bit since then.

I raise these facts to point out a rather obvious point—albeit rarely spoken of. Namely, the Constitution is a very flawed document. And how could it not be? It’s a 226-year old instruction manual written by a homogenous, yet bitterly divided group of people who could never have imagined the world in which we live.

Despite the obvious and unavoidable problems with our Constitution, we as a society are plagued by originalists. While there are varying strains of originalism, the general theme behind originalist thinking is that when the United States is in doubt as to what policies we should enact or what direction our nation should pursue, we should begin by asking ourselves, “What would the founding fathers have wanted us to do?” We regularly hear this from people who are not even familiar with the term originalism, but very much embrace its underlying premise. I most often hear it vocalized following the discussion of some government program, agency, or activity with some statement to the effect of: “This is just not what the founding fathers had in mind.” As I will attempt to show, this inquiry of founders’ intent is useless. In fact, it is worse than useless. It is counterproductive.

There are essentially five major problems with originalism, or what I see as founding-father worship.

First, the entire notion of originalism works under the demonstrably false assumption that the founding fathers were some type of monolithic entity who were of one mind as to how the federal government should operate and the powers it should have. That is not at all the case. Any part-time student of history knows the founding fathers lived in a politically tumultuous time. They had sharp disagreements as to: foreign policy (isolationism versus close economic and political alliances); whether to align more closely with Great Britain or France; whether to create a federal bank; whether to expand slavery; whether to build a country based on agriculture or manufacturing; whether to even write a Constitution or stick with the Articles of Confederation; and on and on. These disagreements were strong; so strong that the Constitution came very close to never getting out of the Constitutional Convention.

Further demonstrating the degree of political strife and ill-will between the founders is the toxic political rhetoric exchanged between them. In the presidential election of 1800 between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, the candidates accused the other of, among many other ugly things, being a hermaphrodite and advocating for incest. In 1804, the vice-president of the United States (Aaron Burr) famously shot and killed Alexander Hamilton for offensive statements Hamilton allegedly made about Burr during Burr’s ultimately unsuccessful bid to become New York’s governor. One could very reasonably conclude from this history that our attempts to discern the founders’ collective intent would be made no easier if they were still alive.

The second problem with originalism is that it is a compass without a needle (or perhaps a compass with infinite needles). What I mean is that originalism suffers from the same problem as those who advocate for a society based on Biblical principles. That is, there is not a single position on any policy that cannot find some support among a founding father or two (just like any advocate of any position can find something in the Bible on which to draw support). This begs the question, “If any person can find support for any position on any issue from some combination of founding fathers, what good is it to ask what the founding fathers would have wanted?” The uselessness of this endeavor is realized when you fruitlessly try to recall a single person ever lamenting that their political position is weakened by the lack of support from the founding fathers. Everyone believes the founders are on their side and everyone has something to back up that assertion.

Originalism’s next problem is there is no accurate way to poll the founding fathers. Attempts to derive the founders’ intent is often based on conjecture from writings that may or may not have reflected the authors’ actual beliefs. For example, originalists love to cite the Federalist Papers as documentation of the Founder’s intent, but they were written by just 3 of the 55 men who attended the Constitutional Convention (of note, 70 men were invited but some refused to attend and some of those who attended refused to sign the final document—the opinions of these founders do not seem to count). It should be pointed out that the three founders who wrote the Federalist Papers (Hamilton, Madison, and Jay) did not write them as philosophical works, but as part of a public relations campaign to whip up support among the states to ratify the Constitution. There is also the problem of determining at what point in time a founder’s intent mattered. For example, it is well documented that our quintessential founding father, Thomas Jefferson, in his long life, often found himself on different sides of the same issue.

Fourth, who do we get to count as founding fathers when determining their collective intent? Originalists indicate we must look to what the authors of the Constitution wanted. If we took this narrow approach, however, we would exclude from the founding fathers such notable people as: Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Patrick Henry, Thomas Paine, and John Hancock. There is also the problem that very few people know anything about more than two or three of the founding fathers, let alone what they intended for this country. Who, for example, can tell me the worldview and philosophical underpinnings of great Constitutional signers such as Rufus King, Jared Ingersoll, or Nicholas Gilman?

Finally, the fifth and most significant problem with originalism is that even if we could determine what the founding fathers wanted, do we really care? Their worldview is incredibly outdated socially, economically, technologically, and in every other way. When they formed this country, its population was the equivalent of today’s Phoenix metropolitan area. The big invention of the time was the shoelace. Bloodletting was still the rage. And perhaps most limiting, our founding fathers were all white, land-owning men. Sometimes I am curious what the founding mothers would have wanted. Or what about the founding slaves. Or the uninvited Native Americans. So again I ask, even if we could discern the founders’ intent, do we really want our policies paternalistically handed down to us by this homogenous group of fossils?

This purpose of this writing is not to encourage abandonment of the Constitution or downplay the significant contributions our founders made for us and the world. I simply point out that we do ourselves a great disservice by trying to solve today’s complex political issues by first trying to discern what the founders would have wanted. We do much better to look to those broad principles laid out in the Preamble, and try our best to enact policies that fulfill those principles while improving the lives of our living citizens.

– Dylan

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Give Me Liberty and Give You Death: The Me-First Philosophy of Libertarianism (Part 2 of 2)

Posted in Uncategorized on August 20, 2013 by thebluebros

Last week’s post on Libertarianism focused largely on the flawed philosophy of Libertarianism. This week’s piece focuses on the specific stances taken by Libertarians.

(1) First off, there are a number of issues on which Libertarians are conspicuously silent; issues such as gay marriage, gay adoption, abortion, and access to contraception, among others. This silence is attributable to the fact that the party’s presumptive positions on these issues (based on individual liberty) directly conflict with the conservative opinions of its affiliates. The Libertarian Party is pretty good at sticking to the red meat issues like lavish government spending and the 2nd Amendment while avoiding the murkier waters of gay rights and sexual freedom.

(2) Libertarians fail to realize that when society benefits, the individual benefits (i.e. a rising tide lifts all boats). By reducing poverty, providing access to healthcare, and making college education a reality for all Americans, we reduce crime, lower healthcare costs, and grow the middle class. I’m not saying Democrats are selfless altruistic individuals, but rather they understand the principle that when we help those around us, we improve our own world as well. So maybe Democrats are selfish too-they’re just smarter about it.

Libertarians are also quiet on other pressing issues such as education, the environment, campaign finance reform, etc. Where are the Libertarian voices on these issues? Time and time again we get to hear about eliminating the Federal Reserve, wasteful government spending, and individual responsibility; but we’re left guessing where they stand on nearly every other issue.

(3) When Libertarians think of the government, they think of fat Uncle Sam reaching into their pockets and bilking them of their hard-earned dollars. What they fail to see however, is the important role our government plays in helping to protect our individual freedoms. For example, the 2nd Amendment is a government decree that protects our ability to own and use firearms. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 ensured non-White Americans the freedom to vote without fear of discrimination.

Similarly, the government enhances freedoms that we enjoy every day. We have the freedom to travel from sea to shining sea because of the U.S. Interstate System, and the tax dollars that go towards its maintenance and repair. We have the freedom to eat in restaurants without the fear of getting sick because we have government-regulated health codes. We have the security of knowing there is a local police department, fire department, and ambulance service, all provided by our local governments. Libertarians are a broken record, always talking about the government and its role in taking away our freedoms. Just once I’d like to hear them acknowledge the freedoms their government protects.

(4) The obsession Libertarians have with the welfare system. Libertarians would have you believe that the biggest problem with America is the huge number of freeloaders. We saw this song and dance pulled out right after the 2012 election when Obama (aka The Food Stamp President) squeaked out a victory thanks to all of the freeloading Americans who crammed into voting booths with the hopes of ensuring the continuation of their steady stream of government goodies. (I can’t blame just Libertarians here. Republicans were beating this drum with equal fervor.)

Libertarians would have you believe that welfare queens and the other dregs of society are destroying America by leeching off hardworking Americans. In reality, welfare makes up about 6% of the federal budget. (I’m obviously not including Social Security or Medicare in this number, the reason being that we pay into those programs throughout our lives). Despite the plethora of evidence that welfare is not the reason we have a national debt and an annual deficit, Libertarians continue with their fantasyland charges of welfare queens playing with their iphones while parking their BMWs and dropping their kids off at daycare.

(5) Libertarians are often so concerned about their individual freedoms that they lose sight of the fact that financial debt can essentially remove every freedom a person has. Talk to anyone who has been hounded by creditors, or who has been behind on car payments or credit card bills. Talk to someone who has rent due in two days and no way to pay for it; or a person with tens of thousands of dollars in medical bills or student loan debt and no way to pay them. No money = no liberty. Yet Libertarians oppose raising the minimum wage; they oppose welfare programs designed to help people avoid poverty and homelessness; and they oppose government assistance to help students pay for college. Many Libertarians are single-issue voters who care very little about the actual concept of liberty but rather are vested in their own pet issues (e.g. gun rights, legalization of marijuana).

An important point to consider: The middle class is not a naturally-occurring phenomenon. It only comes about when either a country is stealing from everyone around it (a la Rome); when resources are so abundant there is no shortage of wealth (a la U.S. in the late 18th century); or if regulations are put into place that prevent all wealth from percolating to the top. If you remove these regulations (i.e., progressive income tax, estate tax, minimum wage, social security, etc.) you leave the system to take care of itself. We end up with feudalism or the Gilded age of the late 19th century.

Perhaps what’s most surprising about Libertarians is that despite the obvious limitations of their party’s philosophy, they use their party affiliation to support the belief that they are intelligent, thoughtful, and independent thinkers. But the more we delve into this political philosophy, the more we see it for the empty shell it really is.

– Nathan

Give Me Liberty and Give You Death: The Me-First Philosophy of Libertarianism (Part 1 of 2)

Posted in Uncategorized on August 14, 2013 by thebluebros

Most Libertarians I meet share some common traits (besides being white men). The American Libertarian is usually very unhappy with the direction of the country; he values individual freedom above all else; he places supreme importance on the well-being of himself and his family; he is often a gun owner; and he does not expect the government to help people, other than providing military and police protection (to keep safe oneself, family, and individual property).

I admire Libertarians for two reasons: (1) They want to remain involved with the political discourse in our country, and (2) They recognize the inconsistencies between libertarian ideals and Republican policies. For example, Libertarians do not approve of the Republican practice of deficit spending, a practice that has run rampant since the Reagan Administration. Libertarians also vehemently disagreed with the Republican-driven Patriot Act, and they disapproved of George W. Bush’s wiretapping and warrantless surveillance practices. For these reasons, Libertarians are automatically higher than Republicans on my hierarchy of political groups. However, I take issue with Libertarians on a host of other issues. Here is my list:

(1) Libertarianism is a very me-oriented political philosophy. From what I can tell, Libertarians appear to have two egocentric goals. The first is to form a society where no one bothers them. In other words, no one asks them for money and no one infringes upon their rights. The second goal is for everyone to be completely self-reliant. While I understand the desire to achieve these goals, they strike me as rather empty and self-serving. I would hope that we as a society could strive for better.

(2) Libertarians argue that helping others should not be mandated by the government. They believe the poor should receive assistance from churches and generous individuals who choose to give voluntarily. Rather than debate this point, I would simply ask Libertarians to kindly point out a country that has ever employed this practice successfully.

There was a very interesting piece written on this exact topic by blogger David Atkins. Atkins points out that although the Libertarian ideal has been attempted many times in many countries, the dream has never been realized. Libertarians explain away each example by saying that either the country wasn’t ready for Libertarianism or there was too much political unrest for Libertarianism to take root. Atkins appropriately compares this to the “No true Scotsman fallacy,” which goes like this:

Person #1: No true Scotsman wears underwear under his kilt.

Person #2: I’m a Scotsman, and I wear underwear under my kilt.

Person #3: Then you are not a true Scotsman.

 

When applied to Libertarians, the fallacy looks something like this:

 

Person #1: Libertarianism is the only path to economic and social prosperity.

Person #2: Somalia tried Libertarianism, and it failed miserably.

Person #3: They didn’t apply true Libertarianism.

 

This very much harkens back to the old Communist saying: “Communism cannot fail. It can only be failed.”

(3) It bothers me that Libertarians heartily embrace the philosophy that people deserve what they get, and they get what they deserve. Libertarians tend to have a very black and white view of the world. That is, if you work hard, you will be rewarded. If you are lazy and choose not to work, you should be poor and do not deserve the benefits of the American dream. Libertarians do not like to think about people who lose their jobs because of injuries, illnesses, layoffs, or downsizing; and they really don’t like talking about the Americans who work hard their entire lives but never scrape their way out of poverty. This does not fit well into their black and white worldview.

(4) One notch past Libertarianism on the political spectrum is anarchy (a not-so-distant notch for many Libertarians); in other words, no laws, the freedom to do whatever you want, and zero government regulation on anything. What some people describe as ultimate freedom sounds more like chaos and mayhem to most, a recipe for paranoia and violence.

(5) Finally, this leads me to a disturbing aspect of Libertarianism. Many of the people I have met who identify themselves as Libertarian don’t just think America is on a downward spiral to destruction…they hope America is on a downward spiral to destruction. This hope is born not just from the desire to have their prior political rants vindicated, but also because they see themselves thriving in a post-apocalyptic America where it’s every man for himself and only the strong survive. These individuals are typically well-armed, well-trained, and well-stocked on food, guns, and ammo. They see the American wasteland as the perfect canvas for showing off their skills as real Americans. No more worries about being politically correct; no more distribution of wealth; and no more “Kum-ba-yah” crap about villages raising children. It’s every man for himself. For the man who is only concerned about himself and his family, this is heaven on earth (unless of course they want any semblance of their old life). This does not describe every Libertarian…just an alarming percentage of Libertarians.

In my estimation, Libertarianism offers an incredibly simplistic platform (I want my rights) and lays it upon an even more simplistic and mythical worldview (good things happen to good people; bad things happen to bad people). All of the other important issues (e.g. education, healthcare, foreign policy, nuclear proliferation, economic policy, etc.) will somehow take care of themselves. With talk of the 2016 Presidential Election already upon us, the name Rand Paul is being hoisted unwillingly upon the American people as a viable candidate with a viable political philosophy. I’d like to nip that idea right in the bud.

Part 2 to follow…

– Nathan

George Zimmerman and the Problem of Cowards with Guns

Posted in Uncategorized on August 1, 2013 by thebluebros

The Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman trial has now been over for a while. I seem to be fairly unusual in that I am unsure of how to feel about the case. It’s not like the O.J. Simpson trial where the jury just got it wrong and everyone knew it. The jury in the Zimmerman/Martin case seemed to apply the law correctly. And the law seemed to be okay as well (i.e., If you are the aggressor, but then attempt retreat and the initial victim becomes the aggressor, you may defend yourself—pretty standard self-defense law). If the jury correctly applied a reasonable law, why does it feel like justice was not carried out? The reason is that George Zimmerman’s reckless and ill-advised actions unquestionably started a chain of deadly events for which he will pay no criminal penalty. That should trouble anyone.

While we hear every talking head on cable news opine on this trial without end, it seems odd that I can find no one who is pointing out what seems to be a fairly important point—that this tragedy was wholly preventable and would probably only occur in a country like ours where largely unqualified people are allowed to carry firearms. Had George Zimmerman not been carrying a gun, not only would Trayvon Martin be alive today, George Zimmerman never would have even exited his vehicle on that fateful day.

Before getting to the meat of this post, I first want to say that I am deeply disturbed by the many people who seem to take great pleasure in George Zimmerman being found not guilty. I saw Facebook posts from conservative friends who saw this as a big celebratory “fuck you” to African Americans, liberals, and the anti-gun lobby. Where does this come from? This is a tragic event for the Martin family, but also the Zimmerman family. What on earth is there to feel good or celebratory about?

To the point of this post, George Zimmerman is a wimp, a chicken, and pantywaist. The power of carrying a gun for him is quite evident. It allowed him to pretend to be something other than what he truly was—a giant coward.

The big question in trial was, “Who was the aggressor, Zimmerman or Martin?” A 911 call revealed someone yelling for help, but each’s mother testified it was their son yelling for help. Five of the six jurors believed it was Zimmerman. I believe it was Zimmerman, too. Why? Because Zimmerman is a coward. His own expert witness testified that Zimmerman felt he had to fire his gun because Zimmerman was an individual who had no skills, knowledge, or experience relating to self-defense or fighting. When Martin started to come after him, Zimmerman freaked out and felt he had no choice but to shoot Martin.

This is one of the problems with cowards who carry guns. Cowards see the gun as their first line of defense because they don’t know how to do anything else. In a sane world, Zimmerman would have gotten his ass beat and deservedly so. This is a guy with a history of racial profiling. In the six months prior to calling 911 on Trayvon Martin, Mr. Zimmerman had called 911 on four other people that he found suspicious. All four of them, like Trayvon Martin, happened to be black.

A further problem of cowards like George Zimmerman carrying guns is that it puts them in confrontational situations they otherwise would never think of putting themselves into. These wimps would always choose to stay in safe, non-confrontational settings, but with artificial courage strapped to their side, they quickly and undeservedly gain power and respect. Think about it. Here is a guy with admittedly no ability to fight or defend himself brazenly approaching a stranger in a hostile manner despite requests from police to not get involved. Someone with Mr. Zimmerman’s complete lack of training or experience in physical confrontation is not going to be putting himself into a position such as this where the risk of personal harm is so high. So stating that Zimmerman’s carrying of a gun made this a deadly situation is only half the story. His carrying of a firearm created the situation. The NRA often states we need “good guys with guns.” I wonder if the NRA would consider Zimmerman a “good guy.”

Perhaps the answer to this problem of cowards with guns is to require that anyone applying for a concealed weapons permit to first demonstrate they have some semblance of an ability to defend themselves without having to resort to firing his or her gun. This may increase the chances of gun owners feeling they have other options before having to shoot the person they fear—potentially irrationally. I am sure Trayvon Martin would have appreciated any efforts to take guns out of the hands of cowards, or at least the cowardice out of gun owners.

– Dylan