Notes From Babel

Archive for February 2009

Obama to Expand Federal Power, But Put Things Back When He’s Done

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This article from the NY Times suggests, unwittingly, that we’ve already gone off the cliff, we only don’t realize it yet. Even taking Obama at his word, isn’t it a problem that we can duck in and out of socialism at will? Are we to be at peace with it because Obama is a good, kind leader who would never do anything to hurt us? What if we’re wrong? And do we really want to leave the launch codes out for whoever winds up in the captain’s seat in the future? This was supposed to be the difference between a “benevolent” monarchy and our structured and limited federal government: we didn’t want to have to depend on benevolence.


Written by Tim Kowal

February 24, 2009 at 11:14 pm

Posted in Politics

Isn’t This How Vigilantes Justify Themselves?

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I’ve been trying to get away from current events political blogging, but I think this is important. Schwarzenegger recently said this regarding the economy and “bipartisanship”:

The horrible thing about politics is that, the more they attack each other, the more that they try to derail each other, the worse it is for the people. That’s why … you know, you’ve got to go beyond just the principles. You’ve got to go and say, “What is right for the country right now?”

Forgive me, but isn’t this lifted straight from the vigilante calling card? This is Hollywood justice. Now, I liked The Dark Knight as much as anyone, but Arnold is not appreciating one of the key nuances. Although we sympathize with the vigilante Batman, we can only do so upon realizing, as Bruce Wayne does, that he can only do so as a pariah to ordered civil society: he is a “super” hero because he is outside the natural order of justice. Human justice is means-oriented; Batman’s is ends-oriented. We can root for those ends where we happen to agree; but his values, analyses, and decisions, are always cloaked from the people he aims to serve. And that is why he is always so scrutinized, why the public turns on him the instant he produces an undesirable result–when the integrity of decision making processes are cloaked, results are all we have to go by.

Arnold fails to grasp what millions of Batman fans did. He thinks he can trample means with ends. He thinks he can flout the principles of civil order with his personal ones. He thinks he can wear his cape in the light of day.

Written by Tim Kowal

February 22, 2009 at 6:25 pm

Posted in Politics

Lessons from the Past Still Go Unheeded

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On the question of the limits of government, Cicero said this:

The budget should be balanced, the Treasury should be refilled, public debt should be reduced, the arrogance of officialdom should be tempered and controlled, and the assistance to foreign lands should be curtailed lest Rome become bankrupt. People must again learn to work, instead of living on public assistance.

Cicero – 55 BC

Our founders were avid students of Cicero and the rest of the great Roman statesmen, as they were intensely interested in what ailments would beset the new republic they were designing. The wise among us do not let the lessons of history go unremembered. Unfortunately, we might as well have left those words untranslated in their original Latin for how little the rest of humanity is able to appreciate them. Wisdom is its own language. Fools can neither hear nor heed it. This is why our founders put so many limits on the democratic function of government: although the common man will not tolerate a government in which he has no direct voice, the common man is an imbecile and will tear asunder the whole of our civilization if it adds a crumb to his own account.

For this reason, our founders separated our governmental functions from the violent and insane passions of the mob — the electoral college and the appointment of senators by the state legislatures being the most famous of these. Piece by piece, however, under cover of progressivist ideology, “we the people” are tearing down those barriers in order to overrun the Constitution and make encampment in the Capitol. The 17th amendment was a critical loss to those who still swear fealty to the rule of law.

For a long time we have prayed that Thomas Jefferson was being too modest about the accomplishment he and his brethren made in establishing our great republic when he warned that “the tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.” The service of patriots may be again needed before long.

Written by Tim Kowal

February 21, 2009 at 10:43 pm

Posted in Politics

Corporate Abuse, and Why Government Is Not the Answer to That, Either

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Upon watching The Story of Stuff, I was reminded of how many people believe, probably without much reflection, that corporations are evil, and that the government’s job, naturally, is to rein in their abuses. With the premise, one can hardly dispute that corporations breed many inequities. (We will leave aside the fact that, while the corporation hums along making ungodly sums of money for a select few, it also happens to provide an unparalleled structure for human innovation, production, and employment.) Introducing more government, however, is a cure worse than the disease.

To begin, one must keep in mind that corporations are artificial. There is a basic problem with artifices, as they are wont to create just these kinds of problems.
But where an artifice is so unqualifiedly effective at improving wealth and overall standard of living, adhering to a Jeffersonian “agrarian” paradigm seems quaint at best. It’s the tower of babel problem again — can’t deny the implicit human need for progress.

So, we came up with the idea of corporations, and they work great for innovation, production, and distribution. So how do we deal with the inequities involved? Because yes, there are inequities. First, let’s test our attitude regarding inequities, because my contention is that we Westerners are far more concerned with them than is appropriate. So for example, imagine your brother possessed the natural ability to run faster than you; would it be equitable to twist his ankle so as to shrink the delta between your respective top speeds? Of course not. Some inequities cannot be removed without violating a more fundamental law. They are damnum absque injuria — a loss for which human law can provide no remedy.

Now let’s move to the economic context. If you are blessed with the Midas touch, a shrewd business acumen, what duties do you have to those whom you employ, whom you contract with, whom you sell to? The common law of contract and tort developed a fairly effective way of providing predictability, enforceability, and equity to all of these players, although certainly not perfect. And as our economy grows and the complexities of business, technology, and social needs mount, so do the apparent inequities. This means that the government should step in, right?

The concern is the same as whether something should be done to slow your brother down: by what right does a man, or a group of men acting in concert, to strip a benefit from another man? Again, the focus is not on the inequity — we can agree that it is unfair that some are born with great ability and some are not — the focus is on the damage done when we act in the absence of legitimate authority. When government redistributes wealth, it is wrong not because it redistributes poorly, but because there is no law governing the manner of the redistribution. It is arbitrary, and therefore evil in itself, no matter the result.

For this reason, I approach the problem differently than most law and economics buffs, who stress the implicit efficiency of pure, free markets. I believe there is merit to that view. But as I suggested earlier, having employed so many artifices in our economic system, it makes little sense to talk about “pure” markets.

Thus, the best the government or anyone else can do is (1) promote a virtuous society, and (2) improve the collection and dissemination of information about the products and services we buy. In this way, inequities can be decreased by the same natural mechanism that production is increased: human reason.

Written by Tim Kowal

February 21, 2009 at 9:05 am

Posted in Politics

On Bork’s Originalism

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Andy McCarthy (author of “Willful Blindness”) has this thoughtful piece on Judge Bork’s legal philosophy.

Although one cannot help but admire the elegance of Bork’s originalism, in my view it underestimates the nature and significance of language. A precondition for the rule of law is a fixed, immutable meaning of the words that mean to govern us. In my view, it is the job of judges to carefully and dispassionately attempt to unpack that meaning, and consider whether inferior laws conflict with the immanent but heretofore unexpressed outworkings of our fundamental ones.

Of course, the biggest trouble with that view is that it sounds an awful lot like “penumbras and emanations.” To that, I say the answer is not that judges should do less serious philosophical and historical analysis, but more. This is where transcendental and teleological approaches, such as those Greg Bahnsen put forth, are so important. It is critically relevant that we insist on believing that there is such a thing as objectivity and universality of truth and ethics. As long as we insist on this, we are short-changing the intellectual integrity of the rule of law by suggesting that we can scoop out the meaning of words from time to time and refill the empty vessels with whatever we like, so long as it is done democratically.

Written by Tim Kowal

February 13, 2009 at 4:52 pm

More Bad Secular Epistemology

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Heather Mac Donald of The Secular Right has this post responding to Chuck Colson’s critique of “scientism.” This is an area where secularists and atheists consistently expose their inability to come to grips with the serious philosophical limitations in their worldview. Too many secularists excel at punditry, but are quite out of their their element when it comes to serious philosophy.

Below is my response to Ms. Mac Donald’s post:


You are not coming toe-to-toe with Colson’s argument. Colson does not deny that scienceists and/or atheists do not recognize beauty or moral truths. Indeed, they do. The argument is that they do not possess a worldview that accounts for such things. Universal standards of beauty, morality, causation, and induction are simply not supported by an atheistic worldview. Instead, they are commonly accused of “borrowing” a theistic worldview. For the most part, theists are glad to have more people under their tent, people who agree that things like human dignity, equality, freedom, et al. are imperative to human flourishing. But without a cogent and systematic supporting framework, they are merely disembodied conclusions floating in the ether, and there is nothing barring one from manipulating them in the service of ghastly purposes.

In other words, the call of Corson and other theistic epistemologists and ethicists is, scienceists should define their premises. This was not historically necessary since, until recently, scientists did not purport to supplant metaphysics. Now that they have cast metaphysics aside, there is quite a hole to be filled. They need to reverse their course or get to the philosophical heavy lifting.

Written by Tim Kowal

February 9, 2009 at 5:00 pm

Obama Getting More Irksome

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Several things about his speech really bother me. The constant partisan posturing and “I won, thus I’m right” is not only irksome, it is dangerously and demonstrably fallacious. Democracy is not a test of veracity. It is mere exercise of will. Obama outs himself as something of a descriptive epistemologist when he says things like “They did not vote for the false theories of the past.” Does a popular vote make something true or false? Of course not. It is merely an expression of opinion writ large.

Even if the people voted for some amorphic “change,” that does not mean that we simply proceed by asking what the previous administration would have done, and do exactly the opposite. And yet that is just what Mr. Obama suggests when he says “We cant embrace the losing formula that offers more tax cuts….” Certainly the president cannot be suggesting that he was elected because the people were sick of tax cuts. Nor will Bush go down in history as a stalwart fiscal conservative; if Obama is hell-bent on being contrarian, he would do better to adopt a more, not less, sober economic policy.

And what about this metaphor: “I don’t care whether you’re driving a hybrid or an SUV — if you’re headed for a cliff, you have to change direction.” That conclusion doesn’t follow. What about just stopping the sodding car? That is the solution that true conservatives call for. Instead of addressing it, our new president does not even articulate it as an available alternative. Rendering an argument non-existent is, I suppose, an easy way to overcome it.

Now that Obama’s words are going to lead to actions that affect all of us, we ought to be less willing to applaud his hopelessly confused and fallacious rhetoric.

Written by Tim Kowal

February 6, 2009 at 5:27 pm

Posted in Politics