Wednesday, June 20, 2007

What a long strange journey... (Updated)

Dear George Soros;

Yesterday was a strange journey in linkhopping, which I'm going to try and reproduce from my history, as recording it got interrupted by Life. Checking The Daily Kos (while looking for Cindy Sheehan's Farewell) pointed me at strange events at Free Republic, and checking references to that led me to this Myspace Blog which quoted a statement on Patriotism by Ron Paul. I reproduce it full in a separate post, as it needs to be easily found and widely read.

And THAT led me to write this scrolling monstrosity. More below the fold.

You see, I'm getting to like Ron Paul as a candidate, and I think you might want to lay a few discreet bets on him. Even though I call myself "libertarian," I've never voted for Ron Paul, or indeed, very many Libertarians, inasmuch as most seem to be as doctrinally inflexible as young-earth Creationists. Most seem very much concerned about their freedom from (insert pet peeve here) and at the same time resist any suggestion of any personal responsibility to defend the inalienable rights of other person from abuses - at least, so long as those abuses are not at the hands of the Evil State.

I tend to refer to that sort of Libertarian as an "ah gawt a gawdamn RIGHTist," and it generally devolves in practice to a system of denying any responsibility toward "promoting the general welfare" or heeding the legitimate concerns of others that you may not be properly equipped or actually qualified to be brewing up methamphetimine in your basement "lab."

But this same legitimate skepticism applies with equal ruthlessness to our self-appointed Lords and Masters; given their track record known from the Cold War and earlier, I do seriously question the reasonably of blindly trusting, say, the Army, to be playing with biological or radiological weapons without robust accountability and independent supervision.

Ron Paul has much of that sort of grown-up skepticism tempering his ideology, and he's a rabid Constitutionalist. I'm thinking he's a great counterbalance to an increasingly Progressive-Liberal Congress - one likely to be far further to the Left than now in 2008. Well, as Progressive a libertarian as I am, it's within the bounds of Constitutional limitations, and I think that's a necessary check on the enthusiasms of the Left.

But more importantly, we need leaders to remind us that this mess is the result of the vast majority of the citizenry ignoring their duty to be informed and to participate in some way in the national discourse. While I find Progressives and Liberals better informed in general, and with a realistic view of the errors of the other side, I am not therefore convinced their ideas are better - just perhaps less obviously bad.

There must be a means of ensuring that everyone's interests are guarded, not just those currently unscrewed by the party in power. I think a Libertarian Republican President will influence a Progressive Congress in the correct direction. But mostly I hope he serves to call the people to pay greater attention, and penalize such media that continues it's efforts to misinform and bamboozle the American people into indifferent and unpatriotic apathy.

Just as there are natural rights, there are corresponding natural obligations, duties and responsibilities. Liberty is not freedom from responsibility to others, and it's not even freedom from responsibility to deal with things outside of your ordinary scope of interest. As a free, honorable and ethical person, there are things that we must stand up for, recognizing that it may be at a cost to our own personal comfort, our store of wealth, comfort or even personal safety.

A Libertarian society will never be as "safe" as the warm wet diaper of those Siamese twins of statist rule, fascism and socialism. But in rejecting them as forms of government, let us not presume that they evolved merely as a means of placing power in the hands of a few. They both address real problems with certain social biases - and each can, at least theoretically, do so rather well and certainly more efficiently than a glorious anarchy.

Such "anarchy" is fearfully promised those so unwise as to consider the vision of a society that is truly "self governed" by those who fear either the ability of their neighbors to govern themselves or who prefer to compel them to do "the right thing" by force. But in practice, they needn't worry. Some form of organizing structure is needed, not just practically, but psychologically. True anarchy will never exist for long, and therefore we must aim for the least, best government possible. Part of it's entire raison d'etre is providing occupation for those who do need and desire power over others - while keeping a very close eye and a short Constitutional reign.

While there is no "natural right" to hold power over others but there is often the opportunity, and the capability and experience to do it well and enjoy the task does rather imply a duty to take it. Power is as often thrust upon those who fail to firmly enforce their unwillingness to so serve as it is hotly pursued.

Ain't that right, Mr. Gore?

But as I say, there is no "natural right" to be a Senator or for one party or another to be in power. They must earn that right, and keep earning it by using that power well to further the interests of the broad majority. Those who fail to understand that there is a quid pro quo here - and that would be the entire Republican Party Machine, absent a few stray and marginalized individuals here and there - will soon find themselves paying the price of abusing power in the name of keeping it without having earned it.

But those offices and duties will not go away. Whatever we may think of the job our elected officials are doing, there are damn few willing and qualified and wealthy enough to take those jobs on under the current conditions. Further, our current conditions damn near preclude being able to do any job other than hanging on to the job.

Let us therefore have mercy on those who are equipped to do it well by recognizing that those who have done much cannot reasonably and routinely be expected to do even more at higher levels of risk, cost and time. The founders intended Congress to be filled by citizens, and intended elective office to be an attainable goal at a sustainable cost to the individuals concerned. This may be accomplished by each of us delegating a little less personal power and individual responsibility, while gracefully accepting a little more assistance from our fellow citizens in meeting those obligations.

We here within the Blogosphere are broadly united in our contempt for the job government is doing - forgetting that it is our job, and we have delegated these people to do it, for good or ill. Since it is mostly ill, it's up to us to change that, and some of us will have to step up and do the work that must be done. To complain is to volunteer.

But that's pointless idealism absent any reasonable, simple and seamless means to achieve it. This is a point that most Libertarians (and republicans) seem to miss; if government is to govern less, Individuals must govern themselves MORE. What government does exist should have as it's primary goal making self-government as simple, routine and affordable as possible to as many people as possible.

I am a pragmatic libertarian; I do not automatically dismiss the idea of governmental mechanisms simply because they have been associated with various forms of statism. I simply observe that a tool does what the hand tells it to do, neither more nor less.

Whatever theory of government (or absence thereof), there are certain legitimate common concerns, and if your governing ideology denies the validity of those common concerns, the people will withdraw their consent. Once they have done so, a state may persist for some time via force and oppression, but in historical terms, any semblance of life is provided by maggots consuming the corpse from within. Therefore, the best governing ideology is "That which is constitutional, affordable and widely demanded."

If free men and women are expected to govern themselves, to behave as grownups and voluntarily exercise their duties as citizens, they must have direct access to some version of the actual mechanisms and institutions of state to use toward the common good.

Whatever we choose to call it, some form of universal assurance that the risks of assuming the duties of citizenship and the costs of what responsibilities may land in one's lap are acceptable risks and reasonable expectations. If we wish to dis-empower centralized government and return that authority to the people, the people must have the ability to achieve the same general ends as the centralized authority was created to accomplish. (Assuming, of course, that it was a good idea in the fist place.)

Since we cannot feasibly predict (nor have the right to presume) who can do what or who will succeed and who will fail, we should hedge our bets by investing in our collective security while doubling down on individual triumphs and innovations.

And with that viewpoint, existing government mechanisms as an array of services presented, delivered and indeed administered as a form of insurance becomes obvious, and the idea of government distributing a certain amount of the national GNP to citizens to be entrusted with starts making sense.

For instance, universal access to health care. Personally, I see this as both a moral obligation and one of collective self-interest, just as I see other linked services often dismissed as "evil welfare."

I have a contrary view - I want my fast-food provided by people who can afford to stay home and not sneeze into my cheeseburger! I want them able to afford to deal with the sniffles before their immune system starts giving up and allowing that sneeze to spread streptococci all over the salad bar. And frankly, I'd rather invest in a mom staying home to raise her kids to be responsible citizens than deal with the costs of her working 18 hour days and NOT raising them as best she can.

Our prisons are filled with products of that view of "personal responsibility," which is in fact the denial of the stark reality that in order to be truly responsible in the duties life hands us, we cannot always do so without help. Meanwhile, we have a gigantic bureaucratic organization which has the affirmative duty and presumption that people do not "deserve" help until they manage somehow to prove deserving. Even given how obviously expensive that presumption must be, it manages to cost about twice as much as you would expect. Or in other words, we pay more to say "screw you" to the poor than it would cost to make them less poor, less inclined to take stupid survival-level risks, and more able to take constructive risks, without fear of homelessness as the price of failure.

A working system of welfare, universal health care and unemployment insurance is not anti-business. At least, not according to the US, which tried to pressure Canada to abandon universal health care under GATT as an "unfair subsidy to business." To this I would add a universal free, well-funded education from kindergarten to the second year of Jr. College.

Other libertarians and Conservatives may howl at this, but I believe I have good reasons for it and I'm not precluding a voucher system - though I am in favor of mandatory standard civics and critical thinking curriculae. In order to function and tolerate a great deal of diversity without fragmenting, society needs a basis of common experience and understanding, as well as at least one common language.

All of these things (including universal education) actually remove large diffuse costs and hidden taxes and place them in one, simple, easily accounted pile labeled "the price of doing the national business." Having such a thing in place, we can contemplate serious tort reform too. There's another few billions not being sucked out of the economy in malpractice and liability insurance fees.

Any amount of money you have to pay in order to live your life or conduct your business is a tax. It doesn't matter if it goes to the government or is simply consumed a nickle here and a dime there in fees for this and compliance costs for that. So, anything we can do to reduce the overhead costs of business amounts to the same as a tax cut for business.

My vision is far more a change of attitude than of mechanism. You'd recognize the form of it as an old idea, a Guaranteed Annual Income. The difference in philosophy is this; it's not an "entitlement," it's a provision of means for each person to act more responsibly and more effectively than they could otherwise, with a strong social expectation that they will do so.

It would not be the whole federal budget, but it would be a significant chunk OF it.

Legislation is not needed to enforce this; custom, coupled with education in civic responsibility is far more powerful and far less arguable than legislation.

People do generally live up to or down to the expectations society has for them, and at the very worst, we have empowered a great number of people to stay out of prison.

In passing, and we also replaced block grants, various educational endowments, and the National Endowment for the Arts. All we need to do to achieve this is expect people to do what they ordinarly do with money; we trust people to either live on it, donate it, invest it or blow it on liquor - in all cases it will strengthen economies and causes they individually find important, and it will be done on a finer, more focused scale than pork-barreling and federal grants will permit. It eliminates the need for social security. We take the focus away from making an individual prove they need help and focus instead on the simplest possible means of raising the minimum standard of living tolerable to a civilized nation.

We could tax the principal back from people making above a certain amount, but perhaps (and I suspect this will be the case) we will have saved so much in overhead that it won't be worth the administrative costs of recovery. But we could claw it back in other ways as well. What if you could use that money AND any money you could demostrate had come from that money to fund legislation you favored? We do this by making a certain part of the federal budget into a "wish list" and leave funding those initiatives to the people themselves. Hell, it's not like we don't have the expertise.

We need mechanisms to efficiently alert those who seek a responsiblity to take it on. You are looking at it, and given that it exists, we don't need to re-invent the wheel.

We also need to abandon the idea that all things of value may be measured in money alone. Indeed, that's the very basis of a free market economy - if there were no intangible values, there would be huge sectors of our economy that would be completely unsustainable.

There are such things as overriding social value, such as empowering those who are accomplished at raising children to concentrate on that, while empowering those who suck at it to afford the services of those who are concentrating on raising kids.

Oh, gee; we just did that. And we didn't need a bureaucracy to accomplish it. Mom can afford to stay home, other moms can afford to pay her for daycare because the basics are covered.

The same applies to all sorts of things that need doing. Like say, dedicating one's life to reading legislation. It has a high degree of social utility, but finding a "sponsor" who is uninterested in influencing your conclusions is damn near impossible. So if someone wishes to live on GAIN plus tips and do that - let us not quibble.

Oh, and if we did that, we could abandon the minimum wage, therefore allowing people to choose to invest sweat-equity in small businesses in hopes they become successful. Let's remember that the worker is still worth his hire - and once they have the practical ability to tell the boss to "take this job and shove it," it becomes an inescapable fact.

And while not precluding unions, we have slashed the practical necessity for them. You won't NEED a union to go on strike. In one stroke, we will have eliminated wage-slavery. Of course, the worker will pay a price for such a choice - but there should be a price. We just made the price affordable.

Finally we must recognize the reality that a free society must paradoxically accommodate, tolerate and provide for those who are incapable of being free, either through some defect or inclination. There is no real freedom unless there is a freedom to barter that freedom away, and of course there are those who simply must be restrained to some degree for the safety of others.
In other words, libertarian philosophy has to recognize that people, while equal in the eyes of law and presumably in the eyes of whatever higher power or providence one may acknowledge are not therefore interchangeable, self-sufficient social cogs.

Capability in all areas of life is distributed with vast inequity, so none of us are truly capable of living in splendiferous Randian self-suffiency; not, at least, unless one defines "freedom" as being free do do exactly as one wishes, without expectation of doing anything at all about that one cannot do without help.

But this vision may in practice become far more true than not if we as a society facilitate the building of alliances between persons without predefining the "appropriateness" of those alliances from moralistic or state interest perspectives.

"Marriage" is a special case of such a social alliance, and the only one with the support and color of law. It's role in society is quite distinct from and separable from it's role in religion. It is in essence a simple, straightforward form of incorporation, division of risk and delegations of responsibility. Persons who are religiously married may, in fact, feel no actual need for social or legal acknowledgment or permission to be joined by the forms and rituals of their faiths.

Come to think of it, it's damnably presumptuous!

But such a mechanism is valuable enough that more people, not less, should have access to it without conditions other than being of great enough age and sound enough mind to give meaningful consent.

This has the potential to simply and straightforwardly address a good number of awkward social issues that government currently does nothing to help and a great deal to make worse.

Government should not in any case be passing judgment on the reasons people have for such contractual relationships beyond the usual scrutiny contract and common law demands. Who owes "conjugal duties" to whom, if anyone is really nobody's business unless you choose to make it part of the terms of a particular contract. It should be equally accessible to old folks who wish to pool their assets in order to avoid a nursing home and to five randomly selected young people who want to try to make a go as a band.

By reducing the risks of failure in social participation, innovation and entrepreneurship, spreading out the irreducible costs and and by giving people the means to network and build legally-recognized social alliances, we can afford to start dismantling institutions and organizations that have taken over duties traditionally assumed by families, churches, neighbors and towns. We will have increased the robustness of our society.

I believe that we as individuals deserve a government that if it shows up at all, shows up only to politely ask if we need it to lend a hand, and will go away if we do not.

I see the mechanism for this as the same mechanism by which this little essay has come to your attention. In order to function, there's no need that, say, a situation come to any particular person's attention - just that it comes to the attention of enough people who are empowered by their own sense of responsibility, knowing that they are not expected to do it out of sheer altruism and with no hope of recognition or reward. The United States of America is composed of millions upon millions of people, to the extent that we really can rely very heavily on random factors to address a great many more things than we do.

Whatever we call it, government, instrumentality or Fred, it must meet the test of all sane social organizations; it must serve the vast majority better than it's absence would, and at least arguably better than alternate visions.

Of course, there are caveats and obvious pitfalls. All systems have inherent flaws which means I can leave addressing them to another day. But the essential principle in addressing them is the same as the basis for the system itself. We don't try to failure-proof the system, we try to ensure that when and where it does fail, it fails safely.

I observe that little if any attention is paid in our nation in culture to fail-safeing anything until the necessity has been proven by some disaster. That the primary reason for that is the consequences of being overly reliant on the competence and honesty of our authorities at every level.

I would argue that "final authorities" are dangerous entities and should never be tolerated in principle, even if we accept a functional semblance of one in practice; authority must always be tested, questioned, examined and refined. In other words, we must expect demonstrably authoritative Authorities, and not encourage over-broad ones. That of course means that we have the collective and individual duty to become competant, respectable authorities at least within our own spheres of influence and areas of expertise.

It should be painfully obvious now that a man who can lead a team to political victory is not automatically qualified to lead an army to victory - or indeed, find "victory" with a map and a flashlight. Many of us find the President's failure as Commander in Chief astonishing. What I find remarkable is that so many other Presidents have managed to rise to the task. Consider that half of all military leaders do not succeed at this task by definition!

Within my vision, an authority is trustworthy simply because that trust is limited, discretionary and within demonstrated ranges of competence. Furthermore, that same trust is extended to in the same way, by the same means and to the same extent as it is to every other citizen. To the extent any given citizen demonstrates competence in a field, they are expected to contribute that expertise when available and if needed and if the fair market value of that contribution is over and above GAIN, they will gain more.

We have vast computational power at our disposal, we can write programs that will indeed evaluate every person's "authority" on any topic given any demonstrated interest in the topic.

After all, from a structural point of view, a welfare recipient, an FBI agent and a county clerk are all paid from the same pocket, yours and mine, and may all be seen in a certain jaundiced view as being "on welfare." They are living upon the largess of the public. The only question is, do their contribution justify their price? So let us all take a little bit of that stack and earn our minimum keep, realizing too that gaining more than minimum will be a provable and significant resume' line item.

By leaning less hard on our "elites," and by taking up more of the strain ourselves we are more responsible citizens and just incidentally, will have increased our national security by widely distributing the practical means of government so widely and redundantly that no possible disaster or attack could wipe it out.

We will have created a robust social safety net and made a significant dent in poverty and the the huge collateral costs of poverty. For most of us, it will take less time than we spend checking our email. For some of us, it could be a career. For many, it will be a rewarding and fascinating avocation - and we will all gain better government by being personally responsible for being better at some small part of the business of government.

Edit, update and bump: George, since the writing of this post, I've come into contact with what amounts to a free-market template for the sort of government I envisioned above. It's called PayPerPost, but there are many such agencies. What I'm talking about is the actual PayPerPost interface and it's means of assessing reliability and credibility, similar to EBay ratings.

I'd suggest investing in this company, or at least the concept, because a site not very different from this could easily replace at least a third of our actual Government, simply by "outsourcing" to the American People.

I mean, I'll review any piece of legislation for 20 bucks, so long as it's no thicker than the average novel. Give me a thousand and I'll spend a week checking an environmental impact statement.
The only question is, "am I qualified to do that", and by clicking the bar below this post you will see what amounts to a prototype for such a system. Check it out, George; something like this could be the future.

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