Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Let them be men

Every motive they try to act on becomes at once petitio [validated by strength of their self declared virtue]. It is not that they are bad men. They are not men at all. Stepping outside the Natural Law, they have stepped into the void. Nor are their subjects necessarily unhappy men. They are not men at all: they are artefacts. Man's final conquest has proved to be the abolition of Man. - C.S. Lewis "The Abolition of Man"
Asked recently if Barack Obama is evil I had to stop and think. As a Christian the question of evil is not difficult to come to grips with. The Bible states that "A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit...Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them." That is the judgement that we are admonished to apply as Christians in discernment of good and evil. But in our pluralistic society, there is a conventional understanding of evil as intentional, focused on the goal of advancing evil for the sake of evil. What we see in men like Barack Obama is not the sort of self-aware evil that we would find in a man keeping a kidnapped child in his basement in slavery for years, or in a genocidal maniac like Hitler. A man that believes in the perfectibility of man and sees himself as an agent of that perfectibility may be confused, even delusional, certainly dangerous, but society will only be confused by assertions that he is "evil". At the risk of over-thinking the question, I would contend that focusing on the agents of evil may not be the most constructive perspective to take.

The tear that forms when a heart breaks at the pain of a friend is a symptom of goodness. It does not mean that the person that shed the tear is good. The judgment of such things from outward evidence should be taken with care. We can appreciate the compassionate tear, or recognize the danger of tyranny without declaring the agents of them good or evil. The agency of goodness or evil is where most of our nurture or resistance should be focused, not simply the agents. This may seem to be a slight distinction, but it is vital to recognize the importance of holding accountable even those elected officials that we think of positively. Our loyalty should always be toward goodness, and our opposition should always be toward evil, regardless of what person we may find good or evil manifested within at any given moment.

Perpetuating the calamity taking place on the U.S. Southern border is evil. We are all conscious of the fact that some children are being horribly abused, and even losing their lives through the process of making their way thousands of miles attended by strangers with agendas of their own. It was also well known that the switch to Obamacare was certain to result in medical hardships, suffering, and some loss of life. These are the logical, and predicted, outcomes of intentional policy. In issues like this we see evidence of that more generally accepted type of evil. It grows from a view that some eggs need to be broken to achieve a desired outcome. But in the daily news cycle we are reminded that these eggs represent the very real hopes, dreams, and lives of innocents. The danger in considering these "crises" in the context of good vs. evil personified arises from ascribing motives too uniquely to Obama that find their genesis in a broadly distributed world view.

When we find our leaders "Stepping outside the Natural Law" as Lewis would say, what is available to them for motive? The options for motives of leaders within societies are limited - Natural Law, or Elitism. Obama clearly rejects the concept of Natural Law. Some people will bristle at the idea that he is an elitist, but words have meaning. Any elected official that believes that the Constitution (Natural Law) is an obstacle to their ability to properly shape society is an elitist - a member of a class that believes they are uniquely suited to direct the detailed affairs of men, to define rights, and to limit the influence of improper views. Obama clearly views himself as an elitist. Unfortunately, all three branches of our federal government are filled with people of this sort - they are currently the rule rather than the exception.

The great irony of progressivism is that it discards the truly revolutionary idea of Natural Law to return to the ancient concept of governance by elites. The elites may get their progress, the rest of us get to have our lives shaped by meddlesome bureaucrats just as our ancestors lived their lives at the pleasure of lords and kings. The assumption of Natural Law in the founding principles of the United States represented a revolutionary change in which the state became the subject of the governed, governors became servants, and the law (Constitution) became the king. Whether Obama is evil or not is of limited relevance. He is currently working against the Natural Law principles our nation was founded on, making progress on taking us back to the old relationship between citizen and state.

If we will not see the end of the American Dream we must first remember what it is. For decades we have watched the subtle re-writing of the American Dream until it is presented as little more than the prospect of affluence - stuff - a good job - a "living wage" - a safe harbor from various forms of injustice. It becomes less about attaining the dream of America and more about escaping a nightmare. The real American Dream is about the right of the individual to determine his own path in ordered liberty. It attracts the immigrant to America because he loves America, not because he hates someplace else. This is the distinction between what is offered by leaders that would see America transformed and those that would see America transform the world. It is the distinction between those that would make men "artefacts" of the state and those that would let them be men.

Thursday, June 19, 2014


Imagine an armed robbery being publicly committed in broad daylight under the purview of an on-duty police officer. If that police officer did no more than turn to the on-looking crowd and express his disapproval of the actions of the criminal, would we conclude that the officer had done anything of substance? Maybe he could post a picture of the perp on facebook, or tweet it with a #badguy tag, or start a petition demanding that the robber stop robbing people. Neither the most righteous indignation in the world  nor the most public display of disapproval will deter a determined criminal. Fortunately, accountability would be demanded of this hypothetical police officer and he probably would not hold his job for long. Of course he could then seek elected office where our expectations are clearly quite different than they are for other authority figures.

In the analogy above, are we more disappointed about the actions of the robber, or the policeman? Is the more reasonable expectation that the criminal stop acting like a criminal, or is it more reasonable to expect the policeman start acting like a policeman? Is it reasonable to conclude that a person given the authority, the ability, and the opportunity to stop an injustice, but refuses to do so, is anything but an accomplice in that injustice?

The dysfunction of American politics has reached a surreal height. Like a recurring nightmare we watch as injustice after injustice is met with feckless response after feckless response. We are bombarded with deja vu disappointments at a dizzying pace. The most powerful branch of the U.S. government, our national legislature, musters no greater resistance to executive injustice than to express its disapproval. Assaults on fundamental liberties are resisted with simple disapproval. Regulatory overreach is met with simple disapproval. Abuse of authority is met with simple disapproval. Betrayal of the Constitution that oaths have been sworn to uphold are met with simple disapproval. It is only arrogance that makes one man believe that another man's misdeeds can be stopped by his disapproval. The Legislature has the authority, the ability, and the opportunities to stop the executive abuses that are taking place. Every day that they fail to stop the lawlessness is a day in which they participate in it.

The mockery of Michelle Obama's hashtag diplomacy in support of the kidnapped Nigerian girls is well deserved. But her diplomatic efforts are no less shallow than the theatrics with which GOP leaders respond to executive crisis after executive crisis. There is literally more effort put into raising funds on the back of these crises than there is into solving them. Last week Texas Senator John Cornyn made the following statement regarding the catastrophe underway at America's southern border:
"In recent weeks it’s become impossible to deny the fact that we have a full-blown humanitarian crisis along the U.S.-Mexican border. Sadly, this crisis is directly the result of President Obama’s own policies and it involves tens of thousands of young children… risking their lives.
Tomorrow before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Secretary Jeh Johnson of the Department of Homeland Security will be testifying and I hope he can provide us some answers." 
Jeh Johson - the top official charged with enforcement of our immigration laws. The same Jeh Johnson that demonstrated a complete lack of intent to carry out his constitutional duty back in January when he said that those that have come to our country illegally had "earned the right to be citizens." The same Jeh Johnson that should have long ago been impeached by congress for blatantly refusing to carry out the mandate of his office. Cornyn is right. Obama's policies did enable the crisis, but it remains to be seen if Cornyn will do more than vilify an administration that sincerely could not care less about his disapproval. We have a "full-blown" crisis regarding the separation of powers and the rule-of-law in Washington D.C..

The unfortunate truth is that it was only possible to "deny the fact" that we have a crisis on the border prior to "recent weeks" because the situation wasn't made apparent to enough of our citizenry. The crisis itself has been taking place for well over a year. Where was Senator Cornyn when four times the typical annual influx of "Unaccompanied Alien Children" inundated our border in 2013? Where was he when twice the typical number arrived in 2012? Central American governments, the government of Mexico, and the government of the United States have been fully aware of this issue for a very long time. The only reason it is a "crisis" today is because the people are finally aware of what these governments had already known.

No single branch of our government is unified against lawlessness at any significant level. A symptom of it may be addressed here and there when the popular awareness of an issue rises the the point that the politicians must deviate from business as usual to engage in the theater of disapproval long enough to raise funds from the crisis or make election points with the people back home. Occasionally it reaches a boiling point where actual action takes place. Without fail it is the minimum action required to assuage the narrowly focused concerns of an offended constituency.

We are faced with overwhelming frustration at the disconnect between shallow hashtag politics and profoundly destructive attacks being directed at the foundations of the Republic. We see that frustration play out in the removal of GOP leadership like Eric Cantor. We see it in the removal of long standing GOP representatives like Ralph Hall. A significant portion of the Republican constituency is saying "enough", and yet the house Republicans replace Cantor with a Cantor establishment clone. We demand action and they give us theater and donation opportunities. The political class simply lives in a different world than the average American. The louder that the people demand that the political class simply care about the same things we care about, the more tone deaf they seem to become. At some point we have to consider that they are playing us for chumps - even the ones on our "team".

The system is too short on accountability. We the people are not doing the job of holding our representatives accountable, and they are certainly not making the effort to hold the administration accountable. Bad actions must have consequences if they are to be deterred. The removal of Jeh Johnson, Eric Holder, etc., must be a real possibility if the disapproval of the jobs they are doing is going to have any meaning. Even unelected bureaucrats at the IRS, EPA, etc., have reason to believe that they are immune to accountability. We have a President that acts invincible because he has been given no reason to believe that he is not - leaving us to wonder if the cops charged with holding him accountable are on our side, or his.

Friday, June 13, 2014

The terrible bargain

The text below is an excerpt from a 1958 essay by C.S. Lewis. Lewis' life long avoidance of political involvement juxtaposed with his insight into, and apparent passion for, conservative philosophy remind us that the cause of freedom is more than a team sport. The world is poorer for its current shortage of such philosophers as Lewis, but we can look across these decades to recognize that the truths he presented are as timeless as the warnings.
...Are people becoming, or likely to become, better or happier? Obviously this allows only the most conjectural answer. Most individual experience (and there is no other kind) never gets into the news, let alone the history books; one has an imperfect grasp even of one's own. We are reduced to generalities. Even among these it is hard to strike a balance. Sir Charles enumerates many real ameliorations. Against these we must set Hiroshima, Black and Tans, Gestapo, Ogpu, brain-washing, the Russian slave camps. Perhaps we grow kinder to children; but then we grow less kind to the old. Any G.P.[general practitioner (doctor)] will tell you that even prosperous people refuse to look after their parents. 'Can't they be got into some sort of Home?' says Goneril. [In Shakespeare's King Lear] 

More useful, I think, than an attempt at balancing, is the reminder that most of these phenomena, good and bad, are made possible by two things. These two will probably determine most of what happens to us for some time. 

The first is the advance, and increasing application, of science. As a means to the ends I care for, this is neutral. We shall grow able to cure, and to produce, more diseases --bacterial war, not bombs, might ring down the curtain-- to alleviate, and to inflict, more pains, to husband, or to waste, the resources of the planet more extensively. We can become either more beneficent or more mischievous. My guess is we shall do both; mending one thing and marring another, removing old miseries and producing new ones, safeguarding ourselves here and endangering ourselves there. 

The second is the changed relation between Government and subjects. Sir Charles mentions our new attitude to crime. I will mention the trainloads of Jews delivered at the German gas-chambers. It seems shocking to suggest a common element, but I think one exists. On the humanitarian view all crime is pathological; it demands not retributive punishment but cure. This separates the criminal's treatment from the concepts of justice and desert; a 'just cure' is meaningless. 

On the old view public opinion might protest against a punishment (it protested against our old penal code) as excessive, more than the man 'deserved'; an ethical question on which anyone might have an opinion. But a remedial treatment can be judged only by the probability of its success; a technical question on which only experts can speak. 

Thus the criminal ceases to be a person, a subject of rights and duties, and becomes merely an object on which society can work. And this is, in principle, how Hitler treated the Jews. They were objects; killed not for ill desert but because, on his theories, they were a disease in society. If society can mend, remake, and unmake men at its pleasure, its pleasure may, of course, be humane or homicidal. The difference is important. But, either way, rulers have become owners. Observe how the 'humane' attitude to crime could operate. If crimes are diseases, why should diseases be treated differently from crimes? And who but the experts can define disease? One school of psychology regards my religion as a neurosis. If this neurosis ever becomes inconvenient to Government, what is to prevent my being subjected to a compulsory 'cure'? It may be painful; treatments sometimes are. But it will be no use asking, 'What have I done to deserve this?' The Straightener will reply: 'But, my dear fellow, no one's blaming you. We no longer believe in retributive justice. We're healing you.' 

This would be no more than an extreme application of the political philosophy implicit in most modern communities. It has stolen on us unawares. Two wars necessitated vast curtailments of liberty, and we have grown, though grumblingly, accustomed to our chains. The increasing complexity and precariousness of our economic life have forced Government to take over many spheres of activity once left to choice or chance. Our intellectuals have surrendered first to the slave-philosophy of Hegel, then to Marx, finally to the linguistic analysts. 

As a result, classical political theory, with its Stoical, Christian, and juristic key-conceptions (natural law, the value of the individual, the rights of man), has died. The modern State exists not to protect our rights but to do us good or make us good -- anyway, to do something to us or to make us something. Hence the new name 'leaders' for those who were once 'rulers'. We are less their subjects than their wards, pupils, or domestic animals. There is nothing left of which we can say to them, 'Mind your own business.' Our whole lives are their business. 

I write 'they' because it seems childish not to recognize that actual government is and always must be oligarchical. Our effective masters must be more than one and fewer than all. But the oligarchs begin to regard us in a new way. 

Here, I think, lies our real dilemma. Probably we cannot, certainly we shall not, retrace our steps. We are tamed animals (some with kind, some with cruel, masters) and should probably starve if we got out of our cage. That is one horn of the dilemma. But in an increasingly planned society, how much of what I value can survive? That is the other horn. 

I believe a man is happier, and happy in a richer way, if he has 'the freeborn mind'. But I doubt whether he can have this without economic independence, which the new society is abolishing. For economic independence allows an education not controlled by Government; and in adult life it is the man who needs, and asks, nothing of Government who can criticise its acts and snap his fingers at its ideology. Read Montaigne; that's the voice of a man with his legs under his own table, eating the mutton and turnips raised on his own land. Who will talk like that when the State is everyone's schoolmaster and employer? Admittedly, when man was untamed, such liberty belonged only to the few. I know. Hence the horrible suspicion that our only choice is between societies with few freemen and societies with none. 

Again, the new oligarchy must more and more base its claim to plan us on its claim to knowledge. If we are to be mothered, mother must know best. This means they must increasingly rely on the advice of scientists, till in the end the politicians proper become merely the scientists' puppets. Technocracy is the form to which a planned society must tend. Now I dread specialists in power because they are specialists speaking outside their special subjects. Let scientists tell us about sciences. But government involves questions about the good for man, and justice, and what things are worth having at what price; and on these a scientific training gives a man's opinion no added value. Let the doctor tell me I shall die unless I do so-and-so; but whether life is worth having on those terms is no more a question for him than for any other man. 

Thirdly, I do not like the pretensions of Government --the grounds on which it demands my obedience-- to be pitched too high. I don't like the medicine-man's magical pretensions nor the Bourbon's Divine Right. This is not solely because I disbelieve in magic and in Bossuet's Politique.[4- Jacques Benigne Bossuet, Politique tiree des propres paroles de L'Ecriture-Sainte (Paris, 1709).] I believe in God, but I detest theocracy. For every Government consists of mere men and is, strictly viewed, a makeshift; if it adds to its commands 'Thus saith the Lord', it lies, and lies dangerously. 

On just the same ground I dread government in the name of science. That is how tyrannies come in. In every age the men who want us under their thumb, if they have any sense, will put forward the particular pretension which the hopes and fears of that age render most potent. They 'cash in'. It has been magic, it has been Christianity. Now it will certainly be science. Perhaps the real scientists may not think much of the tyrants' 'science'-- they didn't think much of Hitler's racial theories or Stalin's biology. But they can be muzzled. 

We must give full weight to Sir Charles's reminder that millions in the East are still half starved. To these my fears would seem very unimportant. A hungry man thinks about food, not freedom. We must give full weight to the claim that nothing but science, and science globally applied, and therefore unprecedented Government controls, can produce full bellies and medical care for the whole human race: nothing, in short, but a world Welfare State. It is a full admission of these truths which impresses upon me the extreme peril of humanity at present. 

We have on the one hand a desperate need; hunger, sickness, and the dread of war. We have, on the other, the conception of something that might meet it: omnicompetent global technocracy. Are not these the ideal opportunity for enslavement? This is how it has entered before; a desperate need (real or apparent) in the one party, a power (real or apparent) to relieve it, in the other. In the ancient world individuals have sold themselves as slaves, in order to eat. So in society. Here is a witch-doctor who can save us from the sorcerers -- a war-lord who can save us from the barbarians -- a Church that can save us from Hell. Give them what they ask, give ourselves to them bound and blindfold, if only they will! Perhaps the terrible bargain will be made again. We cannot blame men for making it. We can hardly wish them not to. Yet we can hardly bear that they should. 

The question about progress has become the question whether we can discover any way of submitting to the worldwide paternalism of a technocracy without losing all personal privacy and independence. Is there any possibility of getting the super Welfare State's honey and avoiding the sting? 

Let us make no mistake about the sting. The Swedish sadness is only a foretaste. To live his life in his own way, to call his house his castle, to enjoy the fruits of his own labour, to educate his children as his conscience directs, to save for their prosperity after his death --- these are wishes deeply ingrained in civilised man. Their realization is almost as necessary to our virtues as to our happiness. From their total frustration disastrous results both moral and psychological might follow. 

All this threatens us even if the form of society which our needs point to should prove an unparalleled success. But is that certain? What assurance have we that our masters will or can keep the promise which induced us to sell ourselves? Let us not be deceived by phrases about 'Man taking charge of his own destiny'. All that can really happen is that some men will take charge of the destiny of the others. They will be simply men; none perfect; some greedy, cruel and dishonest. The more completely we are planned the more powerful they will be. Have we discovered some new reason why, this time, power should not corrupt as it has done before?