Wednesday, October 31, 2012

On Voting

“Always vote for principle, though you may vote alone, and you may cherish the sweetest reflection that your vote is never lost." -- John Quincy Adams

There is quiet wisdom there, that if you can vote for principle and you can go on with life, election after election saying you have done this, then your vote is never lost, for it is possible to inspire others into action until the rolling pebble becomes an avalanche.

Always stand up, and do something respectable in everything you do.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Further thoughts on same-sex marriage and the role of the state

The issue of same-sex marriage brings up a large number of issues most people on both sides do not want to face.  Is same-sex marriage sustainable in the long term?  What does it mean in a simpler society?  What is the role of the state here?  What is the role of grass-roots culture?  And moreover, what is going on socially with the gay rights movement today?

I do not expect this to be an easy piece for anyone to read.  I do not intend to pull punches, and I expect most readers to be offended at times.  I expect everyone to wonder "how can he think that?" at various points.  And so I will do my best to be clear when offering what I think are revolutionary critiques of this issue from various angles.

My view is simply that the grass-roots is more able to sort out complex moral issues than the state is.  Neighborhoods, community projects, religious groups, etc. do better here than the large organizations.  As per previous posts, I think subsidiarity requires a grant of general autonomy to both individuals and organizations.  I think a state, by being truly neutral and saying "maintaining culture isn't my concern" can encourage a healthy discussion on the cultural level.  I also think that concerns about normalizing homosexuality are overblown but for a decidedly unpopular reason: I see the difference between the left and right here as between versions of aversion to homosexuality, not between acceptance or rejection of the idea.

Some readers will fear I have read too much Derrida, and others will be outraged that I would dare to deconstruct the "left" on this issue.  Deconstruction, I am sure, is seen as a weapon to be used against everyone else, but here I think it is especially useful.

Is Same-Sex Marriage Sustainable?  An Historical Perspective

In virtually all cultures at virtually all times in history, marriage is a complex institution which combines sexual restraint with procreation and care for (and enculturation of) children.  Marriages serve many secondary functions including, but not limited to, solidifying family alliances, caring for the elderly,  providing economic and political foundations and more.  The specific functions vary from culture to culture.  However, in most cases, procreation is generally expected to be an aspect of marriage.  Procreative unions are more universally ritualized than death and disposing of human remains.[1]

There are of course two notable exceptions, which were Rome and modern, Western civilization.  In both these cases, there have been a great deal of controversy on the matter, and there is some controversy as to whether some of our earliest surviving Christian liturgy are related to same-sex marriage or something related.[1]  However, as I will illustrate below, in every case same-sex marriage has culturally been discouraged even where recognized, and modern society's passive-aggressive "acceptance" of homosexuality is no different.

Of course issues of homosexuality and same-sex marriage are separable.  Homosexual sex is woven into many cultures in various ways, but marriage is usually procreative and separate.  This post does not address sinfulness or lack thereof regarding homosexual sex, but only marriage and society.

Society, Cicero said, has certain functional requirements without which we would not be able to live together in communities.[2]  In this way, he has largely laid out the basis for functionalism in sociology and anthropology.  We can therefore derive some insight into the roles marriage plays in various cultures by looking at the inherent social problems it often solves, and compare with those societies where same-sex marriage is even thinkable in order to understand the nature, and sustainability limits, of the practice.

As we live life, we go from being economically unproductive children to being economically productive in various ways in different stages of life, to being elderly and again economically unproductive.  Support for the elderly then becomes a key social issue.  In complex societies that can afford it, the wealthy may entertain an independent retirement, while in simpler societies tend to have communal support, particularly through the family, for elderly.  The childless end up with fewer options, which is one reason why procreation is very important in these societies.

In Rome, the upper class could contemplate an "independent retirement" where a man could retire to his rural estates and be supported by slaves.  This meant that for upper classes of society, there was not a mutual support requirement of retired people and their children.  When same-sex marriage did come up, it was a big deal and broke taboos, but it did not threaten the most important functions of society regarding children and the retired.  Similarly today in the US and Europe retirement is independent, paid for out of pensions and savings, and therefore as in Rome, we do not have the same grandparents caring for the grandchildren that exists in similar societies.  Moreover this is not limited to the upper classes but is intended to be good for everybody (I am not sure it is, but that is another topic).

Our society is capable of this not because we are "better" than we were a thousand years ago but because our social complexity is subsidized by the burning of fossil fuels.  Thus there is every question of what will happen as energy prices continue to rise and whether this forces a retraditionalization of the family.  We are already seeing a rise in multi-generational households and there is no reason to think that will reverse anytime soon.

Another point that cannot be overstated is the need to separate a discussion of sexual morality from marriage in historical discussions.  In many historical societies, extramarital sex for various reasons was condoned and even supported.  Many traditional societies had traditions of wife-loaning and wife-swapping, but always the husband was the lawful father.[3]  Moreover polygyny and polyandry both also count in this area even though the latter poses paternity issues the former does not.  Van Gennep's examples show the paternity issue in polyandrous societies as often solved ceremonially, showing the point that everwhere mothers are mothers by virtue of giving birth but fathers are fathers by virtue of social recognition (this is no different in the US today).  Wife-swapping as well as pederasty formed the political backbone of ancient Sparta,[4] and Aristotle wrote on restrictions on pederasty to prevent it from being socially problematic as well.  Van Gennep talks a bit more about pederasty, and also temple prostitution, in a cross-cultural perspective too.[3]  That such societies that differ so much on questions of sexual morality maintain a largely consistent core of marriage (focusing on procreation) tells us something important, that this is not about sexual morality per se.

Thus I think we can show that the ability even to have this conversation is a bit of an economic luxury bought by the very burning of the fossil fuels which are causing damage to our environment.  I therefore don't see it as a particularly important question or one that the state needs to concern itself with.   Support the family, nourish the family, take care of the other problems, and this issue by the time you get to it will have changed beyond recognition if it is an issue at all.

The Gay Rights Movement of Today:  Towards a Kinder, Gentler, More Effective Homophobia

There is often a general fear that by recognizing same-sex marriage that the state is normalizing what should not be normal.  This is perhaps the most common argument against same-sex marriage but it misses the general social dynamics and the pervasiveness of structures which discourage homosexuality in our culture.

In this section I will use the term "homophobia" to refer to the various social structures which discourage homosexual sex in our culture.  It is my view that the "acceptance" of gays and lesbians in modern society is very passive-aggressive and done in a way which ensures that this is even more taboo than it was when the taboo was overt.

In the United States today, marriage is portrayed fundamentally as heterosexual and monogamous.[1]  This thread runs through children's toys and movies to bridal magazines, and the like.  The model of normality is very strictly around heterosexuality.[5]  One can imagine the outrage and controversy that a Barby and Kendra dyke Barby playset would create even among people generally supportive of the gay rights in the US.  This would be seen as sexual in a way that Barbie and Ken are not.

We might see full normalization of homosexual relationships as the point where such toys are there, and where same-sex relationships are portrayed in Disney movies for little girls, and where this is all entirely uncontroversial.  Yet according to the general rhetoric of the gay rights movement, this can never happen.  Gays and Lesbians, we are assured, are born that way, and will always be a tiny minority.  However, what this does, in the context with the aggressively heterosexual models of normality is send a message that homosexuality is basically a birth defect.  The born that way thesis, far from ending homophobia, merely transforms it.  It sends the message to every young man and woman, "you aren't born that way, are you?"  In this regard it is not really different from the Calvinist doctrine of predestination, in saying that salvation is inherently reserved for some individuals and ensuring that people demonstrate that they are in the favored group.

There is a fundamental difference between seeing homosexuality as "bad behavior" and an "inborn trait, rare, and at odds with society's definition of normal."  The first category is far more forgiving of experimentation than the latter is, and the latter thus creates a paradoxically stronger taboo regarding homosexual sex.  After all if it is just bad behavior then self improvement can make you stop, but if it is an inborn abnormality, then some things are just better left unexplored.

The gay rights movement then pushes for acceptance of homosexuals, but does so in a framework which labels homosexuals as fundamentally other, and therefore holds them out as an example of how not to be a member of the preferred social group.  In the social context, then it is not about normalizing homosexuality but in deriving a little comfort for those outside while actually tightening up the taboos on the subject.  The rhetoric cannot be separated from its social context.

This is not really all that different from how the classical  modern feminism sought to merely flatten gender roles and allow women to be men too, and in the end created a form of feminism which often works against the interests of women particularly in the medical context.[6]

A Look to a Simpler Future

In the future our fossil fuels will become more and more expensive and energy prices will follow.  This will create a huge burden on the modern economy, and one which mere fuel efficiency standards in automobiles will be unable to address.  As we are forced to look to do more with less, then the question becomes how do we structure our families to do this?  Do we put money into our children's education instead of our retirement in the hopes that they will be able to graduate with less debt, and yet we will be interdependent in retirement?

But beyond this, what happens when we cannot sustain the level of complexity we have today?  What happens when the sperm bank is no longer an option for lesbian couples wanting to conceive?  The very options that make same-sex marriage possible today may not be there in the future, namely the separation of sexuality from reproduction, and the ability for most people to have an independent retirement.


[1] Grimes, Ronald.  "Deeply Into the Bone:  Re-Inventing Rites of Passage"

[2] Cicero, "The Republic"

[3]  van Gennep, Arnold.  "The Rites of Passage"

[4]  Plutarch.  "The Life of Lycurgas"

[5] Compare to the masculine-normal model of the human body in medicine, see Davis-Floyd, Robbie. "Birth as an American Rite of Passage."

[6] Davis-Floyd, Robbie. "Birth as an American Rite of Passage."

A brief thought for the election

One may think that we have a wise and trustworthy Augustus as emperor today, but I fear the very powers that he and his predecessor cultivated will lie in wait for the Neros and Caligulas lurking in the shadows, awaiting their turn in history books yet unwritten.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

An Unpopular, Classicist Position: We Need Strong Families

Today, I read two stories, the first being the tragic story of the teenage Felicia Garcia, who committed suicide after being bullied about participating in group sex with football players.  One cannot fault her parents, as she lost them when she was younger.  Instead society had passed her around the foster care system, which is no substitute for real family. 

The second was that of mothers who turned in their sons over the murders of two girls.  In this story, Cicero's words, that one should not turn in family members to the authorities because the state needs strong families more than the need for criminal justice.  I don't think I understood what that meant really until today, and in grappling with the tragedies, and their social context, I have come to see wisdom in the words of Cicero here however much they cut against the grain of modern society.

The family household is the primary support structure for our children.  It is the structure which provides culture, moral teaching, and most importantly a sense of self, social context, and place.  Without these things, the child will lack a certain sense of security in life, even if the rest of society can make up in the other areas, which is doubtful.

The case of Felicia Garcia illustrates all too well that social machinery is no substitute for a strong family to which one truly belongs.  I don't condemn her for her suicide.  To lose her parents at a young age, and then go through the torments of modern childhood without that most basic support, the words of the Havamal reach out:

All alone there stands
A withered fir-tree
Bereft of bark and needle
So too the one who is all alone
Why should his life be long?
-- Havamal stanza 50, my own translation.

Without social context, we wither and die, like the fir tree.  This stanza tells us that just as trees often need the shelter of other trees, so too we humans need eachother to flourish, and there is simply nothing worse than being all alone in a crowd.

The corporate press of course, always on the anti-bullying crusade, seems to think with more laws, and better policies in the school tragedies like this can be averted, but this misses the point.  Trust in social machinery is the last thing we need, and I say this as one who was bullied as a kid non-stop for years.

Social machinery never works in these cases because machines lack intelligence of their own, and because they tend to  ensure that the people making the decisions simply do not have sufficient facts to determine the nature of the problem.  These problems invariably ensure that the administration of the school, when they intervene, cannot tell who really is bullying whom and consequently as often as not intervene on the side of the bullies.  The problem is a simple one.  If you see a particular student having problems with several other students, without a lot more detailed knowledge, you cannot tell if the other students are bullying or the one student is picking fights.   These things require local knowledge and they require human scale.  In the age of school consolidation and a focus on economies of scale, these things are nowhere to be found.

When I was a kid being bullied I found that teachers and the principle tried to intervene and fix the problems but they never did things right, and this was a relatively small, rural school.  The principle never really could figure out what was going on no matter what people said.  Sometimes the principle would understand and take my side.  Other times, well, not so much.  There was one time he called the bully and I into the gym, brought out boxing gloves and told us to fight it out.  The teachers, having better knowledge of what was going on, had no way to make a difference.  One of them resorted to bribing one of the bullies to leave me alone.

There were two things that made the situation bearable for  me.  The first is that I was secure in my place in my family, and in the love of my parents.  I had a strong sense of self, and was not about to let the bullies take this from me.  But beyond that I had a very strong sense that the bullies were facing problems I could not fathom.  I always knew somewhere inside and with nobody telling me, that my life was better than theirs, and that in no way would I want to switch places.  This was driven home to me when a few years ago I found out the father of one of the worst of the bullies had been arrested for molesting children, years later.

Felicia had no strong family. She had nobody who would be there for her unconditionally, loving her, and giving her a sense of self and place in what is all too often a hostile world.  Society's alternative was the machinery of the foster care system a system that gives foster kids just enough of a sense of family perhaps to know that they are missing something deep and important.  Her suicide is perhaps more a testament to the failure of foster care than it is to the issue of the bullying that will thrive and get worse as we build ever-bigger schools and more complex approaches to dealing with a problem that would be manageable if we moved back to human-scale education.

Yet, predictably, nobody wants to question the treasured myth of modern times, that we can build machines to solve any problem and that this includes social machines to solve social problems.  Instead of seeing humans as always willing to try to game any system we build, bullying is a problem to be solved simply by expanding the complexity of our school system to try to address it.  The problem, however, is that this is a result of the complexity of our school system, not the cause.

The larger problem, however, is how we view children and adoption.  It is easy to find adoptive parents for a newborn, but far harder for a young child who has tragically lost his or her parents.  People adopt for selfish reasons, because they want kids, not because they want to help kids who need it.  In a saner world, Felicia wouldn't have had foster parents, she would have had adoptive parents and they would have loved her unconditionally and helped her through the trauma of losing her parents, and on to developing a sense of self that would have prevented the tragedies that befell her in her teenage years.  She would have been wiser, more careful, perhaps less easy to manipulate, and even if she had made missteps that lead to bullying, she might have had the sense of self to get through it.  Instead, society largely abandoned her to a system that is designed to prevent us from seeing the need to adopt such older children.

On to the murders of Jessica Ridgeway and Autumn Pasquale.  the breakdown of the family is prominent here.  Austin Reed Sigg, who confessed to killing Ridgeway, is the child of divorced parents.   I haven't seen anything on the family status of Pasquale's killers, but it is worth noting that Pasquale's parents themselves were divorced as well from press reports, and from the pictures shown it does not look like she was killed in a wealthy neighborhood.

Both parties in the US have gradually turned the "War on Poverty" into a "War on the Poor" through different punishments for drug law violations, tough on crime stances that tear families apart, the rise on prison industries, and increased strings attached to welfare programs which themselves are used as a government subsidy for cheap labor.  With the decline of the family as a social institution, we expect our schools to do more of the heavy lifting regarding culture-building (and this is unfortunately both a problem on the left and right), and consequently the family is more and more marginalized and more and more eroded until today when it is a mere collection of individuals brought together by contract and accident of birth.

Crimes like those of Ridgeway and Pasquale are not perpetrated by well-adjusted individuals, secure in their places in their families and society.  They are instead products of the factory farming of children because we no longer believe in human-scale child-rearing.  Our society is becoming less and less human as we lose this, and we become more and more just parts of a machine.  I fear that as we do, we lose our highest aspirations and our potential for greatness.

Virtue is built from vice.  A willingness to work can be built from greed, marital love from lust, and so forth.  The difference is often less in substance than it is in how well ordered our lives are and how well we connect to other people.  The true alchemy of the self, then transforms vice into virtue by attaining social context, compassion, and perspective.  It is through our divine gifts that this transformation can occur but it can only do so when we have an environment built towards human flourishing.  Thus without balance we can never really make this transformation and we remain Ayn Rand's little darlings, but with the right environments, we can achieve a unity of self and virtue that perhaps few in any age achieve.  That can only happen when the society in miniature is human-scale, not industrial-scale or, as the new-buzzword would have it, web-scale.

The Norse myths tell of the end of the world preceded (as in the Irish equivalents) by a total breakdown of society.  While the Irish Colloquy of Two Sages typically inverts social norms ("maidens without modesty" for example) the various Norse references, including Snorri's Gylfaginning, and Voluspa, portray the social breakdown in terms that are more stark and also more intimate.  The fundamental breakdown is in the family.  Siblings kill eachother, people murder their parents, etc.  This "axe age" or "sword age" leads to a three year long winter, where at the end of which all spacial divisions are erased, and the great battle between the gods and their enemies commences, until a cycle begins anew.

This is of course not just the story of the end of the world, but rather (as Eliade would have it)[1][2] a story of the end of society, of social context, of the family, and perhaps a story of the death and/or transformation of the individual as well.  One pattern is much like another and these stories are infinitely re-usable, but one thing that is clear, particularly in the comparative context is that the boundaries matter and that the end of the world in this and related systems is about the collapse of boundaries.

In the myth of Ragnarok, all boundaries are erased.  The Rainbow Bridge is destroyed, the boundaries which keep the fire and frost giants from the world gone, and separation between the living and the dead erased.  This is remarkably similar to the Cornford's view of Anaximander's view of the elements paying back a primordial debt in their own destruction, which he largely derives from his framework of moira, lachesis, and nemesis.[3]  Boundaries matter and indeed they define us.  Perhaps one important lesson from the Norse myth of Ragnarok is that when the boundaries of the family are erased, society soon follows.

And so I come back to the thought that Cicero was right, that the interest of the state in strong families outweighs the interest in criminal justice because if we had stronger families, perhaps we'd have fewer heinous crimes of this sort.  An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, and I am concerned that the expectation that we trust the social machines instead of people will lead us down a very dark road indeed.

But of course the mothers who turned their children in are not to blame.   What is to blame is the way we have systematically weakened the family in every way imaginable until crimes like this are the ultimate outcome.  It is time to start looking for how to strengthen the family again.


[1] Eliade, Mircea, "Myth and Reality"

[2] Eliade, Micrea, "The Myth of Eternal Return":

[3] Cornford, F. M. "From Religion to Philosophy"

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Thoughts on Libertarianism

Partly due to the influence of Victor Turner's anthropological works I have come to see individualism and communalism as twin sides to society.  I recognize that this is an area where I significantly break from Distributist tradition, but I want to address how Distributism and Turner's works make me see libertarianism.

If we take Turner's works seriously, it would be no exaggeration to say that society arises out of the interplay between the individual and society.

If individualism and communalism are both twin sides of society, like two shoes on feet, then subsidiarity must reach the individual and this becomes a basic tenet of Distributist family life, but also the disagreements between Libertarianism and Distributism are more nuanced.  In fact I think that as the basic realities of life begin to hit home, then Libertarianism must either re-invent Distributism to stay healthy or else head in a very bad direction.

In essence I think that the flourishing of the individual and of the community are not really at odds and that each nourishes the other.  Truly free individuals, seeking to preserve their freedom against both states and corporations will seek to balance and play these off eachother.  Communities which nourish individuals do so with a significant element of personal liberty.

But before I begin I want to distinguish between two terms as I will use them in this post.  I use freedom to refer to the Stoic concept (yes, preserved in Christianity, but not significantly different from conditions in Hinduism and Buddhism), which is an inward condition characterized by self-control and prudent wisdom.  Liberty is the lack of external constraint.

Necessity of Personal Liberty to Human Flourishing

Humans are not born with significant knowledge. We learn language, develop skills, and become better at life as we lead.  Learning occurs through two complementary methods, through instruction and through trial and error.  One cannot learn a trade perfectly without doing it, making mistakes, and gaining the experience that those mistakes create.  Thus liberty is necessary to learning how to thrive and flourish, and therefore it is necessary to human flourishing.

Liberty can be defined as "the right to make mistakes."  Without genuine alternatives there is no human  or social growth.  Liberty is thus an absolute necessity because without it, the human spirit cannot reach more than a tiny shade of its potential and the society will be stunted or it will die.  Thus it is not really the case that individualism is incompatible with human flourishing.  Indeed it is a prerequisite, albeit in a tempered way.

Basics of Libertarianism and Contrast to Distributism

The basic idea of libertarianism as a philosophy is that the primary necessity in life is liberty, and that the primary condition for liberty is that the government should get out of the way aside from some specific functions, such as contract enforcement.  Libertarians tend to see freedom of contract as being the fundamental freedom and it is through this that Libertarian social theory tends to be developed.  Libertarians then tend to assume that things like home-owners associations are acceptable because they represent a more direct social contract between individuals and their governance.  Therefore just as people can contract away their liberties in other circumstances (like business deals) so too they can do so with ultra-local government.

This is rationalized by saying that these community-level governments are not really state actors and therefore the restrictions on state actors don't apply.[1]  This distinction doesn't really make much sense to me but it is generally consistent with Libertarian thought.

Consequently one can see in Libertarian thought the idea that all social structure are essentially created by contract, and that we each have total freedom of contract in this area.  At least in theory it would be theory behind the Libertarian concepts of business freedom, family structure, and the like.  This is largely based on social contract theory in the tradition of Hobbes and Locke.

The Enlightenment can be seen as a philosophical offshoot of Protestantism, much the way that Distributism is often seen as a philosophical offshoot of Catholicism.  Like Protestantism, it is largely hostile to tradition, individualist, and not as deeply communal as the Catholic or Orthodox traditions or the pagan traditions that came before them.  In short it is an isolating approach, where individuals are robbed of traditional context and instead placed in little bubbles regarding what they believe.  Secular humanism can in fact be seen as the incestuous child of Protestantism and Catholic Humanism.

Libertarians end up generally preferring the private sector to the public sector and the public sector shrinks so that its only functions are defence and contract enforcement, while the private sector increases until it reinvents the public sector.  If home-owners associations are placed in the private sector merely because they are not officially arms of the government, then these terms have entirely lost any useful meaning in Libertarian theory.

To the Libertarian, then, there is nothing wrong with community ownership of roads or other infrastructure, as long as it is officially not an arm of the government, but at this point, I think this is arguing semantics and shadows instead of substance, and so the thoughtful Libertarians end up re-inventing a major part of Distributism, and resorting to ever more complex rhetorical gymnastics to prove that this is still a small government model.  We will call this branch of libertarian thought "localist libertarianism."  Aside from differences in labelling, we can call it a Protestant partial reinvention of Distributism.  In terms of public sector projects (from a Distributist perspective) and joint community projects (from a localist libertarian perspective) these are largely identical.  Where they differ are in questions about how best to help the poor.

The other main branch of Libertarian thought (what we might call the Rand camp) is simply naked liberal capitalism.  Let the fire departments be privatized.  Let the roads be run by private monopolies, and we can all pay or move.  We will call this camp "corporate libertarianism" and they are different by virtue of the fact that they are centered around for-profit corporations owned and run for the sake of the financiers.  This is fueled by the overly simplistic belief in the power of business.

Corporate Libertarianism as Unstable

Corporate libertarianism is inherently unstable.  The liberal capitalist model of large financier-owned factories depends for its very existence on the disempowered worker.  The real genius of servile state-type public assistance to low income workers is that this keeps these workers disempowered.  Corporate Libertarianism would simply remove these subsidies and the safety net and allow the workers to negotiate for what they can.  They believe wages would increase (and it is probably fair to say that nominal wages will in fact increase, but probably not enough to make up for the difference in the loss of subsidies).

The economy then becomes run by the rich, with the message that they deserve their wealth, while the poor starving family is told they shouldn't have had children that they couldn't afford and forced to depend on private charity, even if they have jobs.  We've seen unbridled liberal capitalism and it isn't pretty.

The end result of course is class warfare, and the eventual rise of the very servile state the corporate libertarians claim to want to avoid.  There is no other way around this.

Distributist Subsidiarity and Individual Liberty

I think it is a mistake to put too much emphasis on the communitarian aspects of subsidiarity.  Subsidiarity, even in the writings of Pope Pius XI begins with the premise that society should not place a task in the hands of an organization which can be accomplished by the individual.

Subsidiarity is thus granted on the principle of general autonomy at every level, whether individual, family, organizational unit etc.  The single most common violation of subsidiarity is that of micromanagement.  As many employees and married people can attest, there is a large difference between being asked or even told to do something, and being first told to do something and then micro-managed as to how you do it.  The first simply gives you work that you then "own" while the second gives you work but insists on still owning your work, turning you into little more than a slave or even automaton.

Subsidiarity requires trust and acceptance that different people will do things a bit differently.  It is a general principle of letting individuals own their accomplishments to the extent possible and then tying those individual accomplishments together into organizational accomplishments.  This is a different sense than the idea of individual liberty.  Rather than grants of rights, there is a general liberty premised on the idea that one owns one's accomplishments.

Instead of a Lockean individual human rights framework, subsidiarity is a general principle of liberty, namely the right to undertake and complete works, and to own the accomplishments, honor, glory, and reputation that comes with such accomplishments.  This ends up being similar to the localist libertarian liberty of contract, but ends up going in a very different direction.  Distributist subsidiarity is liberty of work with the hope that it will lead to inward freedom.  It is thus a deeper concept, rooted in the sacred nature of the human spirit and the work of the hands guided by the spirit.

Localist Libertarianism

Localist libertarianism ends up mostly reinventing large parts of Distributist social order in the "private sector" (though at this point it isn't clear what the words "private" and "public" mean).  The idea of larger entities bound together from smaller entities regarding public works is present there though derived by a different path, namely by trying to push public functions into the "private sector" (whatever that means in this case), and developing contract-based ways of accomplishing this.

There are however significant problems with localist libertarianism that have largely escaped attention.  Libertarians generally support a free market but aren't really very strong on government intervention in the case of monopolies.  Big business is not seen as market distorting, but rather government subsidies are seen to have that role, so the lessons of the late 19th and early 20th century are lost in this group.  The idea that the wealthy deserve their wealth encourages the sorts of class warfare problems that lead to the socialist servile state, or the communist servile state unless this is controlled.  It isn't that there aren't mechanisms that can be used to discourage such monopolies and big business.  It is that the ideology is generally against their use.

The second, and complimentary problem, is the lack of a real strategy for helping the poor.  Without such a strategy everything falls apart.  Currency in whatever form must circulate if a system is to be maintainable.  Keeping money moving towards the top distorts and eventually causes the system to collapse.  Many libertarians see property rights as a way to protect the poor but again there is a strong aversion to doing anything about property ownership.  Thus there are thus key points missing from localist libertarian approaches, and while it is perhaps possible to describe a Distributist approach in localist libertarian terms, the reverse is not quite true.


[1] See Volokh, Eugene. "State Constitutional Free Speech Vis-a-Vis Private Landowners"  and related discussions on that site.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

The Servile State (and Corporate Press) in Action

But we in our generation have more and more come to consider the state as bountiful Uncle Sam. "Uncle Sam will take care of it all. The race question, the labor question, the unemployment question." We will all be registered and tabulated and employed or put on a dole, and shunted from clinic to birth control clinic. "What right have people who have no work to have a baby?" How many poor Catholic mothers heard that during those grim years before the war!  -- Dorothy Day, 1945, "More About Holy Poverty which is Voluntary Poverty"
Note the rhetorical question, "What right have people who have no work to have a baby?"

Today we hear of a bill introduced into the Pennsylvania State Legislature designed to ask this very question.  The question is answered that they have no right, and it removes benefits for children in households where the child was conceived during a time when the household was on certain public assistance programs.  One exception is made for women who can file a letter saying that they were raped and reported it to the police.  Not surprisingly the bill has been introduced by Republicans and has been greatly criticized by some forces on the liberal left.

Worse of course is the fact that it isn't clear how much those benefits actually only apply to the unemployed.  Given the increasing use of public assistance to the working poor it seems quite possible that many people receiving benefits may have one or two wage earners in the family, so it is no longer  "What right have people who have no work to have a baby?" but rather "What right have people who have no well-paying work to have a baby?"

Surely the liberal left must be standing up for reproductive rights, right?  I mean, that's a central plank of the liberal left's rhetoric, right?  Well, not really.  Apparently unable to muster much objection to curtailing the right to have children, ThinkProgress and Huffington Post both turn the issue into one about rape victims.  Evidently unable to muster much outrage for the reproductive rights aspects of the issue, the fact that benefits can be restored if a woman had reported rape to the police and asserted that that's how the child was conceived is what is outrageous, not that poor people have no right to a family (which has been reduced to a mere agglomeration of individuals).

To my mind this misses the whole issue.  If it was an issue of asking rape victims to show that they reported it to the police, the issue could be quickly solved by simply removing that way to get benefits restored.  The real issue is that the problem with the bill is the reproductive rights issue, but few people actually attack the bill by saying "if you want to have children you have a right to do so."  Thus Dorothy Day's argument against public assistance to the poor, that it it would lead to intrusions on this matter, has been proven exactly true sixty-seven years after she wrote it.  If Dorothy Day can seem borderline prophetic on this issue, Hilaire Belloc's The Servile State is no less so, as it argues that class warfare victories for the poor end up inevitably being tools of the enslavement of the lower classes, something which has been fully brought to bear with the passage of the Affordable Care Act into law.

This debate shows the extent to which both parties have accepted and endorsed the servile state.  The way this works generally is that the state steps in and offers help to the poor, displacing other support networks which are deemed inadequate (and which often are inadequate because of the hegemony of the oligopolies on the market), and then as those same hegemonies which made previous networks of support inadequate exert themselves, these are turned into tools which reduce the options for the poor and eventually force the poor to work for someone else's private benefit or face legal sanction.

However beyond this dynamic, discussed by Belloc, I think there is another one, which is that, as Day pointed out elsewhere in the same essay, when you receive money from the state, the state ends up being able to have a great deal of control over your life, to the extent that the pensioner may be considered to be a slave of the state (she quotes Samuel Johnson's dictionary for that one).  Thus I think the welfare state creates servitude of the poor both in commandeering the poor, particularly the working poor, for private benefit, and also for perceived public benefit.

Here the State of Pennsylvania has offered temporary assistance to families who need help financially to avoid collapse and the first step of course is to make them prove that they need it.  This has the effect of heavily discouraging proper self-employment as a way to better one's lot because this makes it a lot harder to qualify.  Thus now the worker is trapped in the low-wage corporate job line with subsidized compensation and is denied any opportunity to better his or her lot through his or her own initiative aside from accepting piecemeal work under the table (which many do, and good for them).

Now they believe on top of that they have a right to control personal and family decisions which impact other aid down the road.  Therefore the individual on public assistance has no rights, and neither does the household.   The individual becomes a slave of the state (although Belloc accepted no such definition that allowed for slaves of the government, I think it is fair to say that he is wrong.  Surely mere temporary conscription, representative of the population is not slavery, but surely the creation of a class of people to whom the government can dictate the very conditions of life, work, and family, when those cannot be applicable elsewhere, must qualify.

Of course this is not the only policy of the servile state.  Obamacare, the war on drugs, forced prison labor etc. are all a part of it, but this particular proposal and the flack it is getting is noteworthy because it shows that:

  1. While Democrats talk about the right to choose, they don't consider the right to choose to have a child to be equal to the right to choose not to have one, and
  2. Republican family values are shallow.  As characterized by John Medialle, "Children are just another consumer choice, to be played off against a summer vacation or a big-screen TV." (The Music of the Spheres and the Terminally Tonedeaf).
Moreover while of course if you eat at a soup kitchen, you must take what they serve, there is a difference between that and saying that if you want to use food stamps to buy food, the government  has a right to tell you what to eat, or that if you are on Medicaid, make end of life decisions for you.  The choice for the poor today is no longer a decision between destitution and freedom on one hand, and subsistence but slavery on the other.  The only choice left is in the relative power offered up between the public and private sector masters.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Minsky's Revenge: Towards financial stability

The banking crisis is a bit of a learning experience regarding Distributive rhetoric and the powers of the servile state.  Often the desire to get people into their home can be turned around into pure profiteering with great human cost.  The problem here is corporatism and corporate greed, not an effort to get poor people in their homes though.  This post explains how we got here, how we were mislead, the dynamics of the collapse as per the theories of Hyman Minsky, and how to go about ensuring that the poor are able to have a home that can function as the center of production and of the family.

Minsky's Theory of Financial Instability

Hyman Minsky, an American economist argued for a theory of financial instability which could predict events like the Great Depression.  In his theory, private debt is a major economic factor in both economic expansion and collapse.

In prosperous times, Minsky argued, banks become exuberant, and less cautious about lending, and as a result certain distinct patterns of borrowing develop.

The first are financially conservative borrowers that Minsky calls the "hedge borrowers" who are able to, at the time the loan is agreed upon, pay back both interest and principle over the course of the payments on the loan. The hedge borrower is the classic responsible borrower but in a collapse because of changing economic conditions, even the responsible borrowers cannot often service the loan.  More on this below.

The second is class of borrowers are the speculators.  These can afford to pay the interest but not the principle, and therefore expect to resell the asset at a profit in order to pay off the original loan.  The bank of course, knowing that there is additional risk, will price the interest a bit higher there.  Some of these are intended to be short term loans, perhaps buying foreclosed properties and then holding onto them on the market for a bit longer than the bank would be willing to.  If asset  prices fall below purchase price, the speculator is in trouble.

The third class are what Minsky calls the "Ponzi borrowers."  Ponzi borrowers are unable to afford the terms of the loan and even service the interest alone.  This class of borrower depends on accessibility of credit and rising asset prices to continue to pay the interest of the loan, and in fact the amount owed will continue to increase over time.  Sub-prime mortgage lending was primarily a way to make money off the ponzi borrowers.

When credit becomes restricted for ponzi borrowers, they cannot pay their loans, and this quickly cascades to speculators.  The collateral economic damage then results in an economic slowdown which can unravel even hedge borrowers.  Economist Steven Keen has more recently added a mathematical model behind Minsky's theory which appears to work quite well, and even without the math, Minsky's theories describe exactly the dynamics at work in the current global economic meltdown, or the Great Depression Jr as I like to call it.

The Roots of the Current Crisis

The current crisis has sprung like a tree on the global economy and like any tree it has many roots.    The key one that many point to is the efforts on the part of Reagan, Clinton, etc. to get the poor to borrow money to buy houses.  This is perhaps the largest and most visible root and it is the one I want to pay the most attention to here.  The problem of course does not lie in pushing home ownership, but rather in the means used to do it, through loans subsidized by a central authority made to people who couldn't pay the loan back.  You don't have to be either a Distributist or an economist to see that this is a bad idea.  The result, quite predictably, was profiteering on the part of the banks, who had nothing, they thought, to lose because asset prices were rising rapidly due to the competition to buy.

There are several important Distributist critiques of the past programs which are usually missing in this debate, and some people have argued that the goal itself (a Distributist goal) is to blame when in fact the means to pursue it was entirely corrupt.

The first is quite obvious, namely that this was a program pushed through big businesses which have no real interest in seeing communities organically grow.  The wealthy were paid by the powerful to push an agenda that inflated property prices on paper and thus, predictably, they turned the program to their advantage.

The second major criticism is that the theory behind this push was not sustainable.  Inflation in housing prices was seen as creating wealth when in fact all it was creating was a capacity to borrow money, subsidized not by the past but by the future.  Asset price inflation does not create the kinds of tools or environmental improvements that one might call real wealth from a Distributist perspective, but rather is just a bargaining chip when it comes to purchasing these things on credit. 

Moreover as I mentioned, this capacity is borrowed from the future.  When asset prices rise in inflation-adjusted terms, it drives up both prices to purchase or even rent such property in the future.  This means an increasing portion of household income going to pay for housing.  At some point this cannot be sustained and prices must come down, but when they do, they take many mortgage holders with them.

The Collapse

Paul Krugman has compared the Minsky Moment to the Coyote Moment in the popular children's cartoon show "Wile E Coyote and Road Runner."  In that show Coyote often runs over the edge of a cliff and falls only when he looks down.  So too the Minsky Moment occurs when bankers look at private credit, realize it is unsustainable, and tighten lending policies.  This causes a collapse first of housing markets, and eventually of other economic factors as well.[1]

The reaction of course, rather than asking whether we need to rethink our banking system, has been to save the banks by infusing them with whatever money they need.  In the US, the Fed put in more than an entire year's worth of GDP into the banks in a serious of secret loans later uncovered in a congressional audit.  Banks get bailouts.  Individuals get foreclosure and layoff notices.

This needs to be considered against an important additional factor though.  Our financial system was already stretched to its limit keeping up an illusion of increasing prosperity.  The feds had already lowered interest rates almost to 0 for the portion they had control over, and so the answer has been inflation, secret loans, and qualitative easing.  If the debt can be inflated away, then the banks can have healthy balance sheets.

A second root that needs to be considered is the shift in spending away from basic necessities of food and a single family car and having our money go towards other things, such as more competitive housing, medical expenses, and higher taxes.[2]  Money is drained from the middle and lower classes and given to the wealthy banks, pharmaceutical corporations, medical textbook publishers, and the like.  These trends are more severe for divorcees and single parents than they are for married couples.

Home Ownership for the Poor:  How To Get there

This doesn't mean we should write off home ownership for the poor as a bad idea as some have suggested.[3]  Rather we need to be more careful about how we get there.

The obvious lesson is that centralized banking is a recipe for recklessness, and that the more we can write profiteers out of the equation, the easier it is to get people into their homes.  I would propose a very simple solution: use taxation to encourage home ownership.  I would suggest a significant excise tax on rental income for properties rented for one year or more unless certain exemptions apply.   Those exemptions would include

  • Leases convertable into rent to own agreements at no additional monthly rate, and only a modest processing fee
  • Leases to extended family members
  • Each household could exempt one additional unit from taxation, to prevent penalizing renting a place out temporarily during a temporary relocation and the like.

Such a plan would ensure that people who would want to buy could do so, and that the speculators and banks would be less able to interject themselves into the thick of things with the sorts of human consequences we have seen over the last few years.

It is still my belief that home ownership for the poor as a general policy makes sense, but it is one that must be pursued cautiously, with the awareness of all of the problems we have in terms of the practical tools commonly used.

Online Resources for More Information:

[1] Krugman, Paul, "After the Minsky Moment"

[2] Warren, Elizabeth, "The Coming Collapse of the Middle Class." 

[3] Somin, Ilya, "Do We Need to Subsidize Home Ownership to Preserve our National Character?"

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Distributist thoughts on the Same-Sex Marriage Issue

Before I begin, I expect this post to be very challenging to people across the political spectrum.  Most people, left or right, are caught up in the Lockean view of individualism on this issue, and/or look to the government to make grand moral pronouncements on this issue.  This post is in part an attempt to get away from this, look at how Distributists tend to frame the issue, and then look at cases for or against same-sex marriage based on that framing.

The Case Against Same-Sex Marriage

I have discussed same-sex marriage as a political issue with a number of Distributists both Catholic and Othrodox Christian.  In general, most are opposed to state recognition of same-sex marriage.  Their arguments typically look back to Aristotle's "Politics" for the foundation of society in the procreative family, and then argue that the goal of the state is to nourish the family.  Here's the general logic.

In "Politics," Aristotle posits three layers to society.  First you have the individual, and individuals of the opposite sex come together in that fundamental union necessary for our continuation as a species, and in so doing, establish households including children, sometimes extended family members, (and, in Aristotle's day, slaves).  The household is the fundamental unit of the culture, society, and economy.  They produce and consume goods, engage in business, and come together to form the polis, or city-state.  Because the household is the fundamental unit of culture, creating and passing culture on to the next generation, it is an irreplaceable institution on which the rest of society depends.  The question is how to nourish the institution of the household in this way, and since same-sex couples cannot fill the same cultural role, they should not be granted the same social benefits.

For what it's worth I agree with this basic framing of the question.  Raising children is, fundamentally, an act of instilling the culture into the next generation and hence society still rests solidly on the basic cultural autonomy of the procreative household.  I thus have some sympathy with this argument.  It is further worth noting that Distributism itself tends to see the household as the basic economic unit of society, and looks to emphasize that role as well, with family owned businesses and the like, so these concerns all dovetail very quickly to a policy recommendation against recognizing same-sex marriage, and it is an argument I am basically sympathetic towards.

The Distributist Case for Same Sex Marraige

At the same time I end up disagreeing with the conclusion, that recognition of same-sex marriage is hazardous to distributism, even while I agree that the individualistic "I want X too" argument is fundamentally corrosive to society even while both sides of our political spectrum play that card often (perhaps most notably on the "right").  The goal of any government in Distributism is to nourish and support smaller social institutions and that does mean families in their procreative and enculturing roles.  Unlike some (particularly on the "left") I do not want to see us become a society like Sparta, where the role of teaching children what is right and wrong is taken over by the public school system in what is essentially an anti-family agenda.  At the same time I think the arguments against same-sex marriage by many Distributists lack an important point.

Subsidiarity cannot exist, and cannot be viable, if there is not trust that the lower levels of society will make things work and, ideally, organically grow and prosper.  Moreover all knowledge is local, and national or statewide policies which disempower communities and families generally hamper rather than help society grapple with the key issues of our day.  For this reason I think it is extremely important for the state to remain neutral in significant culture war issues and allow the lower social institutions to work things out themselves.

I make exception for antidiscrimination laws based on race (and to a lesser extent gender), but only because they help undo the damage caused by state policies of segregation and making decisions that should have been left up to the family (in terms of gender discrimination, such as bans on women practicing law which were common up until the late 19th and early 20th centuries) and community.  The policies of the past are the responsibilities of the present.  However I am greatly sceptical of the need to extend antidiscrimination law beyond those areas where states enforced discrimination in commerce and the workplace previously.  Mere de facto discrimination (denying security clearances to one group because of concerns that their membership might be used to extort secrets from them, for example) is not enough.

Subsidiarity then implies a right to make mistakes.   This right, which must necessarily exist at all levels of society, is often forgotten, but it is also through making mistakes and looking around, comparing with others, that we learn and can do better.

Additionally the matter at hand is complicated.  Many same-sex couples get together with kids of their own, absent adoptions or artificial insemination, and are in the process of raising and enculturing their children as well, and so it is not quite the case that the entire basis for marriage in this role is only found by straight couples.  We may quibble as to what family models are best for the children but if we are to expect the state to respect and enable people to raise their children with values as they see fit, then the complexities  of this issue are beyond the ability of the state to resolve.

Therefore I don't think that individuals, religious organizations, or businesses should be required to recognize same-sex marriage, but I think the state must, in the spirit of ensuring the sort of social dialog which is enables society to organically resolve the problem.  Communities know their members and can make decisions about what to recognize.  Empowering communities by state recognition of the marriages is thus a good thing.

For those who are on either side of the issue, I think it is important to note two things:

  1. We need to rethink how the economy nourishes the family.  Right now things are very bad.  A future post will address this.
  2. Any large-scale social change will only happen as a cultural change.  Discussion and dialog is the only way to make that cultural change happen.
 This view though is one that is likely to make most folks uncomfortable, but that I think is primarily the effect of the idea that the government should not take sides in this important and ongoing discussion.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Why Elfland?

As some will note, the title of this blog evokes ideas of Tolkein, forests, ecological perfection.  It also has an older connotation, from Gilbert Chesterton.  I do not generally agree with Chesterton on the supremacy of Christianity or Catholicism but I find him to be a thought-provoking author nonetheless.

In his book, "Orthodoxy" (1908) he included a chapter entitled "Ethics of Elfland" and which begins with the following paragraph I find to be inspirational

When the business man rebukes the idealism of his office-boy, it is commonly in some such speech as this: "Ah, yes, when one is young, one has these ideals in the abstract and these castles in the air; but in middle age they all break up like clouds, and one comes down to a belief in practical politics, to using the machinery one has and getting on with the world as it is." Thus, at least, venerable and philanthropic old men now in their honoured graves used to talk to me when I was a boy. But since then I have grown up and have discovered that these philanthropic old men were telling lies. What has really happened is exactly the opposite of what they said would happen. They said that I should lose my ideals and begin to believe in the methods of practical politicians. Now, I have not lost my ideals in the least; my faith in fundamentals is exactly what it always was. What I have lost is my old childlike faith in practical politics. I am still as much concerned as ever about the Battle of Armageddon; but I am not so much concerned about the General Election. As a babe I leapt up on my mother's knee at the mere mention of it. No; the vision is always solid and reliable. The vision is always a fact. It is the reality that is often a fraud. As much as I ever did, more than I ever did, I believe in Liberalism. But there was a rosy time of innocence when I believed in Liberals.

Elfland then is a rejection of practical politics over ideals, but that doesn't make it impractical, only that practical politics must serve the ideals and not the other ways around.  I also, as many Distributists have following Chesterton, reject Liberalism (in the Lockean sense of which Chesterton wrote, not the partisan way it is used today in modern American society)  for reasons I will leave to another post.

Elfland is the land where agrarianism meets environmentalism and where social justice coexists with the free market, but it is a place strangely alien to the modern world.

This blog will include Distributist musings on economics, politics, and the like.  Because I reject the Liberal consensus between both parties, and base my view on a different, earthy, economic reality, my views are non-partisan and I will likely be as hard on one party as the other.

What is Distributism, you may ask....

Distributism is an effort to reflect on what has failed in Capitalism and create a more free and also more just economic system.    Distributism may be seen as "post-Capitalistic" but it runs a very different direction from socialism or communism.  Here are my working definitions of various systems:

  • Liberal Capitalism is the ownership of the means of production by the financier (bank or investor) through the instrument of the corporation.
  • Communism is the takeover of private ownership by the state which is ostensibly the collective representation of the workers.
  • Socialist Capitalism is capitalism where taxes on capitalists are used to care for the lower classes.
  • Distributism is where the workers themselves buy their own means of production and are significant owners in their own work and businesses.
 The Distributist critique of Capitalism is relatively similar to the socialist or communist critique of it.  Capitalism depends on an oppressed worker class for its survival, and this class must be kept poor so they will have no choice but to continue to work under poor conditions for their employers, who will be made rich over the backs of the poor.  However, to the Distributist, this occurs because the financiers have amassed centralized control over the means of production and hence the economy.  The Distributist concern that Capitalism is both inherently unstable and destructive because of too much centralization of power is necessary to understand the critiques of communism and socialist capitalism and the alternatives offered by distributists.

Distributists are usually actually even more negative on communist governments than on liberal capitalist economies.  The simple argument, put forth by Hilaire Belloc in "The Servile State" in 1912,  is that if we are right, and the problems of capitalism are caused by centralized control then you cannot solve them by taking the control out of the hands of the few and entrusting them to the still fewer hands of state bureaucrats.  Interestingly Wilhelm Reich, a non-Communist Marxist, made a similar critique of the Soviet system in his book "The Mass Psychology of Fascism."  The result of course is not less class warfare or workers that are better off but rather more class warfare (in this case the state actors vs the workers), and more worker oppression.  Belloc was right in this regard.

The critiques of socialist capitalism are a bit more complex.  The basic argument is that the social welfare programs have the capacity to enslave people to their work and can be twisted by the upper classes to do so.  In other words, the victories by the working class in class warfare can fundamentally be turned into tools of their enslavement.  This isn't necessarily always the case, but it is an important tendency if distributist priorities are not kept in the forefront.

What Distributism offers is a tradition of thought aimed at helping elevate the working class from the lower class into the middle class, reducing disparity of wealth, and the corrupting influence of capital.  It also offers a path of living where the assumptions of the present are rethought and intractable problems, from sustainability to gender equality in the workforce, become solvable.

While Distributism originated in English Catholicism, over time it has spread out.  I have met Distributists who were Catholic and some who were Orthodox.  A few more I have met who were Heathens and Neopagans.  Distributism as a personal philosophy cannot be separated from the religion of the practitioner, but it is inherently pluralistic and so thinkers of various traditions are welcome.

I myself am a Heathen and I see Distributism as offering an alternative to the sort of centralization that began in Europe first with the rise of the Roman Empire, and later with the expansion of Christianity into Northern Europe.  It seems deeply ironic to me that I'd look to more recent Christian traditions for an answer to the problems of the conversion and how to undo that harm, but Distributism is not separable from my religious life for me either, but I do say "we can all get along, if we choose to."