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Rule Five 1776 Friday IV

For the past few weeks RealClearPublicAffairs has been running what they are calling the 1776 series.  I recommend reading them all.  Here’s the description:

The 1776 Series is a collection of original essays that explain the foundational themes of the American experience. Commissioned from distinguished historians and scholars, these essays contribute to the broader goal of the American Civics project: providing an education in the principles and practices that every patriotic citizen should know.

This week I’ll be providing some commentary on Civic and Moral Virtues, the American Way, by Will Morrisey.  Excerpts follow, with my comments:

In declaring their independence from Great Britain, Americans famously asserted their unalienable rights. Much less conspicuously, but no less tellingly, they listed ten moral responsibilities consonant with those rights.

In announcing their political separation, they begin by acknowledging a duty to observe “a decent respect for the opinions of mankind” by stating the causes for their decision. 1). “Decent” means fitting, appropriate; the opinions of mankind are fittingly respected because human beings possess the capacity for sociality, for understanding one another, for giving reasons for their conduct. Any important public action entails the responsibility to explain oneself, to justify that action before the bar of reasoning men and women.

To justify oneself, in turn, requires Americans to state their standard of justice. That standard is unalienable natural rights, including life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. 2). Justice numbers among the four cardinal classical virtues, defined and elaborated by Plato, Cicero, and other philosophers well known to the Declaration’s signers. Just conduct consists of actions defending natural rights in a civil society; to assert those rights, to separate oneself from those who would violate them, logically entails respecting those rights in all other persons, inasmuch as “all men are created equal,” all equally entitled to enjoy their natural rights undisturbed by tyrants.

Justice should indeed ranked high, if not first, among moral virtues; the concepts of individual rights, liberty and property are impossible to maintain without it.  Here:

Governments that secure such rights are established by the consent of the governed. This means that consent cannot mean mere assent or willingness. It can only mean reasoned assent. 3). Reasoned assent to natural right implies a modest degree of another classical virtue, wisdom. In this case, it is what Aristotle calls “theoretical” wisdom, understanding general or abstract principles. Americans recognize their duty to understand what human nature is—not only the nature of Americans, or the English, or the French, but of human beings as such.

And in this lies my concern.

Look at the last few election cycles – for Congress or for any of your local elections – and ask yourself, seriously, given the tenure of the campaign ads and the rhetoric of the candidates, how “wise” the voters these people are aiming at really are.

It’s not just the endless boasting of how much Free Shit the candidates will give away.  Most of the voters couldn’t find the First or Fourth Amendments with written instructions, partly because the basic education system has degraded into a series of leftist indoctrination seminars, our popular entertainment is composed of gladiatorial games and an endless parade of morons posing as “reality” programming.  One can hardly expect wisdom from a population when a plurality of that population is more concerned with who one of the Kardashians is fucking in any given week than what their Congressman is doing to our wallets that week in the Imperial City.

Is there hope for us?  Well, I’m inclined to think so:

The fourth classical virtue is courage. Without it, wisdom, justice, and moderation by themselves will leave you high and dry. As a baseball manager once said of a rival, “Nice guys finish last.” Accordingly, Americans announce their intention to defend their rights with “manly firmness.” It should be noted that manliness in their minds had no “gender.” Abigail Adams was no less “manly” in her firmness than her husband, John. He knew that and said it. Looking back on the American Revolution, he wrote that those were times that tried women’s souls as well as those of men, and that American women had exhibited no less courage than their husbands and sons.

I think we still have courage, as a people.  I recall President Reagan’s speech about “The Boys of Pointe du Hoc,” and I also recall some talking head interviewing a journalist who had been embedded with some of our troops in Iraq in 2003.  The talk-droid referenced that speech by President Reagan, (correctly) lauded the courage of those men that stormed the beaches of Normandy, and asked the journalist “…where are young men like that today?  Are there any?”

“Yes,” the journalist replied.  “We have many of them, and a lot of them are there, today, in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

And that’s what might just save us as a people.  It won’t be the professional grievance-mongers, the race hustlers, the permanently “offended” that make America work – not ever.  It’s the courage and moral fortitude of the regular workers and business-people of America who, once the autistic screeching of the previous types has finally tapered off, will spit on their hands and get on with the job.

That’s courage, True Believers.  The courage to keep on.

Read the whole article, of course.  It’s worth the time.  It’s about us.

Rule Five 1776 Friday III

For the past few weeks RealClearPublicAffairs has been running what they are calling the 1776 series.  I recommend reading them all.  Here’s the description:

The 1776 Series is a collection of original essays that explain the foundational themes of the American experience. Commissioned from distinguished historians and scholars, these essays contribute to the broader goal of the American Civics project: providing an education in the principles and practices that every patriotic citizen should know.

This week I’ll be providing some commentary that some of you may differ with (hardly the first time I’ve done that!) as this week we’ll look at Religion and the Moral Foundations of American Democracy by Carson Holloway.  Full disclosure:  I’m an atheist.  Selected excerpts, with my comments:

According to social scientists, traditional religiosity is in decline in contemporary America. Fewer Americans identify as members of long-established churches. Fewer Americans attend religious services on a weekly basis than in generations past.

This is certainly true, and not just in America, but over the developed Western world in general.  Is it a bad thing?  Well, as an areligious person myself, I can only give a qualified answer:  “That depends.”  But let’s move on.

Some Americans view these developments in purely empirical terms, as evidence of a changing culture. Others, critics of traditional religion, take the decline of American religion as a desirable trend, a sign of liberation from outmoded beliefs and irrational superstitions unsuitable to a modern, rational age.

While I am not an evangelical atheist – I never have harbored any notion that I was smart enough to tell anyone else how to live – I do tend to agree with that latter statement.  But here’s where this essay, to my mind, wanders off course:

Neither of these assessments, however, is consistent with the mainstream American political tradition. That tradition views religion not as a private concern, the decline of which would be a mere sociological curiosity, nor as a relic of an unenlightened past with which the contemporary world can happily dispense. Instead, it regards religion as an essential element of America’s political culture. According to this venerable understanding, the American regime cannot attain its ends—that is to say, America cannot truly be America—in the absence of widespread religious belief and practice among its citizens.

Look at that last sentence:

According to this venerable understanding, the American regime cannot attain its ends—that is to say, America cannot truly be America—in the absence of widespread religious belief and practice among its citizens.

I don’t think this is the case.

This essay seems to operate on a pro forma assumption that religion is the only possible basis for morality.  That’s a canard.   From an essay of my own from some time back:

Speaking for myself – and I presume to speak only for myself, in itself a moral decision – I do not need a higher power to tell me what the right way is to behave.  I already know the difference between right and wrong.  I live a moral life not because someone or something else requires me to, but because I choose to do so, because it is the right thing to do.  I have distinct ideas on how a moral person should comport themselves in a free, moral society.  Moreover, I have very distinct ideas on how human society should conduct itself, morally.  How do I define right and wrong?  Conducting yourself in a moral manner is right.  Conducting yourself against accepted codes of moral behavior is wrong.

On what things do I, as a moral person, base my morality?  I base morality on that highest of human conditions, the only one that truly reflects the concept of natural rights:  Liberty.  I base morality on the fundamental right to the fruits of one’s own effort:  Property.

Holloway continues:  We may be tempted to look complacently on the decline of American religion, thinking that rights and freedom are modern and desirable, while religion is a burdensome relic of the past. The American Founders, however, and the political tradition they initiated, would warn us that such thinking is mistaken. Religion supports the morality necessary to a free society—and so, as Washington taught, we have both patriotic and pious motives to encourage religious belief and practice. As Alexis de Tocqueville, a friend and friendly critic of American democracy, wrote in 1835, “Despotism can do without faith, but liberty cannot. . . . And what is to be done with a people that is its own master, if it is not obedient to God?”  

What de Tocqueville (who I generally find inspiring and have quoted regularly) is engaging in here is an ipse dixit (“he said it himself”) assertion of fact without evidence.  It is perfectly possible and, I would say, preferable, to have a moral society based on nothing more than a universal acceptance of the two principles I have listed above:  Liberty and Property.

Now, with that said, atheist I have been and will remain, but you will find no stauncher defender of freedom of conscience than I.  It is an inextricable part of the principle of liberty; you cannot have freedom without freedom of conscience, which includes your freedom to believe and my freedom to not believe.

That is something, I think, that the author overlooked.

Rule Five 1776 Friday II

For the past few weeks RealClearPublicAffairs has been running what they are calling the 1776 series.  I recommend reading them all.  Here’s the description:

The 1776 Series is a collection of original essays that explain the foundational themes of the American experience. Commissioned from distinguished historians and scholars, these essays contribute to the broader goal of the American Civics project: providing an education in the principles and practices that every patriotic citizen should know.

This week’s discussion centers on the second essay:  Lincoln, the American Founding, and the Moral Foundations of a Free Society, by Lucas Morel.  Selected excerpts, with my comments:

Abraham Lincoln believed that the success of American self-government required the right ideas and the right institutions. He thought that the right ideas were found in the Declaration of Independence—specifically, human equality, individual rights, government by consent of the governed, and the right of revolution. A corollary to these bedrock principles was “the right to rise,” which Lincoln described as the duty “to improve one’s condition.” These ideas of the Declaration were so fundamental that Lincoln referred to “the principles of Jefferson” as “the definitions and axioms of free society” and “the father of all moral principle” in the American people.

Note that Lincoln, according to Morel, saw America’s promise was that every citizen have “the right to rise.”  But to whom, in Lincoln’s day, did that right apply?  Among some of Lincoln’s contemporaries, the answer was clearly not everyone:

Lincoln’s chief rival, Democratic Senator Stephen A. Douglas of the state of Illinois, also claimed the mantle of the Founders for his policies. Douglas championed what he called “popular sovereignty,” a policy of congressional non-interference with slavery in the territories and states. “I go for maintaining the confederation of the sovereign States under the Constitution, as our fathers made it,” Douglas pronounced, “leaving each State at liberty to manage its own affairs and own internal institutions.” Illinois had decided not to enslave blacks but did not permit them to vote. Douglas was proud of his state’s decision but equally supportive of other states in their exclusive right to regulate the actions of what he called “inferior races,” whether it meant allowing black people to vote up North or enslaving them down South.

And on the other side:

The abolitionist editor of The Liberator, (William Lloyd) Garrison called for immediate, mass emancipation with inflammatory rhetoric that targeted the apathy of white northerners. “I have need to be all on fire,” he explained, “for I have mountains of ice about me to melt.” In addition to condemning southern slaveholders, he harangued northern citizens, whom he claimed were enabling southern slaveholding by upholding a constitution that compromised with slavery. He put the point plainly on the masthead of his newspaper, which declared, “No Union with Slaveholders.” He deplored the Constitution, with its requirement that fugitive slaves be returned to their legal masters. “The crime of oppression is national,” he intoned, “the south is only the agent in this guilty traffic.” One Fourth of July, he even burned a copy of the Constitution, punctuating the moment with the cry, “So perish all compromises with tyranny.”

Garrison sounds like he could be an AntiProfa protestor today; unlike the Profa morons, he was on the right side of the argument, but like them, his presentation of his cause did the abolitionist movement inestimable harm.  But back to Lincoln, here’s the onion:

Lincoln understood more deeply than any American since the Founding that America’s political development centered on the belief that might does not dictate right.

Did he, though?

Lincoln suspended Habeas Corpus by Presidential dictate.  He jailed journalists.  Granted he held the Union together almost by force of personal will during the most critical time in the history of our republic, but he did things that would have a President today run out of the Imperial city on a rail.

In the face of these defective alternatives, Lincoln concluded his private note with the exhortation that Americans should “act, that neither picture, or apple, shall ever be blurred, or bruised or broken.” By connecting the principle of human equality to the mechanisms of the Constitution and American union, Lincoln showed the necessity of political might to promote the common good and not just the self-interest of the many. In the end, to enjoy the exercise of what Americans possess in common required a measure of restraint. Lincoln was a consistent defender of acting within limits. He reminded the American people of their fundamental expression of that self-limitation—the Constitution.

Take a close look at that paragraph.  It states that “…Lincoln showed the necessity of political might to promote the common good and not just the self-interest of the many…” and in the next breath, that “In the end, to enjoy the exercise of what Americans possess in common required a measure of restraint. Lincoln was a consistent defender of acting within limits. He reminded the American people of their fundamental expression of that self-limitation—the Constitution.”

I’d argue that the second half of that is incompatible with the first.  If the government is to be restrained – as it should be, strictly – then it can not be allowed to “promote” the common good or the self-interest of many.  It should concern itself with a very few, strictly defined distributed interests – some level of infrastructure, the military, foreign relations and so on – and otherwise keep the hell out of the citizenry’s way.  The vast majority of us, incentivized to do so, can take care of our own damn self-interest.

Lincoln was certainly a man of parts.  Read the entire essay, of course, as I’ve only given a few contentious thumbnails here.  But while, yes, he did managed to see the country through the darkest time in its history, he also oversaw the first steps from the United States becoming a Constitutionally limited republic of states to the Imperial colossus it is today.

Rule Five 1776 Friday I

For the past few weeks RealClearPublicAffairs has been running what they are calling the 1776 series.  I recommend reading them all.  Here’s the description:

The 1776 Series is a collection of original essays that explain the foundational themes of the American experience. Commissioned from distinguished historians and scholars, these essays contribute to the broader goal of the American Civics project: providing an education in the principles and practices that every patriotic citizen should know.

So for the next few weeks, I’ll go through each of the essays and provide a few pithy comments of my own.  We’ll begin this week with “How Democratic Is the Constitution? by Dennis Hale & Marc Landy.”  Excerpts, with my comments:

Do you worry about fracking? Boris Johnson was worried, so he banned it, because he is the Prime Minister of Great Britain and his party controls the House of Commons. He can do pretty much whatever he wants when he has a sufficient majority.

Think there are too many guns in town? Why can’t we just ban them, like Britain and Australia do?

Do you think “free health care for all” is a good idea? The British Labor Party thought so, back in 1945, and only three years later, it became a reality.

These examples seem to suggest the problem. The United States appears to have a government that makes it very difficult to accomplish anything, while other countries seem much more able to make desired changes—with a minimum of fuss and bother.

It’s far better, of course, to have an Imperial government tightly bound by a Constitution that strictly limits their power; it would be better still if our elected employees would once in a while remember that this Constitution exists, or, wonder of wonders, actually read it.  The Imperial apparatus should be hamstrung; they can hurt us less that way.

The American Constitution gives, and it takes away: it radically slows down the process of lawmaking, and it places major obstacles in the way of interfering with liberty. “Congress shall make no law”—so says the First Amendment—respecting the establishment of religion or the free exercise thereof; nor may Congress interfere with the freedom of the press, speech, assembly, or petition. As the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia once reminded us, “‘No law’ means ‘no law’.”

Someone could tell some of our nation’s governors about this just now.  Of particular concern is the shutdown of religious services, in flagrant violation of the First Amendment; such gatherings may be ill-advised right now, but government at all levels is strictly prohibited from interfering with them.  “Congress shall make no law,” which the Fourteenth Amendment extended to state and local governments.  No law means no damn law!

Of course, Congress and the various state legislatures have been wiping their asses with the Constitution (especially the Tenth Amendment) since about 1860.  I don’t see that changing too soon.

Liberals criticize the anti-majoritarian framework of the Constitution—and it is unquestionably the case that the Constitution places impediments in the way of simple majority rule. This is a familiar story: each state has two senators, regardless of the state’s population; the Electoral College means that a popular vote majority is sometimes not enough to elect a president, especially if the majority is concentrated in fewer states; the Supreme Court can overturn popular legislation in the Congress and in the state legislatures. The Constitution creates a federal republic, where the national government is limited to a specific set of responsibilities, leaving the states free to adopt an array of policies on matters of public concern. This last quality sounds democratic, and one would think, therefore, that liberals would endorse it. But liberals have always had a “tactical” appreciation of federalism: they like it when states adopt liberal policies (California banned the sale of fur products), but not when states adopt policies that liberals oppose, especially if those policies are at odds with national public opinion (Alabama’s strict anti-abortion law). 

All of these non-democratic institutions, like the Senate and the Electoral College, are of course deliberate.  I have long found it annoying to hear people who should know better refer to “our democracy.”  The United States is not and never was a democracy; the words “democrat,” “democratic” and “democracy” appear nowhere in the Constitution.  We are a Constitutional Federal republic, we always have been, with specific safeguards against direct democracy built in to the nation’s founding documents.  Our Constitution, probably the best fundamental governing document ever devised, does not exist to license what government may do to us; it exists to protect us from government.

Go read the entire essay, and by all means, get ahead of the game and read the others as well.  I’ll continue the discussion next week.

Rule Five Fiscal Disaster Friday

The Imperial City’s debt load has shot past $100 trillion, (here’s the source) and nobody much in any of the three co-equal branches of the Imperial Government appear to give even one little shit.  Excerpts, with my comments:

The U.S. Treasury has published a major report revealing that the federal government has amassed $103.7 trillion in debts, liabilities, and unfunded obligations. To place this unprecedented shortfall in perspective, it amounts to:

  • $315,315 for every person living in the U.S.
  • $806,181 for every household in the U.S.
  • 4.8 times the size of the U.S. economy.
  • 29 times annual federal revenues.
  • 91% of the combined net worth of all U.S. households and nonprofit organizations, including all assets in savings, real estate, corporate stocks, private businesses, and consumer durable goods such as automobiles and furniture.

Holy crap.  Holy crap.  We are so, so hosed.  And it’s absolutely, unarguably, batshit insane that we’ve gotten to this point.

The new data reflect the government’s finances at the close of its 2019 fiscal year on September 30th. Thus, they don’t include added spending that has been passed and proposed to support individuals, businesses, and the general economy in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Yeah, well, so what?  What’s a few more trillion between friends?

This official report is mandated by a federal law that requires the Treasury and White House to produce a full accounting of the government’s “overall financial position” by no later than March 31st of each year. Beyond the national debt, it also includes the government’s explicit and implicit commitments. This method approximates the accounting standards that the federal government imposes on publicly traded corporations.

Here’s the big difference, though:  Publicly traded corporations are held accountable for fiscal shenanigans.  They are held accountable by their Boards, by their customers, and eventually by law enforcement and the courts.

The government, one could argue, is held accountable by the voters.  But as long as the voting public includes (at least) a plurality of voters that vote for nothing more than an ever-increasing fire hose of Free Shit, without any knowledge nor concern about the coming debtpocolypse, this insanity will continue unchecked.

And note President Trump’s reaction to the coronavirus crisis:  Throwing trillions of debt-funded dollars at it.  The President is certainly no fiscal conservative.  On spending issues he’s basically what he was most of his life, a moderate Democrat.

Unlike higher estimates of the federal government’s fiscal shortfall that extend indefinitely into the future, these figures only include Americans who are alive right now. Thus, they estimate the burden that today’s Americans are placing on future generations.

I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again:  We have mortgaged our grandchildren’s futures, and history will rightly damn us for it.

Although the report discloses information of crucial import to U.S. citizens, Google News indicates that no media outlet has informed Americans about it since it was released on February 27th.

Of course not!  Not only do most Americans lack the economic knowledge to comprehend how awful this is, most don’t care; add to that the fact that most legacy media talking heads are statist jackwagons who enthusiastically support endless spending on Free Shit.

The article here concludes:

While some believe the U.S. government can spend and borrow with abandon because it is so large and can print money, one of the most established laws of economics is that there no such thing as a free lunch. The prolific economist William A. McEachern explains why this is so:

There is no free lunch because all goods and services involve a cost to someone. The lunch may seem free to you, but it draws scarce resources away from the production of other goods and services, and whoever provides a free lunch often expects something in return. A Russian proverb makes a similar point but with a bit more bite: “The only place you find free cheese is in a mousetrap.”

There’s another economic principle in play here:  Stein’s Law.  This states, “If something cannot go on forever, it will stop.”  This insane roller-coaster of spending is going to have to stop at some point, and what happens then?

What happens to our major cities when the flow of Free Shit is cut off?

What happens when pols realize there is no more money spigot with which to buy votes?

What happens when Imperial subsidies stop?

What happens?

Sooner or later, we’re going to find out.  And what happens won’t be anything good.

Rule Five Tax Scam Friday

The nation is sequestering-in-place, the Trump Administration has put off the tax-filing deadline by three months, and the tax-scammers have been given an added ninety-day window to continue their nefarious machinations.  Here are some folks who are scamming the scammers.  Excerpt:

The extension of the filing deadline not only gives taxpayers three extra months, but also provides scammers with an extra 90 days of prime-time flim-flam.  In a normal year, some 61% of tax scams are reported between January and April, according to the Better Business Bureau. All told, the IRS has logged more than 736,000 scam “contacts” since 2013, costing taxpayers some $23 million. The number is likely much higher since many cases go unreported.

In addition to robocalls, scam methods include fake IRS letterheads and addresses, emails and outright demands to pay taxes not owed. In each case, the operators are looking for quick cash or vital personal financial information. They employ “phishing” techniques to get victims to reply with Social Security or bank account numbers. Then can use that information to open up credit cards or sell it to other thieves.

How do scamsters acquire personal information and what do they do with it once they get their hands on it? Tyler Carbone, chief strategy officer of Terbium Labs, a digital risk protection firm, says one of the most prevalent ways to steal personal information is through W-2s, the basic tax forms employers use.

And:

When immediate payment is demanded, though, thieves often tell victims that they need to send them gift cards or single-use debit cards. “Older folks tend to be the biggest targets, especially those on Social Security,” Lavelle said.

“It’s definitely an ongoing game of cat and mouse,” Carbone concludes. “Law-enforcement, both U.S. and international, are constantly trying to identify the hosts of these sites. That’s why we need to take an automated approach to finding and crawling these sites, as existing markets are shut down by law-enforcement, and new ones emerge.”

Here’s the bright bit, though; there are folks out there who are scamming the scammers, and that’s pretty damn funny.

There are, of course, all kinds of scammers out there.  They tend to prey on the young and old; one of our daughters got a call from one of the IRS scammers, and fortunately was savvy enough to know that the IRS never calls people and says “we are sending the police to your location.”

The Old Man once got one of those “this is your granddaughter, I’m in trouble and I need money!” calls.  He told me about it cheerfully; he responded to the caller by asking “What’s your name?”

“Don’t you recognize my voice, Grandpa?”

“No.  What’s your name?”  Silence.  The Old Man hung up.

There can be no doubt that these phone scammers are the worst sort of scum.  The problem is, most of them are the worst sort of scum that are in parts of the world (eastern Europe, Pakistan and, yes, China) that can’t or won’t be arsed to track them down and extradite them to the U.S. for prosecution.

So, what to do?

I honestly think one of the better answers is folks like the guy who runs the Scammer Payback YouTube channel linked above.  He’s visiting some small but annoying justice on the scammers, entertaining his viewers, and letting the scammers know that there is a risk of being back-hacked and having their information messed with.  That’s worth doing.

Other than that, I’m afraid this is a hazard we have to live with.  Not every problem has an easy solution.  Be aware, True Believers, and be informed.  That’s the best defense.