Friday, November 25, 2011

Libertarianism and Consumerism

Happy Black Friday, everyone. Today is the day when we celebrated the way in which consumerism saves us from all economic woes.

Or not.

Did you know that FDR once changed the day we celebrated Thanksgiving? Since Abraham Lincoln's declaration in 1863, Thanksgiving had always been celebrated on the fourth Thursday in November. So why did FDR change it? You guessed it--to save businesses!
For 75 years after Lincoln issued his Thanksgiving Proclamation, succeeding presidents honored the tradition and annually issued their own Thanksgiving Proclamation, declaring the last Thursday in November as the day of Thanksgiving. However, in 1939, President Franklin D. Roosevelt did not. In 1939, the last Thursday of November was going to be November 30. Retailers complained to FDR that this only left 24 shopping days to Christmas and begged him to push Thanksgiving just one week earlier. It was determined that most people do their Christmas shopping after Thanksgiving and retailers hoped that with an extra week of shopping, people would buy more.

So when FDR announced his Thanksgiving Proclamation in 1939, he declared the date of Thanksgiving to be Thursday, November 23, the second-to-last Thursday of the month.
(Unfortunately, none of FDR's policies ever did quite have the economic impact so many people claim: the Great Depression didn't end until after World War II was over. See also here.)

As a Christian with libertarian leanings, I'm often faced with the question about free markets and consumerism. Is the greatest society we can come up with really one in which people are simply free to pursue their material well-being, without regard for higher values? Obviously not. So why wouldn't I be in favor of a structure of government which keeps the profit motive in check, and which doesn't favor the greedy?

I have spent many words answering these questions in a philosophical way, but one should also notice the historical irony behind these questions. America has never embraced socialism, which according to its strict definition means government-run production. Rather, thanks to the influence of Keynesian economic theory, we have instead embraced corporatism, in which the government takes the role of business partner with the capitalists who produce goods.

Keynesian economics is important here. The vulgar form of this theory (that is, the most common form) is that during an economic recession, the government needs to increase consumption in order to spur producers on to further growth. This consumption-oriented mentality is now pervasive in our culture. The media endlessly parrots the idea that our major economic problem is not enough consumption. Every year reporters constantly fret about how well retailers are doing during the Christmas season. We are made to believe that it is our patriotic duty to spend more and thereby revitalize our economy.

But this idea is no libertarian idea. You will not find it in the writings of Ludwig von Mises, Friedrich Hayek, or Milton Friedman. You will not hear ReasonTV telling you to go out and shop more. Can you imagine Ron Paul saying we need to spend more?

No, the defenders of liberty are always the ones asking just the opposite: we must save so that we can invest; we must invest so that we can grow; only a fool would spend more to buy himself out of debt. (There are exceptions, of course; many worthwhile ventures require a great deal of risk. But it is the general idea that I'm attacking here.) Is there any doubt which philosophical movement is more responsible for the all-pervasive debt we see in our society, both in government and among private citizens? Inflation, easy credit, and increased government spending are all based on the assumption that the short term is everything--and this assumption seems to be the cultural by-product of a philosophy which is skeptical of both freedom and personal responsibility.

Libertarians want all people to free from violence and coercion. We have never promised that we can ever be free from the realities of life. Undoubtedly, people who are free to make their own choices with their excess wealth will often choose to spend it frivolously. This is not an inherently bad thing; would we really want to live in a society in which no one ever used anything without precisely weighing its value? What a dreadfully dull society that would be! But a society which feels compelled to spend beyond its means, which feels it is a God-given right that they should spend excessively year after year, which feels that consumption drives economic growth--that is a society doomed to fall apart.

So while I believe strongly that the government has no right to tell you what to buy or not to buy this holiday season, I am equally convinced that a truly free people would not be so foolish with money as we now see people are. True freedom also means real responsibility, and real responsibility teaches us through the discipline of economic realities. If consumerism was originally the product of economic freedom, its only cure is more freedom--not government sponsored capitalism.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

The most important reason to vote for Ron Paul

Last week I was flying out to San Diego, and I sat next to a Navy officer who had served in Afghanistan. He struck up a conversation with me during the flight, and at some point we came around to the wars in the Middle East. I asked him, "Is it worth it for us to be in Afghanistan?" His answer, sadly, did not surprise me. It went something like this:
Honestly, there are probably more terrorists on American soil right now than there are in the countries where we're "fighting terrorism."
This would not be the first soldier I have heard question U.S. foreign policy.
Ever since I was old enough to be aware of politics, we have been sending troops to Afghanistan and Iraq. Have we achieved our objectives? What objectives? Are we the nation destined to build democracy around the world? And must we sacrifice a continual supply of troops in order to do it? Consider this video (you'll see it above on my blog) outlining some of our history with the Middle East, particularly with Iran. Ever since we began playing political chess with the Soviet Union some 60 years ago, we have invested ourselves in a never-ending cycle of violence from which even now we have no respite. Did not the Soviet Union collapse? Does not empire always tend to crumble? Why are we still fighting? Why did we ever choose to fight? Christianity has shaped a great part of our tradition in America. Yet while the Church has been mobilized by political elites to argue about things like prayer in schools, gay marriage, and abortion, She has been strangely silent on matters of foreign policy. Have we any right to complain that Christianity has been pushed out of the public sphere, when on the issue on which our religion is most clear, we have been most silent? There is no Christian justification, nor has there ever been, for military occupation during times of peace. There is no Christian justification, nor has there ever been, for unprovoked war against other nations. Have we become the empire seeking to bring order through conquest? Have we no king but Caesar? The conservative elite have determined that the only "realistic" thing to do, for the sake of our national security, is to continue fighting. The most basic Christian tenet that human beings were made for peace with one another has been swallowed up by nationalist pride, and words have been twisted so that aggression becomes "defense." Our bloody history is mostly unknown or ignored by the public. All of this would be at least somewhat tolerable (though only to a cynic) if it at least made some rational utilitarian sense. But alas, the truth is, our wars are fought on the same faulty economic grounds upon which our unsustainable welfare state is built. Destruction is not gain. War does not create prosperity. War is always sacrifice, and any society called to fight must be given rigorous justification for such a horrible sacrifice. To put it another way, as Ron Paul did in one of the debates, "It's trillions of dollars...!" Trillions of dollars, hundreds of thousands of dead bodies, more hatred, more anger, more resentment. This is not only immoral, it is impractical. Our foreign policy is every bit as unsustainable as our misguided health care policies. The only difference is that the latter at least have some moral justification, at least if you believe supporting human life is better than killing it! This is the fundamental reason why we ought to elect Ron Paul. Very few other issue matters nearly so much, and on no other issue does the President of the United States have so much direct influence. He is the Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces. There is no more important question that you can ask a presidential candidate than how he thinks we ought to conduct our foreign policy, and on this matter there is no one who can even approach a moral platform than Ron Paul. See this video outlining a policy of friendship and free trade. I did not come to this position easily. Like many people, I was initially swayed by whatever options seemed available at the time I first began to form political opinions. There seemed to me to be the idealist left versus the realist right, and for a time I chose to be a "realist." But I have struggled to make sense of our foreign policy in light of Christian principles, in light of the inherent dignity of human life and the value of liberty, and even in light of sound economic sense, and I simply cannot find anywhere in my body or soul even an ounce of remaining support for the current U.S. foreign policy of global interventionism. Barack Obama, once thought to be the hope for a peaceful American regime, has only furthered many of the same policies implemented by George W. Bush, and this has only deepened my disillusionment. We have become a nation which feeds on destruction, and unless we change our course, this will be our undoing. In this time of economic uncertainty, it is natural that the average voter would be consumed by economic concerns. Tragically, our wars only hurt our long-term economic progress (as if we could ever justify killing even if it did secure our prosperity!) but you will hear almost the opposite in the media. I could cite famous economic thinkers from Adam Smith to Frederic Bastiat to Milton Friedman to justify my position, but I would rather simply appeal to common sense: destruction is not prosperity, death is not prosperity, war is not prosperity. Prosperity can only come through peace; let us therefore pursue peace. For God's sake, and for the sake of everything that is sacred--life, liberty, peace--we need to stop America's destructive foreign policy while we can. Only if our nation has enough moral courage can we ever hope to enjoy the fruits of peace. We owe it to our troops. We owe it to our world. We even owe it to ourselves, and to future generations of Americans to come.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Bastiat on What Is Seen and What Is Not Seen

It is the title of this essay that made F. A. Hayek praise Bastiat's "genius" in making sound economic ideas public. It has been a good read so far. I highly recommend Bastiat to anyone interested in the major political issues of our time, for two reasons. One, he wrote quite a while ago--over a century and a half--and yet the same fallacies he found himself trying to refute are alive and well today. Two, Bastiat is much easier to read than, say, F. A. Hayek or Adam Smith.

The main point of Bastiat's essay is this:
There is only one difference between a bad economist and a good one: the bad economist confines himself to the visible effect; the good economist takes into account both the effect that can be seen and those effects that must be foreseen.

Yet this difference is tremendous, for it almost always happens that when the immediate consequence is favorable, the later consequences are disastrous, and vice versa. Whence it follows that the bad economist pursues a small present good that will be followed by a great evil to come, while the good economist pursues a great good to come, at the risk of a small present evil.
Fundamentally, according to Bastiat, although these are my words, good economics is a matter of having the right moral outlook. Often proponents of free markets are accused of one of two things. First, we are sometimes accused of not caring at all about the moral constitution of a society. This is utterly false, and in fact all of the classical arguments in favor of free markets are based on a firm commitment to justice. Indeed, it is really those who oppose free markets who also oppose the kind of logic which justice truly demands, for they insist that the ends can justify the means, that the short run must sometimes take precedence over the long run, and that only visible results are of any consequence.

Second, we are sometimes accused of caring only about the long run and never about "what happens in the meantime." Thus it is thought that we wouldn't care if thousands of people suffered in utter poverty for several years, so long as in the long run we reached the most desirable result. But this complaint is made without taking into account both what is seen and what is not seen. Our desire may be to give everyone enough to live on and not be in poverty; but even though we see the good effects of our well-intentioned programs, we may fail to see all the long term damage we are doing.
For instance, passages like the following express beautifully the fundamental error in "public works" programs (emphasis added):
Let us get to the bottom of things. Money creates an illusion for us. To ask for cooperation, in the form of money, from all the citizens in a common enterprise is, in reality, to ask of them actual physical cooperation, for each one of them procures for himself by his labor the amount he is taxed. Now, if we were to gather together all the citizens and exact their services from them in order to have a piece of work performed that is useful to all, this would be understandable; their recompense would consist in the results of the work itself. But if, after being brought together, they were forced to build roads on which no one would travel, or palaces that no one would live in, all under the pretext of providing work for them, it would seem absurd, and they would certainly be justified in objecting: We will have none of that kind of work. We would rather work for ourselves.
Note that Bastiat does not exclude the possibility that a community might actually agree to work together on something. He simply excludes the idea of taxes paying for public works. Why? Because it is all too easy to take money from people without acknowledging that what you are actually taking from them is their labor--that is, in a sense, their very lives.

It must always be remembered that the free market system is not a zero sum game. If you and I exchange something, that means I must have wanted what you had more than what I had, and you must have wanted what I had more than what you had. Otherwise, one of us is a fool. Thus an exchange means a net positive for both of us. So it is with all voluntary exchanges. That is not to say one never regrets certain purchases or ventures; I do not suggest that life can ever be without risks. But on the whole, it is possible for you to gain, while simultaneously everyone else gains from you as well.

However, it must be equally remembered that forced cooperation is a zero sum game, or perhaps even negative. If the government takes money from me and gives it to someone else, nothing has been gained or lost; the same money is there that was there before. Perhaps it will be used by the other person in a wiser way than I would have. How the government could ever know this, I cannot say. More likely it would turn out just the opposite; people who get something for free tend to be more irresponsible with it. Therefore, rather than an exchange which results in a net positive, government redistribution--whether in the form of handouts or programs or all sorts of other expenditures--results in a wash, a zero, or perhaps even less than a zero. For every dollar the government spends, what remains unseen is what else that dollar might have been spent on by the person from whom the government stole.

Anyway, read the whole essay. It's quite good. Here's an excerpt that might be pertinent for today's discussions about military spending:
A nation is in the same case as a man. When a man wishes to give himself a satisfaction, he has to see whether it is worth what it costs. For a nation, security is the greatest of blessings. If, to acquire it, a hundred thousand men must be mobilized, and a hundred million francs spent, I have nothing to say. It is an enjoyment bought at the price of a sacrifice. Let there be no misunderstanding, then, about the point I wish to make in what I have to say on this subject. A legislator proposes to discharge a hundred thousand men, which will relieve the taxpayers of a hundred million francs in taxes. Suppose we confine ourselves to replying to him: "These one hundred thousand men and these one hundred million francs are indispensable to our national security. It is a sacrifice; but without this sacrifice France would be torn by internal factions or invaded from without." I have no objection here to this argument, which may be true or false as the case may be, but which theoretically does not constitute any economic heresy. The heresy begins when the sacrifice itself is represented as an advantage, because it brings profit to someone.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Personhood still has a long way to go

Mississippi voters rejected Amendment 26 yesterday. The language of the amendment was this:
Be it Enacted by the People of the State of Mississippi: SECTION 1. Article III of the constitution of the state of Mississippi is hereby amended BY THE ADDITION OF A NEW SECTION TO READ: Section 33. Person defined. As used in this Article III of the state constitution, "The term 'person' or 'persons' shall include every human being from the moment of fertilization, cloning or the functional equivalent thereof." This initiative shall not require any additional revenue for implementation.
It would be interesting to read some in-depth analysis about yesterday's outcome, but I'm honestly not surprised. At a gut level, I just don't think people are willing to reject the status quo. I know it's easy to just explain that people are worried about all the exceptions--birth control, rape, etc.--but I think the issue is more fundamental than that. Even for conservative Christians with traditional values, abortion is not just something weird that those "other" people do. It's something everyone does, and if it's really as bad as pro-lifers say it is (does it really kill a person?) then that's quite an indictment of our entire society. I'm surprised, therefore, that it even got 40% of Mississippi's vote. That means there are a lot of truly pro-life people down there. But let's not kid ourselves into thinking that the pro-life movement will achieve victory through a triumph of traditional values. The pro-life movement is, and always has been, a radical movement.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Jesus and the 1%

From the Gospel according to Luke:

"Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.
"Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.
"Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. ...
"But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.
"Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry.
"Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep. ...
"But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you." (6:21-28)


"Which one of you, having a hundred hseep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, 'Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.' Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance." (15:4-7)


"There is still one thing lacking. Sell all that you own and distribute the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me." But when he heard this, he became sad; for he was very rich. Jesus looked at him and said, "How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God! Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God."

Those who heard it said, "Then who can be saved?" He replied, "What is impossible for mortals is possible for God." (18:22-27)


A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, "Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today." So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. All who saw it began to grumble and said, "He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner." Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, "Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much." Then Jesus said to him, "Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost."

In my opinion it is wise to let Jesus' words speak more than our own, but perhaps I should comment on what I see in these passages. Two observations. First, it is a fact that Jesus said that wealthy people are in real spiritual danger. Christians of a conservative persuasion should not be blithe about this. Note that Jesus doesn't proclaim the salvation has come to Zacchaeus on account of his personal statement of faith, but rather on account of his promised generosity to the poor and repentance from fraud. Greed might be normal, but that doesn't mean we are justified in growing callous towards it. Economic success has a very real dark side.

Second, Jesus did not come to start a crusade against the wealthy, nor did he give in to popular prejudice against tax collectors. Popular dislike of the wealthy is nothing new. Those who are not seen as paying their fair share to society are always treated as outsiders. But just as Jesus welcomes the prostitutes, he also welcomes the tax collectors. Christians on the left are unjustified in viewing the world in terms of class warfare. "Love your enemies," Jesus said. In fact, the ones who actually get accused in the gospels of loving money are the scribes and Pharisees, who make a show of how much they give charitably.

No matter who you are or what side you think you're on, Jesus has something challenging to say to you. It's just always a struggle to get ourselves to realize this.

Origen on creationism

Okay, so Origen didn't actually write about creationism. But he did write some things that might be relevant, such as the following passage from The Philocalia (emphasis added):
Anyway, will any man of sense suppose that there was a first day, and a second, and a third, evening and morning, without sun and moon and stars? and the first, as it were, even without a heaven? And who is so silly as to imagine that God, like a husbandman, planted a garden in Eden eastward, and put in it a tree of life, which could be seen and felt, so that whoever tasted of the fruit with his bodily teeth received the gift of life, and further that any one as he masticated the fruit of this tree partook of good and evil? And if God is also said to walk in the garden in the evening, and Adam to hide himself under the tree, I do not suppose that any one will doubt that these passages by means of seeming history, though the incidents never occurred, figuratively reveal certain mysteries. Moreover, Cain's coming out from the presence of God, if we give heed, is a distinct inducement to inquire what is meant by "the presence of God," and by a man's "coming out from" it. Why say more? They who are not quite blind can collect countless similar instances of things recorded as actual occurrences, though not literally true.
Note: this was written approximately 18 centuries ago by a Christian theologian. Doesn't that make it seem a little silly that we still have arguments about creationism?

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Why You Are Not Your Brain

Great Scientific American article summarizing the contribution of George Lakoff to linguistic theory and the philosophy of mind. Most of what it says I've blogged about before while reading through Philosophy in the Flesh, so I won't repeat it here. But note the way the article ends (emphasis added):
What exactly will this paradigm look like? It’s unclear. But I was excited to hear from Lakoff that he is trying to “bring together neuroscience with the neural theory of language and thought,” through a new brain language and thought center at Berkeley. Hopefully his work there, along with the work of young professors like Davis, will allow us to understand the brain as part of a much greater dynamic system that isn’t confined to our cortices.
What modern science is teaching us is that the quest to understand our own minds has been unduly limited in scope. We can only understand our minds by understanding our evolution more broadly.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

The forward-thinking pro-life movement

The Weekly Standard has published an article whose message bears repeating.
That the pro-life movement is bigger is a given. It’s also younger, increasingly entrepreneurial, more strategic in its thinking, better organized, tougher in dealing with allies and enemies alike, almost wildly ambitious, and more relentless than ever.

All that is dwarfed by an even bigger change. Pro-lifers have captured the high moral ground, chiefly thanks to advances in the quality of sonograms. Once fuzzy, sonograms now provide a high-resolution picture of the unborn child in the womb. Fetuses have become babies.
This passage is particularly encouraging:
Three pro-life trends have spiked in 2011. The first is the rise in opposition to abortion among young people. The under-30 cohort was the most pro-choice in the 1970s, second most in the 1980s and 1990s. Now they’re “markedly less pro-choice” than any other age group, scholars Clyde Wilcox and Patrick Carr have written. “Clearly, something is distinctive about the abortion attitudes of the Millennial Generation of Americans.”

Indeed there is. Millennials haven’t grown more religious, politically conservative, or queasy about gay rights. Nor do they go out of their way to vote for pro-life candidates. But they tend to see abortion as a human rights violation. Thus their resistance to abortion is gradually increasing.

You can see a manifestation of this generational shift at the March on Washington each January 22, the anniversary of the Roe v. Wade ruling. For years, the marchers were geezers, initially Catholics, then aging Protestants too. In the past few years, the march has been dominated by teenagers and people in their 20s, often carrying infants.
Having attended the March for Life four times myself, I can personally corroborate this evidence of increased support among young people.

What's unavoidable about the pro-life movement is that it commands such a stronger sense of commitment than other "social issues" movements in the U.S. Oh, sure, gay marriage...whatever. Prayer in schools...*yawn.* If the abortion issue were simply a matter of having a particular religious or social point of view, it could not possibly command such dedication--and diversity--as we in fact see.

That's because abortion is a fundamentally unique issue. It is the slavery issue of our time, not because the moral contours are the same, but because it is that enormous elephant in the room. Being pro-life means you actually understand that the United States allows around 3,500 deaths every day at the hands of licensed medical doctors. This is not the kind of issue that makes you upset because of some vague dissatisfaction with the moral character of people around you. This is the kind of issue that makes you say in your heart, Oh my God, people are dying!

I'm glad that pro-lifers have found ways to energize young people in support of this extremely important cause. I would like to see the pro-life movement become more than a single-minded mission, however. Ending Roe v. Wade is not enough. In fact, it isn't even enough to end abortion. The goal is to institutionalize a respect for life. We need to be talking about our societal attitude toward violence in general, particularly nationalized violence in the name of "national security."

I'm optimistic about the future of the movement, and I would like to tip my hat to some of the groups, left unmentioned in the Weekly Standard, which I believe have made a positive difference. SecularProLife is now getting some attention among pro-life news sources. Feminists for Life has long been making a profound difference on college campuses. I Am Whole Life is a movement to make the pro-life movement more expansive and comprehensive. And I just have to throw in Libertarians for Life, who have provided some of the most rigorous (secular) philosophical and moral arguments against abortion I have ever seen.