States Visited

Saturday, January 31, 2009

High Hopes, High Expectations, Little Time

I have spent pretty much every free minute of the last six months reading a small mountain of books, papers, pamphlets, monographs and encyclopedia entries on such topics as American history, political history, philosophy, and economics, to name a few. I've even spent my daily commute and my time on the treadmill listening to podcasts of speeches and lectures on these topics. I have always loved history so I enjoy the process, but there has been a method to this madness. I've been accumulating and organizing this knowledge with the idea that perhaps I could put together a series of essays, possibly a small book, that would present this small library of information in a manner that is less threatening and easier to grasp than it is in it's original form.

As a nation, we are ignorant but not dumb. We are a television society - we like our information in short, easy-to-grasp bursts. We don't want to have to dig and analyze and spend hours in study. The story of Romeo and Juliet, for example, is not terribly complicated - elementary school children can understand the concepts - but it is altogether different if we attempt to read it as it was written. It was my goal to help bring the thoughts and ideas of the Founding Fathers, the men who inspired them, and their ideological forebears to the masses. A bold initiative to be sure, and perhaps a little naive.

I firmly believe this is a project that needs to be done and done quickly. Our country is fast approaching what I believe is going to be a pivotal moment in our history. We are on the verge of completely abandoning the very principles upon which this nation was founded - principles so great and so radical that they were beyond what we were able to achieve in our founding. In fact, history may show that we have already passed the point of no return. As much as the people of this country need this information, I have come to the conclusion that I do not have the time it would require to do it and do it well. It is still a dream of mine and one I may work on for years to come, but we need it NOW. So, what to do? It is time for every citizen of this country to turn off the television, to begin asking themselves some very important questions, and to begin the process of educating themselves.

The one single question that everyone must ask and answer is: Who owns me?

Do you own yourself? Does society own you or part of you? If society owns part of you, do you own part of everyone else? If you own yourself, do you have a right to any ownership of anyone else? Regardless of your answer to those questions, the answers carry implications that, I am willing to wager, go so far beyond what is expected that it will take some serious analysis to come to terms with their meaning.

Why is that particular line of questions so important?

Every form of government that has, does, or will ever exists has one thing in common - it makes assumptions about human nature. Specifically, it makes assumptions about each individual's ownership of himself. On one end of the political spectrum is the society (Society A) in which every individual is equally owned by every other individual - pure equality. On the opposite end is a society (Society B) in which every individual fully owns himself and has absolutely no claim on any other individual - pure equality. So, if both ends of the spectrum produce pure equality, why all the bother about whether one owns himself? Because the definition of equality changes as you move from one end of the spectrum to the other.

(Note: The analysis below is a highly simplified, scaled-down version that makes many assumptions and leaves out many important details. It is not meant to cover all aspects of the two ends of the spectrum, only to provide food for thought and hopefully encourage more questions.)

In Society A, every person has an equal claim on everyone else, thus, your labor and the results of your labor do not belong to you, it belongs to "everyone" and may be taken by "everyone" without giving anything in return. At the same time, you have an equal claim on the labor and results of labor of everyone else and may claim your equal share without giving anything in return. There is no private property in this society and there are no political leaders. Everyone is perfectly equal.

In Society B, every person has a claim only upon himself and the results of his own labor and no claim upon the body or labor of anyone else. If someone wants your labor or the results of your labor he must offer you something that will entice you to give it. If you should decide you want the labor or the results of labor of someone else, you must offer him something that will entice him to give it. There is no community property in this society, everything is privately owned. There are no political leaders because every need is privately negotiated between owner and buyer. It provides only an equality of opportunity.

Between these two theoretical societies, which have never existed at a level approaching that which we would call a 'country,' fall every form of government with which we have experience - monarchy, oligarcy, democracy, republics, Communism, Nazism, Fascism, emperors, despots, etc. Society A is the dream of Communism - a workers paradise where no one is exploited and all are equal. Society B is the dream of the Anarchro-Capitalists - an individuals paradise where everyone is free to pursue their own agenda with no interference from a government or society.

The Founding Fathers constructed a government that, while certainly not Anarchro-Capitalism, was much closer to B than A. However, almost immediately after the country was born we began a slow march towards A. The actions of Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War were a big jump towards A and, beginning in the first two decades of the twentieth century, what was a walk became a run. Under the direction of Bush, the run became a sprint, and now, under Obama, we have given up on self-propulsion and are now heading towards Society A at light-speed in the Millenium Falcon.

This is scary because, while no major geographic area, a nation if you will, has ever fully attempted to become Society B, there have, thanks to the works of Karl Marx, Frederick Engles, Vladimir Lenin, and others, been multiple attempts to become Society A - with disasterous consequences. Reasonable estimates place the number of deaths as a result of Communism at between 75 and 100 million people. It has failed so often and in such spectacular fashion it simply amazes me that so many are still drawn to it, particularly those considered "intellectuals."

I can hear the objections being mounted, that we are really becoming more Socialist (like our European bretheren) and not Communist. For the sake of brevity I am not going to provide a complete explanation. I will, however, offer this brief analysis:

The true Communist utopia cannot exist for very long because it is impractical and illogical. If everyone is completely equal, then everyone must be involved in every decision. Clearly, this is not a workable position for any group larger than a few people. Therefore, a group of decision-makers must be chosen. As soon as those decision-makers are chosen pure equality is gone as there now exists a group with authority over the others. Lenin believed he found a solution to this problem, but he was, quite obviously, wrong. Those with power always want to retain it. Always. Communism is, therefore, at best, always going to be a government of decision makers - the party - controlling the masses.

Socialism, on the other hand, usually begins its life as a form of democracy. However, as soon as it reaches a critical mass - the point in which a majority of the voting public is no longer responsible for the funding of the government - it quickly begins to devolve into a class of politicians pandering to the voting public. Minority rights still exist, but only for those which support the ruling political class. Individual rights begin to be non-existent. In the end it becomes a weak, perverted form of Communism. In fact, Lenin believed that democracy was simply the first step along the path to Communism.

The root problem with Socialism, Communism, and any attempt to become Society A is the question "Who owns me?" In a society in which a person does not own himself and the product of his labor he has no incentive to produce. We intuitively understand this, even as small children without the first political thought. A five-year-old that spends an hour constructing a sand castle will be brought to tears if his older brother destroys it in seconds. If the same process is repeated over and over again, eventually the five-year-old will stop building sand castles. Yet, the Socialists and Communists insist that those who produce continue to do so even when they are not allowed to enjoy the product of their labor. It is simply your duty to society to produce whether you want to do so or not. There will certainly be some who chose to do their work simply for the love of the job but, it should go without saying, that they will be the exception rather than the rule and people would, on the whole, be far more productive if allowed to enjoy the fruits of their labor.

There is so much more that needs to be explained. As I have made mention in previous blog posts, this is just the tiny tip of the iceberg. Even an attempt to put together a list of recommended reading is extremely difficult because there was no single source of inspiration for the Founding Fathers and an enormous amount of work has been done since then.

So, with a large grain of salt, here is my recommended reading list. I would highly recommend reading them in the order as shown. For most people, this is swimming in unfamiliar waters so I have tried to arrange the books so that they build upon each other to some degree.

*Conceived in Liberty by Murray N. Rothbard - This is the longest (and most expensive) read on the list but the simple, direct and entertaining writing makes it fly by. It is actually a collection of four volumes that outline the entire early history of this country, from early British colonies through the Revolutionary War.

*The Constitution of the United States and The Bill of Rights - The shortest read on the list. The foundation of our form of government can be read thoroughly and in its entirety in less than an hour.

*The Federalist Papers and The Anti-Federalist Papers and the Constitutional Debates (Signet Classics) - This may be the most difficult material on the list simply because the style of writing is so different compared to modern styles but containst the arguments that were presented to the people when the debates about formally adopting the Constitution were at their peak.

*Economics in One Lesson by Henry Hazlitt - One must have at least a rudimentary understanding of economics and this is a fantastic way to get it.

*The Road to Serfdom by F. A. Hayek - A masterpiece explaining the dangers of state control over the means of production.

*Socialism by Ludwig von Mises - A devastating critique of Socialism

*America's Great Depression by Murray N. Rothbard - What really caused the Great Depression and why it lasted as long as it did.

*What Has Government Done to Our Money? by Murray N. Rothbard - The title says it all. If the previous book didn't do it, this is a short read that will make you see your government in a whole new light.

*The Ethics of Liberty and For a New Liberty by Murray N. Rothbard - Two books that really belong together and lay the foundation for an entirely new form of government.

*1984 and Animal Farm by George Orwell - Two short works of fiction that were once required reading for every high school student in America. Once you read them you'll understand why an all-powerful government wouldn't want you to read them.

Finally, if you have read all of the above and are looking for a challenge:

*Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand - A massive work of philosophical fiction.

*Human Action by Ludwig von Mises - Mises' Magnum Opus on free market economics.

*Man, Economy and State by Murray N. Rothbard - Rothbard was a student of Mises and took the ideas presented by Mises in Human Action and elaborated, expanded and applied them to all sorts of situations.


Brandon said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Brandon said...

I thought your previous post was a home run. This one, then, is out of the park.

I actually have a draft of a blog post started on the importance of 1984, Animal Farm, and Brave New World--just haven't had the chance to finish it.

I hate that you don't have the time to push forward with your project, but I can definitely relate to the time issue. Hope that won't stop the blogs from blogging, though!

Jeff Border said...

I think you're forgetting the fact that this is an evolving process. Our forefathers right through Obama have changed things because they weren't working. If we evolve into a socialist nation it's because our original democracy/republic wasn't working. If an organ stops serving a purpose the body eventually will stop producing it. You're saying you want the non-functioning organ back. But why would you want it knowing it doesn't work? It doesn't matter what the forefathers wanted over 200 yrs ago, it is an outdated ideal. Sure some of the principles are still good, but others need to be left to die.

Steven Rodgers

First, I will definitely continue to work on my project. I came to the conclusion that 1) it is going to take a long time and people really need to hear these things now and 2) anyone that would take the time to read this blog is probably on the fringe of my 'target audience' for the project. Spending considerable time on the Internet, playing on blogs, and, specifically, reading blogs about politics and political theory is (painting with a broad brush here) probably a good indicator that one is above average in knowledge and intellectual capacity and capable of handling those books.

And, I will definitely keep blogging! :)

Second, I fully agree that societal norms and values evolve over time. But this is a very different kind of change than Darwinian evolution. (A topic for another day - applying Darwinian evolutionary principles is a dangerous game when it comes to governments because it almost always leads to eugenics or egalitarianism.)

Governments and societies do not exist on their own. They are a collection of individuals. There will never be a form of government or a society on this earth that is made of anything else. For brevity I am not going to give this a full treatment, but, in short, human beings are the only species on this planet that have a volitional consciousness. We are the only species that can assert, "I am." This has profound implications, for as soon as an entity becomes self-aware and volitionally conscious (I am skipping a bunch) it has crossed the fuzzy boundary and has started down the path towards 'natural rights.'

It is possible that, over the next several million years (assuming we don't kill each other) human evolution will produce a higher state of consciousness, an intellectual capacity beyond which we can imagine, but I find it highly unlikely that we will devolve from volitionally conscious, rational beings, to some sort of collective consciousness - similar to ants. I can forsee no path of evolution that leads us away from being individuals to becoming unthinking cogs as part of a greater community. While all of this makes for an interesting thought-game, it has no bearing on our current situation.

I am still developing this line of thought, but government is very much like a massive black hole - it pulls things into itself and the bigger it becomes, the stronger it pulls. Regardless of the form and structure of the government, it will expand and take powers from the individual citizens. It is the nature of government itself. The government created by our Founding Fathers, which was the world's first based on the premise of natural rights, was so structurally sound that it has continued to provide opportunity for success even though the gravity-pull of government began tearing at it almost from the moment it was adopted.

Again, to try to keep the word count to a minimum, I am going to discuss just one of those Founders. Thomas Jefferson, perhaps the intellectual force of that generation, realized from the beginning that the idea they were trying to capture for a government was beyond what they were capable of achieving. He penned the most eloquent declaration of natural rights that has ever been written, even as slaves worked his fields. What I find completely fascinating, is that he knew he was a hypocrite! He fully realized they were not capable of achieving the ideals that provided the foundation of our government and that it would be up to future generations to make it right.

Having studied nearly every form of government that has ever existed, there has been an evolution, of sorts, in governments over time - the very slow, but steady, march towards the recognition of the individual as 'self-owner.' This was not the result of some biological change in humans over the centuries but the steady realization that "all men are created equal" and the king, the pope, the medicine man, the politician that tells you otherwise is a liar and powerless without your consent.

I am convinced that Jefferson, Madison, Washington, Adams, etc., (with the possible exception of Hamilton...I'm still working on him!) fully expected that realization to continue and for our government to change in recognition. Jefferson knew slavery would never last in a nation founded on natural rights.

The coming of the communist and socialist movements is another attempt by those that seek power to take it from the individual. I do not seek a return to the old, I seek to continue the march towards freedom. It is the communist/socialist call for self-sacrifice for the 'greater good' of the community that is a regression to the governments of old. Socialism and communism give it a new shape but, in the end, it has the same logical root - the rights of individuals are of no consequence. Communism and socialism simply replace the king and the despot with 'the state' as sovereign over all and replaces the 'court' with a political ruling class that exists above and separate from the masses.

Jeff Border said...

I'm not trying to convert this into an evolution debate but evolution applies to everything, ever. To me there is no distinction between "Darwinian Evolution" and any other type, they are one in the same. Also it does not necessarily mean the government will become egalitarian, I would actually argue that if most people actually understood evolution (they don't), it would support capitalism and individualism, most definitely not the collective.

I'm not saying that the fathers ideas were bad and it wasn't a good foundation to build on. All I'm saying is we've moved past that because that is what is working best for us CURRENTLY. This will change in the future. Also it is based on natural rights as was known back then. I'm sure our perceptions on natural rights would differ today.

I think you're really arguing/blogging about the fact that the current state of our country isn't where it should be, according to your opinion. But in the evolutionary process it is where we are. You can try and change law and and change it to a closer ideal. But I would never want to go back, we've already done that, it doesn't work. You might argue we never were there. But we were the second we became a nation and the constituion and bill or rights were drafted. From then on we changed things for the better.

Think larger scope, not just government, but life. It is the natural law of things that rules, not a human conceived government.

Also I do agree with you that government is the great black hole.
It is the destroyer of wealth (not just monetary) while the individual is the creator.

Anyway I hope you're not stressing out too much at work and good luck with tax season.

Steven Rodgers

I agree that things change, they evolve over time. But I do think there is a difference between the evolution of a human creation like government and the Darwinian evolution of biologic processes. A species cannot 'choose' its path, humans, when it comes to government can and, even more important, they can be convinced to actively work against their own self-interest. It doesn't mean that the values and morals of society do not drift and move over time, they surely do. It seems that your position is that, no matter what happens, it is an improvement. Am I interpreting that correctly?

I would also have to disagree that what we are doing is working. I think it is fairly obvious that what we are doing is not working. Doing more of the same and expecting different results is one of the definitions of insanity. Changes are most definitely coming...I'm just not sure in which direction we are going to move.

I do think you are right. The understanding of natural rights that served as the foundation of our country is not the 'state of the art.' We (uh, they) have improved our understanding, we have developed a full philosohical system.

I'm going to have to think on your post a bit...there's something there about the evolution that seems familiar.