A Philosopher's Blog

The American Oligarchy

Posted in Business, Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on April 21, 2014

Money (Photo credit: 401(K) 2013)

One of my lasting lessons from political science is that every major society has a pyramid structure in regards to wealth and power. The United States is no exception to this distribution pattern. However, the United States is also supposed to be a democratic society—which seems rather inconsistent with the pyramid.

While the United States does have the mechanisms of democracy, such as voting, it might be wondered whether the United States is democratic or oligarchic (or plutocratic) in nature. While people might turn to how they feel about this matter, such feelings and related anecdotes do not provide proof. So, for example, a leftist who thinks the rich rule the country and who feels oppressed by the plutocracy does not prove her belief by appealing to her feelings or anecdotes about the rich. Likewise, a conservative who thinks that America is a great democracy and feels good about the rich does not prove her belief by appealing to her feelings or anecdotes about the rich.

What is needed is a proper study to determine how the system works. One rather obvious way to determine the degree of democracy is to compare the expressed preferences of citizens with the political results. If the political results generally correspond to the preferences of the majority, then this is a reasonable (but not infallible) indicator that the system is democratic. If the political results generally favor the minority that is rich and powerful while going against the preferences of the less wealthy majority, then this would be a reasonable (but not infallible) indicator that the system is oligarchic (or plutocratic). After all, to the degree that a system is democratic, the majority should have their preferences enacted into law and policy—even when this goes against the wishes of the rich. To the degree that the system is oligarchic, then the minority of elites should get their way—even when this goes against the preferences of the majority.

Recently, researchers at Princeton and Northwestern conducted just such a study: “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens”  using data gathered from 1981 to 2002.

The researchers examined about 1,800 polices from that time and matched them against the preferences expressed by three classes: the average American (50th income percentile), the affluent American (the 90th percentile of income) and the large special interest groups.

The results are hardly surprising: “The central point that emerges from our research is that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on US government policy, while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence.”

As noted above, a truly democratic system should result in the preferences of the majority being expressed in policies and laws more often than not. However, “When a majority of citizens disagrees with economic elites and/or with organized interests, they generally lose. Moreover, because of the strong status quo bias built into the US political system, even when fairly large majorities of Americans favor policy change, they generally do not get it.” As such, this study would seem to provide strong evidence that the United States is an oligarchy (or plutocracy) rather than a democratic state.

It might be contended that this system is fine since, to use a misquote, what is the preference for GM is the preference for Americans. That is, it could be claimed that the elites and the majority of Americans have the same or similar preferences.  However, the study found that the interests of the wealthy are not substantially correlated with the preferences of average citizens.” As such, the preferences of most Americans do not match the interests of the wealthy—but the wealthy generally get what they want.

One current example of this, which was not part of the study, is the fact that a very strong majority of Americans favor various gun control measures (such as universal background checks) yet bills that would make these measures into laws have failed. This provides a rather clear example of how the system works in general. Naturally, this example is merely an illustration—the statistical support is based in the 1,800 examined policies.

One possible objection is that the preferences of the majority are mistaken—that is, the majority wants things that are not in their best interest and what the elites want is what is actually best. For example, while most Americans might prefer stronger consumer protection laws when it comes to financial institutions, it could be claimed that they are in error. What is in their best interest is less consumer protection, which is what the financial elites want.

The obvious reply is that even if it were true that the majority is in error and the elites know best, this would arguing that the oligarchic system is better than a democratic system not that the system is not and oligarchic one.

Another possible objection is that the system is democratic in that people do vote for elected officials who then enact policies. Since the citizens can vote such officials out of office, they must be expressing the preferences of the citizens—despite the fact that policy and law consistently goes against the expressed preferences of the majority. This is to say that we have democratically created an oligarchy, so it is still a democracy (or at least a republic).

This objection is certainly interesting and raises a question about why people consistently re-elect people who consistently act contrary to their expressed preferences. One possibility is that the choices are very limited—you can vote for anyone you want, but a Democrat or Republican will almost certainly be elected. As such, the voters do get to vote, but they generally do not get real choices.

Another possibility is ignorance—people do not generally realize that what they get does not match what they claim to want. Such ignorance would put the moral blame partially on the citizens—they should be better informed.  Then again, given the abysmal approval rating for congress it seems that people do realize this. This creates a rather odd scenario: people really hate congress, yet generally keep re-electing them over and over.

A third possibility is that there are many strong propaganda machines that are devoted to convincing people that the laws and policies are good. So, while people have a preference for one thing, they are persuaded to believe that what is in the interest of the oligarchy is what they should like. People might also be distracted by other matters—for example, people who oppose same-sex marriage will support politicians who oppose it, even if the politician also supports policies that are contrary to the voter’s economic interests. In this case, the moral failing is on the part of the deceivers—they are tricking citizens with deceit and corrupting democracy.

Another approach to objecting to the study is to raise questions about the methodology. One obvious question would be whether or not the 1,800 policies are properly representative of the political system. After all, if the researchers picked ones that favored the wealthy and ignored others that matched public preferences, then the study would be biased. As such, a key question is whether or not the sample used in the study is large enough and representative enough to adequately support the conclusion.

Another obvious question would be whether or not the study had the preferences of the people correct. After all, in order to properly claim that the laws and policies do not generally match the preferences of the majority, the claimed preferences would need to be the actual preferences of the majority.

Naturally, addressing these concerns would require examining the study carefully and objectively, rather than merely dismissing or accepting it based on how one feels about the matter. Some might also be tempted to dismiss the study based on mere ad homimen attacks on those conducting it. For example, one might fallaciously reject the study by simply claiming that those involved are biased liberal intellectuals who are trying to advance a leftist agenda. If this were true and the study were thus flawed, then the evidence would lie in the defects of the study—not in the feelings of those attacking with ad homimens.


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Is the NSA a Fascist Tyranny?

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on December 20, 2013
Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini in Munich, G...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As anyone who follows the news knows, the NSA has been engaged in a massive spying program that seems to involve activities that are both immoral and illegal. However, it is interesting to consider whether or not the NSA is more than just a violator of the law and ethics. As such, I will endeavor to address the question of whether or not the NSA is a fascist tyranny.

While the term “fascism” gets thrown around loosely by both the left and the right in America, it seems best to defer to one of the experts on fascism, specifically Benito Mussolini. Mussolini claims that “fascism denies that the majority, by the simple fact that it is a majority, can direct human society; it denies that numbers alone can govern by means of a periodical consultation…” The NSA nicely fits into this model—it has operated without the approval or even the knowledge of the majority of the citizens of the United States.

It can be objected that the approval of certain elected officials and secret courts suffices to preserve the core democratic values of majority rule and consultation of the governed.  After all, there are many activities that are handled by representatives without the citizens directly voting.

This reply does have some merit: the United States is primarily a representative democracy and the will of the citizens is, in theory, enacted by elected officials. However, the NSA certainly seems to be operating largely outside of the domain of public decision and informed agreement. The extent of its intrusion into the lives of the citizens and the scope of its power certainly seems to demand that the NSA be subject to the open channels of democracy rather than allowing decisions to be made and implemented in the shadows.

One key aspect of fascism, at least according to Mussolini is that the “Fascist State organizes the nation, but leaves a sufficient margin of liberty to the individual; the latter is deprived of all useless and possibly harmful freedom, but retains what is essential; the deciding power in this question cannot be the individual, but the State alone….”

The NSA seems to, sadly enough, fit this concept of fascism. The NSA is literally organizing the nation and it is clearly denying citizens key liberties by its intrusions. Fittingly enough, these grotesque violations are defended in terms that Mussolini would appreciate: no important liberties are being infringed on…but it they were, it would be to protect the state from harm.

Rather importantly, the way the NSA has been operating shows that the deciding power has been the State (that is, secret courts and officials in the shadows of secrecy) and not the citizens.

Thus, it would seem that the NSA is fascist in nature. This is hardly a surprise given that this sort of police state surveillance system is a hallmark and stereotype of the oppressive fascist state. What remains to be seen is whether or not the NSA is tyrannical in nature.

As with “fascism”, people on the left and right throw around the term “tyranny” without much respect for the actual meaning of the term. To ensure that I am using it properly, I will go back to John Locke and make use of his account of tyranny. Given his influence in political philosophy and the American political system, he seems like a reasonable go-to person for this matter.

Locke defines “tyranny” as follows:

Tyranny is the exercise of power beyond right, which nobody can have a right to.  And this is making use of the power any one has in his hands, not for the good of those who are under it, but for his own private separate advantage.  When the governor, however entitled, makes not the law, but his will, the rule; and his commands and actions are not directed to the preservation of the properties of his people, but the satisfaction of his own ambition, revenge, covetousness, or any other irregular passion.

While the extent of the wrongdoing by the people at the NSA might never be known, it is clear that the power handed to them has generally not been used not for the good of the people. Those in charge have made their will and not the law their rule—despite being basically let off the legal leash by compliant courts and public officials, the NSA still engaged in illegal activity and thus acted tyrannically.

Some folks at the NSA even abused their power on the basis of “irregular passion.” One rather pathetic example is that some NSA personnel used the resources of their employer to spy on those they were romantically involved with or interested in.

As such, it would seem evident that the NSA is tyrannical—or at least a tool of tyranny. What remains is to consider the proper response to tyranny. Locke, not surprisingly, had a clear answer:

Where-ever law ends, tyranny begins, if the law be transgressed to another’s harm; and whosoever in authority exceeds the power given him by the law, and makes use of the force he has under his command, to compass that upon the subject, which the law allows not, ceases in that to be a magistrate; and, acting without authority, may be opposed, as any other man, who by force invades the right of another.

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Proposal: Transparent Lobbying

Posted in Business, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on November 5, 2011

Money talks...

While I recognize that lobbying is a legitimate part of the democratic process, I also recognize that it provides an avenue by which various interests can exert undue influence in politics, often to the detriment of the general good.

I am not so foolish as to advocate banning lobbying. As I have noted, it does have a legitimate place in the process. Also it would almost certainly be all but impossible to get rid of the lobbying machinery. However, I do contend that the harmful aspects of lobbying can be reduced.

One serious problem with lobbying and its associated influence (such as corporations and other interests literally writing legislation) is that the lobbying activities are not transparent and made readily available to the public. As might be imagined, if lobbying activities were made readily available to the public, then this would have some influence on the nature of lobbying. At the very least we would know the prices at which our government is being bought and sold.

To this end I would propose that all lobbying activities involving public officials be made a matter of public record. This would include emails, meetings, letters, phone conversations, texts and so on. With today’s technology, it would be a simple matter to record meetings on video, to record phone conversations and so on. This information would the be posted on a site called lobbyist.gov. The main page for the site would have a link to individual pages for each member of congress. Each individual page would have a list of all the lobbyists who have lobbied the congressperson as well as links to records of all the lobbying. It would be mandated that the site be designed to be clearly and easily navigable so that the records could not be obscured or hidden. There would also be a large money counter for each congressperson which would track the amount of monetary value received from lobbyists and the interests they represent.

It might be objected that lobbyists have a right to secrecy. The obvious reply is that lobbyists might, but public officials do not. They are, after all, public officials. Hence, the interaction between the lobbyists and the public officials in their professional capacity would thus seem to be something that the people have a right to know about.

It might also be objected that some matters might fall under areas of legitimate secrecy, such as national security. Thus, any lobbyist who can claim this would have the right to lobby in secret. The obvious reply is that while dealings between congresspeople and certain interests (such as defense contractors) might legitimately involve secrecy, this would clearly not cover lobbying attempts. After all, while a defense contractor describing a top secret weapon would be a legitimate matter for secrecy, the process of lobbying congress to spend billions in public money on that contractor would not be a legitimate matter of secrecy.

I imagine that lobbyists would, of course, try to stuff as much secret lobbying as they could under the cloak of national security. However, this would still limit the illegitimate secrecy in substantial ways and the lobbying report should still include a report of secret lobbying that lists the name of the company and the fact that the lobbying activities were made secret for “national security” or whatever.  This secrecy should also be subject to independent review to try to reduce (however slightly) the inevitable abuse of the national security loophole.

The requirement for transparent lobbying would need to be backed up with penalties that would be sufficient to motivate lobbyists and congresspeople to follow the laws. After all, if the penalty was an ethical censure or a small fine, most congresspeople would simple break the rules relentlessly. One reasonable penalty is that violation of the transparency rules would result in the interest being served by the lobbyist(s) in question being banned from lobbying for an extended period of time and that the offending congressperson would also not be allowed to interact with lobbyists for a set amount of time per violation.

As might be imagined, opposing this sort of transparency is something both parties can agree on.

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Destroying Democracy

Posted in Business, Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on October 5, 2011
Republican Party Handbill, ca. 1880

Image by Cornell University Library via Flickr

When I was a kid, we were taught the importance of voting and the greatness of democracy. However, as I grew up I was exposed to an ever louder litany regarding the evils of government and the virtues of private enterprise. This year the Republican candidates are working hard to be the one who dislikes government the most and to promise that they will reduce the state more than any other candidate. Well, aside from defense and homeland security, of course. The Democrats have generally pushed to expand the state, but they have done little to create a favorable climate for democracy. This worries me.

I shall begin by noting the obvious: bureaucracies (public or private) seem  analogous to people: unless properly maintained they tend to bloat, weaken, and slow down. As such, there is clearly a need to (as Socrates argued) keep an eye on the state and offer legitimate criticisms and corrections. There is also the added concern of corruption-money is a bit like termites: once it gets into a structure, it tends to start spreading until the whole thing is decayed and rotted.

Both the Democrats and Republicans are guilty of encouraging corruption and allowing the monied interests to dominate American politics. Fortunately, some Americans have begun to fight back against this. While today we see what some would call modern hippies protesting Wall Street, this could be the beginnings of a new movement that will push back the power of money and repair some of the terrible rot in our house of democracy. Naturally, more is needed than drum circles and other such things-what is needed is meaningful reform and the will to take on this corruption with courage and integrity. This, I am sure, will not arise from the established members of the political parties. The Democrats do make pious noises about it, but generally seem content to be part of the existing system (this includes Obama). The Republicans are quite active in simply making things worse under the banner of the Tea Party. The folks in the media largely seem to be going along with the establishment they are part of. While CNN has been accused of a liberal bias, in recent days the new morning folks have been making the disingenuous claim that the protestors do not know what they want.  This is presumably to make them appear to be confused “hippies” who are just protesting in liberal ignorance. While these people do not have a detailed plan of reform, they do have clear goals-mainly to push back the corruption of our democratic system. That is a laudable goal, albeit one that will be hard to implement. After all, this is supposed to be a democracy and not a plutocracy.

While the Democrats are accused of adding to the state, the Republicans also do so-mainly under the guise of defense and security. However, the Republicans claim that they want to reduce the government. For example, Bachmann says she wants to eliminate the EPA. The Republicans also make a point of relentlessly attacking government and cast it as a great evil. On the face of it, it seems odd that folks who want to be in government are so intent to bash it. After all, if I was at a road race and someone spent her time telling me how awful running is while she was running, I would say the obvious “why the hell are you running?” Naturally, the Republicans say they are running so they can dismantle the state from the inside. This should worry us for two reasons. First, it seems like they are threatening to undermine democracy. Second, people who go into the system to fight it often end up simply becoming part of that system. That said, perhaps people can go into the system to make it better. There is, of course, a certain irony in hearing people talk about the founders with (alleged) reverence while promising to slash the government these people designed.

The Republicans have also been pushing to “reform” the voting laws. While countering fraud is fine, the main focus seems to have been on lowering voter turnout for the opposing party. To be fair to the Republicans, what they are doing now pales in comparison to the horrible Jim Crow laws of the Southern Republicans. But the fact that some Democrats once did something worse does not make what is happening today any less bad. This sort of tactic is a fundamental assault on the very foundation of democracy and must not be tolerated.

The Republicans have also pushed to make the state more business like. One problem with this is that it is based on the myth of private sector virtue and public sector vice. There is nothing inherent to the private sector that makes it better than the public sector (just look at all the inefficiency and corruption there). There is also nothing inherent to the public sector that makes it worse than the private sector. The quality of both private and public sectors depends on the quality of the people involved and the degree to which the people (customers or citizens) hold them to account. In the private sector this is done by customer choice (of course, some companies do not need to worry about this) and in the public sector it is done by voting. It is an amazing act of thought control that the Republicans have gotten so many people to repeat, zombie like, the mantra that private is good and public is bad. Such people fail to see that this is essentially accepting that a non-democratic, profit focused authoritarian system (the business model) is superior to the democratic system.

Of course, it could be argued that a democratic system is, in fact, an inferior system and that the authoritarian model is superior. Socrates argued against democracy in favor of rule by the best, so perhaps there is something to this claim. However, when people praise the private sector business model and say that the state should be run the same way, they need to keep in mind that this is not a democratic model and its main goal is profit and not the good of the people. Naturally, the Republicans also praise democracy while proposing a system that is fundamentally undemocratic. Interestingly, people uncritically accept this inconsistency-mainly because they hear what they want to hear (and have been conditioned to praise).

Let there be no doubt, democracy is in grave danger and the responsibility lies with us, the people, to defend and restore government of the people, by the people and for the people. And no, corporations are not people-no matter what bullshit the lawyers and politicians spew.

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Is America a Christian Nation?

Posted in Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on May 17, 2011
Thomas Jefferson

Image via Wikipedia

One point being pushed by some folks on the right is the notion that America is a Christian nation. Whether this claim is true or not depends what is meant by the ambiguous term.

If the term means that Christianity plays an important role in American history, values, and that many Americans profess to be members of this faith, then the answer is an obvious “yes.” Many of the founders were Christian deists and showed a clear belief in God. Also, the political philosophy that America is based upon includes strong Lockean elements and Locke’s theory is based quite strongly on God. So far, so good and easy.

However, the folks that claim that America is a Christian nation seem to mean more than this. In general their view seems to involve claims that the founders held the same views that they themselves hold. This does not seem to be supported by the historical evidence. To check on this, do as David Barton advocates: go read all of the original writings of Jefferson, Adams, Paine, Franklin and so on.  But, do what Barton does not seem to do: be sure to consider the full text of the documents rather than merely focusing on a specific quote or two.  You will find reference to God, but you will not find  the sort of Christianity being endorsed by the likes of Palin, Bachmann and Barton. I do not expect you to take my word on this-get the texts and read them thoroughly and completely with an objective mind.

The folks that claim America is a Christian nation also tend to hold this as more than a description but also as a prescription. To be specific, they contend that since America is a Christian nation, then we should change our laws to reflect this. Abortion should be outlawed, same sex marriage should be banned and usury should not be allowed. I am, of course, kidding about the last one. Usury is just fine-these folks are not going to shut down the banking industry (which is but one sign of how consistently Christian many of the folks are).

Even if it is assumed that these views are truly Christian, there is an obvious problem. America is a democracy. Now, if it is assumed that America is a Christian nation and it is assumed that America is a democracy, it would seem to follow that this Christian nation accepts things that certain Christians claim go against Christianity. If people continue to democratically support views that certain Christians oppose, should we abandon democracy in favor of imposing a certain set of religious views? I, of course, think we should not.

That is one rather serious problem with having an official state religion (or something close to it)-it tends to be rather inimical to democracy-something the founders were well aware of. So, insofar as we favor democracy over theocracy, we are not a Christian nation. Rather, we are a democratic nation with the notion of religious freedom (and freedom from religion) as  a fundamental principle.

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What is a Fair Tax?

Posted in Business, Law, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on April 8, 2011
Comparison of progressive taxes

Image via Wikipedia

While no one wants to pay taxes, if they must be paid then we can at least hope that the taxes of fair. Obviously enough, what counts as a fair tax is a matter of considerable dispute. Stereotypically, political liberals are cast as being favorably inclined towards taxes while the political conservatives are cast as being against taxes. While I will endeavor to avoid falling into any specific political leanings, it is obvious that any discussion of fair taxes will rest on numerous assumptions. While this cannot be avoided, I will do my best to present my assumptions so that they can be properly assessed and criticized.

One way to approach the matter of the fair tax is to assume that the fairness of a tax rests (at least partially) on the nature of the relationship between the citizens and the state, as well as the relationship between citizens. For the sake of brevity, I will consider only two main types of relationships. These are, of course, not exhaustive and I welcome others being added into the discussion. I will also be assuming that the discussion is taking place in the context of a first world democratic state, such as the United States, the UK, or Canada.

One view is that the relations between citizens and the state (and between citizens) is essentially of the same type as the relationship between a business and its customers. On this model, the state provides goods and services to the citizens and the citizens provide such goods and services to each other on the basis of economic compensation.

On this somewhat minimalist view of the state (and citizenship), the concept of a fair tax seems to be easily defined. A fair tax would be, in essence, a payment for the goods and services that a citizen receives. So, for example, if the state provides me with $15,000 in legitimate goods and services over the course of the year, then I would be fairly and justly taxed $15,000. Paying the fair value of what I receive would, obviously enough, be the epitome of fair.

This would, of course, create some practical problems in terms of calculating the value of such goods and services. However, given that businesses are able to address the problem of how much to charge, this seems to be something that could be resolved. Even if this presents a practical impossibility (which seems unlikely), it would still seem to provide a paradigm of a fair (if impractical) method of tax.

While this system would seem to be eminently fair, the extreme income disparities in countries like the United States might be seen as creating some problems. One obvious point of concern is that while the wealthy could easily pay for their goods and services, those who are less well off would probably be hard pressed to pay their fair share for such things as education for their children, police protection, fire protection, and so on.

Of course, this could be seen as being no different from the situation the less well off always find themselves in. After all, they cannot acquire all the goods and services that the wealthy can acquire and if this is fair, it would seem to be equally fair that they would be unable to receive all the goods and services of the state. If they cannot afford these services, then they must either find more income or simply do without. To use an analogy, if Bill cannot afford to buy a car, then he will have to walk. If he cannot afford to pay for police protection, then he had best learn to run. This might seem harsh, but in a pay as you go system, that is the nature of fairness. After all, why should anyone be forced to pay the way for anyone else?

While the business model has a certain appeal, it probably strikes some as being unduly harsh. After all, it essentially abandons citizens who cannot pay for their goods and services and these are, obviously enough, the people who most often need the help of the state.

One (and only one of many) alternative is to see the relationship between the citizen and the state (and other citizens) as less in terms of business and more in terms of a community. On the simplified community model, fairness is not measured solely in terms of the goods and services an individual consumes. The individual’s responsibility to the community is also a factor in determining what is a fair contribution in terms of taxes.  The influence of this factor might increase the amount the individual should fairly pay in taxes or it might decrease the amount. As might be imagined, sorting out how much an individual should be fairly expected to contribute to the community is a rather controversial matter. However, it does seem reasonable to at least consider that a fair contribution might exceed or be less than what the individual actually uses or consumes in terms of goods and services. After all, there seem to be clear cases in which it is fair and just for an individual to contribute more or less than what they use or what others contribute.

To use an analogy, consider a family. In general, the children in a family are not going to be able to pay for all that they use or consume in the household. As such, the parents will have to bear the cost of their children. This would not seem to be, on the face of it, an unfair burden on the parents (although such cases could be imagined, of course).

But, someone might object, our relationship with other citizens is not analogous to the family relationship. As such, it cannot be used to justify allowing people to pay more or less based on these highly suspicious community factors.

In reply, another analogy might be offered. Suppose I am camping with my friends and a storm destroys most of their gear. Rather than let them die in the woods, I share my food, water and shelter because they are in need and they are my friends. Leaving them to die because I was unwilling to give up my “fair share” (that is, my property) would hardly seem to be fair at all.

“Aha”, an objector might say, “you are willingly sharing with your friends and not being forced to give up your goods. Taxes are not like this. Taxes are like having someone force you to share your goods to help some stupid strangers.”

This does have some appeal. However, there is an obvious flaw. I do, in fact, have a choice in regards to the taxes. As a citizen of a democracy, I have a role (albeit a small one) in the government and hence the taxes I pay are paid from choice. If I do not like how my money is being spent, I can do something about it.  As far as the “stupid strangers” part, that does raise an interesting question about what we owe each other. As a country, are we more like friends or more like selfish customers thrown together into the same store by the vagaries of fate?

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Freedom & the Middle East

Posted in Politics by Michael LaBossiere on February 12, 2011
President George W. Bush and Egyptian Presiden...

Image via Wikipedia

While the Middle East is a land of seemingly endless turmoil, it seems that a democratic sandstorm might be striking the region with a vengeance. This potential for democracy exists, sadly enough, largely despite and not because of the United States. In general, we have backed autocrats, kings and despots in the hope that out cash would buy us allies in our war on whatever. For the most part, these allies tend to enrich themselves and their fellows while ensuring that their countries are most certainly not democracies.

Looking back on our own revolution, it should have come as no surprise that people in the Middle East would grow weary of living under the rule of despots and would rise up against them. While Egypt is the main focus of the media, Iran is also a place of potential revolution. The leadership in Iran is doing its best to keep its people focused against the United States and Mubarek. The official line is that Iran supports the people of Egypt against Mubarek and they are urging the installation of an Islamic government comparable to that in Iran. Obviously enough, Iran is hoping that the situation in Egypt will end up in their favor-either gaining Egypt as an ally or, at the very least, seeing the United States and Israel lose Egypt as an ally.

I suspect that the Iranian leadership is also a bit worried. After all, revolution can be a contagious sort of thing and seeing the people of Egypt revolting against a despot might serve to inspire Iranians to rise up once more against their own despots.

This upheaval could prove to be a good for the people of the region as well as the United States. In terms of the people, the result could be the creation of democratic states. Or, at the least, states that are not as repressive and autocratic in character. This change could, over the course of several years, create more stability in the region and lower the threat of terror by addressing some of the motivating and enabling factors.

However, it is well worth considering the lesson of Iran. That revolution resulted in the creation of an oppressive regime that has been consistently hostile to the United States.  While the Brotherhood in Egypt seems to be relatively moderate, there is the real possibility that radical elements might take the reins of the upheaval. There is also the reasonable concern that those who come to power will resent the fact that America has been a major force in keeping Mubarek in power and not regard the United States as a friend. The possibility of a protracted struggle that plunges Egypt into chaos is also well worth worrying about.

Ideally, the outcome will be resolved by peaceful elections and result in the dawn of a new era for the people of Egypt. However, the history of the Middle East suggests otherwise.

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Unrest in the Middle East

Posted in Politics by Michael LaBossiere on January 29, 2011
CAIRO, EGYPT - JUNE 4:  An Egyptian man lights...
Image by Getty Images via @daylife

Obviously, this post’s title is almost eternally accurate. However, the focus today will be on the more recent unrest, namely that in Egypt.

Many people in Egypt appear to have had quite enough of the government and are actively engaged in protesting the regime. In response, the government has attempted to suppress the protests, cut off communication, and silence the media. This is, of course, to be expected from this sort of government.

While Obama praised the folks in Tunisia, the administration is taking a different approach to Egypt. This is hardly surprising-though the government has been fairly repressive and is hardly a bastion of freedom, it has been fairly consistent in being on what we see as the right side of American interests in the region.

The situation in Egypt does present the usual interesting dilemma for Americans. On one hand, we profess a set of values that include freedom, self-government, democracy, and justice. These values and our own historical revolution would seem to give us good reasons to support those who are pushing for freedom against a repressive state. On the other hand, we seem to always be in a war against an opposing ideology and this leads us to support almost any government that promises that it will be on our side against the communists/terrorists or whoever the enemy is at the moment in question. That these governments are often repressive, undemocratic and lacking in freedom never seems to be a major point of concern-at least for those in power.

While it is tempting to see this policy as being pragmatic and realistic (“yeah, we talk democracy, but that is for us…we need these states to repress their people so that they don’t go over to the commies/terrorists/whoever”), it is well worth considering the price that must be paid for this.

The largest price is, of course, paid by the people who live under the repressive regimes. They get to live without freedom (or at least far less freedom) so that the United States can have a “reliable” ally in the region or so that American interests can be advanced.

We also pay a price. The first part of the price is that we become hypocrites: we speak of freedom while tolerating and supporting tyrannies and repressive states. This, of course, seems to be quite contrary to our professed commitment to democracy, freedom, liberty and all that. Given how we throw these words about, we should be the ones supporting revolutions against repressive states, rather than trying so often to keep them propped up against their own people.

Second, we pay a rather ironic price: our efforts to prop up repressive states as allies against the enemy of the day sometimes ends up leading to that state falling to that enemy (Vietnam) or another enemy (Iran). People tend to remember who backed the government that jailed their relatives and murdered their friends.

Of course, it can be argued that the people in the Middle East are not yet ready for democracy and must be kept under the watchful eye of authoritarian states. It could also be argued that the threat posed by radical Islam means that we have to support states that will keep repressing the radicals. Of course, this strategy might (as noted above) turn out to have a result that is opposite of the one we desire.

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Posted in Ethics, Law, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on August 10, 2010
Logo used by Wikileaks

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Some secrets should (morally) be kept. Others should be exposed. The question for any specific secret is, of course, is whether it belongs in the first or second category.

Naturally, I am thinking about the WikiLeaks leak of the information about the war in Afghanistan. However, this can also be generalized to all such leaks.

Some government secrets do seem to fall into the first category. For example, leaking the names of undercover agents would seem to be wrong. Other government secrets fall into the second category, such as misdeeds being carried out by politicians or crimes being committed by officials.

Naturally enough, the folks in government tend to insist that all their secrets fall into the first category. They invoke national security and so on to keep things in the shadows. As involved parties, they can hardly be expected to consistently reveal what is really going on. As such, there does seem to be a real and legitimate need of leakers (and gadflies, as Socrates would argue).

As far as justifying leaks, the following reasons can be given.

First, in a democracy the citizens seem to have a right and need to know what is being done. Otherwise, they cannot make informed choices when voting. Also, they have the moral responsibility to be aware of what is being done in their name. If the people in government are unwilling to provide this information, then leaking would be justified.

Second, people in power have a natural tendency to seek to conceal what they are really doing and a desire to avoid criticism. This was true in Socrates time and is true today. Since these people are generally not inclined to reveal the truth, then leakers have to ensure that the people know what is going on in the shadows of their government.

Of course, there is a serious concern here: what should be leaked and what should be kept secret? In short, what do the people have a right to know and what is right to conceal?

In this case, I would go with Thoreau-the individual must examine his conscience and the information and make a moral judgment as to what to do. What she decides might be the right thing or the wrong thing, but that is true of any moral decision. To say that people should always rely on the judgment of those who are keeping the secrets is as mistaken as saying that all secrets should always be leaked.

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Repeating the Cold War Mistake

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on July 9, 2010
Cold War Allegiances in Africa, 1980
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No, this is not about the Russian spies. Not even the hot one.

During the Cold War the United States was willing to support almost any government that was willing to claim it was on our side or at least was willing to claim it would oppose our enemies. We were not very picking during this time period and backed some rather corrupt and repressive governments. We were also quite willing to support non-governmental actors, such as the folks in Afghanistan.

While this sort of support did help us succeed in the  Cold War, we are now paying for these mistakes. To use two obvious examples, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan can be rather directly tied back to what we did during the Cold War. In the case of Afghanistan, we backed the groups who were attacking the Soviets but we failed to do anything positive in the region. Now were are in the role of the Russians and trying to bring order to the land.

Now we are in yet another war, this one against terror. As in the Cold War, we are willing to support governments who say they will help us. While this is not a bad thing, we are quite willing to purchase the support of the rulers by tolerating corruption, repression and undemocratic behavior. The best current  examples of this are in Africa.

While it makes some sense to buy allies, the Cold War (and in particular Vietnam) should have taught us that supporting such “allies” can be a costly mistake. Also, there is the ethical concern: we speak of democracy, freedom and human rights, yet seem to be willing to look away when we think that “practical politics” demands that we do so. However, principles that are easily set aside for what seems convenient cannot be worth very much.

Since ethics gets little traction in politics, it makes sense to point out that supporting such governments does not support or expand democracy. Rather, it merely supports tyranny and corruption. Such support also seems to have a historical tendency to create more enemies for America rather than creating solid allies.

Of course, it can be argued that we need to deal with the corrupt and even evil rulers because our foes will be eager to do so. That is, it is better that the devil is on our payroll rather than on our enemies’. China, for example, is eager to do business with the rulers of Africa and they have no qualms about human rights, democracy or other such concerns. As such, if we are unwilling to look away while handing over guns and cash, China will be happy to do so. This is, of course, a great situation for the corrupt rulers and they do not have to worry much about the people-at least until the next coup attempt rolls around.

Ethically, this is rather questionable. After all, the fact that someone else will happily support evil is no justification for us doing so. However, the practical aspect of this is rather strong and perhaps it can be argued that while this approach is bad, it is better than the available alternatives.

This situation cannot, of course, be entirely laid at the door of America and China. The people of Africa allow their rulers to act the way they do and hence they bear some of the responsibility. If Africa had stable, democratic and non-corrupt states, then I believe the United States would be very happy to support them, as we support Germany, Japan, France and our other democratic allies.

While it might be tempting to try to engage in democracy building once again, we have seen how that tends to turn out. Democracy and effective government seems to be something that must be built from within rather than imposed from without. That said, we can do more to support honest, democratic and ethical leaders-providing we can find any there…or here.

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