Sunday, January 27, 2008

To send our passions upon God's errands

The state of Pennsylvania was named after its founder, William Penn (1644–1718), the son of an admiral in the Royal Navy who was knighted for his service in restoring Charles II to the throne of England. The Penn family were Anglicans, but at the age of 22 William became a Quaker and a close friend of the founder of the Quakers, George Fox (1624–1691). It is said that William Penn carried a sword during his youth but realized that carrying weapons is discouraged by Quakers. Penn once asked Fox whether he should quit wearing a sword, and Fox reportedly replied “I advise thee to wear it as long as thou canst.” When they next met, Penn was no longer wearing a sword, and when Fox asked why Penn was unarmed, Penn replied “I wore it as long as I could.”

In 1693, William Penn wrote

A good end cannot sanctify evil means; nor must we ever do evil, that good may come of it…. It is as great presumption to send our passions upon God's errands, as it is to palliate them with God's name…. We are too ready to relatiate, rather than forgive, or gain by love and information. And yet we could hurt no man that we believe loves us. Let us then try what Love will do: for if men once see we love them, we should soon find they would not harm us. Force may subdue, but Love gains: and he that forgives first, wins the laurel.

It is not only individuals who send their passions upon God's errands, who somehow convince themselves that they are acting on noble motivations when in fact they are being driven by panic or by greed or by ignorance. Entire nations can be convinced that they are doing God's work when in fact they are reacting in blind fear and mindless rage. Consider what Bill Moyer's reported on The Journal on January 25:

Let's first connect some dots in the week's news. In Washington, two public interest groups — The Center for Public Integrity and the Fund for Independence in Journalism — finished a report they have been working on for months. It's an old story but with new math. They went through the record and counted every false statement made by the Bush administration in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq and even six months after we were at war. How many?

If you guessed 935, you are right on the button. That's at least the number of times the president and seven of his top officials, including Condoleeza Rice, said Saddam Hussein was a national security threat.

What is interesting about this piece is not that the Bush administration told lies or even that they told so many. What is interesting is that so many people believed those lies and blindly followed the Bush administration into a costly, destructive, illegal and unnecessary war. Although not much is said about it now, some may recall that George W. Bush's father, George H.W. Bush (and one of his spokesmen, Dick Cheney), told the nation after the first Gulf War that toppling Saddam Hussein would have been folly. The senior Bush was not at all enthusiastic about this venture in Iraq in 2003, and when his son, the president, was asked why he did not heed his father, George W. Bush replied that he listened to a higher father. He presumably meant God. He apparently believed that he was on God's errand (much as Osama bin Ladin had believed he was on God's errand on September 11, 2001), but it is much more likely that Bush (like Osama) was sending his own passions to Iraq. His fear, his anger, his lust for power, his greed for oil, his need for approval after the first nine months of a presidency in which he was repeatedly ridiculed by journalists and columnists for being an incompetent fool whose strings were being pulled behind the scenes by the ever-sinister Dick Cheney.

What, though, explains why so many senators and congressional representatives and ordinary Americans were willing to follow the pathetic president's passions into a war that was obviously immoral? (Yes, it was obvious to hundreds of thousands of Canadians, Europeans and Asians. I was living in Montreal just before the American invasion of Iraq and marched in an anti-war parade about which Canadian journalist Jacques Richard wrote:

Braving freezing temperatures of -25 Celsius, 150,000 people marched through downtown Montreal Saturday to condemn US-British plans for war on Iraq. The protest was one of the largest political demonstrations in both Montreal and Canadian history, if not the largest.

As one of those 150,000 people I saw people of every age, from elderly men and women in wheelchairs to babies in strollers, and of every political persuasion marching along Ste Catherine street. At one point I went into a bookstore to get warm and to survey the crowd. As far as I could see to the east and to the west there were people marching along, covering the wide boulevard from one side to the other. To all of them it was obvious that America and the United Kingdom were about to embark on a maddeningly pointless and unnecessary war. What took the American public so long to arrive at the same conclusions?

I do not know the answer. What I do know, or strongly suspect, is that as long as people seek the answer to this question by looking for others to blame, there will never be peace in this world. Each individual must answer this question by looking long and hard inside his or her own mentality and asking: What was I afraid of? What comforts and luxuries was I hoping to gain or afraid to lose? What needs did I believe I had that I thought would be met by bombs and mortars and assault rifles and tanks? Why did I believe that war was a means of assuring peace? Why was I willing to have my country's politicians send young men and women to die and kill? Why was I willing to have my nation's treasury depleted so that my grand-children's children will still be paying the costs of this war?

These are personal questions. The answers must be just as personal. And once the difficult answers are found, the next question must be: How am I going to change my way of living so that no one ever again has to pick up a sword to kill or die for my passions?

Monday, January 14, 2008

Left, right, middle or none of the above?

If you are among the growing number of people who feel that the standard way of characterizing political stances as liberal, conservative, left-wing, right-wing and middle of the road is inadequate and confusing, you may be interested in a web site called The Political Compass. The authors of this web site argue convincingly that a more complex and nuanced way of characterizing political stances is needed.

The Political Compass is based on looking at two dimensions of political conviction. One dimension has to do with economic policy. Assigned to the x-axis of a standard Cartesian  type of graph, the left-of-center half of this line represents a willingness to have governmental control of the economy in the form of providing social safety nets such as social security and tax-subsidized universal health care, regulation of corporations, laws concerning minimum wages. The left-of-center half of the line, in other words, represents a tendency to favor communistic policies. The right-of-center half of the line, on the other hand, shows resistance to governmental regulation of the economy. The farther to the right one is on this axis, the more one favors economic neo-liberalism, that is, free markets.

The other dimension that the Political Compass recognizes is where one stands on the extent to which government should be allowed to regulate individual conduct. Assigned to the y-axis, the above-center half of the line represents a willingness to pass laws that criminalize the use of drugs, abortion, some sexual practices. Above-the-center positions also tend to emphasize law-and-order issues, punishment of miscreants rather than reform, a strong military, a willingness to abridge personal rights in the interests of national security. In short, above-center positions tend toward authoritarianism. The below-center positions, on the other hand, show a preference for individual rights and freedoms over national and other collectivist concerns. In other words, the farther one is situated along the y-axis, the more libertarian one's social philosophy is.

If one pictures the four quadrants made by a Cartesian graph, one can think of the four sectors as NE (economically neo-liberal and socially authoritarian), SE (economically neo-liberal and socially libertarian), SW (economically communistic and socially libertarian) and NW (economically communistic and socially authoritarian). Examples of people in each of the four quadrants are George W. Bush, Adolf Hitler and Margaret Thatcher (NE); Ayn Rand and Milton Friedman (SE), Ralph Nader; The Dalai Lama, Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela (SW); and Pope Benedict, Robert Mugabe and Josef Stalin (NW).

The web site has a test that anyone can take for free and anonymously to determine one's own political quadrant. When I took the test I got a score that placed me pretty far to the left economically (-.868 with 0 being middle-of-the-road and -10 being Communist) and slightly less strongly libertarian on social issues (-6.31 with 0 being middle-of-the road and -10 being hardcore libertarian). This made immediate sense to me, given that Nader, Gandhi and the Dalai Lama are people whom I have always admired. It also helped me understand why, despite a left-leaning economic persuasion, I have always felt uncomfortable with the authoritarian nature of Soviet and Chinese Communism. It also made sense to me that the people I have admired least (Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush and Margaret Thatcher) are at the opposite end of both spectrums to me; they favor economic liberalism but social authoritarianism. So while as a Southwesterner I feel quite comfortable with, say, same-sex marriage and full legalization of marijuana and heroin but think oil companies and pharmaceutical companies should be heavily regulated and the wealthy should be heavily taxed to provide healthcare for the poor, the Northwestern Bush and Reagan believe just the opposite on all these issues.

Take the test yourself and see where you fit. It may help you understand better why you either like this blog cite or hate it.

< p>For those of you who are following the American race for president, you may be interested in looking at the page on the US primaries. You will note, either with delight or with dismay, that all the leading candidates are in the same sector. They are all closely huddled around George W. Bush in the NE sector of the graph. The Republicans are all to the economic right of the Democrats and (with the exception of Ron Paul) more authoritarian, but all leading candidates of both parties are above-center authoritarians and right-of-center economic neo-liberals. If you are still undecided who to vote for, it could be because there is not much difference among the candidates. The only candidates not in the NE sector are Dennis Kucinich and Mike Gravel (neither of whom has a prayer of being nominated by their party). As the authors of the site point out, the ideological distance among American presidential canditates for the past twenty-five years or so has been less than in any other Western democracy. American political races tend to be among a pack of almost identical candidates. If it's political variety and real political choice you seek, think of living in Great Britain, Germany, Canada or New Zealand. If it's an illusion of diversity strongly magnified and exaggerated by the media you hanker for, The United States of America is the place for you.

Monday, January 07, 2008

A Chinese totalitarian assesses America

One of the most interesting and challenging philosophers of ancient China was Hanfeizi (Han Fei Tzu), who gave a rational defense of what we would now call totalitarianism. For the benefit of those in The United States of America who might like the government to have more absolute and unimpeachable power, I offer this brief report card on how America is doing as a totalitarian state of the sort described by Hanfeizi.

Hanfeizi argued that the ideal government was one based on the three pillars of power, laws and statecraft. What he meant by those three pillars can be summarized as follows:

Power is necessary for a king to gain control over the masses. What this means is that in the final analysis it is the state that should have the power of life and death over the people. Power ensures that no one will question or resist the authority of the government. Therefore, the king should enforce the law as if he were God, which means using power effectively and absolutely but being guided by the constraints of fairness and impartiality. Like God, the ruler should always be perceived as unquestionable. In practice, this means the ruler must be sure always to take credit for successes and to find some dispensable minister to blame for failures. But only the ruler should have this sort of power to take credit and give blame; everyone else in the nation must be credited and blamed on the most objective grounds possible. In practice, this means that everyone must be watchful of everyone else; no one but the head of state can be left unwatched. Only if everyone is equally watched, will there be fairness and impartiality in all public affairs; needless to say, no one's activities will be truly private, so all affairs will be public.

The fairness and impartiality that the state requires is something that can be measured only against a known standard, namely, the law of the land. Without an objective standard of this sort, no one knows what fairness and impartiality are; they become empty words, like righteousness and benevolence. The king, therefore, like God, should use his power first to make the law and then to see to it that the law is implemented in the same way for everyone and that no one, including the king himself, is above the law in any way whatsoever. Hanfeizi wrote: “Ruler and minister, superior and inferior, nobleman and commoner—all must obey the law.” All those who break the law, whatever their social rank or their place in the government, must receive the same punishment.

Laws, if they are to uphold a fair and impartial government, must be clear, fully public and transparent, and they must be fully enforceable. Laws that are vague, or kept secret, or that cannot be enforced will only occasion contempt for the law in the minds of citizens. Contempt for the law will lead to lawless behavior among citizens, and lawless behavior will serve to erode the government's power.

But the good king also employs statecraft as if he were God, which means that he operates in ways that are mysterious and unfathomable to his ministers; this unpredictability, accompanied by power, inspires awe and dread in his ministers and therefore ensures that his dictates are carried out by them. If the preferences of the leader are known, then people are bound to speak and act in ways that please the leader, rather than speaking and acting authentically. To prevent sycophancy, the successful leader must be as inscrutable as God.

Once the law has been decided, said Hanfeizi, it is imperative that all private doctrines that conflict with the law be prohibited. If teachers are allowed to teach doctrines that conflict with the will of the king, then the law can never be effective. Hanfei was especially wary of philosophers, since they had a way of raising questions that could be answered in many ways, without giving people a means of deciding which answer is the uniquely correct one. If people have their minds full of open-ended unanswered questions, thought Han, then they will only be confused, and confusion is good for no one. So philosophers should be forbidden to teach. The only thing that everyone should be taught is what the law is, what the penalty of breaking the law is, and what the benefits of obeying the law are.

As important as it is for the leader to be as much like God as humanly possible in the ways described above, it is no less important for the leader to make sure the economy of the state is always sound. Just as individuals come to disaster if they spend beyond their means, states will surely fall if they go too much into debt. Therefore, all wasteful spending should be illegal, and like all illegal things, punished. Among the most wasteful enterprises a state can become involved, claimed Han, in is reckless military ventures. A state that is well run and that maintains a healthy economy will have no need to defend itself against external enemies, since its good international conduct will make no enemies. And such a state will also have no need to conquer other states to gain resources, since it will always be able to get everything its citizens need through fair trade. With no need to invade neighboring states or to defend against them, the well-run state need have only a minimal military, so its need for funds will be modest. Therefore, its need to tax citizens will also be modest.

Nothing will bring a state to ruin more surely than habits that undermine fairness and that stand in the way of the best people being appointed to positions of responsibility—and the most incompetent people being removed from those positions. If a ruler's thinking is clouded by considerations of personal favoritism or loyalty, then bad decisions are sure to follow. As potentially enfeebling to a state as personal loyalty and political partisanship are decisions based on taking into consideration the reputation and wealth of the family to which a person belongs. Every individual should be appointed to or removed from positions of power solely on the basis of that individual's performance in the tasks assigned to him or her.

Given what we know of Hanfei's political doctrines, how might he assess how the United States of America has been doing in recent years?

Strict obdedience of the law and punishing all lawbreakers equally.
Few administrations during the past sixty years have done a very good job at this. The US constitution declares, for example, that treaties entered into by the federal government take precedence over laws of the nation, and yet the United States has consistently been cavalier in its honoring of international treaties, United Nations resolutions, and treaties with native Americans. Moreover, the criminal justice system is in a shambles, as manifested by the different treatment of first offenders, depending on their affluence, social position and race.

Moreover, the trend during the past forty years or so has been for presidents to pardon lawbreakers within their own cabinets or within their own political circles.

In this area, therefore, the USA must be given a grade of F.

Meritocracy and avoidance of favoritism and other forms of partiality.
The current system of legislation and enforcement of policies by lobbyists and special-interest groups almost guarantees that few decisions are made on the basis of the merits of the case, and few people are hired, maintained or dismissed from their positions strictly on the basis of the quality of their performances. Whether one looks in governmental circles, the military, the commercial sector, or the academic world, one finds that social connections, affluence and personal loyalty are far more important than competence or skill.

In this area also, the USA deserves a failing grade, but because it is the country in which I was born, I'll give it a grade of B+.

Keeping the economy healthy by favoring fair trade practices.
A while back I went to a very crowded emporium of goods sold at affordable prices. Not being in the market for anything particular, I amused myself by looking at the labels of as many products as I could to see where they were manufactured. Every single item I examined was manufactured in China or some other country that has no laws in place to protect workers or the environment or to pay workers reasonable wages or offer them benefits. Providing cheap goods to the citizens of a nation is not the best means of stimulating that nation's economy. It would be difficult to justify giving our governments of the past sixty years any cumulative grade higher than D-.

Keeping military expenditures to a minimum.
According to a table on a website maintained by Christopher Hellman, the military budget of the United States was $396,100,000,000 in the year 2000. That figure was more than the combined military budgets of the next twenty-eight nations. In contrast, the total military budgets of the three nations that David Frum, via George W. Bush, dubbed the “Axis of Evil,” namely, Iran, Iraq and North Korea, was $11,800,000,000. In other words, the United States spent $33.57 for every $1.00 spent on military hardware and personnel by the nations it claims are its most dangerous enemies. As of 2003, according to the United States military budget accounted for 47% of the entire world's military expenditures. That was before the illegal invasion of Iraq, which led to a war that according to the National priorities website costs Americans $275,000,000 per day As of January 7, 2008, the total cost of the Iraq war was more than $483,000,000,000, which is about $1600 for every man, woman and child in the country.

In this area, the record of the United States is so abysmal that it does not even deserve a failing grade. It deserves to be expelled from the school and perhaps even sent to prison.

Arriving at fair and enforceable laws.
A country that has, by frequently cited estimates, more than 12,000,000 people who have entered the country illegally, obviously has flawed immigration laws. The most sensible move would be to stop trying to make it illegal to come to this country to earn an honest livelihood. And while we're at it, we might consider stopping trying to legislate against the use of narcotics, stimulants and intoxicants. Despite these examples of silly and largely unenforceable laws, on the whole the laws of the United States, namely, those in the constitution, are not bad. All told, a fair-minded grader might give the country a grade in the C+/B- range.

Being mysterious and secretive.
Although some people might at first think that America's politicians get full marks for being inscrutable and impossible to fathom, closer reflection would lead most people to conclude that in fact the inner workings of most politicians and leaders are quite out in the open and hardly disguised at all. It is evident that what makes all successful politicians tick is money. First of all, hardly anyone but a multi-millionaire can get the attention necessary to get elected. Secondly, very few can resist the lure of money once they are elected. America, since at least the time of Kennedy's election, has become a plutocracy, a government by the wealthy and for the wealthy. There is no secret or mystery about that. So by Hanfei's criteria, American government would again have to get an F.

Blaming others for what goes wrong.
At last we find a category in which American politicians have excelled during the past sixty years. During most of my youth, everything that went wrong was blamed on Communists and Communist sympathizers (a category that included almost everyone who ever had a concern for anyone besides themselves). No sooner had the Communists disappeared into the oblivion of history than Americans began blaming everything on Islamo-Fascists, jihadis, terrorists and people who hated our freedom. The truth, however, is that almost all of America's political problems have been brought on by American politicians themselves and by the people who elect them. It is probably true of everyone in the human race that they are their own worst enemy. It is indisputably true of Americans as a whole, and especially of America's leaders. Yet who ever takes the blame for their own folly? Who can resist taking credit for things that are in no one's control and that by some fluke occasionally go well? American leaders can proudly show that on their Hanfeizi report card they have one A.


At first it might seem like good news that American leaders during the past sixty years have done so poorly at following the advice of a man who engineered one of the most brutally totalitarian governments in the history of China. Unfortunately, it turns out that what would make a totalitarian government work well are pretty much the same things that would make a constitutional democracy work well. So what makes America a mediocre also-ran as a totalitarian state also makes America a second-rate also-ran as a freedom-promoting democracy. That notwithstanding, we hear American politicians routinely saying such things as “We live in the greatest nation in the history of the earth” (Rudy Giuliani recently said that) or ”Everyone in the world would live in America if they could” (Mitt Romney recently said that). Alas, so long as American political leaders keep saying that but acting like plutocratic bullies, the country they aspire to lead will never be much better than a dream that somehow never managed to come true.