Last year I sat up and took notice when Charles Murray set out a plan for mass civil disobedience to weaken the U.S. government. This was not the sortLast year I sat up and took notice when Charles Murray set out a plan for mass civil disobedience to weaken the U.S. government. This was not the sort of thing I was used to hearing from conservatives, and I was intrigued enough to seek out this book.
Murray is of the more libertarian variety of conservatism — not for him are the wars on drugs and gay marriage, or the currently-popular quest for a Mussolini to make America great again. He’s the sort of conservative who gushes over the founding fathers’ methodical experiment in a strictly-confined federal government and thinks if we could just squeeze that government back into its cage the rest would pretty much take care of itself.
Murray calls this flavor of Constitutionally-devoted conservatism “Madisonian” and contrasts it with a “Wilsonian” progressivism that sees the Constitution as an outworn relic getting in the way of modern designs for national improvement.
In the story Murray tells about the U.S., our Madisonian republic did really well for itself — if you allow for the hiccough of the Civil War and the flaw of slavery it had to address — until the 1930s, when the small-government, Constitutional consensus began to give way, and both political parties became dominated by big-government, progressive technocrats. The Supreme Court, which had held this new order briefly at bay, was eventually overcome, and by the 1960s the republic was unrecognizable and mostly unrecoverable. There was a brief Goldwater/Reagan backlash, but it barely slowed the growing appetite, ambition, and reach of the federal government.
So now we have a country in which the federal government is enormous and all-pervasive. The legal system is indistinguishable from lawlessness — legitimizing thefts and shakedowns and masking the use of arbitrary power by the politically powerful against their enemies or those they find inconvenient. Regulatory agencies have grown like weeds, becoming a second federal government parallel to the first but only nominally beholden to it. Congress is systematically corrupt, with the raw pursuit of money and purchasing of influence and legislation normalized.
Politicians from both political parties are complicit in this: they share a big-government consensus when it comes right down to it, and they profit from the frank corruption that has resulted. And even if one party or the other or both really wanted to do something about it, there’s little they could do, as the “institutional sclerosis” has more momentum than they can fight and the power of office-holders to deviate from the consensus in meaningful ways is really very small.
This cancer is no longer treatable in strictly Constitutional ways: voting for new politicians won’t help, and the Supreme Court has thrown in the towel, give or take an angry dissent from Thomas or Scalia of mostly rhetorical effect.
The alternative Murray suggests is a systematic civil disobedience campaign, supported by a well-financed legal team and some form of insurance that protects the front-line risk takers.
The goals are to defend individuals against government overreach, to make objectionable federal laws and regulations unenforceable, and then by doing so to prompt the Supreme Court to finally get on the ball and reel the federal government back in.
Murray envisions backing this campaign with something he calls the “Madison Fund” — a big pile of money that can be deployed to offer free legal defense to anyone engaged in the campaign whom the government tries to target. Where this pile of money comes from is part of the more-hope-than-plan part of his book, but folks like the Institute for Justice are already putting some of this into practice on a smaller scale.
Murray also envisions a form of insurance that professionals could buy to protect them against fines and other hassles from government regulators. The insurance companies would set standards of behavior for their clients to ensure that they were not doing anything actually dangerous, fraudulent, or in other ways unethical, and, assuming they followed those guidelines, would insure them against any fines the government imposes on them for violating its bazillion silly rules that do nobody any good. If the cost of the insurance were less than the cost of the burdensome regulations the purchaser would no longer need to worry about, such an insurance could become widespread.
The book has some promising ideas, and I hope these ideas catch on. Some parts of the book are pretty well thought-through; others have some thin paper plastered over big holes. But it’s a good start, and with some help (some deep-pocketed help) could make paleocons less of an intellectual curiosity and more of a force for good....more
The reporting is very good, with Popper having interviewed nearly everyone involved, and having dug through interminable archives. The story is told iThe reporting is very good, with Popper having interviewed nearly everyone involved, and having dug through interminable archives. The story is told in a fairly bland, chronological way, which makes it easy to follow and gives you a bit of a feeling of what it might have felt like to be going through it without knowing what would come next - which is where we are now, I guess, still uncertain whether Bitcoin has become an institution or whether it's a flash in the pan....more
There are two seemingly conflicting ideas of what it means to be privileged and powerful: on the one hand, it means that you no longer have to botherThere are two seemingly conflicting ideas of what it means to be privileged and powerful: on the one hand, it means that you no longer have to bother yourself about the day-to-day tedium of how to get your needs met; but on the other hand, it means that you’re in charge of all of this day-to-day tedium of how people get their needs met — bwa ha ha. You get to decide who owns what and how transactions will get transacted and who gets their cut.
Bureaucracy, according to David Graeber, is part of the solution to this conflict. It allows the powerful and privileged to maintain their blissful ignorance of the tedium and the personalities of the hoi polloi they lord over, while giving them the illusion of knowledge so they can be confident in their mastery. Bureaucracy tediously collects data of usually stupid varieties and then summarizes them craftily so as to make it seem the epitome of knowledge — something that someone of privilege can digest in an afternoon and then feel as knowledgeable as though he had spent years among the people learning the lay of the land.
I can relate to this. I was once a low-level manager (more of a team leader) at a software company. Part of what I was supposed to do was valuable: I was supposed to motivate the employees on my team to work productively, and to feel good about what they were doing, and to help promote their career goals, and also to help coordinate their efforts. But most of what my new role entailed was wholly bureaucratic: supplying “metrics” to and writing weekly “progress reports” for people further up the ladder that they could use to justify their decisions (decisions I suspect that they would have made in just as slapdash a fashion without my input). I eventually found that my most useful role was to be an insulator between upper management and the people doing productive work — protecting the latter from having to think about the bombastic and erratic pronouncements of the former.
So, anyway, one of the purposes of bureaucracy is to organize ignorance in such a way that it allows powerful people to maintain their hard-earned stupidity while projecting an air of command and control. “Bureaucratic procedures,” writes Graeber, “which have an uncanny ability to make even the smartest people act like idiots, are not so much forms of stupidity in themselves, as they are ways of managing situations already stupid because of the effects of structural violence.”
By “structural violence” he doesn’t mean “metaphorical violence” as in “the ideology of racism is a form of structural violence because of how it demeans its victims” but he means “actual violence” as in “racism is perpetuated by the threat and use of police billy clubs on behalf of the dominant racial group, among other such things.” That violence is stupid is not an insult to violence but a description of it: it is the antithesis of understanding.
Graeber’s analysis of bureaucracy, both in government and in the more-or-less private sector, is also an analysis of how structural violence and bureaucracy support and justify each other, and also how the rest of us become complicit in structural violence and bureaucracy in pursuit of our own little slice of the stupid that we can luxuriate in from time to time.
Bondurant was working in military intelligence during World War Ⅱ and was assigned to India where she translated Japanese communications. While she waBondurant was working in military intelligence during World War Ⅱ and was assigned to India where she translated Japanese communications. While she was there she was exposed to Gandhi’s satyagraha techniques as they were being developed and put into use there, and she was impressed by what she saw and decided to give the subject some study. Her book was one of the first attempts to methodically describe the theory behind the use of satyagraha in political conflict.
(Bondurant seems to have had some instinctual appreciation of satyagraha ahead of time. Legend has it that when she went to learn Japanese in her eagerness to help the war effort, she was turned away — the class was for men only. So she sat outside the classroom door every day until they relented and let her in.)
Gandhi himself did not pause to try and rigorously delineate the contours of his theory. He explained himself briefly on many occasions, and you can piece together a picture of what he had in mind from various examples of these, but because he was developing his technique on-the-fly, experimenting and refining along the way, he sometimes contradicts himself, and the overall picture of what he developed can be a fuzzy one.
Bondurant’s is one attempt of many to try to make up for this lack of a formal understanding of satyagraha.
She starts by giving an introduction to what satyagraha is, how Gandhi developed it, and how he described it. She then tells how it played out in a variety of campaigns, and what generalizations we can draw from seeing how these campaigns played out.
Then she inquires into how much the success of satyagraha depended on the preexisting cultural context of Hinduism. (She suggests that while Gandhi was skilled at remixing the symbols and norms of Hinduism and of Indian culture to explain his technique, the technique itself is universal, and could just as easily be translated to another culture.)
Finally, she compares satyagraha, which is a theory of political action, to a variety of other, more static political theories — such as anarchism, Marxism, liberalism, autocratic idealism, and paleoconservatism. She finds that the means-are-the-ends philosophy of satyagraha give it an edge over other political philosophies that tend to be vague on the means to be used to bring about preferred ends or to resolve conflicts.
I found the book to be thought provoking in many parts, but also to be a little dry and sometimes wordy and vague.
Among the more interesting bits was the discussion of whether Gandhi could be considered an anarchist. Gandhi did not profess a particular political philosophy or theory of the state. Sometimes the things he said seemed to have no interpretation but an anarchist one; other times, he explicitly envisioned and promoted particular state-based action.
Bondurant suggests that part of the problem people have when trying to get a straight answer to this question is that they take for granted the traditional description of a state as an entity that claims a local monopoly on the legitimate use of violence. Just as Gandhi was innovating in developing nonviolent ways of projecting force or of resolving conflict, Bondurant thinks, he was also able to imagine a state-like institution that did not use or legitimize violence in its methods of projecting force or resolving conflict. So that when Gandhi spoke of ideal governments or states, he may not have been imagining anything that would necessarily make an anarchist upset....more
If everything, including you and me, is made up of material that blindly obeys the inflexible laws of physics, then everything that happens, includingIf everything, including you and me, is made up of material that blindly obeys the inflexible laws of physics, then everything that happens, including what you and I do, is inevitable, and free will is something of an illusion or a joke.
Or are we just thinking of the question the wrong way?
The free will conundrum takes a turn for the ridiculous when it assumes that free will is something that must take place outside of the material world that everything else resides in. The thought experiment goes something like this: make some arbitrary decision (say, to raise your left hand), then imagine turning back the clock and resetting the universe so that every single fact about it was the same as it was before you made that decision. When you restart the clock, would it be possible for you to decide any differently?
If you try to imagine your will, your decision-making apparatus, as something outside of “every single fact about” the universe, as it has been perennially tempting to do, you end up in a morass of speculation about mind and matter, body and spirit, and where they intersect and how. If you avoid this temptation, you just have to argue with the premise of the thought experiment: if it were possible for me to decide differently, at least one single fact about the universe — that decision, embodied however it is in the material world with its material-world consequences — would have to be different in order for me to do so.
That solves the conundrum, sort of, but provokes the worried observation that “that decision, embodied however it is in the material world” is itself an effect of material causes, which does mean (doesn’t it?) that everything is inevitable and predetermined and therefore all of our existential angst is for naught.
Or not. There are a couple of ways out of this fix, too. Michael S. Gazzaniga briefly toys with a tempting one — that our understanding of quantum physics demonstrates that deterministic cause and effect does not exist at that fundamental level, and chaos theory shows that tiny changes, such as those exhibited at the quantum level, can have dramatic large-scale effects. I get really skeptical whenever a popular science writer starts waving their hands and saying “the uncertainty principle!” “the butterfly effect!” because usually the next thing they say is “therefore, maybe magic is real!” without bothering with the intervening reasoning.
It is true that if the material world is not fundamentaly deterministic, but that this causal determinism only appears true when the material world is viewed at a certain granularity, then to say that our minds and our wills are material and behave according to the laws of matter is not to doom them to plodding along in predetermined, inexorable grooves. But this is different from rescuing a naïve free will: if quantum behavior is, to some extent, not in principle predictible, it is also, to that extent, in principle arbitrary. This would seem to move our minds and wills out of the predetermined & inexorable category only to drop us into one at least as frightening: instead of plodding along a predetermined path that was laid out for us in the first moment of creation, we’re randomly sliding down one of an infinite variety of possible paths, but still with no more control over the process than a marble in a chute.
Because the free will we want is not quite so free as that — not a “there’s absolutely no telling what I will do next” sort of free, but an “I’m going to decide what to do next” sort of free. And that sort of free will, Gazzaniga says, we have — as long as we do not try to situate it outside of the physical world or make it somehow immune to the laws of physics. Using our best judgement to make decisions about what to do next is exactly what our brains evolved to accomplish, and they evolved this ability within the real, material world. And that’s OK.
Just as “life” is completely embodied in the material world, and is not some extramaterial essence breathed into it; so “ego” and “will” are as well. This doesn’t make them any less wonderful or worth getting excited about.
But there’s a catch. While we have free will, of this sort anyway, our intuitive idea of how it operates and of “who” operates it is probably wrong. It seems to me as though “I,” a solitary ego who is the sole occupant of my mind or at least the sovereign of that domain, deliberates, makes a decision, and then the rest of me carries it out as ordered. Gazzaniga thinks that scientific experimentation on this hypothesis has pretty much ruled it out as hogwash. More likely, he says, is that a vast, loosely-connected network of mental modules — some exposed to consciousness and some not — make decisions on their own, and then our conscious “decider” comes up with a story line to explain what happened, putting itself in the driver’s seat out of conceit.
We have no access to the inner worlds of other people, and so have to model and predict their behavior as though they were a “black box” — the usual way we do this is to try to model their knowledge, intentions, and reasoning, and make predictions from there. We are so used to doing this that we will even apply this sort of thinking to our predictions of the actions of non-human or even non-living things like robots or marionettes. Our ostensible “decider” — Gazzaniga calls it the “interpreter” — does much the same thing to model the person whose brain it sits inside. In short, the unified decider-ego is not who we are, but is the simplified model that our brain’s interpreter-module makes of us in order to make sense of its behavior and to get insight into what other people must think of us.
(This is how Adam Smith described “conscience” — not as the insight by which we discern good & evil or the nagging voice prompting us to resist temptation, but instead the faculty by which we simulate the perspective of an impartial observer who observes our own headspace and behavior, using the same criteria we naturally use when judging others.)
Because of this, there are times when we say “I decided to do such-and-such for these reasons” and we are just plain wrong. Even the rest of the time, we’re just guessing. It isn’t that we don’t have free will, of a sort, but that it isn’t transparent to us how this free will operates in us.
Which doesn’t mean that it is completely out of our control. We can make decisions that influence the way we will make future decisions: if we educate ourselves, our future decisions will reflect that education; if we practice certain habits, our future decisions will be influenced by those habits; if we stumble upon some creed that agrees with us, we may radically alter our way of being in the world to conform to it. But those decisions themselves are not necessarily under conscious direction: we seem to unconsciously (but note this does not necessarily mean unintelligently or unwisely) become the person we are while at the same time consciously endeavoring to discover the person we have become — and we confuse the one for the other....more
I was sympathetic to the thesis and already liked the author, but ended the book unconvinced. It's an interesting idea, but his arguments and examplesI was sympathetic to the thesis and already liked the author, but ended the book unconvinced. It's an interesting idea, but his arguments and examples are too much correlation and not enough causation. I wish he'd develop this a little more and try again....more
I can’t say I was all that optimistic when I saw the title, or when the publicist who sent me the copy promised that Harris was “the conservative AmerI can’t say I was all that optimistic when I saw the title, or when the publicist who sent me the copy promised that Harris was “the conservative American public intellectual of the new millennium.” I figured this was just going to be one of those books people read when they want to be reminded that people who think like they do are good and those other folks are a bunch of cretins.
I was happy to find that the book is much better than its subtitle. Superficially it’s meant to be a defense of the TEA Party / town hall disruption / Glen Beckian paranoid kvetching / Sara Palinish tendency against the “liberal elites” they complain about. But there’s actually very little in the book about these things. They’re mentioned in passing, along with things like Rosa Parks, Wat Tyler’s rebellion, the disovery of Tahiti, the English Civil War, the Stonewall Riots, the signing of the Magna Carta, the American Revolution, the rise of Andrew Jackson, and so forth. None of these are really analyzed in detail. Elements of each of them are brought out as exemplars to support some facet of Harris’s thesis.
The gist of which thesis is that these quasi-populist, quasi-organized, right-wing rumblings that have made the news recently are all examples of a latent, liberty-loving orneriness that comes to the surface periodically in lucky countries like ours that have the sort of cultural underpinnings that allow healthy, freedom-promoting governments to evolve.
The tension between democratic, libertarianesque populism on the one hand, and the guidance of the nation by well-meaning, well-educated elites on the other, is, according to Harris, itself a blessing. We shouldn’t root for one side or the other to win (though we may have reason at any particular time to hope one side or the other gets the upper hand) — the fact that these two sides are both vibrant and remain locked in conflict is what ensures the health and utility of republican institutions.
In other words: be glad for the TEA Partiers despite their foibles, inconsistencies, paranoia, and anti-intellectualism, for it is just such unhinged ornery populists that save us from the inevitable overreaching of the nanny state technocrats who would crush society in order to save it. (But cherish the technocrats, too, for they too have their virtues, and if the populists were given unfettered control everything would go to hell in short order.)
It’s thought-provoking to be given a whirlwind tour of Western history seen through the lens of this thesis. That said, the book doesn’t defend the thesis so much as tell it like a bedtime story: pleasant enough, but not very rigorous....more
A clever paraphrase of The Nicomachean Ethics, books 1-5, as transcripts of lessons Aristotle was giving to (and questions he was fielding from) a fewA clever paraphrase of The Nicomachean Ethics, books 1-5, as transcripts of lessons Aristotle was giving to (and questions he was fielding from) a few of his students. Makes for a more readable book than the translations that are more faithful to the original Greek, though with some of the ambiguities necessarily ceding to Stock's interpretation....more