Monday, July 20, 2009

Government, behavior control, and personal responsibility

Politics factor into this discussion, but it's not primarily political. Better to call it political philosophy, or even more broadly, philosophy of authority.

I didn't study political philosophy directly, so I hope those who have will forgive a lack of citations and jargon.

Right now I'm listening to a local conservative talk radio show. The host is criticizing Obama for advocating "nanny state" policies that shield people from the negative financial consequences of bad choices, while at the same time preaching "personal responsibility" in his speech to the NAACP.

OK, never mind the silly false dichotomy. Fallacious host is fallacious.

But it got me thinking about some of the differences between the party platforms, their operative presuppositions about the human person and the role of government, and how consistent principles can be seen through apparently divergent policy.

The purpose of government.

If I were asked to describe the purpose of government in as broad terms as possible, I would propose that it's goal is

to provide a stable framework wherein human life can proceed indefinitely, with the minimum authoritarian impositions necessary to secure the most inviolable collective values.

From this description arises what are, I believe, the most fundamental questions that give rise to virtually any overarching political ideology (including anarchism), and within them, to parties.

How flexible should the framework be? How do we balance the criteria for circumscribing "human life" (individualistic vs collectivistic, biologistic fs psychologistic, etc.)? What do we mean by "proceed"? I.e., Should the government be concerned, or not, with progress in one or another spheres, and if so, by what means, and how is it measured? What are the most inviolable collective values (and what role should government have in regards to collective values that are lesser than these)? What sort, and what degree of impositions should government exercise within its material ability to do so?

Theoretically unlimited possibilities.

Whatever the answers to these questions, government cannot escape a basic fact: as the number of people in a community (X) tends towards infinity, the likelihood of (Y) action being taken by at least one person tends towards 100%. A corollary: As time (A) tends towards infinity, the likelihood of (B) occurrence happening at least once tends towards 100% (Can a maths expert put these ideas into correct notation pls?)

In other words, all governments deal with theoretically unlimited possibilities of human behavior and events, not bounded by what we believe is likely, what we believe possible, or even what we can imagine.

Kind of a Hobbesian nightmare. O LOOK A REFERENCE!

Intermediary networks of governance.

And yet between totalitarianism and total theoretical bedlam exist dozens of pre-existing networks. I hesitate to call them "structures" because not all of them are the result of deliberate construction. They all vary in types and degrees of organization, and in their relation to time and culture.

Among those networks present today are, of course, heritage, the family, religion, the market, the workplace, media culture, the public, and even the Internet.

How much faith do you put in them?

I think that, exclusively in regard to this question (there are dozens of other questions) a spectrum arises that partially characterizes the difference between the Democratic and Republican platforms. That spectrum lies in the degree to which one affirms the effectiveness of the intermediary networks to effectively fulfill the goal of government bolded above.

Absolutely Ineffective | Totalitarian <-> Communist <-> Socialist <-> European left <-> Democrat <-> Republican <-> Libertarian <-> Anarchist | Totally Sufficient

Please bear in mind that there is nothing scientific intended in the above spectrum. Some might object to my distinguishing between socialism and the "European left" (which I think most agree is more left than the American left, but which seems to me to be short of full socialism). I don't know enough to say.

The religion component (You knew it was coming).

But the spectrum does have some explanatory value. For example, you can see how Christian Republican Rob can be bff with atheist anarchist Tiervexx in the Laissez-faire thread. Both (correct me if I'm wrong) are heirs to an anti-authoritarian sentiment and a good amount of optimism in man's ability to self-regulate.

It might also serve to explain the ideological component of America's Catholics being largely Democrats (historical component notwithstanding, of course). True, the Vatican is socially conservative, which sadly lent a hateful passion to the nationalists in Spain's civil war and to a large movement of American Catholics to the Republican party after Roe v. Wade.

But Latin Christianity has never viewed human nature with much confidence, and that pessimism extends to intermediary networks--in particular, free market capitalism. Which was a Protestant invention, anyway. Rather, Catholicism tends to view most human institutions, including the market, as good but also incontinent and desperately in need of a colostomy bag.

Government authority is that colostomy bag. It might be full of shit, but damned if it ain't necessary.

And so Catholic social doctrine has the distinctive mark among American religion of favoring some "liberal" economic policy. Pope John Paul II is on record as teaching, in an encyclical no less (the highest level of ecclesiastical document second only to a council declaration), that governments are responsible to secure the medical needs of citizens and refugees where the free market fails to do so.

So what's your point?

I could take this three directions.

  • Discuss the authoritarian elements of contemporary left-wing economics (I am economically left-wing, but I am concerned about authoritarianism).
  • Discuss the means used by government to directly and indirectly influence human behavior, whether it should, and toward what ends.
  • Discuss my own theories about the balance between governance by intermediary networks/spheres vs. sovereign authority.

1 comment:

Matt of CG said...

Let me keep my grocery stores, my power lines, my sewage treatment plants, and my hospital emergency rooms. Let the rest of the world worry about itself.

Having to grow my own food, rise and set with the sun (save candles or whale oil lamps), drink muddy water and cauterize or hand stitch all major wounds just sounds like too much work for me. A life expectancy of about four or five decades is so 150 years ago.

I do believe the sum total of all my involuntary bodily functions would instantly cease, if it weren't for the relentless prodding by the dread given to me from the ubiquitously malignant adjudicator known simply as, "The Credit Score."