The Language of Goodness

A debate in which I toook part has just ended. The debate considered the question, "Is morality necessary for good political leadership?" My team was arguing the negative, i.e. that morality is unnecessary. Indeed, in my own statement I went so far as to say that only immoral leaders could properly act in politics. As support, I cited Machiavelli and Morgenthau. (Needless to say, I personally agreed with less than 50% of my position.)

Several times, the moderator stated that the negative was apparently the harder position to argue. Yet we were able to argue the debate to a draw, despite the morally repugnant arguments we made. It seemed to me, rather, that the affirmative position was truly the more difficult one to take. As I said later to one of the staff, it is difficult to argue emphatically for goodness in these cynical times without seeming stale and hokey.

Why is this? Is it that people are genuinely bored with morality? (I hope not.) Such an answer does not seem complete. My impression was that the arguments made in support of morality were all undermined from the start. One girl argued that being moral was simply the right thing to do. Once, this would perhaps have been self-evident, or could have been made so by reasoned analysis. Now, it is mocked as simplistic or even "mystical."

I think that the elevated language once used to defend morality, back when philosophers could still do so, has been systematically weakened and subverted. First, by those oppposed to the Church and to organized religion in general; then, by those opposed to religion in its entirety and Divinity itself; then, by those opposed to even natural law and morality. The effect of this is that it is now nearly impossible to defend the very idea of goodness against naked utilitarianism or even nihilism.

These are all impressions, and I have no direct sources to cite. But this idea chills me to the core, and I will doubtless return to it later.


The Nature of Fun

Those who know me know that I've been interested for a long time in computer games' potential as a teaching tool. I just stumbled on a post at Game Matters wherein he reviews a book by Raph Koster, chief game guru for Sony Online:
Although the book is deep with detail, the main question boils down to three words: Fun equals learning. As Koster puts it, "Fun...arises from mastery. It arises out out of comprehension. It is the act of solving puzzles that makes a game fun. In other words, with games, learning is the drug." And likewise, he writes, "Boredom is the opposite. When a game stops teaching us, we feel bored...Games grow boring when they fail to unfold new niceties in the puzzles they present."
That being the case, it continues to astonish me that most "educational" games are boring as a bag of rocks (Carmen Sandiego to the contrary). Oh well, all that means is that there's a market niche out there ripe for exploitation...


Public Service Announcement

If it is the night before a fast day in a city noted for its humidity, it is a bad idea to spend that night getting drunk.

That is all.


NASA and Private Companies

I had lunch today with an old friend of my father's, who is either my godfather or my brother's (I don't remember which). He has been involved on a high level with government space policy for some time, and is presently working on reallocating NASA's budget to reflect the shift away from the Space Shuttle and towards the eventual return to the moon. (I forgot to bring up my blog with him, so unless he says otherwise I will withhold his name.)

This post will deal with one part of the conversation specifically. While we were talking about NASA's orbital missions, I mentioned the recent excitement about private space companies participating in space development and exploration. I was gratified when he expressed a great deal of support for the idea; indeed, the strategy being built now specifically anticipates turning over near-Earth orbital support missions to the private sector if possible. For example, he mentioned commerical cargo runs that would resupply NASA craft with water, so that the NASA launches would deal with less weight.

Of course, NASA cannot depend on the existence of private sector capacity in time (though I suspect it will be there soon), and the plans also allow for government to continue doing what it does now. But my father's friend made the following statement with which I emphatically agree (closely paraphrased):

Government is incredibly valuable as an initial developer, consumer and regulator of technologies that eventually have wide applications; computers, radar, airplanes and the Internet are examples. But government as a tool is potentially very dangerous and must be employed wisely. In particular, one should be very skeptical of government's continued involvement in mature industries, simply because that is how it has always been done. At the appropriate time, government should back out and let the market take its course.

I find it encouraging that government space policy is being set by people who support private space flight. The circumstances might be unique to space policy, given that the sort of people who go into space policy to begin with are most likely those who dream about space flight for the masses. Who knows? Perhaps the future successes of the private spacefaring industry could inspire other sectors of government to get into the act.

And if not, at least we'll soon be able to set up agricultural colonies on Ganymede...


What Governments Do

[As you may or may not already be aware, members of the Watcher's Council hold a vote every week on what they consider to be the most link-worthy pieces of writing around... per the Watcher's instructions, I am submitting one of my own posts for consideration in the upcoming nominations process.

Here is the most recent winning council post, here is the most recent winning non-council post, here is the list of results for the latest vote, and here is the initial posting of all the nominees that were voted on.]

There is a concept in political theory called the Authoritarian Bargain. That is, in a time of social and political crisis, people gravitate towards authoritarian rule. Underlying such rule is a simple exchange: the people gives up most or all of its freedoms, and the authoritarian keeps them safe.

The truth is, the same principle can be more broadly applied. In fact, it is merely an extreme variant of the Social Contract, wherein the people cede a narrow range of rights to the government, which in return enforces standards of law. Such law is necessary because in its absence, we have the war of all against all. So even in relatively free societies, the people give up some rights in exchange for safety and security.

In the words of economist Dr. Tariq Yussef, "Governments exist to mitigate risk."

Now that we are talking about risk, we can perhaps deal with a recurring question: why do governments consistently displace the private sector, even though the private sector may be more efficient at addressing a particular problem? And why, even after the failure of central planning, do governments continue to expand?

Anyone with a basic knowledge of finance will know that there is inevitably a correlation between expected risk and expected return. A venture with high returns will almost certainly carry with it high risks; one with very low risks will correspondingly have very low returns. The same principle will often apply in other social areas as well. And it is here that governments and private groups will diverge.

Generally, when a private concern undertakes a given venture, its primary interest will be in maximizing returns over time, measured in money or some other resource. Therefore, it will be willing to accept some risk, or indeed to seek risk out in search of higher returns. Of course, the essence of good business practices is to find ways to beat the curve, and maximize return while minimizing risk. But the basic point is that private enterprise is risk-tolerant.

Government, on the other hand, is created for the sole purpose of mitigating risk. It is called into being because most people are extremely uncomfortable with risk, and would rather make the authoritarian bargain so that risk and uncertainty will disappear. So the government is less concerned with any material returns on its policies than it is with providing safety and security for its citizens.

It is a remarkable fact that the spread of globalization has brought with it not a decrease in the power of the state, but the exact opposite. The state has steadily increased in power and reach in those countries most open to globalization. Why? Because globalization is risky and creates uncertainty. So the people will not tolerate it unless government can provide a hedge. Examples: unemployment insurance, health care systems, pensions, labor standards, product regulations, education subsidies, job retraining, et cetera.

That being the case, when does a government consider a policy or program successful? It is surely not when the stated intent of the program (e.g. to reduce crime or to educate children) is carried out; such things can usually be done better by the private sector. On the contrary, many government programs end up exacerbating the very evils they were meant to alleviate. And yet they continue to exist and be funded. Why?

I think the answer is that governments seek to expand their ability to mitigate risk above all else. That is what they are meant to do, and to provide security in an insecure world takes a lot of power and influence. A private school may perhaps educate better than a public one, but it denies the government the opportunity to intervene in the lives of its people, as the people themselves so often want it to do. In a public school, government may in theory dictate what will or will not be tolerated, in order to make its clients more secure.

Of course, in real life things often don't work out that way. Moreover, many people resent such "nanny-statism" as stifling and intrusive, as indeed it is. I believe that our relations with government can be boiled down to the following three questions:

1. How much risk are we willing to tolerate in theory, and to what degree will we barter our freedoms and opportunities to reduce these risks? In other words, what risk/return ratio do we want?

2. Does government action reduce risk in practice, commensurate to the power granted? Can government action even increase risk? In other words, are we getting fair value in the Authoritarian Bargain?

3. At what point does the growth of government power itself constitute a risk?

Many people can oppose large government not because they dislike paternalism in theory, but because they don't think it works in practice. Similarly, few things raise the ire of a populace more than the idea that government action is actually making them less safe; consider the oft-stated (and to the long-term observer, rather dubious) meme that the war in Iraq has made the terror networks stronger.

It seems inevitable that the more power government has, the more it will try to accumulate, because that is what it does. The logical extreme is for governments to lock people in their ergonomically-perfected bubbles and feed them nutritionally-balanced meals, and otherwise dominate their lives so that they cannot do anything remotely risky. Of course, on the other extreme is pure anarchy, the war of all against all. And people would not be satisfied with free-market solutions, because free markets are willing to tolerate more risk than the average authoritarian personality can stomach.

So we must find somewhere within this range of options that is best-suited to a healthy society. And this necessitates that we constantly restrain government, because otherwise government will inevitably overrun all of society, with a good chunk of society cheering it on.


The Merits of Indentured Servitude

I remember being bemused by Aristotle's description of the more or less best-ordered society in the Politics. In it, one part of the populace was made up of full citizens, having a share in government and freely able to own property; the other part was made up of slaves. Yet after my initial incredulity had worn off, I saw that Aristotle's argument was hard to refute. He said that while many people are well suited to freedom, able to take care of themselves and their families and to best develop their talents, there are some people who simply are not cut out for the free life; these people, who Aristotle believed were best suited by nature to be slaves, simply couldn't handle living on their own, and would be happiest under the rule of another.

Life as an independent person is hard. You not only have to work for your keep, but you must manage your earnings and the property you accumulate. You must also confront the anxiety of being ultimately responsible for your welfare, and the welfare of those under your care. This anxiety is highly stressful; many people would prefer not to deal with it, to rely on someone else to take care of the details. Yet those not wealthy enough to hire personal asssistants must make do, or else blunder along from one misstep to another until some final bit of carelessness destroys all that they have worked to build.

The desire for security in exchange for dependence is quite powerful. Some people have that same impulse in the political realm; it is sometimes called the authoritarian personality. People who possess it instinctively support those leaders who promise to be most paternalistic, to remove from them to the greatest degree the anxieties of life. They are referred to derisively by some as "sheep."

I am certainly not about to argue that such people should be enslaved. It would be abhorrent to anyone who loves freedom. On the other hand, if someone is not suited to the independent life, why should we force him into it? Why not give him another choice?

The Torah describes a system of indentured servitude, in which someone may voluntarily sell himself into servitude for a fixed period (six years, or until the next Jubilee year, whichever is sooner). During that period, he will labor for his master, and the master will in turn provide him and his family with room and board. At the end of the term of service, the newly-free man is presented with a generous severance payment from his former master, in addition to the initial payment at the beginning of the term.

If such a system were standardized for the modern era, it could do a great deal of good. A contractual agreement between two parties would be perfectly legal, so long as all other laws were obeyed in the meanwhile. This would provide a means of livelihood, and more importantly of security, for people who choose not to run their own affairs; and they would be given a large cash settlement at the end of their term, which they could use to advance themselves in the future.

Meanwhile, the employer would be able to duck all sorts of payroll taxes (until the government changes the rules accordingly), and would probably save on the salaries themselves over the long run. Group housing and food would be much cheaper than individuals housing and feeding themselves, so effective pay would be much less. And with employees guaranteed by contract to stick around for lengthy periods, the employer would have an incentive to make them better workers—by giving them some sort of education or technical training.

I can't imagine why such a system should not be made available to people who might be interested, so long as it is very, very transparent; I can imagine plenty of ways that indentured servitude could be abused by the unscrupulous, in both directions. At best, such a system would afford a way out for people who need a change in their circumstances. The cash settlement at the end of service could be a powerful means to change your life.

Any thoughts, dear readers?



As you no doubt have heard, the sixth Harry Potter book is being released tonight. That means that by about 5:00 AM Saturday morning, the internet will be flooded with spoilers.

I cannot purchase the book myself until Saturday night at the earliest, and with my schedule I don't know if I can finish the book until late Sunday or so. I will be cutting myself off from the net until I do, so posting will resume sometime next week.

In the meanwhile, I've been reading "Cryptonomicon" by Neal Stephenson. Stephenson's books have been pimped relentlessly by Instapundit and many other excellent blogs, and I can see why. His writing is very good, clever, and more than a little bit individualist in outlook. One of the characters has a typically annoying time getting through U.S. passport control, and as he leaves the airport he has an overwhelming urge to spend $10,000 at the nearest gunshop...

That's all for now. Happy HBP!

UPDATE: From a July 11 piece on Canada's health care system by Mark Steyn: "The trouble with most of the Big Ideas is that at heart they’re small, mean ideas applied on a huge scale."



Update on "High Fidelity"

Well, the book was sitting around, and I hate not knowing the end of things I've already started (see under "Wheel of Time"...), so I'd read a chapter every now and then. I'm glad I did; starting from when he meets Charlie again, I couldn't put the book down. "High Fidelity" really is amazing, if you can tough it out through the first half without vandalizing random record stores because you despise Rob so much...

But I stand by what I said earlier. It is not "hilarious". Only one scene even approached hilarious, the one involving a flower garden. Anyone who thinks the book is hilarious needs to seriously rethink his sense of humor.

Charity, Coercion, and Judaism

Some of the feedback from my piece on communal responsibility, plus some comments by my good friend Ezra, have got me thinking about charity. Generally, I do not prefer government-run charity operations for a few reasons. First, government in general is inefficient, rigid, and about as discriminating in its decisions as a wrecking ball through a crystal factory. Second, a large part of the charitable experience is the spiritual and moral effect it has on the giver, which is lost if we simply give our money to the government to act on our behalf. Third, it seems to run counter to the Jewish model of charity, which has a number of features to recommend it. But I am beginning to wonder whether the Jewish model can realistically be applied to a largely secular society.

[Disclaimer: I am not a rabbi, nor do I play one on TV. I believe that the statements about Jewish law below are accurate, but I have not made an exhaustive study of the subject.]

Jewish law mandates three different avenues for charity. First, if you own a field and grow food on it, you must set aside a corner of your field for the benefit of the poor (and this corner has no maximum size); furthermore, when you harvest your field, any stray produce must be left where it falls, to be gathered by the poor.

Second, three years out of seven, the “second tithe” of agricultural produce is set aside for the poor. This amounts to about 9% of the harvest, roughly every other year.

Third, all people are required to give at least 10% of their net income to the poor. (The rabbis imposed a maximum of 20%, after a number of prominent people were reduced to poverty themselves through their charity.) This is true even of the poor themselves; a beggar would have to give 10% of his alms to another beggar worse off than he.

A few points are worth noting. First, the punishment for not fulfilling your obligation was not judicial, but spiritual excision (i.e. a Divine punishment). One partial exception is that food which had not been properly tithed from could not be eaten; but even here, the punishment for eating untithed food was spiritual excision as well. So while there is a high degree of communal pressure to be properly charitable, it is primarily dependent not on civil authority but on belief in the Divine obligation for charity.

Second, only charity to those who actually need it counts; generally, this is defined as someone who does not have a year’s savings (excluding a home and furnishings), and without a steady income sufficient to live on. Giving to other causes, such as education, environmental conservation, etc., is commendable but must be over and above your initial obligation to give to the poor. That being the case, people have a mandate to determine whether recipients of charity are in genuine need.

Third, while there is an obligation to feed and clothe all of the poor, there is no blanket obligation beyond that; for a poor person to receive anything else requires that he cultivate the goodwill of charitable individuals. There is ideally a sort of “free market” for charity, where people decide individually who should benefit the most from their charity; those poor who are seen to deserve more support get it at the expense of those less deserving, who must be content with the minimum level of support, i.e. food and clothing.

Finally, the highest form of charity is to give someone employment. I do not know at what point salaries cease to be charity and become simply salaries, but the ideal is to get a poor person to be self-sustaining. On the other hand, the Torah warns us that “poverty will never cease from within Israel,” so our policies must not be predicated on any Utopian end to poverty.

So my prior thinking on the subject had basically been, “Instead of governments taking money by force and then spending it on lavish entitlements and subsidies, they should simply require that individuals give X% of charity on their own, or to private organizations who will do it for them.”


How would such a thing be carried out? Would “properly poor” people have to register with a government agency, and keep receipts of their takings? Would charitable organizations be divided into “eligible” and “ineligible?” How can you prevent abuse of the system, and would such abuses be more or less preferable to the abuses taking place in the present system?

Communities are very different now than they were. It used to be that in a given location, there would be some rich people, some not-so-rich people, and some poor people. Poor people would always be available to the rich, and people always had the option of giving directly to the poor if they felt that working through intermediaries was not as effective, which has the effect of regulating the intermediaries’ behavior. Additionally, people generally knew each other, and could judge between possible recipients accordingly.

Nowadays, people largely live in communities grouped by level of affluence. The poor are very far away from the rich; if the rich wish to give charity, they are practically forced to use intermediaries. And that opens up all sorts of abuses. The larger an organization is, the less likely that it will do the job efficiently, or without some sort of corruption—especially if you involve government in the process.

I was at a dinner recently where one of the people, an economist, described a sort of Gresham’s Law of charity. (Gresham’s Law, remember, is that bad money drives out good. It can be easily generalized to all sorts of subjects.) As he said, a poor person in DC can decide to get meals from a local Catholic church, where they begin by asking your name and about your situation; over time, they will encourage you to take steps to improve your circumstances, and will eventually cut off people who are not working on self-improvement in some form. Or, the poor person can go to a government-funded soup kitchen, where they feed everyone without asking names, or demanding any sort of long-term development from the beneficiaries. Naturally, most poor go to the government kitchen.

I am very worried about charity, and about the communal obligation for the poor. At the same time, I think that the perceived obligation we have to the poor has been increased all out of proportion to what it should be; furthermore, the reciprocal obligations of the poor to the community have been completely forgotten. Charity is not a free lunch; beyond a certain minimum, it is an implicit statement that you, in particular, deserve this particular coin more than that other poor man down the road. And that means that you must justify your alms, through good morals and character if nothing else. (In Jewish communities, it is customary for the poor to bless their benefactors; those whose blessings are particularly potent receive much more charity in return.)

That is part of why I so distrust government charity programs as they are now constituted. There is no sense of reciprocal obligations; indeed, such programs are called “entitlements,” and there is a growing sense that people deserve such entitlements not by virtue of their worthiness, but their simple existence.

At the same time, I worry that we have few alternatives. Can the old model work if it must depend disproportionally on intermediaries, who are kept honest primarily through civil coercion, and not necessarily belief in a Supreme Being? Divine law has a major advantage over civil law, in that you cannot deceive God; but if you do not believe in God, all that limits your behavior is the fallible power of the state, and your own decency. And wherever large amounts of money go, there will be unscrupulous con-men mixed in with the truly noble—especially if part of the process is securing governmental endorsements for mandatory charity.

On the other hand, are government programs any better? At least if a private charity is dishonest, you can simply stop giving to them and find another. Competition can work in charity as well as in business. Government programs, on the other hand, have more or less guaranteed funding and arbitrary quotas to meet. They have historically given very little bang for the buck, and even encourage the growth of the very poverty they wish to alleviate. As the saying goes, “If you want more of something, subsidize it.”

On the whole I still think the Jewish model is superior in concept. But I don’t know if it could effectively supplant the present government infrastructure, if given the chance (though I am cautiously optimistic). I think, though, that we as a nation need to seriously consider whether giving the poor a free ride, with no strings attached, is truly to their benefit. There must be a reciprocal obligation, moral or communal or material, on the part of recipients of charity.


Privatization in China

I ran across a very interesting news report on Xinhua the other day. Highlights:
The widening income gap was the most serious social problem in China in 2004, according to a recent survey conducted by the Party School of the Communist Party of China (CPC) Central Committee. The survey also found that reform of the income distribution system in 2005 is the top concern of the respondents, including officials at the provincial level, Xinhua Telegraph Daily reported Friday.
So far it looks like something that could appear in the New York Times. But then we get this:
An Qiyuan, another CPPCC member, said that the income gap between different social sectors is also wide. Those working in some monopolized industries, such as power, water and gas supply units, telecommunications, air and railway transportation, enjoy much higher salaries than those working in other industries. The income gap between those poorly-paid and highly-paid industries increased by 4.25 times last year, against 3.98 times in 2003 and 2.62 times in 2000.

There is a cry for breaking the monopoly of these industries to narrow the income gap.
If they are printing it in the state news agencies, you can bet that some powerful people are in favor of breaking up the monopolies. It is rather ironic that Communist China seems more willing to embrace free markets (slowly and carefully, to be sure) than some Western countries I could name.

The other thing is that if you read the full article, you'll note that China is increasingly worried about the tensions between the urban and rural populations. This may well be the impetus for possible revolution; but it would not necessarily be a pro-capitalist revolution, as most rural areas have had many of the hardships of a free market, and few of the benefits.

But breaking the monopolies seems a promising move. It will help correct wage distortions and possibly ease the accompanying tensions; aside from that, I'd bet dollars to dimes that the monopolies in question are state-owned. Any reduction in state control over essential services is a good thing in my book.

China continues to be "a conundrum wrapped up in an enigma," as they say. Every time we get a troubling signal, like saber-rattling over Taiwan, we get a conciliatory signal soon after, like the NorKo's returning to negotiations. And behind everything is the increasingly developed, capitalist economy. Very confusing, all told; but not boring at least...


Thoughts on "High Fidelity"

I am about halfway through the novel "High Fidelity" by Nick Hornby. (It was made into a movie a few years back.) I do not think I will read much farther, if at all. The book itself is exceptionally well crafted, is detailed and honest and unflinchingly realistic, et cetera. The only problem is that it makes me want to slit my wrists. I have had to force myself to read the last few chapters, and those who know me know that's saying something...

Meanwhile, the reviewers are enthusiastic. That's fine, but I want to comment on one aspect in particular of their reviews:

New Yorker: "hilarious"

Spin: "offhand humor"

London Sunday Times: "Hilariously accurate."

Financial Times: "very funny"

And so on. It is true that the book is written with a particular sense of humor. Yet to my ear, this humor is very different from hilarity. It is cynical; it is sarcastic; it is vicious, even. The reader is invited not to laugh, but to smile knowingly. We are invited to enjoy the image of a man so incredibly shallow and self-centered that he damages the lives of others with his thoughtlessness and then complains that they have left him with sexual neuroses; a man who enjoys sex most of all because "I can lose myself in it entirely.... I could forget who I was, the time of day, who I was with."

I can understand why such fiction can appeal to some people; it is, after all, an examination of a very real type of modern person, in great detail. What I don't understand is how someone could find it not merely funny, but hilarious. Many of the reviewers spoke of recognizing themselves in passages of the book; sometimes I did the same, but that did not make the book funny for me, only honest.

If I can be permitted to speculate wildly for a time, I think much of the difference could be that I am judging the narrator, while other readers are not. I cannot get away from the narrator's ultimate cruelty and thoughtlessness, and reading the book from that angle makes it an unrelentingly depressing read. Others, perhaps, are simply luxuriating in the thrill of recognition, of confrontation with Self and the Absurd, without the discomfort of confronting the essentially flawed nature of the narrator, and by extension themselves.

Whether that is true or not, I am very much disturbed that the artsy set finds this book hilarious. Well-written, certainly. Important, possibly. Hilarious? My stomach churns at the thought.

[UPDATE July 12: Just finished the book. See my final thoughts (much more complimentary) here. I still don't think much of the reviewers, however.]


"The Beginnings"

This poem by Rudyard Kipling was posted in the comments at Wizbang:
It was not part of their blood,
It came to them very late
With long arrears to make good,
When the English began to hate.

They were not easily moved,
They were icy—willing to wait
Till every count should be proved,
Ere the English began to hate.

Their voices were even and low,
Their eyes were level and straight
There was neither sign nor show,
When the English began to hate.

It was not preached to the crowd,
It was not taught by the State.
No man spoke it aloud,
When the English began to hate.

It was not suddenly bred,
It will not swiftly abate,
Through the chill years ahead,
When Time shall count from the date
That the English began to hate.

Where Can We Respond?

Thus far, we have been perversely fortunate in our counterterrorism attempts. When 9/11 happened, we could point to a state that was openly allied with the terrorists responsible—Afghanistan—and a state that openly celebrated the attacks, was a longstanding enemy of the United States, and was neck-deep in general terrorist nastiness—Iraq. (And yes, paying Palestinian suicide bombers $25,000 to murder Israelis counts as terrorism in my book; so don’t bother with all the obnoxious “no connection to terrorism” blather, it gets you no sympathy at all from me.) Moreover, both of these states were geopolitically vulnerable and relatively easy to conquer and pacify.

Aside from the value of the Iraqi and Afghani wars in and of themselves, they also gave politicians something to point to, to show that they were indeed “doing something” in response to the attacks. This lessened the need (in theory) for government to pull its usual idiocy on the home front, and (should have) allowed it to restrict its response to actions that actually have a practical purpose. (If this is true and they still managed to bungle the Homeland Security debate, imagine what would have happened without the war?)

The wars had an abstract value in geopolitics as well: an attack must be responded to, or else it will encourage further attacks. By invading Afghanistan, we demonstrated that we are willing to hit back, hard. By invading Iraq, we demonstrated that we will not limit our response to those directly responsible, but will clean up the whole fetid swamp of state-sponsored terrorism and totalitarianism if necessary.

But because we have already taken out the easy targets, Britain is left with a difficult situation. Prudence, pride and the long tradition of British defiance in the face of attack demand that the Brits respond with overwhelming force to the London bombings. The question is, where and against whom?

It is difficult to point to particular states that could have actively supported this specific attack; moreover, the remaining state sponsors of terrorism are all much trickier to deal with than was Iraq, for example. Iran, probably the most egregious example, already has the West tied up in knots over how to act. I doubt the mullahs are stupid enough to openly support actual terror operations right now, as opposed to general terrorist infrastructure, so a “case for war” would be difficult to sell.

Britain could conceivably step up its counterterror operations against the world terror networks, which it is probably going to do anyway. But such things are not in the public view, they are not sexy, and they do not produce immediate results. Any Pavlovian will tell you that the longer it takes for an action to get a reaction, the more tenuous the mental connection between action and reaction. As counterterrorism is as much an educational process as anything else, we need somehow to drive the message home.

One conclusion that has generated broad agreement is that Britain has been far too lenient with Muslim extremists and their supporters on British soil. Yet though the British must clean up house, they cannot afford to give the perception that their main response to the attack was to oppress their own Muslim community. This will tie their hands somewhat, unfortunately, and it also makes finding an external enemy all the more urgent.

So who?

It will be interesting indeed to see how Tony Blair chooses to respond. I have no persuasive ideas for where the response will be, but the Pakistan-Afghanistan border is an option, as well as Kosovo (a major transit-point for organized crime and terror groups, and practically a failed state after years of suffering the tender attentions of the UN), and Nigeria or other African countries with ties to al-Qa’ida. The next few weeks should be instructive.


We Are All Londoners Now

Everyone, please pray for the brave people of London, which has just suffered a series of coordinated bombings on their subways and a bus. Casualty reports are still coming in, but this looks like it will be a very bad one. The bus bombing was apparently carried out by a suicide bomber. Al-Qa'ida in Europe has apparently claimed responsibility.

The war continues. It may continue for decades more.

"May there be made known among the nations, before our eyes, vengeance for the spilled blood of Your servants."

UPDATE [9:30]: Wretchard, in his comments section:
The good thing about fighting Islamic terrorism is that it creates its own feedback loop. Anytime you are misguided enough to think they are normal human beings they will disabuse you. And the trajectory is corrected. The important thing is to stay the course, in Iraq and elsewhere, until this movement is utterly, utterly destroyed.


"Enlightened Self-Interest" vs. Communal Responsibility

About a month ago, I heard Dr. Walter Williams speak at the Heritage Foundation. He was giving a deliberately abrasive introduction to standard Libertarian ideas of government's role in the economy, with which I generally approve. At several points he was asked the inevitable question, "How can the poor/environment/elderly survive without the government to protect it against the ravages of capitalism?"

He answered, briefly, that if people were free to follow their selfish impulses, the problems would work themselves out. This is due to the idea of enlightened self-interest, i.e. that it is in the best interests of each individual to do things that benefit the group. (He gave the example of planting fruit trees on his property that he would never live to eat from, because doing so raises his property value.)

Now while this is often true, it is a problematic answer. I tend to be put off by the enthusiasm with which some defenders of the free market will trumpet selfishness as the cure for all our ills, for several reasons. First, this idea completely ignores the trouble of parasitism or free-riding, and the related problem of the Tragedy of the Commons. To wit, there are circumstances in which it is most advantageous for the individual to act to the detriment of society as a whole.

Second, people do not always follow their enlightened self-interest; often they prefer a short-term interest over a longer-term one, for more or less irrational reasons. To defend a system by saying that it works if everyone is rational is hardly a ringing endorsement.

Third, even aside from these issues, such a defense is worse than useless as a persuasive tool, which is ideally the point of the exercise in the first place. It runs counter to the everyday experience of most people, in which acts of selfishness cause hurt and acts of selflessness accomplish great good. Moreover, it reinforces the caricature of the greedy capitalist, and makes agnostics all the less likely to embrace capitalism; nobody wants to think of himself as a bad person, and you will usually get much farther by appealing to man's virtues than by excusing his vices (this is why advocates of abortion speak of "defending the rights of a woman's body" rather than granting permission to kill inconvenient babies, for example).

This all being the case, why then do so many people use this argument with so much glee?

I think we must look to the original question for our answer. "What will happen without government?" assumes that there is a large class of necessary civic functions that would simply be left as a gaping void, without the compulsion of government to ensure their performance. These functions now include such elementary things as feeding the poor and caring for the elderly, which would have been unthinkable not even a century ago.

Alexis de Tocqueville commented on the remarkable habit of Americans at the time to form more or less local associations to perform functions that Europeans would generally leave to the government. He gives the example of clearing a fallen tree from a road; while a European community of the 1830's would have called on the government to remove it, Americans would simply organize themselves and do the job on their own. (This sort of thing is so rare today as to be unheard-of in most of the country, sadly.)

One of the themes hammered on by the aforementioned Dr. Ryn in class is that Americans used to be motivated chiefly by a sense of virtue based on "Love your neighbor." That is, your first duty was to care for those closest to you, your family and your community. This led to a vibrant communal life, in which concerned citizens would care for each other and do what needed doing in the community, because that was what being a good person meant.

Now, on the other hand, we are encouraged to care for Humanity in the abstract (often to the detriment of individual humans right next to us). Since no individual could possibly care for all of humanity, we must delegate our responsibilities for humanity to an entity powerful enough to do so—namely, the government. Hence, we can pay our taxes, send off the government to do good on our behalf, and feel that we have discharged our obligation.

This is an exagerration, of course. But it is based on truth. It is often noted, for example, that Americans give much more charity per capita of GDP than do Europeans; this is explained most often by the tendency of Europeans to place social responsibility on the back of their governments, to which they pay so much in taxes. And this tendency is on the rise here as well. It is worth noting that the most generous states in the U.S. are not the richest—indeed, they tend to be the poorest—but tend to be least associated with expansive liberalism. The reverse is also true; those states most associated with liberalism and social welfare are disproportionally near the bottom of the rankings.

Ergo, many defenders of capitalism have apparently decided that they cannot appeal to any sense of communal obligation to explain why civilization will not collapse in the event of a free market; in some cases, they themselves are not keen on the idea of communal obligations either (this seems to be common in the troglodyte-wing of the libertarian or libertarian/conservative community). Instead, they are forced to appeal to pure selfishness, and give assurances that selfishness will bring about a new golden age.

This is a mistake, for the reasons I have already pointed out. Furthermore, selfishness as an ideal leads to a narrowing of the human spirit and is ultimately unsatisfying, perhaps immoral. If free-marketeers were smart, they would invest their energies in trying to reawaken the old spirit of communal responsibility in America. (I should really say, to spread the spirit of communal responsibility, for it is still alive and well in many communities.) It is this spirit that can make a free market work: the idea that the successful have a duty to care for the less fortunate, directly, without any reliance on governments to do the dirty work for us.

Indeed, statists of all types know that their greatest challengers are private benevolent organizations. Just look at the vitriol that is commonly poured upon the Boy Scouts...


Thoughts on Batman Begins

Last night I watched Batman Begins, which was absolutely rock-solid. Any movie with Michael Caine, Liam Neeson and Morgan Freeman has definite potential. Throw in Christian Bale as the lead, and we're rocking. I highly recommend the movie to anyone even remotely interested in Batman, martial-arts movies in general, or movies with awesome soundtracks.

***WARNING: Spoilers to follow. If you have not seen the movie yet, stop reading.

****I mean it!

Batman is one of the vast majority of superheroes (if you could call him that) who have an aversion to killing. This is a significant plot element this time around, as an act of mercy ends up costing him dearly later on, and the entire city of Gotham as well.

The Talmud has a saying, "He who is kind when he should be cruel, will eventually be cruel when he should be kind." The immediate context is a discussion of King Saul, who lost his divine mandate when he spared the life of Agag, king of Amalek. Later, while hunting for his rival David, King Saul massacred the priestly city of Nov, whose inhabitants were innocent of any crime.

But the general idea holds true in Batman as well. Bruce Wayne's teacher in the League of Shadows derided him as being too weak to do what is necessary in the pursuit of true justice, i.e. to kill people. Though the League has a perverted view of justice, the point remained true; when Bruce learns of the League's plans to destroy Gotham City and turns on them, he spares the life of his teacher. Yet his teacher simply continues his plans, and when next they meet, the League has sent a large portion of the city into hallucinogen-inspired anarchy. To save the rest of the city, Batman is forced to destroy the greatest legacy of his father's idealism.

Employing death as a tool of justice is repugnant to some, for many reasons. First is the possibility of error; killing an innocent man is perhaps the most horrible perversion of justice imaginable. Second is the thought that human life is infinitely precious, and therefore we have no right to kill anyone, no matter what his crime. Finally, death (by this reasoning) precludes the possibility of repentance, and whatever good the dead man might have done.

But sometimes the choice is not between death and incarceration; it is between death and freedom to continue doing evil. In that case, not killing an evil man may simply let him murder more innocents; to say that we have no right to kill him, therefore, is to say that his life is implicitly worth more than the lives of his victims. And that is truly repugnant, and a mockery of justice.

And as for repentance, it is not something that we mortals can dare to rely on. While some evil men do repent on their own, most do not. Can we be so heedless of the cost to others, to allow such a man to go free in the slim hope that he can find atonement?

The deeds of an evil man are ultimately his responsibility; but some small share of the blame must fall as well on those who could have stopped him, and did not. Bruce Wayne's moral code, which did not let him kill one who desperately needed killing, led to the murder of countless people. And even when he does finish it, Batman will not do so directly, keeping his code intact by the merest of technicalities. It is such moral codes that allow otherwise good men to confuse their passivity in the face of evil with principle.