Saturday, December 27, 2008

Economic nonsense

When he finally takes office, look for a big old bailout from Barry:

At least as designed, the Obama plan, like a calibrated drug regimen, aims to deliver both short- and long-term relief.

The short-term help would flow partly from tax cuts of $1,000 for couples and $500 for individuals,costing about $140 billion over 2009-2010. The Obama team, said two congressional Democratic aides familiar with the discussions, will likely deliver those tax cuts by reducing the tax withheld from paychecks.

This would put more money in paychecks, unlike the lump-sum rebates issued earlier this year. Many people used those to pay down debt, rather than spending them as the administration had hoped.

In addition, states would get up to $200 billion over two years for Medicaid health coverage for the poor and to narrow state budget gaps, which are forcing layoffs and cuts in services. The aides spoke on the condition of anonymity to candidly discuss the evolving plan.

Throwing money at the problem to solve it. That'll work.

It's frustrating to see that the "do something" crowd is given the benefit of the doubt, no matter how silly their plan. The correct response by the government during an economic crisis is to do nothing, or perhaps cut taxes and reduce spending. This is precisely the thing government is least likely to do.

When the bailouts and the stimulus checks fail to stimulate the economy, the powers that be will be excused on the grounds that they couldn't sit idly by while the economy was in crisis. And they will be forgiven, even though government action causes and exacerbates the very crisis they were ostensibly attempting to eradicate.

You won't read this in the article, of course. Our supposedly skeptical journalists are either too ignorant of economics or just too wrapped up in their belief that the government will save the day to doubt the efficacy of stimulus and bailouts. This is to be expected. But the article contains a line so preposterous that we must be amazed that no eyebrows were raised when such an incredulity was printed:

For each $1 invested in infrastructure spending, about $1.60 in economic activity would be generated, according to estimates by some economists.

If I told you that I knew a way for you to make sixty percent returns on your investment, you would wonder whether I was smoking crack or if I had merely stumbled upon a Ponzi scheme. With the help of some funny math, the stock market promises returns of ten percent, but anything approaching sixty percent is unheard of. And yet, there it is, smack dab in the middle of the article, without the accompaniment of a hysterical laugh, even a parenthetical one.

If infrastructure spending really made such stupendous returns, we would be wise to invest all of our spending in infrastructure, economic crisis or no. Why, if we simply devoted all of our money to infrastructure, we could grow the GDP by sixty percent.

The reality is these numbers are completely inaccurate. Every dollar invested in infrastructure must come from somewhere. These dollars are taken from the private sector; ignoring the inefficiencies of government bureaucracies, the net result is, at best, a replacement of private sector employees with those who work for the government. And this overly optimistic view depends on the infrastructure being invested productively, and not, say, on bridges to nowhere.

Since the government is far less efficient than the private sector, increasing government spending in the midst of a recession is a profoundly stupid thing to do. Only a return to normalcy in the private sector will end the recession; every attempt to squeeze it only puts off the day on which normalcy shall return.

It'd be nice if journalists expressed some familiarity with this theory. In the meantime, I'll settle for skepticism toward obviously exaggerations.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Onward empire

The president-elect is looking to surge in Afghanistan:

The top U.S. military officer said Saturday that the Pentagon could double the number of American forces in Afghanistan by next summer to 60,000 - the largest estimate of potential reinforcements ever publicly suggested.

There's a really good article in this week's American Conservative that discusses the three far more important policy changes, commonly attributed to the surge, that have seemingly caused a reversal of fortunes in Iraq in the last year or so. It's worth a read, but it's important to remember that even if policy and tactical changes in Iraq momentarily reduced American causalities, we are nowhere near the goal of making Iraqi into a democratic republic.

In other news, the president-elect is backpedaling on his promise to bring our troops home from Iraq:

A new military plan for troop withdrawals from Iraq that was described in broad terms this week to President-elect Barack Obama falls short of the 16-month timetable Mr. Obama outlined during his election campaign, United States military officials said Wednesday.

Well, at least they won't be there for one hundred years.

Obama sure seems hellbent on backstabbing his supporters. Especially impressing is the speed and forthrightness with which it is taking place. He's not even in office yet and we're seeing a complete capitulation on the foreign policy front.

This isn't surprising; if you have a memory that is capable of retaining information of more than the past president, you'll recall that the democrats--Carter excepted--have traditionally been hawkish. And although Obama was against the war in Iraq, he's never expressed a commitment to avoid aggressive war. Iraq was the wrong war, but not necessarily for moral reasons; another war--say in Pakistan--might be a good one.

It will be very interesting to see if there is a significant backlash from the antiwar left against Obama when it becomes apparent that the wars aren't going to end. I'm not holding my breath, but I'll still be paying some attention.

Worth mentioning, too, is that because we're in the midst of a rather large recession, it may become difficult for Obama to justify the costs of empire. So argues Pat Buchanan; and though I'm hopeful that he is correct, I fear that the war lobby will be powerful enough to keep most of the empire in tact.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

State of the state

High and Dry sends me a link to an amusing piece from Reason:

We are in fact living at the cusp of what should be called the Libertarian Moment, the dawning not of some fabled, clich├ęd, and loosey-goosey Age of Aquarius but a time of increasingly hyper-individualized, hyper-expanded choice over every aspect of our lives, from 401(k)s to hot and cold running coffee drinks, from life-saving pharmaceuticals to online dating services. This is now a world where it’s more possible than ever to live your life on your own terms; it’s an early rough draft version of the libertarian philosopher Robert Nozick’s glimmering “utopia of utopias.” Due to exponential advances in technology, broad-based increases in wealth, the ongoing networking of the world via trade and culture, and the decline of both state and private institutions of repression, never before has it been easier for more individuals to chart their own course and steer their lives by the stars as they see the sky. If you don’t believe it, ask your gay friends, or simply look who’s running for the White House in 2008.

I'm reading--and quite enjoying--Nozick, butI can't seem to figure out how his "minimal state" even vaguely resembles the leviathan in Washington. Granted that the proliferation of technology in a somewhat capitalist society confronts the individual with a variety of choices, libertarianism is primarily concerned with the relationship between an individual and the State, which is likely to violate the individual's rights. The State remains strong. Too strong.

Singling out the gays and Obama is curious, too. Gay marriage isn't a fundamental right since it has been summoned from the abyss by the State; increased cultural acceptance of homosexuality, on the other hand, may be a liberation, but it is difficult to attribute this to Governmental forces. Likewise with Obama. Blacks haven't been disqualified from running for political office for sometime now; it is, instead and yet again, cultural change--coupled with a very pathetic Republican candidate--that has elevated a black man to the highest office in the land.

More importantly, "living life on your own terms" is still rather difficult to do. If you work hard to become moderately successful, the government will take upwards of a third of your income to give it to someone "less fortunate". Moreover, even these will have to pay; for under our economic system, which is difficult to opt out of, one is forced to use fiat currency. Inflated regularly by the Federal Reserve, this funny money exacts a tax, in the form of decreased purchasing power, upon everyone who uses it.

Since the authors are speaking of a "rough draft" of Nozick, I think it's unfair to suggest they believe we are living in some sort of libertarian paradise. But they do think that such an idea is not only plausible, it is likely--and in the short term. Perhaps this is so, though I severely doubt it. The essential point here is that we have a very long way to go yet.

I take umbrage, too, with their thoughts about what libertarianism means, and the victories we have, apparently, won:

The Libertarian Moment is based on a few hard-won insights that have grown into a fragile but enduring consensus in the ever-expanding free world. First is the notion that, all things being equal, markets are the best way to organize an economy and unleash the means of production (and its increasingly difficult-to-distinguish adjunct, consumption). Second is that at least vaguely representative democracy, and the political freedom it almost always strengthens, is the least worst form of government (a fact that even recalcitrant, anti-modern regimes in Islamabad, Tehran, and Berkeley grudgingly acknowledge in at least symbolic displays of pluralism). Both points seem almost banal now, but were under constant attack during the days of the Soviet Union, and are still subject to wobbly confidence any time capitalist dictatorships like China seem to grow ascendant in a time of domestic economic woe. Though every dip in the Dow makes the professional amnesiacs of cable TV and the finance pages turn in the direction of Mao, there is no going back to the Great Leap Forward.

The first point is solid, though I offer a caveat and a criticism. Even if Central Planning were superior to capitalism in regards to the organization of the markets--of course, we know that they are not--capitalism is still to be preferred because it respects property rights in ways State planning cannot. My only criticism is that I don't think people necessarily accept the superior efficiency produced by a free market, to say nothing of its greater respect for property rights. If people believed the market was superior, there would be no clamoring for bailouts. No entity is large enough or secure enough to prevent anything else from failing forever; history is replete with the rotten carcasses of nation states and empires who were once thought too big to fail. A few corporations may collapse during this present recession, but only the attempt to save the whole mess will destroy the present State--which is almost a shame.

The second point is less valid. The centrality of the libertarian's argument is that the State must be small so that man may be free. Voting doesn't even enter into this except insofar as it may be argued that a representative republic will best secure the blessings of liberty. I find this notion to be exceedingly dubious. One of the great flaws of the present system is that, since the people believe themselves to be responsible for their leaders, they will continue to work through the ballot box to effect change. This is a waste of time and energy as both parties are antithetical to the principles of liberty and limited government for which the libertarian stands.

In addition, the authors ought to ask themselves: if libertarianism is growing in popularity, shouldn't we see liberties being returned to the people as more and more libertarian minded folks attain representation in Government? If not, either libertarianism is still largely a fringe movement--I think it is--or democracy is not necessarily the best way to ensure that the State respects individuals' rights.

Also, while I sincerely hope there is no going back to the Great Leap Forward, as long as the recent economic crisis can be blamed on the failures of capitalism, socialism will attract a fair number of adherents. After all, it simply has not been implemented correctly--at least not yet. Should a totalitarian regime arise again--and I see nothing to suggest that this is a fundamental impossibility--another Great Leap Forward is quite plausible, and far more likely than a development of authentic socialism, whatever that is.

The writers go on to discuss the role played by the Internet in the coming libertarian revolt:

The ne plus ultra change agent as we lurch through the finish line of yet another electoral contest between our 19th century political parties is the revolutionary, break-it-down-and-build-it-back-up power of the Internet, and all the glorious creative destruction it enables at the expense of lumbering gatekeepers and to the benefit of empowered individuals. No single entity in the history of mankind has been so implicitly and explicitly libertarian: a tax-free distributed network and alternative universe where individuals, usually without effective interference from government, can reshape their identities, transcend limitations of family, geography, and culture. It’s a place where freaks and geeks and regular folks can pool their intelligence and compete (even win!) against entities thousands of times their size.

The generation raised on the Internet has essentially been raised libertarian, even if they’ve never even heard of the word. Native netizens now entering college exhibit a kind of broad-based tolerance toward every manner of ethnic, religious, and sexual-orientation grouping in a way that would have seemed like science fiction just a generation ago. The products and activities they enjoy and co-opt most, from filesharing to flying discount airlines to facebooking, are excrescences of the free-market ideas of deregulation and decontrol. Generations X, Y, and those even younger swim in markets—that is, in choices among competing alternatives—the way those of us who grew up in the ’70s frolicked on Slip ’n Slides.

This is probably the most intriguing part of the article. The Internet is conducive to libertarian thought; witness Ron Paul's presence, far outweighing his actual support in polls not conducted on the information superhighway. But it is also open to Government control. Take Facebook, which I begrudgingly use. The social networking tool is useful to those who log-on to message friends; but it also provides, well, anyone, with a cornucopia of information about a person: who he hangs out with, and where; what he looks like and what he likes. Most concerning is that all of this information is provided by the participants themselves without any poking or prodding by Orwellian forces.

It would be hypocritical of anyone who spends as much time using it as I do to bash the Internet. It has its flaws, certainly, but it provides many benefits; in any event an analysis of the pros and cons of the Internet is best dealt with elsewhere. The salient point is that it is still too early to say that the Internet won't be controlled by the State. It is also worth mentioning that, while it allows for open discussion of issues and ideas not mentioned by traditional media outlets, all of this seems to mean little in the long run. After all, look at the recent Statist in the White House.

Liberty is too popular an idea for libertarianism to ever fade entirely. But it does no good to pretend that it is more popular than it actually is. True, from certain vantage points, things are looking up a bit. Yet we still live in a country with a massive Government and an Empire almost as large. There are still minds aplenty who remained unconvinced that "government is best which governs least." There is also the political battle, and that hardly even begun.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Not dead yet

Naturally, the latest economic collapse is proof that the free market must be regulated, that the lack of regulation was the cause of collapse, and that, anyway, libertarianism is dead. Writes Jacob Weisberg of Slate:

We have narrowly avoided a global depression and are mercifully pointed toward merely the worst recession in a long while. This is thanks to a global economic meltdown made possible by libertarian ideas. I don't have much patience with the notion that trying to figure out how we got into this mess is somehow unacceptably vicious and pointless—Sarah Palin's view of global warming. As with any failure, inquest is central to improvement. And any competent forensic work has to put the libertarian theory of self-regulating financial markets at the scene of the crime.

Ignoring the fact that we have not avoided a global depression, having merely postponed it, I have no idea what libertarian ideas he's talking about. This isn't a matter of pragmatically ditching Bush and the Republicans now that the economy has gone sour; that alliance had been jettisoned long ago, back when it became clear that Bush's “compassionate conservatism” was hard to distinguish from big government liberalism. What Weisberg means, I think, is that the market was unregulated, and still managed to get all screwed up anyway. The basic flaw with this analysis is that it is untrue. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, for instance, were regulated by 200 government bureaucrats; these dutifully looked the other way instead of doing their job.

There is another rather large flaw in his attempts to pin the meltdown on libertarians—as if a group with such insignificant power and influence could ever do such a thing. Libertarians, or at least the Austrian economists among us, believe firmly that fiat currency, liable to inflation at the whim of a central bank, undermines the market: indeed, Ludwig von Mises blames this inflation for generating the business cycle. When Weisberg writes that: “the libertarian apologetics fall wildly short of providing any convincing explanation for what went wrong” he is completely mistaken. Libertarians have such a theory, which is more than can be said, say, of the neo-Keynesians. Moreover, the Federal Reserve has been inflating the currency—though they hide this fact, at least partially, by calculating the CPI in a dishonest fashion—which would seem to serve to vindicate von Mises. At the very least, it is patently absurd to argue that a crisis anticipated by a fair number of libertarians undermines their very existence.

The basic flaw behind all of this clamoring for more regulation is that it fails to understand the relationship between Big Business and Government. Most people seem to believe that the relationship is a fundamentally antagonistic one; but it is not so. As Patrick Denseen writes in the November 17th issue of The American Conservative:

The mortgage crisis has highlighted the tight bonds between a large central government and large centers of financial power... At least now we have seen the end of the idea that there is some fundamental antipathy between big government and big business.

Weisberg has apparently drawn a different conclusion from recent events. It's difficult to see why. The nepotism of the Bush administration was so extensive and flagrant that it is hard to see how anyone could have missed the obvious lesson: Government may chose to reward its minions in the private sector and vice versa. As Cheney was hooking up his pals at Haliburton with the spoils of our Iraqi misadventure, was it really surprising that other areas of the bureaucracy were likewise engaged in allowing their cronies to benefit from the hands who held the reigns of power?

The reasons I support the free market are twofold. First, a generally unregulated market respects property rights. Regulation undermines these rights, primarily, by telling me what I can and cannot do with my property, and secondarily, by taxing me to provide for those who violate my rights. The larger the bureaucracy, the more frequent and obtrusive will be the violations. Second, prices must be either dictated by central planners, or allowed to fluctuate as per the invisible hand of the market. The folly of central planning was demonstrated by the Soviet Union, even as the central planners of the Socialists in Washington decide who to bailout and who to let fail, and what stipulations the former must endure.

Libertarianism will continue to make sense as long as humans remain fallible. If men were omniscient angels, we could trust them to plan the way the entire economy worked. But absent these elusive attributes, it is wise to keep power from concentrating too greatly in too few hands.

The Recovery of the Catholic Apologetic

This was a "talk" I put together some time back that never materialized. Since it's been written, I figured I may as well post it here. Enjoy.

The title of my talk comes from a book written by Hilaire Belloc titled Survivals and the New Arrivals. Though penned in 1929, it is as prescient as ever. I do not know how many of you are familiar with the man and his work. Much of it is, regrettably, out of print, although his influence, not only on Roman Catholics, but on much of the English speaking world, was, and is, profound. Historian Jacques Barzun, in his marvelous From Dawn to Decadence, notes: "In England during the decade before the war, the quartet who stirred the reading public into thinking were Wells, Chesterton, Belloc, and Shaw." (p. 683) Unlike Chesterton, Belloc was a cradle Catholic, and a fairly militant one. He spent a good deal of time and ink seeking to rectify the biased Protestantism that dominated much of written history. He is a masterful writer, both of prose and poetry, and is too infrequently read; nonetheless, his appeal will be chiefly to Catholics who are already certain of their Faith.

There is a good reason for this. Apologetics does not imply an apology; the word is derived from the Greek apologia, which means defense. Unfortunately, the apologetics of those who have only known the Faith can come across as an attack, and lack the tact and charity without which the most brilliant exposition for the Faith sounds like “a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal”, in St. Paul's phrase. This is not to say that converts always make excellent apologists, anymore than cradle Catholics may be wholly insufficient to the task. Instead, while his unique experience doesn't prevent the convert from identifying with “born Catholics”, it allows the outsider to empathize more readily with him. Theoretically speaking, the “born Catholic” may only be defending the prejudices with which he entered the world, but the convert is a different animal entirely, and cannot be as easily brushed aside.

Arguably the most influential of the modern Christian apologists is C.S. Lewis. His Mere Christianity is still widely read, as well it should be; and while the appellation of the adjective is appropriate given the subject matter of the work, it is also a bit frustrating. Any work which advances the cause of Christianity is to be applauded, but it must be admitted that the idea of mere Christianity makes little sense to those who belong to a Church who claims fullness of truth. Though he never became a Catholic, the great apologist was prodigiously influenced by at least two members of the Roman Church: his friend and literary acquaintance J.R.R. Tolkien, and G.K. Chesterton. The latter's The Everlasting Man, written as a reaction to Wells's Outline of History, presented a cogent case for Christ to Lewis, and to many others.

Chesterton deserves much credit as an apologist—his book Orthodoxy helped me come back to the Faith—and is probably the only one who can rival Lewis himself, not only in ability, but in influence. There is something of a Chestertonian revival going on presently, led by the charmingly obsessive Dale Ahlquist, president of The American Chesterton Society, and buttressed by people like Joseph Pearce, a modern biographer, not only of Chesterton, but of Belloc, Lewis, Tolkien, Shakespeare, and even Oscar Wilde. Ignatius Press, which puts out a number of wonderful books, is currently reprinting all of Chesterton's collected works, ensuring that another generation can enjoy the wit and wisdom of “the apostle of common sense”, in Ahlquist's phrase.

Although Chesterton and Belloc wrote some novels, with the exception of Chesterton's excellent The Man Who Was Thursday, their non-fiction—and their poetry—was of higher literary merit. There is often an implicit assumption that apologetics must be works of non-fiction; but I am not certain that this is that case. While a well-reasoned defense of the faith can be propitious, a story which, though it may deal with things that never actually happened, nonetheless confirms a Catholic truth may work just as well—or perhaps even better. We will examine the reasoning for this a little later.

But first, to give an illustration of what I may mean, we have already mentioned J.R.R. Tolkien. A fact which is too little appreciated by those who read The Lord of the Rings is that it was, in the words of its author, "a fundamentally religious and Catholic work". The fertile imagination of Tolkien was directed at and stimulated by Jesus Christ; the careful reader should be able to detect this in his masterpiece.

I will briefly give just two more examples. The Roman Catholic poet Francis Thompson is best known for his poem, “The Hound of Heaven.” It should be read more often. Thompson, who was an opium addict, was well aware of suffering, and the poem describes vividly God's pursuit of man's soul, as man struggles to fend Him off. It is at once a frightening and wonderful poem, with which any sinner may readily identify.

Another English fellow, the novelist Evelyn Waugh, himself a Catholic convert who was influenced—yes, by Chesterton—wrote a number of excellent books. Brideshead Revisited is perhaps his best; it happens to be my favorite work of fiction. It is also a thoroughly Catholic novel. Like Flannery O'Connor, Waugh illuminates God's grace, working almost imperceptibly throughout the background of his novel, as the characters find themselves making their way slowly toward Him. Writing about conversion is just as difficult to do in fiction; Waugh's accomplishment lies in the authenticity of the experiences of his characters. Here are real people, being pursued, albeit subtly, by the loving hound of heaven.

So far I have merely traced an incomplete outline of some of the Catholic apologists of the twentieth century. At the very least, I should like you all to come out of this talk with an increased knowledge in the subject matter; I sincerely hope you all read Belloc and Chesterton—and Waugh. If they should aid you in your faith journey, as they have me in mine, I shall count this talk a success. Indeed, hearkening back to St. Francis of Assisi who counseled us to “preach the Gospel at all times and when necessary used words,” the influence of apologists may be most pronounced as it causes those already convinced to become more steadfast, with increased charity, in their Faith. In this way, the Church may be known by the love which we have for one another. All are not called to apologetics, any more than all are called to the consecrated life, but anyone should be able to benefit from them, in one of their varied forms.

We turn now to a bit of a personal application. While no one would deny that all men long for God, no one likes to be preached at. I do not suggest that all of you go running out of here handing out apologetic tomes. In your conversations with non-believers, you may find the time to reference a work of apologetics you have read; it may even be good to recommend a book. Overtly apologetic tomes have the potential to produce the most fruit, but it does no good to scatter seeds unless the ground is fertile for growth. On the other hand, recommending a novel or a poem which is written by someone who happens to be Catholic may prove more beneficial than we would suspect. While not everyone needs to read all of Chesterton, there is little excuse for literate people avoiding Evelyn Waugh.

Those of you who know me are perhaps aware that my outlook on life is largely polemical, and occasionally obnoxiously so. I argue both because I enjoy it immensely and because it is one of the most effective ways I have found at arriving nearer the truth. A friend and I were once engaged in a discussion about the beliefs of the ancient Greeks and Romans, and how his youth pastor had been wholly unable to answer his question about why the pagans were wrong. St. Augustine handles this beautifully in the first two parts of The City of God, but, being aware of this at the time, I recommended to him The Everlasting Man. He pronounced it good but unconvincing, and expressed no interest in discussing the matter further.

This is perhaps the most frustrating thing, not only to the apologist, but to those of us who rely on their work. Once inside the Church, one begins to study the multitudinous treasures which She has secured for two thousand years. Almost any question one may have has not only been asked, but it has been thought on—and answered. The Catholic Church possesses a complete philosophy for man; thus a Catholic can go about reinforcing his views to better equip himself to combat the modern world. In my mind, The Everlasting Man demonstrated best what was suggested by hundreds of other influences in my journey. It would be unreasonable to suggest that one exposition of a fraction of the Church's philosophy would be enough to convert a man. The only thing more unreasonable would be to suggest that he attempt to experience all that we ourselves have; for though all roads lead to Rome, we often travel there on diverse routes. God alone knows the human heart, and the process by which He calls souls to Himself often strikes us as strange—or worse. As Job says, “I have dealt with great things that I do not understand; things too wonderful for me, which I cannot know.” (Job 42:3) But like Job we can take comfort in the fact that, though we are often estranged from the way of the Lord, He very much knows what He is doing.

As with my friend, the effect of apologetics is rarely overt conversion. Instead, good apologetics paints the Church in a truer light, forcing the reexamination of a previously accepted falsehood concerning Her. In the previously mentioned The Catholic Church and Conversion, Chesterton discusses the “three stages of conversion”. In paraphrased form, first the convert wishes to treat the Church fairly, to discover out who She really is. Often he is still opposed to Her, but his intellectual honestly leads him to disbelieve falsehood directed at the Church. For instance, he may hear that the age in which the Church ruled were the Dark Ages—only the Dark Ages never existed as he thinks they did. And anyway, how dark could an age be that produced the Gothic cathedral and the awe-inspiring poetry of Dante? In the second stage, he begins to see that the Church does contain some truth. Perhaps the poetry of Dante suggests the common sense theology of St. Thomas Aquinas. Perhaps the Just War Doctrine of St. Augustine allows him to make sense of the awful conflict in Iraq.

The third stage Chesterton describes as the most terrible. He writes, “It is impossible to be just to the Catholic Church. The moment men cease to pull against it they feel a tug towards it. The moment they cease to shout it down they begin to listen to it with pleasure. The moment they try to be fair to it they begin to be fond of it.” (Collected Works Volume III, G.K. Chesterton, p. 92) I think it true that once one arrives at this stage, there is no more for the apologist to do. At this final point, each man must confront God; it is the goal of the apologist to move the almost-convert to that point.

Now, a few things are required to get there. First, a certain degree of intellectual honesty is required on the part of the non-believer. When reading Richard Dawkins's The God Delusion, I was impressed by two things: first, his faith in things far less reasonable than the Resurrection—from the infallibility of the incompetent Sam Harris to the certitude with which he holds the highly dubious claims of Darwin and his disciples—and second, his ability to arrogantly defeat the claims of Christianity based on caricatures. Nonetheless, the popularity of the books written by not only Dawkins and Harris, but also Daniel Dennett and Christopher Hitchens, to say nothing of the irate and woefully ignorant minions that faun over every pronouncement of the so-called New Atheists, suggests that there is a good deal of work for apologists to do.

A number of Christians have risen to the challenge. Since I was so unimpressed by Dawkins's work, I neglected to read any of the other books by his fellow atheists; and I have only read one of the responses to their books: The Irrational Atheist by Vox Day, which, in addition to being rather good, is also available without charge on the author's blog. Some of the books, like Day's, such as Answering the New Atheism: Dismantling Dawkins' Case Against God, written by the Catholic apologist Scott Hahn, aren't defenses of Christianity at all; instead, they deal with specific arguments of the new atheists, who are almost as sloppy with logic as they are ignorant of Christianity. Others, like Dinesh D'Souza's What's So Great About Christianity, and a number of Lee Strobel's books, are closer to the works of Chesterton and Lewis, both in subject and tone. The New Atheists have remained nonplussed, as have many of their followers; Dawkins denigrates anyone who writes a book in reaction to his as a flea and ignores him completely.

Still, it seems that the New Atheists have gotten a good deal more than they bargained for. Although this may come as a surprise to Christopher Hitchens, he was utterly decimated in his debate with Dinesh D'Souza. And while Dawkins can insist that he has no need to debate the man who ousted Hitchens, one strongly suspects cowardice on the part of the Archbishop of Oxford.

Most of the reactionary books have received far less attention than have the five which started the recent fiasco, but the combination of the unimpressive performances by the New Atheists—with the partial exception of Daniel Dennet if Day is to believed—and the far more substantial case presented by the defenders of Christianity should turn the tide against the latest wave of atheism, and allow for the possibility of conversion.

More importantly, as both Chesterton and Belloc pointed out long ago, atheism is but a way station on the weary road back to paganism. This is a point that is too little appreciated by those who follow these sorts of things, and merits some detailed exposition. One of the first things that one notices about atheists, at least of those who bother to write books or hang around blogs talking about it, is that their atheism does not really stem from a skepticism towards the evidence presented to them about why God exists. They will insist otherwise of course, but their comments betray this too well; the claim of not enough evidence is enough to make one agnostic—a perfectly reasonable position which Chesterton claims is the natural attitude of man—but militant atheism is always a reaction against something in the religion they have rejected.

Rebellion in adolescence seems to be a partially pathetic phase through which most people pass. But after rebelling to exert one's independence, hopefully one grows up to become a mature adult; it is the height of irresponsibility to be forever engaged in rebellion for its own sake. The atheist eventually must cease rebelling against his former faith and embrace some set of beliefs, however he derives them, about the world and his place in it. If he does not return to Christianity, he will probably lapse back into paganism.

Now, by paganism I don't mean the Greek and Roman gods and all of the beliefs that concern them. I primarily mean “natural religion acting upon man uncorrected by revelation” (Survivals and the New Arrivals, p.133) as Belloc puts it. This usually means, first, sexual license. The new pagans won't put out anything coherent in the way of philosophy or ethics; they'll remain essentially parasitic, taking what they like about the Judeo-Christian ethic, and removing all of that nasty stuff about suppressing one's desires. They will also add, because man cannot live without it, a widely implausible myth, or series of myths. For instance, they will insist that we are poisoning the earth, and that we need to take drastic measures to save her. Moreover, because such a myth does not depend on reason, it will invariably fall on government—that is, force—to compel men to partake in the new creed.

Here enters The Opportunity, of which Belloc speaks, and at which my long and rambling talk was directed. Unless it summons much better spokesmen, thinking people will reject the claims of the New Atheists. They will then pass over to a variety of mostly silly—but by no means necessarily innocuous—forms of paganism. Now, the Church has converted the pagans before, so it's possible that She could do it again. But whereas the old pagans understood that without revelation, man could not save himself, and thus were receptive to the new religion, today's pagans will have a preconceived notion in their heads whenever they hear Christianity mentioned. This makes the task substantially more difficult.

The role of the Catholic apologist, I think, it to present as thorough a case as possible for a religion which is in no way inimical to reason. Our case is harmed by a number of things. As always, the misbehavior of Christians is a determent to conversion; one cannot, I think, overestimate the effects of the priest scandal and the subsequent cover-up by cowardly bishops, though one may add, as an edifying postscript, that Benedict XVI has addressed it, and seems to be making progress. Second, and ironically, the champions of reason, like Dawkins, are rather lacking in this particular department; and while it behooves us to present a logical case, it is unlikely to be appreciated in an intellectual atmosphere such as ours. We can hope that, as the prophets of secularism plunge headlong into unreason, the Church stands out as a bastion of light and truth, as it did in the barbaric world it once conquered, and which, in due time, it shall conquer again.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

The Crash Course

As we close in on The Most Important Election Ever, it has become like every other presidential election: long, repetitive, painfully boring, and about the economy. Both candidates claim to have the fix and purport that the other’s plan will only perpetuate the troubles, but do either really understand the problems? We’re often told our economy is strong because debt-to-GDP is low or inflation-to-GDP is low. Well, here are some things I didn’t know before last week:

When the Fed calculates inflation, three subjective factors are present: the craziest and most influential of which is hedonic adjustments. They measure pleasure/utility: paying the same price for a better product is really like paying less for the same (your wallet disagrees). These lower the calculated value of inflation more than twofold.

When the Fed calculates GDP, two subjective factors are present: hedonic adjustments and imputed values. Hedonic adjustments are now made in the opposite direction and imputed values estimate what you get without paying, e.g. you don’t pay yourself rent on your house and free checking is free so you’re not paying what those could cost you. None of this money is ever transacted nor does it ever exist, yet it is 35% of our reported GDP.

Total credit market debt has historically been below 200% of GDP with a spike to 270% during the Great Depression. Today it’s pushing 350%. At the same time this debt shot up, the personal savings rate plummeted. Prior to its decline, the average American household was saving about 9% of their income. Today it’s less than 1%. By comparison, Europe saves 10% and China saves 30%. But it’s not just private citizens that don’t save; all levels of government and corporations have a combined shortfall of at least $55 trillion. Everyone is spending money they don’t have.

With inflation understated, GDP overstated, and debt mounting, it’s no wonder the US economy functions like one that doesn’t have low debt-to-GDP and inflation-to-GDP levels.

Where does all this debt and inflation come from? Well, since banks loan a single dollar many times, there is much more debt than dollars. If it all gets paid back, everything’s cool. But that old sin of usury means that more money is needed to zero the balance. When you don’t have that money, a default happens and you lose your house. For the Federal Government, the situation is a little different: enter fiat currency. Whenever the Fed needs money, it writes a check, and thus creates money out of thin air (would that we all had that option). The result is rampant borrowing, which creates lots of debt, and a huge money supply, which creates lots of inflation. To wit: it took until 1973 to have $1 trillion of money. That means everything ever done in the US up to 1973 was done with less than $1 trillion in money supply. Our 13th trillion took just the last few months. This all adds up to your dollar buying less and you needing to borrow more.

Hopefully these few facts and statistics shed some light on the larger economic troubles facing the US and how the rampant borrowing over the past few weeks is likely to exacerbate the situation. I wish I had learned all this by visiting a campaign website, but I didn’t and I’m afraid that’s not possible. Neither candidate seems aware of these problems as both call for more spending of money that we don’t have. I urge all of you to visit www.chrismartenson.com and take The Crash Course to get the full story (FREE!). It will entirely change your way of thinking about the economy and better prepare you to deal with the future you will inherit.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

In Which We Unexpectedly Learn a Thing or Two Concerning War

It is interesting to note that while Christian fantasy has become a distinct sub-genre of literature, most of the early writers of fantasy were not only Christians, they also tended to produce distinctly Christian works. The most obvious examples are, of course, J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings and C.S. Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia, though credit should be given to yet another Christian for inventing the genre of fantasy altogether—namely George MacDonald with his book Phantastes. In this sense, Theodore Beale's Summa Elvetica is a recent addition to a long tradition. But what gives Beale's work its peculiar appeal is that he has added to the usual fantasy world, resplendent with orcs, trolls, goblins and elves, an institution very similar to the medieval Catholic Church. Thus emerges the unusual plot: the protagonist, a potential candidate to the cloth and a learned if youthful philosopher named Marcus Valerius, is sent as the eyes of the Sanctiff, the head of the Amorran Church, to help determine whether or not the elves have souls. If the inquiry determines that the elves are lacking, it will be holy war, and possibly the extermination of the elvish race.

The story follows the journey of Marcus and those who accompany him to Elebrion, the home of High King Mael and his elf kingdom. On the journey, in addition to his slave Marcipor and his Dwarf bodyguard Lodi, Marcus travels and converses with a number of Michaelene warrior-priests, as well as two erudite scholars, Father Aestus and Bishop Claudo, who are also to weigh in on the theological dispute at hand.

But the priestly contingent is not the only one concerned with the elves. For there are parties that will benefit immensely from a crusade. Marcus is intellectually honest, if a bit naive, and is therefore genuinely interested in the answer to the philosophical dilemma. Before being sent on his way, his worldly father reminds him, "There are fortunes to be made in war, and not only by those who lead the legions... And for the great, the temptations are even more sweet. There are commands to be sold, territories to be governed, slaves to be gathered—and above all, glory to be gained." On the journey itself one of the Michaelenes points out, "[T]here’s a fair number of captains who make a living turning foolish young farm boys into corpses every summer."

These words are worth dwelling on, because they provide a key to one of the more interesting aspects of the book. To understand them, it helps to know that Mr. Beale is also "an occasionally controversial political columnist" who writes under the pseudonym Vox Day. Under this nom de plume he has recently penned a book titled The Irrational Atheist, in which he examines the various fallacies disseminated by some of the so-called New Atheists. One of these fallacies, chiefly propagated by one Sam Harris, is that religion is a major cause of war. In The Irrational Atheist, Vox lays this myth safely to rest: only seven percent of wars can be reasonably attributed to religious causes.

Theodore Beale takes up this theme in Summa Elvetica. When it is claimed that religion causes war, the crusades spring instantly to mind. If we read the prospective holy war against the elves as a parallel to one of the crusades of the middle ages, a complicated picture begins to emerge. The pious may be more likely to support a war if urged on to do so by their spiritual leader, but the war profiteers aren't going to be moved by indulgences and red crosses. In short, a variety of motives lead men to go to war, even an ostensibly holy one. Blame resides with fallen man, not with religion which serves to ameliorate his depravity.

Beale is not likely to join the company of Tolkien and Lewis—at least not yet—but he gives evidence of a lucid imagination and demonstrates that he can tell a good story. Its unusual subject matter may suggest merely an amusing novel, but Summa Elveticacreates a world in which the middle ages, its wars and its theological disputes, come roaring back to life.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Update

PJ and I have wrapped up Mill. My thanks to all who participated. He's been busy with school, but we have plans to similarly discuss another book when he can find the time. Being an engineer, and thus lacking a social life, I can usually squeeze room into my schedule.

Meanwhile, I'm searching for something to encourage me to write more frequently. Writing weekly for the paper was both enjoyable and helpful. It is not so much that I miss writing the columns themselves, but that the assignment focused my energy and allowed me to be productive. Now, it seems, my writing has fallen by the wayside.

Still, it can be beneficial not to have to write. After all, one can only write so many pieces about Ron Paul, especially when he is no longer in the race. The news being dominated by the presidential circus, it can be difficult to bring oneself to discuss something more substantial.

But I do have a few thoughts to offer. First, the Palin pick was brilliant. I loathe John McCain; he is a statist, a warmongerer, and a dirty Washington insider. The Republicans were right to reject him in 2000, and it is a sign of how far the party has fallen that he is now their standard bearer. That said, the pick was brilliant.

Palin has locked up, and even excited, the always gullible base. Her pro-life positions have caused Dr. Dobson to reverse his stance on McCain; sheeplike, the evangelicals, and other conservative Christians, will be sure to follow. The fact that she is largely unknown--or was until quite recently--proved a boon; all of the attention was taken off Obama and directed at Palin.
Her lack of experience was juxtaposed against his, with the result that McCain emerges from the fray as the most ready to lead.

The attack dogs of the press immediately went after Palin, but this may backfire. Even people like myself who despise McCain cannot help but smile as the snide media elites are forced to watch Obama's poll numbers plummet. Further, the attacks will cause women, including disenchanted Hillary supporters, to vote for McCain. Barring a disaster during the debates, what looked like a sure thing for Obama should end up with the election of John McCain.

Meanwhile, my Twins are in another penant race. The Packers look good, especially if they can avoid costly penalties, and Aaron Rodgers is quickly becoming a very soild quarterback. The fall should prove to be, at the least, entertaining.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

The insufficiency of the General Will

Bored by the election, I have avoided the news and taken to reading more substantial works. In addition to a few other minor projects, I've also picked up Warren--and now Ann--Carroll's fifth volume in his History of Christendom, The Revolution Against Christendom. I quote therefrom:

Unerringly Burke put his finger on the central weakness of the French philosophy: that in its passion for logical abstraction it did not recognize religion and morality. It boldly assumed that these were identical with the General Will: the popular vote or other mechanical manifestation of democracy that in some mysterious way embodied the aggregate of human reason and virtue while discarding human folly and passion. The French reformers, who had disestablished their Church, thought that under a perfect constitution men would have no need for religion because the ideal State would automatically create the ideal man.

The same pathetic delusion, caused by rejection of the dogma of original sin, was to grip the twentieth century in Marxist-Leninist communism, whose horrors were fully to match the worst of the French Revolution. (p.141)

Though the scope of his work prevents him from delving into primary sources, Carroll is a thorough historian. He is also a wonderful writer; each volume reads like a well told story--which, in fact, it is. All Catholics, indeed, all Christians, would do well to read his magnificent series.

Carroll's observation seems especially prescient in light of the moral supremacy given to the democratic system of government, most adamantly and ostentatiously by the neo-conservatives, but, to a lesser extent, by almost all American public figures.

An earlier chapter in Carroll's fifth volume corrects the notion that the American Revolution was a revolution at all; more correctly, it was an assertion of independence from the British crown. It is true that the founders weren't democrats, in the sense that, although they believed in representative government, they were ultimately wary--and wisely so--of the General Will of the people. But more importantly, the founders set up a government to address a specific set of grievances, elucidated in the Declaration of Independence, to secure three things: "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness". They suffered no delusions about the new government being an ideal State, and if some of them, like Jefferson, were deists, the bulk of the people were devoutly religious. Paul Johnson makes this point well in A History of the American People, examining in detail the role of the Great Awakening in the grand American experiment. It was, in short, their relations to religions, which separated the French Revolution from the American War for Independence; and the fervid hatred of the former, especially toward the Roman Catholic Church, was the reason for the bloodshed of The Terror.

It is only in this distinctly early American sense that I could call myself a democrat, and even then, not a very good one. Alexis de Tocqueville offers some cautionary advice toward supporters of the American conception of democracy; though well argued, and worthy of study, they are besides the point Carroll is trying to make: regardless of the particular flavor of the government, the morals of the people must be good if its rulers are to be. This suggests culture, formed extensively by religion, and, at least to Carroll and me, the Roman Catholic Faith.

Monday, August 04, 2008

On Liberty: Applications

Since this is the last post in this series, I want to thank everyone who participated, PJ especially. He promises to be busy the next couple of weeks, but we both hope to do something like this again if our schedules permit.

Throughout this little experience, I've conflated Mill's ideas with my own libertarianism more often that I ought to have done. In chapter five, it becomes clear that Mill and I have far less in common than I would have hoped; hence I must apologize for my unwarranted conflation.

We'll get to my disappointment with Mill soon enough, but first, I think it worth mentioning, at least briefly, how I've been reading this book. (Left to right, top to bottom, oddly enough.)

But seriously, having already become convinced of the necessity of liberty, my reading of Mill focused on ways to make the message of liberty more popular than it already is. I was both surprised and depressed at the popularity of the Ron Paul campaign; surprised because a message of liberty and limited government found more reception than I would have expected in today's Republican party, and depressed because so many people remained completely uninterested to the blessings of liberty.

I recently finished Justin Raimondo's Reclaiming the American Right, a polemical history of the folks from the Old Right, of which Paul--who re-read the book before seeking the presidency as a Republican in 2008--is the intellectual heir. This is actually pertinent, because it gets to the central flaw inherent in Mill's On Liberty. At the end of Raimondo's book is an essay by Scott P. Richert titled The Old Right and the Traditionalist Antipathy to Ideology. Therein, he writes:

There is no single "idea of liberty." I have one; Justin Raimondo has one; and John Podohertz has one. [Substitute Mill, PJ, and myself, and you get the idea.] And I dare say that no two of the three completely coincide... We value limited government, for instance, not because it is some platonic ideal, or it because it conforms to the (abstract) libertarian ideal of nonaggression, but because it it part of our historical [American] experience, and our historical experience has shown us its value (even if we have been made aware of its value most often in its absence).

An appeal to liberty, then, must be founded on some objective criteria--conservatives would suggest tradition--rather than an abstract idea. Which brings me, at last, to Mill, whose work, I think, ultimately falls short because of his failure to understand Richert's point. Mill writes:

[T]he individual is not accountable to society for his actions, in so far as these concern the interests of no person but himself... Secondly, that for such actions as are prejudicial to the interests of others, the individual is accountable, and may be subjected either to social or to legal punishment, if society is of opinion that the one or the other is requisite for its protection.

This may be taken, I think, as a summary of Mill's argument throughout On Liberty, but, as I alluded to above, despite the clarity of this line in the abstract, things become less clear when we come to individual examples. I will take a look at a few points with which I have considerable argument. For instance, after discussing the responsibility incumbent on parents to provide their children with a basic education, he notes:

The objections which are urged with reason against State education, do not apply to the enforcement of education by the State, but to the State's taking upon itself to direct that education: which is a totally different thing.

This strikes me as unusually naive. For one, if the State is to mandate that certain educational standards are met, they must use taxpayers funds--thus stealing the fruits of a citizen's labor--in order to do so; though it must be added that this would have to be cheaper than the current system of needless exorbitance. It would also cause an uproar in the legislative branch as the various masses sought to ensure that their particular idiocy was impressed upon the people.

More importantly: children either belong to their parents, or to the State. If they belong to their parents, the parents hold all responsibility for them, however poorly they may educate them. If they belong to the State, than the State has a duty to educate them, but it also in effect owns them--an assumption too readily swallowed by people today. Maleducation is not reason enough to violate liberty.

The laws which, in many countries on the Continent, forbid marriage unless the parties can show that they have the means of supporting a family, do not exceed the legitimate powers of the State: and whether such laws be expedient or not (a question mainly dependent on local circumstances and feelings), they are not objectionable as violations of liberty.

This is even more absurd. The State can only support a family by robbing other families, a recourse which is just as available to the poorest members of society, so there is no argument there. Further, children again belong to their parents, not the infernal State. Here lurks the creeping totalitarian beneath every theorist who too readily separates himself from the common experience of the rest of mankind. In an essay ostensibly defending liberty, Mill actually claims that the State may prevent citizens from entering into a free contract. This is too near forced sterilization for my blood.

To his credit, Mill seems to recognize the dangers of an increase in the size of government. One very much wonders what he would have to say to us today:

If every part of the business of society which required organized concert, or large and comprehensive views, were in the hands of the government, and if government offices were universally filled by the ablest men, all the enlarged culture and practised intelligence in the country, except the purely speculative, would be concentrated in a numerous bureaucracy, to whom alone the rest of the community would look for all things: the multitude for direction and dictation in all they had to do; the able and aspiring for personal advancement.

A very wise warning, which conjures up the fascistic realms which haunted Europe--and much of the rest of the world--in the following century.

I give Mill the last word:

The worth of a State, in the long run, is the worth of the individuals composing it; and a State which postpones the interests of their mental expansion and elevation, to a little more of administrative skill, or that semblance of it which practice gives, in the details of business; a State which dwarfs its men, in order that they may be more docile instruments in its hands even for beneficial purposes—will find that with small men no great thing can really be accomplished; and that the perfection of machinery to which it has sacrificed everything, will in the end avail it nothing, for want of the vital power which, in order that the machine might work more smoothly, it has preferred to banish.

Friday, July 25, 2008

On Liberty: Of the Limits of the Authority of Society Over the Individual

Apologies to everyone for the two-week delay in my posting. Without adding much of substance to what has already been said, this chapter is devoted to further discussion of the principles previously adumbrated. Since, in addition to this, I found myself mostly agreeing with Mill's positions, there just wasn't much to incite an immediate response. The below, accordingly, is mostly a summary report of some of the main topics covered.


Given Eric's aversion to taxes, I should report that Mill comes down firmly in their favor:

"[E]veryone who receives the protection of society owes a return for the benefit[; namely,] in each person's bearing his share (to be fixed on some equitable principle) of the labours and sacrifices incurred for defending the society or its members from injury and molestation. These conditions society is justified in enforcing at all costs to those who would endeavor to withhold fulfilment" (141).

Again, seems obvious to me, but I'm happy to discuss it further.


Mill also offers a distinction (already invoked on this forum by Kevin) between punishment by law and punishment by opinion. Some acts, Mill admits, are hurtful to others, but not to such an extent as to justify government intervention. Public opinion, in these cases, may be punishment enough. We have to decide in an open discussion what kinds of offense fall into what category by weighing the effect legal regulations would have on the "general welfare."


Mill clarifies that he is a great believer in the virtues of benevolence and in personal intervention on behalf of others. What he opposes is just governmental efforts to coerce such behavior out of its populace. He encourages individuals, in their capacity as private persons, to voice their opinions with an eye to steering others away from foolhardiness. ("It would be well, indeed, if this good office were much more freely rendered than the common notions of politeness at present permit, and if one person could honestly point out to another that he thinks him in fault, without being considered unmannerly or presuming" (144).) The other party remains free, of course, to cheerfully ignore our well-meaning advice and avoid our company.

Consistent with his canny ability to anticipate and address possible objections (150 years in advance of this reading!), Mill acknowledges that "[t]he distinction here pointed out between the part of a person's life which concerns only himself and that which concerns others, many persons will refuse to admit" (146). All of our actions, after all, have potentially public repercussions. What he suggests to meet this challenge is that a case be taken out of the provence of liberty and placed in that or morality or law whenever "there is a definite damage, or a definite risk of damage, either to an individual or to the public" (149). Or, in another formulation, he says, a "distinct and assignable obligation" must be violated to justify anything more than private disapprobation (148). (These are not exactly equivalent unless we define "obligation" in terms of "damages," but I'll put this aside for the present.) Mill offers drunkenness as an example: we cannot punish someone merely for being drunk, but we can certainly punish a police officer for being drunk on duty.


"For the sake of the greater good of human freedom," Mill declares, society must bear the harm an individual does only to herself (149). After all, on Mill's model, society has already provided its populace with an education, and they have on top of this whatever wisdom and experience they've attained throughout their minority. If, after all this, someone still cannot conduct her life successfully, it is hardly the responsibility of the government to step in and fix it for her, an office to which it is not competent in any case.


As always, I look forward to everyone's response --

Cheers,
PJ

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Guess who's forty?

That's right, it's Humanae Vitae. Well, technically, her birthday isn't until tomorrow, but I get quite excited when it comes to papal encyclicals.

Written in the turbulent Year of Our Lord, 1968, the letter concerned birth control. Held illicit by the Church for centuries, some Protestants had begun to go along with secular society in embracing "the pill". Until 1930, all Christian denominations agreed with the Church of Rome. First the Anglicans made allowances to artificial birth control; every other sect followed.

One of the things which is most frustrating to opponents of the Church, and, paradoxically, one which Her flock cherishes, is the seeming torpidity of Her decision making process. Some of the especially silly critics like to claim that the Church is quick to pronounce a miracle, but this runs counter to all of the evidence. Sure, the people will sometimes buy into chicken nuggets in the shape of the Virgin Mary, but the Church moves very slowly even when the news might be good.

The Church had a position on birth control, but by the time 1968 rolled around, the world was ready for the pontiff, Paul VI, to weigh in--just in case Revelation had a change of plans. And weigh in he did, with a bombshell confirming the Church's long held teaching. There is a very good article in First Things which discusses the encyclical, from which I will quote:

“The execration of the world,” in philosopher G.E.M. Anscombe’s phrase, was what Paul VI incurred with that document—to which the years since 1968 have added plenty of just plain ridicule. Hasn’t everyone heard Monty Python’s send-up song “Every Sperm Is Sacred”? Or heard the jokes? “You no play-a the game, you no make-a the rules.” And “What do you call the rhythm method? Vatican roulette.” And “What do you call a woman who uses the rhythm method? Mommy.”

I'm not sure how many Catholics bothered to read the brilliant document; my guess is not many. But many still chose to ignore the Pope and practice birth control anyway. According to Janet Smith, only four percent of Catholic couples in the United States adhere to the teaching promulgated in Humanae Vitae. I'm quoting from memory from a talk she gave, so my numbers could be a little off, but the point remains: millions of Catholics, who usually follow the Church's teaching--or did--have no trouble swallowing committing mortal sin when it comes to the pill.

Thus FOX News host Sean Hannity, for example, describes himself to viewers as a “good” and “devout” Catholic—one who happens to believe, as he has also said on the air, that “contraception is good.” He was challenged on his show in 2007 by Father Tom Euteneuer of Human Life International, who observed that such a position emanating from a public figure technically fulfilled the requirements for something called heresy. And Hannity reacted as many others have when stopped in the cafeteria line. He objected that the issue of contraception was “superfluous” compared to others; he asked what right the priest had to tell him what to do (“judge not lest you be judged,” Hannity instructed); and he expressed shock at the thought that anyone might deprive him of taking Communion just because he was deciding for himself what it means to be Catholic.

A good argument can be made that this has led to further dissent on other issues. Mary Eberstadt, who wrote the article, points out that the first Church's who gave the go ahead on contraception are now having to rethink their position on homosexuality: "once heterosexuals start claiming the right to act as homosexuals, it would not be long before homosexuals start claiming the rights of heterosexuals."

Hannity provides good evidence for her point. He's a hawk who firmly supports our little war in Iraq, despite the fact that both John Paul II and Benedict XVI pointed out that it failed the Just War Doctrine; he's also down with water-boarding, which Catholics denounce as torture. We've come a long way from St. Ignatius of Loyola, that great defender of the Faith during the Reformation, who claimed: "“We should always be disposed to believe that that which appears white is really black, if the hierarchy of the Church so decides”. Loyola isn't suggesting that one turns one's brain off and marches lockstep; instead, he recognizes that their is a wisdom that is larger than his own.

The secular world--and, in fact, too much of the Roman Catholic world--seemed content to ignore this wisdom and maintain that they knew more than the Church. Or, to offer a less charitable but probably more accurate explanation, they simply wanted to have "freedom" to do what they wished when it came to their sex lives.

But now forty years have passed; and while the secular world is less likely than ever to re-examine the issue, they would do well to do so. As Eberstadt writes:

Let’s begin by meditating upon what might be called the first of the secular ironies now evident: Humanae Vitae’s specific predictions about what the world would look like if artificial contraception became widespread. The encyclical warned of four resulting trends: a general lowering of moral standards throughout society; a rise in infidelity; a lessening of respect for women by men; and the coercive use of reproductive technologies by governments.

She then goes on to examine the confirmation of these facts, interestingly enough, by secular sources. But then, who could deny them? For all the optimism that greeted the sexual revolution, by almost all accounts, it has been a complete failure. She points out that even feminists are beginning to rethink the revolution; as well they should, since women have been harmed extensively in the process. Yet, apart from in certain Evangelical circles, shelving the pill is not even considered. She writes:

More likely, the fundamental issue is rather what Archbishop Chaput explained ten years ago: “If Paul VI was right about so many of the consequences deriving from contraception, it is because he was right about contraception itself.”

This is exactly the connection few people in 2008 want to make, because contraceptive sex—as commentators from all over, religious or not, agree—is the fundamental social fact of our time. And the fierce and widespread desire to keep it so is responsible for a great many perverse outcomes. Despite an empirical record that is unmistakably on Paul VI’s side by now, there is extraordinary resistance to crediting Catholic moral teaching with having been right about anything, no matter how detailed the record.

Now seems as good a time as any to rethink the issue. I'm not optimistic, of course, but the trends with birth rates suggest that secular society is quickly destroying itself. Meanwhile, the remnant of Catholics will plod merrily along, as a shining testimony to the efficacy and the wisdom of the pope's much derided encyclical.

Monday, July 07, 2008

On Liberty: Of Individuality, as One of the Elements of Well-Being

Before I get to the third chapter, I'd like to thank everyone for taking the time to participate in the conversation. I think I speak for PJ as well as myself when I say that I hope you stick around.

Now, to Mill. Having discussed, at some length, the importance of freedom of thought, Mill defends freedom of action, albeit with a very reasonable caveat:

The liberty of the individual must be thus far limited; he must not make himself a nuisance to other people. But if he refrains from molesting others in what concerns them, and merely acts according to his own inclination and judgment in things which concern himself, the same reasons which show that opinion should be free, prove also that he should be allowed, without molestation, to carry his opinions into practice at his own cost.

Again, Mill fails to define his limits to my satisfaction, but as I have been similarly unable to do so, I have trouble faulting him. He then proceeds to connect this principle to that of individuality, upon which he places a value as high as he believes it lacking among his contemporaries.

It is desirable, in short, that in things which do not primarily concern others, individuality should assert itself. Where, not the person's own character, but the traditions of customs of other people are the rule of conduct, there is wanting one of the principal ingredients of human happiness, and quite the chief ingredient of individual and social progress.

If he is not strictly an opponent of custom, he loathes a blind attachment to it, and longs for more than empty ritual from his fellow men.

But society has now fairly got the better of individuality; and the danger which threatens human nature is not the excess, but the deficiency, of personal impulses and preferences.

Mill is not terribly fond of the mass of men; he notes that democratic government will be mediocre at best. Individuals, he believes, are few and far between.

The greatness of England is now all collective: individually small, we only appear capable of anything great by our habit of combining; and with this our moral and religious philanthropists are perfectly contented.

Churchill, living some decades later, would have vehemently disagreed. In any case, Mill, quoting Wilhelm Von Humboldt, notes that two things are necessary for individuality: "freedom, and a variety of situations". This individuality is important, not only to the men who are fortunate enough to possess it, but to all of mankind, who may be roused from their stupor by the extraordinary men walking in their midst.

The biggest flaw in this chapter is Mill's tendency to see individuality only as it breaks from custom. True individuality is more than, say, producing offensive art for the sake of "originality". Nor is it true that those who favor custom are incapable of individuality; the conservative Dr. Johnson comes to mind as a counterpoint. Perhaps I am reading him incorrectly, but his plea for individuality struck me as little more than a silly attempt to be different from the mob for the sake of being different. Still, it must be granted that individuality is not an easy thing to coax people into becoming.

The largest achievement of the chapter is in his observation that the increase of trade--the gradual flattening of the world--and the disappearance of any real diversity--despite our attempts to manufacture it--would only exacerbate the problem. One doubts that Mill would be excited by the stock of individuality in the world today, to say nothing of his England.

Monday, June 30, 2008

On Liberty: Of the Liberty of Thought and Discussion

This is part two of our five-part series on John Stuart Mill's essay in political philosophy, _On Liberty_. Just to remind anyone who hasn't followed all of the previous comments, the text is in the public domain and freely available on online; regularly assigned in survey courses, it is also easy to find used copies. Let me add that Mill has a highly discursive and wonderfully readable style. The essay is a pleasure to read, and anyone with an interest in political philosophy should be at least acquainted with the arguments presented therein.

I should also mention, because I don't know how this post will be formated, that it is PJ writing, not the blog owner, Eric. We're alternating summary pieces on Mill's essay. That he would so graciously invite me -- an atheist with communitarian sympathies -- to contribute to his Catholic-libertarian themed blog suggests that we're already in substantial agreement about the subject matter of this chapter of Mill's little treatise: the liberty of thought and discussion. Millsian plaudits to you, Eric!


So, to begin: The second chapter of _On Liberty_ is essentially a defense of free speech in the form of an argument for the advantages of "a free marketplace of ideas."

Human beings, Mill observes, are lulled into taking for granted the truth of a great body of opinion handed down to them and reenforced by socialization in its many, diverse forms. Much of what appears to us as unquestionably self-evident is, in fact, the result of peculiar historical contingencies, and appears quite strange and false to others outside of our cultural purview. Yet Mill has no especial interest in epistemology per se. He immediately proceeds to acknowledge that we should not -- indeed, cannot -- cease all activity, merely out of concern to avoid unfounded knowledge-claims: "If we were never to act on our opinions, because those opinions may be wrong, we should leave all our interests uncared for, and all our duties unperformed."

What Mill is concerned to establish are the advantages of the public scrutiny of opinions: "There is the greatest difference between presuming an opinion to be true because, with every opportunity for contesting it, it has not been refuted, and assuming its truth for the purpose of not permitting its refutation." (Mill is eminently quotable, so decisive and succinct; I'll restrain myself as best I can.) There is no special mark of truth, shining forth with an irrefutable radience; yet, Mill is optimistic that open debate does more to expose the truth than conceal it. So long as we are forced to defend our beliefs with reasons, we cannot substitute our inner certainty -- the shear obviousness that so many of our beliefs have for us -- in place of actual evidence in favor of their objective (or intersubjective) validity.

As a separate, but related point, Mill goes on to add that most opinions are neither entirely true nor entirely false, and that partial truths are corrected equally well by public debate.

Another, more interesting (and perhaps contentious) set of claims, concern the *intrinsic* value of public debate. Whereas the opening claims attempt to establish public debate as the most effective *means* of arriving at the truth, Mill now turns to argue that this same debate actually contributes to the *value* of said truth. By being reminded always of competing opinions, and thus having to continually expound on the practical and epistemological merits of our own position, we maintain a more "lively apprehension" of the truth than we would otherwise be able. In fact, there is a sense in which we *do not know* the full truth of our doctrines unless we *understand why* they, rather than some alternatives, are true. Furthermore, and relatedly, to allow a truth to quietly sediment into the body of received opinion is to deprive the doctrine of "its vital effect on character and conduct"; we can no longer delight in the truth of that which we thoughtlessly take for granted.


In the interest of getting this posted more expeditiously than is my usual wont, I'll refrain from further commentary for the time being and just leave it at the summary.

I look forward to everyone's comments --

Cheers, PJ

Monday, June 23, 2008

On Liberty: Introductory

After a number of posts on the subject of ethics, along with vaguely related topics, PJ suggested we read On Liberty by J. S. Mill. After agreeing, I proposed a format in which we will alternate posts on the five sections of the book. The idea is less to convey the central tenants of essay than to discuss the applications thereof. Should anyone wish to join in, the irony would be too heavy to allow us to do otherwise than to allow it. Here goes:

Mill cuts to the heart of the matter starting with line 442:

This, then, is the appropriate region of human liberty. It comprises, first, the inward domain of consciousness; demanding liberty of conscience, in the most comprehensive sense; liberty of thought and feeling; absolute freedom of opinion and sentiment on all subjects, practical or speculative, scientific, moral, or theological. The liberty of expressing and publishing opinions may seem to fall under a different principle, since it belongs to that part of the conduct of an individual which concerns other people; but, being almost of as much importance as the liberty of thought itself, and resting in great part on the same reasons, is practically inseparable from it. Secondly, the principle requires liberty of tastes and pursuits; of framing the plan of our life to suit our own character; of doing as we like, subject to such consequences as may follow: without impediment from our fellow-creatures, so long as what we do does not harm them, even though they should think our conduct foolish, perverse, or wrong. Thirdly, from this liberty of each individual, follows the liberty, within the same limits, of combination among individuals; freedom to unite, for any purpose not involving harm to others: the persons combining being supposed to be of full age, and not forced or deceived.

A libertarian would find little in these lines to which he would find reason to object. Nor, I think, would most people, of whatever ideological bent, object to these point--at least in the abstract. Mill is careful to exclude children--he speaks "of full age"--but otherwise asserts a threefold liberty, checked by what strikes one as quite reasonable bounds, the most important of these bounds being that which precludes us from causing harm in the exercise of our liberty of pursuit.

Again, I don't think that this is much to object to, but only in the abstract. Mill admits as much:

Though this doctrine is anything but new, and, to some persons, may have the air of a truism, there is no doctrine which stands more directly opposed to the general tendency of existing opinion and practice.

Thus it is worth considering why the mass of men prefers to use compulsion to prevent people from engaging in perfectly legitimate freedoms. To take but one example, which seems prescient given the passing of George Carlin, there are certain words one is not allowed to use on television. The FCC, an arm of the federal government, enacts fines for the use of any of a number of "dirty words". Similarly, there was the infamous wardrobe malfunction in which a female breast--the horror!--was exposed for the world to see during the Super Bowl--and which will forever be available on the Internet.

These exceptions, though minor, are the kind of thing that most people will tolerate, even while considering that such toleration is in no ways incompatible with the full support of liberty. The ostensible reason for such intolerance is usually "the children", but even reasonable adults without children might very well object to, say, the airing of hardcore pornography on daylight television--or on roadside billboards.

The reason for the toleration of such exceptions is, I think, twofold. First, people will argue for a mitigation of what they believe to be inessential liberties because they don't see how these violations could ever cause them to forfeit the liberties they view to be essential. Preventing Leno from dropping F-bombs is acceptable because it can in no way prevent people from discussing the candidates running for election. People will even go so far as to insist that the suspension of habeas corpus for enemy combatants in our Global Struggle Against Violent Extremism will never lead to a similar suspension of rights for citizens--despite the fact that this has happened a number of times in U.S. history.

Second, a lamentably large number of people, though convinced of the truth they possess, are less confident in the ability for others to arrive at this truth without resorting to compulsion. There are many examples of this. The terrorists do not have legitimate concerns: "they hate our freedoms". Religious people are inherently irrational; religious belief should be categorized as a mental disorder. The same can be said for liberalism--and probably conservatism. Certain faiths should be spread by the sword, rather than by reason.

The list isn't confined to any particular ideology; human intolerance knows no boundaries. And while some of the above is more rhetoric than anything else, one would could easily envisage violations of liberty which spring from these examples. Ironically enough, those who assert that those who disagree with them are irrational are almost always irrational themselves; and if lovers of liberty will not use compulsion to convince them of their errors, it must be admitted that an appeal to reason is unlikely to produce much in the way of results.

The strength of Mill's tract will, I think, depend on his ability to convince the former group of the fundamental importance of a complete commitment to liberty, since the latter seems unlikely to either read Mill, or be convinced by his efforts.

Thinking more on it, one simply objection to Mill's thesis is that is that while liberty is good and desirable, it is well nigh impossible to construct a government which does not at least occasionally and slightly infringe upon it. The central flaw, then, of this system, is that it a bit impractical. There are some ways around this, I think, and we may perhaps revisit them later; but to give but one example to illustrate this flaw, no nation can maintain a standing army without extracting revenues from its citizens to provide for its pay. We shall have to wait and see if Mill considers this criticism.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

More on Morality (part 2)

And onward we tread:

This part of Kant's philosophy is quite fascinating, but unfortunately also quite technical. (It also contains some fundamental errors, in my view.) If you're interested in learning more, however, the _Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals_ is probably the best place to start.

I picked up Kant, almost at random, from a library several years ago. The experience proved less than useful, so I don't see myself picking him up again until I've approached his thought from an amateur level. Nonetheless, your suggestion is appreciated.

I'd be happy to debate this, but you'll first have to give some content to your maxim, "the government that govern least governs best." What is the least that a government can govern and still be a government? I'm not sure what the relevant criteria are; but, I still have to say, none of the candidates that I can imagine would make for anyone's choice government.

Briefly, I consider myself a libertarian, and thus a descendant of the classical liberals of earlier centuries--who, I will add, would be appalled by the degradation of their once good name.

Ron Paul, the presidential candidate I support, recently wrote a book that offers a good--and relatively short--primer on libertarian thought. But to summarize the principle in a briefer note, I quote from libertarian columnist Ilana Mercer:

This writer holds that the sole role of a legitimate government is to protect only the inalienable rights to life, liberty and property, and the pursuit of happiness. Why life, liberty and property, and not housing, food, education, health care, child benefits, emotional well-being, enriching employment, adequate vacations, ad infinitum, as promised variously by the remaining (viable) presidential contenders? Because the former impose no obligations on other free individuals; the latter enslave some in the service of others.

This government, that governs least, is one that also governs best. The founders did a reasonably good job of giving us such a government, with the lamentable exception of their toleration of slavery. It is to that form of government that all libertarians long to return.

But the story of the Fall is situated in a mythical pre-history: it doesn't explain anything. And, in any case, how does thinking about evil in these terms help you to minimize its presence in the world?

First, a number of intelligent people, Augustine springs to mind, held the myth to be true. The essential point isn't the talking snake, or the cleverly placed fig-leaves; the central fact is the racial sin of Adam and Eve, of which we all--save Christ and His mother--suffer.

Thinking about evil in terms of the fall is imperative for two reasons. First, it gives us the impetus and the power to mitigate evil by understanding its origin. Turn on any confounded talk show, and in between paternity tests, Oprah and her heirs will be explaining that the evil of which we are all capable is not our fault; it comes from a chemical imbalance in the brain, an absent father, or a drunk mother; being hugged too much--or too little. This placates the sullen masses, but it solves nothing; moving the guilt up a generation only begs the question. Worse, it removes from our view the only thing we can change: namely, ourselves.

Second, as Chesterton points out: "Without the doctrine of the Fall all idea of progress is unmeaning... Unless there is a standard you cannot tell whether you are rising or falling... If you wanted to dissuade a man from drinking his tenth whisky you would slap him on the back and say, "Be a man." No one who wished to dissuade a crocodile from eating his tenth explorer would slap it on the back and say, "Be a crocodile." For we have no notion of a perfect crocodile; no allegory of a whale expelled from his whaley Eden."

I don't ask you to believe in the Fall, but if you do not understand what it represents, you'll never be able to understand Christianity. I can provide a basic reading list if you'd like. I'm not intending to be condescending, but you appear to understand even less of Christianity than I do of your philosophers. You must have attended Catholic school.

Again, no self-respecting atheist invokes the concept of God to explain a positive phenomenon. I suspect the problem here is that you understand evil in theological terms that no atheist would accept. If you define evil as "that which results from the Fall," I simply don't believe in evil. But evil can be plausibly defined in more neutral terms, as I've briefly attempted, in which case it might be explained with reference to psychological disorders or, with a more philosophical conception, in terms of the structure of human action.

Aquinas points out that the existence of evil is the one real objection to belief in God's existence; if you're unimpressed with the objection, we need not dwell on it, but it comes up often enough that I felt compelled to at least address it.

Do you believe humans are capable of willfully and maliciously committing evil? If so, you either implicitly recognize the fall, or you believe that the universe is essentially amoral; beast competes with beast for evolutionary advantage without any regard to ethical concerns. Otherwise you must conclude that those who commit evil do so unawares--the Socratic paradox. I confess an inability to see any other alternatives.

No one is categorically prohibited from self-immolation, but there are very few circumstances in which it would be an ethical action, only in those extreme situations where it is impossible to go on living without surrendering oneself to the worst kind of moral depravity, e.g., in a concentration camp, perhaps, or in some kind of post-apocalyptic scenario where survival is impossible apart from an economy of cannibalization. (My inspiration for the latter: Cormac McCarthy's _The Road_ -- a fantastic read.) Self-actualization, by the way, is not merely one good among others. It's the framework in terms of which ends can appear as goods for us. In any case, if I still seem to be contradicting myself, please explain how.

What good is an ethical system that can't even "categorically prohibit" against "self-immolation"? Really now, you think Hegel and company are superior to Catholicism when you admit you can't even offer a defense against suicide?

The central flaw with your system, which I repeat again, is this: you wish to believe in self-actualization, but this so-called good must be tempered according to the society in which the individual is attempting to actualize himself. But surely you see how these can be in contradiction since there is no guarantee that the desires of the individual fit with his society.

Let us construct a society in which music is forbidden. Enter, stage left, Mozart, who wishes to actualize himself by becoming a brilliant musician. One day, while practicing, the society locks him up for violating basic societal protocol.

Now, either Mozart was wrong in attempting to become a musician, or the society was wrong to restrain him. If society is the higher good, than tyranny is acceptable as long as the society tolerates it. If Mozart's self-actualization is the greater good than "do what thou wilt" becomes the full extent of the moral system.

To take a more modern, and less apocryphal example--though the above is still very much valid--until recently, and for years still in some parts of the country, homosexuals were unable to self-actualize themselves in American society without fear--or worse. Now, who is in the wrong in this example, and why? I sincerely wish this question to be answered.

You're not the first to recommend McCarthy to me. I've made a mental note.

So you concede the point, but sincerely hope that historical trends continue and nothing too terribly bad (worse than the Crusades, the Inquisition, 9/11!) will come of ignoring it?

I concede that man does evil. This, you'll recall, is the ground upon which Christianity was built. Without the Resurrection, our faith means nothing, but without sin, there would be no need for the Resurrection at all.

I sincerely hope that historical trends reverse themselves. Our inability to learn much of anything from the twentieth century, and our refusal to turn to the Church, the only institution capable of resisting and correcting the excesses of man bear ill for us and our progeny.

This strikes me as quite extraordinarily irresponsible, at least from a political or philosophical point of view. (Morally I consider you to be largely in the clear, so long as you are not party to any such outrage and do your best to prevent and condemn them.) What I think you ought to conclude is that -- whatever your private faith -- our political culture needs to be guided by a different set of norms and objectives, fully transparent and publicly negotiated.

To quote Chesterton once again, "The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried." If the only things you can come up with to indict Christianity are the Inquisition and the Crusades--you forgot the St. Batholomew's Day Massacre, by the way--the Middle Ages were one of the heights, if not the height, of human history.

Precisely why should we abandon the Christian ideal? It can hardly be because men sin; Long ago, Christianity proclaimed that men did, and would continue to do so. Moreover, it alone offers men a way of ridding themselves of sin, and even freeing themselves, however gradually, and never completely, from its power. Hegel offers nothing that wasn't revealed in the Cross.

The abandonment of a principle for emotional reasons isn't a legitimate refutation of that principle. Limited government has similarly been abandoned, but it will one day again be esteemed, probably on the other side of the gulag.

Meanwhile, you can't even codify your ethics, and you want to guide society? Your rhetoric is no different than those who ushered in the French Revolution. After two hundred plus years of secular nonsense, and more dead bodies than Christendom could even fathom, it's time to stop pressing ahead to further bedlams. It's time to look back to a Truth too long neglected. Without it, we know full well what lays ahead.

I'm also opposed to totalitarianism, but I don't see how this is relevant to our discussion. You're the one toying with the idea of a monarchy.

Totalitarianism was a word invented by Mussolini to apply to his own government; it's a distinctly modern concept, and one that applies quite well to our current system. Monarchs had power, to be sure, but the biggest tyrant of the Middle Ages held far less power than does the average head of state today. A return to monarchy probably won't solve our problems, but it would at least move the facade of consent and legitimacy which shroud our silly little system. My animosity toward democracy is because it has brought, and continues to bring about, totalitarianism. I would support any system that can provide for a reasonable free society. Universal suffrage and totalitarianism appear to be closely linked; my antipathy toward the former stems from my hatred of the latter.

I believe you when you say that you oppose totalitarianism, but I must point out that a large number of atheist intellects, from Wells to Russell, to the Marxists of the twentieth century, adopted or supported totalitarian ideologies as a way to drag humanity along into their various utopias.

One of the weakest points of your philosophy is that it's simply not going to appeal to more than a few intellectuals. When that happens, will you--and more importantly, those like you--resort to government coercion to enforce your whims? I pray that it will be otherwise, but history demonstrates an appallingly strong recourse to violence among atheist leaders.

The contrast with direct democracy actually helps to underscore the merits of representational democracy. You are right that very few people do know how to run a country, which is a tremendously daunting task becoming more difficult by the year. We need teams of experts to do the research for us and put together a plan, which we -- that is, the public, with the help of the media, its watchdogs, and our experts of choice -- can then scrutinize to assess how well it takes our interests into account.

Americans have been calling for experts to run the government since they were overawed by Wilson's education; later they hailed Hoover as the "great engineer", whose expertise would help produce a better society. The central flaw in this argument is that it presupposes that what prevents government from working well is a lack of knowledge on the part of those who attempt to run it. The real reason government does not work is that most government programs violate the basic laws of the free market.

Depending upon our degree of satisfaction with the status quo, we can involve ourselves as much or as little as we like; we can campaign and run for office on our own platforms, or we can abstain from political life entirely.

We are free to do whatever we wish, as long as we do not question the basic assumptions upon which the system is based. Thus anyone can be president as long as the government continues to: claim a "right" to take a portion of our income; invade foreign countries; spend billions of tax dollars in foreign aid; devalue the currency to profit the plutocracy; leave the important decisions up to the nine unelected judges on the Supreme Court.

There is no discernible difference between the two parties; yet the cries will invariably ensue that this is "the most important election ever". Our choice is between destroying the currency--and the Republic--to bring democracy to the Middle East, or destroying the currency--and the Republic--to bring humanitarian aid to war torn regions of the world, which strangely never works, and provide "free" health care to Americans. Some system!

The candidate most acceptable to the greatest number -- with constitutional protections in place to protect vulnerable minorities -- will take the office, and she will remain accountable to her constituents so long as she values her public image (eventually, her "legacy") and, especially, so long as she wants to be reelected or to be replaced by another member of her political party.

The constitution is dead. There is nothing in the document to prevent the elected representatives and the appointed judged from ignoring it completely; thus that is what they do.
Incidentally, this is the same flaw of Protestantism; a text itself cannot be an authority since men are compelled to interpret it, and do so in conflicting ways.

Politicians, if they don't care only for themselves, can do plenty of damage in the eight plus years, for only the president must endure term limits, with which we grant them power. Bush has done a marvelous job of wrecking the country in eight years; I have no doubt that the next president shall follow suit.

This is not a perfect system, but it is the best I can think of. Dissent, of course, is part and parcel of the democratic process; so your libertarian voice has a recognized place.

Yup. On the Internet.

(Also, I can't resist pointing out, the American "masses" have achieved a degree of cleanliness with no historical precedent, and this has no bearing whatsoever on their rights to be each treated with equal concern and respect by the government. Why would you elect to air this kind of prejudice -- however tongue-in-check -- eludes my understanding.)

I have no idea of what you mean by "cleanliness" in this context. If it regards our so-called rights, I question the "cleanliness" of a society that interned dissidents, or "terrorists", under Lincoln, Wilson, FDR, and Bush--Johnson, too, if memory serves. I further add that a Catholic can only bear through clenched teeth a nation that asserts its moral supremacy while simultaneously undergoing an abortion holocaust in which the death toll stands at over forty-four million.

I deeply love the American nation. My malcontent stems from her rejection of the principles upon which she was so wisely founded, and my utter despair for any positive political change before we reach a stage of collapse.

Not at all. One needn't delve into the messy theoretical details of *why* it's possible to achieve political transformation and cross-cultural consensus in order to effect the positive change.

Name one positive societal change that has occurred from Kantian/Hegelian philosopohy. Name one thing you would like to change about society, and explain how Kant/Hegel would aid you to that end. If you wish, I can provide examples based on the Catholic philosophy.

As for the assertion that atheism is a layover to paganism, I've met plenty of extremely well-educated atheists who are not pagans, and am, myself, a reasonably well-educated atheist, also not a pagan; so I'm going to go ahead and say, contra Chesterton, that your claim is simply false. Yet, if you have an argument to show that we atheists ought, by virtue of our own commitments, to endorse some kind of paganism, I would very much like to see it.

Let me take, for our discussion, Hilaire Belloc's defintion: "Paganism at large may defined as natural religion acting upon man uncorrected [later he substitutes "unsupplemented"] by revelation." (Survivals and the New Arrivals, p.133) I shall do my best to summarize his argument, but it might be worthwhile to read chapter five, which concerns "neo-paganism" in full.

For all your self-assurance about a Hegelian interpretation of Kant providing a cogent system of ethics, you're no closer to answering any of the great questions that plague mankind than were the various noble pagans Dante left in limbo. But unlike Socrates, you seem quite unaware of the fact that there is much that your unaided human reason cannot understand.

Now, you and your associates will probably dive deeper into various philosophical tracts in pursuit of truth. Meanwhile, the rest of the world will tumble merrily onward, completely indifferent to the abstractions of the philosophers. But the rest of the world will not be content to live without faith; man must believe in something. Thus he turns, to science, to a vague spirituality, to political reform, and so on and so forth.

I will provide two further quotes from Belloc which can only hint at his argument. It is worth pointing out, too, that he wrote this less than a decade before the pagan Nazis plunged Europe into horrific war.

"Paganism despairs. Man turned loose finds himself an exile. He grows desperate, and his desperation breeds monstrous things." p. 134

"Before the advent of the Faith, even despair could struggle to be noble. But since the medicine for the despair has been known, those who refuse the remedy turn base." p. 135

The pagans of old were not without sense. After all, they converted.

We see paganism too, in the crowds surrounding the Obama campaign. According to any rational standard, there is nothing in the man which should produce anything approaching the messianic adulation which accompanies him wherever he goes. His oratory skills are better than those of the current commander in chief, but one shudders when considering how Americans would act if confronted with someone like Cicero. To understand the Obama phenomenon, I think, one must remember that man who has lost religion will quickly find another one.

I tend to think that there is a reason the Middle Ages are also known as the Dark Ages, and that "medieval" has acquired a derogatory sense (this in spite of the best efforts of my very sweet and very knowledgeable Dante professor, a specialist in the period).

The reason is that most of our history suffers from a very strong bias in favor of the Enlightenment and thus against Catholicism. Edward Gibbon, for instance, whose influence has been profound, has provided the world with a history well worth reading. Still, as much as I admire his work and enjoy his style, much of it suffers from a fundamental inability to understand the medieval mind. Dante is an apparition in the sense that all geniuses are, but he was a product of the Middle Ages. The Commedia alone should get you to reevaluate your lowly opinion of that wonderful period of human history.

You've demonstrated that history is not your strong suit, which is fine--I am similarly ill-equipped to discuss the minutiae of most philosophical systems--but you should be careful about making broad historical assertions that are demonstrably false. Again, I can recommend some books here, but the essential point is that the term "Dark Ages" has everything to do with who wrote the history books.

All that we need to acknowledge is that, from the fact that a certain institution, ideology, or set of policies kept the peace and maintained social order for some group of people at some certain time, it does not follow that that institution, ideology, or set of policies can do the same for an arbitrary group today. I can elaborate on this, but I think you should be able to see the point without further explanation. Consider, for instance, why not advocate for the Athenian model? (Talk about cultural flourishing!) Or the Ancient Egyptian? (Talk about cultural longevity!) So again, I happily acknowledge the many contributions that the Catholic Church has made to our civilization, but its political performance in the Middle Ages does not establish (does not even begin to establish) that it could enjoy similar success today.

I consider the Reformation, and the subsequent "cleaving of Christendom", in Warren Carroll's phrase, to be one of the saddest tragedies of history. This may seem odd, or even cold, given the significant violence which has occurred in subsequent centuries, but the modern world would be entirely different had the Church not been fractured. The tragedies of the post-Reformation world can all be traced back to the posting of Luther's grievances--though, of course, it would be absurd to blame him for everything he unintentionally let loose upon the world.

The problem with your analogies is that neither Athens nor Egypt offered the world what the Church still offers the world, even as many have forgotten Her. Now, if you really want to revive Athenian democracy, I can explain why I think this would be a bad idea, but the fact of the matter is, no one is all that interested in reviving Athenian democracy. A return to a Faith that literally means universal, on the other hand, will be called for until the end of time. The Catholic Faith is the timeless antidote to the problems which confront mankind.

I suppose you could say that the most general principle remains the same: promote flourishing, reduce suffering. But I'm reluctant to say that cavemen share a morality with us because of how differently they realized this ideal, how much drastic change there has been in the possible content of the good life available to us, and how changed are the conditions under which we pursue our various conceptions.

There are two problems to this line of thinking. First, unless you're counting revelation as a positive influence on morality--which runs counter to your whole argument--I see no proof that morality has improved in the slightest. Sometimes men honor the elderly and kill their neighbors; other times they produce great art and leave their deformed young to die; often they tolerate slavery and engage in promiscuity.

Second, I must reiterate, that without some standard with which we may judge morality, all conception of progress is meaningless. An improvement in ethics requires some static point of reference.


I'm sorry that this has gone long, but I wished to be as thorough as possible. As always, I await your response.