Saturday, November 3, 2012

The Voting Speech

The election is just a few days away.  Many people I know will be voting in the presidential contest for the first time.  This post is for you.

There's always a lot of hype surrounding a presidential race.  The media do their best to make it seem like the outcome will have a profound impact on the future- and you better be part of it!  Get out there and vote!  It's your duty as a citizen, so stand up and be counted!  But these things aren't what they seem.

On the one hand, it's easy to believe that the election is very important.  Politically speaking, the winner will be the most powerful man in the world.  He will have the nuclear codes, the authority to unilaterally wage war, and the legal power to kill/imprison whomever he wants.  He will have command over the media and, together with his friends in other high-ranking government posts, command over the economy.  Indeed, whoever wins the next election will have the power to change the world.

On the other hand, you have almost no say in these matters.  Please do not mistake your vote for some kind of degree of control over what happens after (or, I would argue, even before) the election.  You do not control the government.  You might have the ability to check a box in favor of a candidate, but that's about as far as your influence goes.

The political figures you vote for do not have to answer to you.  They answer to the special interest groups that can organize campaigns and keep them elected.  They answer to their friends in big business, to unions, and to other pressure groups that are large enough to collectively organize in their favor.  In short, the government responds only to people with the most political pull.  And that will never be you or I.  It's a tough pill to swallow, particularly before your first time voting, which comes after a lifetime of being told how we have a government by the people, for the people, and one whose principle aims are justice and peace.  But the evidence is everywhere.

Notice how the election only features candidates from two parties.  If the government worked for the people, there would be closer to a dozen candidates on the national stage, all with a chance to have their voice heard, all with the opportunity to make their case to the public.  If government worked for the people, it would allow Americans to choose among an actual spectrum of messages, instead of pre-screening our options down to two choices most which people find distasteful.

That all of politics is dominated by only two factions is a testament to its illegitimacy.  It doesn't function the way it does because that's how Americans want it.  It does so because it's how the political class wants it.  It dramatically lowers the bar for the kinds of candidates we get to choose from, because they know that instead of having to attack and defend against a variety of other candidates and viewpoints, they only have to convince people that they're no worse than the other guy.  How many times have you heard people voice their dissatisfaction with candidate A, but will still vote for him because they're afraid B is worse?  I've lost count.  Every vote so cast is a tacit declaration of acceptance of the way things are, and an abdication of what constitutes real civic duty (if such a thing exists).

It's no wonder why some 40% of eligible Americans don't even bother showing up at the polls in November.  It's not because everybody is just so apathetic- it's because they're realistic.  Voting takes very little effort.  If people thought voting made a significant positive difference in their lives, they would do it.  Don't think so?  Suppose that people who normally don't vote had the option of showing up at the polling stations and trading their chance to vote in the election for, say, a free $10 gift card.  We would likely have the highest "voter turnout" in decades.

Again, there is an enormous amount of hype surrounding elections and voting.  Many people get so caught up cheerleading for a candidate or a political party that they accept voting as a legitimate substitute for doing things themselves.  Unless you have political pull, the government is not a shortcut to achieving any particular end you might desire.  Don't expect it to deliver what it promises any more than it delivers us fair elections.  The truth is that you will never get the changes you want unless you personally are willing to take steps to make them happen.  Letting your vote do the heavy lifting for you is a cop out.

Until Americans realize that the candidates they support are the very ones who are disenfranchising them; until there are nationally televised debates where the established parties are forced to debate someone other than each other; until incumbent reelection rates are substantially less than 90%, it will not matter which main party candidate wins the election.  It took years for me to come to that realization and it certainly doesn't win me any friends, but I wouldn't have written this if I didn't believe it sincerely.  Consequently, I always vote 3rd party whenever possible.  I do so not because I believe they have any chance of winning, but because I want them to win.  If I didn't think there were better options, I wouldn't vote.

I don't expect anyone to agree with me, and I'm not telling anybody whom to vote for.  You make up your own mind.  But I hope you're prepared to be disappointed if your candidate wins and doesn't come through with what he promised.  I hope you don't accept his excuse at face value when he blames the failures on someone else.  I also hope that the lesson you take away from the experience is an understanding of how little control you actually have over the government.

The bottom line is: don't depend on voting as a means of effecting change.  If you really want to make a difference, look up a charitable cause and start donating to it.  Be the example of what you want others to be.  If you want something to happen, go and make it happen.  It is the only way.  Because if you and people like you are not willing to do it yourselves, it aint getting done.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

War and Consequence

Back in 2008 I actually thought war was a major issue in American politics.  I remember rallies, protests, and sign-waving.  A vote for McCain was portrayed as an approval for war, and many people weren't having it.

People sing a different tune now.  Almost four years have passed and the US military has continued to be used to search out monsters to destroy all over the world.  It has devastated Iraq for no reason, leaving over 100,000 dead.  It assisted in toppling Libya's government because Obama suddenly felt like it, and it is looking to do the same in Syria.  It continues to slaughter innocent civilians in Pakistan and Afghanistan- sometimes with unmanned drones, which it also uses in campaigns in Yemen and Somalia.

Understand that there is nothing worse than war, much less a war with no concrete objective.  War destroys capital and kills people by the thousands- people whose life and loved ones matter as much to them as yours matters to you.  War takes a cut off the top of all productive civilian economic activity, and it's not cheap.  We and our children will pay for it in higher taxes, a lower standard of living, and a less certain future.

War costs freedom, too.  It has always been the parent of surveillance states and police states.  Even now our communications may be tapped without a warrant in the name of fighting terror.  The government can rifle through our personal finances and medical records as it sees fit.  Congress routinely gives our tax money to private corporations.  We're undressed and hassled when we want to fly, and can probably expect similar treatment for other modes of transit.  The Pentagon has so much military equipment that it gives its surplus (including assault weapons, riot gear, and tanks) to local police departments.  The President has granted himself the power of having his own kill list.  And the federal government recently gave the OK to use drones in domestic air space.  History suggests these relatively novel things are now a permanent part of American life.

The upcoming elections will probably mean nothing so far as all of this is concerned, as neither candidate has shown an interest in changing any of it.  An Obama victory will send the message that no President will be held accountable for using the military as his plaything, and a Romney victory will prove that Americans are willing to settle for any candidate who says he's not a Democrat.  Either way, war will be quietly downgraded to a fringe political issue just like the maintenance of the Bill of Rights.  It's a foregone conclusion at this point, but I still don't want it to happen.  I'd sooner not vote at all than consent to war by voting for either of those two men.

If the future of the United States is in the hands of politicians who think perpetual war is acceptable, we the people are in trouble.  War is destructive, expensive, and erodes our freedom.  It makes us all less safe, and it pushes the limits of what kind of tyrannies Americans are willing to tolerate.  We'll soon find out what those limits are if we continue giving politicians a pass on this important issue.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Someday Never Comes

So, the gun debate is back in the news.  Some guy went on a rampage in a movie theater.  What can we do about it?

I keep being told that in order to prevent gun-related death of all kinds, we either need more laws, stricter laws, or better enforcement of current laws.  Sounds fair.  But I can promise you that that's never going to happen, and I'll tell you why.

Let's assume it's true- that all we need are better laws.  Assume further that after these better laws are passed, gun crimes will either stop happening altogether or decrease to a frequency that we can all accept without wishing for more laws.

Notice I said after these laws are passed.  Right now is something different. Right now, millions of guns are already unregistered, untracked, and out there somewhere.  Many are already in the hands of bad (or potentially bad) people.  No matter how hard the government cracks down on guns, nothing can override the reality that they're already widely available, and have been for some time.  Arguing over who's at fault for that is useless.  That much is a done deal.

Until the day comes when the government gives us the better gun laws you might want, what are we all supposed to do?  All I can come up with is that we have to just live with the fact that we're helpless to defend ourselves against anyone who has a gun and wants to hurt people.  Sure, you could buy your own gun and carry it for self defense.  Just don't get caught with it outside your home or in any scenario where it could potentially save someone's life, because that will get you arrested and thrown into prison.*  Ironically, the people who will throw you into prison can already legally carry weapons and don't have to worry about the law.

When whatever government body you trust with your safety finally hammers out the perfect legislation, maybe things will be different.  But the perfect legislation has been on its way for decades now, and I'm starting to doubt whether it's even coming.  In the meantime, whose endlessness becomes more apparent with each shooting, don't be shocked when you see incidents like in Aurora, Columbine, and Virginia Tech.  The gun-free zones and no-carry laws might score political points with the right people, but saying, "We'll get it right next time," probably doesn't mean as much to the families of the victims of gun violence.

The lesson here is that if you depend on the government for things that are ultimately and rightfully your responsibility, it means you're rolling the dice with your own future.  In the case of safety, it both fails to protect and removes the means of doing it yourself.  If you examine the many other things that government does, you will find many similar patterns.

Of course if government is the problem, then liberty is the answer.  I know that record sounds about as broken as the one that says we need more government, but trust me, it hasn't been playing as long.  Until we can get less of the former and more of the latter, we're going to be stuck in the same situations waiting for different outcomes.  When the next shooting happens, we'll find out.


*In NJ, for instance, it is basically illegal for anyone to carry any firearm- except the police.

Monday, July 16, 2012

If you don't vote, you can't complain

The grip that this fallacy has on people is incredible.  I wonder why it isn't questioned more often.
It is false because it is based on the assumption that, among the selection of candidates, there's something for everybody.  The assumption is flawed.  It implies that regardless of one's beliefs, there's a candidate who claims to represent those beliefs rigidly enough that he deserves one's vote.  This is simply untrue.

It wasn't until this election season that I understood the reality of this fallacy.  Usually I vote libertarian, but this year I'm not completely sold on the libertarian candidate.  I will examine my other options between now and November, but if I don't find someone else whom I feel would make a good President, I will write in Ron Paul.  And I will still have two good reasons to complain: 1) because the party I traditionally vote for will have let me down by tinkering with its platform too much, and more importantly 2) the winner of the election will enact policies that are completely against what I believe.

The alternative would be to abandon my principles and vote for for a candidate whom I don't actually want to win.  In so doing, I would forfeit my right to complain- particularly if that candidate won, for I would bear part of the responsibility of his agenda.  Even if he lost, while I couldn't be held responsible for the winner's policies, I still will have registered my support for the belief system of a candidate I did not endorse.  In effect, my vote will have said, "You have my support; better luck next time."

It wouldn't be a big deal if only a handful of people did this, but considering that this is how millions of Americans choose to perform their civic duty, it turns out to be a very dangerous and stupid thing to do.  I can't tell you how many times I've heard people say, "Anybody but Obama," as though merely replacing Obama with the most popular alternative won't bring about its own unique set of problems.

It's hard to imagine how so many people can genuinely adopt the "Anybody but [candidate/party]" doctrine and continue to vote that way forever, especially because even when they vote for the winner they still never run out of things to complain about.  But it does happen.

Then again it must be just as hard for most people to see why I vote the way I do, because I'm constantly berated about it.  Here's a short list of things I hear again and again, every election:

You're wasting your vote [if you don't vote Republican or Democrat]
My personal opinion is that voting for something you don't actually support is foolish.  This isn't some ivory tower libertarian philosophizing here- it's a simple observation.  What people who say this don't understand is that neither popular candidate has shown even the slightest sympathy towards anything resembling my values, and so I sincerely believe I would be shooting myself in the foot (or, if you prefer, wasting my vote) were I to have anything to do with electing either one of them.  I care who wins, and I don't want it to be either them.

You'll never win / What do you hope to accomplish by voting third party?
When I do vote, I'm well aware of the staggering improbability of my candidate winning.  I've taken that for granted for years.  But I've never heard a convincing reason as to why I should consider that a factor when deciding whom to vote for.  Yes, I know that my third party vote isn't going to tear down the establishment.  So when given the choice between actively supporting a system that I believe is a disgraceful sham, or not, I will happily opt for the latter in every instance.  There's no incentive not to.

A vote for a third party is a vote for [candidate].
The only people responsible for a candidate winning are the people who voted for that candidate.  It doesn't matter whether your candidate lost by a margin of less than some other candidate's votes.  It might be a bummer, but as someone whose candidates will likely never win an election, I'm just not sympathetic to that claim.  Besides, there are plenty of people who never vote at all- do they all deserve blame as well?

No, they do not deserve the blame.  People who refrain from voting probably do so for reasons similar to why I don't vote for popular candidates I don't like- they don't see the point.  Maybe they noticed after a few election cycles that no matter who wins, nothing substantial changes.  That so many people don't vote is a testament to how little the main candidates bring to the table.

I will end this by saying that if you're putting your faith in either Obama or Romney, you already lost the election.  I predict in another four years we'll all still be in the same boat: we'll still be engaged in pointless open-ended war, we'll be deeper in debt, thousands of people will still be imprisoned unjustly, the government will still have it's boot on the throat of our educational system, unemployment will still be high, the entitlement cans will be kicked a little further down the road, the cost of healthcare (and everything else) will continue to rise, and politicians will still be able to make up the rules as they go along.

Come to think of it, maybe all of our votes are wasted.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

On Minimum Wage

The minimum wage is back in the news.  An article over at The Nation says that three democratic congressmen are pushing for a raise in the federal minimum wage from $7.25 an hour to $10 an hour- more than a 35% increase.  So far as I can tell, the basic argument is as follows: businesses that create the least-paying jobs are unfairly taking advantage of their workers, and can afford to pay them more.  Moreover, the proposed increase in wages will not substantially affect prices or unemployment, except possibly for the better.  The logical conclusion is that there needs to be a mandated minimum wage.

Opponents of the wage increases say basically the opposite: the pay increase to employers will be followed by an increase in prices.  That, and the wage raise will cause some people to be too expensive to hire, thereby causing unemployment.  Typically the conclusion is that the minimum wage is fine where it is and doesn't need to be raised because doing so can only hurt people and the economy.

The latter view makes a little more sense to me.  Even though I don't subscribe to it fully (I'd prefer if the minimum wage weren't mandated by law), it is worth outlining and addressing its foundations.

A common argument against an increase is that it can cause some people to either lose their job, or not get hired in the first place.  If some employers are forced to pay more, they might demand laborers with more skill, hanging the less-skilled potential worker out to dry.  Imagine that it happened to you.  Suppose you just graduated from college and are sending out applications and expecting to make about $40,000 per year, when some politician declares that those in your line of work must be paid no less than $50,000 to start.  Isn't it at least plausible that your would-be employers would want someone with more experience?  If you were the employer, what would you do?

Another case against the forced wage raise is that employers might adjust for having to pay for the increase by either raising the prices of the goods/services they provide, or by purchasing less of other goods/services they need to make their business run.  A landscaping company, for example, might have less to spend on gas and equipment maintenance if it is forced to spend more money on its workers.  This phenomenon is especially true for businesses that rely most heavily on human labor, or for less-established companies that operate at the fringes of viability.  A mandated increase in wages might force such companies to either close their doors or never get the chance to exist in the first place.  Is it inconceivable?

No, it's not inconceivable.  It very well might not happen that way at all.....then again, it might.  And therein lies the real reason for abolishing the minimum wage- the outcome is unknowable for the individuals involved, and the dictates are coming from the people who are the farthest removed from those who will be most affected.

I'll be the first to admit that raising the minimum wage can cause some people to be better off that they were before.  No dispute there- after all, no politician raves about a new policy that *isn't* designed to buy votes from its intended beneficiaries.  But it can just as easily cause others to be worse off.  To identify all the particular winners and losers in advance (let alone the degrees to which they win or lose) is impossible, even to the people who favor the wage raise.  The best we can say about fiddling with the minimum wage is that it will cause tradeoffs within the economy with some people coming out ahead and others not.  The end result can't be held to be any better or worse in aggregate, just different.  All the political class is interested in is whether the net result will benefit them when the next election comes.

Why not raise the wage to $20 per hour?  Or $100?  The usual answer to this is that, past some point, it obviously becomes absurd or impractical.  And that's true, it does indeed become absurd.  But when?  By what metric?  How is that to be decided?  Do Dennis Kucinich and Jesse Jackson Jr. know what it "should" be?  Do they know which wages are "best" and for whom?  Was any analysis attempted which arrived at the $10 figure, or did they go with it because it's just an appealing number?  It's not even pretended to be something that was arrived at by any sort of calculation.  They just made it up.

What really bothers me is the arrogance that politicians display when they, with their amazing pay and pension and benefits (for life), insist on imposing their will on the rest of the country as though it's their job.  In this case, the arrogance comes in the form of saying that no task, regardless of how little effort or skill it takes to carry out, is conceivably worth less than ten dollars per hour.  Absolutely nothing.  Bagging groceries, watering plants, cleaning windows, picking weeds, etc.- either you're paying at least $10 an hour, or you're committing a crime.  Do you own a small business in the inner city and want to pay some kid to keep the shelves faced and bag groceries for $7.50 an hour?  Maybe $9.99?  Unless you have enough firepower to keep the police away, you better not let the labor department find out about it.  Considering that governments have shut down curbside lemonade stands for health safety issues, the example is not farfetched.

So when I reject the idea of a minimum wage, I do so not because I'm a 1% sympathizer or because I like exploiting workers, but because of my conviction that no politician has the right to use force to impose arbitrary rules on everyone else in the futile pursuit of what he thinks is best.  Nobody should have the right to say who works for how much except the two parties involved.  It's a private issue.  And until one side is being defrauded or lied to, government simply has no legitimate role to play.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Rick Santorum and Casino Politics

Today Rick Santorum announced he was dropping out of the race to be the GOP presidential nominee. The only surprise here is that he lasted as long as he did. I think everybody knew he wasn't going to make it since day one. And even if he somehow did make it, I'm sure Obama would have danced on him in November.

Santorum reportedly had an agenda that was anti-woman, anti-porn, anti-gay, anti-civil liberties, and pro-war. I believe all those things to be true (to varying degrees), but he and his supporters probably didn't see it that way- or if they did, they thought those were positive attributes. They genuinely wanted what he was selling.

Much as he's portrayed as an evil man (and much as I disagree with his political opinions), I don't think Rick Santorum is really as bad as they say. I think he sincerely believes his platform is what's best for everybody, and was simply trying to use the power of government to realize it. What's wrong with that? Every politician does it. What distinguishes good politicians from bad ones, though, is the extent to which the proactive power of their office figures in with their plans. And there aren't many good ones around.

There is, however, a superabundance of self-anointed intellectuals who see it as their duty and right to control others. People are practically lining up for the job- to wage war, to spy on people, to tell people what they can and can't buy/build/sell/make/eat/know, to try to control the economy, to take from some and give it to others. All it takes for one of these people to be president is for enough people to agree with him (or to disagree more with his opponent).

It's a scary situation, but consider this: without the levers of government at his command, Rick Santorum would be just another bigot yelling at his TV at night. Maybe the best he could do is have his own radio show. But as president, he's a different story. As president, he becomes a bigot with a military. He becomes a problem- perhaps even a burden- that a lot of people have to worry about. Put differently, he becomes a living argument for why we need a government with absolute limits.

We can either have a powerful government and spend our lives trying to keep [Your Most Hated Politician] away from that power, or we can have a government that would be useless in the hands of idiots and would-be tyrants alike. The former is more of a casino than a system of governance- even if your favored candidate wins, the probability of actually getting what you want is very low, and the decks are necessarily stacked in favor those who can buy the most influence. Moreover, the wrong people will eventually be in charge, and they'll inherit all the power we gave to the people we thought were right. At least in the latter system, government can focus its resources on doing what everyone generally does agree it should do: maintain the rule of law and keep us out of war.

We have played casino politics for decades now, and it's a sorry example to be setting for future generations. We may have dodged the Santorum bullet, but the Romney and Obama cartridges are right there behind him. My only hope is that Americans of all stripes realize how much they disenfranchise themselves by voting for establishment politicians who promise what cannot be delivered.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

There Ought to Be a Law

Back in March there was a news story about a man named Mitch Faber who was jailed on account of not having siding on his home. The details of the story are here.

In one sense, the story is outrageous. Yes the man's house was in dire need of exterior repairs for almost four years, and yes it could be argued that the condition of his house might affect surrounding property values, but these things pale in comparison to the fact that someone was arrested and taken to jail for keeping his house in a condition the government deemed unacceptable. What Mr. Faber did (or did not do) was considered criminally offensive enough to warrant not only locking him up, but making him wear a monitoring device upon his release.

In a different sense, the story is enlightening. It's a perfect example to highlight what can happen every time a law goes into effect. Laws are not suggestions; they're orders, backed up with threats of violence. You either do what it says, or you'll be made to pay a heavy fine, or men with guns come to take you away. Every single law and statute has this property.

I understand the intent here. Laws are needed to keep order. I don't advocate lawlessness; many laws are worth being backed up by force, such as those that protect property rights and prevent theft or aggression between people. But with some things (many, I would argue), it's just not worth pointing a gun in someone's back to get them done. The law that put Mitch Faber in handcuffs for the way his house looked is one such example.

When people say, "There ought to be a law," what they're really saying is, "This is potentially worth police resources, court time, tax dollars, and prison space." A lot of people don't realize this when they run to the government for solutions to problems they wish would go away but are too lazy to deal with themselves, but it's true. In this context, it's entirely predictable (however absurd) that someone could be taken to jail for not repairing his home's fa├žade. That's what laws do, for better or worse, and it's equally true for issues big and small.*

What would I have done in the case of Mitch Faber? I really don't know....but I do know that I wouldn't have gotten the police involved, and I wouldn't want my taxes funding any part of what happened. Maybe there's an objectively better answer, maybe not- but even if the only two options were 1. getting the cops and courts involved or 2. doing absolutely nothing and putting up with it, I'd have opted for the latter. Because I understand that I wouldn't want that kind of treatment brought down on me, I'd resist subjecting even my most hated neighbors to it. Would that we all thought that way.

*For one popular example, take the national healthcare law. Looking past the high-sounding intentions (even if you're in favor of it), it says to Americans: You're either going to buy health insurance or you're going to go to prison. Do not all government programs come with this unspoken ultimatum attached? Has there ever been a privately managed corporation in all of our history with that kind of coercive power?