Archive for June, 2010


The Third American Revolution

   Posted by: Robert    in Philosophy

A recent article by Victor Davis Hanson over at National Review Online draws, in the course of making a broader argument, an interesting analogy which got me thinking about America’s current place in history.  He notes, quite interestingly, that the current noise over boycotts against Arizona have “a whiff of the climate of the late 1850s, when the federal government was in perpetual conflict with the states, which in turn were in conflict with one another.”  This statement caught my attention as being both insightful and intriguing.  At the risk of jumping into “revolutionary” talk that even I think is somewhat overdone, I do have to wonder if America might be coming to the precipice of what I would consider to be the third American revolution.

Looking back historically, the first two revolutions both have remarkably common elements about them.  Both of the first two revolutions, the American Revolution and the Civil War, were, at an important level, battles over the role of government in America.  This battle is easily seen in the American Revolution, as nearly every history class around will characterize it as a fight against the tyranny of England and the unjust, confiscatory tax policies of King George.  Those who supported American independence were convinced that the Crown was too powerful, and the battle against England was an ultimately successful fight to cast off the reigns of an overpowering central government and return a degree of independence not only to the colonies as nations, but to the colonists as individuals.  Harder to see but no less present are the shades of government oppression in play during the Civil War.  Although the common story is that the Civil War was about slavery, the issue of slaves was more of a proxy for a deeper battle being waged against the reach of the federal government, particularly in southern states which viewed the northern and federal campaign against slavery as an assault on their independence.  The South, of course, lost that battle, and the entire concept of state independence has never quite been the same since.

Of course, at the time of the Civil War, the slow collapse of federalism and the rise of federal power were hardly the foregone conclusions that they appear to have become today.  Nevertheless, the government’s intervention to bring about the demise of slavery set a precedent for using government intervention to cure America’s ills.  FDR and the New Deal, LBJ and the Great Society, the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, and everything that the Warren Court did, all take their strength from the fact that the government was able to “solve” slavery by aggrandizing power to itself.

What President Obama has now given us is the clearest glimpse to date of the consequences of reassigning power from the people to the government following the Civil War.  No longer is the government in the business of solving real problems like slavery or segregation — to their credit, my parents’ generation has taken care of the lingering inequalities which had echoed through time all the way since the founding.  What we see instead is that the government spends its time building up power by attacking an endless army of straw men, crafting “solutions” for things which are not problems, imagining problems and then purporting to solve them, and providing solutions to problems which would not have existed if not for the government.

The Tea Party movement — a name which, itself, conjures memories of the first revolution — is the first, best indication that the people have had enough.  As I have said now many times, the culture wars of the current generation will give way to a deeper battle over the role of government itself in America.  Tea Partiers all come from diverse walks of conservatism, and many would certainly disagree on many aspects of the culture wars including such staple issues as abortion, gay marriage, and religion.  They have, however, united under a common banner against the size and scope of the government as it exists today and as its current administration wants to grow it long into the future.  The younger generation has reached the point where the fight over liberty itself has become more important than the petty squabbles over what to do with the freedoms that have been secured.

American revolutions have never been about land, or money, or politics, or power.  They have, fundamentally, been about changing the relationship between the people and their government.  It seems to me that America is closing in on rekindling that old fight.  Shades of 1850 might just be about right.



Apple, Porn, and Central Planning

   Posted by: Robert    in Philosophy

Back in May on the blog Public Discourse, James Stoner points out an interesting analogy between Apple and the government.  In a post primarily dealing with the porn scandal at the SEC, Mr. Stoner added the following interesting comments about Apple and the iPhone:

Coincidentally, during the week that saw the announcement of the report on pornography use at the SEC there also surfaced a comment from Steve Jobs, CEO of Apple Computers, defending his company’s ban of pornography “apps” for iPhone and other Apple products. Apologizing to a user for mistakenly rejecting an app with a controversial political cartoon, Jobs added, “However, we do believe we have a moral responsibility to keep porn off the iPhone. Folks who want porn can buy an Android phone,” (Android is the comparable product of his new competitor, Google). The Wired article relaying the comment interprets “Jobs’ opposition to porn [as] loud and clear,” but adds no reasons from Jobs for his opposition: Is his a moral objection to pornography, a purely aesthetic distaste, concern about his company’s branding, concern about its market with the parents of young teens getting their first phone, or some combination of all these? The response of many geeks was instantaneous and predictable: Don’t tell me what I can and cannot watch, that’s why I’ll never buy Apple, “The web is about openness. It’s about freedom.” For whatever reason, Jobs seems unyielding and his company vigilant. The Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition passes muster, even Playboy without nudity and a reader for the iPhone that allows downloading of the ancient Kama Sutra are allowed, but try to sneak pornographic images into an approved app and iTunes will cut you off.

He then adds:

[O]ne can commend Steve Jobs for steadfastly refusing to allow Apple to become a platform for easy access to pornography, and commend him as well for showing that this can be done through determined business leadership, without recourse to government regulation that can threaten legitimate freedom and impose its own social costs.

But can Steve Jobs really be commended for this? I suppose as one of the “geeks” offering the “predictable” response, Mr. Stoner would be unlikely to have much interest in or patience for my views on the subject of Apple and porn.  I think, however, that it is Mr. Stoner who has missed an important reason why there is little to commend about Apple’s decision to ban pornography from its most newsworthy device.  Although Steve Jobs may be able to limit access to porn, such limits are unlikely to change the hearts and minds of people who would otherwise seek to consume it.

The main flaw in Mr. Stoner’s argument is the unfortunate fact that he reads too much into the distinction between government, on the one hand, and Apple, on the other.  It is, of course, undoubtedly true that Apple is not the government.  Unlike the government, Apple cannot force you to buy its products, and it is far easier for me to buy an EVO-4G instead of an iPhone than it is for me to move from Michigan to Peru.  That said, Apple is, without a doubt, the top central planner of the iPhone environment, and within its electronic walls, Apple acts very much like a fascist government.  While Apple may not necessarily choose winners, they undoubtedly choose the losers of its domain, leaving behind the scattered remains of such notable products as Google Voice and Adobe’s Flash Player, along with many other less notable apps which they rejected from the App Store — and, thus, the iPhone — for numerous reasons, including no reason at all.  Also, like a government, Apple collects sales tax on every piece of software sold for the iPhone, and now seeks to do the same for every advertisement by pushing its iAd service.

In short, while it may be easy to avoid the iPhone environment, once inside, there is very little that can be classified as being “legitimate[ly] free[.]”

With freedom, thus, outside the question, I find it difficult to agree with Mr. Stoner that anything about Apple shutting down porn does anything good for society.  If Steve Jobs were blocking porn as a way to send a message about values, then certainly that would be something to be applauded — except that I don’t think anyone believes that to be the case.  Instead, Apple is engaging in a sort of morally void behavior which just happens to have a desired result.  It is doubtful that anyone who wants to consume porn will find themselves not wanting to consume it because Apple has forbidden the stuff from its iPhone.  People will simply need to go find it somewhere else.

When governments pass laws or companies enact policies that mandate some moralistic result, neither are usually very effective at actually transforming the morals of their citizens or customers.  There is, quite simply, no comparison between choosing to do the right thing versus being prevented from doing things wrong.  Imposing a law against pornography does not take away the desires which bring people to consume it any more than imposing a law of gravity takes away man’s desire to fly.

Rather than trying to outlaw porn, we as a society would be much farther ahead understanding the reasons which bring people to consume it and finding a more wholesome way to satisfy those needs.  If porn is being used as stress relief, we would surely be better off emphasizing other ways to reduce workplace stress either through job restructuring (to combat the cause of stress) or some other physical activity (to direct stressful energies in a more positive direction).  But most important is that people must be made to affirmatively want to do these things, not merely fall into them for lack of a viable alternative.

That said, unlike the government which I consistently believe should be reduced in both size and power, I hold no malice toward Steve Jobs or Apple.  The iPhone, iTunes, the App Store, and all such things are their business and Apple participates in the free market just the same as anybody else.  If Apple wants to banish porn, to choose winners and losers, to lay and collect taxes, or to do any of the other things that they do, then that is entirely their right.

But as I hit “Publish” using my myTouch 3G (with Google), I affirm my own right to make my own choices, and to have my own values to win or lose by the power of persuasion in the marketplace of ideas.

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End of Life in Belgium

   Posted by: Robert    in News

In reading through my collection of news items, I found myself directed to an article in the Daily Mail referencing a new study published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal which reviewed the status of assisted suicide in Belgium.  The study raises some important questions about the policies necessary to allow for an effective assisted suicide program and may fundamentally challenge the idea that such a program can be administered at all.  With “death panels” still fresh in the minds of many Americans, this study is a sober reminder of what’s at stake when we begin to confront the wide expanse of issues related to end of life planning.

To clarify one point right up front: I do favor assisted suicide and would probably vote to legalize the practice if given the chance.  I say probably because I also believe that any acceptable assisted suicide program will require meaningful (state) government involvement to be implemented appropriately, including creating civil and criminal liability for medical professionals who stray too far in blurring the line between euthanasia and murder.

According to the study, of 208 physician-assisted deaths within their study group, 142 occurred with the explicit consent of the patient, while 66 were performed without patient consent.  The study noted that most of the deaths conducted without patient consent occurred in patients over 80 years old who were hospitalized, and the vast majority were patients who were either comatose or who had dementia.  In over 75% of all cases, the decision to end life was discussed with the patient’s family, and in only a few cases was the decision to end the patient’s life discussed with nobody.

The greatest concern has naturally gravitated toward the patients whose lives were ended without having given their express consent.   Such concerns all share in the same core belief that there is something wrong about other people deciding for us when it is time for us to die.  Without a strong principle of restraint, it is easy to see how lives my be ended for medical or political expediency, to help doctors meet bureaucratically imposed death quotas, or to pinch out a population with disfavored political views.

As assisted suicide continues to gain traction in the United States as an acceptable end of life practice, it is important for all of us to think about the practice in terms of our own end of life planning.  Just as we have grown accustomed to “advanced directives” which instruct hospitals and doctors on when to terminate life-saving care, Americans should begin to think about adding some “really advanced directives” concerning if and when it may be appropriate to medically terminate our lives.  For those without a legal directive on record, we should be able to fall back on the experience and policies which, so far, have been mostly successful at balancing the interests of individuals against their prognosis for life.

With a significant number of assisted suicides being performed in the absence of the patient’s consent, the Belgium study points out the need to be clear about our desires at the end of our lives, preferably long before we get there.  With appropriate protections and respect for patient wishes, there is no reason to think that assisted suicide will become a tool of murder against the unwilling.


Re: Politicized Curriculum in Texas

   Posted by: Robert    in Politics

In the editorial section of the New York Times, the editorial author takes a look at curriculum revisions currently working their way through the school board in Texas.  In describing the curriculum as “politicized,” and in light of the general tenor of the article, it is apparent that the author does not think highly of the changes going on in Texas.  The gut reaction the author intends to solicit, I’m sure, is revulsion at the idea that education in Texas is devolving into yet another political wasteland.  The charge is interesting, and worthy of attention.

Taking for granted that the curriculum in Texas has indeed become politicized, and that this is a bad thing, the obvious question to ask is, “What can be done about it?”  Answering that question depends on properly understanding how education became politicized in the first place.  The author identifies “social conservatives” as the group responsible for the political education that children in Texas may soon receive.  In reaching his answer, the author misses the deeper issue.

To understand how politics gets into the Texas curriculum, the most important factor is the composition of the school board itself.  At present, the Texas school board consists of five Democrats and ten Republicans, with elections every four years.  This makes the composition of the Texas school board identical to almost every public school board in the country: It is 100% composed of politicians.

Whenever politicians become important in any decision making process, it’s a sure bet that the results will be political. To state that any public school curriculum is politicized is to state the obvious.  Of course, what the author undoubtedly means but is not quite prepared to say outright is not that he minds the Texas school board being politicized, but that he minds it reaching a political result with which he disagrees.  Were the school board to have voted to emphasize Thomas Jefferson’s letter to the Danbury Baptists, the benefits of FDR’s New Deal including Social Security, and the great importance of the United Nations to international peace efforts and human rights, I doubt the editorialist would complain very much about politicization at all.

If I am mistaken and the author is truly concerned about politicization of education whether he agrees with the politics being taught or not, then the only real answer is to get rid of the politicians.  This is an area where private education, possibly supported by school vouchers, would be extremely effective.  I know that I would sooner trust a professional educator over a politician to decide what’s best to teach my children.

If, however, the editorialist’s problem is with the outcome, then the real lesson here is a lesson in democracy.  As the political process creates and builds powers, we all run the risk that those powers might be used in ways we do not approve.