Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Various and Sundry

No time for a full post, but here are a quick items mish-mashed together that would each normally deserve their own post:

First, I scored a 52 on the Libertarian Purity Test, barely cracking into the category described as "You are a medium-core libertarian, probably self-consciously so. Your friends probably encourage you to quit talking about your views so much." Yeah, pretty much.

Next, Andrew Sullivan can get fingernails on the chalkboard annoying, but I read his blog because he remains open-minded, and every once in a while a really cool post pops up, such as this one where a reader responds to the problem of evil:

The advantage of the Christian account, so far as I can tell, is that it actually calls evil what it is, and seeks to put it in a larger framework that redeems it. What is evil for the Darwinist? Simply an externality of the struggle of the fittest?

Please follow the link to read the whole post, it is worth it.

Third, on to where ethics and politics meet - what does it mean to be a person? If you live in America, that definition includes corporations, thanks to the perversion of the constitution. I have a couple of friends that can't understand my combination of pro-private sector views and anti-corporation views. A good answer, from a decidedly Catholic perspective (but which I share), is found in this post on catholicanarchy.org. I also recommend a full read, but here are a couple highlights:

In theological language, we might say that just as in Christian theology human persons are brought into being by a personal creator God in whose image we are made, within the consumer-capitalist society the objects/products that we treat as persons are brought into being by an entity that is also regarded, falsely, as personal.

We are known as a community for being outspoken and passionate when it comes to resisting sins against the dignity of the human person (regrettably, our attention to some human persons is not as strong as it is for others). “Re-personing” human beings who continue to be “de-personed” in this culture of violent death will always be a central vocation of Catholic Christians. A related but equally important task is that Catholics think, speak, and act out of our rich tradition of reflection on personhood by participating in efforts to “de-person” abstract entities that are clearly not persons. Such definitions are blasphemous distortions of what it means to be made in the image and likeness of the three-personed God.

Finally, Another seeming contradiction that some try to pinpoint me on is my semi-libertarian stance (see above) with my pro-tax position. No one explains how Republicans went off track with respect to fiscal conservatism better than Bruce Bartlett, as in this piece for Forbes, also worthy of a read:

At some point, taxes have to be back on the table as the price that must be paid for profligate spending. Only then will the American people realize that they can't have their cake and eat it too, as Republicans have preached for the last decade. Only when the American people go back to believing that spending must be paid for will they stop demanding something for nothing and put the country back on the path to fiscal sanity.

Alright, so these are some of the topics that have been marinating in the back of my mind lately. I hope to check in again soon.

Friday, September 18, 2009

The Heart of a Cheerful Giver

As much as science, religion, and human nature are pitted against each other, it is always a delight to see when they reinforce each other, as in a recent study at Northeastern University:

The study, funded by the National Science Foundation, found that grateful people act virtuously by giving financially—and not just to the people who caused them to feel grateful in the first place.

A long-standing view has held that individuals tend to act out of self-interest and a drive for personal profit. Under this thinking, a financial decision that favors the greater good requires individuals to “tame” their emotions.

DeSteno argues, conversely, that emotions actually equip individuals to make decisions that foster long-term communal financial gain, even over immediate self-interest.

The Bible and the Christian faith have quite a few things to say about being contented and grateful. Seldom a week goes by that we don't sing "Praise God from Whom All Blessings Flow." I include myself when I say that for most Christians, it is easy to regard this rote ritual as mere spiritual platitude. Christians nod in acknowledgment that the instruction of the Bible serves a deep spiritual purpose, but we often stumble over the practical applications. What are we to make of the following passage, then?

15Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. 16Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God. 17And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

In my personal faith, the second half of John 10:10 is a keystone: "I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly. " Christ's teaching, if this verse is taken seriously, is then an instructive guide to a better, more abundant, life. We are called to love, follow, and act in faith not only because of some future spiritual reward after death, but for their power to transform and make more full our lives on Earth. Gratefulness, then, becomes a powerful, if irrational, emotion that can counter-intuitively lead us to act in our long term best interests.

I have been harping on the necessary virtues of responsibility, accountability, and community in our society, and I now add gratitude to that list.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

I may start watching FOX

Fox Business Network, that is. It appears that John Stossel of 20/20 fame is moving to FBN and will get his own show, as well as contribute on other shows across the FOX networks:

I’m grateful to ABC News for allowing me to do stories that challenged conventional wisdom, and occasionally enraged many of its viewers. But it’s said that everyone should change jobs every 7 years. I’ve been at ABC for 28 years ...

In my new job, I want to dig into the meaning of the words “liberty” and “limited government”. ABC enabled me to do some of that, but Fox offers me more airtime and a new challenge.

I don't watch him that often, but read his blog. Sure he retreads a lot of info, but how many other libertarians have been carved out such a career in journalism? Here is some of his recent (and fine) work:

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

A pat on the back for the sales profession

The reason I have been more infrequent of late on the blog is that my real job has picked up drastically. That, and my effort with regards to my real job has picked up drastically. The two are tightly intertwined, after all, since I am in sales. So when I came across this opinion piece in the Christian Monitor, I couldn't help but feel a little better about myself:

At some level, of course, everyone sells. Authors and academics (if they hope to have impact), the yard guy across the street, the young woman shilling for Greenpeace in front of Target, even President Obama. None of us succeeds without applying the art of influence, in the best sense.

But front-line, all-day salespeople are the connective tissue between what we have and what we need. Their work demands a rare mix of audacity and humility, hope and realism. They take rejection and abuse that would crush the spirits of most. Yet they bounce back with the resilience of Tigger and the patience of Job.

Especially in harder times, selling compels tremendous creativity and a humble heroism. This isn't to say all salespeople are heroes. Some get a bit too creative, while a (very) few are desperately dishonest. But that's not sales. It's fraud.

While political campaigns come and go, salespeople practice the politics of hope every day. They live by faith – faith that someone, somewhere needs what they have.

Critics accuse politicians of being salespeople. If only that were true: Good salespeople can actually explain what they're trying to sell.

So bravo to JP, Loathsome, and the other salespeople on here. Someone somewhere appreciates what we do.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Manzi on Libertarianism

In a guest post on The Daily Dish, Jim Manzi explores the paradox of libertarianism in a way I have never seen it before, but it turns out to pin-point exactly what I have been struggling to say, that I am a "liberty as means" libertarian:

Liberty-as-means libertarianism sees the world in an evolutionary framework: societies evolve rules, norms, laws and so forth in order to adapt and survive in a complex and changing external environment. At a high level of abstraction, internal freedoms are necessary so that the society can learn (which requires trial-and-error learning because the external reality is believed to be too complex to be fully comprehended by any existing theory) and adapt (which is important because the external reality is changing). We need liberty, therefore, because we are so ignorant of what works in practical, material terms. But this raises what I think of as the paradox of libertarianism, or more precisely, the paradox of liberty-as-means libertarianism.

Start with a practical question: should prostitution be legal? The canonical libertarian position is that this is a consensual act between adults, and should be legal. The liberty-as-means position is far more tentative. We don’t know the overall effects of legalized prostitution. Some people have the theory that it will make people happier, provide incomes and stabilize marriages. Others think it will lead to personal degradation, female victimization and societal collapse. It is very hard to know which theory is right, or if there is only one right answer as opposed to different best answers for different social contexts, or if the relative predictive accuracy of various theories will change over time as the environment changes. What the liberty-as-means libertarian calls for is the freedom to experiment: let different localities try different things, and learn from this experience. In the best case this is literally consciousness learning from structured experiments, and in the weaker case it is only metaphorical learning, in that the localities with more adaptive sets of such rules will tend to win out in evolutionary competition over time.

This leads then to a call for “states as laboratories of democracy” federalism in matters of social policy; or in a more formal sense, a call for subsidiarity – the principle that matters ought to be handled by the smallest competent authority. After all, a typical American lives in a state that is a huge political entity governing millions of people. As many decisions as possible ought to be made by counties, towns, neighborhoods and families (in which parents have significant coercive rights over children). In this way, not only can different preferences be met, but we can learn from experience how various social arrangements perform.

The characteristic error of contemporary conservatives in this regard has been a want of prudential judgment in trying to enforce too many social norms on a national basis. The characteristic error of liberty-as-goal libertarianism has been the parallel failure to appreciate that a national rule of “no restrictions on non-coercive behavior” (which, admittedly, is something of a cartoon) contravenes a primary rationale for libertarianism. What if social conservatives are right and the wheels really will come off society in the long run if we don’t legally restrict various sexual behaviors? What if left-wing economists are right and it is better to have aggressive zoning laws that prohibit big-box retailers? I think both are mistaken, but I might be wrong. What if I’m right for some people at this moment in time, but wrong for others, or wrong the same people ten years from now? The freedom to experiment needs to include freedom to experiment with different governmental (i.e., coercive) rules. So here we have the paradox: a liberty-as-means libertarian ought to argue, in some cases, for local autonomy to restrict some personal freedoms.

Exactly. In a "liberty as means" government as social contract, there are several cases where it would be best to enact restrictions on personal freedom. I would say that the instances where personal fredom should be restricted will have a naturally high rate (much greater than a simple majority) of support in each location, and as Manzi points out would be seen as a win-win trade-off as opposed to tyranny. Higher levels of authority are brought in to subsidize local efforts and define boundaries only as needed, and again, the consensus should be overwhelming.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Sider and "The Scandal Of The Evangelical Conscience"

Through his bestselling book Rich Christians In An Age Of Hunger, first published in 1977, Ron Sider became a champion for the progressive evangelical cause, working alongside Tony Campolo, another famous progressive Christian and fellow Philly denizen.

Since the first edition of Rich Christians, Sider has revised the book several times as he learned more about economics, digested critical responses, and developed a more nuanced position. The Sider of today is very different of the Sider of thirty years ago, and while there still may be plenty to nitpick and disagree with, an Acton Institute review of his latest book shows a more complex position. One thing is certain, Sider still loves to ruffle feathers:

By acknowledging the relative but real good of wealth, Sider is able to incisively point out the dangers that necessarily flow out of affluence. Sider argues that the opportunity and responsibility that come with wealth have created a corresponding temptation, and “nurtured a practical materialism that has maximized individual choice. Desiring ever-growing sales to produce ever-greater profits, businesses discovered the power of seductive advertising.” He maintains that American Christians “must dethrone mammon and materialism in our hearts and congregations through a more faithful use of our money.”

Sider’s main adversary in this book is the licentious antinomianism of American evangelical Christianity. He writes, “Scandalous behavior is rapidly destroying American Christianity. By their daily activity, most ‘Christians’ regularly commit treason. With their mouths they claim that Jesus is Lord, but with their actions they demonstrate allegiance to money, sex, and self-fulfillment.” Sider’s call is to a rigorously faithful and pious Christianity, consistent in both theory and practice. As he argues, “We proudly trumpet our orthodox doctrine of Christ as true God and true man and then disobey his teaching.”

Certainly, as the review goes on to note, Sider takes a reactionary tone, focusing on the stereotypical "faith alone so leave me alone" fundamentalism that is popular in many circles. Certainly Sider should admonish those who would try to separate the Savior and Lord of Christ, but Christians should also be taken to task for trying to combine the Kingdom of God with the government/kingdom of man. Perhaps he does this elsewhere in the book, but Sider should respond to what has been the largest criticism to his previous works and the ideology of "progressive" Christianity in general:

The Bible does not allow the imposition of some sort of top-down bureaucratic tyranny in the name of Christ. The kingdom of God requires a bottom-up society. The bottom-up Christian society rests ultimately on the doctrine of self-government under God, with God's law as the publicly revealed standard of performance.

It is not possible to ramrod God's blessings from the top down, unless you are God.... Only humanists believe that man is God.

I like to be challenged, and Sider (and Campolo) are great and necessary voices, calling for believers to practice what they preach, and live a life more fitting of the Name by which Christians identify themselves. I have committed one of the worst blog atrocities possible by commenting on a book I haven't read, but I hope the basics of the book have been fairly represented. I do want to be clear in my personal position that Christians should practice what they preach through conscious use of free choice, not through a system of force. Christians choosing to work in community to right the wrongs of the world, help the poor, and heal the sick used to be called Church, and I am challenged and inspired by the hope that this concept of church can be reborn in hearts of Christians everywhere.