July 19, 2007

The Republic: Archy

I have a small discourse on the need for governance, and the possible claims of a government to legitimacy, over at Eternity Road.

Posted by jeff at 4:15 PM

March 26, 2007

Food for Thought

The Jawa Report has a video of a talk by Evan Sayet (nope, I have no clue who he is, either) on the unifying theme of "modern liberal"/progressive policy planks. I'm not sure he is correct, yet, but I am sure that he has given me a lot to think about.

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October 20, 2006

The Proper End of Human Consciousness

I am always suspicious of broad categorizations of human ideology as pathology or illness. Here I make an exception; this is fine, fine work on what it means to be human. (hat tip: Wretchard)

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September 12, 2006

Global Warming

James Lovelock, the creator of the Gaia hypothesis, had an interview where he said something that sums up the reasoning for my position on global warming:

The human species has been on the planet for a million years now. We’ve gone through seven major climatic changes that are equivalent to this. The ice ages were shifts in climate comparable with this one that’s coming. And we’ve survived.

That series of glaciations and interglacials put the pressures on us to select the kind of human that could adapt. And we’re the progeny of them. And we’re just up against a new and different stress. Maybe we’ll come out better.

But he takes a different position from this than I do. Lovelock's position is that global warming is a very serious problem that is going to essentially leave the tropics uninhabitable, and therefore we need to take immediate action to prevent global warming.

I find it hard to see the overwhelming, unquestionable evidence that keeps being asserted, but never really demonstrated, for global warming being primarily due to man-made causes. I am not yet even convinced that we are in a long-term warming trend. Our knowledge of past climate changes is very incomplete. I find the arrogance of those who claim absolute knowlege on this subject quite unappealing.

As a result of my skepticism, I think we would be better off focusing our attention on technologies and methods of living that would adapt our lives to a warmer climate, rather than spending it all on "solutions" to a problem that we might not be able to solve, and that might not even exist. If the Earth is in fact in a long-term warming trend, and if that trend will result in a significantly warmer climate, then working on adaptive technologies will help us to avoid inconveniences that would cause. (Forget the hype, mankind has, as Lovelock points out, thrived in much warmer climates than currently exist, and we did it with far fewer technological aids.) If the Earth is not in a long-term warming trend, such technology developments will still undoubtedly have benefits; the knowlege gained, for example, could be applicable to space settlement or to adapting to climate cooling if that process happens. (And a new ice age is hardly beyond the realm of the possible.)

In short, we would be far better off learning to adapt to climate change than trying to avoid impacting the climate. That said, more nuclear power would be a good idea, for other reasons.

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September 3, 2006

Oh, Really?

The United Nations apparently believes I have no individual right to self-defense. Neither do you, per the UN. The UN misses a fundamental point, which I would be happy to demonstrate should they attempt to invade my home or harm myself or my family: a "right" exists prior to government, while a "privilege" is something granted by government.

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March 8, 2006

Primary Day

Tuesday was primary day in Texas. One thing it has exposed is the law that prevents any primary voter from signing petitions to get independent candidates on the ballot. The rationale seems to be that a petition counts as a primary vote for an independent. For example, it would prevent the Republicans from being able to elect one person during the primary, and having a second person as a popular backup.

We have two independent candidates running for governor: Kinky Freidman and Carole Strayhorn. Strayhorn is a Republican who decided to challenge as an Independent, rather than during the primary itself. I suspect this was for funding reasons - there just wasn't enough support in the party to unseat Rick Perry. Freidman is trying to run to break the big party stranglehold - plus have a bit of absurd fun.

I want them both on the ballot in November - if for no other reason as to have as many options as possible. As a result, I stayed home on Tuesday - waiting to sign petitions. I'll admit to knowing only a little about both of them, certainly not much to thrill me about them either. Strayhorn is running as the anti-Perry - without saying much about what she would do, while Freidman is running as the anti-establishment candidate - which is entertaining, but not necessarily productive.

However, there's other primaries besides the governor's race, and there's no way to tell if someone votes in the primary for a particular office. Since many of the more local offices are single party in November, the primary is often the only choice you get. It's rather frustrating - lose choices in one race, to gain choices in another

I also only get to choose one petition to sign. I suppose I'll ask my wife to sign a petition for the other. It should be really interesting to see if either of them get enough support to get on the ballot.

Petitions confuse some voters

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February 4, 2006


Glenn Reynolds points out how different people treat the same class of speech or action differently, depending on who is perpetrating it. For example, the Boston Globe defended the blatantly offensive (to many Christians) "Piss Christ" and is now attacking Jyllands-Posten for cartoons that are blatantly offensive (to many Muslims). Double standard, indeed. But it is worse than that: as Reynolds notes, "perhaps it's just a measure of who they're actually afraid of."

Oh, but what an incentive we have concocted! Think of it this way: what the Left in the US and (until lately, perhaps) Europe has put up as a standard is that if you are inoffensive and civilized, you will be taken advantage of, mocked, derided and ignored; blow people up, burn things, kidnap journalists and behead them, and you will be feted, apologized for, appeased and given anything, no matter how precious it was previously said to be to the Left.

Perhaps if Israel just slaughtered European and American journalists, they would get a more sympathetic hearing. But I suspect that the journalists are depending on the decency of those they mock, deride, belittle and ignore. Good thing for them they can do that safely.

UPDATE: QandO has similar thoughts.

And a thought I had not mentioned before, and QandO does not either: did the media have treat the supposedly-Christian "militia movement" the way they treat the similarly violent Muslims? Of course not. I suspect it has less to do with the violence level of the violent group, but whether that violent group is denounced or cheered by its near-fellows. But doesn't this then give the incentive to Christians to support violent expressions of Christian intolerance even if they don't agree with the violence or the intolerance just so they will be heard on other matters of real import to them? Again, the incentives being created are all bad.

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January 29, 2006

A Bit of a Stretch

Glenn Reynolds notes:

WRITING IN THE NEW YORK TIMES, Hossein Derakshan blames Bush for the rise of Ahmadinejad. Seems like a bit of a stretch, to me.

A bit of a stretch is right! But that's not even the problem with the article: Derakshan fundamentally does not understand democracy. In order to demonstrate, I'm going to take a bunch of quotes without context. (For the original context, see the original article or the extended entry, where I quote Derakshan's entire article against the day when it falls off the Times' web site.)
Iran's electoral process "ignores the basic requirements of democracy," Mr. Bush declared, and these elections would be "sadly consistent" with the country's "oppressive record."

An American administration that had called on other Middle Eastern populaces to vote in flawed elections greeted the Iranian electoral process with nothing but open disdain.

Can anyone now doubt that Iranian elections, however flawed, really do matter?

It's true that Iranian elections are not quite democratic, because the unelected Guardian Council reserves the right to bar candidates. But the real problem here is that boycotting semi-democratic elections ultimately will not make such a system more democratic.

[P]romoting apathy in a semi-democratic system can only strengthen the radical anti-democracy forces.

Contrast the "don't vote" message that President Bush sent to Iranians to the one delivered to Iraqis through a major media campaign and other costly means: "Your destiny is in your own hands. Disappoint the anti-democracy radicals and go out and vote."

If the United States is serious about promoting democratic change in Iran, it needs to try the same approach that brought Iraqis to the polls despite mortal danger. Mr. Bush and his supporters should encourage the people of Iran to participate in the next election.

Derakshan seems to think that elections — any elections under any circumstances — define democracy: they do not. Democracy is about institutions of governing that respond to popular will. Elections are one way of determining the will of the people, but if those elections are rigged, as in Iran's case where the candidate pool is limited by the existing governing bodies, the ability of the people to voice their will in that manner is circumscribed, and thus the results are likely not to be an accurate reflection of popular will. That's not democracy: it's just voting.

In other words, Derakshan seems to think that Iran's democracy is flawed because its voting system is flawed. In reality, Iran's voting system is flawed because Iran is not a democracy. Crucial distinction, that.

OK, from here down is the entire NY Times article:

THE day before Iran's ninth presidential elections last June, President Bush sent a discouraging message to potential voters. Iran's electoral process "ignores the basic requirements of democracy," Mr. Bush declared, and these elections would be "sadly consistent" with the country's "oppressive record." For Iranians, there was no mistaking the American president's point: he was tacitly sanctioning the call that some Iranian exiles and activists had issued for an election boycott, based on exactly this logic.

An American administration that had called on other Middle Eastern populaces to vote in flawed elections greeted the Iranian electoral process with nothing but open disdain. It is worth revisiting this odd judgment call at a time when Hamas's victory in the Palestinian elections has raised even more questions about Washington's confused strategy of democracy promotion.

In Iran last June, the call for a boycott resonated with frustrated and apathetic voters. Many, if not most, moderates and reform advocates stayed home from the polls. And we all know what followed: the philosophy-loving moderate, Mohammad Khatami, was replaced as president by a radical militant, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad — a former military commander who presides over one of the most extreme governments post-revolutionary Iran has yet had.

That's right: with what appeared to be the endorsement of President Bush and dozens of American-backed satellite television channels that broadcast in Farsi, the disillusioned young people of Iran effectively took one of the world's most closely watched nuclear programs out of the hands of a reformer and placed it into the hands of a hard-line reactionary.

Can anyone now doubt that Iranian elections, however flawed, really do matter? When Mr. Khatami came to power, his declared goals were to establish the rule of law, demand equal rights for all citizens and reconcile Iran with the world. He may not have succeeded in all of those endeavors, but Mr. Ahmadinejad has entered government with manifestly opposite priorities.

The new president's allies in Parliament recently concluded that nearly 80 percent of the books published under President Khatami violated revolutionary values and should be placed under restrictions. Films that promote feminism, secularism and liberalism are to be banned. And while President Khatami built his international reputation on his call for a "dialogue among civilizations," President Ahmadinejad has reached out to racists and anti-Semites instead.

It's true that Iranian elections are not quite democratic, because the unelected Guardian Council reserves the right to bar candidates. But the real problem here is that boycotting semi-democratic elections ultimately will not make such a system more democratic.

The rise of Mr. Ahmadinejad, and the threat he poses to the stability of a volatile region, demonstrates that promoting apathy in a semi-democratic system can only strengthen the radical anti-democracy forces. And it raises a question as to whether that is what hawks in Washington actually wanted.

Contrast the "don't vote" message that President Bush sent to Iranians to the one delivered to Iraqis through a major media campaign and other costly means: "Your destiny is in your own hands. Disappoint the anti-democracy radicals and go out and vote."

If the United States is serious about promoting democratic change in Iran, it needs to try the same approach that brought Iraqis to the polls despite mortal danger. Mr. Bush and his supporters should encourage the people of Iran to participate in the next election. And they should urge Iranians to vote for someone who will make their country more open and democratic, rather than more threatening, as Iran under President Ahmadinejad has become.

Hossein Derakhshan writes the Farsi-English blog "Editor: Myself."

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January 23, 2006

How Appropriate

The concession speech in Canada's election will be given in French.

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January 4, 2006

The Darkness, Whispering

If you are going to read this post, there is prerequisite reading to do.

It's the Demography, Stupid by Mark Steyn
Dark Gods by Francis Porretto
Toying with Genocide by Gerard van der Leun

The way of the end of the world is an open question. Some say the world will end in fire; some say in ice... The only answer that is worthwhile is to hope never to know, or to see it from your distant home somewhere off Earth. But I have lived my whole life perched on the lip of the Abyss, and for almost my whole life I've known it. I am a child of the Cold War.

My father was an Air Force NCO. We lived near military bases. When I was a kid, I used to look for maps of the base to see if we would die quickly when the inevitable nuclear strike came, or if we would die slowly. Usually, the answer was quickly, if the enemy's weapons were at all accurate and reliable. In fact, my house in Oklahoma was exactly on the "total destruction" ring. I was not comforted by the thought that our back yard was in the "massive destruction" ring in which everyone still died, but a few brick walls might stay standing. From the time I first started thinking about military history and the world situation (about the time I was 10 or 11), to now, with the exception of a few years in the 1990s when I, too, was lulled into a false sense of security — for all that time, I have been very, very aware of the silently whispering darkness.

And since 9/11, I have been particularly aware that if the darkness has a servant to push billions into its maw, that servant will almost certainly be my servant, also, at least nominally. For the most likely cause of genocide today is frustration: if we cannot move the Arab/Muslim societies towards tolerance faster than the most intolerant among them can obtain nuclear weapons, we will have to destroy the Arab world, utterly, because the simple fact is that once Iran or the jihadis or similarly fanatical and nihilistic parts of the Muslim world obtain the power to destroy the Jews, or the Americans, they will do so. And just before that point, if we are fortunate, or just after the loss of a few millions in the US or Europe or the destruction of Israel, if we are unfortunate, we will be compelled to abolish the threat in the only way possible: at that point, invasion is not an option; there is no time.

The most likely way that the terror wars will end, should Iran succeed in its present quest, is with the simultaneous destruction of Israel and Iran, and possibly Damascus and Cairo and a few other places into the bargain.

There is, of course, the possibility that we will succeed in spreading democracy and tolerance in the Arab world. The Catholics today certainly aren't what they were in the Middle Ages in Europe. If we can keep nuclear weapons away from the fanatics long enough, we may be able to moot the problem by internal reform. Given examples and time, it's possible that the Arab world will politically reform to embrace representative governance, and with it will go down the materialistic road that keeps most of the world too busy with its toys to think of killing someone else over minor differences about the nature of their god and their god's will. That this will almost certainly take an invasion or at least large-scale bombing of Iran is a problem, but not an insoluble one: we have a military conveniently armed and organized for such a purpose.

And should we succeed at reforming the Arab/Muslim world, Mark Steyn's doomsday scenario will never come to pass: the "they" that replace "us" in Europe — and Steyn is almost certainly correct that this will happen, barring Europe reverting to totalitarianism as van der Leun notes — will not be all that different from the "us" that's in Europe now. The end of the world would be, as it were, put on hold until further notice.

Down the alternate road, of course, the darkness still waits, whispering, for the moment of our frustration turning to panic.

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November 9, 2005

Political Preference and Easy Faith

Some things are easy to have faith in; others are quite difficult. It is, for example, easy to have a faith in government control over the economy as leading to an efficient economy: if the smartest economists around were allowed to control as many economic (and, necessarily, behavioral) variables as possible, they could certainly produce the most efficient economy, couldn't they? This result is intuitive; we believe that the best people to undertake a task are those who have spent their lives studying the subject and who are respected for their knowledge of and insights on the subject. It is also easy to believe that bureaucracies are so inherently inefficient, government so inherently corrupt, that any sustained government interference in economic matters is likely to completely fail; but at the same time that the government must sometimes interfere to solve problems that "capitalism" — by which is really meant free, individual economic choice — cannot solve. Like "price gouging" after a natural disaster or other countries putting excessive subsidies into place. After all, we've all seen government make virtually any problem, real or imagined, worse in their hamfisted, intrusive and belated attempts to solve the problem.

It is difficult, on the other hand, to have faith in the free market as producing the most efficient economy. How can it be that price shocks, the business cycle, layoffs, robber barons, monopolies and trusts, and sending work overseas can be efficient, never mind humane? The problem with the invisible hand is that it is invisible, and only great experience and much thought and observation can bring it forth from whole cloth. And let's face it, if they aren't made to do so in school, and aren't becoming economists themselves, who is going to read "The Wealth of Nations", or even some modern derivative work that seeks to make the logic simpler and more accessible? Yet experience shows that it is inevitably the freer market that is more efficient, and the more that government interferes, the more prolonged are economic problems and the less amenable those problems become to solution.

Similarly, it is easy to believe that people in general are incapable of choosing wisely according to their best interests when it comes to public policy. There is, again, the easy faith of the appeal to expertise on any given policy subject. There is the common experience that most of the people around us — and sometimes, we whisper, even we ourselves — habitually make bad choices. Anyone who could choose badly in one sphere should certainly not be trusted in others; far better to let the experts and elites decide for us what the policies should be. And it is easy to believe that people in general are incapable of choosing wisely according to their best interests when it comes to private morality. Again the common experience shows us drunkards and drug addicts, the homeless and the bankrupt, the lonely and the unhappy — sometimes it seems that there are more people who are miserable than are getting by. If only we could make them follow the right morality, perhaps the right god, certainly they would be improved by this.

But it is not easy to see that the collective behavior of a mass of people given free reign to do as they will results in better public policy — certainly in less likelihood of public policy disaster — and more complete and natural morality — certainly less likelihood of false facades and otiose public preaching — than when the "chosen few" make those decisions and attempt to enforce them on others. Such faith is difficult.

It is easy to be a progressive: the premises to be believed are few and self-evident and unchanging. And once you believe them, you can throw off any amount of reason and logical argument by simply noting that it does not match the premises. It is easy to be a social conservative: the premises to be believed are few and self-evident and unchanging. And once you believe them, you can throw off any amount of reason and logical argument by simply noting that it does not match the premises. Either being progressive or being socially conservative is comfortable, and thus fairly easy.

Being a classical liberal, or a libertarian, on the other hand, can be quite difficult: the premises are many, because the problem domains they address are small; the premises are not self-evident, but require much logic, reasoning and experience to reach; and the premises are changeable: it is easy to make mistakes and difficult to avoid them. It takes years, perhaps decades, of thought and experience to become a libertarian or a classical liberal, and to absorb the premises to the point that you can reason from them dependably. And it takes a great deal of humility and restraint to be a libertarian or classical liberal, because the very first premise you must come to is to convince, not compel, others to your way of thinking.

We were very fortunate in the States to have a group of founders who were, by inclination and learning and force of circumstance, all more or less libertarian. This confluence may never happen quite the same way again.

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November 8, 2005

Election Day

Well, after posting last week about the probable low turnout on the Constitutional amendments, I've done some reading from both the Legislative Council document and getting some historical background from the Dallas Morning News, I've finally got a bit of a handle on these things.

Jeff, you were absolutely right. There is so much minutia in here, it's really pathetic. Frankly of all the amendments on the ballot, only Props Two and Seven seem to rise even close to the level of what a Constitution should cover, and even those are debatable.

Here's the list:

Prop 1: Allow the state the authority to use funds to move rail systems. For: infrastructure project to big for private sector; Against: don't use state funds for business development.
Prop 2: Define marriage as legal union between one man and one woman. For: prevents judges from overturning existing law by making it part of Constitution; Against: too broad, may undermine common law marriage and some contractual arrangements between non-married partners.
Prop 3: Clarify law allowing public funds to be used for economic development. For: Clarification of the original intent needed to survive court challenges. Against: Too broad and removes some taxpayer protections on public debt practices.
Prop 4: Allow judges to revoke bail for felony defendants under certain conditions. For: Address public safety, some checks on system by requiring hearings. Against: Unnecessary under current law and may imprison innocents.
Prop 5: Define commercial loans exempt from usury laws. For: Compete with similar laws in other states. Against: Inadequate protections for some borrowers, legislature may lower limit in future.
Prop 6: Change size of judicial oversight board from 11 to 13. For: Adds needed diversity to board. Against: Increases size needlessly.
Prop 7: Allows reverse mortgages. For: Allows reverse mortgages like other states, increasing options for seniors. Against: May increase debt load on seniors who don't need it.
Prop 8: Revokes state claim to property in two counties. For: Clears long-standing dispute where state has no interest. Against: Some land tracts not fully resolved in court.
Prop 9: Terms on regional mobility boards from two years to staggered six year terms. For: Stability and institutional knowledge on boards. Against: Terms will decrease accountability and increase conflicts of interest.

Once I read some of the background in the Dallas Morning News, a lot of these became a bit easier to deal with (Prop 8 comes to mind - I have a hard time being concerned about the land in those two counties, but the history fills in quite a few gaps).

Once upon a time, I would have voted against Prop 7, because I liked Texas' protections against property seizure. However, recent cases in D/FW for mall developments and football stadiums make it clear that Texas isn't that serious about property rights anymore.

Prop 2 is the biggie - it is forcing us to deal with the question of what should marriage be about in our society. Homosexual marriage is too big a topic for this post, though. It deals with an awful lot of issues: property, sex, religion and families. I'll admit to still struggling with it. I still don't know how I'll vote on this one, yet. It may well be an in-the-booth decision. The fact that it seems to be so badly written doesn't help. It just means we'll be "clarifying" this in a few years like some of the above ones.

Prop 6 is about the only one I'm almost certain to vote against. Granted, it's small potatoes compared to giving authority to build infrastructure, or giving authority on loan amounts, but I just don't see any reason why 13 is supposedly so much better than 11. It just seems like blatant cronyism to me.

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November 2, 2005

Constitutional Amendments

Going into work today, I heard the Texas Secretary of State talking about the upcoming Constitutional amendment election. Texas has nine amendments going to a vote. Two years ago, a similar ballot had 12 percent turnout. This time they are projecting 16 percent.

Honestly, I couldn't believe my ears. 16 percent for Constitutional amendments?! Surely we can do better than that.

What's driving the "increased" turnout is Proposition Two - defining marriage between a man and a woman. There's others on the ballot, but I'll admit I haven't done enough due diligence myself yet to read all of them.

One thing I give the state of Texas, though, they make it easy to research. The Texas Legislative Council has a PDF file that tries to list the pros and cons of each proposition on the ballot. So, there's really no excuse to not at least try to be educated before Election Day. Once I read up a bit more on the entire list, I'll have to try to post some commentary on them.

Back to my original thought, though. The Secretary of State made a comment that I really liked. Basically, he said that he wanted people to realize that the people in power may come and go, but the changing the State Constitution should matter more to people since it stays with us a lot longer.

It's a sad state that we can only manage 16% of eligible voters for such an event.

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September 28, 2005

Speaking Truth to Power

The Doctor is In deconstructs deconstruction, with a well-reasoned look at what "speaking truth to power" actually means. Just a small extract, to give you the flavor:

The Quakers used the term "truth" to speak of absolute, transcendent principles, given by God; the postmodernist view rejects all such absolutes, replacing them with "narratives" which are predicated and derived solely from language and culture, rather than any deity or transcendent supernatural being.

For the postmodernist, institutions such as religion, or the influences of law, morality or ethics, are merely expressions of the group in power exerting their control. Such vehicles serve as a means of enslavement, oppression, and victimization. The "narrative" — or story — of the powerful uses the tool of language to imprison thought. Hence, the postmodernist's task is to "deconstruct" — to uncover in the words and actions of such centers of authority their underlying oppression and will to power–which to their mind is always present. Postmoderinism is also group-oriented rather than individual-oriented. Groups define their own narrative, their own meanings for language, their own truths.

And so, when the postmodernist talks about speaking "truth", they are not speaking of transcendent absolutes, but rather about their particular narrative, their worldview, their convictions derived from social consensus among the peers of their group. It is "truth' in a sense that is emminently self-referential — something is True because I, and others of my group, accept it as True.

If we can teach our sons to reason and express themselves this well, the effort of homeschooling will have been richly repaid.

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August 13, 2005

Iraqi Constitution Appears to be on Track

The Iraqi constitution appears as if it will be ready by the target date, which is this coming Monday. The leaked drafts of bits and pieces of the constitution have had both good and bad points, and I am very curious to see how it will come out. Being somewhat of a constitution buff, I'll try to make time to analyze it when it appears in its full form.

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August 10, 2005

Towards a New Understanding of National Sovereignty, and the Utility of the UN

Pakistan does not control its northwestern provinces. Mexico does not control Nuevo Laredo or most of the rest of the US border area, nor does Mexico control Chiapas. In what sense can Pakistan or Mexico be said to be sovereign over these areas? Well, in a legal sense, but that only. The modern definition of sovereignty dates from after the Renaissance, and was more or less formalized in the Treaty of Westphalia. I don't believe that the issue has been addressed in formal international law since the Montivideo Convention in the 1930's.

This definition and its implications has been taken as a given for centuries, but since the end of the Cold War has been under challenge, particularly in Europe. As Daniel Philpott wrote (prior to 9/11):

We still take it for granted that virtually all of the earth's land is parceled by invisible lines that we call borders. Within borders, supreme political authority typically lies in a single source--a liberal constitution, a military dictatorship, a theocracy. This is sovereignty.
Hobbes and Bodin and Grotius first wrote of the modern version of the principle in the 16th and 17th centuries; a generation ago, the sovereign state captured nearly the entire land surface of the globe when European colonies achieved independence. Sovereignty has come closer than any other political principle in history to enjoying universal, explicit assent.
Or take John Roberts' view:
National sovereignty - the claim of a state (that is to say by its government) to be judge and jury in its own cause - has been an assumed right in Europe for over 350 years. It was for centuries the bedrock of accepted international law and text-books explained how its workings established the system of relations between different countries. Upon its theoretical inviolability the states of Europe, with one or two exceptions like Poland, had a continuous history of independent existence. It was considered to be the natural basis for international order and diplomats, politicians and others were usually ready to defend it as God-given or at least unchallengeable as the sole way of organizing that order.

Yet its whole basis was the ability of a state to maintain itself by its own power or, if that was lacking, by the tacit consent or written agreement of its neighbours and perhaps of the other states. When this was lacking, permanently or temporarily, as in the cases of Catalonia or Poland, the state disappeared; and other groups, such as gypsies, that were insufficiently powerful, never had a state. In those countries where a state existed, the claim to national sovereignty was usually made, although some formerly independent territories, like Wales and Ireland, were conquered.

While most of the challenges to sovereignty come in the form of transnationalism - that is, most of the challenges have been attempts to tear down nation-state structures and replace them with broader and generally less representative structures. The ultimate end goal of this would be a single government encompassing the entirety of humanity - there is no requirement that sovereignty be understood in that light. It is equally plausible (and far more sane in view of the various horrors visited upon humans throughout history in the name of centralization of power) to devolve sovereignty onto each individual person, and have governments obtain their sovereignty explicitly from the individuals who form them.

But more urgently than such philosophical musings is the nature of sovereignty in current, practical terms and how it should be understood and acted upon. That answer will be somewhere between the radical individualists and the radical global statists, but I think it is clear that the current understanding of sovereignty has to change. In particular, areas in which a de jure sovereign country is not de facto sovereign need to be considered anarchic, and thus open to all comers without prejudice.

It has always been the case that areas without strong government tend to bring out warlords, pirates, terrorists and the like - people need social organization, and in the absence of it, or where it is weak, strongmen inevitably arise. The reach given these miscreants by modern technology, which they could not produce, but can use to destroy, makes such groups more of a threat then they ever were before, even during the heyday of the Barbary Coast pirates. Because of this new capacity for destruction, married to the ancient will to destroy, it is no longer possible for target states - that is, any modern state - to tolerate these areas.

Yet under the current system, were the US to go into Nuevo Laredo and the other border areas to roust out the bandits, this would be seen as an invasion, even though when the Mexican federal agents go into Nuevo Laredo, they are attacked and killed as invaders themselves into territory de facto controlled by drug lords and coyotes - often one and the same people, actually. But why should it be? In what way is Mexico other than nominally in control of the border area? The same situation exists in Pakistan's NorthWest Frontier, where Osama bin Laden apparently is holed up in quite the fortress, and where Pakistan's army dare not venture. Yet were the US to intervene in the area - even if it were to do so to restore de facto sovereignty to Pakistan - this would be considered an invasion.

I believe that it is time to redefine sovereignty specifically to de facto sovereignty, unless all sides in a particular dispute agree to accept de jure sovereignty in defiance of reality (for example, this might be a possible compromise with China and Taiwan), at least as regards international conventions on where the use of force from another state constitutes a violation of sovereignty, and thus (theoretically) requires the approval of the UN or some other international body. But I do not think that such a definition would be agreed to by current states or international bodies - all of which are founded on the current understanding of sovereignty. For example, the UN is entirely concerned with de jure sovereignty - de facto sovereignty has no place in any UN undertaking. This is why the UN is incapable of dealing with truly failed states: it needs a state structure within which to work, and the agreement of the very "states" that it seeks to reform.

I do not know if the UN, for example, could be reformed so as to create the conditions necessary for approaching the world as it is today. I suspect it cannot, as it is too bureaucratically, organizationally and philosophically embedded in a dead world order. I believe that, instead, it will be necessary to create a parallel organization, a conference of free states, whose membership is based on requirements for representative government, relatively open economies (particularly, alienable private property with minimal limitations), and true respect for human rights. This would probably not cover 50 countries today, while the UN contains something like 190. But in such an organization, it would be possible to work towards bringing all countries into the organization by reforming them, in the process making them free and prosperous, or to control the threats of those who can't or won't be reformed by actively intervening where necessary.

The best thing about such an organization is that it would allow multiple axes of attack on a given problem. For example, in Darfur, it might be necessary for the US to intervene, but then countries like France and Canada could transition in to do the nation building necessary to reform the Sudan for the long-term. This arrangement would make use of the best capabilities of each of the member countries, avoid overtaxing any of them, and dramatically improve the world situation both in terms of security of the member states, and in terms of the lives of those in the areas being freed.

The UN would, for at least some time, continue as a forum for all of the world's unfree and de jure states, as well as the free states, but I believe that over time it would fade. This would be better than the likely alternative, which is that a crisis will arise that will shatter the UN as the Italian invasion of Ethiopia shattered the League of Nations.

UPDATE: Mark Safranski has extensive and insightful comments.

Posted by jeff at 9:30 AM | TrackBack

August 9, 2005

A True Doctrine of Democracy

Steph asked for my thoughts on a passage on governance from Nock's The Theory of Education in the United States. I'll quote the precursor and successor material as well, because it's necessary to understanding what Nock meant:

[O]ur system is professedly democratic. Let us see what this means. Here we find something more than a popular perversion of a philosophically sound doctrine, which is what we found in our examination of the idea of equality. Here we find something even stranger and more interesting, a perversion upon a perversion. Political theory of the eighteenth century was based upon the right of individual self-expression in politics; its essence was that those who vote, rule. Its chosen machinery was that of a republic, as affording the best power or purchase for the free expression of this right. As a mater of logic, when everybody votes, you have a democracy; the registration of democratic judgement is a mere matter of counting ballots. Thus a confusion of terms set in; a republic in which everybody voted was accepted as a democracy and was so styled, as it still is. This confusion persists, and the evidence of it is on every other page of many, I think the great majority, of serious writers. In fact, we may say that the terms republican and democratic have come to be regarded as synonymous. This is not greatly to be wondered at, because it is only lately that anything like a general sense of the unsoundness of eighteenth-century political theory has begun to prevail. The iron force of circumstance has finally made us aware that it is not, never was and never will be, those who vote that rule, but those who own; that you may extend the suffrage in a republic as far as you please without making any significant change in the actual rulership of the country. Republicanism does not, therefore, of itself even imply democracy. At the present time it is a matter of open and notorious knowledge that some monarchies are much more forward in democracy than some republics, even republics in which suffrage is universal. The antithesis of republicanism is monarchy, if you like, but monarchy is not the antithesis of democracy. The antithesis of democracy is absolutism; and absolutism may, and notoriously does, prevail under a republican régime as freely as under any other. Thus democracy is not a matter of an extension of the franchise, not a matter of the individual citizen's right of self-expression in politics, as the political philosophy of the eighteenth century regarded it. It is a matter of the diffusion of ownership; a true doctrine of democracy is a doctrine of public property.

(I typed this in from the book's text, so any typos are mine, not Nock's. The bold text is what Stephanie specifically wanted addressed.)

There are three key ideas in Nock's analysis: republic, democracy and rulership. There are three lesser ideas: monarchy, property/ownership and franchise.

A democracy, in its classical sense (which is the sense Nock is using), is a governing arrangement where all decisions are made by a vote of the whole body of citizens. A republic is a governing arrangement where some people act as agents for others, voting the interests of those they represent. As Nock notes, the current common use of "democracy" denotes any form of government in which everybody votes. (This has led to many of our fumbles in nation building abroad, as we attempt to set up voting before setting up governing institutions and other institutions necessary for a free society.)

The key around which Nock's point revolves is that of rulership: who makes the decisions in a society. In a republic, who will act as the agents, and how will they act? In general, one chooses an agent who both holds similar opinions to one's own, but can also represent those opinions well, so that they will hold sway. For that reason, the agent is generally better-educated, and thus generally more wealthy, than the average person. As the number of people represented by a particular agent rises, that agent must be relatively more educated, persuasive, capable and thus, because our economy is a free market where such merit is rewarded, more wealthy than an agent representing fewer people. Paupers do not generally get elected.

The paradox, of course, is that this means that the agents often represent their constituents in a titular sense, but have nothing particular in common with their constituents, except perhaps in broad philosophy. But the agent assumes that his acts are de facto in the interest of his constituents, and that frees the agent to act according to his own interests, which he does not see as differentiated from the interest of his constituents. (And since those agents are almost exclusively drawn from the most wealthy tier of society, Nock is correct that it is those who own who govern, because it is only those who own who are truly represented by their agents. Lobbyists and interest groups and the like merely reinforce the trend; even "grass roots" groups are controlled, at least eventually, by the wealthiest - because most capable - among the group, and further a wealth interest.) Thus the agents become a kind of non-hereditary meritocratic aristocracy, and an ossified republic can greatly resemble a constitutional monarchy. But still they are different, because even then the body of rulers in a republic is drawn from and disposed of by the people, and so the opposite of republic is not monarchy, but tyranny (which non-constitutional monarchies generally are).

By contrast, in a democracy, the people at large make all the decisions by vote or consensus. But this introduces its own problems. Of course the Founders feared both partisanship (which also plagues republics) and the tyranny of the majority (which also plagues republics whose agents represent the whole, rather than particular interests or sets of interests), and so were deeply suspicious of democracy, which has never been a long-successful system of government in any place. But there are other problems, too, in a democracy. For a democracy which allows its citizens to be judged by their merits develops a property-centric tendency as well. Those who are the best educated are also those who are generally the best at convincing others to a particular point of view: the shallow thinkers with passionate voices may lead some to a cause, but it is not their cause, but the cause of a deeper thinker who first led the shallow thinker. Thus those who have influence over the society are the ones who are capable of developing persuasive ideas, and communicating them effectively, whether directly or through surrogates. In a society where merit is allowed to produce differences, this inevitably leads to those who are influential also becoming wealthy, either due to their influence or because they also have merit in other useful areas. Since the wealthy are the influencers, the power in such a democracy concentrates in the hands of the propertied, leading to the situation of rulership by ownership.

In this sense, the communist critique of democracy and republic was correct, as Nock notes a little later in Theory of Education, and it really is true that power and wealth accrue together. But true democracy cannot exist where merit is allowed to differentiate members of society, because, as noted above, this produces a situation where decisions are made not by the whole, but by the moneyed elite which can educate themselves better, and can pay the costs associated with spreading their ideas through society. Thus a democracy where merit is allowed quickly devolves into an oligarchy, which itself may devolve into monarchy. To prevent this, a democracy must create equalities of outcome, rather than equalities of opportunity. If I am allowed to rise no higher, to do no more, to have no more than you, then my vote is of truly equal weight with yours. Thus a true democracy is indistinguishable from a true communism: as Nock notes, "a true doctrine of democracy is a doctrine of public property." In other words, true democracy and true communism are identical.

But it goes beyond this, because not only must wealth be equally distributed, so must talent and ability in a broad range of areas; otherwise, an elite will still form. True democracy is thus impossible, because it is self-evidently plain that people are not inherently equal in all ways, even if compelled to be as close to equal as possible. Harrison Bergeron demonstrated that principle quite dramatically: you must hobble the good and intelligent and graceful so that they are as base and unthinking and clumsy as the worst of us, because you cannot always elevate, but you can always destroy.

The antithesis of democracy is not absolutism, but individualism. To allow individuals to distinguish themselves is to extinguish democracy. Thus statism and communism are inherent to democracy, because overwhelming force is necessary in order to attain equality as nearly as possible. The wealthy must be taxed into poverty; the intelligent must be taught to be incurious and unthinking; the talented must be denigrated and the untalented praised. And it is the attempt to achieve these goals that is embodied in our educational system, and in our cultural assumptions of what is good as handed down by progressive opinion leaders, who have were ascendent from late in the nineteenth century to late in the twentieth. I suspect that the new ascendency of conservative thinkers, should it last, will be shown in the adoption of school choice plans, easing of restrictive homeschooling laws and a re-imposition of "traditional" schooling techniques like expecting kids to know the material, and failing those who don't.

I think that the incompatibility between democracy and individualism also leads to the main difference between today's conservatives (who are really liberals in a classic sense, and are distinguished from the classical conservatives, found on the extremes of both the Left and the Right these days) and progressives: individual responsibility. The progressives labor against process and for arbitrariness, against the individual and for the collective, against merit and for equality, against liberty and for consensus, against personal responsibility and for group identity and blame sharing - all of these things the progressives stand for because they feel that true democracy (or true communism, which term some of them still prefer) leads to the best societal outcome: equality. By contrast, conservatives take the opposite positions, because they feel that that leads to the best societal outcome: empowered individuals. Progressives tend to discount the harm done to those whose talents and abilities are suppressed, as well as the harm done to society from being unable to draw on those talents and abilities. Conservatives tend to discount the harm done to those who cannot thrive in a highly-competitive meritocratic society, as well as the harm done to society from the loss of those who have something to contribute, but not the family or wealth or connections to get them past their childhoods.

Posted by jeff at 4:52 PM | TrackBack

June 21, 2005

The Ends Justify What Now?

Jay Tea at Wizbang discusses circumstances under which attaining good ends might justify otherwise immoral means used in the attempt. This is very dangerous ground, because it's exactly the kind of reasoning that led to millions dead in the death camps of Communism: capitalists and reactionaries are holding up the good that comes from the Revolution, and must therefore be killed so that the good of the true just society that Communism brings about can be realized.

Jay Tea is not sliding down that slope; that is not my point. My point is that when you begin to use reasoning that has known dangerous ends, to which people have been proven to travel before, it is a good idea to set up limiting reasoning in the same breath. Rather than "the ends justify the means", a better formulation would be "actions that harm one person to save more than one person, or harm the guilty to save the innocent, are permissible". That way, you allow for the "lifeboat ethics" scenarios Jay Tea posits, while preventing the reasoning from being taken to an extreme it was never intended to reach.

Engineers deal with this kind of thing all the time: if you don't have a way of preventing a feedback loop, the radio blows up. Unfortunately, people don't tend to build in logical breaks, leading to reactions extreme on both ends. There are some who advocate actual torture, even in less than "lifeboat ethics" situations, and others who advocate against even detaining the enemy. Both positions are morally destitute and ethically worthless.

Posted by jeff at 1:18 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

June 1, 2005

Not Quite the Same

Ed Morrissey at Captain's Quarters makes a pretty basic mistake about the Articles of Confederation:

The current efforts of the EU to define itself looks more like our original Articles of Confederation than anything approaching unity. The results this week look similar to what they were here as well.

OK, I understand that he was trying to make the point that the proposed EU constitution was utterly unsatisfactory as a ruling document, and he is correct. However, the problems posed by the EU's attempt are the polar opposite of those created by the Articles. The Articles of Confederation created a central government that was incapable of even basic function, while the EU constitution would create a too-powerful and intrusive central government.

Some of the problems that came about from the Articles were directly reflected in provisions of the Constitution's detailed rules about representation of residents somewhat less than free citizens, the provisions on debts and taxation, and in particular the powers granted to the Congress to regulate interstate commerce and create a national army. While the EU under the proposed constitution could only barely be called free, the US under the Articles could only barely be called a nation.

And in truth, the US under the Articles was not a unified nation, but a collection of nations (there's a reason they are called States rather than counties, departments, cantonments or colonies) who basically agreed to collectively defend each other (more like NATO than a nation), to collectively deal with other nations, to allow freedom of movement between States, to respect each others' laws and contracts and not much else. Oh, and Canada could have been admitted to the league by acceding to the Articles.

So yes, the Articles were as unworkable as the proposed EU constitution, but the reasons they were unworkable and the resultant outcomes were entirely different.

Posted by jeff at 5:44 PM | TrackBack

May 26, 2005

Party of the West

A lot of people seem to assume that I am a Republican. I suppose that it makes some sense, since my views tend to be slightly conservative to strongly conservative on those issues I write about most frequently. But that assumption is incorrect.

But what am I? Our political lexicon is too limited, too constrained for adequate description. I am a republican, federalist, libertarian, constitutionalist, conservative, classically liberal, capitalist, free-marketeering, free-trading, secular, spiritual, culturally western, tolerant of honest disagreement advocate of a strong national defense. Notice the lack of capital letters, by the way, on the politically loaded terms. And which of these takes precedence on any given issue depends on the details of the issue. There's not a term for this, other than "independent." But "independent" is itself too limited and too-frequently misused to be a meaningful label. In America, "independent" just means you aren't a Democrat or a Republican.

If I had to boil this down into a set of principles on which to base a name for myself, I suppose it would be these:

  1. The meta-constitution of the US, and the only moral basis for free governance, is stated in the Declaration of Independence:
    We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.— That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.

    Any Constitution or system of governance that stands at odds to this statement is inherently immoral and, over the long term if not the short term, unsufferable.
  2. The pursuit of happiness inherently begins with the right to control one's own body. This is the basis of property rights, without which no other right may be indefinitely preserved.
  3. Rights are valid only so long as they are exercised in a way that does not infringe the rights of others. To be trite, your right to swing your fists ends at my nose.
  4. That government is best that governs least. A government without limits inevitably descends into tyranny. The function of the government is not to dictate what culture may or may not develop — or even what economy may or may not develop — but to create safe conditions in which culture and economy may evolve freely.
  5. Words have meanings. While there may be shades of difference and subtleties of usage, the wholesale destruction of language, literature and history wrought by Chomsky, Derrida, Zinn, their willing accomplices and their uncritical accolytes is a cultural crime of the first magnitude, because its inevitable end is tyranny.
  6. Without the rule of law — that is, the neutral and consistent application of justice regardless of the identity or inborn characteristics of offender or victim — the application of law becomes an exercise in power, and thus a road to inevitable tyranny.
  7. The Constitution can only be reasonably interpreted to mean what its words mean in the plain language of the time in which they were written, with occasional reference to well-established legal jargon ("necessary and proper", "due process", "high crimes and misdemeanors", etc.). To interpret the Constitution according to "the standards of the times" or its "emanations and penumbras" — in particular to ignore the plain meaning of the text and insert ones personal preferences — is to reduce the Constitution to a set of suggestions and ideas with no legal force. This subverts the rule of law, leading inevitably to tyranny. Where the Constitution fails to grant necessary and useful powers to the government, or where the cultural situation has changed such that some powers should be or refuse to be granted to the government, the Constitution includes two methods for changing its contents. Using them, while slow and sometimes painful, is far preferable to simply deciding that the Constitution means whatever is convenient at the time.
  8. When different possible interpretations, or cases that fall into the gray areas, of the Constitution arise, that interpretation is correct which best preserves individual liberty. Where more than one interpretation preserves individual liberty, that interpretation is correct that most limits the government. Where more than one interpretation is available that limits the government, everybody wins.
  9. Only free-market, free-trading capitalism with minimal government regulation has been proven capable of producing economic progress over a long term without simultaneously producing human misery.
  10. All cultures have contributed useful characteristics to the world. But not all cultures are equally worthy of respect and emulation, due to their varying propensities to fall into stagnation, tyranny, or both. The Greek system of ethics; the Greek systems of mathematics, logic and reason; the Roman system of law; the concept of representative governance; the Enlightenment liberal values of individual rights; the scientific method; and separation of Church and State are all keys to a liberal, secular society in which people can be free, happy, secure and prosperous. And they are all Western developments. Dead, white men still have a lot to teach us. So do living African musicians and Asian spiritualists.
  11. Multiculturalism — the reverence of all cultures as equal — is crap. The melting pot — the combination of the best characteristics of all cultures and the rejection of the worst characteristics of each — is far superior at producing a culture in which people can be free, happy, secure and prosperous.
  12. Religion is a matter of personal conviction. The Senate is free to have prayers before going into session, and I'm free to sit in the gallery and make scatalogical jokes while they do. I won't, though, because that's indecent. The State is not free to impose a religion upon me, nor to forbid me from worshipping as I see fit, provided that I harm no others nor their property in my worship.
  13. The US has little to nothing to apologize for. Where we have made large mistakes, we've fixed them - indeed, as the slavery debate and subsequent Civil War shows, we have sometimes paid in blood for our mistakes. Overall, the US has been the most moral and upstanding nation in the history of the world. I have little doubt that we will continue to be so.
  14. The government has an absolute duty to protect Americans in America against foreign aggression, and to the extent that that involves removing a threat to the US which has not yet manifested, the duty still exists.
  15. Americans have an absolute right to protect themselves against the government.

So what does that make me? I guess, given the position of Western culture and ideas, it makes me a proud member of the "Party of the West"; population: one.

Posted by jeff at 5:34 PM | Comments (7) | TrackBack

May 24, 2005

Albert Jay Nock on Liberals

Stephanie has been reading Albert Jay Nock's autobiography Memoirs of a Superfluous Man from 1943 (at least, this printing is). She's been sharing bits on her blog, and today showed me a page that I feel compelled to quote in full:

When I saw what American Liberals (for so they called themselves) were doing in this line ["cutting down the liberty of the individual piecemeal, and extending the scope of the State's coercive control"],--chiefly in their support of the movement for an income-tax and an inheritance-tax,--I got up a distaste for Liberals which soon ripened into horror. For years I have "sweat the agony" at the sight of a Liberal, as Commodore Trunnion did at the sight of an attorney. I had rather encounter rattlesnakes,--far rather,--for the rattlesnake is a gentlemanly fellow who can be relied on to do the right thing, if you give him half a chance. I have had dealings with him in my time, and also with the Liberals, and I speak from knowledge.

I have respect for the old-style Tory, and could always get on with him, because I knew what he would do in a given situation, and above all, I knew what he would not do. There were some things to which he would not condescend even for the Larger Good. Once in a conversation with Chief Justice Taft, he mentioned pressure put on him while President, in behalf of something legal enough, and probably ethical, but smelling of sharp practice,--"dam' low, in any case," as an old-school Englishman would say. I so well remember the almost childlike look of embarrassment on Mr. Taft's face as he said, "Why, I couldn't do that." Speaking after the manner of men, you got a play for your money with the old-crusted Tory, as at the other end of the scale I think you would with the honest outright uncompromising radical. But one never knew what Liberals would do, and their power of self-persuasion is such that only God knows what they would not do. As casuists, they make Gury and St. Alfonso dei Liguiri look like bush-leaguers. On every point of conventional morality, all the Liberals I have personally known were very trustworthy. They were great fellows for the Larger Good, but it would have to be pretty large before they would alienate your wife's affections or steal your watch. But on any point of intellectual integrity, there is not one of them whom I would trust for ten minutes alone in a room with a red-hot stove, unless the stove were comparatively valueless.

I think I'm going to have to read his works; Nock may have been one of the last of the libertarians from the age where libertarianism was taken for granted to such a degree that it wasn't even named. In any case, his writing is amusing enough that it looks worth reading.

Posted by jeff at 5:46 PM | Comments (7) | TrackBack

May 18, 2005

I'm So Angry I Can't Think of a Good Title For This

As I said, most politicians I hate are Democrats. Here's a really fine example of one. This post's case in point, Harry Reid (D-Nv):

"The goal of the Republican leadership and their allies in the White House is to pave the way for a Supreme Court nominee who would only need 50 votes for confirmation rather than 60," the number of senators needed to maintain a filibuster, Reid said.


It's called the frelling Constitution, LOSER!!!!

Give me one, just one, example of any Supreme Court nominee who needed 60 votes for confirmation in the entire 228+ years of the history of this nation!

Well, Mr. Reid, I'm waiting...


This guy is making me insane!

Ok, deep breath. 10, 9 , 8 , 7, 6, 5 ...

Ok, I'm good.

I don't even know what to say anymore. This is freakin' madness. We have, not just any Senator, but the Democrat leader in the Senate, who is blatantly ignoring the Constitution. The cynic in me thinks most Senators ignore the Constitution, but at least they can usually make some sort of claim of constitutionality even if it's the vague promotion of the general Welfare. But this is outright violation of the supreme law of the land.

Oh, and something funny in the article that I can't get upset about, because it has less than a snowball's chance in hell of success, but is illustrative of the Democrat's bad faith nature (emphasis mine).

A small group of Democrats have floated a proposal to clear the way for confirmation of some of Bush's blocked appointees. (snip)
Under the deal, Republicans would have to pledge no change through 2006 in the Senate's rules that allow filibusters against judicial nominees. For their part, Democrats would commit not to block votes on Bush's Supreme Court or appeals court nominees during the same period, except in extreme circumstances.

Each member would be free to determine what constituted an extreme circumstance, but Republicans would bind themselves to not changing the filibuster rule for the next two years.

Some Republicans have balked at that language, saying it is not equitable.

You don't say?

Posted by Brian at 12:07 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

May 17, 2005

Pork, The Cure for Death?

Sometimes I really hate politicians. Usually they are Democrats, but not always. But what I really hate is when a politician I generally like (and in this case have voted for) says something moronic and annoying.

Here's the story if you're interested, but I'll summarize.

The Senate has proposed a highway spending bill. President Bush has threatened a veto (wasn't sure he knew you could do that).

Now to the annoying comment, courtesy of Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Ok):

"If we don't pass this people are going to die."

So if we do pass it, Senator, are you promising me immortality!


Posted by Brian at 12:48 PM | TrackBack

May 15, 2005

Fault Lines

Some large and important conflicts are raging through our society today:

  • Who decides what information is widely disseminated, large organizations purportedly dedicated to objective examination of current events, or individuals and small groups with obvious biases and sometimes distinct agendas?
  • Who decides how children are educated, their teachers or their parents?
  • Who controls the borders, the Federal government or the people who own the land along the border?
  • Who decides how to save for your retirement, the Congress or you?
  • Who controls your work schedule and methods, the company or the worker?

All of these conflicts - MSM v bloggers; teachers' unions v homeschoolers and voucher proponents; INS v the Minutemen; Social Security statists v privatization advocates; companies v contractors - all of them revolve around the collapse of the assumptions underlying the industrial economy.

In the industrial economy (what Walter Russell Mead, I believe, referred to as "Fordism"), the central assumption was that centralization produced efficiency, and thus all things should centralize. To a degree, they were even correct. Centralization really does produce efficiency. But it does something else, too, it reduces effectiveness. Here, for example, is a wonderful chart comparing centralization against decentralization in IT organizations. This tension - centralize for efficiency and control or decentralize for effectiveness and responsiveness - plays out in most of the conflicts in our society today. It is the collapse of this central assumption that underlies the major fault lines in our society.

The real problem with centralization is, I think, that it doesn't scale well. When a human enterprise is small and geographically concentrated, it can be controlled largely by consensus, with perhaps a person or small group designated as the "final word" on all matters. The amount of information to be handled is small, and the communication channels are rapid. As such an enterprise grows in size, the amount of information to be dealt with grows even faster (because it is a product primarily controlled by the connections between nodes, rather than the number of nodes or their complexity1); and as it grows in geographic separation, the channels of communication become slower and more lossy. This makes consensus impossible.

I'll avoid the temptation to talk about all of the different ways that larger societies can be controlled, and instead focus on how American governance evolved to where we are now.

The US formed as a Federal Republic. In practice, this means that the central government comprised both semi-autonomous regional governments and the people as a whole. Or, more to the point, that each of these entities could select representatives or agents to form the government. The people selected the House of Representatives, and the States selected the Senate. The Constitution designated the Federal government to handle matters between the States, and between the nation and other nations. The States were left to handle matters dealing with the people. The nice thing about this arrangement is how well it scales, and how much freedom it allows an individual. If you don't like your State's laws, you can move to a different State.

But what this structure doesn't do well is submit to central knowledge or authority. If the Federal government does not have the power directly to regulate the economy as a whole, how do you know what your GDP is? And if you don't know things as basic as how big the economy is, you don't know enough to even begin to try to figure out how to tax and regulate to produce "right" behavior in the society. If the government can't control what's happening, the people will just control their own behavior. To statists, this is anathema. I think, to some degree, statists are mostly just neat freaks: they hate the fact that self-governance and almost unregulated capitalism just careens along without being amenable to control or even real-time comprehension.

And so it was that the industrial revolution changed everything. Prior to the industrial revolution, there was not much advantage to ordinary people when things were centralized. How does a bigger farm help me, when I can only farm so many acres with my sons and hired hands? How does a bigger shop help me, when I can only train and oversee so many apprentices and journeymen anyway? How does the government knowing anything about what I do with my money help me, and so why would I give them that knowledge (and thus power)? But with industrialization, there really is an advantage to centralization, and that advantage is enough to outweigh the disadvantages for many people. The advantage is simple: efficiency.

With tractors, it doesn't take twice as many people (or twice as much work effort) to farm twice as many acres. With industrial machinery and the assembly, people can be trained to do simple and repetitive tasks, so I can control a larger work force; and the output of the factory goes up faster than the labor input, so I can make more profit with the same expense. And letting the government have more centralized control means (theoretically) a smoother-running economy, and thus less chance I'll be out of work, and a way to control the externalities that industrialization creates, like pollution. In other words, with the efficiencies created by industrialization, there are good reasons for a person to like bigger and less accountable companies, and bigger and more intrusive government.

But time does not stand still, and something odd happened towards the middle of the 1980s: it began to be possible for a person to support themselves in the style industrial efficiency had accustomed them to, without giving up the control that a person had over their own lives prior to centralization. I hate the term knowledge worker, but it does express an important truth: precise information gives the same kind of multiplier effect to the efficiency of an industrial organization or a profession that industrialization brought to farms and trades. Since efficiency is so much increased, it can be traded for effectiveness.

This has always been the case in life-critical organizations. The Army cannot afford to have exactly the number of soldiers it needs to fight a battle, because the casualties of the first battle ensure that the second battle will be fought with fewer people and less ammunition and equipment. No area can afford to have exactly the number of hospital beds it needs on an average day, because a local tragedy would then overwhelm the hospitals' ability to respond. But now it is possible for individuals to make such tradeoffs.

As a consultant, I make a relatively high income. In part, this is because I shoulder more of a tax and benefit burden than an employee does, and indemnify my clients for some things that they would have to insure against with an employee in my place. In part, this is because I have skills that few organizations need full-time, and that are rare in the industry. So I can choose to work as much as or more than before, and have a higher income, or take time off between jobs and keep the same income.

And this is true in other ways as well. I can, in my spare time, blog. And thus I can take away the mainstream media's central product: informative entertainment. It is this loss that really threatens the mainstream media, because the media has used the efficiencies of centralized knowledge and control to determine that what people want most from the media is not objective knowledge, but entertainment, and to tailor their offerings to that desire. That's why Michael Jackson is a bigger story than Venezuela's shift towards totalitarianism and anti-Americanism, and why good news in Iraq is less covered than a car bombing that kills no one.

With efficient access to information, I can homeschool my children more effectively than the State can school them institutionally. I can get a better return on investment than Social Security can, because I have good information and fewer constraints. And it is this devolution of control that is causing so many critical rifts in society right now: the self-chosen elites are beginning to realize, however dimly, that we don't need them so much any more, and we too are beginning to realize this.

The world of twenty years in the future will be unrecognizable to us with today's eyes.

1Yes, the number of nodes and their complexity matters, but not as much as the number of connections between nodes, because those connections dwarf the individual nodes.

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September 11, 2003

Personal Responsibility

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The Noble Pundit has an interesting post on how personal responsibility relates to good governance.

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August 24, 2003


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Yes, that's it, exactly. When you give up your responsibility, you give up your power. Those who want you to forsake your responsibility, and accept comfortable mediocrity, are the ones who want your power so badly they can taste it. But what you give up as "power to", they take as "power over", and not to your benefit.

This essay has me thinking in so many directions that I cannot get them all out, so I'll just make a few notes here, and likely follow up later.

First, I've been thinking about a good response to Francis Poretto's comment on this post of mine about Derrida. My nascent plan is to create a CGI that will do an Eliza-like function, where the text it spits back is some of Derrida's babble. I'm just going to feed the non-English bits through Babelfish, without any editing, as the amount of sense they make is unchanged. (That is to say, they make no sense no matter how presented.) I just haven't figured out yet whether to randomly pick out quotes, or to pick them out based on keyword parsing of the text that's entered. Is it real, or is it Derrida?

Another thing that this has me thinking about is how we stop the schools from indoctrinating our kids with the idea of collective existence. I've always despised this, but never really given it much thought beyond homeschooling our own kids and decrying the ideological brainwashing done in schools in general. Clearly, I need to give this more thought.

Also, this reminds me somewhat of something my wife wrote about 7 or 8 years ago, that I need to go reread.

I wonder what the viability would be of a candidacy for high political office focused around precisely the function and nature of responsibility and freedom. I have always assumed that people who tell the truth are unelectable, but is that really true?

Finally, I am immensely proud to live in a country that can produce people even now, after all of the watering down of the last century, who can think like Bill Whittle. I am proud to live in a country that produces people like Frank J., and attracts people like Kim du Toit and Eugene Volokh. I am not proud that we also not only produce, but many of our fellow citizens celebrate, people like the racist demagogue Al Sharpton, the blatant extortionist and sham Jesse Jackson, and the profoundly disturbing Pat Robertson. Still and all, I'm grateful for the good, and resolved to work against the bad.

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August 10, 2003

Against Freedom

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Porphyrogenitus takes a look at a Financial Times article. There are two philosophies fighting it out in the West right now: the Enlightenment ideals that underly the Anglosphere, and the Socialist ideal that underlies the EU. This article is an example of the philosophy underlying elite European and American Leftist ideology, and it can be summed up by the fact that the article places the word freedom in scare quotes.

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May 13, 2003

The Individual, Society and the State

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While researching for this post, I came across this article, which is an excellent discussion of the individual, the state, and the nature of authority and its relationship to Liberty. Some money quotes:

The State, every government whatever its form, character or color - be it absolute or constitutional, monarchy or republic, Fascist, Nazi or Bolshevik - is by its very nature conservative, static, intolerant of change and opposed to it. Whatever changes it undergoes are always the result of pressure exerted upon it, pressure strong enough to compel the ruling powers to submit peaceably or otherwise, generally "otherwise" - that is, by revolution. Moreover, the inherent conservatism of govemment, of authority of any kind, unavoidably becomes reactionary. For two reasons: first, because it is in the nature of government not only to retain the power it has, but also to strengthen, widen and perpetuate it, nationally as well as internationally. The stronger authority grows, the greater the State and its power, the less it can tolelate a similar authority or political power along side of itself. The psychology of govemment demands that its influence and prestige constantly grow, at home and abroad, and it exploits every opportunity to increase it. This tendency is motivated by the financial and commercial interests back of the government, represented and served by it.


Our political and social scheme cannot afford to tolerate the individual and his constant quest for innovation. In "self-defense" the State therefore suppresses, persecutes, punishes and even deprives the individual of life. It is aided in this by every institution that stands for the preservation of the existing order. It resorts to every form of violence and force, and its efforts are supported by the "moral indignation" of the majority against the heretic, the social dissenter and the political rebel - the majority for centuries drilled in State worship, trained in discipline and obedience and subdued by the awe of authority in the home, the school, the church and the press.


The "genius of man," which is but another name for personality and individuality, bores its way through all the caverns of dogma, through the thick walls of tradition and custom, defying all taboos, setting authority at naught, facing contumely and the scaffold - ultimately to be blessed as prophet and martyr by succeeding generations. But for the "genuis of man," that inherent, persistent quality of individuality, we would be still roaming the primeval forests.


Man's true liberation, individual and collective, lies in his emancipation from authority and from the belief in it. All human evolution has been a struggle in that direction and for that object. It is not invention and mechanics which constitute development. The ability to travel at the rate of 100 miles an hour is no evidence of being civilized. True civilization is to be measured by the individual, the unit of all social life; by his individuality and the extent to which it is free to have its being to grow and expand unhindered by invasive and coercive authority.

Socially speaking, the criterion of civilization and culture is the degree of liberty and economic opportunity which the individual enjoys; of social and international unity and co-operation unrestricted by man-made laws and other artificial obstacles; by the absence of privileged castes and by the reality of liberty and human dignity; in short, by the true emancipation of the individual.

While I am no fan of anarchism, which is the apparent preferred ideology of the article's author, there is much wheat among the chaff.

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Time to Drop our Old Animosities...

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and pick up new ones, more suited to the times. The far left and the far right have joined to defend tyrants and curtail US power. The ACLU has joined with Dick Armey and Orrin Hatch to defend civil liberties. The old left/right divide no longer works. "Centrist" and "Extremist" don't really work, and "Idiotarian" doesn't satisfy (used by either side), because these are value judgements that the sides will not agree on. (Both sides have to accept the term for it to be meaningful as a basis of debate.)

Since the key factor in the current political meta-debate is to what extent state sovereignty is absolute vs. predicated on the representative nature of a given country, and since this turns on whether it should be the state or the individual who forms the basic unit of sovereignty, I suggest we use the terms "collectivist" and "individualist".

Collectivists believe, like Noam Chomsky, that the individual exists to serve the state's economic policies, for the moral betterment of society; or believe, like Pat Buchanan, that the state exists to curb the moral imperfections of individuals, for the moral betterment of society. The key is that a collectivist believes that the state exists to contain and channel the individual into a path determined by society (and hence by the state), so as to collectively better all. Brian Carnell observes the same phenomenon, in the context of attitudes towards corporations.

I don't yet have good sources spelling out the collectivist concept of the place of the indidual and the state, or their concept on the role of government. This is mainly because it is dreadful reading through the writings of Marx, Engles, Chomsky, Buchanan, Robertson, et al. When I get them, I will quote them.

Individualists believe that people individually hold and retain all rights, except those voluntarily surrendered to the state or to other organizations. In other words, all organizations are voluntary and have only such power as the people comprising the organization choose to grant to the organization. The state exists for the purpose of achieving what individuals could not achieve, such as mediating disputes, ensuring individual rights against each other and the state itself, and providing domestic security and security from invasion.

The individualist concept of the place of the indidual and the state is based upon:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.--That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, --That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

The individualist concept of the role of government is:
to...establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity

So unless anyone can come up with better terms, I am going to use "collectivist" and "individualist".

UPDATE (5/12): Michael Totten describes the new divide as "Liberators" and "Destroyers." I have to stick with my original terms, though, good as these are, because the Destroyers would not self-identify that way. Still, you should read his essay.

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May 12, 2003


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I'm going to link to something that will most likely make you angry. First, read this CityJournal article, then read this post by Mrs. du Toit. Go ahead, I'll wait.

Radicalisation of the schools - and not just on sexuality - is obviously an untenable situation over the long-term. This particular agenda is unstable because it denies the basic tenets of humanity and nature, and as such eventually will be rebelled against, as is any tyranny (particularly in the US, where patriotism is defined as resistance to tyranny rather than love of country, despite what many leftists would like you to believe). However, this is but one of many fads sweeping through public education these days, all? of which tend to be radical and leftist. But where does the radicalisation of schools end up when it topples?

I see three options, of which the most attractive to me personally is presented by the CityJournal article's conclusion:

No compulsory public school system can be justified unless what it teaches is a worldview that the taxpayers who fund it can support. The "common schools" came into existence, after all, to acculturate immigrants to American values. For schools to try to indoctrinate children in a radical, minority worldview ... is a kind of tyranny, one that, in addition, intentionally drives a wedge between parents and children and ... "opposes society itself." We must not let an appeal to our belief in tolerance and decency blind us to indecency — and to the individual and social damage that will result from it.
It would be nice if this were the end of the inevitable backlash: a reformation of abolition of the schools which tolerate such tyrannies while declining to produce literate, numerate and acculterated children.

The second option would be for there to be a general societal backlash against homosexual rights and other radical views, undoing much of the last century of progress in human tolerance. And make no mistake, the fact that a majority people in the US now believe that the right of a person to choose their life partner without the blessing of the State is in fact a sign of progress. If a person's behavior does not infringe your rights, it should be allowed. Like ending slavery, this is yet another step to treating people as equals and as individually capable of controlling their own lives without the interference of the State.

The third option, feared by Mrs. du Toit, is the truly radical backlash to a truly radical overreach:

When I first read it I was shocked. My shock turned to anger. Then my anger turned to fear. I am no babe in the woods here. My best friend and roommate for seven years was a gay, male prostitute. I know more about the gay culture than I want to know. I know that the vast majority of homosexuals are wonderful people, who would never support something like this. But this group of extremists are so [insert series of expletives here] stupid that they do not realize what the counter to these types of actions are going to be. They put all gays and lesbians at an incredible risk. Do we have to show them pictures of cattle cars to get the point across? Do they not have ANY knowledge of history, of sociological trends, and of the inertia that these types of actions are going to have on our culture?

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May 11, 2003

The Pursuit of Happiness

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Juan Non-Volokh links to this article about how property rights enforcement can prevent the (seemingly otherwise inevitable) destruction of commercially-viable fisheries.

What does this have to do with the pursuit of happiness? Locke's original formulation was life, liberty and property. These are the natural rights which government exists to protect. In fact, they are the description of freedom. If a government has arbitrary rights to take your life, liberty or property, that society will inevitably deteriorate into tyranny, as power accumulates towards the center, and the exercise of that power requires ever more arbitrariness in order to grow.

Jefferson's innovation, "Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness," expands upon Locke in one important way: it recognizes that property ownership is a means to an end. Having property means that one has the ability to support one's self without the need for any outside agency - you could if necessary grow your own food and clothes stocks, make whatever implements you need and so forth, as well as sell your products for cash to pay taxes and buy needed goods you can't produce yourself, so long as you have enough land. (The necessary amount of land is remarkably small.) However, property ownership is really only a way of ensuring that you cannot be made desperate and miserable by others because of lack of food/money. The critical natural right is the ability to pursue happiness in whatever way you choose. Property rights allow you the resources to pursue that happiness.

The article about fisheries describes how property rights could prevent the destruction of this vital renewable resource, and how well-intentioned governments and environmentalist groups are actually making it more likely that the fish stocks will be depleted.

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April 30, 2003


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Vinod has interesting comments on post-modernism here and here. Also see Sgt. Stryker's post here and here.

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April 28, 2003

Discipline, Courage, Humility, Humanity, Morality, and...

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April 21, 2003

Where did all the Fascists Go?

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Jim Bennet examines what happened to the fascist movement after WWII.

European fascism was like a large river, flowing and carrying along millions of willing and enthusiastic adherents across the European continent. The question now is, where did this river disappear to in 1945? These people and their underlying sentiments were the culmination of generations of political evolution. It defies reason to believe that they simply changed their minds, all of them.

He then answers the question, in some detail. Here's the money quote, though:

Above all, fascists everywhere enshrined the role of the state as the focus of national life and the source of meaning and value. This separates fascism from other movements of political violence and racial caste conflict (like the Klan, for example) and unites it with the superficially liberal but state-exhalting European nationalist movements of the 19th century of which fascist movements are ultimately mutated descendents. This value also unites fascism with the purposive and directive state of European bureaucrats today.
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March 21, 2003

It's Polite to Act Surprised

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Libertarian - You believe that the main use for
government is for some people to lord it over
others at their expense. You maintain that the
government should be as small as possible, and
that civil liberties, "victimless
crimes", and gun ownership should be basic
rights. You probably are OK with capitalism.
Your historical role model is Thomas Jefferson.

Which political sterotype are you?
brought to you by Quizilla

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February 24, 2003

Political Philosophy - or Lack Thereof

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Brink Lindsey doesn't know what to call his political orientation, and Steven Den Beste has given up on labels altogether. I've had similar problems (and not just with politics) for a long time, and I've come around to thinking of myself as a federalist (although no doubt I disagree in areas with those who call themselves Federalists). By this, I mean that I want to have government act at the lowest possible level.

If I do not like my school district's behavior and policies, I can move to a nearby town. In so doing, I would shed the problem policies, but still be able to keep my job and visit my nearby friends. If, on the other hand, school policy is set by the state government, I have to move out of state to escape that policy, and have to change jobs (most likely) and will not easily be able to visit friends who currently live nearby. The cost of escaping the bad policy has gone up dramatically. Worse, the further I have to move, the more likely it is that I will have to go to a place with different policies I disagree with, just to avoid the local policies I disagree with.

An example of how this is a problem is Social Security. I don't happen to believe - indeed I don't think any rational person under the age of about 50 can believe - that Social Security will provide a decent retirement income. I do believe that the amount of money invested in Social Security both directly and by my employers over the last 15 years would provide me and my wife a comfortable retirement, had it been carefully invested by me. I cannot get out of this system, which has taken a little less than 29% of my earned income for 15 years and will give me back remarkably little, unless I give up my citizenship, stop working and become destitute or become a member of Congress. In any of these cases, the costs are higher to me than the cost of just forking over the money. It's a heck of a cost, though! If this were a Texas retirement program, I could move to another relatively free state, like Colorado, and the cost of escaping the burden, while still non-trivial, would be reasonable in comparison to the cost of the program. Since it is a Federal program, I have no reasonable-cost way out.

In general, I believe that the United States would be much improved by any movement in the direction of dissemination of power to the lowest possible level. Actually, I take that back! That sentence was an example of how corrupted our political language has become. It should read: in general, I believe that the United States would be much improved any movement by local government to reclaim lost powers from the States, and by the States to reclaim lost powers from the Federal government. After all, it is theoretically the case that the governments derive their legitimacy from the consent of the governed, and thus have only the sovereignty we grant them.

In the end, I really cannot find a better label than federalist for this philosophy.

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