Friday, January 27, 2006

Misc items... plus libertarianism....

While some interesting argument continues re the most recent postings -- both about Intelligent Design and the administration’s abuse of our military (please feel free to continue in comments here) -- let me offer a few pieces of miscellany...

* See a fascinating article briefly summarizing the history of US efforts to stimulate and promote pan-Islamism, as a counter to the Soviets, during the Cold War... and how we are paying for shortsightedness today.

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* See a fascinating article about the “bottle messages” that have gone out on various space probes.  I am on a committee or two with Jon Lomberg (see below) who has been involved in most of these endeavors.

“The Cassini probe, which is currently exploring Saturn and its moons, was launched with a DVD -- one containing 614,420 signatures. Meanwhile, a rather different message was imagined for the Huygens probe, now resting on the surface of Titan. Jon Lomberg, design director for the Voyager Record (see his Web site at www.jonlomberg.com), pondered sending a message aboard Huygens. His answer, arrived at with help from physicist and science-fiction writer Gregory Benford: a diamond wafer that would survive for billions of yeas after Huygens disintegrated. (Mr. Lomberg calls the wafer an effort to make "an artificial fossil.") The wafer would contain a photograph of people and photographs of astronomical objects intended to help a potential discoverer figure out how old it was.

“DeBeers donated diamond wafers and the "Portrait of Humanity" photo was taken, but Cassini went to Saturn without the message, which Mr. Lomberg says was scrapped amid NASA concerns about who'd get credit for the project and the fact that Fuji-Xerox had sponsored it. (He wrote an interesting article about the project for the journal Contact in Context -- you can read it and see the photo and read extensive ruminations etc at http://www.jonlomberg.com/articles-APOH.html


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I must thank “PiMal” again for linking us to "Political bias affects brain activity, study finds." I must say the MSNBC article fits nicely into the case I am making at: http://www.davidbrin.com/addiction.html.

 I wish I could interest researchers in broadening such studies, to a scale that might actually save civilization from today’s plague of dogmatism. (Anyone care to point the authors of this study toward my “Open letter...”?)

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And now the political lamp is lit... but NOT in order to rant against the Monsters. Instead, it is to deliver a poke in the eye in a fresh direction. Well, somewhat fresh. As a contrarian, I like to be seen prodding almost as much at friends as at enemies. Hence I quite-willingly eviscerate fallacies of liberalism and libertarianism... and even science. The difference is that many of these pokes are aimed at flaws in these movements that make them less effective at combatting the real enemies of the Enlightenment. Consider my criticism an attempt to be helpful.

But of course it is more complicated than that. In fact, there are influential members of all of these movements who are - by personality and behavior - in effect enemies of the Enlightenment. But I digress...

* For those of you who have friends with a libertarian leaning (don’t we all?), let me recommend that you have them drop by http://www.reformthelp.org/home/intro/ and especially the theory page at http://www.reformthelp.org/theory/intro/

Partly inspired by my 2002 address to an LP convention (half the delegates wanted to lynch me, prevented only by the other half who were giving me a standing ovation), several groups are trying to pull the Libertarian movement away from the iron grip of dogmatists... the same basic personality type that controls the GOP, the Greens, and keeps trying to control the Democrats. (So far, the Democratic Party remains the last American Institution marginally led by modernists, though only by a thread.) Platonist-essentialists who preach the drug-high of ideological purity at the expense of the pragmatic enlightenment revolution of Locke and Franklin.

As for the agenda offered at that web site, imagine the possibilities. An incrementalist-practical libertarian movement? One that does not grab lapels and scream at voters about how stoopid the average citizen is, for not realizing that all guv’mint is eeeeeevil? But instead offers to push a few, pragmatic steps toward the furtherance and empowerment of individual autonomy and citizenship? In other words, imagine, suddenly, a home for the 40 million somewhat-libertarian-leaning voters who now hold their noses and vote for the GOP, even though they despise Karl Rove’s Culture War.

I don’t agree with every single thing you’ll find at http://www.reformthelp.org/theory/intro/ But it is a step. And it inspired me to add few minor points.

1. I find it effective to note that Natural Rights proclaimers are essentially Platonists, in that they follow the prescription of Plato -- and Marx and Strauss and most religions, for that matter. The deep philosophical underpinning of essentialism is that the imperfect senses rule out any value for pragmatism, or studying the gritty real world, because you will never get perfect answers. (See Plato's Allegory of the Cave.) Therefore, any intelligent person should turn away from gritty pragmatism in favor of essentialist argument and dogma. (Varieties range from logic to faith to incantations to “reason” to “objectivism” even! But it’s all the same under the skin.)

What is stunning is that anyone would swallow the core essentialist assumption: that our imperfect senses are somehow less reliable than the imperfect IMAGINATIONS that carry out so-called reasoning! If we are master self-deluders in the area of perception, often mis-interpreting real world events, shouldn’t that worry go double for self-delusion inside our own heads?

At least when you are dealing with the real world, there remains the ever-present possibility of delusion-correction through CITOKATE. But a dogma that takes memic residence entirely within neurons can be impervious, even to reasoned argument. Even to overwhelming counter-evidence. It can self-reinforce by provoking the release of addiction chemicals. This happens so often that any mature person is obliged to assume that it is reinforcing his or her best-cherished belief, especially if it it held indignantly, self-righteously. With certainty, in a world whose complex and contingent nature seems to preach the sermon of self-doubt.


2. Many of these arguments rage around unspoken assumptions about human nature. But what is our natural condition? Elsewhere I speak of Rousseau, Hobbes and Locke. Here I want to mention a fourth guy .... Thog. Our ancestor, the caveman.

We spent 99% of human generations living like Thog. In other words, the circumstances that channeled baseline human nature -- those for which our genes adapted and evolved... in other words, what is "natural" -- can only be understood by peering at our life during the Neolithic.

I defy anybody, while squinting at our ancestral life in caves -- or primitive wandering tribes -- to seriously support the view that this life was some kind of libertarian/freemarket/creative paradise, rather than a Lord of the Flies era of brutal bullying, perhaps occasionally moderated with a few chastening fables. Test: if that vast expanse really were an era of individual reification and freedom, why was there only glacial progress during that million years?

Progress -- and crude markets -- only began with the arrival of cities. And those cities were managed -- at first -- by brutally hierarchical governments, only a slim improvement on bully clans. The brutality only eased gradually, and markets improved, as progress fed progress and education empowered larger fractions of the population. Incrementally.

In other words, history supports the image of markets and freedom as EMERGENT PROPERTIES of complex systems that are called human societies. Some societies develop good methods that help these properties to continue emerging. For example the traditions of the pragmatic wing of the Enlightenment -- individualism and autonomy, freedom and suspicion of authority.

These memes HELP the synergistic advance of markets and progress, because markets and progress still have enemies. Especially in the kingly and priestly aristocratic modes that habitually seek to restore rule-by-hierarchy. The libertarian reflex (a version of SOA) is generally healthy and right. But we must not focus so hard on the memes that we forget the PROCESS.

And the process is undeniably incremental.

Which is why essentialists hate history! Especially any thought to humanity’s formative years, the million years when our nature took shape. Marx utterly ignored Darwin. So does Ayn Rand. As - of course - does every dogmatist of the far right. They like to grab a few choice historical quotations, pretend they are historically literate, and then ignore the gritty sweep of it all.

38 comments:

Francis said...

*contrary mathematician hat on*

The deep philosophical underpinning of essentialism is that the imperfect senses rule out any value for pragmatism, or studying the gritty real world, because you will never get perfect answers. (See Plato's Allegory of the Cave.) Therefore, any intelligent person should turn away from gritty pragmatism in favor of essentialist argument and dogma.

But you can get perfect answers which absolutely coincide with the real world when you start from a purely rational perspective and take it to its logical extremes. The logical extreme of the rationalist position taking place in the field of mathematics. (Which, as I've said before, is empiricism applied to the rational universe). And my senses are not as reliable as my mathematical abilities...

Therefore, if you are careful about it, applying a rationalist perspective to the real world can lead you further than strict empiricism would be able to.

For those of you who have friends with a libertarian leaning (don’t we all?),

Most of mine grew out of it. But then knowledge of history is far better among my peers than average...

Thog said...

David, why you pick on Thog? Thog like you. Thog give you fire, spear, meat. Thog provide basic essential framework and paradigm for evolutionary game TRIBES. Thog sometimes have to use big words to make point. Thog not Alcibiades. Why you no like Thog?

Michael "Sotek" Ralston said...

Francis: Math is great at extrapolating, but all the "purely logical" axioms are ... not.
Euclid would have gotten nowhere if he didn't look at reality.


Now for my actual post:
I think the fundamental problem with the libertarian position (at least as I've seen it advocated) is that it ignores the fact that the government can and does do good, and in ways the free market can't match. (How many privately-owned roads do you drive on in a week?)

I agree with the libertarians when they advocate against legislating morality and so on (the war on drugs is still quite possibly the biggest scam there is), of course - I'd love to see a viable Libertarian party.

Don Quijote said...

libertarianism, the ideology of people who are born on third base and go through life thinking they hit a triple.

Palliard said...

I think the libertarian position has been exaggerated to absurdity precisely in order to marginalize it.

Very few libertarians advocate actual anarchy or grab your lapels and scream at you... the screaming part is particularly unseemly. The ones I personally know are closer to the ideal type you describe, and advocate a lean government that does things collectively better than people can or will do them individually.

It was described to me this way: "You can imagine a society in which every person was responsible for paving the road in front of his house. You can also imagine that on your street there would be that asshole down by the corner with a twenty-foot-deep pothole in front of his house instead of pavement."

Rob Perkins said...

@Francis, the maths are wonderful tools. But, I think precisely because of the essentialist nature of math, it predicts reality only to within a margin of error.

And some branches of math, like people working in whatever has become of chaos theory in the last 13 years, acknowledge and fully embrace that uncertainty. Goedel showed us that no axiomatic system more complex than integer math can be proven self-consistent.

(Not that I even completely understand Goedel's proof, oy! no. But what he had to say helps me relax about stuff I can't make heads nor tails of. Does that make him a prophet of mine? I wonder...)

And in the meantime, the Universe keeps ticking along, not obeying math, just obeying its own laws while we get our math closer to describing it.

Re libertarians, I don't caucus with them because their platform each time is untenable, in my opinion, though I will level the appelation "contempt for masses" at Don Quijote's quasi-definition.

@Palliard, did you (or any of you) ever hear about or read about the Atlantis Project? In the early 90's, someone was trying to raise funds and other backing to site a largish artificial island at sea, name it Oceania, and impose a libertarian-minded constitution on the whole shebang.

Irish Wolf said...

Oceania is at war with Eastasia. Oceania has always been at war with Eastasia.

:-)

Rob Perkins said...

Heh. I bet Mr. Klein completely missed that reference. I know I did!

Francis said...

Math is great at extrapolating, but all the "purely logical" axioms are ... not.
Euclid would have gotten nowhere if he didn't look at reality.


Tell that to the Number Theorists... And you get geometry without Euclid's axioms.

The ones I personally know are closer to the ideal type you describe, and advocate a lean government that does things collectively better than people can or will do them individually.

That isn't my experience. But then that's probably because those who call themselves Libertarians are at the extreme end.

Anonymous said...

"if that vast expanse really were an era of individual reification and freedom, why was there only glacial progress during that million years?"

Because the latest FOXP2 and ASPM genes mutations are only about 5800 years old:
http://nytimes.com/2005/09/08/science/08cnd-brain.html
http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/short/309/5741/1720

But, alas, that is no cause for more optimism.
The time scale withing which we are playing is just decades or may be even just *years*.
Only cultural changes can work, and cultural traits are grounded both in genetics and social fabric, not much hope!

Yet, optimism is the only realistic option but a hard one to stick with...

Michael "Sotek" Ralston said...

@Francis: The number theorists who run straight into Russel's Paradox?

There are a whole lot of self-consistant math systems, the *majority* of which have nothing to do with reality - you need to have some key axioms or you get really way out there. (Consider Euclid's tenth axiom - which can be restated as "the internal angles of triangles, when summed, have 180 degrees". You can produce fully self-consistant (and maybe meaningful) geometries by changing the numbers.)

There's a book by Lakoff et al (Where Mathematics Comes From: How the Embodied Mind Brings Mathematics into Being) that I read and found convincing - admittedly that's probably at least partially because of my biases about how I think the world works, but I still say it's an interesting read.

Rob Perkins said...

@Michael -- Euclid's tenth axiom? I thought that was a theorem with a proof. I've worked the proof, involving three intersecting lines.

From what I can recall about Euclid's geometry, there are only four postulates/axioms... and it isn't provably self consistent. See Goedel, again...

Rik said...

Me, I prefer Keith Devlin. I found the Lakoff et.al. book boring. In any case, it alters nothing: mathematics is built on qualia. And you can call imagination the sixth sense.

Of course, you're getting a bit sidetracked, interesting though it is. One of Edge.org's contributors to 'dangerous idea', thought that the world would move away from democracy, towards more totalitarian regimes. For all the layman that I am, I do feel like pointing out that the two aren't that different. People think way too much in terms of the past, either/or. We'll probably have some sort of government where everyone watches everyone. Demos ruling indeed! I'm fairly optimistic about our survival chances, but guvmints will go kicking & screaming, because they are most in the grip of the last 1968 apocaphiles.

ps. All hail Thog! He spell 'Alcibiades'!

macsnafu said...

The idea that liberty and markets is a gradual thing, an emergent property of society, is not mutually exclusive to libertarian theory. To say that people should not initiate force is of course not the same as saying that they will not initiate force, but it provides an ideal to work towards.
Especially since societies and governments do tend to strive for certain goals and objectives, a clarification of those goals and objectives provides a standard to judge the results by and revise or modify the actions taken.
Unless you want to argue that liberty and markets would emerge naturally, without the specific intentions of the actors in society.

Doug S. said...

The infamous "Euclid's Fifth Postulate" concerning parallel lines has many formulations that are equivalent in the sense that given any one of them, you can prove all the others. Some of these equivalent statements are:

a) Given a line and a point not on that line, there is exactly one line parallel to the original line that passes through the point.
b) The interior angles of a triangle add up to 180 degrees.
c) (My paraphrase of Euclid's actual postulate) Converging lines intersect at exactly one point.

Just clearing up a bit of confusion here. See also: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parallel_postulate

David Brin said...

Thog, my posting about you was to sing your praises! You made us what we are... beings who are capable of being much more.

Francis, we physicists know that mathematicians are our mad cousins, who actually think you can “prove” something with pencil and paper. Yes, they are often right about that. Still, they are “rain men.” And they are exceptions. Nearly all other “rational” systems are actually systems for rationalization.

Again, drop by http://www.livescience.com/othernews/060124_political_decisions.html

“Sotek”, the problem with today’s libertarianism is that it is a total drug tip, based upon indignant SOA, instead of a pragmatic program for modernist selfimprovement. If it were the latter, it would pose POSITIVE goals, such as the ever-increasing empowerment, liberation and effectualization of individual human creativity and freedom. In that case, you’d be free to accept the blatant fact that government is a tool, one that can be used TOWARD that goal, if properly managed.

(No other society ever made so many libertarians, so it must be doing something right. Even public education.)

Palliard, alas, the majority of tepid small L libertarians are as you describe. But the PART is a useless force in American life -- unable (pathetic) to even do to Bush what Nader did to Gore! And this is true because anti-government fetishism blinds them to any sense of history, or awareness that 99% of free markets were destroyed by aristocratism, not by socialism.

Interesting datum. The age of those “recent” brain mutations just happens to coincide with when I believe beer became widely available. I have long thought it likely that that invention brought about a HUGE culling of human males, selecting for those with at least a smidgen of self-control, till 2/3 of us are able to say “enough”. Private theory.

Finally, I will urge you all, in a top level posting, to subscribe to the new UNIVERSE magazine, in order to help support what may become a prime nexus of neo-modernist enthusiasm (and great sci fi!) Here on the comments level, I want to crip from their appeal letter:

“Dear Science Fiction and Fantasy reader: We want you to help us save science fiction!

No kidding. Read on and we will explain. What we want you to do is to become part of something that's exciting, that's important, and that'll change the way science fiction and fantasy are published.

We call it Jim Baen's Universe. (www.baensuniverse.com)

It looks like a magazine and that's what it is: an on-line magazine. But we're paying better rates to authors for less-than-novel-length material than any fantasy or science fiction magazine has in decades. That will give your favorite authors — from all publishers, not just Baen Books, a financial incentive to write stories aimed at a popular audience and re-establish the connection that used to exist between the magazines and the novel market.

To be a part of this all you have to do is to subscribe to Jim Baen's Universe. A year's subscription costs only $30, and we'll include a lot of free, unencrypted e-books in the bargain if you subscribe now. Or, better yet, you can become a member of the Universe Club. So, go to www.baensuniverse.com and subscribe!

Why should you do this? Because we think saving magazine-length science fiction and fantasy is necessary to saving the entire F&SF genre. We're committed to doing that and we think you may be too.

Not only can you subscribe to Jim Baen's Universe, you can also join the Universe Club and receive lots of really valuable stuff: e-books, chances to be tuckerized into new books by famous authors, editorially selected bundled novels (unencrypted e-books!) and lots more. Look at the list!

So do join us. Come along as we launch this integral on-line community; become a part of Jim Baen's Universe.*

Subscribe now at www.baensuniverse.com.
Eric Flint, editor, Jim Baen's Universe


...
Okay, plug machine is turned off. As you were.... ;-)

Michael "Sotek" Ralston said...

See what Doug said.

And yes, it's not provably self-consistant. But it fits reality pretty well - so what does that say about platonic math?

jomama said...

From the study of the political "brain":

The study points to a total lack of reason in political decision-making.

It appears almost no one understands the controlling concept of power. Reason is irrelevant and not part of it. How are we to make progress in such an environment with all the contradictions inherent? The "political" solution dominates the global mindset, living as most are in the intellectual Dark Ages.

A "viable Libertarian Party" is an oxymoron. A problem isn't solved by creating another unthinking institution, last I heard.

I believe Einstein said something along those lines.

Kagehi said...

Sadly.. When dealing with law you only have two choices, do something to stop a problem before it happens, which only works right if you are 100% sure its really a problem. Such a method might have had laws passed to make flight illegal, or space travel, based on well considered, but dead wrong, assumptions about their impossibility or dangers. The other alternative is to pass law *after* things fuck up. The problem with that method is it is invariably based on the emotion of the situation, resulting in bad legislation to prevent the wrong behavior, in order to stop something that might in the worst case happen "more" often as result of trying to control it. We pass laws based on *both* methods, based on the opinions of people that no almost nothing about the subject, set precidents that should never have been allowed, out of ignorance of the real problem, and then wonder why we end up with a monolithic nightmare that invariably ends up serving people with the most influence, instead of the people with the most knowledge on the subject. And everyone unfortunately has personal biases that mess up their thinking, no matter how nobel.

As an example, there is all the idiots that ignore the increases of numerous behaviours, decreases in education and hundreds of other factors that are **known** to cause behavioural problems, all clearly invloved with the perpitrators, in favor of blaming a video game for everything, during the same time period that crime statistics show a *drop* in violent teen crime.

You can get several results from that data:

1. Violent games drive some kids nuts (some maybe, but come on... See #3.).
2. Violent games decrease the crime rate.
*OR*
3. Games have nothing to do with it, expect that if you ignore the 50 other problems they have, anything that promotes the same stupidity doesn't help.

Since the first two are mutually incompatible, the real answer has to be 3. Duh!!! But I am willing to bet you will *still* find a large percentage of libertarians that assume 1 to be true. Its easier than actually "having" or learning enough to "get" a clue. The answer needs to be to fix the other 50 problems, not fix one imaginary one and pretend every thing is better. Again, Duh!

You start with understanding, you built something pragmatic from it, using argument only when it doesn't in fact work, and shun dogma. Too many people learn instead to start with some form of dogma, even if its just what biases they learn from parents, make arguments for why it must be right in defense of it, use pragmatism only when they can't get their way to work at all and never learn a damn thing in the entire process.

Kagehi said...

Hmm. Case in point, from someone with far too much common sense for perhaps his own good, given where he is:

"Our region is going to hell, again. Some people will blame Bush and Zionism for that. I blame our lingering stupidity. That is what makes me a heretic, I guess, not to mention a traitor."

http://amarji.blogspot.com/2006/01/hamas-factor.html

Its people like him that give me hope that the ME isn't completetly lost, even while idiots persist in trying to cut their own throats over there.

Rik said...

It's these guys that get me mad:
http://www.aei.org/publications/pubID.23776/pub_detail.asp. I'm not against christianity or God, but I do believe the situation was a bit more complex. I think Europe committed suicide in two world wars. And the two branches can't be reunited just like that. Europe's christian roots are only superficially dead.
These guys simply refuse to remember the anti-clericalism and the sheer absence of a central power. And of course they get dogmatically stuck in transcendence again, refusing to consider that their beliefs are 'jewish' + 'greek' + lots of other pagan stuff (any CD Friedrich painting will do) and that is what it makes/made it such a powerful and quirky faith. And of course they forget all about the Carolingian Renaissance...
These guys are the real ones who are stuck in Negation of Life (and the Pursuit of Liberty). As if there is no evolution, even of religious beliefs. Completely stuck in historical movements, where no hero/heroine ever made history...

Sorry, got carried away.
Relevance to this post? Hmm... Ah, libertarianism schmibertarianism, dogma schmogma! I want something that just works, and if you have something that's not working (either for yourself or other), throw it out! No, wait! Better yet, study it, to find what's wrong with it, see if you can re-arrange, add this or that, to start it up again. Seize as much of past masters as you must. They're not holy, you know...

All this blogging is making us emotional cripples... :(

Michael "Sotek" Ralston said...

David: Libertarianism as you just described it, I can agree with completely.

(Also, I don't mind being called Michael or Sotek - the former is my real name, the latter is my typical online handle, dating back to when I was young enough that using my real name for things would probably have been a bad idea. I just stick quotes around Sotek to try to indicate it's like a nickname.)

palliard said...

A bit off-topic, but RE: Dr. Brin's plug:

You've previously mentioned science fiction slowly croaking as a genre, whilst being eclipsed on the bookshelves by the "thrashing beast" that is fantasy. I humbly offer my analysis as to why this is so:

As most of us are aware, back in yon olden dayes when Henry Kuttner was still alive, there wasn't much of a line between science fiction and fantasy, and most people who wrote one also wrote the other, all under the umbrella of "speculative fiction". And people were happy with all of its pulpy goodness.

John W. Campbell sort of ushered in the schism between these fields, but it didn't really become an issue until the 1970s when writers started getting pigeonholed in one camp or the other.

Now I ask people who read these sorts of books, "Hey... I notice you're not really looking over the science fiction rack but you're pawing over the latest Dragonlance stuff. Why is that?"

And the answer seems to be, that contemporary science fiction is "boring". Boring in what way? Boring in the "it plays like a whingy soap opera" way, primarily.

Put one way, science fiction is the independent cinema to fantasy's car chases and explosions. Which isn't necessarily bad, but not that many people want to see movies about gay cowboys eating pudding.

Put another way, as an acquaintance succinctly described it: "There's no Harry Potter of science fiction." Which is a shame, because there should be.

Did that make any sense, or am I just rambling again?

Jon said...

Wasn't "Star Trek" the Harry potter of scince fiction?

Nicq MacDonald said...

palliard:

Um... sci-fi is like a whiny soap opera? COMPARED TO FANTASY?

Compared to Robert Jordan, whose novels are nothing but convoluted romances interspersed with occasional action sequences and women whining about how awful men are while taking baths?

Compared to those schlocky Weis, Hickman and Salvatore novels, which, while occasionally fun, are nothing we haven't seen already?

Compared even to, say, George R.R. Martin?

Bah. Has your friend read Neal Stephenson? William Gibson? Vernor Vinge? Bruce Sterling? Cory Doctorow? Damien Broderick? John Varley? Any classic Clarke? Dr. Brin?

(Okay, maybe I was being a bit harsh on fantasy. I was a big fan of Jordan's early wheel of time novels, back when I was in high school, and I won't deny that there aren't some excellent fantasy writers working today that are pushing the boundaries of the genre; Neil Gaiman and China Mieville, for instance. But to say that science fiction is boring and soap-opera like compared to fantasy? To quote David, the mind boggles. That, and what science fiction is your friend talking about? A lot of TV series in the genre seem to match his description, but I can't think of any major novelists that do... none that I read, anyway.)

Oh, and in other news, a few other links to check out, that provide an important counterpoint-

http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/story/9178374/gods_senator?rnd=1138489413546&has-player=true&version=6.0.8.1024

http://www.amconmag.com/2006/2006_01_30/article.html

The first article is about Sam Brownback. The second is about George McGovern.

Both are very deeply religious men. Both are suspicious of big government, if in different ways. Both are midwesterners. Both are concerned about the plight of people around the world.

But notice a key difference between the two... not party affiliation...

Humility.

McGovern realizes that he's an imperfect human being who does God's work on earth as best he can; he cares about people, warts and all. He's an "incrementalist".

Brownback, if this article is correct, appears to be bordering on a messiah complex. He's reborn through Jesus Christ, and is therefore perfect. You can tell something about this sort of person; he doesn't really care about people as such- he cares about their souls. He cares about a perfect image, rather than reality. He's a platonic "essentialist".

That's not to say that Brownback doesn't have admirable concerns and qualities; he certainly does. Plenty of them. But so did Lenin. Trotsky. Ho Chi Minh. Che Guevara. Fidel Castro. I believe it was Eric Hoffer who once pointed out the danger in loving people in the abstract- we forget that people aren't our images, and we try to bend them to fit, with disastrous consequences.

Because of this, Brownback may be one of the most dangerous men in American politics today. He doesn't want to improve man as much as he wants to save man.

On the other hand, it appears that McGovern just wants to feed kids in Bangladesh. No, it's not as sexy as saving the world from evil and ushering in heaven on earth. But it's a start.

Like many of my fellow South Dakotans, I've met George McGovern on a few occasions. And in my meetings with him, he has struck me as one of the finest people I have ever met. He's the sort of person that should be in power, but never will be, due to a lack of ruthlessness and too much honesty. I came to understand why my parents admired him so much; what he inspired. I rank him as second only to Martin Luther King, Jr. as one of the greatest figures in Christian Progressivism in the late 20th century. I certainly don't agree with all his positions, but that doesn't matter. What matters is that he is, in David's terms, an adult. A reasonable human being in an often unreasonable world. For that, regardless of his partisan positions, he deserves respect.

Rik said...

Science fiction boring? Why yes.. Back in the nineties, there was an attempt at so-called 'interstitial art'. In the Year's Best SF&F. You've read a book, or seen a film and you're raving about it. Asks your friend, SO or whatever: what was it about? You: it was.. um... about... ah... Playing salsa with bagpipes, perhaps?
The truth is that the old borders / boundaries are worthless. Yet SF-writers persist and fantasy authors have gone all literary, claiming that their genre was first. See: Gilgamesh, etc. And of course science is on the verge of giving us the stuff previously considerd of magic. Become 1000 years old! Fly to Mars in three hours! What is a SF writer going to do against that?
The boundaries already were a little artificial, today they're nothing. You might as well write about space vamps thriving on black energy, fought by captain Janeway and her troublesome lt. Summers...

Carl Milsted said...

Rob: You say you won't caucus with the Libertarians because their platform is untenable. The purpose of the Libertarian Reform Caucus (www.ReformTheLP.org) is to craft a tenable platform.

Most of the site is in fact a plank-by-plank voting system for generating a new platform. The Theory section referred to by David is for background discussions on natural rights and marketing issues for making a tenable platform.

-----
Regarding the subject of agreeing with what is on the site: other than the brief Statement of Purpose, the Caucus has taken no official positions. The essays on the site are the views of the authors. The views of the Caucus are determined over time by the member ratings of the essays and votes on the platform proposals.

Francis said...

(No other society ever made so many libertarians, so it must be doing something right. Even public education.)

Wrong. Certainly on the first count and IMO almost certainly on the second.

(Actually, the first count is probably strictly speaking right - but a population boom has something to do with that).

The old British 19th Century Whig (Liberal Party) platform was within a hair of contemporary Libertarianism. Get rid of laws keeping people down (particularly institutionalised slavery and excessive protectionism), equalise the rest (particularly laws whereby the aristocracy and the church didn't pay tax) and let The Market sort things out and people rise based on ability. Also very low taxes and minimal government. Sure, the rallying cry was slightly different - but for all practical purposes a 19th Century Whig would have more in common than a Libertarian than any other political belief.

The 19th Century Whigs were not a small political party gathering 5% of the vote (if that). They were one of the two parties of government in the 19th Century in The Empire Upon Which The Sun Never Set (because no one trusted them in the dark).

Near the end of the 19th Century they looked round and did a stock-take. True children of The Enlightenment, they realised they had been a huge force for good in the 18th and early 19th Centuries (abolition of the Slave Trade pretty much everywhere except America being one of their most notable triumphs). They had done one hell of a job removing many of the major injustices in the world in this period. Then they looked round at the world they had created and realised it was a big improvement but still had a long way to go.

They were responsible for turning the Irish potatoe Famine into the disaster it was by cutting off the food imported from India in the name of non-interference in The Market. There were a number of Indian famines which they hadn't interfered in for the same reason. And, like the Irish, thousands of Indians hadn't had the capital to burn to buy food and hence survive a disaster like a famine. Minimal employment legislation lead to Company Towns (where one company owned all the shops and businesses in town, meaning that you had no choice but to work where the company owner said - or try to walk away on foot) and Company Stores (many major employers in small towns would pay in Company Scrip, only usable in a specific shop (which would have a hefty markup on the cheapest possible goods)) and businesses would pay as little as they could - meaning the workers could not afford to stop working to hunt for another job. Donations to charity were high (10%) but it wasn't enough - ultimately the elderly poor went to a work house and were worked to death.

Being good children of the Enlightenment, the Liberals realised that their solution was demonstrably not the best available and therefore changed their approach to match the evidence. They realised that without laws to protect the weak then they will be held down. (Which was an improvement over the system they had fought to change where the laws were holding the weak down). They realised that individuals, particularly poor individuals, could not always stockpile the resources to deal with natural disasters (c.f. Hurricane Katrina and advice given) and that the government was best placed to deal with this. Without at least a good basic level of education, people would have few options. Without the resources to be unemployed for a couple of months while jobhunting, people were almost in effective conditions of slavery as they would be unable to leave their jobs.

The results of this were that the Liberals became somewhat more in favour of the state to provide individuals with freedom from the worst of incompetence, disaster and deprivation. In 1870, the Whigs introduced the Elementary Education Act as the first public education in Britain, and in 1911 the Whigs introduced National Insurance (Just picking the highlights).

There's a reason Libertarianism doesn't have too much traction in Britain. We've tried it and, although it worked better than previous systems, ultimately we can do (and are doing) far better.

[And the Market was a lot freer in 1905 than 2005 - more capital flow between countries and far, far more population movement (freedom of capital without freedom of movement is extremely regressive)]

Francis said...

Francis, we physicists know that mathematicians are our mad cousins, who actually think you can “prove” something with pencil and paper. Yes, they are often right about that. Still, they are “rain men.” And they are exceptions. Nearly all other “rational” systems are actually systems for rationalization.

Someone's got to apply empiricism to rational ideas. Yes, this does mean taking our sanity in our hands and getting flack from both sides.

(But then I'm a statistician. I'll take whatever works and apply it to the empirical world...)

David Brin said...

Francis wins post of the day. Delightfully informative and cogent history of Whiggery!

Still I think we are defining past each other. I'd wager a larger fraction of today's Americans speak up loudly about wishing for less government and idealizing such a state. I believe this has resulted NOT so much from too much regulation as from the fact that universal health, wealth and education has given a majority the kind of view on life that used to be the province of a well-heeled elite.

Simon Neville said...

Just a quick post here an the Science Fiction/Fantasy debate. Yes science fiction is losing on a couple fronts, but it is also winning big time on other fronts. Readership is down compared to fantasy, OK, but in general most kids nowadays read very little compared to before. It used to be that SF magazines were the best medium to reach youth and inspire them.
Today I would say that medium is TV. Something kids do more than any other activity, and in that battle SF is kicking butt. I can think of only 2 fanasty series to have high ratings to come out on TV in the last decade (hercules/Xena). On the other hand SF has had a slew of high rating shows in the last decade, with my Favorite being Babylon 5. Other good shows were Sliders, Firefly, Andromena, Battlestar Galactica etc....

My point is that will our readship might be down, our viewing public is waaay up, and that is good for SF.

Simon Neville

Francis said...

Still I think we are defining past each other. I'd wager a larger fraction of today's Americans speak up loudly about wishing for less government and idealizing such a state.

I wouldn't - I'm in particular thinking of the ties between the Anti-Slavery League and the Abolitionists and the Whigs. The difference is that 18th century laws were far more repressive and deliberately damaging to the lower classes than is the case in the 21st Century. Therefore they were trying to dismantle a corrupt rather than a simply often inefficient system.

I believe this has resulted NOT so much from too much regulation as from the fact that universal health, wealth and education has given a majority the kind of view on life that used to be the province of a well-heeled elite.

The "people born on third base who think they hit a triple" theory? A definite failure of the public education system (the cure for which is to fix it rather than take it out and shoot it...)

And here was me thinking that a lot of the funding and drive behind Libertarians came from clever (but short-sighted) aristocrats who realise that if they get rid of inconvenient things like laws and governments, they will be able to do whatever the hell they like and no one can stop them.

Robert Cruze Jr. said...

From your essay...

I defy anybody, while squinting at our ancestral life in caves -- or primitive wandering tribes -- to seriously support the view that this life was some kind of libertarian/freemarket/creative paradise, rather than a Lord of the Flies era of brutal bullying, perhaps occasionally moderated with a few chastening fables. Test: if that vast expanse really were an era of individual reification and freedom, why was there only glacial progress during that million years?

Actually David, I believe L. Neil Smith has made the argument once or twice (in his fiction AFAIK, so I'm not sure how serious he was about it) that we were much better off politically as primitive hunter-gatherers, before we invented agriculture and government. Now if that's "paradise," I guess I'm going to have to be a cynic about it and opt for our current dystopia -- you know the one where we have access to modern dentistry, mothers routinely survive childbirth, and children can look forward to living past the age of 25.

I guess that makes me kind of a pro-totalitarian "wet blanket," huh?

Now if you'll excuse me, I have to go and surgically remove my tongue from my cheek...

;-)

reason said...

I'm not sure that the wandering hunter-gatherer tribes were internally that brutal. They lived too close to one another and were too interdependent for that to work reliably.

I don't think in general, tribes living like that today are particularly brutal to one another (inside the tribe) either, except for their punishment of serious transgressions against tribal law. There is also evidence that they are generally healthier than primitive agricultaral societies and had more time for cultural/recreational activities. So I'm not sure that you are being accurate in how you represent them.

David from what I remember of what you wrote before, your suggestion was that the rise of repressive aristocracies required both agriculture and metal weaponry. Why pick on the primitives now? (However, I will point out that remnant hunter/gatherer societies are definitely not Libertarian either).

michael vassar said...

Interesting that the link you promoted here www.reformthelp.org/theory/intro/ liked right to the holisticpolitics link that I promoted on your site two weeks ago leading to the cynicism discussion.
I still stand by my point from that discussion, by the way. Any realistic attempt to reform society must start from a level of cynicism regarding human nature and human ability which makes the founders look like Rousseau by comaparison. A meme's fitness != it's truth value. This doesn't mean giving up, just choosing some hope of success over a committment to faith in equality and consequent over-reliance upon empathy (with attendant erosion of sympathy, we can't easily sympathise with those people trapped in dillemas that we could easily extricate ourselves from unless we acknowledge that they are in fact still trapped).

michael vassar said...

"No other society ever made so many libertarians, so it must be doing something right. Even public education."

I have long believed that so many otherwise intelligent people are pushed into libertarianism BY spending the 13 formative years of their lives under the truly authoritarian system that is public education. Libertarianims is an over-reaction resulting from imagining that the rest of the world is as disgustingly mis-governed as the schools.

"18th century laws were far more repressive and deliberately damaging to the lower classes than is the case in the 21st Century. Therefore they were trying to dismantle a corrupt rather than a simply often inefficient system."

Funny, that site I've been talking about, holistic politic.org, it argues differently. I'm not at all convinced that today's laws aren't deliberately damaging to the lower classes to almost the same extent as those in the 19th century. Ever wonder why American families pay 15% or so of their incomes for food when farming and distribution employ a comparitively negligible fraction of the population? Creating genuinely progressive but liberal laws wouln't be terribly difficult if anyone actually wanted to. Still, I don't think the powers that be are evil, mostly just stupid, and especially stupid when solving problems that aren't their personal problems.

Oh, and I think it's a pretty clear thing that while hunter gatherer life was far less appealing that our society it was far more appealing than feudal serfdom, and probably than industrial period serfdom. The frequency with which Colonial Americans abandoned their society (By far the best civilized society of their day for common people) to join Native American tribes was much greater than the frequency of the reverse. Even Franlin has quotes asserting the superiority of Native American lifestyles to those of 90% of the European population.

jomama said...

From Brin's Open Letter on addiction study:

But then, alas, year after year passed and nothing happened. Except a relentless increase in irrationally indignant behavior, everywhere in society and across all political spectra.


This irrational behavior has yielded, as its culmination, the politicization of the entire planet and politics is about whacking everyone in line.

We've seen the study of the that great oxymoron, The Political "Mind" posted here. Now look around and listen to the aspiring pols everywhere.

Who needs rational behavior and negotiation when he's got a big stick? It appears (to the irrational) like "the stick" is the best way to "get things done" but others aren't built to accept that. Remember SOP. I suspect it will go much beyond "suspicion" to outright rejection and possible revolution, the most irrational of all political solutions.

To overcome this politicization I expect it's best to promote one on one negotiation to problems rather than involve unwanted third parties.

Promote going cold turkey from all political thinking. Just say "no".

What else is there to do that might accomplish something positive?

jomama said...

Oops.

That should have been SOA above instead of SOP.

Freudian slip, Suspicion of Power.