Wednesday, January 24, 2007

How do we save the earth, our freedom and our culture? With the stroke of a pen...

Note: I've revised and bumped this post rather than write a new post covering much of the same ground less well. I'd also like to put it into the context of "Framing the Unspoken Debate: Metaphor, Morality and Politics," which I wrote subsequently to this essay. Specifically, all the ills I address below can be accurately seen as Moral Pathologies of both Right and Left.

First - read this account of a very bad black man's life. Consider that his story is one of opportunities and context.

Second - The promise of a plant that is condemned, not because it is a drug, but because it's related to a drug. And why is it condemned? Because methanol would have competed with oil and chemical processes derived from oil and therefore it had to be demonized.

I can also point you to reasons why marijuana as a drug was outlawed, at least in part. It had little to do with it's actual effects, for good or ill and far more to do with attacks on cultures and subcultures that depended on it - in preference to ethanol brewed from wheat, oats, barley and corn, ironically enough.

Drug Crazy: How we got into this mess and how we can get out is a good starting point, illustrating the original agendas and the lies that hid them. But reason alone is a fair starting point. Consider this one statistic; that half of all prison beds are filled with non-violent drug offenders?

Consider that imprisonment itself has many of the same disruptive effects upon family and community as does drug-use itself, even when the drug use is undetected and untreated. We have little or no idea what the impact would be if we simply replaced punishment with treatment for those who needed it - but we do know that even if we replaced half of all jail beds with community-based treatment, we would be saving money, and employing a better class of people doing it.

Of course, there is a shadow-good in the current system; it keeps people inclined to be prison guards away from those who are not. However, I think treatment is a better option there - or perhaps, just perhaps, a mind-altering experience.

But there is more to the war on drugs than power, even more to it than social control, even more to it than the "opiate of the masses" attempting to eliminate shortcuts to and supposed replacements for approved forms of spiritual expression and experience. Indeed, the only traditionally sacred herb that remains legal for ordinary folks is tobacco - but only in it's most addictive and least psychoactive forms. The more sacredly effective forms of the herb are kept very expensive, or legally unobtainable within the United States. Dominican and Cuban tobaccos are some of the best remaining strains of the herb that originally swept Europe with it's manifold effects, both sacred and profane.

Note that in effect, the enjoyment of this "vice" is restricted by price and access to the elites that can "handle it" - ordinary tobacco addicts are kept pacified with denatured and adulterated nicotine delivery devices.

All of these concentrations of power, of wealth, of doctrinal property are expressions of a deep-seated terror that obsesses those who are called to power and control; a fear of what would happen if "The wrong people" were to be allowed to act as they pleased. It's not that they fear what they would do or not do, so much, as they fear the inability to be sure what any given individual should do. And sadly, if you look at the lives of those most obsessed with the behavior of other people, you will find little forgiveness for their own human failings, foibles or even harmless whims. They fear their own Liberty as much or more as that of any other - for they know all to well what they are capable of, if only they did not discipline themselves against it.

So really, they forbid all things that tempt them, and make mandatory all that comforts them in the rather childish assumption that these things are universal dangers and comforts, while allowing that other restrictions that really don't seem to apply to their own nature are nonetheless best conformed to in public, for the benefit of those who might otherwise be led into temptation and folly.

So by this, and many other small but telling examples that you may glean from examining the social standards for the "ruling classes" across time to themselves and the stricter standards applied to "ordinary people," we must conclude that there is some degree of apprehension as to what might happen if the common people were permitted to simply do as they pleased, to whatever reward or lack thereof that they might find.

The parallel argument is to examine the ethics of choosing on behalf of others what sort of expressions and behaviors they will be permitted or forbidden, and what they must or must not do in order to deserve such permissions in comparison it to the supposed evils and harms that may arise if these behaviors are not restricted.

There is no case where a rational, defensible examination of any restriction of truly personal liberty can be clearly demonstrated to have a greater benefit than the harm caused. Indeed, it's fairly easy to substantiate that exercises such as the Drug War create widespread, systemic, crippling harm on a level all out of proportion to any positive social gains. The same arguments apply to attacks on birth control - and the reasons why they are problematic were well-put in Grizwold(Griswold v. Connecticut, 381 U.S. 479 (1965))

Ignore the nonsense about "penumbras," thought they are true enough - go directly to the Great Unmentioned Amendment. It's existence renders absurd any argument that there is no "constitutionally guaranteed right to privacy." Of course not. The Constitution recognizes rights, and recognizes some that the founders thought required explicit protections.

Nonetheless, the Due Process Clause itself is foundation enough, as Justice Marshall famously noted in a widely cited dissent:

In Poe, Justice John Marshall Harlan II filed one of the most cited dissenting opinions in Supreme Court history. He argued, foremost, that the Supreme Court should have heard the case rather than dismissing it. Thereafter he indicated his support for a broad interpretation of the due process clause. He famously wrote, "the full scope of the liberty guaranteed by the Due Process Clause cannot be found in or limited by the precise terms of the specific guarantees elsewhere provided in the Constitution. This 'liberty' is not a series of isolated points pricked out in terms of the taking of property; the freedom of speech, press, and religion; the right to keep and bear arms; the freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures; and so on. It is a rational continuum which, broadly speaking, includes a freedom from all substantial arbitrary impositions and purposeless restraints." On the basis of this interpretation of the due process clause, Harlan concluded that the Connecticut statute violated the Constitution.

Shortly after the Poe decision was handed down, Estelle Griswold (Executive Director of the Planned Parenthood League of Connecticut) and Dr. C. Lee Buxton (a physician and professor at the Yale School of Medicine) opened a birth control clinic in New Haven, Connecticut, in order to test the contraception law once again. Shortly after the clinic was opened, Griswold and Buxton were arrested, tried, found guilty, and fined $100 each. The conviction was upheld by the Appellate Division of the Circuit Court, and by the Connecticut Supreme Court of Errors. Griswold then appealed her conviction to the Supreme Court of the United States.

There are situations where the overall social benefits of a minor restriction on personal liberty are persuasive to a person of conscience. But by making the conscientious choice, the arguably moral and considerate choice - indeed, the sane choice compulsory, we replace conscience with compliance and pretend they are the same thing.

I would use a properly-designed safety belt whether or not it were mandatory. I do it mindfully, every single time, even though the car I drive has a full set of airbags. It's part of the ritual that puts me in a responsible mindset for driving. And frankly, I do not care to include the "freedom" to exit my vehicle via the windshield as part of my personal portfolio of liberties!

Should we try and legislate responsible behavior? That is the liberal excuse for fiddling with people's freedom to make personal choices. In very rare cases, your more enlightened liberals see the idea of providing access to "better" choices to be acceptable; more often they try to enact laws they know will not be respected in private and certainly cannot be detected or prosecuted without some intrusion into constitutionally-protected rights.
In a trial balloon that could remove all metaphor from the phrase "nanny state," the assemblywoman announced plans last week to introduce legislation that would make it illegal for parents to spank their own children under the age of 4. Convicted fanny-slappers would face up to one year in jail or a $1,000 fine.

Conservatives prefer to artificially increase the consequences of choices they disapprove of, then point to the artificial consequences as justification for advising against "irresponsible behavior." I do not care to concede any duty to be "responsible" to even the most benificant tyranny; at most, I will comply when it's not convenient or personally profitable to evade the tyrant's rule.

But neither approach to coercion of "good behavior" is any more reasonable; both take responsibility OUT of the hands of the individual and place it into the hands of some form of self-perpetrating elite, who, by virtue of recognizing one another as being worthy by virtue of some intangible and largely irrelevant commonality, such as Yale or the Episcopal faith, are of course better qualified to assume the burden of being responsible for the "little people."

Neither better motives nor more competence than those I cynically allege change my objection to any degree. Indeed, I disqualify myself explicitly as being of sound enough judgment to be either right OR left "enough" to decide what other people "should" be doing when they are minding their own business and enforcing my will in that regard. (I am, of course, always willing to consult with responsible individuals on matters within my competent purview.)

Distorting the consequences of irresponsibility, either by overly padding the corners of life or by breeding werewolves to prowl outside the "designated safe areas," Liberty Herself is raped. There can be no effective liberty with out the ability to make a broad range of choices, be responsible for the consequences of those choices and have those choices and consequences bear some understandable relationship.

The rewards and the costs of living as you choose, based on your own understanding of your personal needs and individual desires should be in balance with the choices you make. That is true Liberty and actual Justice.

Until that very simple concept of fairness is re-established, honored and insisted upon by every free person in this society, we will not live in the free and open society we have been told exists in "the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave."

That may be effected by the stroke of a pen. All we need do is choose - as a block of freedom loving people - to recognize that the Unenumerated Rights ARE the right to choose for one's own individual sake, according to one's own perception of individual benefit, and most importantly, the most important of all enumerated rights - the right to be wrong. Yes, we do have the right to bear responsibility for being wrong, to accept and pay the due and just consequences that always flow from a bad choice, whether or not there's any recognition of it in law - and learn from it.

A free people - a people who are raised to tend to their own and govern themselves - have no need for coercive government, or indeed, any shred of external government they do not actively subscribe to.

If government - as a social institution - were restricted to doing only those things that enough people wanted done and were willing to make an individual choice to support, it would still have more to do in theory than it could achieve in practice.

This comes to be from a simple precept. People who are willing and able to govern themselves in all respects that they are interested in acting need no external government. To the extent they wish to act outside of their competence or experience, they may wish to abate their risks, for the price of screwing up at the expense of other people is a considerable consequence. And ultimately, unavoidably and necessarily those who demonstrate the unwillingness or inability to govern themselves will have to accept some form of restricted covenant upon their liberty that will assure those affected by their poor choices that both justice and prudence are satisfied.

Nonetheless, the fact that some cannot or will not be responsible for the consequences of their actions is no argument against the majority of those who are responsible and do choose to cope with the consequences of their choices.

Many on the Right like to use the term "personal responsibility" in ways that have no relationship whatsoever to the concept above. They mean it in the sense that you are personally responsible for visibly conforming to some external standard of behavior and must accept what arbitrary consequences that may be imposed upon you for being caught acting in private against those precepts.

The general lack of predictable and just outcomes in our system of justice is due to a simple fact; our system of justice is not about you, either as victim nor perpetrator; it's about a form of social justice and social regulation. Any individual justice is at best an accidental side-effect to a process that is brutally indifferent to the harm it causes in the process of "sending the right message."

The alternative, we are told, would be Chaos. And most fear chaos, flux and uncertainty to the point where we are willing to tolerate nearly any restriction upon our rights to avoid that fear.

But fear of unalloyed chaos is universal that we can be assured that no great amount will ever exist; all we need do is re-examine our constitution, which is our primary social compact in the United States, a document that sprang in it's from the best and most influential minds of America and Europe. It's very much more than our own private compact; it illustrates principles that are rooted in the bones of history and every act of regulatory futility and governmental abuse that predates it. It is a document of vast hope and even greater cynicism.

It sets up a mechanism whereby people in manageable chunks may regulate themselves as they see fit in concordance, while permitting dissent within and, should that prove futile, explicitly permitting people to "vote with their feet," to find a State that offers a social compact more suited to them and their needs.

The Federal Government was created as a check on those states putting too many restrictions on individuals, and as a means of organizing matters that were in the common interest of all states - such as a common defense, or the critical issues of interstate commerce, which are not things you might think of - what can and cannot be transported due to it's effect upon the morals of the innocent, but practical matters such as the maximum draft of a barge, a common standard of time, of wagon-gauges (so that wagons and carriages will create standard ruts and therefore avoid perfectly predictable problems.)

In other words, when there must be a standard chosen in order for a market to exist at all, you need an authority on the standards to make an acceptable choice from a wide array of possible alternates in cases where competition between standards would be foolish - like railroads and electrical plugs.

These are all cases where my "liberty" to chose between a dozen competing standards may interfere with my effective ability to buy and use an appliance I need in the place where I live. Increasingly, the choice of a reasonable standard is outside the competence of specialists.

This is the sort of thing that the best sort of government does best has been proven to work rather well even in the effective absence of anything we'd think of as government.

alt.config is pretty much all the government that Usenet Alt.* hierarchy has, is comprised of anyone and everyone worldwide that has an interest in the Usenet Alt.* hierarchy and it operates largely by consensus and common sense. That is also true of Usenet in a larger sense; the only penalty that can be assessed against those who violate a Big 8 newsgroup charter is to lose one's ability to connect to the Internet, and that penalty is assessed on a case-by-case, peer-by-peer basis.

Those persons and ISP/Hosts/servers who are locked off part or all of the "backbone" have every right - and a fair amount of practical ability - to route around the backbone. Furthermore, if too many people are restricted from "the" backbone, they can and will build "the other" backbone.

This is a model for rational self-government that depends on actual, predicable human behavior based in individual self-interest balanced against other, competing self-interests. It works, and it works rather well. Not only that, it is not possible to sabotage and subvert it by speaking one way and acting in another; the system depends on the actual behavior of participants to regulate itself, and to determine where and when boundaries must be drawn.

On the Internet, there are no crimes of thought or of motive. The Internet cares only about traffic, and whether you are placing more of a load on the system than you are contributing. Nor does the fact that the calculation is sloppy, dynamic and designedly imprecise of any great bother to most. So long as the signal-to-noise ratio is acceptable, it works as well as it needs to.

It is a new world view and an intuitively obvious demonstration of what is possible. There is one great truth that history paints with relentless precision; when a general perception of a better and more useful way of seeing the world and interacting with each other becomes widespread, it will come to pass.

[Jan 24, 2007: Substantially revised and updated to correct errors and include reference to the California Anti-Spanking initiative.]

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