Thursday, March 31, 2011

The Stupid! It Burns! (name calling edition)

the stupid! it burns! OPEN LETTER TO AN ATHEIST or ATHEISM v GOD part 2
When you argue with a libby, that libby will probably start by calling you names. This is how libbies argue. They don’t have the skills to rationally debate conservatives on any topic and they know this so they don’t even try.
Sigh. There goes another irony meter.
Forget religion, this is about believing or not believing in god. If you're an atheist then you believe that all of existence is an error or a fluke or a random, errant growth; i.e. a mistake. It was not created or intelligently designed (by god or a creator) so it has no meaning or purpose to it. Nothing has any meaning or purpose. No purpose means no goals or direction to existence or life.
Except for some filler and a couple of rhetorical questions, there's an egregious error or fallacy in every sentence. He closes with this:
You don’t get it. It stares you right in the face, it’s at the end of your nose, but you’re blind. By that I mean you’re ignorant. Or maybe you want to be ignorant! Maybe you’re scared to face up to life’s rules and responsibilities?! You just want to be little babies and have mommy or the ninny state take care of you. In any case I don’t feel sorry for you, because its people like you who are screwing up life for everybody else. Please libbies, go back to Mars!

The libby’s response - name-calling.

Two irony meters in one post. Poe's law?

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Savings and investment

I'm trying to wrap my head around the concept of savings and investment. The best way I have of understanding something is trying to explain it. Keep in mind that I'm a very junior economist; take what I say with a considerable grain of salt.

We want to first look at things in real terms: what's physically happening in an economy. Since money isn't real (i.e. you can't eat it and it won't protect you from the rain) it doesn't count at this level of analysis. In real terms, we can look at the production side of the economy abstractly as One Big Machine that constantly produces a stream of goods and services: cans of food, ears of fresh corn, automobiles, gasoline, airplanes, computers, shoes, hats, furniture, beer, pizza, computer programs, as well as massages, accounting, toilet cleaning, car washes, etc.

There is a maximum rate the abstract One Big Machine can run efficiently and sustainably. We might be able to go a little over the maximum in times of extreme emergency, but we do so at the cost of getting enough sleep and sex; we really want to reserve going over the maximum for when the Germans really are on the march. More importantly, if we go under the maximum for a time, we can't later go over the maximum to make up for it. We can't turn the dial to 11 this month just because we turned it to 9 last month. If we produce less than the maximum for a time, then what we could have produced but did not is just lost.

Everything we produce needs to be more-or-less immediately consumed. It's very expensive to store a lot of stuff. We need to allocate land, build buildings, use transportation to move stuff to and from the buildings, employ clerks to keep track of it and security guards to watch it. Even with the best of storage, food spoils, cars rust, computers become obsolete. And we can't store services at all. If we as a society decide we don't want to consume all that we could in theory produce, then it's most efficient to just produce less — change the maximum rate of production — and all get more sleep and sex.

Given that we want to run the economy (viewed as the One Big Machine) at some maximum*, how do we look at "savings"? What does it mean to "save"?

Each individual puts a certain amount of labor into the economy, and receives the right to consume a certain amount. We know from the above that the sum of what is produced must always be equal to the sum of what is consumed. (This equality is true for any kind of modern economic relations, capitalist, socialist, even communist.) We also can restrict our economic consideration to the production and consumption of rival goods and services* and say that the allocation of consumption is a zero-sum game: one person consumption always comes at the expense of everyone else's: if I eat a particular can of food, no one else can eat it. We thus cannot physically store the "right" to consume in the future; a right is not a physical thing. All we can do physically is trade one person's consumption for another's in the present.

The economics of non-rival goods is interesting and valuable, but it's a topic for another day.

So, if I have worked for a month (or I've received this month's dividend check), I have received the social right to consume a certain amount of goods and services. (Presumably in the short term the total right to consume in a society is exactly equal to the total amount produced.) I can independently choose (i.e. choose without anyone else's specific consent) to either consume that much, or I can choose to consume less; I cannot independently choose to consume more; there isn't anything more to consume. If I choose to consume the total amount I have a right to consume, everything's good: the amount actually consumed is equal to the amount produced, and everything hums along happily.

But what happens if I independently decide I want to consume less than what I have a right to consume? As we've seen above, it doesn't really make sense to obtain the stuff and store it, either socially or individually. Since consumption and production have to balance in the short term, we could just produce less, but then the foregone production is just poof gone. If I just want to trade stuff for sleep and sex, then that's all right, but what if I want to do more?

I could invest the extra right to consume. Instead of using my right to consume to obtain beer and pizza, I might give that right to consume to a company to obtain economic capital: factories and machines, trained workers, etc. In this case, production and consumption are still in balance; all I've done is switch what is produced, i.e. lathes instead of pizza, conveyor belts instead of beer. All is good. In return, I'll get a share of the revenue, the stuff people give to the company in return for whatever it is they produce. And because I'm actually increasing the capital stock, that should cause real economic growth; I expect on average to receive a real increase in my right to consume in the future for my investment now.

But economic capital is illiquid. If I choose to consume 1,000 fewer abstract units of stuff and instead choose to allow a company to obtain 1,000 more abstract units of machines and training, I can't then go back to the company and get those units back any time I feel like it. Even if we wanted to permit such a thing as a society, what am I going to do with a whole lathe, much less a hundredth part of that lathe? The actual value of the capital I've provided does not inhere in the actual machines, but rather in what those machines can produce. I don't own (or even want to own) the machines themselves, I own what those machines can produce, which requires that they be in a certain place, operated, managed, and integrated into the larger economy. So what I own is pretty abstract and subjective. If I want to get my right to consume back, I can't just walk in and get it back; I have to find a buyer: a specific person who subjectively values that future revenue stream. And economic capital is not just illiquid, it's fundamentally risky. What if people decide they don't want what the machines produce? What if the company is organized inefficiently or perversely? What if a tornado wrecks the factory? Investment is great when I don't need certainty and liquidity, but if I want my money reliably at a very specific time in the future, I need another option.

Another option is to just trade current consumption for future consumption, without physically committing the right to consume into investment goods (machines, factories, etc.). Since I'm depending on the economy as a whole, which I already know can regularly produce a certain amount of goods and services, I can be much more confident that the economy will produce at least the same amount in two years as it does now. All we have to do is make sure that today someone else consumes what I'm not going to consume, and in two years they don't consume what I expect to consume. It's important that total consumption in every given month stays constant; the economy produces at maximum the whole time, and everything produced is consumed.

To recap, there are two primary macroeconomic trade-offs: between current consumption and current investment, and between current consumption and future consumption. It's important to note that these are physical trade-offs, and thus largely independent of any particular set of social, political and economic relations. Our economic relations determine how we make the trade-offs, and who benefits, but they do not affect the physical nature of what these trade-offs actually are. Any set of economic relations — hunter-gatherer, polis, slave-owning, feudalist, capitalist, socialist and communist — will have to determine some trade-off between present consumption and present investment as well as present and future consumption.

I'll explore some of the implications of these trade-offs in a future post.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Karen Armstrong is a *gasp* atheist!

A Christian gets one right! Whoda thunk it? Reviewing the "debate" between Richard Dawkins and Karen Armstrong, Albert Mohler concludes that Armstrong is an atheist. Mohler quotes Armstrong as saying, "Richard Dawkins has been right all along, of course -- at least in one important respect. Evolution has indeed dealt a blow to the idea of a benign creator, literally conceived." Mohler considers Armstrong's argument "superficial and theologically reckless" and "elegant nonsense." According to Mohler, "Dawkins ... understands God better than Armstrong. In fact, Richard Dawkins the atheist rightly insists that Karen Armstrong is actually an atheist as well." Mohler concurs with Dawkins that believers will lump those such as Armstrong with postmodernist and non-realist theologians and correctly brand them all as atheists.

There is a range of tastes and preferences among atheists, but so far as I know none say that literature and metaphor are socially harmful or even useless. I might not like this or that genre of literature, and I suppose there are atheists who don't personally like any literature at all, but the attitude among atheists is generally that literature, fiction, allegory, and metaphor are respectable or at least benign ways of talking about our experiences in the world. It might not be a metaphor we like, but if you want to use "god" as a literary metaphor for the wonder and mystery of the world, knock yourself out.

Believers such as Mohler and a billion others, though, are not buying this whole literary metaphor line. They take their theology seriously. God really does exist. God really does have a very specific physical and moral plan for the world, one we fail to conform to at our real peril. Armstrong is fooling herself if she believes her pseudo-theology is building any kind of bridge between believers and real atheists. There is no middle ground between those who believe that God really does exist and those who believe God really does not exist. In Mohler's eyes, Armstrong gives away the store, by entirely conceding the essential feature of the controversy to the atheists.

Mohler could very easily have seen Armstrong's line as a simple deceptive strategem. All's fair in love and war, n'est pas, and if Armstrong can bullshit the atheists into shutting up, who cares if she's mangling theology. It's not like she's making atheists' view of theology any worse. But I think even as deception Mohler sees Armstrong as going too far. There is nothing to be gained by even an insincere or deceptive surrender, and much lost by a deceptive surrender that leaves one's opponents armed.

Postmodernist and nonrealist theology damages Mohler's view of religion as much as, or perhaps even more than, outright atheism. Mohler does not care that people still use the word "God" in any old sense: he means something not just vaguely pleasing, but something specific by "God", something true. Religion, at least the kind of religion atheists are typically opposed to, is about authority. Without a real God, with a real plan, from whence do a horde of parasitic clergy derive their power and privilege? If anyone's opinion about God is as good as anyone else's, by what virtue can Mohler and his ilk demand that we submit to his opinion about God? Armstrong surrenders the very thing — religious authority — that Mohler must protect.

Armstrong not only surrenders what Mohler and that category of believers must fundamentally protect, she surrenders to the theists that which the skeptical atheists must protect: scientific truth. We have to interpret not just what someone says, but where they say it from: even if they use the same words, a person who condemed slavery, for example, would have meant something very different if he had spoken them from Washington, DC than if he had spoken them from Richmond, VA. Similarly, we have to interpret Armstrong's position in light of her alignment with the religious against the atheists. If we agree completely on the content of her remarks — religion is at best a literary metaphor — she must be opposed to us on some more subtle basis. We can conclude only that Armstrong intends some sort of aesthetic appeal is a guide to truth. We must interpret Armstrong as agreeing with atheists only that Mohler is wrong, but she must disagree as to why we conclude that Mohler is wrong: atheists say that Mohler is wrong because he's making claims about reality that are scientifically absurd; Armstrong presumably must say that Mohler is wrong because his theology is aesthetically displeasing. But atheism — at least the Gnu Atheism of people such as myself — is not about just not believing in God for any old reason, it's about embracing science, rationality, evidence and rejecting superstition, delusion, and nonsense; Mohler's God is just one casualty among many. Just as Mohler cannot sacrifice the actual existence of God, however pernicious a specific delusion, we cannot eliminate that individual delusion by sacrificing the condemnation of delusion in general.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Seven sects of macroeconomic error

Seven Sects of Macroeconomic Error, by Brad DeLong.

My commentary to follow soon.

Publius's notion of the national interest

According to Publius (probably James Madison), factionalism is bad because factions, including factions that constitute a majority of the population, can act in their own factional interests in ways contrary to the national interest. But what precisely is this national interest against which factions can act? Since Publius explicitly talks about factions in the majority (minority factions are countered simply by the basic majoritarian structure of the government), clearly a "factional interest" cannot be the interest of the majority, at least not in any simple sense. Similarly, just that factions do have interests opposed to the national interest means that the national interest cannot simply mean "in the interests of everyone in the nation;" if it did, then no faction would have interests to the contrary. None of the simple answers work, so we must look to more complex explanations of this mysterious "national interest" that we must protect by carefully structuring our government.

The moral and political zeitgeist at the time of the American Revolution and the creation of the US Constitution a decade later favored an "objective" view of morality and political rights. I mean objective in a sense similar that scientific truths can be known by a reasonable method, both ontologically and epistemically: these natural rights are actual properties of individuals, and they can be known by some reasonable method.. The language of the Declaration of Independence unequivocally supports this interpretation: "We hold these truths to be self-evident..." establishing epistemic objectivity, "...that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights," establishing ontological objectivity. Opinions about rights are as irrelevant to their existence as are opinions about the law of gravity: rights are properties of individuals that exist independently of our notions of them, and their existence and nature are rationally determinable.

But there is more to government than simply establishing these rights. If that was all there was to government, then there would be no real need for elections. We would be better served by creating a more-or-less meritocratic system with economically disinterested agents acquiring expertise in determining and implementing these objective rights. In other words, we would organize our government as we organize the scientific community. But there are other decisions we need to make socially, decisions for which we can find no better justification than the will of the majority of the people. These decisions come into the purview of government not because they are of the same character as natural rights, but rather because the tools of government (i.e. coercion) must be employed to implement those decisions. (Anarchists and Libertarians would probably disagree, but that's a debate for another day.)

It's clear, then, that the Constitution exists to manage the tension between these two functions of government: to carry out the popular will where legitimate (in those spheres where coercion is necessary to do so) while still protecting the objectively existing natural rights of individuals and minorities against the illegitimate popular will. The men in Publius's government must keep one foot in the popular realm and another in the realm of the ideal, the basis of natural rights. If Madison et al. were correct about this foundation of individual rights, we could hardly fault them. While not the only possible solution, the structures in the Constitution seem difficult to actually improve upon. But if he is not correct, then considerable scope for improvement becomes possible.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Ethanol Infographic

The folks at ecopolitology emailed me and asked me nicely to present their infographic about ethanol (basically gas from corn). I'm not a biologist, so I can't vouch for the accuracy of the work, but it seems reasonable, balanced, and nothing jumps out at me as absurd. And it's kinda cool.

Cornfields vs. Oilfields
Via: Online Schools

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Atheism and philosophy

TheEvangelicalLiberal is fairly stupid, and a liar very deeply mistaken, but his (?) recent post brings up some interesting issues.

First, the purely procedural. If you are going to criticize a philosophical point, it's really really useful to mention examples of the point, in the words of its proponents. Lib inveighs against "dogmatic philosophical Atheism", which he asserts "a priori rules the supernatural out of court, which is violently opposed to religious belief and which I think goes way beyond the reasonable grounds for not believing in God. To my mind this kind of Atheism – as practised by Dawkins, Hitchens, Atkins and friends – is strangely akin to religious fundamentalism." When you're naming specific people and accusing them of violence it's especially important to take great pains to support your point with quotations and citations. Lib simply fails to do so; his slanders against Dawkins et al. are, while probably not malicious, definitely grossly negligent. [Update: Lib has since backed away from these assertions.] It is only his inability to cause them harm that shields him from legal action.

I really don't know any "dogmatic philosophical Atheists," as Lib describes them; not only do Dawkins et al. fail to show any of the features Lib accuses them of, I don't even know anyone like that on the fringes of atheism. Atheism is a big tent, and I suppose there must be someone like that, but one swallow does not a summer make. Again, without any sort of specific citation — other than the negligent mention of Dawkins, Hitchens and Atkins and... friends? WTF? — we have to see Lib as tearing down a straw man.

Lib makes additional mistakes. He fundamentally misunderstands the argument from the evils of the Biblical God: "To my mind the most ludicrous is the claim that the God of the Bible is a monster, as if character assassination could ever provide grounds for non-existence!" Nobody uses this argument as a primary means of proving God's existence. (Similarly, Hitler was a pretty nasty guy, but few skeptics doubt his reality.) This argument is used instead as a rebuttal to the argument that we should believe in the God of the Bible because of the moral status of Yahweh (as well as other primarily moral arguments (e.g. without God there is no morality). Not only is the inference fallacious, but the premise is patently false. It's no crime to point out multiple flaws in an argument.

It's ironic to the point of hypocrisy that later in the post Lib endorses the very same kind of argument that he ridicules in atheists: "I would argue that atheism – as a philosophy – offers less coherent grounds for such philanthropy and wonder at nature than theism." If "character assassination" is not a valid reason to infer the nonexistence of God, that it supports what we want to believe is not a valid reason to infer existence.

He seems to erroneously believe that skepticism is a belief formation mechanism, and chides some atheists (again, without quotation or citation) as well as theists for adopting atheism on a non-skeptical basis:
However, I suspect that most of us – religious believers and atheists alike – do not actually come to our beliefs for purely intellectual reasons in the first instance. It’s often only after we’ve adopted a position that we start to seek solid intellectual grounds to justify it; emotional, experiential and cultural factors often play a large part in initially adopting or rejecting a particular belief.
The primary statement is uncontroversial: some, perhaps many, atheists do indeed come to their beliefs for other than purely intellectual reasons. But so what? Skepticism is not a belief formation mechanism: it is a belief rejection mechanism. His phrasing ("we start to seek solid intellectual grounds to justify" a newly acquired belief) as well as the juxtaposition of the quoted passage with the rant against dogmatic philosophical Atheists seems to imply that once a belief is acquired, all we do is try to support it.

But skepticism is just not like that. It's really irrelevant how we come to a belief. What's important to a skeptic is to examine one's beliefs, hypotheses, guesses, biases, etc. against reason, logic and evidence and reject or modify what doesn't fit. Indeed most atheists who have come from religious background simply applied skepticism to their notions of God; when those notions failed the test of reason and they rejected their belief in God, atheism was what was left: literally the absence of a positive cognitive belief in God.

I'm a closer example of what Lib is talking about. I more or less drifted into atheism, by virtue of a mostly "apatheist" upbringing. I wasn't raised as an atheist per se; when I was growing up, rather, the topic of religion just didn't come up in any meaningful and significant way. When I started actually being interested in the topic, however, I subjected my beliefs (or lack thereof) and number of alternative propositions to critical scrutiny. I can't claim it was entirely neutral; I am, like everyone else, biased to some extent by my intuitive or unexamined assumptions. On the other hand I have changed many of my beliefs on critical examination of the evidence (I'm now a communist, for example, having formerly been a liberal Democrat) so I can change my mind. And basically, the alternative propositions didn't even come close to satisfying critical scrutiny. Even conspiracy theorists, 9-11 truthers and UFO nuts have better, more eyebrow-raising evidence than theists, especially Christians.

Finally, Lib gives us a preview of his argument: atheism is OK, agnosticism is better, theism is best. Aside from the ridiculously fallacious argument mentioned above, I predict Lib will follow the tired old schema: We cannot be certain of atheism, so we must be agnostic. But if we're agnostic, we should use the evidence to come to the best conclusion. Since we have already eliminated atheism, the only possible conclusion is the existence of God. Stated so baldly, the fallacy (fallacy seems such a weak word to describe this kind of intellectual dishonest) is obvious.

I'm an atheist because my best critical examination of logic, evidence and philosophical argumentation leads me to believe that at best no god exists and at worst the concept of god is incoherent or infantile. I'm an anti-religious atheist in no small part because theists who attempt philosophy, even the professionals, botch the job so thoroughly that they constitute a clear and present danger to intellectual integrity and competence. Even though they are probably sincerely doing their best, their incompetence makes us all a little bit stupider.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The Stupid! It Burns! (philosophical edition)

the stupid! it burns! Atheism/agnosticism 1: Atheism okay…
I would say then that there are perfectly valid and reasonable grounds for a kind of practical or personal atheism, and I have no wish to knock anyone for taking this position, even if I don’t myself find it ultimately satisfying or convincing.
Damn white of ya, Lib.
I would however contrast reasonable atheism very strongly with dogmatic philosophical Atheism (capital A), which a priori rules the supernatural out of court, which is violently opposed to religious belief and which I think goes way beyond the reasonable grounds for not believing in God. To my mind this kind of Atheism – as practised by Dawkins, Hitchens, Atkins and friends – is strangely akin to religious fundamentalism.
Lib gives us no citations or quotations; he cannot. He is simply making things up, or, in technical terms, lying his ass off. [Update: Lib has since disclaimed the accuracy of these assertions.] You will not find this kind of philosophical capital-A Atheism in Dawkins or Hitchens (and I doubt Atkins, although I haven't read them); you will find it only in the fevered imagination of dishonest liars philosophical incompetents.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The Stupid! It Burns! (one swallow edition)

the stupid! it burns! Atheist Finds God?
[Geoff] Crocker is as sick of virulent atheism as he once became of the evangelical brand of Christianity he used to preach at numerous Christian events worldwide and through the tracts he wrote for The Bible Society. He tells us leading atheists such as Richard Dawkins are dragging the ‘non-religion’ down. “Dawkins has stopped being a thinker and has become a campaigner, setting himself up as some kind of Messianic deliverance figure to ‘save’ people from religion,” Crocker argues [sic]. “The result is moral nihilism and a materialistic, self-centred society, which does atheism no favours.” ...

Crocker proposes an entirely new approach - a reinterpretation of religious texts as myth and a synthesis of sacred and secular – because he is also sick of ‘The God Debate’ and wants to defuse the barren confrontation between atheism and religion. Looking at Biblical stories in this light, he claims, can be uplifting. The Old Testament story of Cain and Abel, or the New Testament account of Jesus Clearing the Temple, for instance, mean nothing doctrinally at all, he suggests. But interpreted as meaningful myth, they open up debate on serious moral and cultural issues, tap into serious, current issues such as justice, love, consumer society, the role of the state, fear, etc., and give atheists something to believe. Because yes, even atheists need to believe something.

Monday, March 14, 2011

The Tau of Pi

The tau Manifesto

On torture

The torture of political prisoners, categorically, while awful, pales to insignificance next to the subjugation of women and girls, both historically and in the present day.

Hear, hear!

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Special pleading

Economics is haunted by more fallacies than any other study known to man. This is no accident. The inherent difficulties of the subject would be great enough in any case, but they are multiplied a thousandfold by a factor that is insignificant in say, physics, mathematics or medicine -- the special pleading of selfish interests.

— Henry Hazlitt, Economics in One Lesson

(via GDAEman)

Nothing so permanent

"There is nothing in this world so permanent as a temporary emergency."

Heinlein, Robert A. "The Man Who Sold the Moon." The Past Through Tomorrow. New York: Berkley, 1967. 123. Print.

Friday, March 11, 2011

The Stupid! It Burns! (one swallow edition)

the stupid! it burns! ‘Atheists for Islam’ Happy to Support Religion?
The current crop of militant atheists have been parading about the country wailing about how the evil, evil Christians are oppressing them by having non-sectarian things like "In God We Trust" on our money or allowing a manger scene on city property. That's some oppression, there, eh?

Well, last weekend a photo was snapped that shows exactly what militant atheists really mean behind their rhetoric.
Atheists for Islam
Oh, they aren't against religion. They don’t likely think they are being oppressed, either. No their real goal is rather simple. They are enemies of Christianity exclusively.

Update: Stan jumps on the bandwagon of idiocy.

The Stupid! It Burns! (moral edition)

the stupid! it burns! Why Should Atheists Care About Japan?
In fact, at the risk of sounding callus, why do atheist even really care [about the human toll of the recent earthquake in Japan]?

Oh yes. I know they do. There is genuine emotion being expressed by atheists over the scenes of people being swept out to sea only to be lost forever. I don't discount that at all. In fact, I imagine there are atheist humanitarian groups, with red Darwin fishes on the sides of vans, mobilizing this moment, setting aside their vacation time to spend two weeks in Japan to help the citizens who have suffered such loss. But, why? Where is the "ought" in their worldview?

The pure, anti-supernatural, materialism that shapes their view of the world and the history of humanity offers no true reason to invest such time and energy. Except maybe doing so for their own, altruistic purposes. I reckon it makes them feel good, or something; or perhaps, they think their efforts benefits the future for humanity, or international, cultural relations at some point down the road.

It's amazing how someone can actually list the reasons for something and then say there are no reasons. Atheists do things because we want to. Theists do things, or at least they say they do things, because they're forced to.

In just the same sense, I go to work, pay my bills and generally act like a responsible person even though my parents can no longer punish nor praise me.

But the stupidity goes on!
The fact that atheists who are reading this are hating me right now and their anger will be expressed through the comments some of them may possibly leave under this post, demonstrates the profundity of the disconnect between what they preach and what they practice.

Atheists "preach" to me constantly from their blogs and their "science" websites, that mankind is merely the chance product of evolution. A genetic organism ran by the "software" of chemical reactions that have been acquired from traits passed along to sustain the survival of our species on a harsh planet throughout our long, brutal, bloody path to becoming homo sapiens.

Yet, atheists don't practice what they preach. In a manner of speaking, they are sort of hypocritical. In spite of this underlying philosophy about humanity, when major tragedy occurs, we are to ignore such beliefs, become grieved over the profound sense of human lives lost to the point we are moved to act in compassion. But why should I if this is just the history of evolution taking its course as it has done millions of times before and allegedly will do millions of times again until our sun burns out and the earth dies?
Good grief. <facepalm> We don't do anything "because of" evolution; we don't not do anything "because of" evolution. Evolution has no more moral relevance than the law of gravity. How we got where we are today does not change the fact that we are where we are.

Sunday, March 06, 2011

Democracy, wisdom and interests: Federalist Papers #10

Can we ensure that the government acts in the national interest, instead of in the interest of only some subset (even the majority is just a subset) of the nation? This question was on the minds of the founders of the Constitution; their concerns run through the Federalist Papers. As "Publius" (probably James Madison) says in The Federalist Papers no. 10,
Among the numerous advantages promised by a well constructed Union, none deserves to be more accurately developed than its tendency to break and control the violence of faction. ... By a faction, I understand a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or a minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adversed to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.
Publius also mentions that
Complaints are everywhere heard from our most considerate and virtuous citizens... that the public good is disregarded in the conflicts of rival parties, and that measures are too often decided, not according to the rules of justice and the rights of the minor party, but by the superior force of an interested and overbearing majority.
Clearly Publius believes that there are such things as "the public good," "the rules of justice," the rights of the minority, and these things are distinct from the interests of some factions, even factions in the majority. Publius quite properly rejects the idea that we should eliminate the causes of factions. Although "liberty is to faction what air is to fire," we cannot eliminated liberty because it is "essential to political life." And the fallibility of human reason precludes the homogeneity of rational opinion that would eliminate factions. People of both good and ill will will disagree; we cannot and should not attempt to ensure that they never disagree.

Instead of eliminating destructive factionalism at its source, Publius proposes to mitigate the effects of factionalism. He asserts that we cannot rely on enlightened statesmen: "enlightened statesmen will not always be at the helm." Nor can we rely on moral or religious motives: "They are not found to be [an adequate control] on the injustice and violence of individuals, and lose their efficacy in proportion to the number combined together." Instead, Publius proposes that a carefully constructed form of government will enable even a faction in the majority "to sacrifice to its ruling passion or interest both the public good and the rights of other citizens." Doing so will rescue popular government "from the opprobrium under which it has so long labored."

Publius rejects "pure democracy" as an appropriate form of government. Pure democracy, "a society consisting of a small number of citizens, who assemble and administer the government in person," provides no cure for factionalism. According to Publius, "democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths." While it is not at all clear to me what specific democracies he refers to here, Publius clearly believes that pure democracy does not not merely fail to mitigate factionalism, but actually exacerbates it by providing any old majority direct, immediate control of the institutions of government.

Publius instead endorses the republican, representative government — "the delegation of the government ... to a small number of citizens elected by the rest" — that would be established by the proposed Constitution. According to Publius, representatives would "refine and enlarge the public views... [and] best discern the true interest of their country." Representatives, by virtue of their "wisdom... patriotism and love of justice" would be more likely to favor this true national interest over "temporary or partial" interests.

In the next installment, rather than argue about how to overcome factionalism, I want to examine more closely the fundamental premise: are there really such things as the "national interest" and related concepts? If so, how can we best discern it philosophically? Is it really true that factionalism indeed works against this national interest? How would we tell?