Saturday, June 18, 2016

Thoughts on Brexit

However the vote goes next Friday, it will be historic.  The vote is likely to be narrow and currently too close to predict.  I hope the initiative passes but perhaps not for the most common reasons.  It is true that what is at stake is the future of Europe.  I think the UK has a better role to play negotiating the next phase from outside than it does from inside.

The EU is facing a number of heavy crises, from the Euro public debt crisis to the closely tied immigration crisis.  These crises pit member state obligations to the central EU authorities against the obligations to their own citizens in terms of tax money allocation and much more.

To be sure, the immigrants aren't the problem.  Most are fleeing American-sponsored civil wars and have gone from good lives to squalor in search of some minimal security.  I see families fleeing Syria and my heart goes out to them.  I believe my country, the US, has utterly failed to do what it needs to in order to pay the tab on the human cost of American foreign policy.  US foreign policy is thus grossly irresponsible and one reason I cannot vote for Clinton is that she helped this mess forward.

But what is a problem is that Greece is expected to pay a disproportionate portion of the costs for housing refugees and handling immigration issues (as well as border enforcement) while also living under Troika-imposed austerity.  In other words, the problem is an intra-EU power problem over money.

Faced with these crises, the current EC President (Juncker) has stated (and I believe he is correct here) that the EU, if it survives ten more years, will be very different than it is today.  The question is different in what way.  There are calls to federalize immigration rules in the EU and for the EU central government to then pay for border enforcement.  That would be an unprecedented expansion of EU institutions and nobody but Merkel seems to like that idea.  But the Schengen and Dublin agreements are perhaps mortally weakened and something has to replace them.

But there are other serious problems.  The European continent spans three major legal systems and traditions.  You have continental civil law, organized around a civil code interpreted by judges.  You have English Common Law, organized around a civil code mixed with judge-made precedent.  And you have Scandinavian law, where judge-made law is built around skeletal parliamentary acts (Scandinavian law is even more different from Continental civil law than English common law is).   Trying to harmonize commercial law where you have three different structural systems of law (and maybe more!) means basically that the most powerful nations (France and Germany) force everyone else to use their system (Continental civil law) as the basic conceptual system.  In other words, the social and legal diversity of Europe works heavily against the EU.

We shouldn't forget that the EU in its current form is a product of the age of neoliberalism that is now coming to a close.  People who are afraid of base nationalism should take heart that the EU has been valuable enough that it will not go away, nor will the UK retreat into isolation.  Rather people will find ways to keep the relationship alive in the ways that are beneficial.

But which ever way the UK votes, I think it is almost certain that they will be a part of whatever pan-European international treaty organizations exist in a decade.  The question is, to my mind, would leaving help steer that transformation in the right way?

My hope is that a leave vote (or even a close victory for remain) would mean basically that the UK and other peripheral members (like Sweden, Denmark, and Greece) would get more leverage in negotiating what the next generation of the European Community would look like.  If it tips the balance of power in the negotiations towards national governments, then it is a good thing.

Friday, June 17, 2016

Thoughts on the mass murder in Orlando

My reaction to the Orlando shooting is hard to describe.  Many of us understand that American society is deeply ill (the shooter spoke in an earlier interview about problems with people profiting off crises for example) but most of us don't go out and start shooting people.  What can convince a husband and father to go and do such great harm not only to other families but to his own as well?  For a religion?  Out of general frustration with the state of the US?  Something else?

But I have decided I have to write what I can.   Since there is some thought that this was an act of international terrorism, it is worth looking at the larger pictures of the intersection of American culture wars and international media, and how this is perceived throughout the world as well.  But it is hard.  As a husband and father, I cannot imagine what would cause someone to rob his own family not only of his presence but of his memory as well.  There is pity, outrage, and much more within myself directed at the shooter and deep sympathy for those who, for whatever reason, have to carry on without family members.

But there are aspects to this case which need to be discussed and I suppose if I can do so, I have a responsibility to bring them up.  I am not advocating changes to policy.  I am trying to articulate larger political patterns going on.  If this is political violence, then an understanding of other sides is important to preventing further acts in the future.

But I will say one thing clearly so there is no misunderstanding.  Violence like this is one of the worst things a person can do.  It is not only a crime against the general public, but even more importantly the shooter deeply betrayed his wife and child in a way that should never be forgotten.  What is his child going to think, growing up aware that his father was a mass murderer?  In some ways, of those who lost someone important, his young son was the most harmed.

At the same time, I think it is only through the search for common humanity with the worst of us that we can come to understand how to build a more flourishing society.  For in such a search is where we find the worst of the problems.

The largest problem I see is the faith in individualism and the system in the US, which effectively makes people who don't or cannot fit severely disadvantaged and leaves them no way to carve out a place for themselves.  For groups we decide to protect, we push an ideal of equality which somehow is never really equal because of hidden assumptions.  For other groups (in particular immigrants and cultural minorities who do not fit the liberal progressive narrative), there is not even that.

There is a reason why so many heinous crimes in the US are committed by immigrants and children of immigrants, and it is not a condemnation of immigrants as individuals.  When we tell people their cultural framework is inferior and bad, when we deny them a real voice in the culture, and deny them any reflection of themselves in the culture around them, we cannot blame them when they become monsters.  Here you have the child of an immigrant who was probably bullied, and at the same time his whole family was almost certainly existing outside the major central cultural communities.

What of international aspects to this?  Is it possible that international radicals pushed someone who was vulnerable and unstable to commit this horrible crime?

There is a fear in much of the world that the US will use global media to proselytize gay rights to the world, and I think this fear underlies much of the recent changes in Indonesian censorship.  That fear is reasonable and arguably even correct.  But with many of the most populous countries in the world (China, India, Indonesia) lining up to try to put an end to this, it effectively forces film makers to choose between commercial success abroad or currying favor at home.  If Disney wants to be able to show Frozen 2 in some of the most important markets internationally, they cannot give Elsa a girlfriend.  I expect this to become a very large issue in coming years.   But was it an issue here?

What is at stake is the question of whether a rights-based narrative or whether a community-based narrative is the right one for addressing people who do not (whether by choice or circumstance) follow the accepted normative narratives of the community.  The narrative may be that everyone gets married to someone in the community, has kids, and takes over the family business, but for one reason or another not everyone will do all these things.  The American approach is to decide that some things are worthy of rhetorical (but probably not substantive) equality, and therefore to say "well, they aren't like us and cannot help it so they need equal rights." But this never covers everyone.

While "marriage equality" means same-sex couples in the US should have the same legal protections as straight couples, it does not mean, for example, that those who marry non-citizens should be entitled to the same family protection as those who marry citizens.  No concern is given to the fact that families with non-citizen spouses (thanks to Clinton-era and Obama-era legislation, and a few more minor contributions by Bush) have more responsibilities and fewer protections than families where both spouses are citizens.  So it isn't clear to me that "equality" rhetoric and "rights" are a perfect solution.  Surely if there is a right to equality in marriage, then it is a Constitutional violation for the Affordable Care Act to ban my wife from the expanded medicaid for the first 5 years following a possible return to the US and still attach liability for failing to insure.

A very different approach is the devolutionary approach.  In this approach, power and responsibility are highly decentralized and communities are responsible for taking care of their own.  This never worked in the Jim Crow South because it requires a degree of economic equality that we have never had in the US as a whole, but it means that if someone is gay in Indonesia (one reason the narrative might not be met, but surely not the only one), it is possible for him or her to navigate society and carve out a place.  Indonesia is in fact so decentralized that a lot of things we think of as done by lawyers in the West (drawing up contracts, for example) are done by notaries public instead.

A community-based approach (rather than a rights/equality rhetoric approach) means that as uncompromising as a society may appear to be, there is always room for human judgement to make things humane, for people to treat eachother with humanity, and so forth.  A rights-based narrative is a threat to all that.  And so I think it is entirely appropriate that countries protect themselves from what really amounts to foreign propaganda by restricting messages from foreign films and television programs.

But did that have anything to do with this horrific act? If there is an international dimension then there must be.  It may also be that ISIL understands how shocking this would be to Americans and pushed the target for that reason.  Or maybe the instructions were more vague and Mr Mateen selected the target himself?  I doubt we will ever know.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

On Bullying in Schools

Those who know me particularly well know that for several years in school I was bullied.  For three years, I was beat up after school almost every day.  For another year it was a periodic occurrence.  I don't normally talk about this because we have this narrative in the US that we start out healthy and are damaged by trauma.  Instead, I think we learn from our experiences and the end-state of healing is when we are aware of what we have learned and then the trauma becomes a gift rather than a burden.  We all go through bad experiences in life.  The question is, do we eventually value what they bring us (insight, strength, etc)?

In discussing the current restroom controversies regarding public schools, showers, and transgender students, someone said something to me that lead me to understand something that had genuinely puzzled me before.  This is not about that controversy but the larger issue of bullying.  I now have a much greater understanding of why students who are bullied may either commit acts of mass violence (like Columbine) or commit suicide.  Before, I never understood that but a missing piece was given to me and I think it is worth sharing.

My Story

I was lucky to come from a strong family and attend a school where the administration were more concerned about addressing the issues well than preventing lawsuits.  So what I have to say here needs to be taken in a certain spirit.

Anyway....  Usually I was beat up by one person or another.   There were a few bullies and usually they took me on, one on one.  There were never any demands.  Just beatings.   I never hated the bullies.  There was always something about it that I could never put my finger on that made me pity them.  But that was the usual pattern.  I got very used to physical pain to the point where physical pain has never really bothered me since.

Once in a while groups of kids would join in.  Once or twice even those I had considered friends did.  That hurt in a way that the beatings never did (apologies were given and as far as I am concerned that is water under the bridge, but I mention it for comparison purposes).  The sense of betrayal from that sort of event, however, was still minor compared to the sense of betrayal that came from the school's involvement.  The school administration, as I mentioned above, tried to address the issues but the problem with bullies is they tend to be very good at manipulating image and more times than not the school would unintentionally take the wrong side.

Even well-intentioned administrators are particularly bad at connecting the dots here because they are often used by bullies and cannot, by nature, see the whole picture.  This, I have come to understand is a fundamental problem of authority and information, and school administrators are simply unable to prevent bullying because of these problems.

The teachers who could see what was going on also tried, but they had no power and consequently resorted to methods that (when I saw them) greatly offended my sense of justice -- at least one of the bullies (who did back off) was bribed to do so.

How things have changed since I was in school

In the discussion over current bathroom/locker room controversies someone pointed out to me something that struck me as extremely important in understanding the current problems.  It was pointed out to me that under zero-tolerance policies, the normal approach is to suspend or expel both the accuser and the accused depending on the severity of the accusations unless one side is independently confirmed.  But that is no measure of who is right, and so this confirms to my mind the fact that schools, when they try to address the issue will more often than not unintentionally take the side of bullies.  With zero tolerance, this increases the stakes and ensures that when schools are in the wrong, the victims of bullying are even more victimized.  I am genuinely thankful that I went through what I did before zero tolerance became a "best" practice.

Give a bullied kid social support and he or she can live and even thrive despite the bullying.  Turn the organs of authority against him or her and that is a recipe for very bad things.  Look at how many heinous crimes are committed by people who come from broken homes, who then are bullied in school, and are effectively denied all sorts of support.  Such people are pushed outside the system and relentlessly attacked by it without any real support from anyone.  Columbine can be understood as an act of rage against a school which not only failed to protect but probably also contributed to the bullying.  The suicides that sometimes make headlines are also from people who have insufficient support.

What We Need to do Differently

I am writing this because I think we need a fundamental shift in how we address school bullying in the US today.  Currently we expect the schools to shield students, but that puts the school in an impossible situation and ensures that the school's main interest is in avoiding lawsuits rather than helping students thrive.  That concern means that schools will err, and when they do, bullied kids will pay a very heavy price.  The first priority I think needs to be a commitment to stop the worst of the harm -- the harm done by school authorities when they re wrong, and that means a commitment to erring on the side of doing nothing.

A second thing is that we need to shift from seeing bullying primarily as a disciplinary issue to one which is primarily a support issue.  Bullies themselves may come from bad home environments, and victimizing them again in school doesn't make a lot of sense either.  What the school can do is offer counselling and moral support early and often, and then move to disciplinary action only when more serious problems emerge.

A third thing that schools can do is they can bring the parents and the administration together and insist on joint solutions involving both sides of a conflict.

But suspending or expelling kids for seeking help regarding bullying?  Absolutely not.  I don't even think we should expel bullies.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

An Alternative to Liberalism part 2 post 3: Partition, Allotment, and Domain in Greek and Norse Myth

In Part 2, we discussed efforts at a theory of autonomy built on Aristotelian and ecological sources.  In this part, I will tie these together with Norse and Greek myth to flesh them out and develop a fuller theory of freedom.

The main thesis here is that both mythological systems provide for a view of freedom which is domain rather than rights-based.  We are given a lot in life bounded by length and law.  Within that lot we have freedom, but if we step outside, we die.

At one point, I thought that the similarities here were evidence of a common Indo-European framework and while there are some commonalities in the Indo-European world (spinning and fate being closely connected), the overall cosmology is different enough in Indian, Irish, Greek, and Norse systems that these seem not to be genetically related culturally speaking.[1]

Fate in Greek Myth:  Partition, Allotment, and Domain

In his important book, "From Religion to Philosophy," F. M. Cornford embarked on an ambitious project to show the extent to which early Greek philosophers drew from Greek religious models in their basic cosmology.  In order to do so, he embarked on an ambitious analysis of Homer and Hesiod in relation to concepts of fate.

The Greek word for fate, Cornford points out, simply means partition and it exists in relation to a term lachesis, which besides being the name of one of the Fates, is also referred to as a process by which partitions are distributed in Homeric poetry.  Lachesis thus acts as a distributor of pieces of a whole (an example he gives is the use of the term in connection with the domains of the elder gods -- Zeus having domain over the heavens, Poseidon over the seas, and Hades over the underworld). Lachesis is how the gods' kingdoms were distributed.

When one steps out of the allotted domain, one reaches nemesis (which Cornford suggests may be related to nomos or law, and nemeton).  Nemesis thus is the enforcement of the borders of the lot.  Cornford also points out that in some regards, the lot is treated as a debt repaid on death.

The image we get for fate then among the Greeks is not one of predestination but one of a lot in life, loaned by the Fates, and taken back when it is exceeded either in length or limits of action.  Freedom of action and fate are thus nicely woven together in a way we have usually tried to separate them in the West.

Fate in Norse Myth:  Allotment, Primal Debt, and the Spoken Word

The Norse view of fate is often seen as similar enough to the Greek model that people suggest that the Germanic peoples borrowed the idea from the Greeks.  In both cases there are strong formal similarities: three mythological women dispensing fate.  There are also connections to spinning and weaving via etymology.

The Coming of the Norns is worth repeating here in its entirely from Voluspa (with my translation below):

Þaðan koma meyjar,
margs vitandi,
þrjár ór þeim sæ
er und þolli stendr.
Urð hétu eina,
aðra Verðandi,
- skáru á skíði -
Skuld ina þriðju.
Þær lög lögðu,
þær líf kuru
alda börnum,
ørlög seggja. (Eysteinn Björnsson's edition)

Then came maidens
Greatly knowing (i.e. knowing magic)
Three from the well
That under the tree stands
Urdh (Fate) is the name of the first
The next, Verdhandi (Turning/Transforming)

- They carved the staves -
Skuld ('debt') is the third.
They lots alloted
They lives chose
For the sons o men
They uttered primal law. (my translation)

It is worth remembering that the Norns are sometimes portrayed as sorcerers in Scandinavian folklore, and that this interpretation is backed both by fate (ørlög) as spoken, and by the notion that they have great knowledge (also tied to terms for magic in sources like Hrof Kraki's Saga, which also features a sorceress named Skuld for the moral debt of her father).

But the magic/fate connections don't really concern us here.  What does concern us is the etymology of ørlög and related terms in this stanza (Þær lög lögðu).  The word ørlög is a simple compound, ør- meaning primal or primordial and lög meaning lot, law, or layer.  In essence here we have gain an allotment process where the primordial lot has an almost legal aspect to it.  As in the Greek view, the lot is bounded by length and law, and that stepping outside either of these boundaries results in death, as the debt (Skuld) of this lot is returned to the Norns.

Subsidiarity, Domain, and Partition

One key notion in both Greek and Norse notions of life and fate is the concept that one obtains a sort of partition, a lot in which one has domain in one's life.  This lot is not one's body.  It is not one's choices.  Rather it constrains both and it exists in a context of social and primordial law.  But this primordial law is not the same for everyone.  This is somewhat similar to Plato's discussion of the individual in Timaeus (discussed in a previous post in this series) where we have one band of sameness (the fixed stars) and seven bands of difference (the planets).

But partition implies something is partitioned, that we take a whole and split it into ever smaller pieces until we get our individual allotments.

This leads to an alternative to liberalism where freedom emphasizes the -dom suffix, meaning domain or holding.  Social roles, functions, jobs, and the like are domains that we should hold and own, having to a large extent autonomy within them (and yet governed by social and primordial law, duty, and debt).  We are free within our personal domains, and less than free elsewhere.  Moreover in this sense, liberalism, in eroding a place in society for everyone, has eroded real depth of freedom.  We have more breadth but less depth.

End notes:
[1]  When we speak of genetic relations between cultural groups we mean that traits were inherited from a common ancestral culture.  So for example, Spanish and French are genetically related languages, both being daughters of Latin.

Friday, March 25, 2016

The way we talk about abortion in the US

So lets talk about abortion for a moment. This is an area where the more people I talk to with different perspectives from different places, the more challenging perspectives have to be accommodated.

The US is becoming increasingly polarized between two groups. A significant number of my friends on both sides of this issue don't fall into either group but I am noticing more and more people espousing one of these two extreme, individualist positions and that is a bit scary. Those of you who read below and think one or the other is a straw man don't get the fact that I am discussing how I have seen other discussions I have had, and you are welcome to comment on why the extreme viewpoint portrayed below doesn't apply to you.

The first position holds that abortion is really no different from murder, that human life begins at conception and therefore a zygote, embryo, or fetus has a right to life that may not be infringed on. But being individualistic, sees abortion as a personal failing, not a social one, and therefore sees no culpability by employer, boyfriend, school administrator, or the like. Thus one can ponder sending abortion providers to jail, or even the women seeking abortions, but one would not ponder changes to make it easier for women to participate in the economy fully after having children. This position ends up being pro-birth into a heartless world and calling it pro-life.

The second extreme I have seen on the rise is the idea that abortion during any portion of pregnancy is acceptable, and that the government should not put restrict abortion at all In this view, the only question that matters is a woman's right to control her own body, but in many circumstances infants do not stop being dependent on their mother's bodies after birth, so why not allow women to kill breastfeeding infants? Why not trust fathers too and bring back the powers of pater familias under the Twelve Tables? The answer here again is total individualism, and that personhood doesn't apply really until birth.

Those two positions are the extremes of a narrow argument that is waged by people who accept Locke's theories of natural rights and his hierarchy of life over liberty, and liberty over property. Any argument on abortion which assumes personhood is the test effectively falls into that trap, and worse it assumes a universal answer to all questions on the topic.

I often ask pro-choice people in the US to comment on Scandinavian abortion restrictions (Denmark, having the fewest restrictions, limits elective abortion to 20 weeks gestation, while Iceland requires major health or social justification for all abortions, and Noway limits elective abortion to 12 weeks). One thing I almost never see is a discussion local issues. What I either see are discussions of the fact that they are industrialized so we will give them a pass unlike, say, African nations, or else I see an unyielding adherence to position over an ability to listen to any other perspectives. Ask anti-abortion activists about Singapore (an island country with no room to build new houses) and again, one almost never sees discussion of local issues there either. The local issues don't matter to Americans.

The problem is made significantly worse by how we look at the question of social progress in the US. The US is the most liberal country in the world and what we have, really, is a choice between left liberalism (liberal democracy governing business and liberalism governing family law) and right liberalism (liberalism governing business, and liberal devotion to religious liberties governing the family). As de Benoist has put it that is the choice (though he was talking about France), and there is no diversity possible in either side.

So what if we ask about abortion in a functional way instead? That the need for abortion rights in the US comes from the way we effectively foist on women alone the opportunity costs of having and raising children? That for those opposed to abortion the most important thing is to build a more just economic order, and for those who see choice in life path as the more important direction, there is a need to recognize that some trade-offs in this area may be worth it? In other words, with more support for families with children, more restrictions on abortion can be acceptable? The individualistic view on this issue means among other things that we cannot ask questions of duty. What is the duty society to new parents? How should parenthood fit into the economic order? These are the questions which have to be asked and answered.  

Friday, March 4, 2016

An Alternative to Liberalism, Part 2, Post 2: An Alternative View of Autonomy

In the previous post, I discussed the rise of autonomy theory in liberal social philosophy in the early Enlightenment.  This era also gives us the beginnings of modernism also as we saw.  But the Modernist view has proven to have less staaying power than the Aristotelian view before it, or the oral-formulaic view before that.

One basic concept that has been very universal is what anthropologists call an isomorphism, or a basic homological similarity in how we see different things, between the individual, the society, and the world.  This isomorphism is deeply pervasive to the point where it survives, basically, today.  If we think of the individual as basically a complicated machine, we can think about governments and bureaucracies as products of high engineering, and the universe as the greatest machine of all.  This idea, which rose to prominence also during the Enlightenment, displaced an earlier, more organic view of the individual (the zoodiacal man and other Renaissance ideas).

The earlier views tended to be similar in some ways to Plato's model in Timaeus.  Modern astrologers and skeptics of astrology usually misunderstand the logic that astrology had in such a system.  If, as Plato suggested, we are basically the same as the stars, then through this isomorphism we can divine patterns in our own lives by looking at the stars.    This same basic view underlies all traditional methods of divination as well.  The same model applies to all and the state of one model can infer the state of another model.

The problem with the machine metaphor is that while it is useful for scientific inquiry, it doesn't actually match our scientific knowledge very well once one gets to systems more complex than organic chemistry.  Even in molecular biology, "always" means "most of the time" and "laws" are peppered with exceptions.  By the time you get to general biology or ecology things are downright non-mechanistic.

Anthropology outgrew the mechanistic views in the shift from structuralism to post-structuralism but this is also a shift towards a sort of individualism, recognizing that individuals represent a fluid center and creative force that structuralism cannot well address.

In this essay I will suggest a shift in view from seeing these things as as machines to seeing them as ecological communities and the implications from a communications theory/computer science perspective on such a shift.

The Rise of Permacuture and an Ecological Archetype

Permaculture is a growing movement towards reinventinng food productions by leveraging ecological models in place of our farms and gardens.  The basic idea of permaculture is that instead of fighting against ecology when it comes to weeds, insects, and soil nutrition, we can leverage how mature ecosystems work and thus produce a lot more food with a lot fewer chemical and energy inputs.  The animals and plans become productive, mutually supporting pieces of the whole.  Rather than leveraging machinery, we can leverage even pests to produce more and better food more easily.

Permaculture takes a fundamental cultural shift to make work.  traditionally most of our crops are annuals but permaculture leverages perennials to a much greater extent.  Large fields of wheat or tomatoes have to give way to something else (perhaps food forests of fruit and nut trees).  Plants are layered in space and time.  One must think both diachronically (across time) and in terms of mutually supporting roles.

As permiculturalists are keen to remind us, all problems can be solved in a garden.  The ecology becomes the basic archetype, replacing the great machine, and consequently there is a push for a return to a more organic, less energy-intensive, less socially isolating society.

But beyond this, an ecological archetype (i.e. seeing the human, the universe, the society as being basically ecological in shape) is applicable in a variety of fields.  Instead of seeing bacterial infections as mechanical in nature (the mere introduction of a pathogen) we can see them as ecological in nature (a pathogen population blooming because of other ecological factors).  A shift to use of probiotics preventatively is also part of such a shift.

Similarly, while liberal philosophers tended to reduce society to a machine, an ecological model provides a richer ability to arrange the pieces into mutually supporting roles.  Family and organs of local community (religious groups, guilds, and other structures) become fundamental and larger governmental structures become subordinate to these.

The CAP Theorem, Distributed Computing, and Consistency in society

One of the major developments in computer science has been the CAP Theorem in the face of the rise of distributed computing (first in scientific computing and later in other disciplines as well).

The CAP Theorem takes its name from the initials which provide three desirable characteristics of distributed computer networks:  Consistency (all network nodes having access to the same information at the same time), Availability (the system responding to all requests), and Partition Tolerance (the ability to successfully respond to requests in the event of some information not being available).  The CAP Theorem demonstrates that assuring all three is impossible, and that any two are incompatible with the third.

While it has its roots in computing, the CAP Theorem is really about communication and information and thus is applicable to human society as well.  There are naturally differences, also, that must be taken into account -- the CAP Theorem assumes a sort of communication that is impossible for humans to achieve.  While computers communicate precisely and losslessly, humans communicate imprecisely and in a lossy way.  We don't encode and decode information.  We try to reconstruct what the other will think and then communicate in this way, and then when receive communications we try to reconstruct what the other meant.

This is largely because human language is bootstrapped on environmental learning.  All of our native language is learned through inferring what other people probably mean and this means that no two people speak quite the same language.  This process is also responsible for linguistic drift and some other linguistic phenomena.

The lossy nature of human communications has a number of significant implications for the application of the CAP Theorem to human society.  Consistency is fundamentally mechanical and not fundamentally human.  We can approach consistency, or the illusion of it, but the only hard consistency controls possible involve centralizing power in the hands of a single individual (because in CAP terms, an individual cannot be inconsistent with him or herself).

A second point is that human language is a life-long learning process.  We learn how to effectively communicate with people we work with over time and therefore consistency is more readily possible on a small scale than a large scale.

Human civilization thus depends on tolerating inconsistency in CAP terms and this tolerance must increase as the scope of society increases.

The CAP Theorem, in context with a solid understanding of linguistics, thus provides a solid mathematical proof that individual and local autonomy are necessary for productive ventures in human society.  In areas where human society cannot do without (economic production, reproduction, etc) individual and community autonomy are fundamentally needed.

Of course this autonomy must be balanced with other social concerns, such as the need for mutual support (which we would not survive infancy or into old age without).  But we can prove both a need for autonomy and duty and this piece is about the former, which the CAP Theorem gives us.  But viewed from this perspective, autonomy is a functional requirement that human society simply cannot exist without.

Subsidiarity and Autonomy

The final point to add to the mix is the idea of subsidiarity.  Subsidiarity (as Justice Breyer reminds us in many of his interviews) is a European concept, not an American one.  It holds that the best level of society to tackle a problem is the smallest one capable of tackling it..  Subsidiarity is in theory a basic part of the European Union (added after Denmark voted not to join to appease their fears), but in practice more a part of Scandinavian society, where it is called the Nearness Principle, than in Continental Europe.  While the idea was first formulated in a papal encyclical (Rerum Novarum) in the 19th century, the idea expresses something of a general experience of agrarian, rural countries and even the functional efforts at dual sovereignty in the early US.  The idea is more tightly tied to classical philosophy than it is specifically Catholic and this is probably a reason for its general success.

It's worth noting that even Chairman Mao at one point said that China should see the United States as a model for why decentralization of political power is necessary and should not try to emulate a single strongly centralized government.  So the idea of decentralization as good  has ranged from early America to Communist China, to Scandinavia, to the Catholic Church.   I think this reflects a sense by which the CAP Theorem's limits in fact really do come into play.

The rationale in Rerum Novarum is probably the place to start in understanding the idea of decentralization as a moral matter however.  The basic idea is that theft needs not be material to be damaging.  One can rob someone of dignity just as surely as one can rob someone of money.   A key aspect of dignity is an ability to accomplish good things for one's family, community, and society.  Robbing someone of that ability to accomplish things is thus a very deep and serious form of theft.  As anyone who has been told to do a job and then micromanaged in doing it knows, this is a serious problem.  Of course the CAP Theorem shows us that micromanagement not only feels insulting but is actually harmful so it is no exaggeration to call it evil, but this is a more recent development.

The idea then is that it is a serious matter of theft to take a task out of the hands of an individual who is doing the work capably and put it in the hands of another.  This is what I call work ownership, the idea that a task and the accomplishment that comes with it, should be treated as property (how fruits of the labor should be divided is separate however, since one never really accomplishes anything entirely alone).

What applies to an individual also applies to a group.  For a larger group to take over a task a smaller group is capable of accomplishing is itself also a theft.  Therefore there is a moral necessity in keeping this accomplishment as personal as possible and therefore larger levels of social organization (including government) should work to coordinate and harmonize rather than accomplish on their own what the lower levels are capable of doing.

This echoes Aristotle's views on the roots of the polis.  According to Aristotle, individuals get married and have children thus forming households, and households come together to tackle joint problems and thus form the polis or community.  Larger levels of the state exist because smaller levels come together to address joint problems, which is an inversion of the engineered order (where you start with the large and subdivide).

These all form parts of a more organic, comprehensive view of autonomy which affects both individuals and groups.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

An Alternative to Liberalism part 2 post 1: Liberalism and Antisocial Autonomy

Man is born free, and yet everywhere he is in chains.  -- JJ Roussau "On Social Contract"

One of the key selling points of Liberalism is the ideology of autonomy, and the view that other ideologies don't share a concept of autonomy.  The latter is false (though few others phrase autonomy as specific to the individual), and the former deserves careful understanding before we can see both the problems and opportunities for a replacement.  In this post we will take a short journey through the early liberal philosophers, Hobbes, Locke, Roussau, Hume, and Kant and look at the evolving views of autonomy, society, and government that came out of them.

Hobbes and the Need for the State

The beginnings of progressive social theory come from Thomas Hobbes and his book "The Leviathan."  Hobbes introduces a couple of ideas which become the basis of Western liberalism since.  In particular he argues there is no greatest good, that man's behavior can be explained materialistically.  This becomes the basis of what we might call psychological and political materialism.  Hobbes largely denies the idea that man is by nature a social creature and therefore sees man as at his natural state where there is no society.

In such a state, Hobbes reasons, people need protection from people engaging in violent theft, and therefore the state arises for joint protection of this sort.  In this regard he echoes Cicero's claim that there are certain things, such as private property rights, that must be respected for humans to live together in cities.  However where he differs from Cicero, Aristotle, etc is that he saw humanity as by nature isolated, alone, autonomous.

Hobbes thus lays the framework for progressive views of history.  For primitive man, life is nasty, brutish, and short, but with social developments, prosperity is possible.  There is no need to look to religion or to a philosophical notion of the greatest good.  All we need to do is look to avoiding a violent death.

From Hobbes then emerges a concept of right to life and a general right to autonomy.  These get fleshed out in greater form by later thinkers (Locke, Rousseau, and others).

Locke and Universal Rights

The next major thinker in this regard was John Locke, whose works built on Hobbes view of natural rights.  While Locke followed Hobbes in a right to be generally free from violence and to follow one's own desires, he added to this a right to property, largely following Cicero.   He also formulated a hierarchy of rights, with life above liberty, and liberty above property.

One of the most enduring aspects of Lockean thought in the US is the abortion debate.  Both sides of the debate effectively accept a Lockean outlook, where life is greater than liberty, and therefore the only question to discuss is whether a fetus is a person, worthy of a right to life.  This leads to a very narrow abortion debate.  We don't get to discuss the questions of the role in an economy which treats men as normal and women as only normal to the extent they are like men.  We don't get to discuss the way that the social need to recognize shared humanity between mother and fetus.  We don't get to discuss the effects on society or the family.  The only question is personhood.

In my view, this leads to a very impoverished debate.  But it is worth noting two things in defense of Locke.  First, he notes the importance of property, something Hobbes doesn't formulate as well and secondly he treats property rights as not even close to absolute, being limited by their impact on the liberty of others.

Rousseau and the Liberation of the Individual

Rousseau can be seen in "On Social Contract" to be reacting largely to Hobbes.  Rousseau effectively follows Hobbes in the natural rights approach but sought to soften Hobbes assertion that humans are not social creatures.  Rousseau on one hand acknowledges a social nature to humanity, but on the other hand sees society as deeply corrupting.  It is through the influence of society, Rousseau held, that people though by nature good become either evil or enslaved.  Rousseau then accepts both a social nature of humanity, but also treats society as fundamentally suspect and damaging.

Some respects of Rousseau's theories are clearly accurate.  Monarchs can be more authoritarian than democracies and, as Rousseau pointed out, democracies become more oppressive as they cover larger numbers of people.  Rousseau's theories then seem to suggest that the only guaranteed nonoppressive form of government is the local, participatory democracy, but it isnt clear that Rousseau would have liked these much since they are basic manifestations of the society that chains the individual.

Rousseau is universally hated by conservatives and for good reason.  He follows Locke and Hobbes down an antisocial hole and favors liberating individuals from the fundamental units of society, the family and community.  However, he the first of the liberal philosophers to really grapple with humanity as social by nature, and for this reason he cannot be ignored entirely.

Hume and the Nature of Reason

Hume noted that reason is not by nature directed and is therefore amoral in nature.  Of course he was not the first  Aesop's fable of the wolf and the lamb carries with it a similar lesson.  But Hume attempted a solution here based solely on individual experience.  Where Aristotle, Cicero, and others would look to social duties and function Hume looks to the experience of emotion for guidance.   Argument from emotion may be a fallacy, but emotion alone can give reason direction, so reason is always, according to Hume, a slave of the passions, and this is as it should be.

With this view of reason and emotion comes the basic view of human rights being things which one feels strongly about.  Individual emotions thus become seen as the guiding light for society.

The problem of course is that prejudices steer our reasoning and when we cloak these in universality, we turn them into things which go from being functionally protective of community into things which are oppressive of other communities, and even oppressive of our own.


The picture of liberal autonomy that develops is one where society is a corrupting influence on the individual, where the goal is to erode family and community so that chosen relationships are more important than unchosen ones.  Parenthood thus is a one-way duty and children need not have duties towards their elders.  Communities have duties to their members but the members have no duties to communities they did not choose, and so forth.

 But beyond these are a trust in the combination of reason and emotion leading to the visible cult of the personality.  However these are only enabled by worshipping ever more powerful social machines.  We factory farm our food and we factory farm our kids.  We produce our work in factories.  The home becomes nothing more than a place for isolated individuals to hide at night from the inhumanity of the world.

In the next in this series I will look at an alternative way to look at human autonomy from a social function perspective and how computer science of all fields can provide a far more conservative alternative to this sort of autonomy theory.