Sunday, November 27, 2011

Saving The Strawmen From Further Beatings

Acairfearann thoughtfully provided the following in response to Part III of my Concord Bridge or Fort Sumter series:

Interesting, but I am not sure about the validity of the statement 'those who don't need to be ruled'. Obviously, there are many people who don't need government as a large bureaucracy. But, the phrase implies to me, and I may be misreading it in which case my apologies, that 'rule' is a negative which has no benefit to the individual. The problem with that is that any sort of cooperative, social action, which is the sort of action that allows the development of human society, requires the community to agree upon rules. And at some point your interpretation of the rule and your friend's interpretation is going to be different. Or for that matter the best way to build the bridge, best place to dig the well, the irrigation channel... And someone is going to have to decide, because constantly flipping a coin to make critical decisions creates an element of risk that tends to discourage activity in the long run.

'Rule' isn't just about negative punishments, it is also about agreed upon standards to create a society, be it neolithic Scotland or 21st century cities.

This is a tired argument and an old argument - I suspect one could find Plato using some form of it to justify the need for philosopher kings. It is an argument claiming the desire of people to be free ultimately leads to a dystopian chaos - Acairfearann has replaced Thunderdome with a coin toss, but the conclusion is the same - life becomes nasty, brutish, and short. It is an argument which cannot be refuted often enough or strongly enough.

What prompted my response however, were the examples of the kinds of rules Acairfearann fears would be lost in the inevitable anarchy. After over a quarter century in the field of civil engineering, I am familiar with regulations regarding bridges, ditches, and wells - both the rules themselves and the reasoning behind them, and Acairfearann's reasoning is exactly backwards - these standards are both the cause and result of people's desire to be free. The threat to the stability provided by these agreed upon standards comes not from those who do not need to be ruled, but from those who must rule.

Even the most cursory investigation of state, county, and local building, and development codes reveals some general themes:

First, those who administer and enforce them generally understand they are providing a service contracted by, and paid for by the citizens of their jurisdiction. When I call requesting information, whether from a local building inspector or county engineer, they call me back, send me copies of the records I request, or direct me to someone who can answer my questions. In short, they act as stakeholders who realize my work creates value, and thus, they also benefit from facilitating rather than hindering that work.

Secondly, local design and development codes represent hard earned knowledge. They are examples of “small e" empiricism and it is probably not too much of a stretch to say every item in the regulations represents a lesson learned from a flooded property, collapsed house, or a person sick, injured, or dead.

Additionally, the more local the authority, the less opportunity for rent seeking. There may be requirements for how far from the property line a house can be built, but nothing which says only Joe's Surveying Company has the magical measuring devices to tell if a building is conforming to code.

Further, the real consequences of violating the rules far outweigh the statutory consequences. If you construct your well too close to your septic system, you will be subject to fines, or the cost of moving one or the other. But these burdens are nothing compared to the impact on your health.

Finally, all of the above presume competence. The local officials and staff who administer the various agencies take for granted the people they deal with are capable of reading, understanding, and complying with the regulations. Plans are reviewed beforehand, and projects inspected afterwards on the assumption the work was performed in good faith and any problems can be discovered and fixed.

Acairfearann, the people responsible for enforcing the standards of the locality where you dwell consider you competent to arrange for building a home, excavating an irrigation channel, and for all I know, constructing a skyscraper, but do you know what you are not competent to do?

Buy light bulbs.

That is not my opinion - I'll bet you could manage it, and everyone in your town probably thinks so too, but the good people at the U.S. Department of Energy believe that given the choice of what kind of light bulbs to buy, you'll blow it, and they have the power to make you only buy what they approve.

Oh, and by federal statute, you are utterly incapable of deciding how much water your toilet should use when you flush it.

And, of course you do not have the faintest clue of what you should eat. Why, if left to your own devices you would shove any old thing into your mouth.

Actually, that last one is kind of interesting. Apparently California law enforcement, with the support of the Food and Drug Administration, raided a store which was selling people who wanted it, raw milk. It was originally reported to be a SWAT operation, but further reporting confirmed it was only a run of the mill; police kick the door in and arrest everyone inside, kind of raid. And I am also certain if someone in the store had twitched at the wrong time, they would have shot to death in an entirely different way than a SWAT team would have done it.

On the other hand, it does show there are people who, when they reach a certain level of authority, acquire a "do it my way, or I'll send men with guns to your house" attitude.

There is a
Gresham's Law of laws - bad laws drive out good. Once people who we do not know, cannot reason with, and who do not care whether we live or die, have taken over our lives and the decisions which used to be ours alone to make, we are loath to surrender the remaining scraps of freedom do anyone even if they be our neighbors and no matter the potential benefit.

Acairfearann, do not take counsel of your fears. Not needing to be ruled is not the same as not wanting rules and people's desire to be free enables rather than inhibits the development of stable prosperous societies. And know this: if you are reluctant to allow yourself and your neighbors to make what decisions you deem proper and necessary, there are people with guns who will gladly take that burden from you, but good luck getting it back once it has been surrendered.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Concord Bridge or Fort Sumter Part III

Part I of my attempt to bring some order to my thoughts about politics and human nature is here, and Part II is here.

At the end of Part II, commenter Fast Richard raised an interesting point:

A civil war would only incidentally involve conflict between the government and the citizens. The primary conflict would be between factions of the citizenry. You present arguments which are substantially similar to what I have heard recently from the leftists of the occupy mobs. I suspect that the desired final state of society might be different.

He sees a three-sided conflict: more or less right versus left, with the government standing by as spectator/referee.

First, I think all internal conflict is always between citizens. The Bonus Army were citizens, and so were the soldiers who drove them out of Washington. The same for the New York Police and the occupy Wall Street protestors, and for that matter, the people on both sides of the fence at Waco were citizens.

I think it is a mistake to think of government as an entity in itself. Better to think of it as simply the means by which one group of citizens accomplishes its ends.

That is why I like the terms "those who must rule", and those "who don't need to be ruled" - they clear away the ideological baggage and let us get down to cases.

Assuming you are not self-employed, you have a boss who tells you what to do and holds your paycheck over your head to make you do it. Tough though that circumstance may be, you can always quit, and then if your boss kicks in your door at three a.m. to make you finish that project you left undone, you can kick him right back out. No more paycheck; no more work.

That kind of relationship is anathema to those who must rule. Take Elizabeth Warren for example. I don't have any specific brief against her, she is interchangeable with thousands of other brilliant, hard working, accomplished, professors emeritus of something or other, chairs of the president's council of what all and whatnot, and judging from her speeches, someone with a pathological need to rule. She is better than you, smarter than you, and knows what you need to be made to do for your own good. And when her need to rule results in your door being kicked open at three a.m., it is not going to be Liz Warren coming in, it's going to be people who don't take no for an answer - good luck kicking them back out.

As far as mine and the occupy folk's arguments being substantially similar: At its core, mine is that those who must rule are running out of other people's money and are going to use every means of government to squeeze the rest of us for what they need. While the people of Zuccotti Park believe that those who must rule are running out of other people's money and should use every means of government to squeeze the rest of us for what they need. That one word makes a big difference.

I suppose you could say the beliefs of those who must rule and those who do not need to be ruled are substantially similar - the same way you and the guy pointing the gun at you and demanding your wallet have a lot in common - both of you participating in an armed robbery and all.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011


In the process of writing this post, I said to myself, "Damn Mike, those are some pretty strong words for a chubby guy in a recliner. Maybe you should tone is down some."

When my reason, such as it is, leads me to a conclusion, and that conclusion is disturbing, I turn around, walk back and try again. If my best attempts still lead me to the same conclusion no matter what direction I come at the problem from, I write it.

Besides, I thought, who except me is ever going to read this stuff? It is not like reactivating a dormant blog so I have someplace to put the things which have been bottled up inside me for the past two years is even going to create a ripple on the surface of the internet.

So, along comes Tam and links to my post - thank you Tam.

With the attention came comments from good and honorable people who felt I was selling them short. Since the commenters took pains to point out they were on the side of the angels, and since I would like to be counted on that side as well, I am obligated to respond as clearly and honestly as I know how.

One comment mentions Oathkeepers, and they were in the back of my mind as the exception to my conclusion that all but a small percentage of those who do the day-to-day work of governing long ago decided they serve not the republic, but whoever signs their paycheck. I cannot guess what role the Oathkeepers and those like them will play in the coming years. But simply saying out loud that they intend to honor the promise they made when they put on the uniform causes enemies of liberty to explode in rage, and thus self identify. That means they are doing good right here and now.

And, I hope the commenters are right and I am wrong. I hope I am just some internet blabbermouth, and when the time comes, the country's public servants, and not just those in uniform, will take a stand on the side of people they serve and not their paymasters. I can live with knowing I am just a loud mouthed jerk with a computer, because that will mean all sorts of other, darker consequences will not have come to pass.

But I don't think so. I think my conclusion still stands.

Read this article from the New York Times. There is enough in a few column inches to make any decent person ill. If the picture accompanying is no longer linked to the article, here is the caption:

Hundreds of off-duty officers gathered on Friday at the Bronx County Hall of Justice, backing 16 colleagues in a ticket-fixing case.

And, if you can no longer see it, the protesting police are carrying signs reading "Just Following Orders".

Just Following Orders?

Dear God.

Looking at the picture I can imagine I am seeing, fathers, husbands, little league coaches, and church goers. I know I am also seeing men who participated in the establishment of a feudal fiefdom.

I can think of no other term for it. The rulers of the city and their servants granted one another exemptions from the laws they enforced on the lower orders. You might call it privilege of rank, or benefit of clergy, but it is feudalism in its purest form. The police provided service for those above in return for their protection. Read closely and you see their anger is directed at those above who violated the oath of fealty - one of their own estate, a prosecutor, betrayed them.

Do you think they made their choice just that day? That the sight of their comrades being arrested turned them from honorable men to thugs in one moment? Nothing I know of history and human nature tells me that is how it works. Their choice was made in bits and pieces over time - theirs was a hand dealt years ago, and the day the picture was taken was merely the day they turned their cards over.

In New York, hundreds of police came out at the request of their union to protest what they believed to be a stab in the back by someone on their own side - if there were any who had second thoughts about the justness of their cause - I could not see them.

If a real crisis hits, and I believe it will - I believe we are heading for a convulsive time, and the mayor, police commissioner, and police chief need the support of the rank and file, do you think they will hesitate to reinstate old privileges in return for that support?

The question will not be who do you serve, it will be what is your price?

Not just in New York, but in bankrupt cities and states everywhere, the consequences of decades old decisions are going to be played out. And it won't be just the police who will be revealing the choices they made, every person who is paid from the public treasury will be laying their cards on the table.

Republics fail the same way people go bankrupt - slowly at first, then all at once. I do not pretend to know where we are on that continuum, but I know when those who must rule need to ensure the loyalty of those who carry out their will, a man in a black uniform with a deaths-head badge is a lot less effective than an accountant asking if you would like to keep your pension.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Concord Bridge or Fort Sumter Part II

Part I of my attempt to bring some order to my thoughts about politics and human nature is here.

Things which are unsustainable obviously will not be sustained, and the current political order in the United States is unsustainable. It is difficult not to see in today's heated rhetoric and occasional violence - though mild compared to what has happened in other places - the first breezes heralding the approaching storm.

In my previous entry, I attempted to define the opposing world views which make the conflict inevitable. I described them not as liberal or conservative, democrat or republican, or red or blue - these are meaningless labels - the modern equivalent of
Guelph and Ghibelline . The next civil war will be between those who must rule, and those who have little need for rulers, and it will not flare into violence until the latter change into those who will not be ruled.

I use the term civil war simply to refer to a conflict between people who are citizens of the same country, so banish thoughts of Pickett's Charge, and Sherman's March - it will not be that kind of civil war.

The reason it won't be, is not because those who must rule are enlightened and wouldn't think of launching a scorched earth offensive through the cities and neighborhoods of those who defy them. It has happened before in this country, and it would be folly to believe the police, national guard, regular military and all the others who draw a paycheck from the state would refuse orders to make war on their fellow citizens. I would like to believe that would be the case, but the still standing chimneys of the long gone homes which once stood between Atlanta and Savannah argue against a naive trust on the better angels of human nature.

Money is the reason the conflict will not resemble that of 1861-1865. That war was mostly fought on credit, and the federal government's credit was good enough that it could issue debt to finance its efforts - even the the confederate states could, until the last days of the conflict, still purchase weapons and material on loans mortgaged against their future cotton production.

This is not the case today. Even though U.S. debt still has some value, that value would evaporate if the already nearly bankrupt federal government were to try to finance a fight against a rebellion. If you think the Iraq/Afghanistan wars were expensive, imagine the cost of those same kind of operations covering the continental U.S.

But just as the central government does not have the wherewithal to mount a continent-wide counter insurgency; no other group has the wherewithal to mount a threat which would require it. With all due respect to constitutional militia groups, while I do think citizen militia will have an increasingly important role in the coming decades, that role will not be as the thin line of resistance standing athwart the path of some statist behemoth which has finally crossed into tyranny.

You may say a government whose employees stick their hands up ladies skirts before letting them board airplanes, and supplies weapons to the vilest gangsters in the hemisphere so it can use the resulting carnage as a justification to curtail our rights at home, has already become tyrannical - and I agree with you, but do the people who live up and down your street also agree?


No, make that extremely doubtful. Here in Ohio we just had an election where the biggest issue was a referendum on repealing a pension reform package which would have just slightly slowed the gravy train for public employees. The public sector unions and their allies spent thirty million dollars to convince voters that asking state employees to contribute a few percent of their pay to fund their otherwise completely tax financed salary, benefit, and retirement packages, would leave the police helpless to stop crime, the fire departments without water, and death and destruction just around the corner. The rubes bought it and repealed the reforms by a two to one margin. So no, to the vast majority of our countrymen the idea that friendly Mr. Policeman and brave Mr. Firemen, and selfless Mrs. Teacher could ever be agents of a despotic government would be an absurdity.

But the cost of those pay and benefit obligations has been going steadily up, while the revenue required to cover them has gone down. Those who must rule have established a regime where the support of half of the population is purchased by plundering and then distributing the wealth of the other half. The problem is the money is running out.

Even if those who must rule suddenly realize the trap they are in, do you think their allies - the ones who supported them, collected the taxes for them, distributed propaganda for them, enforced the laws for them, and depended on their largess for daily bread, will also just walk away saying, "No pension for me, I guess I backed the wrong horse." I can't think of a metaphor to illustrate the minuscule chance of that happening.

Mr. Vanderboegh has said that law enforcement officers must "Choose This Day Whom You Will Serve". It is important that the question be publicly put to those we trust to enforce the law, but I believe it contains within itself its own negation - the "This Day" part. All but a small percentage of police and for that matter, everyone who draws a paycheck from the state, made their choice years or decades ago - they chose the cause of their paymaster.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Bust the Joint Out

It was not unexpected. The Ohio voters decided it was an offer they couldn't refuse. Now, the inevitable consequences will start to accrue. Our electorate has decided "Fuck You Pay Me" sounds good.

It is a matter of morbid curiosity for me what the "Bust the Joint Out" phase will entail.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Concord Bridge or Fort Sumter Part I

Joe Huffman used for a recent quote of the day a bit from Mike Vanderboegh's post titled "Choose This Day Whom you Will Serve".

Mr. Vanderboegh posits and Mr. Huffman concurs that hard times are on the horizon, and America's law enforcement officers will be forced to pick sides. Additionally, both men, after their own fashion, warn that the police will not have an easy time of it should they choose unwisely.

Fair enough. Mr. Vanderboegh and Mr. Huffman are serious men, and are not given to bravado, and when they warn of approaching storms, we had best take heed.

But take heed of what? It is one thing to tell someone they will soon have to choose sides in a conflict and warn them of the consequences of choosing the wrong side, but that leaves some questions unanswered: What will the sides be? What kind of conflict will it be? And what will the consequences be?

What side has both Joe Huffman and Mike Vanderbeogh (and for that matter... me) on it?

You could call it the freedom lover's side, but that is a little imprecise - everyone, including drunks, addicts, perverts, and thieves loves freedom, so that won't do at all. As a flag of convenience, let’s call our side the written word side. We believe the rules by which the government must abide are written down in words; the words have meaning; the rules may be changed by consent, but words can never be arbitrarily made to mean their opposite. It is the side which believes the good of having the government prohibited from doing harm far outweighs the harm of having it obstructed from doing good. It is the side which believes in putting the government on a tight leash and never letting it loose.

The other side is less abstract, They are the elected officials, appointed bureaucrats, and the tenured university elite. In medieval history, they were the first and second estates - the aristocracy and the church. Circling them are an army of functionaries, purveyors, and petty officials, all hoping and hungry that some bit of power and legitimacy will flow downhill and accrue to them by their association with the ruling class.

The nobility may fight among themselves, we call these fights elections, history books call them dynastic wars, and while kings and popes may have struggled endlessly for power and prestige, on the issue of keeping the peasants firmly in place, they were of one mind.

Our side believes words must not be permitted to change meaning, so that regardless of innovations, technological revolutions, and social evolutions, each generation will know what the previous meant and thought.

The other side believes meanings must be divorced from words so that mere logical consistency will not impede the establishment of a static social order where their position on top is secured. The courtiers at Versailles constantly invented new dances, conversational tropes, and social rituals to act as barriers to entry and badges of status - what was new yesterday is outdated today, and if you can't keep up - back to the farm with you. The same is true today - ask anyone who has fallen afoul of a university speech code. Political correctness is a means of keeping the lower orders in their place. Use the wrong word, criticize the wrong politician, or hire the wrong person, and you will be dragged down.

The conflict between the two sides arises then as a natural result of who they are, and what they believe. It is an existential battle between those who are driven to rule over others, and those content to rule only themselves. Many in our current version of the first and second estates understand explicitly, and all understand at least implicitly, that it is meaningless to be a ruler without subjects - and no subjects may be had, if people are free to simply walk away and rule themselves.

The constitution was originally conceived to act as an impediment on the ambitions of neo-monarchists. The founders understood it was the natural tendency for some people to look for kings, and the natural tendency for others to cast themselves in that role. But freedom is a mechanism which requires constant vigilance, and those who wished to be kings encouraged those who feared living without rulers to attack the very idea of that vigilance.

Argue that divorcing words from their meanings is a deadly philosophy, and the best you can hope for is blank stares. Not many care, and many others actually approve of the fact that promoting the general welfare stopped meaning protecting citizen's livelihoods and now means redistributing wealth; regulating interstate commerce stopped meaning enabling trade, and now means an invitation to rent seeking; and that enumerated powers metastasized into a stack of regulations, enacted without the consent of the people, and used as a bludgeon to keep the populace in line.

The conflict then, is between one side which must... MUST rule over others, and another which cannot understand why anyone would want to.