In my report on the Occupy Richmond assembly, I discussed the shortcomings of the consensus model versus majority rule. I think I came down too hard on the consensus model at the time of its writing. I shared the frustration of the assembly that its business was held up by commitment to a principle – the 90% threshold – that they had not chosen for themselves. But the consensus model has a very sensible background, and an appropriate application. However, there are simply limitations to the human capacity for the extended reasoning that consensus requires. Let’s take a look. Continue reading
I had been to the October 6 meeting in Monroe Park of the not-yet-existing Occupy Richmond movement. Some seventy or so people met and decided to meet back at the park today (October 15) to have a further assembly, and to stand in solidarity with Occupy Wall Street. The assembly went pretty smoothly, at least in my view, though others might disagree. I know from history that democracy is a messy, tumultuous thing, and can be full of yelling and confusion and bad feelings. To a society that is accustomed to being calmly but badly managed by smug pricks with bachelor’s degrees, it may seem like a circus where the chimpanzees got loose. But that’s the price you pay for freedom. Continue reading
So there it is. On September 30, the United States government succeeded in assassinating an American citizen living in Yemen. Anwar al-Awlaki was a moderate Muslim cleric turned radical by US wars in the Middle East. The US government has subsequently decided that he was a member of Al-Qaeda, despite the doubts of Yemeni officials that he had any contact with the terrorist organization. In other words, Awlaki was an American targeted for assassination by the government of the United States for his religious expression. The President of the United States now claims the right to execute American citizens without a trial on the basis of “national security,” which, since the executive has no judicial or legislative oversight in this regard, means whatever the President decides that it means.
Most Americans do not understand the implications of Obama’s action. They will just say that they “don’t care about Awlaki’s rights,” just like Osama bin Laden before him. In fact, when Obama informed an audience with the news, they applauded. The error here is not just a failure of being a person, though there is that. The failure is understanding that one’s rights are not something that one possesses for oneself. Somebody might respond that just because Awlaki’s rights were violated, doesn’t mean that my own rights will be. This is the lemming-like belief that just because those other lemmings fell off the cliff, doesn’t mean I will – I’m a special lemming.
But our rights are not something enjoyed individually, but socially, because they exist only in the manner that the institutions we share are organized. We have the right to the freedom of speech only because our society does not prevent individuals from speaking, and those who do prevent free speech are penalized (let’s pretend, anyway). In this way, Awlaki’s rights are our rights, and if he does not have the right not to be killed by the government for whatever reason that it does not have to prove, then any American is subject to the same extrajudicial execution.
Unfortunately, it’s always the case in these historical transformations that people don’t see, in fact applaud, their journey into authoritarian nightmares. It’s happened to countless societies, and each failed to learn from history by thinking itself to be specially protected by its own virtues. Marx said that when history repeats itself, it does so “the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.” But when it’s your own country, it doesn’t feel very funny.
I was at a get-together in the last few months where I had a particularly nasty encounter. Because of the presence of an ex-Marine, several of the party-goers felt the need to profess their “love” of the military. I’m not sure that makes any sense, but that’s not the nastiness. The nastiness comes when one such party-goer, let’s call him Bill, starts advocating torture for the purposes of “getting the intel.” After all, if we had had the “intel”, the 9-11 attacks could never have happened. Absurdity, of course. Through all the long debates about torture over the past ten years, interrogators from the military and the intelligence services have both discounted the effectiveness of torture for gathering information from prisoners. Not that this could justify the use of torture – genocide, slavery, cannibalism or rape does not become acceptable when it is proven “effective,” even if for the greater good.
The response of Bill’s friend to Bill’s tirade was, “you can tell Bill’s a bit of a conservative.”
Is he? I find it hard to believe that such sentiments can come to characterize any genuinely political position. The advocacy of torture should not be considered the policy of some political philosophy – the advocacy of torture is evidence of something gone horribly wrong in a human being’s brain, an explicable but yet unfathomable moral degeneracy approaching psychopathy. Whether or not you think torture is permissible is not a sign of where you fall on the political spectrum, it’s a sign of whether or not you are a human being.
At the recent Republican Party presidential candidate debates, the idea that a thirty-year old who “refused” to purchase health insurance should be left to die brought laughter and applause. Again, this is an example of a lack of moral character so complete that one wonders if they are of the same species as homo sapiens. Again, this is not a blogpost about the politics of the Republican Party – hideous politics is a cancer that has metastasized across America’s political landscape. This is not some “liberals versus conservatives” thing.
The whole point is, is that some things just aren’t about politics, but merely about being a person.
Alexander Cockburn has a great piece of commentary on the apparently increasing trend in U.S. politics of ascribing our social woes to conspiracies. Readers at the Helmet will recall that our understanding of how institutions drive human behavior is central to solving the real social problems of our country and our world. However, it seems hard going to get people to understand that no particular person or group of people is causing all the problems, but the way that people interact through the social institutions that they inhabit.
Instead, Americans cling to the stories of angels and demons in the White House and Congress who will lead them to the promised land. The same tendency towards conspiracy leads to the cult of personality that takes over every four years when it comes time to elect the president. Last time it was Obama, angel to most though demon to some. And he will probably be turned into some sort of angel-demon for the next election, through the political parties’ media engines of ideology.
This tendency to understand outcomes in terms of human agency seems to be fundamental to the human brain. But just as nature’s workings are devoid of any intention, so human institutions have their own operations at least partially independent of any person’s will. Just as we improve our lives through dispensing with the belief that nature has its own will, so we must be jettison the idea that our social problems are the results of sinister men behind the scenes, if we are to solve them.
In Nudge, the behavioral economist Richard Thaler and political scientist Cass Sunstein describe the various ways that people behave irrationally because of the cognitive biases and the seemingly irrelevant contextual cues that influence our choices. Their solution is what they call “nudging,” or promoting rational choice without limiting one’s choices, through “choice architecture,” the organization and design of choice presentation. Since human beings’ choices are influenced by seemingly irrelevant environmental circumstances, Thaler and Sunstein see no harm in organizing those environmental circumstances to nudge people to make the best choice, so long as they still have the option of the less good choice. In discussing Thaler and Sunstein’s book, I’ve divided my comments into three parts: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. Continue reading
Osama bin Laden has finally been found and killed, almost ten years after George W. Bush promised to catch him ‘dead or alive,’ and nine and a half years after he said he didn’t care where Bin Laden was. We in the United States are justifiably excited. Some claim that the celebrations at the death of another human being are morbid; but I can’t see how it’s not permissible in the case of mass murderers. As far as can be known, Osama bin Laden funded the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and thus deserved to die. But the question I’m interested in is whether the government of the United States therefore deserves to kill him. Continue reading
Bradley Manning has recently been moved from conditions amounting to torture in Quantico to the medium-security prison at Fort Leavenworth, and people concerned with seeing any form of justice in the United States have been relieved. While I am glad that Private Manning is no longer effectively being tortured, this is not enough. Continue reading
Even after the economic implosion of the last two or three years, there are still many Americans who believe that markets are going to deliver on the promises of prosperity that mainstream economists craft for them. Markets have proven themselves to be unable to bring prosperity. Wealthy nations were not made wealthy by following the prescriptions of those who advocated free markets, and those nations who have followed most closely such prescriptions are the most destitute. The most obvious case is that of the United States, which in its time has pursued high tariffs, the monopolization and cartelization of industry, the socialization of the costs of businesses, and the direct public funding of some of the most important industrial innovations of the twentieth century, including the computer, the Internet, the jet engine, space travel, et cetera.
Let us suppose that the proponent of the market – not necessarily a neoliberal or even libertarian, but anyone who conceives as the market as a primary means of social organization – concedes that the market may not produce prosperity. Generally such advocates will not concede this, until mass unemployment strikes, in which case this is a tragedy that must be borne, even though we have long known how to relieve unemployment. In any case, you might have found that rare proponent of market organization that might concede that markets do not consistently produce prosperity. However, the market-proponent will say that this is the price we must pay for the freedom that the market provides. Some may remain poor, but they are least free. That is what this article refutes – the market is not a social organization in which the freedom of the individual is realized. Markets not only fail to deliver prosperity, but also freedom.
Before someone tries posting about “government coercion,” this article is not a plea for more “government intervention,” at least not in the conventional sense. The alternative to distribution by the market is not distribution by a bureaucracy. Humanity has employed many different forms of distribution in which government was only the guarantor (as it is with markets), not the provider. Continue reading