Saturday, December 13, 2008

The Demonization-Strawman Fallacy

The worst feature of partisan politics is a form of strawman argument encouraged by demonization. Its general form is as follows: our opponents wish to impose their policies upon us for nefarious ends. Their primary motivation is greed, treachery, moral turpitude, sloth, or a simple desire for power. Because of these motivations (which are quite obviously evil) our opponents must be stopped at all costs.

There are several components to this fallacy. The root is demonization, the opinion that the opposition is evil. This is a fallacy in and of itself without solid proof of deliberate malfeasance (unambiguous criminal action.) But it also rests upon a broad claim of priveleged insight into the psychology of the enemy; the claimant is in fact asserting a telepathic mastery over the inner life of his opponent. Yet no one may claim such a mastery, so this too is false. So far, we have two fallacies: the claim of evil intent without proof, and the psychologistic claim of telepathic omniscience; in large part the detritus of a hundred years of Freudian nonsense.

The result of these fallacies is a third fallacy of the strawman form; those arguing for a position state the contrary position in its weakest form, which bears little or no resemblance to their opponents' actual arguments. The effect of this fallacy depends on the current beliefs of the viewer. Those already amongst the converted feel vindicated, and now believe that their opponents are not only wrong, but evil, which means that they cannot be bargained with, only crushed. This attitude encourages vitriol and violence. Opponents, on the other hand, will be affronted by the stupidity of the pundit, who appears to be incapable of grasping even the simplest of arguments. They will consider their opponents to be fools at best, bald faced liars at worst--and if they are the latter, then it is they who are evil. Such a split is almost impossible to heal, because both sides now think the worst of the other.

To see this in action, consider two examples, one from the right, and the other from the left. Supporters of the Iraq war on the right argued that those opposed to the war were soft on terrorism, traitors, and collaborators with enemies of the West. A few of these opponents did fit this description, and there was no shortage of Islamicists willing to jump on this bandwagon in order to generate sympathy for their cause. But many regarded Iraq as a distraction from the real problem which would make it worse, and were wary of the very opportunities it presented for Jihadist propaganda. Iraq diverted resources and attention from Afghanistan, where there was no doubt of a terrorist presence, and while there was little question that America could win the war in Iraq, no effort had been paid to winning the peace. Iraq might still end up as an extremist theocracy, the sister state of Iran. Hardly a word of this ever reached the ears of viewers of Fox news.

The other example is Naomi Klein's The Shock Doctrine. The thesis of this book is that free market fundamentalists, followers of Milton Friedman, exploited or even created disasters to impose their own economic doctrine upon helpless peoples. Never does it seem to occur to Klein that Friedman and his associates earnestly believed that these policies were the best chance for these people to recover, and that they believed they were doing them a genuine kindness. Nor was this belief without merit; globalization has indeed enhanced the average standard of living throughout the world, discouraged war, and enriched, overall, even the poorest. It simply never occurred to Friedman and company that their economic ideology might have some serious limitations. Klein does not address these limitations (other economists were left to do that work): Friedman's theories are based upon the mythical Homo Economicus, a human being who is all wise and all knowing. But Homo Economicus does not exist. Homo Sapiens, on the other hand, employ heuristic modes of reasoning which are prone to systematic errors, often leading us to make decisions which are irresponsible and very much against our own best interests, creating bubbles and busts and leading to irrational expenditures and debts and all manner of self-destructive behaviours. We don't even know how to prevent much of this, but neither does the free market. Friedman et al simply did not consider what might happen if their theory was wrong. They really did believe it, and believing it, thought that what they were doing was the right thing. There was no nefarious intent on the part of Friedman and the Chicago school.

Nor did the fiscal libertarians ever equate what they proposed with any form of totalitarian rule. How could they, when the whole point was to provide individuals with "The Freedom to Choose." Never did it occur to them that by sweeping aside large swaths of rules and regulations created over generations by democratically elected governments, they might in fact be imposing an undemocratic order. They were caught in their own frame of language, which emphasized the benefits and concealed the dangers.

The ideas of the Chicago school, of course, did lead to a great deal of ruthless exploitation by people who saw an opportunity to take advantage of a chaotic situation to make a quick buck. It created moral hazards. But Friedman had no such intention, and might now be as stunned and perplexed as former Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan, who was caught like a deer in the headlights by the economic collapse. We now find ourselves in a place which was simply not on their map--and since it is not on their map, they have no idea of how to get anywhere from here.

Yet by demonizing the leaders of the Chicago school, their opponents surrender the chance to debunk their theories in their strongest form, which means that followers of the Chicago school will go unconvinced, and will never be forced to address the real weaknesses of their ideas. This amounts, very nearly, to having no opposition at all; Klein's audience is hermetically sealed, and will grow or shrink with the vicissitude of fashion. In five or ten years her arguments may come to sound horribly dated and naive. By going for the emotional jugular she has missed the heart, and the beast lurches on. This is the real weakness with the demonization-strawman fallacy; it is almost completely ineffectual, even against positions which foster genuine evil.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Conspicuous Exceptionalism

There is a particular rhetorical maneuver which I have encountered on numerous occasions amongst promoters of new age nonsense, pseudo science, conspiracy theories, and religious, political or metaphysical doctrines. This fallacy consist of calling into doubt for the sake of argument a principle which the person accepts constantly in all other considerations and actions. Such a principle is fundamental to their very existence, relied upon not only day to day, but moment to moment, without which their life would not only be unlivable, but incomprehensible. I call this rhetorical dodge conspicuous exceptionalism.

Take, for example, the principle of empiricism; the idea that knowledge arises from experience. There is no commonplace action or consideration which does not take into account facts about the world. Simply to walk across the room requires that you observe and avoid the furniture in it, the shape and size of the room, and the location that you wish to go to. All of these are empirical facts. You cannot even form an argument without reference to the world, and this too is based upon the assumption of the principle of empiricism. Another is the validity of reason, our ability to draw conclusions by logical inference from facts already known. Again, you cannot even begin to make an argument without employing reason, and the very attempt implies an acceptance of the principle. To these I would add the existence of the world, the existence of other people, the assumption that others are conscious, and so on.

Any argument can be summarily dismissed which relies upon calling into question a principle which the arguer must, and does, employ on a constant basis; the person advancing the argument has already given full recognition of and consent to these principles simply by being present in the discussion.

Conspicuous exceptionalism is often used in the epistemological maneuver of radical skepticism, sometimes called the nuclear option because it attempts to destroy the very foundations of knowledge and therefore the basis of all debate. Radical skepticism is an act of wild desperation on the part of the person advancing it, who knows that their case is lost unless the debate is brought to a halt. Radical skepticism is used as means of stopping the opposing argument, after which it is relaxed to slip in the arguers case. As with any form of conspicuous exceptionalism, radical skepticism is never a serious position, merely a temporary refuge from opposing points of view.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Who Shall Rule vs. How Shall We Rule

In discussions with my friend Pat, one item of distinction between conservatives vs liberals is that conservatives tend to think that the most important question in government is who shall rule, while liberals ask how those in power should be allowed to rule. This especially applies to the American system: republicans believe that the appointed government should have the power to do what is needed, while liberals address the mechanisms of government, so that the systems in place will prevent even the worst people from doing much damage. The republicans believe in laissez faire, while the democrats are in favour of regulation.

If the question is who shall rule, then if the right people are in power, all restraints should be loosened and they should be given the power to do what must be done. This runs both for and against libertarianism, because sometimes those in power are private interests, and sometimes they are in government. The epitome of this ethic is the Bush administration, where the government claimed extraordinary powers, while at the same time providing carte blanche to financial leaders to do as they pleased.

The results are catastrophic.

Social, political, and economic systems are artificial intelligences. They are not human, have no human concerns, and have no qualms about maiming, killing, or debasing their human participants. They have no ethical intelligence. They follow the dictates of their own internal logic. A man who takes money from investors, collects through force or guile a cadre of young girls to be sold as sex slaves, and thereby returns to his investors a great profit, is a good capitalist. He is not a good man, but the market does not concern itself with this. This is not to say that capitalists are evil, or that the capitalist system is evil. Rather, the capitalist system does not, in and of itself, have any regard for ethical concerns. It is merely an instrument, a machine that can be used for good or ill, and so too are religions, political organizations, corporations, media, or other systems of mass persuasion. These are all artificial intelligences, with human participants but with no soul of their own. These are tools, not ends in themselves, and they will act according to their own internal logic regardless of the effects of that logic upon actual human beings. We must not expect such blind processes to deliver, in and of themselves, ethical goods. A conscious and scrupulous human hand in needed to bring their effects to good ends.

Furthermore, these systems have the power to shape human beings to their own goals, if their human participants come to see the system itself as having some moral imperative. This belief is a product of the naturalistic fallacy; these processes appear to predate contemporary efforts at regulation and so seem to be the natural order of things. This appearance is in part due to inborn tendencies in human beings, but is also due to the existence of long tradition, and any tradition can seem long if its participants have not bothered to learn any history. Any direct intervention to change these practices is therefore seen as unnatural. The naturalistic fallacy, simply phrased, is that what is natural is good and right. But it is human nature, practice, and history, that we challenge the natural and change it to suit us; nor is the natural good. It is natural that we should die before we reach the age of 40--because that is what happens in a state of nature. Are we content with this? Of course not--we thwart nature at every turn, when natural processes threaten our dearest hopes. It is natural that in primitive societies the people murder each other at astonishing rates. Is this good?

In the case of religion, God becomes the author of the natural, and tradition seals the validity of the status quo. Amongst those ignorant of history and the history of theology, the latest whims of the local pastor become eternal tradition. Yesterday's heresies becomes today's orthodoxies, and the line between cult and religion is erased. So too with economics; free market advocates might be stunned to discover that the system that they champion has only existed in its current form for a decade or two, and that the defenders of the free market that they cite from bygone centuries intended nothing like the current situation. Political ideologues reinvent their ideologies on an almost daily basis, and partisan pundits change their views with the rapidity of the Orwell's rabid mobs in Nineteen Eighty-Four, forgetting the past with the blink of an eye. The enemy is Eurasia. The enemy has always been Eurasia.

Returning to system as moral imperative, this assumption paves the way to serving the machine. Too many of the left see deliberate malevolence when all they are really dealing with is unquestioning accommodation. This too will create true evil in the long run; consider Eichmann. But the mischief is hidden till the bubble bursts, the plane crashes, the bridge collapses, the levee breaks. Layers of abstraction hide the true costs. We have brokers selling financial products that no one understands, and so they cannot see the consequences of their own actions. Adult supervision is required. One should not assume that the people in power know what they are doing; someone must have the job of figuring out what they are doing, and deciding whether it shall be allowed or not. That is what a government is for.

Americans and Canadians hold an estimated wealth of three quarters of a million dollars of intangible wealth per capita--even the poorest of us. Nearly all of this is in the form of trust, and this trust is directed towards or maintained by our governments. We have regulations that safeguard our food, clothing, housing, transport, industry, environment, banks (though, apparently, not in the U.S.), and in Canada, health care. We have trustworthy courts and police, extensive systems of roads, water, electricity, fire departments, welfare, and the popular welfare alternative, prison, which costs four times as much--and yet, a lot of people who rather pay for that than welfare. On any given day I would guess that the average person makes a thousand unconscious decisions which assume the competent action of government, and yet, like a fish who is always wet and thinks that it does not need water, many now believe that government is largely unnecessary. If you really think that the government that governs best governs the least, move to Somalia. The lesson will be short, brutal, fatal--and unequivocal.

But democratic government is not a system of unilateral imposition. In the early years of the Bush administration, and today in the Harper government, those in power hold the misguided opinion that gaining political office is the end of all debates, and that no further compromise is required. This has led Bush to ignore all detractors and to act in a purely partisan manner with his power for veto. Harper, having lost the confidence of the house twice in three months, calls this a coup, grossly misrepresenting the parliamentary system of government. The fallout for Bush was the decimation of the Republican Party; Harper now faces not only the possibility of an opposition coalition, but a knife in the back from his own party. The central principle of democracy is peer review, bringing into play a partial gridlock of various government branches and of opposing parties. Just as in scientific research and in the math tests we all took in school, you have to show your work so that other people can check it. Politicians who can't do this will get a failing grade. This is the real meaning of governing the least. No government can do everything it wants, but hopefully, after the checks and balances have been done, it will do what needs to be done.

Without an insertion of human values through government regulations, no system will produce the results we want. In the early 20th Century, the most successful and prolific serial killers in history thrived in the patent medicine business, poisoning customers and discouraging legitimate medical consultation amongst a vast clientele, with the result that tens of thousands died. The free market system did nothing to prevent this; dissatisfied customers may discourage others from buying your product, but dead men tell no tales. Without regulations to prevent certain kinds of ruthless profit seeking behaviour, the free market system poses moral hazards which will draw people into them, and these people will not just be ruthless sociopaths, but the Eichmanns among us, those of weak character who lack the capacity for ethical reflection needed to avoid such traps. The wild and unrestrained methods of financial institutions permitted financial managers to compete in a race to the bottom. It would be just deserts to visit a plague on all their houses and let all the banks crash and burn, but the money they have been gambling with is ours, and it will be our money that will be lost. The greatest irony is that the final product of all this freewheeling speculation will be that the government will hold the reins of these institutions, and that the very people let loose to do as they pleased will now have the government as their boss. I'm not certain that this is the solution either. Rather, this is the dog breaking its neck after being allowed to run on too long a leash.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

That Kind of Person: The Genetic Fallacy

I have observed a recurrent pattern in partisan politics; the trope that "that kind of person" holds a certain opinion, and therefore that opinion is without merit. This is called the Genetic Fallacy. As an example, Adolf Hitler believed that smoking was bad for you. Does this mean that smoking is good for you?

Of course not. Even a stopped clock is right twice a day. But beyond the obvious fallacy, there is something even more insidious going on here: stereotyping and demonization. For an example of the first, lets take Stuff White People Like. It should be just a joke, but some take it seriously as a list of things that "that kind of person" like. I have news for them. At least half of these things are liked by people who are not at all the people you might expect them to be. If you assume they are bleeding heart liberals, some of them might surprise you by getting offended if you call them that. I know a few people who are "to the right of God" who like more than half the things on that list--but the list is supposed to be a litany of liberal values. This is another kind of fallacy: the Strawman fallacy. Never mind who people are, let's create a fantasy and attack that.

Guess what: people don't come in brands. They aren't stamped out on a cookie press with labels on them. Everyone is a mixed bag. Some of the people I really like and spend a lot of time with hold opinions that I abhor, and I still like them. Mostly, what I find is that they haven't really considered them that much, because these are issues that don't really concern them, and for the most part, I don't challenge them on it unless they invite the challenge. They take the most common opinion on the matter offered to them, whether it be their parents or their parish or their friends, and that's that. And its all wildly divergent, like the company they keep. I do, however, have an issue with those who presume to inform them without any qualifications. I'm really not big on demagogues, cult leaders, con-artists, pseudo-scientists, and pseudo-intellectuals. Those people are just begging to be challenged, and I'm happy to oblige. Fortunately, they do come with labels attached; usually, towering neon signs, with newspaper ads weeks in advance.

Now to my second point: stereotyping invites demonization. If you have a bunch of boxes prepared for the rest of humanity, with a mindlessly facile means of categorizing them, then you will go through life dropping people in boxes. He's one of those (hate them.) She's one of these (hate them.) Not really a good way to approach the world, is it? Hatred closes the door to understanding. You will never know whether you might like these people. More to the point, you will never really understand what it is they really think, or why they think it; strawman arguments prevent you from meeting the real argument, which means that you will never have any hope of convincing someone from the other side, because you are arguing with a fictional character of your own creation. And frankly, it's a good idea if you approach people as someone you might like if you had the time, even if you don't have the time. It makes simple human courtesy a lot easier than just hating them on the basis of their choice of cheese, just because some brainless drooling pundit said that that kind of person likes that cheese.

Worst of all, thinking of people as "that kind of person" makes you "that kind of person."

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

The Defector Problem

Pursuant upon my last post, I return the problem of defectors. Jonathan Haidt has once again returned to his theme of the moral criteria of tribe/purity/respect. Again, it does not occur to Haidt that these impulses should not be labeled moral motivations at all, but prejudices, and that academics do not reject them because academics are liberals, but because they have such a scandalous history. Consider this formulation of these same values: Ein Reich (tribe); Ein Volk (purity); Ein Fuhrer (respect). These do not deserve to be placed upon the same footing as justice and caring, and do not command the same respect simply because they have done nothing to earn it.

The responses are varied, many of which seem to miss the point entirely. Sam Harris's response was the closest to the mark. Michael Shermer's is very interesting, in that Shermer does not seem to realize that he has repudiated Haidt's main thesis, that conservative values are communitarian rather than individualistic values. Shermer is an extreme Libertarian (big L), which is a profoundly individualistic political position, and yet he defends the Republicans with this in mind. This illustrates one of the deepest divides in the republican party--they embrace both the religious right (which supposedly embraces communitarian values, though this may not actually be the case) and the libertarians, who are almost diametrically opposed to them.

Haidt seems unaware of this. Furthermore, he seems oblivious to these values on the left. In the vaccination scare, certain elements of the environmentalist movement, in the organic foods movement, and in the entire ideology of political correctness, there is an overwhelming emphasis on purity, so much so that when I first encountered the politically correct at university I called them The New Puritans. I won't go into depth about the ingroup/outgroup dynamic between the old and new left, or upon the reliance upon authority rather than evidence typified by the post-modernists--this would take more time than I have. When these emotional motivations do raise their head, pundits on the right attack them mercilessly, to which criticism I must, reluctantly, concede. Not only do I find these values on the left, I often find that they predominate to the point of embarrassment, and so I find Haidt's claims rather startling--how could he have missed something so blatantly obvious, and why didn't Shermer realize that he was refuting Haidt's central thesis?

Scott Atran's response was more to the point, but misses something alarming about religion. Yes, religion does encourage social solidarity, but at a cost. At a grassroots level, religion encourages cooperation and action as an interest group. And it does, at a grassroots level, discourage defection. But pay attention to what happens at the level of leadership. Consider the founders of three modern religions: Mormonism, Scientology, and the Unification Church.

They were all con men.

Joseph Smith had been imprisoned on charges of fraud before hitting upon the scheme of the golden tablets which purportedly contained the Book of Mormon. His earliest converts left him in disgust, having been swindled of most of their funds, and finally, Smith was lynched by a Christian mob who had had enough of his efforts to twist their religion to his own benefit. Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard started his religion on a bet and lived a life of vindictive paranoia, culminating in the "Sea Org", a floating ministry made necessary by criminal investigations in several countries. The Unification Church, founded by Sun Myung Moon, was primarily built around Chinese brainwashing techniques he encountered during the Korean War. Employing these techniques upon first world baby boomers, Moon built a large financial empire upon slave labour. The theology (as with Mormonism and Scientology) is a hallucinagenic montage of various elements which places Moon as Jesus' Superior.

The story of Mohammad had many parallels to that of Smith; his revelations seemed to conveniently coincide with his own desires, allowing him to marry any woman he had a hankering for, to wage war against anyone who disagreed with him, and to keep the lion's share of the spoils of those wars. When I first came across his story, decades ago while I was still a religious believer, he struck me as an obvious fraud. Nothing I have encountered since has changed my mind, and much has confirmed that opinion.

Let's leave aside the hordes of cult leaders (although it is an open question as to what distinguishes a cult from a religion, beyond the fact that religions outlive their founders), but let us pay attention to what is happening at the top of the religions, amongst the leaders. We have pedophile priests, terrorist demagogues, crooked televangelists, and closeted homosexuals campaigning against gay rights (what, was there no one in Haggard's congregation with gaydar?) All are defectors--and these defectors are at the top of the hierarchy. But for defectors, you must stand in awe of Karl Rove, a man who in public said that he was not fortunate enough to believe, and in private called the religious right "the crazies'. And yet this man commanded the position of at least a bishop, if not a pope, invoking God through targeted campaigns to motivate people en masse to political action. The Religious Right in America--that 15 to 30 percent who support Sarah Palin--is still called "Karl Rove's base".

To understand how this can be, consider this; what kind of person could claim, against all opposition, that they are the chosen of the Creator of the Universe, effectively the most important person in all that creation, and that they know with absolute certainty the infinite mind of that Creator? The arrogance of this claim, the sheer cock sureness, beggars imagination. Even the most manic episode will eventually come to an end, and then the claimant will slink off to the shadows. The only type of personality that could sustain such an imposture is that of a thoroughly unrepentant sociopath--the ultimate defector. The founder of a religion might possibly be a man or woman of great faith, but it is far more likely that they will be a consummate confidence trickster. And the historical record suggests that this is exactly the case. Indeed, the Bible is littered with warnings about false prophets. The problem has apparently been so ubiquitous, and so long present, that it was recognized even in ancient times.

This is what Atran and Haidt miss. Religion is a political tool, morally neutral in and of itself. It can be used for good or ill. At the grassroots level it is a community of mutual support; but thanks to the credulity it encourages amongst its adherents, religion is the ideal tool of the professional defector, permitting him to turn his followers into a political bloc, a cheap labour force, or an army. It is simply too easy to hack. The aura of righteousness that surrounds the leader blinds followers to the possibility of deceit.

The motive and mechanic is easy to understand--critical thinking is expensive, in both an economic and evolutionary sense. Consider lawyers; lawyers are hired skeptics. A good lawyer will scrutinize in exacting detail the terms of an agreement, looking for loopholes through which the other party could defraud the lawyer's client. But lawyers are expensive, and so too is the entire enterprise of skepticism. Imagine how much more efficient every transaction would be if both parties could be certain that trust was justified. And that is precisely what religion attempts; mere membership in the sect is supposed to be enough to certify good faith. Yet such an arrangement draws predators like flies to manure. A group of people who will not question my motives? Where do I sign on! The desire to arrange things so that trust is a given is not foolish; it is a rational arrangement worthy of that great fictional construct, homo economicus, the purely rational, self-interested actor, so popular amongst economists. If such an arrangement could truly be made, the benefits would be staggering. But any such arrangement will be sought out and exploited by the the most ruthless of predators. The price of freedom remains, forever, eternal vigilance.

Where such arrangements persist, they will begin to take on the characteristics specified by those predators. On occasions where I find myself reading Catholic apologists (as in First Things) I am repeatedly appalled by their hatred of the world and everything--and everyone--in it. There is an unmistakeably ripe smell of decay. Joy, beauty, friendship, comfort, and peace are all to be despised. These Catholic writers create a prison with walls of despair, a world of brambles and darkness, whose only light is the dim light of the Church. It is an orgy of nihilism that would make even Nietzsche blanch. There is nothing in life, and no escape, for suicide too is a mortal sin. All that is left is the afterlife. And what could be more useful to their clerical masters, for it is the church who claims the keys to heaven, the only good worth having. In pursuit of this good all other values are surfeit, to be surrendered up to the Church and its masters for their enjoyment. Thus, Opus Dei, the cult within a sect within a church, an organization which taps potentially wealthy professionals and turns them into cash cows. And so, we are told, by a Pope who arranged the clemency of child molesters and their protectors, that we need to trust the Church and obey its dictates. I left the Catholic Church amiably, thinking it the best of bad lot. But I find it too sullied by the hands of the worst of humanity to think this anymore.

The use of religion as a morally neutral political tool goes a long way to explaining how Christianity has been derailed from being a faith primarily about charity and mercy to being a religous movement almost exclusively focused upon sex, referenced by the code phrase "family values". The preoccupation with sex is expressed in the obsession with homosexuality, reproduction and reproductive rights, sex education, prurient obsessions with nudity, and women's rights (or the denial thereof.) There is remarkably little in the four gospels related to sex, but you wouldn't know it from the speeches of the evangelists. Add to this the resistance to evolution, and you have a religion obsessed with distracting trivialities, whose hollow core can now be filled with whatever its masters claim to be Christian values. The greatest threat to the world's religions is not the new atheists, but this gradual erosion of the spiritual and social aspect in favour of pure power politics; they stand to win the world but lose their souls, Nor does this side show or trivialities do anything to actually affect behavior; the most religious areas of America still have the highest rates of teenage pregnancy, divorce, and children born of single mothers. A supernatural moral arbiter and conductor of mortal affairs can be petitioned and bribed; it doesn't matter what you do on Saturday night as long as you can pray for forgiveness on Sunday morning. For the secular there is no escape clause. Reality offers no such buffer between action and consequence. Whatever their stated intentions, the methods of religious leaders do not work.

The best analogy I can think of is the One Ring of Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. Each community bound by blind faith offers a means that can rule them all, that can be used to draw them all together and bind them to the darkness of ignorance. Religion is, of course, not alone in creating such a trap; political ideologies have proven their ability to do the same thing. The trick seems consist of promising a simple explanation for everything, a Utopian vision whereby, once we have dispensed with the evil of X, we shall all benefit from the ascendance of Y, leading us to the promised land. It is always a lie. It is never that simple. Religious believers and political ideologues alike must be made aware of the power they are handing over to the worst people possible. The Ring must be destroyed.

Monday, September 01, 2008

The Hard Problem

The main challenge of human society and politics is, in terms of game theory, the problem of defection. That is, how do you prevent free riders, thieves, bandits, and thugs? How do you ensure that those who are able contribute at least as much as they take, if not more? For surely, we do not begrudge the costs of supporting the unfit, those who are, by accident or by birth, incapable of carrying their weight. It is the mark of civilization that we find in the fossil record the presence of people who would not have lived without the care and support of others. To consign those who are unable through no fault of their own to destitution and death is to embrace barbarism.

Those who refuse to contribute by choice are another matter. Ayn Rand foolishly claimed that there can be no conflict of interest between rational actors, but if there is a good chance of escaping detection and of getting away with it, isn't defection a rational act? Isn't it perfectly rational for me to steal from you, if I think I can get away with it? Our disgust with cheaters is emotional, and in some circles, this disgust is barely present--if someone is clever enough to rob others blind and get away with it, there are people who will applaud his actions and even emulate them. I have no use for this sentiment, but the fact that some do demonstrates that our distaste for it is not entirely rational. It is a sentiment born of empathy, the basis for ethics.

In my recent ruminations on libertarianism, I have been struck by the fact that it is the new opiate of the intellectuals, a status formerly occupied by communism. So what is it, then, that communism and libertarianism--indeed, all the isms, including the religions, have in common that makes them attractive? What makes them all appear to be the ideal solution to all of society's problems?

The answer, I now believe, is that they ignore the hard problem of defection. A hard problem is not merely technically hard, to be solved by the application of current knowledge; it is theoretically hard, meaning that we don't even have the theoretical framework to address it. But the hard problem of defection is viewed by ideologies as a temporary and unnatural condition imposed by some social or political blight--call it X; once X is removed, through the mechanism or intervention of Y (the One True Way) the natural balance will be restored and the new utopia will result. X can be evil spirits, civilization, industry, marketing, atheism, secularism, capitalism, government, liberalism, conservatism, etc. Y can be any religion, communism, history, naturalism, spiritualism, environmentalism, libertarianism, central planning, anarchism, the market, etc.

Inherent in this view of the world is the idea of the noble savage, the marvelous creature that we would be if only we could conquer the worm that has turned us, the malevolent force that has corrupted us and defiled our true nature, But the truth is that we in the West live in a condition of unprecendented peace, prosperity, order, competence, and freedom. There was no golden age. The historical record has progress written all over it, and so far, so good. This is not to say that we have it all right, but we have it better than any of our ancestors. The fact is that we are it; we are what everyone, past and present, want to be. We have what they want and wanted. The average middle class westerner enjoys a standard of living, freedom, culture (if they so desire) and health that the kings of a century or more ago could only have prayed for.

The premise of the noble savage is nonsense, and the avoidance of the hard problem is nonsense on stilts. Implicit in the myth of the noble savage is the myth of Utopia, that magical world which we would achieve if only we defeated the unnatural circumstances which prevent us from reverting to our natural state. Ideologies sweep the hard problem under the carpet. Communists thought that if they got rid of capitalism, everyone would simply enthusiastically work for the common good. We all know how that worked out. Libertarians think that if they get rid of government restraints, everyone will suddenly be possessed of a sterling character. Do we really need to go down this road again? For once, can we not just take the lesson as a given and move on?

Ideology, and its bastard child partisanship, are of absolutely no use to addressing the hard problem. In fact, they are an impediment. Consider this conundrum: a government agency makes a mistake. The opposition party plays up this mistake to the press, blaming it upon the governing party. The press takes up the cause, and at length the governing party appoints an investigative committee. The committee performs its enquiry and makes recommendations, which almost invariably include a regulative body to ensure that such mistakes are not made in the future. The committee, and the new regulative body, are additional layers of bureaucracy. In Canada, the Gomery inquiry into the sponsorship scandal cost far more than the original scandal. The inquiry was demanded by the Conservatives, the same party who initiated the sponsorship program, and who spent most of the money. But when Gomery made his recommendations, the same party folded them into paper airplanes and tossed them out the window. And this was the party supposedly in favor of fiscal responsibility. But it could have gone the other way, with the positions of the parties reversed. Partisanship costs us a fortune.

There is no theoretical or ideological solution to the hard problem of defection. Religion specializes, not in spirituality, but in communitarian solidarity and conformity. I recently heard an interview on the CBC with a man who stated that people who go to churches do so not to seek spirituality, but to avoid it; those who go to church have far fewer spiritual experiences than those who don't. But you would think that community would solve the problem of defection. It doesn't. If it did, there were be no priestly pedophiles. Religious authority provides the ideal cover for the defector; if there is an interventionist God, he certainly would not allow such and egregious abuse of power in his name. But there is no such God, and the belief that he will intervene to prevent such offenses provides superb cover for those intending to commit them. The history of Christianity is a story of the abuse of power, and splinter groups formed to avoid such abuses only to be infected themselves. Islam is riddled with similar blights, but far worse. And because religions are mutually antagonistic, they disrupt attempts at cooperation across religious lines. Religion does not work.

The problem runs far deeper. The solution to it is something called Intangible Wealth--a happy coincidence of faith in government and judicial systems, police, and other people--a conviction that one's society is a meritocracy that will recognize and reward effort and excellence, and will not silence the truth, no matter how uncomfortable. This, in a nutshell, is the American Dream--though not necessarily the American reality. Freedom works. My argument with libertarianism is not with that; freedom is strength, knowledge is power, trade is peace. My argument with libertarianism is that it is too simplistic. Hard core Libertarians are anarchist loons, and it is worth remembering that anarchism is a primitive state of social organization to which, by comparison, feudalism is considered a significant advance. Capitalism exists through a steady partnership with government. Intangible Wealth is, in large part, a trust in the system of government. Doctrinaire Libertarianism is a part of the problem, not a part of the solution.

I find survivalists an endless source of mirth. These are people poised to bolt at the first sign of trouble, defectors in waiting. Yet there are perhaps ten thousand people in Canada who know how to survive and forage in the wilderness. That is extraordinary percentage for any population. Most survivalists will have their bones discovered in the mud fifty or a hundred years later. The proper response, in any time of crisis is to go to a densely populated area and say "Hi, I'm here to help. What can I do?" Fortunately, this is precisely what most people will do. Crises pull people together--the cowardly thoughtless sheeple who populate disaster movies and episodes of 24 are revealed for the lie they are by the thousands of feats of civilian heroism on 9/11. On that day it was the civilians who demonstrated their mettle, while the officials were notably absent. Civilization will not collapse--and there is no survival without it anyway. Civilization is precisely a system of solutions to the task of keeping large numbers of human beings alive. Isolation from society, for the vast majority of human beings, is death.

And therein lies the hope; most people are actually good. The problem with ideologies is not so much that they make good people bad, but that they can make bad people and evil acts appear to be good. They jam our moral compass. Fortunately, most people interpret them according to their own mores, but that still leaves room for the demagogues, who attempt to enforce one-size-fits-all solutions to extremely hard and complex problems.

It's never that simple.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

In Defense of Reason

Recently New Scientist had a series of articles talking about the limitations of reason. They run from the hackneyed (Rowan Williams talking about how reason doesn't a basis for morality) to neuroscience (consciousness lags behind actual decision making) to the cliched--reason doesn't explain aesthetics, doesn't account for "other ways of knowing", etc.

Consciously used reason is like riding a bicycle with the training wheels--it's what you do till you get the knack. But practice makes perfect, and the way you practice making proper judgements is to apply reason to your decisions. The denigration of reason is like expecting you to play a sport perfectly without ever having practiced. I'm sure that the first time that Tiger Woods swung a golf club, he missed the ball, or knocked it off to the side. Even a natural needs practice. We practice thinking by using reason, by analyzing the roots of our decisions, ferreting out the unexamined and erroneous factors, and replacing these with sound principles. By doing so, we eventually learn to do it "without thinking"--but a lot of thought goes into this end result.

The best analogy I can think of is from programming. When you begin writing a program, you first debug by eye, examining the logic manually to look for errors. The next step is compiling, where the compiler picks out syntax errors, which you must then correct. Yet even then, you run the program in debug mode; the code is festooned with symbols and error checking, which makes it slow, but which allows you to trace the logic and find the errors in your code. Only when it passes all these tests, and functions perfectly, do you compile a release build. The release build is optimized for speed and size, but it is incomprehensible, without symbols or the ability to trace the logic properly. It is unconscious code, no longer available for examination. Reason is the error checker. Once you've debugged your thinking, you can stop thinking about it--you reach your conclusions unconsciously.

While it may be true that reason alone will not lead to a complete system of ethics of aesthetics, it is also certain that the negligence of reason will result in a compacted version of both. It was only when the ideas of the enlightenment encountered the impulse of empathy that slavery and sexism were recognized as untenable and unethical. Or perhaps Rowan Williams would like to return to the primitive ethics of the ancient era, or those of the stone age, when murder was the leading cause of death. This was the product of ethics unleavended by reason. And reason may not be sufficient, in and of itself, for aesthetics, but it was responsible for the science of perspective which resulted in the artistic explosion of the renaissance, and for the ideas which have dominated every school of art from that point forward. I do not hear the anti-rationalists praising the skills of cave painters as the ultimate achievement of the arts. But if you want art without reason, that is what remains.

What I see in the denigration of reason is a culture of mediocrity, and ready-made excuse not to think or strive. I am reminded of the purile sentiments of the Star Wars movies: "Stretch forth with your feelings, use the force." Apparently heeding his own advice, George Lucas achieved new levels of mediocrity in big budget productions, assaulting his fans with wooden characters and dialogue desparately in need of some critical correction. Reason is critical, in both senses of the word--important, and corrosive when applied to nonsense.

But like knowledge, a little reason is a dangerous thing--the problem being not reason itself, but reason that stops and roots itself on what, in a search algorithm, we would refer to as "local minima"; this is a problem encountered when the search is too narrow. In pathing, the AI will get stuck in a dead end. Such a solution appears perfect only because too little critical thinking is applied to it.

I have been compiling a list of over 40 motivations for religious belief. Amongst these is the illusion of certainty, the conviction that you have a simple explanation for everything. I think this one lands in the top five, and it explains not only religions, but all the 'isms', those one-size-fits-all solutions to all the world's problems. None of these work. The influences upon the mind of a single human being include genetics, physical development, childhood and educational influences, culture, fashion, information or the lack thereof, physical states, emotional states, community membership and peer influence, self-interest, fear, and unexamined assumptions--and I'm sure I haven't caught everything here. When considering an entire society, you raise the level of complexity exponentially. No simple algorithm could encompass all that.

And still, even people who pride themselves on being rational fall for such simple-minded transcendalizations. Marxism used to be the opiate of the intellectuals; the flavour of the day is Libertarianism. There is nothing wrong with charity or freedom, just as there is nothing wrong with intuition, love, beauty, or even reason itself. The problem arises when you take any single principle and raise it to the level where you believe nothing else is required.

All have their place, just as reason has its place. But now we seem to be treated to a procession of people who would like to claim that reason isn't needed at all, or that it has done nothing for us. Of course, the argument is inherently contradictory, as you need reason to argue against reason. And invariably, when denigrating reason, there is something else that the critic would like to put in its place--usually faith, or some other, vaguely specified "way of knowing." But none of these ways of knowing actually produce knowledge, and all of them, if one examines them carefully, require the use of reason to train them and clarify them. Without reason, none of them would amount to much.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Flirting with Anarchy

Why does America have the highest rate of crime in the Western world, despite the highest incarceration rates, and extraordinary wealth? The explanation of poverty does not hold water--there are many poor countries where the poorest have little involvement in crime (this title goes to the middle class). Race and poverty do play a part, but not in the way that we expect. For underlying the argument that race and poverty are the causes of crime is the assumption, and indeed, the justification, of the idea that the downtrodden have the right to take justice into their own hands. It is believed that the disadvantaged have the right, even the responsibility, to 'fight the power.'

This is not simply an outgrowth of the ill-fated revolutionary movements of the sixties. The ideology of those movements followed a common stream of American thought laid down as early the second amendment, the right to bear arms. Those arms were aimed at foreign invaders, but they were also aimed--and more often, as time went on--at the gub'mint. For among the entrenched principles of individual action so esteemed in the American experiment, was the esteem of lone justice, the strong man with a gun and two fists who brought justice to his community, whether he was a lawman or not.

The lone bringer of justice enforced justice as he saw it, not the justice detailed by laws and governments. He did what needed to be done, whether it was legal or not. American settlers in the west moved into a vacuum; the people outraced the government. In Canada, settlers arrived to find the RCMP already in place. The RCMP has had a checkered career since: the brutality of the strikes during the 30's, thuggish behavior and intimidation during the 70's. But the establishment of official lawmen before settlement set a precedent and a mode of conduct. You didn't fight the power, you partook in it, through democratic and economic participation. Whatever followed, those early mounties did us proud, establishing global precedents of detective work and negotiation.

But in America, the love of lone justice has inspired a problem. If justice is left to the individual, if one person can be judge, jury, and executioner, then how do you ensure that that person is qualified? The answer is that you can't, and that means that all manner of imbeciles will arrogate to themselves the right to impose their own manner of justice by force. The result is not just the likes of Timothy McVeigh, but an endless procession of underclass losers who have decided that the world has done them wrong, and they are going to get their own back. It is no accident that so many American criminals are of the lowest tier of intelligence; these are the very people who are prone to assuming that their failures are the fault of the 'system', and taking violent action to address this perceived injustice. The old left's insistence that this is the case only makes this worse; it shifts the burden of responsibility onto external entities, rather than upon poor choices. This is sometimes true, as in the case of people who have invested for their retirement and find their saving wiped out by the rapacious manuverings of stock brokers. But for those who do nothing, save nothing, or waste their money on get-rich-quick schemes, the temptation to blame it all on anyone but themselves is very strong, and they have a readymade ideology that encourages them to do just that.

So the gap between the far right militias and the ghetto gangs is not so far distant. Both are united in the belief that if you want justice, you have to impose it yourself. This belief not only encourages violence, it undermines faith in the democratic process. This is the dark underbelly of libertarianism; the government cannot be trusted to do anything. You have to do it yourself. And yet, this includes violence, and the government monopoly on violence is an integral part of the rule of law, without which you have anarchy. Libertarians would, no doubt, flinch from the very phrase "state monopoly of violence", but that is the price of peace, order, and good government. That is the Canadian promise, but at the moment, it seems to be the American dream. Perhaps it is time for them to look north, and understand how we did it.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

It's Really A Something

In arguments against the physicality of mind, the subject of qualia often comes up. Qualia are direct experiences unmoderated by interpretation--the experience of seeing the color red, what it is to be a bat, and the like. Qualia are experiences which are ineffable (inexpressable and not communicable), intrinsic (self-contained and not dependent upon other knowledge), private (we cannot compare them), and immediately apprehensible (if you have the experience, you know it, and you know everything there is to know about it.)

Most of the arguments for qualia and against the physicality of the mind employ thought experiments which slip in the assumption that no physical change has been wrought in the body or brain by the experience, effectively assuming the consequent; we assume no physical basis for the experience, and presto, there is no physical basis! The inverted spectrum and zombie thought experiments are examples of this. Others hinge on the idea that qualia are inexpressable--but this says nothing about qualia, and much about the limitations of language. In any case, one would expect that a purely idealized form of expression would be ill suited to describing purely physical phenomena--these arguments actually support the physical basis of mind and experience, rather than weaken it. To be a bat, to see a color, or to have any direct experience is a physical event, involving deep underlying experiences involving sensory organs, muscular/skeletal sensations, and so on. Choreographers are still seeking a notation for dance which can express even the most basic repertoire of movements. Imagine trying to describe not only the movements in detail, but the detailed experience of performing them! And yet, there can be absolutely no doubt that these are physical actions and sensations.

In fact, qualia are the most physical aspect of consciousness. In discussions of the ineffable, mystical insights are usually regarded as the ultimate ineffable experiences. But how do these often come about? Through extreme conditions of the body--fasting, exertion to the point of collapse, drugs, the deliberate self infliction of pain, or repetitive or long held postures or activities. These experiences are commonly induced through direct or indirect manipulation of neurochemical states. Yet the claims of mysticism are that one has overcome the body, when in fact they have manipulated their bodies to achieve these states. Even the most spiritual of experiences is, at its very roots, physical.

Steven Pinker, in a recent article regarding The Stupidity of Dignity notes that Leon Kass, who loaded a council on bioethics with staunch Catholics, regarded any physical act, even eating, as undignified--Kass railed against the indignity of eating ice cream cones in public. Likewise, Kass exalts the imagined spiritual properties of an ovum over the physical good of living people. His sympathy with Catholicism is all too clear; Catholicism too values the mortification of the flesh and the exaltation of spirit. But this is simple vanity; a disgust with the limitations of human physicality in comparison with the exalted qualities of imagined gods and perhaps even with more perfect human specimens, a desire to be perfect, ideal in a Platonic sense, a resplendant being of light who does not fart or fuck or belch. A belief in spirit detached from the physical invites the hatred of life in all but principle, as all but stepping stone to the afterlife. The love of spirit becomes a loathing for humanity.

Finally, there is a claim that qualia are the most meaningful and significant of all experiences. The title of this post suggests the opposite. People that I have met who were veteran drug users are in the habit of making statements like "It's really a something!" "He's really doing something." "He's doing his scene." What do these statements mean? Nothing. They are utterly devoid of content, because they refer to the type of drug experiences in which the person is unable to integrate the experience. The tragedy of the youth drug culture is that, unlike the first pioneers of psychedelics, who were usually well versed in science, philosophy, literature, and mysticism, barely literate teenagers have no frame of reference. All they can say is "Wow!", and in retrospect, one wow is very much like another. These are raw qualia, but until they are drawn into the world of expression and related to other experience and knowledge, they remain physical noise. Qualia must cease to be qualia to acquire meaning. Only then do they properly become aspects of consciousness rather than the signals of the autonomic nervous system. Furthermore, it should be immediately apparent that, having been caused by a chemical, these experiences--which often approach the mystical--have an entirely physical basis.

There is a particular style of philosophical discussion which is properly called "nonsense on stilts"--discussions of things which neither refer to facts about the real world (do not touch the ground) nor involve precisely defined terms (nonsense). I suspect that metaphysics has not gained any ground since the ancient Greeks. It is not that they gave the final answers; they may not have even asked the right questions. The same arguments run back and forth without any resolution in sight, revolving around the definitions and redefinitions of vague words and concepts. These are language games. Some philosophers were so caught up in these games that they decided that all human interaction consisted of nothing more than language games, forgetting that most people actually devote most of their time talking about real things and events in the physical world. They had become so divorced from reality that they decided it did not exist. But any subject which does not bow to carefully gathered fact, or which does not restrict itself to concepts of near mathematical precision, will soon find itself building castles in the sky, to be cast down and raised again by whims of opinion. This is not knowledge, nor any way to achieve knowledge. This is mere sophistry. The stagnant condition of metaphysics and theology suggest that these disciplines are in precisely this rut.

When I first encountered metaphysics as a young undergraduate, it was my favorite topic. I thought I had discovered magic, a means of unraveling the secrets of the universe without ever being forced to learn about the world. Through the simple exploration and combination of vague concepts I could understand, and perhaps even affect, the world. I wonder how much of this still animates enthusiasm for metaphysics, and for non-physical explanations of reality. If consciousness is non-physical yet can still influence reality, then perhaps one can do away with the whole bother of moving and exploring, avoid death, even avoid the physical disciplines of the mystics required to attain peace of mind. It is this aspect of wishful thinking most of all that makes arguments for non-physicality suspect.

Friday, May 09, 2008

The Estates

In Medieval France, the realm was divided into three estates: the first was the clergy, the second was the nobility, and the third was the common people, represented by the burghers. Later, Edmund Burke referred to the press as the fourth estate. In modern times, the nobility have more or less become obsolete, while the third estate has come to dominate the government. Another estate has risen to prominence as well; business has its own needs and agendas, particularly in the form of corporations who act as legal entities rather like people under the law. In the modern West, the estates would be better ordered as government (representing the people), business, religion, and media.

Various attempts have been made to name a fifth estate, often as segment of the press that dissents from the majority (fourth estate) view, but this simply emphasizes temporary public arguments. A better candidate would be academia, particularly the sciences, as the humanities might be considered an aspect of the fourth estate. While the fourth estate collects and dispenses data (news), the fifth estate is concerned with collating this data and identifying trends and general principles. This fifth estate would be different from the fourth particularly in the accuracy expected in its judgments, and in the time and effort required to render these judgements as well as their durability.

This leaves us with five estates: government, business, religion, media, and the sciences. One thing that strikes me about these estates is that a mixing of any two is a regarded, quite rightly, as a corrupting influence on both. A government official with a business interest in a particular matter has a conflict of interests, and is expected to recuse himself from any government dealing with that industry. Ministers who amass fortunes or use their churches as political springboards are also disparaged, and the separation of Church and State is now a near universal principle in the West. Media which serves the interests of business, government, or a particular church is considered biased and unreliable--even Fox news claims to be "fair and balanced". And scientific judgments which serve an interest other than science itself are also highly suspect--nor can a scientist be expected to deliver rapid fire results suitable to a media timeline without making serious and irresponsible errors.

It is precisely the mixing of all these estates in the Muslim world which brings it to its sorry state. Indeed, in Saudi Arabia, there is still a nobility, who own most of the businesses, run the government, and control the media, all according to religious principles, while science is barely pursued at all. The rest of the Muslim world is not much better, lacking only the nobility, but still permitting all The result is a riot of corruption without the rule of law--indeed, the closest thing they have to a justice system is a dubiously qualified assortment of clerics issuing idiosyncratic judgments which seem to relate more to their blood sugar levels than to any remote objective standard of justice. The result is brutality, waste, greed, ignorance, poverty, and injustice on an epic scale.

Dinesh D'Souza recently congratulated Christianity for being so much better than Islam, because Christian extremists are nowhere near as vicious as Islamic extremists. He is, of course, comparing present day Christianity to present day Islam. But for a proper comparison to be made, one would have to go back to a time when the estates were allowed to bleed together as they do in the Muslim world, when governments were governed and motivated by the dictates of Christian faiths. One would have to go back nearly five hundred years, to the wars of the Reformation.

With the rise of Protestantism, Europe split and took sides, Protestant vs Catholic. Beginning in the sixteenth century, the pages of European history are awash in blood spilled in the name of Christ. We have the Spanish Inquisition--orignally directed against Jews, it now turned on Protestants--the Witch Burnings, the execution of heretics, Henry VIII's persecution of Catholics, Mary Tudor's persecution of Protestants, Wolsingham's police state under Elizabeth, and innumerable wars, assassinations, and intrigues between all the great powers of Europe. This continued through the Stuarts, leading to the death of Charles I and Oliver Cromwell's bloody tyranny. Charles II calmed this somewhat by being almost completely secular throughout his reign, converting to Catholicism on his deathbed. His brother James was quickly deposed by William of Orange, who gained tolerance for Protestant non-conformists, but also sought tolerance for Catholics. The Act of Tolerance and the Bill of Rights strengthened the boundaries between the estates, and lead eventually to the end of the fighting between Catholics and Protestants, at least in England. In Northern Ireland, the wars of the Reformation have only just ended; the Protestants call themselves Orange (after William) and the Catholics are the Green.

One might argue that the kings and nobles exploited Christianity for their own ends--and you would be right. One might equally argue that the likes of William Wilberforce and Martin Luther King also directed Christianity in novel directions--and again, you would be right. The problem lies in the fact that any religion lends itself to the irrational and superstitious, which can be exploited to any purpose. And indeed, it was exploited for the justification of slavery, which was why Wilberforce and King were forced to couch their arguments in religious language; the language of their strongest opposition. D'Souza loves to cite Wilberforce and King, but never mentions Edgar Ray Killen, responsible for the murders depicted in the movie "Mississipi Burning"--Edgar Ray "Preacher" Killen, as he was known, because he spewed his racist venom from the pulpit of a baptist church. And Killen was only one representative of a breed that encompassed hundreds, if not thousands, of preachers who did likewise throughout the period of slavery and up to the present day. Yet Wilberforce and King carried the day because the majority of the population objected to slavery on grounds which had little to do with religion and much to do with simple human empathy, an emotion which, happily, required no religious sentiments to support it.

What D'Souza would like us to forget is that the Christianity we see today is heavily shackled and sedated, tamed through long effort, often at great risk, by generations of great men and women who understood the danger of giving religion too much power. Charlie Manson hasn't killed in almost forty years, but that doesn't mean he's reformed, just restrained. We have lived so long with a religion tamed by secularism that we have forgotten why it had to be tamed in the first place, and why the estates had to be separated.

Saturday, March 08, 2008

Dungeons and Dragons Tale

As Gary Gygax, inventor of Dungeons and Dragons, died yesterday, I thought it appropriate to have this D&D story for my weekly pizza message.

The Icy Door

"Okay, behind the door is a forty by forty room, empty but for a huge stone arch with mystical symbols on it." Tom drew the room onto the map on the table. "What do you do?"

"Can you describe the symbols?" Phil asked.

Tom rolled a dice behind his screen. "You've seen these before. They're on the parchment you found in the crystal room."

Jack found the piece of paper with the symbols on it. "There's a string of symbols here. Maybe we can input them into arch. I try touching the symbol on the arch that corresponds to the one at the top of the page."

"It lights up," said Tom. "The arch begins to hum with magical energy. You can hear the Lich arch-mage coming up the hall with his drow henchmen."

"Okay," said Jack, "I touch all the symbols in the sequence they appear on the parchment."

"The hum rises to a high pitched whine, and the gate activates with a flash. Beyond the arch you see a strange scene..."

Frank raised his hand. "No time--I'm taking my chances and going through!"

"Me too," said Jack. They all went through the gate. "What do we see?"

Tom smiled coyly. "You're on a strange, smooth grey road, with a lot of strange square buildings on it. There is another similar road that crosses it in a T about one hundred feet east. Behind you and the gate is a park; in front is a brick house and to the right of it is a square brick building three stories tall. Strange metallic carts line the side of the street."

Bill grinned. "Is there a strange, red, metal chariot sitting in front of the square building, by any chance?"

"Why yes," said Tom, "now that you mention it."

"Okay, we're running into that building and into apartment four!" Everyone laughed and agreed.

"Good!" said Tom, rubbing his hands. He made a dice check. "You run into the building, but as Enariel is the last in, she looks over her shoulder and sees the Lich come through the gate. He sees you. But you run up the stairs..."

At that moment, they heard the front door of the building open and several people run up the stairs, speaking loudly in a strange language. The door to the apartment swung open and in crowded a bizarre cast of characters. First was a hulking barbarian covered with battle scars and wielding a huge axe. Second was man in chain mail carrying a mace, with fringe cut hair greying at the temples. On his heels (heals?) was a man only three feet tall, with bare feet and furtive demeanor, carrying a dagger in each hand. Last came two women, find boned and diminutive, one carrying a bow and wearing leather armor and green leggings, and the other in a long robe; both had ears that rose to points.

The intruders and the players regarded each other with consternation for a moment. The barbarian barked something incomprehensible, but the players were too stunned to venture a guess as to what he was saying. The woman in the robe traced a symbol in the air, and then spoke in clear English: "Is there another door out of this place?"

Tom raised his hand feebly and pointed down the hall. The woman nodded and spoke to her companions, and all ran down the hallway and out the back door.

A long moment passed. "Weirdness," said Phil. "Exactly what I thought they'd look like," said Jack. And then he swallowed hard and asked, "Tom, did you say the Lich was right behind us... er, them?"

They heard the door to the building open again, and a rasping voice spoke in the stairwell. Light footsteps ran up and down the stairs, and then all returned, and seemed to focus on the area outside their door. There was a clicking sound upon the doorknob. As they watched, frost formed upon the knob, and vapour began to pour from it. The room grew noticeably colder as the knob began to turn.

Tom slammed his book shut. "I think," he said, in a strangled voice, "that we should call it here."

They stared at the door with baited breath. The knob snapped back to rest. At length, they exhaled, and began to pack their books and dice. They rose in silence, and stood in a tight knot, away from the door. "I need a change of underwear," said Bill.

"Ummm... I think I'll leave by the back," said Phil. The others nodded, and followed him down the hall.

Tom stood for a minute or so, then crept up to the door and flipped the deadbolt locked. The cold stung his fingers. Then he heard a harsh muttering, and the deadbolt snapped back, unlocked.

And then he was running down the hall, yelling "Phil, can I crash at your place tonight...?"

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Conservative Contradictions

A friend of mine sometimes infuriates me by espousing both Libertarianism and totalitarian authoritarianism--often in the same breath. Yes, big L libertarianism, sometimes to the extreme of Ayn Rand, and advocating amongst other things martial law and putting liberals up against the wall. I have my problems with both, more with authoritarianism and totalitarianism--I tend to agree with small L libertarianism, with full recognition of the proviso that capitalism is a joint venture between private industry and government, and cannot exist without the services and protection government provides. Libertarianism is also based upon the fantastical creature Homo Economicus--the rationally self-optimizing individual who exists only in economics textbooks, as studies too numerous to name have proven. But libertarianism is based upon the core belief that people know what's best for themselves, while authoritarianism is constructed on the principle that the people cannot be trusted and must be told what to do. They are, at root, fundamentally incompatible. His head is like a bag lady's cart, loaded with random baggage which does not go together.

And yet, in reading tributes to William F. Buckley this week, I see that he shared the same incoherent split: libertarian and authoritarian. He was amongst the first to advocate decriminalization of soft drugs, and yet he also harbored a desire for the legislation of morality. I had a great admiration for Buckley, but where does this come from?

It comes, I think, from a reactionary response to Communism. Communism was economically totalitarian, socially libertarian, and atheistic. Buckley was a Catholic, and Fascism was the Catholic political response to Communism. Communism split Christianity in two; it espoused (but never practiced) the ethic of charity, and inflicted an iron grip upon economic activity. The opposite is Buckley's conservativism, which abandoned charity but clung to the authoritarianism of the Catholic Church. The result is a hodge podge of Libertarianism, by which you are no longer your brother's keeper, and moral despotism, by which you become your brother's keeper, and indeed, your brother's master. Reactionaries to Communism called anything that contradicted their views Communist, and so forgot what they were fighting against. They fired at everything, and lost sight of the goal.

These paired opposites are contradictory. Consistancy is the goblin of small minds only when it is a consistancy over time; the stubborn pig-headedness which insists that it was always right. Inconsistancy between views held all at once is dogmatism--equally small minded, and founded upon a lack of self-awareness. The dogmatism at work here is anti-communism. More recently, it has been replaced with anti-liberalism--even though libertarianism is a liberal doctrine. And so we now have secular conservatives who are comically attached to authoritarianism but who are no longer attached to religiosity, not realizing the roots of these opinions. They ape their masters without understanding them. Oddly enough, the Communists themselves railed endlessly against decadence; a position of moral authoritarianism remarkably similar to that of conservatives.

To be a consistant Christian, you may be morally authoritarian (but not necessarily), but you must be egalitarian and charitable. This is the main and repeated message of the gospels. You can, of course, abandon Christian ethics and go entirely secular, and if you are conservative be libertarian across the board. Or you can be entirely Christian and push for charity and moralistic laws. But you cannot do both in a consistent manner.

The split goes still further. Conservatives are obsessed with freeloaders, people who take but do not pay into the system. This would, of course, include those who refuse to pay their taxes, a common pose amongst conservatives. An obvious contradiction, but not the one I'm going for. In order to catch freeloaders, an elaborate system of checks must be established--and a large bureaucracy to oversee the dispensation of money. Each critic of the system, who finds a single notorious case of exploitation, necessitates an extra layer of bureaucracy to double check the work of the existing bureaucracy. The opposition and the press all play into this game, leading to the zero-error ethic. And the best way to make no mistakes is to do nothing; a bloated bureaucracy that does nothing and provides no significant services--the nightmare of small government conservatives, created in large part by... small government conservatives.

There is a cutoff point where it is cheaper to let some people defraud the system than to expend the energy to catch them all. But in the media and in political sound bytes, one case of fraud is enough to embarrass the government. And so we endlessly pursue ghosts, and the cost forever escalates, and services decline. A friend of mine who works in the Canadian government says that each document she produces must go through fifteen layers of approval to make it to the cabinet. All fifteen layers have been instituted recently, to protect the government from embarrasment--by a conservative government, who made its mandate by pointing out cases of fraud.

In government, there is no cutoff point at which it costs more to the incumbent party to protect itself from embarrassment than it does to allow a few mistakes to get by to provide baseline services--unless the government takes responsibility and explains costs and benefits, and since conservatives don't believe in government, the benefits are never considered worth the cost. Eventually, all revenue will be consumed by the bureaucracy. Let's take another bete noir of conservatives: health care. Private medical insurance profits by denying health care and keeping the premiums. As long as they can get away with doing this, it makes sense to keep denying health care until the bureaucracy of denial equals the cost of providing the health care. In other words, private health care will reach an equilibrium where at least half of the money spent on health care goes to administration rather than actual medical services (and probably more than half, since even providing the service requires administrative costs.) Public health care, where denial is not an issue, is not subject to the same dynamic. America spends 15% of its GDP (the highest in the world) on health care, and yet 25% of its people are entirely excluded, while a great many more are left stranded when they need it most, even though they are insured. The Europeans spend about 12% on lavish systems that provide everything to everyone. Canada spends 8 to 9%--we are starving the system, probably quite deliberately, as American HMO's are clawing at the door and lobbying intensively. The 50% ratio for expense to service appears to be borne out by a comparison of the American vs. Canadian health care systems, if you compare efficiency, coverage, and price.

The moralistic, authoritarian streak leads to big government. Liberalism leads to big government, but only within fiscal limits--big government financed by deficits results in a delayed tax burden on the poor and middle class, which liberals despise because it compromises their ability to govern. Big money is a flight risk, so they cannot be counted on to foot the bill--another contradiction to the freeloader argument, since the rich gain a disproportionately larger benefit from infrastructure. Conservatives, however, consider government a lost cause, and debt an inevitable result. And since they are so accustomed to flinging accusations of mismanagement, when their turn comes around, all resources go to defending against such charges, actual or possible. And yet no one has higher levels of pork barrel spending, precisely because corporate interests are much slicker in concealing their attempts to defraud the system. There has not been a fiscally responsible conservative government since Margaret Thatcher, and the pattern is so entrenched that it is not likely to end short of a massive overhaul of conservativism.

During the cold war and the culture wars, the left lost their minds, but the right lost their souls. I've gone on at great length in other posts about the failures of the left--political correctness, post-modernism, multiculturalism, anti-rationalism, etc. But the right is no better, no less partisan, and no less irrational. On the left there has been a great foment, and old prejudices and foolish alliances have been shed, though not by its less illustrious members. But the right clings to the consistency of small minds, while dispensing with the consistency of sound minds. With the death of Buckley, and the continued efforts of the likes of Tim O'Reilly and Rush Limbaugh, what is the likelihood that the right will reform its ways?

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Wagging the Dog

I've long wondered why American Foreign policy is so disastrous. There is, of course, the long history of the cold war, in which the military and intelligence community backed whatever asshole they thought would help them in the fight, and came down hard on anyone deemed to be leftists. The tragedy here was that they often came down on democratic leftists, who were, despite their leanings towards Marxism, willing to negotiate for the benefit of their people. The glow of Marxism was bound to wear off, but not the glow of democracy. It was America's business to back their political ideals, rather than capitalism. Democracy is front and center in the constitution, but capitalism is not. The tragedy is that these people did not actually believe in democracy or capitalism, or they would have played to their strengths, letting the people of foreign nations choose what worked, secure in the knowledge that political and economic freedom were exactly what worked. But they swallowed Soviet propaganda without question, and believed that Communism had the upper hand.

But there is another factor involved here, which persisted long after the East Bloc fell. America allows its business community to run rampant in other countries. Worse yet, when those business interests run afoul of the local government and the local people, the American military is called in to grease the wheels of commerce.

A democratic government works for its people. That means they get the best price for their resource and commodities--market value. Only a dictator has the power to set those prices below market value, to enforce, for a cut, a price that the buyers specify. The dictator only need reward himself and his cronies; there is no requirement to do the best for his people. Not surprisingly, it is dictators that business interests prefer. In defense, the hatchetmen insist that American consumers are the ones who demand what they do. And yet, the market for fair trade goods and responsible business practices has never been greater. Why? Because for the first time, the people are beginning to understand the consequences of their economic choices.

The executives of these companies, and the hatchetmen, imagine the average American in their own image; greedy, selfish, unconcerned with the consequences of their own actions. They believe this only because they have never bothered to ask. But then, that would be democratic. It is a sad fact that most of these executives have utter disdain not only for democracy, but for free markets as well. They attempt, whenever possible, to enlist government and even the military to enforce their own agenda. Not for them the difficult details of real business; no, they want to enforce a profit margin in a way that no democratic country ruled by law would permit.

And if they had their way, no country would be ruled by law, which establishes equality of individual choice. but rather by force. Force imposes arrangements that lay outside the market, beyond the choices of all participants. The fault of American foreign policy is to allow and abet this, in contradiction to all its principles and the will of the American people.

It is a sad fact that capitalism, left to its own devices, will seek to undermine itself through the greed of its most powerful actors. Marx predicted this, although he had no solution. The solution is democracy, a tactic Marxists seem to be strongly averse to. Too bad. They might have won the ideological wars, rather than being another corpse in the abattoir of history. As it is, they deserved to die.

The solution is a government strong enough to stand up to industry and dictate policy to them, rather than the other way around. England got suckered into the same deal with the East India Company, and we're still all paying for that. Americans need a government that can say no to corporate interests. The tail must not wag the dog. The government must set foreign policy in accordance with the people's wishes--and the people must be made aware.

Bet on the people of the foreign country. Dictators are a dime a dozen. But the people are always there. How much was Saddam Hussein worth?