Monday, October 28, 2013

Populist Libertarianism – The Quest to Disarm the Morality of the Citizen

Populist Libertarianism – The Quest to Disarm the Morality of the Citizen

The political dialogue in the United States is getting ever more polarized. The rise of the “tea party” republicans in 2010 was a response to many factors one certainly being a deep mistrust of the power of the state. This libertarian, populist impulse opposes any expansion of the use of state power. After arguing extensively for the use of the state to meet the needs of people for both security and welfare, Michael Walzer, in Spheres of Justice, makes a parenthetical statement, which I would like to reflect and build upon. Walzer states, “[this] point [regarding the use of state power] would hardly have to be made were it not for contemporary advances of a minimal or libertarian state, who argue that all such matters (except for defense) should be left to the voluntary efforts of individuals” (SOJ, kindle 1542)

Since 1983, when Walzer made this observation, the forward march “of the minimal state” has been steady and drastic. What we have seen in the subsequent decades, in the United States, is an “advancement” based on the maxim that “government is not the solution to the problem; government is the problem” (Pres. Ronald Reagan First Inaugural Address, January 20th, 1981). This idea has captured the political mind over a large segment of the American political landscape and, in many ways, has infected the entire body politic. My thesis is that this populist, libertarian ideology has resulted in great confusion with respect to the state’s moral obligation to its citizens. The effect of this ideology has been that the political process has been denied entry into many spheres where the state through political discussion is the appropriate instrument to undertake projects to meet the general and particular needs of the citizenry. Furthermore, if distribution mechanisms, other than the market, are ideologically weakened then those who monopolize money are empowered to dominate these other spheres. Using the model developed by Michael Walzer in “Spheres of Justice”, I will attempt to investigate the effects of this populist, libertarian impulse in American political life and suggest alternative distribution criterion, which are more appropriate to each given good. My aim is to convince the libertarian in all of us that the state is often the necessary instrument with which to more justly distribute key primary goods.

Applying the Walzer’s Model to a Critique of Libertarianism
To begin this analysis, I must first define libertarianism as it is being utilized in the American political discussion by its proponents. I do not think I will get much disagreement by saying libertarianism is a philosophy of government that limits government’s role to its minimum. Often this minimum is limited to the defense of the citizens from enemies within and without. Secondly, I define libertarianism as populist. By populist, I mean that it caters to the self-interests of an idealized definition of ordinary people. In its populist guise, this ideology maintains an anti-elitist stance. But because it is libertarian, this ideology serves the interests of the wealthiest Americans by undermining the power of the state to limit the dominance of money in various spheres. In this sense, populist libertarianism is a type of false-consciousness in which ordinary people champion an ideology which does not align with their own self-interests.
Why the State Comes into Being
Walzer’s depiction of the function of the state seems somewhat irrefutable. Human beings find strength in numbers. Security is the first need of the population. The state arises in order to meet this security need. Because the security needs of the population are so great and ever present, the state is granted the right to compel able-bodied men to fight. This is the fundamental social contract. Like the Hobbesian calculus, we give the state coercive power in exchange for the security of the population. For the libertarian, this limited social contract becomes a vision for the ideal state. To the libertarian, to cede to the state coercive powers other than those needed to combat these limited security needs is to grant the state tyrannical powers. But when looking at historical examples of the role of the state, we simply do not see such an arbitrary limitation of the state’s coercive powers. In other words, such an ideology is nice in theory, but, in actual practice, such limitations are unreasonable and destructive to political discourse.

Instead, Walzer does not limit the role of the state to “defense” but to “needs”. “The criterion of need becomes a critical standard” (Kindle location, 1409). Nonetheless, it must be understood that “needs are elusive” and “expansive” (Kindle location, 1394). What is meant by “elusive” and “expansive” is that each particular setting will define needs particularly. A simple example is public health. It is commonly recognized that infectious diseases are a public enemy. Therefore, in the United States there are mandatory immunizations laws which require vaccination of children prior to entrance into the public schools. Compulsory vaccination is not beyond the police powers of the state. This example shows that to limit state power to defense on the basis of a philosophic ideal provides an absurd limitation in practical application. The morality of actual cultures cannot reasonably submit to the libertarian ideal.

Nonetheless, the libertarian mantra continues to hold sway even in the realm of public health. A movement, at the grass roots level, is prevalent in the United States against compulsory vaccinations. This sentiment feeds upon a belief that the state has no right to compel an individual to take a medicine. The ideology of libertarianism is empowered by the American sentiment which idealizes individualism and a patriotism which stands up against the tyranny of the state. The self-identified American patriot feels violated when the state forces a needle in his shoulder. Even so, sentiment is not the same as moral clarity. To apply such populist sentiment to the sphere of public health is morally confused. There is no moral distinction that can be made between serving one’s country by willingly responding to a compulsory draft and willingly responding to one’s civic duties with respect to compulsory immunization. The clarification, which Walzer makes, is to set the criterion for the use of state powers at “need” and not merely “defense”. Subsequently, when the state uses its powers to meet these general needs, in this case the need for public health, the liberties of the individual will be sacrificed. The political process is essentially a practical discussion concerning what we, the citizens, decide are the needs which we are willing to use state powers to meet. The paradigm of maximizing personal liberty by limiting the state to mere defense is not beneficial to a reasonable populace. 

The control of infectious diseases is an extreme example to show that the state is granted coercive powers to fight public enemies and meet general needs. Other examples might include protection from fire, protection of the environment, the regulation of pharmaceutical drugs and other consumer protections. If I take a walk around my block, I find innumerable examples where the state has used its tax authority to meet needs, which I cannot imagine any reasonable citizen would complain about. I walk on a street by a school. I see electrical power lines bringing electricity to every home. I am drinking a cup of safe drinking water. I remember as a youth having to come inside due to extreme air pollution. When I tell my children about the feeling of smog filled lungs and difficulty breathing, they find my story hard to believe. My commitment to the American way of life is not merely a commitment to procedural freedoms like freedom of the press or the right to vote or run for office, but also a thankfulness for the well-being I experience as a result of the legislative victories which have enabled us as citizens to meet our general needs in such a particularly effective manner. As citizens, our loyalties to the American political process ought not to only celebrate the past, for needs are elusive and expansive. As history unfolds, new needs arise and new challenges present themselves.

Economic Catastrophe
The above analysis of the role of the state has supported the application of a broad conception of the state’s coercive power in order to meet the general needs of the citizenry. In times of economic catastrophe, the needs of the population expand. The libertarian ideology seeks to limit the states response in the midst of such catastrophes. This libertarian agenda to delegitimize the role of the state to coercively extract resources from citizens of means in order to provide for citizens in need does not align with the morality of the American citizenry. By legitimizing the needs of citizens in times of economic crisis, the power of the state to use its tax authority to meet these needs is likewise legitimized.  

Economic Catastrophe and Acts of God
The financial crisis of 2008 reveals additional enemies which threaten the availability of numerous necessary goods. When a hurricane ravages a coastal community leaving tens of thousands homeless, the nation provides assistance. Such an event is termed an act of God. This terminology is used to illustrate that those who suffer are not suffering on account of their own lack of character or poor choices. Hurricanes are indiscriminate. So too, an economic disaster harms individuals both severely and indiscriminately. The economic contraction of 2007-2009 resulted in the loss of 8-9 million jobs and over $6 trillion dollars in middle class housing wealth. Surely, a factory worker in California is not to blame for the decisions of a banker in New York or a policymaker in Washington. There remains controversy over the actual causes of the recession, but there surely ought to be consensus that a construction worker in San Diego or a car dealer in Iowa is being harmed by powers beyond her control. As Americans, we are averse to providing for a persons needs when their condition is self-inflicted, but unemployment during an economic catastrophe is no more self-inflicted that the damage done to a home as the result of a natural disaster. In the same way that the Federal Government declares a natural disaster in order to provide relief to victim of an earthquake in California or a flood in Missouri, so too a society can experience an economic disaster which requires drastic actions by the Federal Government.

As Walzer stated above, “this point would hardly have to be made were it not for contemporary advances of [champions of] a minimal or libertarian state”, but in fact there remains champions of just such a state. As I have shown, this libertarian ideology is not morally cohesive. Unemployment in the midst of an economic catastrophe requires a state response. It is our moral obligation to come to the rescue of our fellow citizens who suffer as the result of something that they have no power to prevent. A vigorous response to meet the needs of our neighbor citizens is a moral obligation. In order to meet these moral obligations, we act as citizens. The only means to make this response is to tax citizens of means lest we create additional hardship. What is in question then is the precise nature of the state’s response.  

Having determined that our fellow citizens have legitimate needs during such an economic crisis, it is important to define their actual need. Picture a husband and father with two small children. He is an engineer by trade. During the economic crisis, the company that employed him could not get working capital. The company went bankrupt. Such a scenario, with slightly different details, happened literally millions of times during the great recession of 2007-2009. What do these men and women need? Do they need food? Yes. Do they need continued income support to pay their mortgages? Yes. Do they need dignity and the opportunity to work? Yes. What these men or women need are jobs. Having clarity with respect to our moral obligations to one another and what needs are to be met affects our policy decisions. In such situations, America has traditionally provided massive stimulus projects. The government goes to work employing millions and makes good use of the available skills and labor to invest in our nation. In such a situation, nothing is more disabling to our moral agency than the idea that “government is not the solution to the problem; government is the problem”.

So what have we discovered by using Walzer’s model to define the role of government? We have determined that the role of the state is to meet the needs of the people. Defining the type of need and the appropriate degree of “need” is the content of political discussion. We put the libertarian ideal of a state limited to its minimal role of defense to the test and found that in real life settings this ideal is impractical and unreasonable. When applying libertarianism to the situation of economic catastrophe, we have revealed that, in fact, libertarianism is morally indefensible. In summary, as citizens we have a duty to ourselves to understand the ways in which government has provided for the well being of the American people through a myriad of projects which provide the foundation of American prosperity. Only by understanding our own particular history and the successful ways we have acted to provide for the needs of our citizenry can we combat the false ideologies which only serve to confuse our minds and undermine our collective will

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

John Rawls: A Theory of Justice Part 1 - The Enlightenment Experiment

Admittedly, I am late to the table concerning John Rawls, but I am becoming quite the fan. I am currently reading "A Theory of Justice" having read, earlier this year, "The Law of Peoples".

What I will be doing is journaling my thoughts as I read this monumental work of moral philosophy. My audience for much of what I write is the American evangelical but also more broadly the American electorate. Having studied a bit of Rawls this year, I am coming to the conclusion that Rawls should be mandatory reading for all Americans, probably best as college freshmen. Of course, such a suggestion is merely wishful thinking, but one can hope that the American electorate could become well informed and thoughtful in light of the irrationality that marked the 2012 election cycle.

Rawls is a Newtonian figure in the realm of political philosophy. What Newton was to modern physics I believe Rawls is to moral and political philosophy. Rawls makes all things clear when considering how political life ought to work, which brings me to my first point. Johns Rawls is a pillar in the endless line of splendor that is the enlightenment tradition.

The enlightenment is based on the idea that through reason mankind can discover the path to ever increasing peace and prosperity. The works of John Rawls and especially "A Theory of Justice" lays forth a methodology by which men and women of reason may discover a conception of justice upon which they can agree. Such a conception of justice becomes the foundation of a well ordered society and, thus, such a program becomes a step forward in the enlightenment experiment. I find such an appeal to reason glorious and dignifying. The vision of the enlightenment can be quite motivational, but likewise, to lose the vision and quest of the enlightenment can be quite disheartening. Such a cynicism rooted in a rejection of the enlightenment principles that assume solutions to fundamental problems can be solved at least partially leads to political and social apathy. The study of Rawls can be a means to overcome such apathy, but it seems that to find inspiration from Rawls, we must first address two obstacles.

First, the enlightenment experiment involves faith in reason. There then is the problem of man's political nature. In our current political and social environment, partisanism appears to be undermining the role of reason in the decisions of the various political actors. Would a reading of the likes of Rawls by the American electorate tip the scales from purely political considerations in the decisions of political actors to a more principle-based problem solving founded on a common conception of justice. Needless to say, a more principled and thoughtful politics would be welcomed. A reading of Rawls can help us embrace such a quest for public reasoning based on a common conception of justice.

While the obstacle of our political tendencies poses a threat to a more enlightened approach to our political life, our cultures post-modern tendencies likewise poses an obstacle. By post-modern, I mean the belief that all opinions are equal. Ought not an opinion which is based in fantasy as opposed to fact be discredited in the marketplace of ideas, yet it appears of late that such a naive proposition is not a given. In fact, the reality that a fantasy based opinion can survive public discourse is a threat to the enlightenment experiment that is liberal democracy. But maybe just maybe, an appeal to education, indeed an education in the writings of John Rawls and the like, might just give a shot in the arm to our ailing experiment.

Monday, November 12, 2012

The Need for a New Theological and Political Wineskin

Last night, I heard a theologian teach at our church. He started by saying he was very depressed because we are losing the war for evangelical Christianity in America. Needless to say, his depression had to have something to do with the election. He tried to hide his partisanship but it leaked through.

He was absolutely horrible, but I am heartened. He was an old man, and I think he represents an old way of thinking. At least I can hope.

This theologians point was that Christians need to learn how to think and persuade people to our way of thinking. He decried the anti-intellectualism in the church. He completely missed the point. The problem is not that we do not think enough. The problem is that the conservative evangelical theological system makes people anti-intellectual. The problem is that any theology which purports that the earth is 10,000 years old cannot be intellectual. What is needed is a new theological framework, a new wineskin to hold the wine of scientific FACTS. If we cannot reasonably and elegantly address the facts, then we cannot be intellectual or thinking people. The problem is that the 20th century conservative hermeneutic is not capable of addressing scientific fact. Therefore, a new hermeneutic is needed, a new wineskin.

This theologian was forlorn about the votes on homosexual marriage. If we cannot support equal rights and liberty for ALL, then we cannot have a place at the table of democracy. We need a new political philosophy that shows a compassionate and grace filled face to the Church in the political arena. It is so obvious that Christians are supposed to be the voice for the poor in America. Instead, we are seen as people who believe that what is on God's mind is the idea that homosexuals want rights under the law. In a democracy, it is fine to believe that BUT it is not the basis of a political philosophy. The American political system is founded on the motto of e pluribus unum. The American experiment is an experiment centered on belief that the a diversity of peoples can become one people. This political philosophy by definition must not bring our religion into our politics. Unless we develop a political philosophy based in a commitment to civil liberties and a passion for justice, we cannot be intellectuals in the realm of politics.

What this theologian didn't realize is that what created the anti-intellectualism is the inability of his generations theology to incorporate scientific facts and to understand the relationship between religion and politics under our constitutional democracy. What is needed is better ideas not doubling down on the failed ideas of 20th century evangelicalism.

Thursday, October 04, 2012

Presidential Debate Obama / Romney: What President Obama Should Have Said

I am a firm believer that democratic ideas are the solution to the current economic problems. That democrats have the solution to economic problems is certainly not always the case. To articulate the democratic ideas on the economy, this is what President Obama should have said.

During the first debate session, Romney and Obama went back and forth on reducing taxes for businesses with Romney stating the 50% of American workers work for successful small companies whose taxes would go up under President Obama’s plan. These companies, Romney strongly asserted, are the job creators. Romney then re-iterated the Republican talking point that the Obama administration is penalizing success. To this line of reasoning Obama had no answer.
Here is the correct answer which the President could have made. I would have said the following:
The problem with Governor Ronmey's one size fits all, supply side solution is that he states what appears on the surface to be a valid point but is simply bad policy in the current economic environment. Today, corporations small and large are holding onto a record level of cash. To lower tax rates on these companies will give companies better after taxes cash on hand, and only add to the record cash on hand that companies are already not spending on growth and hiring. The problem is that companies are not spending because they do not have enough demand from consumers to grow their businesses by spending more money. The reason for this is because Republican policies over the last 30 years, supply side economics, have funneled money to the top income brackets and left the middle-class squeezed and buried. Therefore, in order to increase demand for goods and services and grow the economy from the middle out ALL tax decreases need to be focused on the middle-class. We are in a economic situation, caused by republican supply side blind-ideology, which has consistently reduced the buying power of the middle-class. Therefore, let me say this again 100%, ALL, tax relief in my proposal is focused on the middle class . Again, to grow the economy from the inside out, we must focus ALL our tax relief on the middle-class so that they can energize economic growth through increased consumption.

Monday, October 01, 2012

Discipleship – Intro: Discipleship and the Need for a Spiritual Revolution

SPIRITUAL REVOLUTION
When I first started writing publically about the church, I started this blog, “21st Century Reformation”. That was 2003 or about 10 years ago. In those years, the emphasis was simply to take seriously the teachings of Jesus and to apply them in a practical way. I was pastoring a church and later participated in a church plant. Both communities evolved into something that, in light of my reading of the scripture, did not look like the early church. Many of my friends encouraged me to meet people half way and to be more “realistic”. The last few years I have tried that half-measured approach for myself, and I have found this road does not make me happy. Therefore, today I return to my first love and am beginning a new quest to walk a road of continual spiritual revolution. Personally, my heart will only find its home in the midst of a community committed to this spiritual revolution.  Let the journey and the struggle begin anew.

God Plan for Human Community Remains the Same
42 They were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer43 Everyone kept feeling a sense of awe; and many wonders and signs were taking place through the apostles. 44 And all those who had believed]were together and had all things in common; 45 and they began selling their property and possessions and were sharing them with all, as anyone might have need. 46 Day by day continuing with one mind in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they were taking their meals together with gladness and sincerity of heart, 47 praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord was adding to their number day by day those who were being saved.
And again in Acts chapter 4, the church is described as32 And the congregation of those who believed were of one heart and soul; and not one of them claimed that anything belonging to him was his own, but all things were common property to them. 33 And with great power the apostles were giving testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and abundant grace was upon them all. 34 For there was not a needy person among them, for all who were owners of land or houses would sell them and bring the proceeds of the sales 35 and lay them at the apostles’ feet, and they would be distributed to each as any had need.

The biblical description of the early church depicts a community that is both spiritual and revolutionary. Can this be said of the church today? Is the church spiritual? Martin Lloyd-Jones, one of the greatest preachers of the 20th Century, described the church’s greatest problem as “superficiality”. Is not superficiality in opposition to spirituality? Spirituality seeks to heal what really ails us. A healthy spiritual community develops a spiritual program that helps others find this healing, this freedom, this truly happy and heavenly quality of life. Are today’s Christians distinctly more spiritually healthy and beautiful than the non-Christian? Are our behaviors and attitudes distinct?  Would the on-looker describe the peace and endurance of the modern Christian as stunning and awesome? If not, then, we are not yet spiritual.

Likewise, would anyone describe the church of today as revolutionary? The early church lived communally, “had all things in common”. “There was not a needy person among them, for all who had lands or houses would sell them…and they would distribute to each as any had need”. Does this describe the church today? Is not the church a staunch defender of the status quo? Is the church meeting the material needs of the world in a revolutionary way? Is materialism a problem in the church as it is in the world? Is simplicity the norm? Is our generosity extravagant? Is the church revolutionary like the early church was?

By revolutionary, I mean a community that is living by an entirely different set of ethical rules than the world around us. To be revolutionary always requires a revolutionary relationships with material goods and a revolutionary concern for others. This is exactly what is described in the early church. Plainly, poverty and inequality is a problem in the world and always has been. This problem of inequality was solved in the revolutionary lifestyle of the early church. We cannot call ourselves a biblical community unless we are similarly living a revolutionary lifestyle.
The church is neither radically spiritual nor radically revolutionary, and, unless we become both spiritual and revolutionary, we cannot be the solution to the human problem. Yet, this is exactly what it means that Jesus is the Christ and that we are His disciples. Jesus came to solve the human problem of injustice and man’s inhumanity to man, and this solution is to be shining forth in the church.

What the world needs is a spiritual revolution. Our spirituality must set us truly free, and this freedom must express itself in a distinctly Christlike ethical response to the world we encounter. Our world is drowning in injustice and in need of a people free enough to make personal material sacrifices which meet this injustice with compassion and empathy.

The early church is a description of the prototype of the church as fashioned by the disciples of Jesus. These men and women, discipled in the footsteps of Jesus, lived radically distinct lives filled with spiritual power and material generosity. The early church lived in a state of spiritual revolution bringing a revolutionary lifestyle of worship, prayer and simplicity to a world filled with violence and poverty. Until the church looks like the early church, we will not change the world like the early church changed the world. Until the church makes disciples like Jesus made disciples, the church will not look like the community of the disciples of Jesus.
It is not time to move the deck chairs on the Titanic. It is time for a spiritual revolution.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

As Clinton sounds interest rate alarm, a Warning Against a Do-Nothing Congress


As Clinton sounds interest rate alarm, will reason prevail?
The cost of politics as usual is very high. If Congress takes the stance that the best politics is to assure that the other guys fail, real people will get hurt.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Fiddling at the Fire by Nouriel Roubini - Project Syndicate

After compiling all the elements of the future perfect storm leading to potential global depression, Roubini states the cause:

Ineffective governments with weak leadership are at the root of the problem. In democracies, repeated elections lead to short-term policy choices. In autocracies like China and Russia, leaders resist the radical reforms that would reduce the power of entrenched lobbies and interests, thereby fueling social unrest as resentment against corruption and rent-seeking boils over into protest. But, as everyone kicks the can down the road, the can is getting heavier and, in the major emerging markets and advanced economies alike, is approaching a brick wall. Policymakers can either crash into that wall, or they can show the leadership and vision needed to dismantle it safely.

This confirms the fundamental truth that problems can be solved. All problems have solutions, but, as is so often the case, the primary players' political agendas trump reason. Fiddling at the Fire by Nouriel Roubini - Project Syndicate



Thursday, December 22, 2011

Violence Returns to Iraq - democracy and Military Action

Wave of attacks kills dozens amid Iraq's upheaval
The lesson here is to reassess how democracy promotion works. We cannot expect to be successful by enforcing democracy via military action. The entire endevor may prove to have been a total waste of lives and money.

Lesson learned: Empire isn't a good long term strategy for prosperity.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Bias Justice in Alabama: Executive arrested under Alabama immigration law

Mercedes-Benz executive arrested under Alabama immigration law

A basic premise of justice is that justice must be without bias. Laws cannot favor the poor or the rich. No one is above the law. This principle of justice, obviously, is not understood by the good people of Alabama where a law is being reconsidered because it has been found to possibly harm rich folk.
Would a false arrest of a spanish speaking tax paying maid lead to the over turn of a law in Alabama or must the person falsely arrested be rich? The answer is obvious. Poor brown skinned people have been complaining about this law and others like it for months, BUT, as it turns out, the long arm of the law is only comfortable reaching downward.
This case is a perfect example of bias and, therefore, an unjust law which should be overturned regardless of who is being falsely arrested.

Saturday, December 03, 2011

US Lawmaker Blocking Obama’s Pick for Ambassador to Russia

US lawmaker blocking Obama’s pick for ambassador

Michael McFaul is the most clear eyed observer of Russia on the planet. He has legitimate pro-democracy street cred. If anyone thinks Mike will be fooled by Putin, they are either ignorant of Dr. McFaul's history or they simply are being disingenuous. You choose.

Is Modern Capitalism Sustainable? - Kenneth Rogoff - Project Syndicate

Is Modern Capitalism Sustainable?
As we think about "The Kingdom as Justice", it is helpful to take a self-critical look at our understanding of the world's political economy. What about our political-economic system is unjust? How are people and future generations harmed by a lack of care for the economy, the environment and our debt burden? Is it not unjust to leave a world of inequality, pollution, debt and rising health care costs to our children to fix? Certainly God cares about the well being of our children and has his sights on the well being of our children's children. Can inequality continue to go unchecked? The question is how do we fix these problems that are quickly evolving into crisis due to our petty self-interests and our lack of intellectual rigor.
In the above article, Kenneth Rogoff begins to ask questions concerning the sustainability of capitalism in its current form. We too need to look objectively and without bias (especially religious bias) at how to solve these policy problems which are at the heart of the problems of injustice in God's world.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

John Rawls - Required Reading

John Rawls
It seems only reasonable to me that such great thinkers like John Rawls should be required reading for all Christian leaders AND that the church should be a central place for public reasoning.

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Did the Poor Cause the Crisis?

It is hard to resist posting an article like this one. Justice compels me.
Been meditating on justice a lot lately.