Sunday, June 27, 2010

The Government: Who and What It Is

This is Part 3 of a series of essays I am writing after reading The Revolution: A Manifesto, by Dr. Ron Paul.  If you like, you can find Part I and Part II at these links.

The Establishment is and always has been a favorite target for abuse. Right or wrong, you can pick up a lot of support for your cause by contrasting it against a big, entrenched - and decidedly un-sexy - Establishment organization (aka, "The Man".) And whether you're a 1960s radical agitator or a Tea Party Express rider, it's easy to get carried away by the romantic ideal of bringing down the Bastards, and sweeping away your problems.

It's hard to argue against that impassioned radicalism, especially when you know what you're defending isn't perfect. Not only that, but Bureaucracy is always a vote loser, and maintaining the "status quo" is always looked upon as an oppressive move.

In my adult life, I have butted my head up against the Establishment and have complained loudly about Bureaucracy many times, and I have to admit - I'm not always right. As I heard one senior manager put it recently, "Bureaucracy exists to protect Government from whacky ideas." And some of my ideas are downright whacky.

In fact, when I consider the things I want to change about the world realistically, I've been forced to accept that Bureaucracy is not a Bad Thing(tm) in and of itself. I've written before on this blog about this:

That last Great Innovation happened 125 years ago, when a little known Republican "machine" politician named Chester Arthur was sworn in as U.S. President after the assassination of James Garfield. Arthur reformed the Civil Service and basically gave us the Bureaucracy that we all complain so much about these days. At the time, it was a huge improvement, bringing all of the shady deals and corruption of the system out into the light.

So, while instant change makes for a compelling rallying cry, for ideas to be accepted, they need to be proven first... to the Establishment. In America, the problem we have is in figuring out when something is sufficiently "proven" to warrant making a change. And in accepting that the Establishment is a Representative body of us. It is certainly frustrating, especially when you always feel like the one with the "right answer", and you always feel like you're being ignored.

From the beginning of his book, Dr. Paul professes to believe in our system of government. He analyzes the Constitution throughout the book, particularly in Chapter 3, where he excoriates President Bush and the Congress for overreaching their authorities in regards to the 2003 Invasion of Iraq. In other chapters he refers to the possibly unconstitutional body of laws regarding free trade and international organizations - laws which few people seem to understand. His observations are compelling, and I appreciate his point of view on issues and events which have disturbed me in recent years.

But what bothers me about Dr. Paul's approach is the pervasive assertion that our Government is innately bad; an outside influence, completely divorced from what the constituents want. He pays lip service to our system of government, but either implies - or states outright - that the laws we have in place are illegal, according to the Constitution, and imposed on us by unspecified Others we have no control over. It's a popular idea, often shared by whomever is in the current minority party or by groups which feel marginalized - and of course, by radicals looking to bring down the Establishment.

There are a few areas where I feel Dr. Paul takes this too far. He characterizes income taxes as a kind of armed robbery - despite the 16th Amendment, which specifically authorizes them. Regarding regulation of businesses, he refers repeatedly to Government as a thing outside ourselves, causing all of the problems that our society suffers. He argues passionately for that most Libertarian of ideas, that if Government would just butt out, we "free and unfettered" individuals and businesses could take care of ourselves.

I appreciate the difficult balancing act faced by all Libertarians in finding that area between "too many laws" and "anarchy." I recognize that getting their point across is hard to do without becoming pedantic and boring. And outlining the limits that they feel our Representatives have ignored is tricky; but pretending that Government - all Government - is the culprit in the equation is misleading and dangerous.

First of all, as Dr. Paul claims to believe from the beginning of his book, our government was formed to represent us. If the government fails to do so, it is directly our fault. We are to blame, because we "own" it. The main body of the Constitution outlines the system and the process for controlling our government. It's not as if Dr. Paul doesn't understand this; he seems aware that the Government is our tool for ensuring that we don't take advantage of each other. He discusses this in several places, notably in Chapter 4 (Economic Freedom), where he quotes Thomas Jefferson, William Leggett, and Walt Whitman at length to illustrate the idea:
" single enough to form the starting point of all that is necessary in government; to make no more laws than those useful for preventing a man or body of men from infringing on the rights of other men." (Whitman)

Reading this book, it becomes clear that he does not believe that our representatives, operating under our authorities granted by our Constitution have made the right laws. I would tend to agree that we have allowed our government to overstep those bounds, but I fear that Dr. Paul goes further than that. Throughout these pages, he implies or states outright that our Government has been hijacked by what are generically referred to as "special interests"* - another populist meme, and an attitude which I believe takes away the burden of personal responsibility that we are all supposed to share, and turns what is supposed to be our arbitrary instrument of control over how our lives are shaped into a foreign threat.

This amplifies the most dangerous meme Dr. Paul employs: that Americans are "forced" to obey our laws - in several places he decries any regulation of business, and repudiates the requirement to pay taxes. He hearkens back to the founding fathers repeatedly, citing their dislike for taxation, apparently forgetting that the rallying cry was not "no taxation", but rather "no taxation WITHOUT REPRESENTATION."

As for the "force" involved, I have spoken to many people about this over the years. Dr. Paul echoes this approach, which characterizes the collection of taxes as money being taken away at gunpoint by an authoritarian regime. At one point he asks the favorite Libertarian question: "don't you think you are entitled to keep the money that you earn?" This is always presented as a trump card; if you don't respond with an unqualified "Yes", then you are proven to be either a fool or a dupe. I often ask in reply, "don't you think you should pay for the services provided by your government?" Guess what that makes me.

But when you face facts, every individual does have the choice to NOT pay their taxes. There are certainly consequences for this - fines, jail time, sometimes even exile - but to imply that thugs from the IRS will come and rob you at gunpoint for failing to file is just plain silly. It's an exaggeration, and one we are inclined to accept because it sounds right.

In comparison, I recall how, after enlisting and signing all of the papers, I got to Basic Military training and heard all of the dire warnings of things that would happen to me if I failed to complete it. A lot of people hated Basic, and wanted to leave, and the truth is, despite all of the contracts and documents they signed, they could have done so at any time. Sure, there were consequences, depending on how they tried to leave - climbing the fence will get you arrested; pretending to be crazy will land you in a psychiatric ward for an extended visit - but at the end of the day, despite all of the threats, no one will shoot a recruit for deciding to go home. If you're desperate enough to get out, the worst you can expect is eternal disdain from those of us who fulfilled our commitments.

Following that logic, by choosing to remain a citizen, you have "volunteered" to pay your taxes; in our country, it's more of a fee for services provided than the arbitrary, emasculating excise most people consider it to be. And we all know what happens when you don't pay your bill. That's not robbery - at least not in a free market society - so much as the rule of law.

So my contention is that the Government which we occasionally choose to ignore or vilify, does represent us. We are asked to give up time, money, and effort in exchange for things like roads, education, and military security, and if we don't want to, we have the right to petition for changes in the law. Changing rules we don't like is not an "instant" process, and a citizen has to stay involved for a long time to make changes. And while I think we should seriously consider Dr. Paul's suggestions to limit the Government's power, we cannot and should not simply ignore or throw out the Bureaucracy which we use to protect ourselves.

I don't believe that Dr. Paul has proven his assertions about Government, and as I intend to explore in the next essay, I don't believe he has proven that his proposed solutions - namely, throwing away any Government regulation, taxation, or institutions - will have the positive affects on our economy that he asserts they would have.

*Terms like "special interests" and "agenda" seem to pop up a lot in our political discourse. They ring like accusations: "They caved in to 'special interest' groups", or "they have an 'agenda'!" But it's like accusing people of having skin or breathing; of course people with a common political goal with team together to promote their "special interest"; and they won't get far without an "agenda". These words by themselves do not make a case that their intentions are either good or bad.

Perspectives on a Manifesto - Part 2

What I was looking for.

Dr. Ron Paul ran for President about eight years too late, in my opinion. That is to say, if you believe in libertarian ideas and would like to see someone who holds them dear in the White House, it would have been better for him to run in 2000 than in 2008.

In 2000, I was weary of the Clinton era. I was tired of the baseless lunacy of the burgeoning Right Wing Media franchise and their constant attacks on the President, and I was tired of the unprincipled sleaze of the man in the White House. I was interested in the Libertarians because they seemed to reflect the common sense, middle ground that I felt I occupied. And the prospect of a Third Party rising that would allow people like me to support the traditional "lefty" causes (ie, be "socially liberal") and the traditional "righty" ideas (ie, be "fiscally conservative") was very attractive.

Dr. Paul's 2008 campaign seemed to be trying to build on that appeal. But by 2008, I was weary of hearing politicians claim that what they wanted was common sense, only to see them fail or get into office and begin pandering to one extreme or the other. It was easy to see where Barack Obama stood, and I respected (and still respect) his willingness to take a centrist position; and his party, while far from perfect, seemed willing to back him up. It was easy to see where John McCain wanted to stand, but his party seemed determined to continue what I see as the simultaneous bloat and erosion of our Federal government - and they had a history of betraying McCain in the past (see "Up, Simba!" for David Foster Wallace's fascinating analysis of the 2000 campaign), a pattern which Palin's nomination as VP seemed to guarantee would be their future strategy, as well.

In 2000, I would have readily embraced Dr. Paul's campaign ideas, but in 2008, I saw him as a tired snake-oil salesman, trying to ensure a Republican victory using discredited memes to lure independents away from Obama's platform. I didn't see any new ideas, just a lot of complaining about the way things were; I didn't see any solutions. And when I have expressed that opinion, supporters of Dr. Paul's revolution have told me to read his book. Considering his Third Party status, and the treatment given to Third Party candidates by the press, it's entirely likely that I didn't get a complete picture of what Dr. Paul was trying to communicate to us.

So, when I opened the book, I was looking for those solutions. I was looking for a vision of what we could realistically do to move in a better direction. I expect a little "Utopian exaggeration", and I expect more than a little criticism of the status quo. But what I want to see is more than that. I want to see how we're supposed to fix things.

I want to see the plans for what we're supposed to build.

What I Found

On the surface, there is much I agree with in Dr. Paul's book. I appreciate his anti-war stance; ironically, when I made many of these same arguments, I was labeled a pacifist liberal sissy by many of my friends and family. Dr. Paul is certainly none of those things. I also applaud his rejection of the creation of laws and federal institutions which have unintended consequences or are unenforceable and needlessly burdensome on our society. I agree with his analysis that many of our government's laws and policies intended to help the unfortunate and unite our wildly different demographic groups have in some cases served to perpetuate the problems they aim to solve.

But underneath some of these ideas, I see some dangerous mistakes. Dr. Paul makes some basic assumptions about what government means and about the basis of our economy which seem rooted in the past. It's good to know our history, but to ignore the direction that mankind is headed, and the fundamental changes that technology is bringing about is a fatal flaw.

I intend to explore some specifics in the next post, but I wanted to make it clear that I did not set out to pick a fight with libertarians or with Dr. Paul's supporters. I read this book hoping to learn whatever truth it was that motivated so many to support his dark horse campaign. There is a lot here to get excited about, and I don't want to seem like I am opposed to everything said here; no one is perfect, after all, and I don't expect anyone ever will be.

However, it would be wrong and foolish to ignore what I see as glaring errors in judgment. So, now that I've spent two "introductory" posts explaining the background, and trying to head off some of the more distracting possible responses, let's explore what those errors are...

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Perspectives on a Manifesto - Part 1

Several friends have suggested that I read Ron Paul's book "The Revolution: A Manifesto" since the beginning of his 2008 campaign. Because the campaign is long over and these are my personal opinions about the issues and the underlying philosophies, rather than the candidate, I feel confident that I'm in no danger of violating the 1939 Hatch Act by putting my thoughts about this book here.

I do feel I am in danger of being misunderstood, however, based on some of the reactions I tend to provoke. To avoid that, I'd like to address some remarks commonly made by my readers in past discussions. If you have ever said any of these things, please rest assured that I am not singling you out, as the word "commonly" should indicate that more than one person has made the same comment in different contexts. (Hard as it may be to believe, you are not my only friend.)

So, if you've ever thought or said these things while reading my past discussions, please consider these points while reading my upcoming posts. It will save us both a lot of frustration if you do.

I just think ____ are so SMUG! Whatever you fill in that blank, you're probably right. People who believe strongly in their cause tend to sound overly confident about it. I apologize if I sometimes sound condescending, but there are times when I feel pretty confident about what I'm saying, or feel it is appropriate to use humor to express that idea. It's important that you, as a reader, recognize that your perception of my attitude (or the attitude of whomever we are discussing) doesn't change the substance of the argument. Often, though, the "smug" accusation is aimed at other who are beyond my control; all I can say is, I'm not them, so don't blame me for their attitude. In any case, attitude does not equate to right OR wrong, so don't be such a crybaby and address the ideas, not their presentation.

You're BIASED! or You just think you're right and everybody else is wrong. Well, yes. Everyone is "biased"...and why would I say anything at all if I didn't think I had something worth saying? As for my biases, I think I make them pretty clear. But don't mistake my chosen role as "devil's advocate" for "taking sides"... if I'm arguing with you, I will very likely disagree or contradict you a LOT before eventually making up my mind about your ideas. Don't give up too easily, unless you already know you're full of crap. ;)

You LIBERALS believe THIS.... Don't put me in a box, and then attribute everything OTHER people say to me. If you think my ideas or my logic are flawed, then address them. But don't fool yourself into thinking "his idea sounds like this group's position, so he must be one of them..." Don't waste our time arguing with people who aren't involved in the discussion at hand.

You're a HYPOCRITE because... Sometimes, I am confusing. Sometimes, I change my mind about things. I am only human, like you. claim to be "centrist", but you spend all your time attacking MY side. Sometimes I don't have time to waste slamming "the other side" just so you can feel like I devote "equal time" to "both sides". Part of that is your own fault for locking yourself into a "both sides" mindset when the truth is that there are far more than just two sides to the story. Most often, I "attack" (your word, not mine) the group that I feel should be on MY side, but has failed. I am also an opportunist; I only really pay attention to what drifts across my radar screen. Not only that, but when I take a position - such as being opposed to the 2003 Invasion of Iraq, which will be discussed later - even though there is strong opposition from both liberal and conservative ends of the spectrum, the immediate assumption is that I'm taking that position because of the liberal agenda. This is a mistake on your part, not hypocrisy on my part. make arguments based on things you don't believe in. I don't think many of you have caught on to this, but I often build an argument out of ideas that I don't consider to be valid. For example, I am not a Christian, but I will cite scripture in my discussion; usually I do this because there is some religious element to the issue at hand, and I want the Christians I am speaking with to understand that there is a Biblical basis for a position that I am taking. It doesn't always matter why someone believes a particular way, but if we can agree on a position or solution, that's the outcome I'm looking for.

The most important thing to keep in mind is that, as far as I'm concerned, we are not enemies. I don't even consider most of the things we are talking about to be "political" - because politics is all about negotiating and horse trading to take these philosophies and put them into practice. I'm really only interested in the underlying philosophies, and consider all of the partisan bickering to be a distraction from that discussion.

Now, let me get to work on that discussion...