Miranda – to keep the thread appropriately wieldy, albeit incredibly lengthy, an item-by-item response to your note, below in red text, composed over a few days. If some things don’t follow, that’s why!
1) (the danger of allowing an individual to pursue personal ends) Here’s my problem with this argument – if, to take your assumption, that an individual left alone to pursue personal ends is inherently destructive to society, how and why do individuals magically become good-hearted collectivists looking out for the well-being of society when we put them in this thing called ‘government’? As we see as bureaucracy ever increases, the danger that an individual acts in his/her naked self-interest actually increases when in government – see the VA scandal (falsifying wait times to meet a quota, rather than actually taking care of a fellow human being). The incentives become perverse. Set that aside though – I actually don’t buy into either your perception of individual action when left alone, or how to form a collective sense of the good. Your perception of the individual is one of solitary interest, almost anarchic. People are by nature social creatures, and thus, there are many times when they collectively come together voluntarily to pursue a common goal. While there certainly are individuals that are destructive to society, there are many more voluntary organizations formed specifically for the betterment of society. The most obvious example is prison ministry. Here’s a group of people – of their own accord, based purely on their faith/understanding of ‘the good’ – helping those most of us have cast aside. They didn’t need to be told to do it by government; they did it as a group of individuals.
I don’t want to go too far down this path, as it’s not overly germane to the rest of argument, but I’d argue the primary reason we don’t have a cohesive social fabric anymore is the rise of moral relativism, the decline of religion and faith, and too many people who don’t buy the classical conception of natural rights. It is much easier – and government far less needed – to establish common sets of decency, morals, and societal standards when there is indeed a common language around faith, morals, virtue and ‘the good’ – historically established by a (relatively) common Judeo-Christian religious faith. When those latter parts are actively torn down, the individual will struggle to find him/herself (and opens the way for government as the faith/religion replacement). The world of moral relativism is a scary one – you’ve got today’s American left decrying a ‘war on women’ while simultaneously shouting down Ayaan Hirsi Ali because she reminds them that genital mutilation is still common in the Islamic world. As I said – that’s a whole other topic.
2) (Levels of inequality in our system are both highly problematic and increasing in disparity)
I’m a bit confused on your point re: individuals fairly negotiating. I need an example. Are rich people steamrolling poor people in contract negotiations? Are there laws you’d like to see around contracts, private property, and other protections that aren’t there already? Shouldn’t we be prosecuting people for negotiating in bad faith? I’m just not seeing the tie between inequality generally and this notion of negotiating on an equal playing field. And can we use plain English? ‘Structural unaddressed violence’ is a debate term for points with no real meaning. If it’s unaddressed, why aren’t we? Not enough laws on the books? Prosecutorial discretion? Victims afraid to speak out? A vague notion of patriarchy?
Some other related points though. I’m not saying that we should not be interested in positive rights. It would be great if everyone has a minimum standard of living. I’m simply saying that it’s not government’s responsibility to ensure them, and in fact by making it government business, we actually exacerbate the inequality. Our country’s own experience plays that out, particularly in the past 15 years. As government has grown in size and scope, so has income inequality. Jay Nordlinger, a National Review writer, has made a point that bears mentioning. Imagine a scenario where one individual makes $20,000 and another makes $50,000. The next year, after both get 20% promotions and raises, the first makes $25,000 and the second makes $60,000. Both are absolutely better off than they were the year before, as is ‘society’ writ large, but income inequality has increased. Is this acceptable to the left? For many, no, even though there is economic improvement across the board. Thomas Sowell also makes a key point that gets lost very often – income inequality is point in time, yet people move up and down the income spectrum across their life span. As I imagine is true of all of us on this chain, we were in a different income bracket when we started our careers than we are now. What we should actually be tracking is whether across someone’s productive career, they are moving up those deciles (his research shows that on the whole, that’s true). Where I would agree we would have a major problem is if income inequality actually becomes an oligarchy where there is zero movement across the income spectrum with income concentrated in the same hands year after year. Even the top 1% changes with pretty fair regularity. Again, I’ve gone a bit afield here, but a long winded way of saying that I simply don’t view inequality with as negative an eye as you.
3) (how to address the previously disenfranchised groups in society)
A very difficult problem to solve, and one that I don’t have a great answer to. (I’ll spare you my cynical thoughts on the whole ‘check your privilege’ brigade). However, I will be incredibly redundant with my previous emails to make a point – what we are doing now isn’t working. There have been some GREAT articles on education in the black community to coincide with the 60th anniversary of Brown v Board. Regardless of ideology, they all point out that on many measures, education quality and achievement for black children remain miles behind that of white children. Schools remain remarkably segregated in many communities. All of this despite enormous sums of money into those very schools. If we collectively are truly focused on raising up previously disenfranchised groups, and not simply trying to spend more government money, at what point does today’s left say ‘it’s not working and we’ll try something else’? Let’s put some metrics in place to achieve and let’s experiment. Let’s try something new. If it doesn’t work, great! One try down, many more to go. If we aren’t happy with the progress disenfranchised groups have made to date, let’s throw out what we’ve been doing rather than simply saying we need more money.
As a side note, I’m also in the Chief Justice Roberts school of thought: if we want to stop discrimination on the basis of race/sex/gender, let’s stop discriminating on the basis of race/sex/gender. Back to my very first point – maybe if we focused a bit more on the individual and a bit less on the group, we’d make some more progress.
4) (the literal constitution)
Lots of ifs, ands, and buts in this one! I agree with your last two sentences – the colonists never expected to fully break with Great Britain. My wife and I watch Sleepy Hollow, and it had the good reminder that even the revolutionaries thought of themselves as English (e.g. Paul Revere couldn’t have said ‘the British are coming’ as people would have been very confused). Moving on to more substance, though – I begin and end my argument with the Constitution as while political theory is well and good, we have a country to run, and that country is governed by a set of laws, of which, the Constitution is first and foremost. I’d love to read your dissertation, as an aside. I’m personally not an originalist – trying to ascertain the precise motives and intents of individuals 200+ years later is a fool’s errand. However, I’m in Justice Scalia’s camp – I’m a textualist – I try (as best as my feeble mind enables) to look at what the text actually says, not as how we’d like it to be read. This is where liberals try to cheat – rather than be honest and simply say “we don’t like what parts of the Constitution says, and thus, we want to call for a convention to propose amendments,” they attempt to subvert it by passing laws that clearly go against the text that’s there. This is also where I fall in the Scalia camp – whenever he’s asked what part of the Constitution he’d like to change, he always says the amendment process – it is incredibly cumbersome and when you do the math, something like 2% of the population via their states could hold up an amendment. That said, to me, the Constitution isn’t something where we can waive our magic wands, cover our eyes, and just will it to be what we want it to be. If the Constitution does not hold – a law above other laws – then how can we expect any branch of government (or the administrative state) to hold in regard any law passed by Congress? You’re exactly right – there are probably parts of the Constitution not well suited to the life and times we live in. There’s a process to change it. Use it, and convince the public you’re right.
5) (what about socialism is terrible?)
To your question in the middle of the paragraph. . .ummm. . .because it doesn’t work and has been shown every time it’s been used to leave people poorer and less well off than before? Or are you one of those “well, Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Ho, Allende, Castro, etc. just didn’t do it right and my version would be infinitely better?” You’re smarter than that (I hope). In theory, socialism is utopian. People have different talents, different abilities, etc. and to ever imagine a world where all is equal is to undermine (again) the individual in service to the state. To a couple of my previous responses, I’m big on the outputs and metrics of things – my take on the 20th century is that socialism is an unabashed disaster, and to think that it continues to be pursued despite the evidence is an indictment of our political leadership.
I’d counter quite quickly the ability of the EU to contain violence and xenophobia. Have you seen Greece recently? Neo-Nazis are taking 10-15% of the vote! The political parties that just swept to the European parliament in France? Are you forgetting the marked rise in Islamic extremism throughout the continent? Riots in the Paris suburbs? The murder of Theo van Gogh? The rise of Geert Wilders and the exile of Ayaan Hirsi Ali? The anti-Semitism that continues to infect some parts of Europe across the ideological spectrum? I could go on, but you see my point.
Next time I see you, you’ll have to remind me of use-value and symbolic-exchange-value. Sounds like more rhetorical debate points again 🙂 And I’d care much more about the environment if the left didn’t use it as an excuse simply to expand government power, rather than actually try to come up with good solutions.
6a) (recognize that the practical realities of human nature make it almost impossible to practice natural rights) I actually agree with this paragraph in its entirely, yay us! To me, this is the very definition of government – to protect the natural rights we all have. You’re absolutely right – some people will try to take those rights away, absent a government with police power to ensure they don’t. As a leaning libertarian though, that’s pretty much where my definition of government ends – law and order to protect the natural rights of its citizens (a VERY simplified definition, but you get my drift).
6b) (almost all of history chronicles groups infringing on the rights of others) Agreed again, with the big caveat that the government we have today does far more with far less effectiveness than the conception of government outlined in (a) and (b). I’d be entirely onboard if that’s all government was doing and not, to recall my first exchange, prescribing the number and type of trees on private property to surround a storage facility.
6c) (hoping to get to is an elucidation of what that would actually look like in practice). How about this – shut down the Department of the Interior and sell all federal land? Or remove the government from the health insurance industry? Or get rid of fuel economy standards? Or get rid of the Export Import Bank? Or provide vouchers so individual families could choose the school they wanted their children to attend? Or make the country right-to-work so there was greater freedom in labor markets? Privatize the VA hospital system, or give veterans vouchers so they could have the freedom to choose a hospital? There are so many policies we could pursue that would increase individual liberty and freedom, and yet we pursue none of them.
6d) (redistribution policies grew the overall economy and led to much greater equality) I’d suggest reading Kevin Williamson’s broadside “The Dependency Agenda.” Fabulous quick read that undermines much of your proposition. I have it on my Kindle, so happy to share with you. The fact is this – much of the growth of the economy and the rising tide occurred BEFORE any of The Great Society programs of the Johnson administration. The poverty rate was falling just fine before we vastly expanded the scope of the state. (As an aside, Williamson’s piece also highlights the incredible racism of Johnson and others in pushing for Great Society reforms). I also can’t buy the argument that we had a ‘huge amount of deregulation’ when the government today is larger than is ever has been, and the Federal Register of promulgated regulations gets larger every year. Sure, we deregulated some energy markets and airlines, but government inexorably grew larger.
6e) (Positive and Negative rights are fundamentally intertwined). I simply disagree on the point, primarily due to where my own thinking on the issue starts. I not only believe in natural rights, but as a Catholic, I also believe I (and everyone else, whether they like to believe it or not) is made in the image and likeness of God. Because of that, we are born with an intrinsic dignity and freedom that government should be unable to take away. To me, the whole purpose of self-government is to ensure that to the best of our admittedly flawed human abilities, we protect those inherent (negative) rights of everyone. Is it better for the populace when economic growth occurs and people are better off? Of course it does. My interpretation of economic history though is that only when individuals are free to pursue their self-interest away from the machinations of the state does society truly flourish. As Williamson points out in his book, we spend $65,000 per poor family per year in government welfare, transfer payments, tax credits, etc. and yet our poverty rate is stubbornly persistent. Your proposed way hasn’t worked.
6f) (the breaking of social hegemony and expansion of bureaucratic institutions) I’m a letter of the law kind of guy. How naïve of me, right? To my earlier textual point – the law is what the law says. I feel like you’re looking for ‘emanations of penumbras’ to quote the horrifically argued Griswold opinion. I will admit that the 14th Amendment absolutely expanded the power of the federal government to ensure that Congress had the mechanisms to enforce equality where needed. But even now, the expanse of that power as exercised has gone far beyond what the 10th Amendment and the enumerated powers of Article 1 ever intended.
6g) (the Constitution without reference to either the context of writing or the context or interpretation) I’m getting redundant so I’ll stop after this – but the law is the law is the law. We can’t wish what we want it to be. There’s a process for doing so – it’s called amending the Constitution or passing laws via Congress that comport with the Constitution. I realize I’m fighting a losing battle here, given all the infringement on the Constitution I see regularly, but someone has to stand up for common sense.
7) (What does the statement ‘we are all in this together’ mean) Honestly, I think it’s a statement made by liberals to make us feel warm, cuddly, and fuzzy about the government taking more of our individual liberty away. Your 3rd sentence (highlighted) reminds me of the DNC video at their 2012 convention – ‘government is what we call things we do together’ – which I so fundamentally disagree with. Don’t let my staunch individualism fool you – we do absolutely have the charge to look out for our fellow man. But that springs not from government telling us that it is so, but because (as I mentioned above) that each one of us is created by God. And when it comes from that point, there is a mandate to help one another, to serve our communities, to help the less fortunate, etc. It comes from faith and a knowledge that there is something beyond this earth. Government is coercion and dependence. Ultimately it’s semantics – what is ‘this’ that we’re in together? If it’s government, then I answer no. If it’s individuals choosing voluntarily to act collectively toward a common, shared goal, then yes, I’m all in.
* (the recent controversies over policy debate rules.) I ran into that link a couple weeks before you sent this note. Ask me for my thoughts on it when I see you in person. There aren’t enough curse words in the English language to describe the monumental level of asininity going on here. Perhaps the next time I’m asked to deliver on an MBO, I’ll just say that I think MBOs are an artificial construct created by corporate masters to ensure bonuses don’t get paid out equitably, and thus, I’ll be measured and paid against how often I show up to work. Because that would fly…
Until next time. . .