Thursday, February 26, 2009

To serfdom we will go

I recently started reading The Road to Serfdom by F.A. Hayek. It's a prescient book en lieu of the liberal fascism we're seeing from Washington.

On pages 93-4, he points out in a footnote:

The conflict is thus not, as it has often been misconceived in nineteenth-century discussions, one between liberty and law. As John Locke had already made clear, there can be no liberty without law. The conflict is between different kinds of law—law so different that it should hardly be called by the same name: one is the law of the Rule of Law, general principles laid down beforehand, the ‘rules of the game’ which enable individuals to foresee how the coercive apparatus of the state will be used, or what he and his fellow-citizens will be allowed to do, or made to do, in stated circumstances. The other kind of law gives in effect the authority power to do what it thinks fit to do. Thus the Rule of Law could clearly not be preserved in a democracy that undertook to decide every conflict of interests not according to rules previously laid down but "on its merits".

Critics of the free market, like Obama, and indeed, most politicians, insist that the government must produce order out of the essentially anarchic system. To a certain extent, this is true. If there were no government, for instance, to enforce contracts, no such market could exist. Free exchange depends on rules, known to all parties beforehand, by which buyers and sellers are to be bound, and without which neither has any guarantee that such exchanges will produce the intended results. But there are limits by which government itself must be bound; without these, government becomes an arbitrary judge; the market becomes a muddled mess, as buyers and sellers haven't the slightest ideas about which rules will be enforced and which will be overthrown.

The arbitrary nature of the governmental authorities is less a cause of the financial meltdown than it is a certitude which shall perpetuate the misery. There are other reasons bailouts and stimuli are improper responses for government, which I have examined before; I am concerned here with the effects of unpredictable interventions by the government. While the stock market should never be confused with the economy, its wild swings in recent months are indicative of the effects of this unpredictability. No one doubts that the government will act; but no one has the slightest clue how that action will manifest itself. Acting at random is sure to prolong the return to economic normalcy, as buyers and sellers haven't the slightest idea of how purchases should be made in the present clime. Not without reason, both behave conservatively, eschewing investment with any perceived risk for surer things. Thus the wild injections of capital have an unintended, but not unforeseen effect: namely, reducing the willingness of creditors to borrow money in the midst of such volatility.

Now, it is theoretically possible that the internal contradictions of capitalism will eventually emerge to undermine it, and that any attempts to save capitalism are thus futile. But if we are to accept this interpretation, we need one of two things. Either we must see a capitalist system collaspe by itself, and not because government strangled the producers until the system expired after a spell of depotism.

Or, we must change the formulation to run, somewhat cumbersomely, along these lines. Capitalism has not yet been proven capable of affecting its own destruction, and in fact, in the midst of the totalitarian system of the Soviet empire, a system of free economic exchanged emerged, keeping always in the shadows. But it may be that man cannot ignore the siren song forever; he rejects the dull freedom of the market for a system in which government begins, gradually at first, to gain control of the means of production, until whatever is left of the market must retreat again to the shadows.

There have been, of course, no explicit calls for control of the means of production; no politician would ever use those words unless the situation became dire enough that he forgot his vocation. Moreover, the coercion will become more pronounced as the failure of the stimulus becomes apparent. For now, I'll only point out that the administration's attempts to harvest alternative energy by the application of billions in bribe money, demonstrate clearly how much faith they have in entrepreneurs working freely in the marketplace. It is but a small step to insist that other sectors begin producing whatever goods the administration can imagine, irrespective of whether or not such production is economically feasible. And when the whole economy seems to be having trouble producing, given the president's predilection to find his supply of blood in turnip fields, we begin to see clearly the road Hayek implored us not to take.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

College degrees for all

One of things I learned during the painful Bush years was that it's not worthwhile to have to sit through any lengthy speeches. There's way too much clapping. And while it is nice to have a president who avoids stumbling all over himself while reading the teleprompter, I'm sticking with my technique of simply reading the remarks on the Internet.

There's a lot in there with which a libertarian could take umbrage. Despite the calls to reduce the deficit, outside of a rollback of the empire--which I support, but don't believe will be forthcoming--it's hard to see whence Obama is going to trim the fat.

A bizarre shout out to Biden and a number of incorrect assertions aside, this statement may be my least favorite:

As soon as I took office, I asked this Congress to send me a recovery plan by President’s Day that would put people back to work and put money in their pockets. Not because I believe in bigger government – I don’t. Not because I’m not mindful of the massive debt we’ve inherited – I am. I called for action because the failure to do so would have cost more jobs and caused more hardships.

As Rich Lowry commented, "He’s trying to redefine extensive government activism as simple pragmatism, and if he succeeds, might well shift the center of American politics for a generation."

First, it's simply not true that failure to act is what costs and prolongs the depression. As Murray Rothbard points out in America's Great Depression, "The severe depression of 1921 was over so rapidly, for example, that Secretary of Commerce Hoover, despite his interventionist inclinations, was not able to convince President Harding to intervene rapidly enough; by the time Harding was persuaded to intervene, the depression was already over, and prosperity had arrived."

The Great Depression, on the contrary, was treated by government action; consequently, as Rothbard details copiously, an ordinary recession blossomed into a full scale depression. Indeed, Obama's remarks are eerily similar to those given by President Hoover near the close of his first term: "we might have done nothing. That would have been utter ruin. Instead we met the situation with proposals to private business and to Congress of the most gigantic program of economic defense and counterattack ever evolved in the history of the Republic. We put it into action. . . ."

Aside from the fact that the actions of the government will do precisely the opposite of what is intended, and thus more needless pain will be endured by the American people because of the folly of their leaders, Obama has slickly avoided having to answer for ballooning deficits despite plans to reduce them by half. Since we have to act, act we must, by spending money we don't have. In the unlikely event that the recession ends, he can not only claim credit, but it will be easy to avoid having to reduce spending, since in perceived economic good times, as we saw during the Bush years, no one gives two mites about deficit spending.

What I really wanted to discuss, however, was Obama's education plan. I'll intersperse my comments with his remarks as is my wont.

Right now, three-quarters of the fastest-growing occupations require more than a high school diploma. And yet, just over half of our citizens have that level of education. We have one of the highest high school dropout rates of any industrialized nation. And half of the students who begin college never finish.

Society certainly doesn't benefit from increasing its scores of high school flunkies, but there is nothing to prevent someone without a diploma from succeeding in this country, except for the fact that graduating is so preposterously easy that a lack of a high school education in many cases is merely another name for sloth. On the other hand, the women who reach the age of eighteen with a pair of kids in tow, or the men with extensive time in correction facilities, have more pressing affairs with which to concern themselves.

The problem is not that not enough people are attending college; the problem is that so many students receive utterly worthless degrees. I live with an exceptionally bright individual who works in retail, his bachelor degree aiding him slightly if at all. As this graph demonstrates, Americans are first in the world--and fourth per capita--when it comes to tertiary education. While the country would benefit immensely if more students graduating with degrees in, say, engineering or computer science, we accrue no similar benefit from a proliferation of degrees in the social sciences. To be sure, some good can come of the latter, but what makes this country run is not hordes of feminists with Womyn's Studies degrees.

Already, we have made an historic investment in education through the economic recovery plan. We have dramatically expanded early childhood education and will continue to improve its quality, because we know that the most formative learning comes in those first years of life. We have made college affordable for nearly seven million more students.

Anytime you hear the government insist that it will make something more affordable, that's an immediate sign to run directly in the opposite direction. When you subsidize something, you get more of it. Increasing student aid is a good way get more kids to attend college, but it has nothing to do with reducing the cost of education. More competition for fewer students could drive prices down, but Obama isn't advocating this.

This also shows a lack of originality on Obama's part, which may be one of the themes of the speech. I'm going to sound like a talking head if I insist that the whole Democrat platform can be boiled down to increased spending, but in this case, it's true. For years, we've tried to make education more affordable. If it isn't working, shouldn't we change strategies instead of just pushing down harder on the accelerator?

But we know that our schools don’t just need more resources. They need more reform.

Unless the plan is to eliminate the government monopoly on education, reform isn't possible. I'm willing to bet that a disproportionate number of engineers and programmers come from the home schooled ranks, but I somehow doubt this is in line with the Obama plan.

That is why this budget creates new incentives for teacher performance; pathways for advancement, and rewards for success.

The unions have always fought this, so I'm intrigued to see if this happens. It's a good idea actually; if we insist on good teachers, it behooves us to find a way to reward them.

And so tonight, I ask every American to commit to at least one year or more of higher education or career training. This can be community college or a four-year school; vocational training or an apprenticeship. But whatever the training may be, every American will need to get more than a high school diploma. And dropping out of high school is no longer an option. It’s not just quitting on yourself, it’s quitting on your country – and this country needs and values the talents of every American. That is why we will provide the support necessary for you to complete college and meet a new goal: by 2020, America will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world.

There is something to be said, I suppose for hope and optimism, but we always seem to carry it too far. As Alexis de Tocqueville put it in Democracy in America, "Aristocratic nations are naturally too apt to narrow the scope of human perfectibility; democratic nations to expand it beyond compass." There is something to be said, I suppose for hope and optimism, but we always seem to carry it too far. Despite our ostensible equality before the law, it's simply not true that we all possess equal abilities or virtues. It makes no sense to insist that everyone attempt to continue schooling beyond twelve years. The insistence that everyone finish high school is one of the factors that destroyed the diploma of whatever value it once held. If we are not to do the same with the university degree, we need to encourage those who are not qualified from finding alternative educational or employment arrangements. Or we could simply dumb down the curriculum until a college degree becomes the new high school diploma. Then, a president, many years hence, will be able to urge everyone to attend graduate school--which of course we'll make affordable. Is it really necessary to put off meaningful employment for so long? Couldn't we try to do with a little less schooling?

The rhetoric is nice, but it looks like the current president is taking off where the former left off in our slow march back to serfdom.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Making a few changes

After spending a few minutes wrestling with html I gave up and simply upgraded the template. Ignoring the fact that I'm a computer programmer, and thus should have no reason to ever lose a battle to html, we now have an upgraded template. The aesthetic has remained very much the same; the only noticeable change is that I now have a series of links to the right which catalogs the four books I have reviewed thus far.

There have been a number of reasons for the precipitate drop in posts over the last several months. First, I graduated from college; thus ended my job churning out weekly columns for the school paper. Second, I have stepped up my reading substantially. Despite a couple of wavers on my part, the plan all along was to get my degree in a field in which I could find a job. I would then go about giving myself a liberal education. I have some thoughts to offer on the matter, which can be saved for a later post.

The important part is that without the deadlines, I tend to neglect writing for reading. This isn't necessarily a bad thing; although my writing is improving, I still have far too much to learn to pretend that I can neglect my studies to empty out whatever wisdom is lodged in my cranium. There's probably some happy medium, which, in my tendency to go to extremes, I have not yet happened upon. My hope is that the book reviews will become more plentiful, and will serve to boost my pitiful post count. Feedback on them is thus greatly appreciated.

And, although my stack of books to read continues to grow, I'd be open to suggestions for books to review as well.

An Appeal for Open Revolt

As a deeply conservative Roman Catholic, it would be dishonest for me to suggest that I read Good Catholic Girls with a terribly open mind. Billed as a fight for change, the introduction featured calls for “an end to mandatory clerical celibacy” and arguments for “women's moral authority on birth control, homosexuality, divorce, and abortion”. Here was reform of the revolutionary variety.

Nonetheless, I read with curiosity. While Pope John Paul II's “Theology of the Body” is causing a sensation in more orthodox circles, it will be sometime yet before the rest of the world catches on: tellingly, it receives no mention in Good Catholic Girls. Meanwhile, the heresies which author Angela Bonavoglia presents are the sort paraded out every time the Church is believed to be poised for reform. Thus, for instance, when Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger—ubiquitous villain of the bookwas chosen pope, journalists bemoaned the election of another traditionalist who was content to allow the Church to lag helplessly behind the times. The implicit assumptions seem to be: 1) that the Roman Catholic Church will one day shake loose the bonds of tradition and embrace modernity in all its forms; and 2) that the reluctance to do so is what prevents Her from once again playing a meaningful role in society. Specifically, Good Catholic Girls argues that it is high time the Church stops silencing women and starts embracing their role as “equals”. Of course, this is to be done on progressive terms.

Although I reject both assumptions, the book contains some value because it offers for examination a variety of arguments in their favor. This allows us to ask, charitably, how much can be said in favor of the drastic changes which Bonavoglia and her compatriots insist that the Church undertake. Setting aside the fact that many of these reforms are effectively impossible, the Church having settled the doctrinal dispute already, it remains unclear whether they would be beneficial.

As with so many feminist writers, Bonavoglia sees everything in starkly feminist terms: “The history of women's place in the Catholic Church is one of fits and starts, of rising power followed by backlash, of emerging authority squelched and denounced by a threatened all-male hierarchy.” This explanation is too simplistic, and does nothing to explain why men have also been denounced by an “all-male hierarchy”. For instance, some of the teachings of St. Thomas Aquinas—who is called to the carpet for his “misogynistic theology”—were denounced as heretical a scant three years after his death. As Flannery O'Connor once put it while speaking on similar matters, “If they are good, they are dangerous.” The Church would not have lasted these two thousand years if She did not tread very carefully when it came to new and alarming thought.

Given the title, one assumes a predilection with women's issues. But her obsessiveness often exceeds the bounds of prudence. For instance, in covering the sex abuse scandal of the Church—which is done quite well for the most part—she notes that women too have been abused; and, whatever one's feelings for the “patriarchy”, the male clergy of the Church bear immense responsibility for what occurred. But to argue that it is women who are sexually involved with Catholic priests who “are arguably in the greatest danger of exploitation” is absurd: first, because it suggests that adult women are even less capable of removing themselves from abusive situations than are children and adolescents; and second, because it undermines the whole point of her book, which is that strong women cannot and will not be silenced by a Church that they are changing.

One mostly good chapter highlights the hypocrisy inherent in a clergy which takes a vow of celibacy and then lives licentiously, and a Church which seems nonplussed. To which I say: preach it sister. She then pleads for a change which is ultimately at odds with her fundamentally sound criticism: “One might have expected, in the face of the onslaught of outrage engendered by the sex abuse crisis, that the hierarchy would back off its rigid prohibitions concerning premarital sex, artificial birth control, infertility treatments, condoms to prevent the spread of AIDS, sterilization, homosexuality, remarriage after divorce, and pregnancy termination.” Why would one expect that? When confronted with an abuse of an ethic, it doesn't do to overhaul the whole edifice. The Church's teachings on human sexuality can be difficult to understand, and, but for Grace, impossible to follow completely. But their difficulty does not mean we should cease trying to adhere to them.

Despite the focus on sex and power, Bonavoglia is actually a bit confused about what she wants for the Church. After deprecating the institution of the priesthood, she implores that women be allowed to join it. Intent on improving the role of women in the Church, it is understandable that she may sometimes be unclear about the best way to do so. But it hardly makes the cautionary observer wish to join the crusade for an undefined panoply of reforms.

Bonavoglia offers insight into the progressive mind, but she seems incapable of understanding the mind of one who believes and strives earnestly to follow Church teaching on all issues. Her chapter on abortion, for instance, bemoans the fact that the Church pays so much attention to this one issue when there are so many other battles to be fought. The reasoning is simple: if the Church is correct that abortion is murder, then the silent holocaust is far and away the most important issue of our times. Noticeably, she completely fails to make this identification, instead offering her usual claptrap about sex and power.

Regrettably, this flaw pervades the book. Despite her frequent calls for dialogue, Good Catholic Girls is decidedly and disappointedly one-sided. Rather than extensively cover the reasoning behind a particular doctrine, which the Church has painstakingly defined after centuries of thinking on the matter, Bonavoglia finds a few excerpts to fit with her sophistical thesis. Thereupon she charges at the windmills of perceived oppression. The reader is left to scramble for the Catechism to provide a much needed counterpoint. It is a bit difficult to find cause to scramble back.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The postmodern despair

I live with an amusing and very intelligent fellow with whom I had the privilege of attending college. He is a good deal sharper than I am, the proof of which is that he often happens upon a particular theory well in advance of me; when I at last catch up, I mention my discovery to him, as he exasperatedly explains that he already knew this, and had, in fact, mentioned it to me previously. For instance, during our freshman year, he flatly pointed out that there was no difference between the Republicans and the Democrats. I objected, only to recite this very same fact with utter confidence some years later.

Similarly, for years he has been preaching to me what could ironically be dubbed the postmodern faith. And for years he has attempted to rebut my criticisms of that which, in fairness, neither he nor I, nor anyone really, completely understand. The tale of postmodernism involves a little history lesson. As science developed, man became more confident that he could comprehend the world in its entirety. Rejecting religion, modernists sought to use reason alone to understand man and his society. Faith left man content to gaze at the stars and hope for a better existence in some future life; but science promised to harness happiness in the here and now, in the inexorable march of progress.

Just as faith suffered a blow in the wars between Protestants and Catholics in the Reformation, and, to an extent, made way, eventually, for modernism, the bloodbath that was the twentieth century shattered man's faith in his own perfectibility. Billed as "the war to end all wars", the first world war settled precisely nothing; Europe had bathed in the blood of its children, and would do so again in less than thirty years. It would be some timbefore modernism would admit its defeat; meanwhile, the poet T.S. Eliot captured the mood best with his masterpiece, The Waste Land, which was published shortly after the end of the first war. As historian Paul Johnson puts it in his book Creators, "The Waste Land is not a narrative but a poem about moods, predominately despair and desolation, reflecting the ruin and waste of Eliot's private life and the defeat World War I had pointlessly inflicted on civilization."

Postmodernism can best be seen and understood as a reaction against the modernists. But whereas traditionalists such as Hilaire Belloc and G.K. Chesterton defended the Catholic Church, and the civilization which it built, and offered Her creed as the antidote to modernism, postmodernism retains the disregard for religious truth, and, indeed, much scientific truth as well; it offers a sort universal skepticism to the confidence of the moderns. Often contradictory, it tends to evade criticism because it makes so few claims.

It is also, my friend informs me, more about a mood and a state in which we find ourselves, than a school of thought led by protagonists. There are postmodern theorists of course, which I have neither the patience nor the inclination to explain; but it is a peculiar theory for which to fight. For a fight must have a cause, and the postmodernists don't seem to have one.

Now, as a Catholic, like the Chesterbelloc, I would answer the postmodernist by pointing to truth. We could start with things grasped easily, like the existence of natural laws, by which man is bound, and without which civilizations crumbles into barbarism. The doctrine of the Immaculate Conception we would save for later.

And yet, even as I would meet these fellows with whatever wit I could muster, I have to admit that to an extent the postmodernists seem to have a point. They are wrong, of course, because however dubious we may be--and often should be--about the truth of certain matters, it is an intolerable absurdity to insist that it is not there because we cannot find it. Yet, as Eliot captured, the world does seem out of place, probably even unusually so. High culture has receded to be replaced by pap, offering no substance, but mere digestibility in the form of popular culture.

This dreary decadence has happened before, and it will happen again, so it's unwise to get overly lethargic. After all the excesses of the Renaissance, especially the behavior of the clergy, were one of the major impetuses to the Reformation. In the meantime, some good art was produced--although I've not read it, Erasmus's In Praise of Folly is generally regarded as a brilliant book. Selected geniuses aside, overall, the religious wars seemed to exhaust the energies of Europe; it took respite, resigned tolerance, and the casual passing of the seasons to make her again resplendent with a culture which forms a more honorable part of our heritage.

Normally, I'd insist, arrogantly, that the Church will unexpectedly ride to the rescue, as She often does. Just as the Jesuits confounded the Calvinists and Lutherans by saving half of Europe for Rome, just as the martyrs of the early Church surprised the Romans by dying joyously, and leaving one hundred more in their stead, the possibility of resurgence remains. But as anticipations of such are grounded solely on faith, and in utter disregard for the present position of the Church, it behooves us to look elsewhere.

It would be difficult to describe what we see as good, or even promising. Where are the satirists for this time of decadence? Is culture content to allow itself to be overtaken by a whirlwind of mediocrities?

Postmodernists argue, with some success, that society has lost all perspective. Experience, no longer rooted in anything, has become an end in itself; human life becomes a collection of experience; society, a collection of collections. Pagan society had myth: for the Greeks, this meant Homer. It didn't matter that it was difficuly to believe all the specifics of the stories; they provided the grounding, the shared vocabulary, which allowed Greek society to achieve such greatness. Similarly, Jewish society had the Torah and the priesthood. Christian society had the Church, and, with the coming of the Reformation, the Bible. Postmodern man has television shows which bring together the list of all of the neat things that happened during the last week. He has movies whose jokes are mere references to other movies he has recently seen. His personality becomes a list of things he likes; his friends are those who happen to profess a liking for similar things. To achieve individuality, he adds further and divergent interests to his list; sheer probability seems to separate him from the crowd. But whether he is popular or solitary, fundamentally, he is alone. He has enough distractions to fill his life should he so desire, but he is utterly unequipped to solve the existential crisis which confronts him when he is no longer surrounded by the cacophony of the media circus.

Like my friend, Walker Percy was way ahead of me. Binx Bolling, the antihero of his book The Moviegoer is a sterling representative of postmodern man, and a gentle reminder that while the culture in which he dwells changes frequently, man himself does not. Percy begins his book by quoting Kierkegaard: "the specific character of despair is precisely this: it is unaware of being despair". I can summarize no better, and can but plead for hope; hope that man may once again discover that he is not just a product of his time, but is instead a member of the brave and enduring human race. Greatness awaits.