February 26, 2013


A couple of decades ago, when I was living Dayton Ohio, I began to notice a strange phenomenon. Every now and then I would see a car stopped in traffic, blocking a lane and apparently disabled, the driver sitting behind the wheel doing nothing. These were always young people, no older than their twenties, apparently with no idea what to do. This was before the era when cell phones were universal, when you could not ask Siri or hastily Google “car stopped in traffic.” I was always astonished to see this, and, I suppose tellingly, never kind enough to stop and help. I always imagined the sentence being played inside the driver’s head was: “If I sit here long enough, someone will come to fix the problem.” I suppose someone always did come along, a police officer if no one else.

We all have cell phones now, so many peoples’ lives are one continuous conversation, interrupted now and then by sleep. They now do have Siri and Google, as well as an unbreakable umbilical cord to mom and dad. When mom and dad are dead, I suppose the new adults of this brave new world will still have Siri and Google, and the gentle hand of government to tuck them in at night. The world will be “idiot proofed,” in theory at least, or at least unburdened by any expectation that one should ever need to completely grow up. I find this both infuriating and heartbreaking. I am pretty sure that most people neither mind nor notice. It is normal to them. The time in which I was born, in which a higher degree of competence and self-reliance was expected, must seem like a dark age to most young people.

Fairly often now, I see grown-ups out in public in pajamas. When I was a child, such behavior would have gotten you a mandatory psychiatric evaluation. Now, no one notices. What difference does it make? People waddle into Walmart from the parking lot and plop themselves onto the nearest available scooter. I believe these were originally provided for the genuinely handicapped, but now they are the accepted convenience of the fat and apathetic – people who don’t really fear the loss of their mobility through the atrophy of their legs because they are intuitively confident that there is no minimum requirement for their survival anymore. The more helpless you are, the more help you will receive. I still notice these things – they just no longer astonish me.

I know all too many instances in which children are being raised by their grandparents. Parenting is an impossible task for people who are not really responsible adults themselves, and the grandparents are there doing nothing anyway, so – why not? But what is going to happen when the last competent member of a particular family passes away? Who will raise the children then? This predicament happens already, of course, in the caring nation of America, where we are smarter and more capable than any people on the planet have ever been.

This country is ruled by a political elite, regardless of which party is in office. If you think the people rule – you just aren’t paying attention. A fair fraction of the public are unfit to dress or feed themselves, let alone participate intelligently in the democratic process. The elites treat the public with a thinly veiled contempt, lying to us in ways that aren’t even subtle any more. While this does anger me, it should not and does not surprise me. If I were in the government’s massive shoes, I doubt I’d think much better of the public than they do, frankly. A morbidly obese man, sitting on a scooter in Walmart in his pajamas, poking through a pile of discount movies, is not the sort of being which inspires much respect. He is not the sort of creature that his grandparents were, or that de Tocqueville encountered in our brave new republic, once upon a time. I used to think that, though our TV shows were popular around the world, they must have convinced the rest of the world that Americans were idiots. It was less obvious to me that TV (and its modern descendents) was actually helping to make us idiots. We do not discuss now, or explain – we tweet. What could be worth saying over 140 characters anyway? It did not occur to me until recently that TV (and its modern descendents) had convinced our own leaders that we are idiots. I often suspect that this is also a factor in our failure to produce an immigration policy. So what if Mexicans do not speak English? Quite a few Americans don’t really speak English either. For the elite, I think, all varieties of tweeting animals look alike. Who cares where a particular bird happens to come from? What difference does it make?

Fortunately, I know quite a few men and women who still have more-or-less functioning brains and bodies, and substantial and even admirable characters. There are even some young ones, here and there. One ought to love such people, and encourage them. They are the light of humanity. One must also seek them out in unexpected places. When there is so much rot, one must look hard to find the good. One must be honest about what one finds – but still maintain an open mind.

The unconscious hand of evolution will not be stayed. Nature does not make very inspiring animals when she leaves them in environments in which they cannot fail. The dodo was a stupid, slow, and ugly creature that became extinct as soon as more robust animals set foot on its island. I do not believe in anyone’s utopian ideal – not merely because I don’t believe that any group of human beings is collectively bright enough to devise such a thing, but because I believe that taking the rigor out of life diminishes us rather than enriches us. This is evident among all classes. The person who struggles to amass a great fortune is almost always a better specimen than the person who inherits one and lives idly on its fruits. The impoverished person who ekes out a living has more dignity – and more worth – than one who lives a lifetime on the dole. It is effort which makes us. A utopia of self-indulgent, incapable, overgrown children whose only competition is for the highest state of victimhood is not a utopia that any decent human being would want to live in. It is, in fact, no utopia at all.

(see: Decline II )

February 20, 2013

Bent City

Bent City - e.m. cadwaladr
Bent City, image by e.m. cadwaladr on Flickr.

February 19, 2013

On the Liberal Social Experiment

Anyone with an ounce of intellectual honesty has to admit that among the many enormous problems that America faces in our era, the unavailability of unbiased information ranks among the most significant. We have a glut of news, a glut of opinion, and a glut of government statistics, but unless one is content with hearing reality spun to suit one’s own taste, picking and choosing facts out of the trash heap of partisan noise is a formidable problem. The agreeableness of a narrative is no measure of its truth. I believe, based on my observation of the rest of reality, that there is truth – that political and social matters exist in a real world, in exactly the way that ocean tides exist, and have real material causes. That we may not understand those causes as clearly or as definitely as we understand some other causes in nature does not mean that those causes do not exist. It means only that we can’t, or haven’t, discerned them.

So, what are some things we can reasonably claim to know about the social transformation of the United States over the last eighty years or so – not from ideological argument, but from brute, observable fact? That’s a big topic, I know, but let’s just pick out a few salient points.

First, I think any non-delusional person would have to admit that both the civil rights movement and the women’s rights movement accomplished their principle goals. Although there is plenty of sturm und drang about voter ID initiatives, any U.S. citizen who is legally qualified to vote can do so. He or she might have to wait in line or suffer some minor inconvenience at the polls, but, allowing for a handful of irregularities here and there (the manipulations of both of the major political parties) everybody gets to vote. Likewise, although there isn’t perfect equality in employment opportunities, virtually no perspective employer is going to flatly deny a woman or a member of a minority a job on the basis of gender or race. A few employers might still harbor such prejudices privately, but, in practice, they live in terror of the law. The vast majority of the public, liberal and conservative, north and south, have internalized these social changes even if a few people quietly don’t like them. We did elect a black president – didn’t we? No woman has attained that office yet, but I can’t imagine any significant number of people objecting to a woman president on the basis of her gender alone. Cultures change. Really – they do.

The largely liberal project of eliminating poverty has, on the other hand, been an abysmal failure. The public policy of vast and various public welfare programs has moved us no closer to the elimination of poverty, regardless of the race or ethnicity of the recipients in question. Consider urban poverty alone. Almost every city in America is divided into two discrete if unofficial zones – a zone of safety, where the middle class and wealthy live, and a danger zone, where prudent people do not go. This is a fact. No matter how liberal or how conservative you are, odds are pretty good that, if you’re middle class or above and you live in a city, there are large parts of it you have never visited and rarely think about. Most people are little more familiar with the poorer, more crime ridden halves of their own cities than they are with the interior regions of New Guinea. These defacto ghettoes have not gotten any smaller in the last eighty years, but have actually gotten larger in most places. They are by no means the sole province of black Americans – their constituent populations vary in accordance with location – but, wherever they are and whoever inhabits them, those inhabitants are the chief consumers of most forms of government relief. Such places are a standing monument to the failure of such programs to eliminate poverty.

The continued presence of urban ghettos is a fact. Explaining their continued presence is a more speculative matter. That being said, the idea that we simply need to pour more money into existing programs to overcome the problem is highly suspect. Both the major political parties, surprisingly, cling to a single false belief regarding this issue. This belief is that human beings are naturally industrious, and if they are given a Democratic floor of support on one hand, or a Republican tax holiday on the other, they will seize the opportunity to become productive citizens. This is an astonishingly naïve view. We do not assume that people who live on investments really care about being productive citizens. The state lotteries thrive on the millions of middle class and working poor Americans who would love to become instant millionaires and quit their jobs. A work ethic is a learned value, not a genetic imperative. Human beings, by nature, will rarely do more than is necessary to achieve the conditions they find tolerable. Put a solid floor of entitlements under any group of humans, regardless of their race or ethnicity, and quite a few of them will find that floor acceptable and sleep there. The first generation will feel that they have won the lottery; successive generations will be acculturated to non-productivity as the norm. Make the floor a higher standard of living than one could achieve by unskilled labor, and only a handful of the most ambitious will ever climb off. While jobs programs are a better answer in theory, in conjunction with the dole their impact is largely nullified. Further, short of direct public employment programs like Roosevelt’s WPA, they have never created any substantial number of jobs. While ideological conservatives may be dubious about tinkering with the economy, Republicans have occasionally exercised a certain pseudo-Keynesian streak in the establishment of low-tax free enterprise zones – with predictably negligible results. None of it has worked. Having produced a substantial body of people who find no shame in the dole, and who are not resigned to a more-or-less arduous life of full time legal employment that the rest of us endure, we, as a society, have created a serious problem.

Perhaps more interesting than the problem itself is the collective refusal to even recognize it. Consider it in purely geographical terms. If someone fenced off an area of several square miles of city just a few blocks from your home and told you they were conducting a social experiment inside – wouldn’t you be curious? Wouldn’t you wonder, as you glanced into the area from a highway overpass on your way to and from work, what was really going on? Wouldn’t you get tired of having to detour around such a region? I suppose the honest answer for most of us is actually “no.” That is exactly what we do. We accept it. We grow numb. We watch the local news, which convinces us, daily, not to go there. Typically, society’s decision makers don’t even live close enough to experience the spillover along the edges. For them, the problem is an entirely abstract one.

The current mantra of the left is that the real problem is one of increasing economic inequality. This is to say, it’s all the fault of the rich. This is very dubious too. While the middle class have gotten poorer, the poor have not. Frankly, there aren’t any problems I’m aware of that are the fault of the rich collectively. We do have an ongoing monetary crisis which is, in large part, the fault of a poorly regulated banking sector. Too much money has been made in an entirely non-productive way, by simply shifting complex bets around. That really is a serious problem, but it is not the fault of the rich as a class. It is the fault of a very small number of very large banks, and of a government whose complicity transcends party lines. Still, to listen to the rhetoric of the Democratic Party, one would imagine that the entire top one percent (minus the Democratic leadership and a few of their exempted friends) held a fiendish conference every now and then – specifically to plan ways to maximize the suffering of the rest of us. While it is always nice to have someone to hate, and it has been a useful rhetorical tool in recent elections, blindly laying the blame at the feet of the wealthy is a form of economic suicide. Raise a generation to hate capitalism reflexively, and you will drive whatever energy is left in the economy somewhere else. Like it or not, capitalism, for all of its faults, is the organizing principle of American society. This is a market economy. The goods and services that get produced are the ones that people want. You may hate your boss, but, difficult as it may be, you have the option of quitting and taking your labor elsewhere. Beat capitalism to death, and we leave government to manage every retail business and every factory. We may find we get only what the central planners decide we need, and work when and where they decide we ought to work. We may find that the State, surprisingly, does not need many web designers or college professors. While it is obvious that some regulation is now necessary – the banking crisis being only one indicator of this need – a full blown anti-capitalist mass movement is likely to eliminate poverty only by making it universal.

In all fairness, I have no positive solution to propose. There are, of course, draconian solutions. The draconian solution of the left, as noted above, is Communism. When all are poor then none are poor. Even in this most entropic of political states, however, there are always at least two classes: the people on the one hand – and the planners on the other. The endgame of the left is an ironically simplified example of the inequality it claims to abhor. At the right end of the spectrum, we could simply pull the rug out from under the unproductive. If you’re a child born in the wrong place to the wrong parents – hard luck. Thrive or die. Society, in this view, is a state of nature with a little glitter added. Appalled as I am at the arrogance and blindness of central planning, the hardest of the hard approaches also manifests the very disease it would attempt to cure. If the disease of unproductivity has its roots in human selfishness, then so would its elimination by starving it unfeelingly to death.

I think it is fair to say that we got into to this predicament through the unintended consequences of good intentions. That is the ongoing comedy of humankind. While I cannot suggest a method to unwind our mistakes – I believe that at least admitting they were mistakes would be a good beginning.

February 7, 2013


folks - e.m. cadwaladr
folks, image by e.m. cadwaladr on Flickr.

February 6, 2013

Freedom and the expansion of government

Beyond some minimal level, a level that we have long since reached and surpassed in the United States, the expansion of the size and power of government renders us less free. It is frankly breathtaking that I live in an age when I need to even argue this point. Still, before launching into an analysis of why I have come to this conclusion, it is necessary to dispense with the philosophical preliminaries by saying a few words about what I mean by “free”.

Historically, freedom has gotten defined in quite a few interesting and often opposing ways. My definition of freedom, in the politically relevant sense, is the first (and in that particular instance less relevant) definition I mentioned in my essay on free will.

( http://cadwaladr.blogspot.com/2010/03/case-against-existence-of-free-will.html ).

“…[one meaning of “free will”] is that state in which one’s decisions can be realized in physical actions. In this sense, if one is physically constrained by devices, disease or other externally induced circumstances [including the actions of other humans] one is, to the extent of the constraint, deprived of free will.”

I believe the terms “freedom” and “free will” can be used interchangeably in this context.

An important aspect of this definition is that it defines freedom as something not only individually realizable, but as something which is solely individually realizable. Such a definition makes no allowances for abstract, collectivized notions of freedom (like Hegel’s for example) but plants the concept firmly in the realm of individual experience and action. Nations, races and other group entities can no more experience freedom than they can experience a collective migraine headache. Unrestrained action is the purview solely of individual conscious beings.

The real world is, of course, awash in constraints to our imaginable actions and desires. Gravity and a lack of feathers keeps me from flying like a bird, as does my unfavorable power-to-weight ratio. Obviously, when discussing freedom in a political sense, we can dispense with those constraints which are not attributable to the actions of other people. Neither the government nor anyone else forbids me to have feathers or suitable musculature – these are simply brute physical facts.

Another significant consequence of defining freedom as the ability to bring one’s desires to fruition is that it makes freedom, or the lack thereof, the product of one’s unique expectations. Freedom is not only something we experience individually, but something which, to a great extent, we define individually. We are neither free nor constrained because we meet someone else’s interpretation of freedom or constraint.

A problem with most definitions of freedom is that they attempt to make freedom an absolute good, and carve off anything unpleasant about it with some other term (e.g. “license”). I believe this is a mistake. The freedom to murder one’s neighbor in cold blood is still a freedom. By itself, freedom is amoral – it is merely the ability to act on our decisions. Any moral content must lie in the kind of decisions that one makes.

While one can be free without being moral, happiness and freedom are more closely correlated. It is possible to separate the two – one can be free to do something but habitually dissatisfied with the results – but in most cases we are happy when we can pursue our desires and unhappy when we cannot. It is, of course, possible for an individual to be happy with a very restrictive set of circumstances, so long as that individual’s aspirations are equally limited.

In any real society, it is impossible that everyone will be absolutely free in the sense that I’ve outlined above. Society, even at the molecular level of the family, consists of a set of obligations and behavioral constraints. We submit to such constraints ultimately because they are to our individual advantage. By “advantage” here, I do not necessarily imply any especially positive outcome; in the sense I intend, even slaves submit because it is to their individual advantage – it is better to serve than to be beaten or killed. Societies are the working out of all the varied and transient desires of their constituent individuals by whatever means. There are always relative winners and losers in this process, though some societies do produce more freedom (and more happiness) than others.

Governments, as one of the active organizational agents of societies, are by their very nature in the business of restricting freedom. Laws and regulations are obviously constraints, but really all government activity, to the extent that it is supported by some form of taxation, is a burden and a constraint to somebody. While government is inherently a check on freedom, it is an unavoidable one. It arises spontaneously wherever humans come together in any numbers, and it is obvious that without at least some government it would be impossible to have societies worth the term. The dream of the anarchists, in which, without the bosses, all persons would be naturally cooperative and everything would run perfectly in a state of total equality, is nothing more than a naïve fantasy. Humans are not angels. Societies must restrain the murderer and the thief. They must, at times, protect themselves from other societies as well. The dreams of pacifists are probably only slightly less illusory that those of the anarchists. These functions require governments, laws, and some amount of taxation.

Beyond the realm of protecting life and property from the gross depredations of other individuals or other nations, the necessity of government becomes more suspect. Again, as government just is the working out of power relationships, both within a society and between societies, it can restrain and regulate almost without limit. What I am referring to above is not what it can do, but what can be justified as essential to a society’s stability and continuity. On the less contestable side of the grey area we have such items as roads, sewers, and various other public works. While some constructions and institutions of this sort might arise spontaneously through private enterprise, it is hard to imagine an entrepreneur who would wish to undertake the construction and operation of a pay-as-you-go sewer. Some things that clearly benefit virtually everyone only get done by governments. It is also probably true that the more complex and populous the country, the more such institutions must be organized and operated by the state. Nevertheless, a necessary erosion of freedom is still an erosion of freedom. If it turns out that the only way to maintain a huge population is by surrendering to totalitarianism, we should not pronounce totalitarianism good because particular circumstances make it necessary. While people can get used to very severe constraints, and learn not to feel them, I do not see how we can count this as a good outcome. In a sufficiently restrictive society, I could not write this essay – nor could you read it. In a true totalitarian state, we would lack the capacity even to understand it.

When government strives to make all citizens equal before the law it is striving not to favor certain groups or certain individuals. When it strives to make them equal economically it must, in practice, do just the opposite. Such a government presumes to compensate not only for the inequities brought about by history, but also for the inequities that result from differences of ability and effort. A government that undertakes this task is no longer merely protecting its citizens, but is attempting to re-engineer their beliefs, desires, and activities to conform to a particular ideal. To call such an effort an extension of freedom is absurd on its face. One is not made free by being forced to conform to someone else’s ideal. Such policies may advance the interests of a few selected groups of citizens temporarily, but only at the cost of surrendering the personal liberty of everyone to the whims of a handful of planners. In assuming such powers, the government is transformed from a limited undertaking that keeps society viable, to an eternal overbearing parent that presumes to always know what’s best for everyone.

The condition I have sketched above is not the worst case of what an expanding governmental power might do, but actually the best case. I have presumed, so far, that the people who administer government are selfless idealists, bending their entire effort toward their particular utopian ideals. If even such well-meaning Platonic guardians would take our liberties away, then how much worse would we suffer under the rule of ordinary, selfish, capricious human beings? This question is amply answered by history.

The chief purpose of the U.S. Constitution is to limit the power of government. This is the document’s very essence. If America is a grand experiment, it is an experiment in creating the maximum degree of individual freedom that a society can tolerate without disintegrating. As Thoreau said, “That government is best which governs least.” The opposite experiment, that of seeing how much government can curtain individual sovereignty without producing a rebellion, has been tried repeatedly – and we can expect a repetition of this experiment to yield predictable results.

The left will plead and whine ad nauseam about fairness, about it all being the will of the public as expressed through the elections, etc. Unfortunately, individual freedom is not preserved by the simple right of suffrage, but only by a broadly held belief that such a freedom is worth preserving. Lose that value, and you take a grand step toward political irrelevance. A populous prepared to surrender individual sovereignty for either an illusion of security or a temporary ration of relief renders the democratic franchise a mere formality. A state ruled in secrecy by celebrity politicians, unelected experts and academics is neither a democracy, nor fair, nor free. It may appeal to some, at least until the real bill comes due, but I, myself, would rather risk the consequences of a free life than to beg for charity from any set of masters.

February 1, 2013

Seidman v. The U.S. Constitution

CBS news recently aired the opinions of Georgetown Professor Louis Michael Seidman, available at the link below:


The article is short, and summarizes a 176-page book, but I think it lays out Seidman’s key points. His advice, in brief, is that we dispense with the US Constitution as a law and consider it only as an “inspirational” document.

Seidman argues:

“…most of our greatest Presidents -- Jefferson, Lincoln, Wilson, and both Roosevelts -- had doubts about the Constitution, and many of them disobeyed it when it got in their way.”

This is true, but it hardly seems a compelling reason to abandon the Constitution. FDR, for example, ignored the Constitution by interning Japanese Americans without due process, and attempted to subvert the Constitution by packing the Supreme Court with additional Justices. Is Seidman arguing that, because history portrays FDR as a great man, that such draconian actions were good things – and that they should have gone unimpeded? Is he arguing, in other words, for a rule of men (or women, as the case might be) over the rule of law?

He continues that, while the Constitution offers much that is inspiring…

“…the Constitution also contains some provisions that are not so inspiring. For example, one allows a presidential candidate who is rejected by a majority of the American people to assume office. Suppose that Barack Obama really wasn't a natural-born citizen. So what?”

In the first place, who is Seidman to determine for the rest of us that the presidential birth status is irrelevant? It is not an egregious limitation to individual freedom to exclude a naturalized citizen from the presidency. It is reasonable to require that the president not be unduly attached to some other nation or culture. The criterion is not perfect in assuring such attachments don’t exist – but neither is the legal driving age a perfect assurance of adult responsibility.

On the matter of the Electoral College system, there is already a slow but growing momentum to amend this by the normal Constitutional process. The Constitution has been amended twenty-seven times. Nothing I’m aware of has fatally undermined the amendment process. In any case, the purpose of the framers was not to create a popular democracy, but to create a system which balanced a number of competing interests, including the sovereign status of the states themselves. One can make the argument that a direct popular vote would be better, but one can’t just take it as a given that this is so. Popular majorities have voted for some very nasty things, and are not infallible themselves.


“…But what happens when the issue gets Constitutional-ized? Then we turn the question over to lawyers, and lawyers do with it what lawyers do. So instead of talking about whether gun control makes sense in our country, we talk about what people thought of it two centuries ago.

Worse yet, talking about gun control in terms of constitutional obligation needlessly raises the temperature of political discussion. Instead of a question on policy, about which reasonable people can disagree, it becomes a test of one's commitment to our foundational document and, so, to America itself.

This is our country. We live in it, and we have a right to the kind of country we want. We would not allow the French or the United Nations to rule us, and neither should we allow people who died over two centuries ago and knew nothing of our country as it exists today.”

One has to wonder how Professor Seidman imagines such issues would get resolved in the absence of a Constitution. One can almost smell the “national conversation” phrase bubbling up from underneath. Unless you are one of a select few, you would not be invited to that sort of discussion. In practice, what would happen in the absence of a restraining body of laws is not a mass meeting of the public in which everyone would get to weigh in and have his or her interests fairly considered, but the triumph of the strongest political faction. In de Tocqueville’s time you would have gotten a tyranny of the majority; today, we would be lucky to get a result even that agreeable.

The Constitution, as it actually functions, has little to do with making society perfect. It has everything to do with preventing ambitious leaders from abusing their power. It is true that the founders knew nothing about nuclear weapons, gay marriage, or many other features of modern society. The Constitution, however, is neither a weapons treaty nor the Defense of Marriage Act. The founders’ achievement was not to forecast technology or social mores, but to understand, with remarkable if not quite perfect clarity, the dangers posed by unbridled political power. Seidman is making the case that, ultimately, he and people like him know what’s best for you, and can be trusted with unlimited authority over your life.