A Philosopher's Blog

Refugees & Terrorists

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on November 18, 2015

In response to the recent terrorist attack in Paris (but presumably not those outside the West, such as in Beirut) many governors have stated they will try to prevent the relocation of Syrian refugees into their states. These states include my home state of Maine, my university state of Ohio and my adopted state of Florida. Recognizing a chance to score political points, some Republican presidential candidates have expressed their opposition to allowing more Syrian refugees into the country. Some, such as Ted Cruz, have proposed a religious test for entry into the country: Christian refugees would be allowed, while Muslim refugees would be turned away.

On the one hand, it is tempting to dismiss this as mere political posturing and pandering to fear, racism and religious intolerance. On the other hand, it is worth considering the legitimate worries that lie under the posturing and the pandering. One worry is, of course, the possibility that terrorists could masquerade as refugees to enter the country. Another worry is that refugees who are not already terrorists might be radicalized and become terrorists.

In matters of politics, it is rather unusual for people to operate on the basis of consistently held principles. Instead, views tend to be held on the basis of how a person feels about a specific matter or what the person thinks about the political value of taking a specific position. However, a proper moral assessment requires considering the matter in terms of general principles and consistency.

In the case of the refugees, the general principle justifying excluding them would be something like this: it is morally acceptable to exclude from a state groups who include people who might pose a threat. This principle seems, in general, quite reasonable. After all, excluding people who might present a threat serves to protect people from harm.

Of course, this principle is incredibly broad and would justify excluding almost anyone and everyone. After all, nearly every group of people (tourists, refugees, out-of-staters, men, Christians, atheists, cat fanciers, football players, and so on) include people who might pose a threat.  While excluding everyone would increase safety, it would certainly make for a rather empty state. As such, this general principle should be subject to some additional refinement in terms of such factors as the odds that a dangerous person will be in the group in question, the harm such a person is likely to do, and the likely harms from excluding such people.

As noted above, the concern about refugees from Syria (and the Middle East) is that they might include terrorists or terrorists to be. One factor to consider is the odds that this will occur. The United States has a fairly extensive (and slow) vetting process for refugees and, as such, it is not surprising that of “745,000 refugees resettled since September 11th, only two Iraqis in Kentucky have been arrested on terrorist charges, for aiding al-Qaeda in Iraq.”  This indicates that although the chance of a terrorist arriving masquerading as a refugee is not zero, it is exceptionally unlikely.

It might be countered, using the usual hyperbolic rhetoric of such things, that if even one terrorist gets into the United States, that would be an intolerable disaster. While I do agree that this would be a bad thing, there is the matter of general principles. In this case, would it be reasonable to operate on a principle that the possibility of even one bad outcome is sufficient to warrant a broad ban on something? That, I would contend, would generally seem to be unreasonable. This principle would justify banning guns, nuts, cars and almost all other things. It would also justify banning tourists and visitors from other states. After all, tourists and people from other states do bad things in states from time to time. As such, this principle seems unreasonable.

There is, of course, the matter of the political risk. A politician who supports allowing refugees to come into her state will be vilified by certain pundits and a certain news outlet if even a single incident happens. This, of course, would be no more reasonable than vilifying a politician who supports the second amendment just because a person is wrongly shot in her state.  But, reason is usually absent in the realm of political punditry.

Another factor to consider is the harm that would be done by excluding such refugees. If they cannot be settled someplace, they will be condemned to live as involuntary nomads and suffer all that entails. There is also the ironic possibility that such excluded refugees will become, as pundits like to say, radicalized. After all, people who are deprived of hope and who are treated as pariahs tend to become a bit resentful and some might decide to actually become terrorists. There is also the fact that banning refugees provides a nice bit of propaganda for the terrorist groups.

Given that the risk is very small and the harm to the refugees would be significant, the moral thing to do is to allow the refugees into the United States. Yes, one of them could be a terrorist. But so could a tourist. Or some American coming from another state. Or already in the state.

In addition to the sort of utilitarian calculation just made, an argument can also be advanced on the basis of moral duties to others, even when acting on such a duty involves risk. In terms of religious-based ethics, a standard principle is to love thy neighbor as thyself, which would seem to require that the refugees be aided, even at a slight risk. There is also the golden rule: if the United States fell into chaos and war, Americans fleeing the carnage would want other people to help them. Even though we Americans have a reputation for violence. As such, we need to accept refugees.

As a closing point, we Americans love to make claims about the moral superiority and exceptionalism of our country. Talk is cheap, so if we want to prove our alleged superiority and exceptionalism, we have to act in an exceptional way. Refusing to help people out of fear is to show a lack of charity, compassion and courage. This is not what an exceptional nation would do.

 

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Winning in Syria

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on September 6, 2013

As a general rule, it is a wise idea to properly consider victory conditions before engaging in military action. This consideration also involves assessing the means by which to achieve the proposed victory and the consequences of both success and failure.

In the past, we have gone off to war without proper consideration of the victory conditions and with delusions regarding how the war would play out. Iraq is, of course, the blood-stained example of this.

In some ways, Syria is reminiscent of Iraq: we have a president proposing military action based on claims about weapons of mass destruction. In the case of Iraq, we never found any such weapons. In the case of Syria, it seems rather certain that chemical weapons are present. It also seems likely that they have been used by someone. It is certain that thousands have been killed and millions of people have been displaced. There is obviously a need for something to be done regarding Syria, but what remains to be determined is what can be done and what should be done.

Because of the American experience with Iraq and Afghanistan, President Obama has been proposing a very limited approach with no “boots on the ground.” The main objectives are to punish the government for allegedly using chemical weapons and to thus deter it from using them again (assuming they were used before). As such, one victory condition would be to punish Syria and another would be to deter the use of chemical weapons.

On the face of it, blowing stuff up would be punishment—so that is an easy condition to meet. Of course, there is the question of whether or not the punishment would be just. Deterrence is rather more difficult to achieve, although these seems to be no new evidence that Syrian forces used chemical weapons again (assuming they were used once). One rather important matter is that even if the Syrian government were deterred in regards to chemical weapons, they would still presumably be free to continue the battle with conventional weapons. As such, victory would seem to be that Assad’s forces are killing people with bullets, shells and bombs rather than killing them with chemical weapons. I suppose that might be seen as some sort of victory.

There is also the broader goal/victory condition of regime change. Although the proposed attack is not supposed to be aimed at toppling the government, one objective seems to be to get rid of Assad. This raises numerous concerns.

One is, obviously enough, determining what it would take for him to relinquish power. Can he be removed by diplomacy or will force be required? Another is, also obviously, what would happen if he leaves or is removed from power. As it stands, the opposition to Assad is divided into various factions and each has its own distinct agenda. If Assad left or was removed, then that victory could lead to some rather negative consequences. For example, the civil war might shift to a battle between the various opposed factions and the killing would continue. As another example, an extremist group might eventually take power. As another example, Syria might become divided into zones controlled by various factions—perhaps similar in some ways to the divided Somalia.  A failed state would obviously be a problem for everyone with interests in the region.  There is also the real possibility of significant outside intervention as well. Iran, Russia and China certainly do not want Syria to collapse and Israel certainly does not want to allow its bitter enemies to gain a solid base of operation in Syria.

One thing is rather clear—we cannot bomb Syria into becoming a democracy. It might also be the case that the only way for us to not lose in Syria is to not become entangled in the civil war. While it is horrible that people are being slaughtered and displaced, we most likely lack the capability to make things any better in Syria. After all we also cannot bomb Syria into becoming a stable, war-free country.

What we can do, which we are already doing to some degree, is to provide humanitarian aid to those who have been displaced by the war and to protect them from violence. After all, by leaving they have made it clear they do not wish to be part of the civil war and keeping them from being murdered would not be morally ambiguous.

 

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Cain’s Harassment Problem

Posted in Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on November 2, 2011
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Politico recently stirred up a media frenzy by posting a story about accusation that Herman Cain engaged in “inappropriate behavior.” According to Politico, two women accused Cain of said behavior while he was the head of the National Restaurant Association in the 1990s. While details have been somewhat lacking, it has been claimed that two women received payouts and left the association after making complaints against Cain.

Since important details are not available, it is rather difficult to assess the impact of this on Cain’s campaign. While it is tempting for people who might not like Cain or his views to run with this accusation, this would be rather unfair. After all, it is not clear what actually happened. It is also important to note that it is not uncommon for businesses to make a payment (which might or might not be considered a settlement) to avoid going through a harassment trial. This can occur even when the accusations are lacking the merit that would be required for a ruling against the business. After all, the legal expenses and the cost to the business in lost hours could easily exceed the cost of a payout. As  such, the fact that the matter was settled by a payout does not indicate that Cain actually did anything wrong.

Another point worth considering is that the 1990s were, in many ways, a high water point for what some call “political correctness” and a case could be made that it was relatively easy to bring charges of harassment against a person. This is, of course, subject to debate-but is still worth keeping in mind as a point of concern.

Naturally, though, it might be expected that a payout situation must have at least some basis. After all, if companies just handed out money for any old false accusation, they would soon be out of business. That said, what might be considered basis enough for a trial might not, in fact, be sexual harassment. After all, an accusation is very different from a conviction. Thus, even if there was a basis to the charge against Cain this basis might be something that is rather trivial (such as Cain’s claim that the charge arose from him saying that the woman was the same height as his wife and making a gesture indicating height). Then again, it might be far more serious-as this is being written, the details are still unknown.

There are various factors in Cain’s favor. The first, as he pointed out, is that he has only had one (or maybe two) accusations during his entire career in business. While people have been quick to point out that one accusation is rather bad, it is worth noting that there does not seem to be an established tendency on his part to engage in such behavior. Given that the details of the incidents are not known, it could well be the case that the accusations were lacking in merit (as he claims) and this would certainly help explain why these were the only incidents (or incident).

The second, as Cain also pointed out, is that other people have testified to his integrity and character. As it now stands, the evidence seems to favor Cain in terms of him being a decent person and not the sort that goes around sexually harassing women. This could, of course, change with new revelations.

As far as the damage this will do to his campaign, it is natural to compare Cain’s situation to that of someone like Bill Clinton. As such, while this news (or rather old news) is not something Cain would have wanted to come up at this time, it seems like something that will fade and, of course, we have had presidents that have far worse (even assuming Cain did something at all).

That said, one other point of concern is how Cain handled the damage control. While his campaign folks had been aware of the Politico story for quite some time, the matter seemed to catch Cain by surprise and he handled the matter rather badly-at least until the end of the day. He did admit, in a nice bit of honesty, that he wished he had handled the situation at the start the way he handled it in the last interview of the day.

His lack of preparation for such an incident as well as his handling of the situation does raise some questions about how well he will handle the presidency. This is not to say that we want a president who is adept at handling “scandals” but rather to say that the president should be able to handle situations effectively. If Cain is slow to master the impact of a story drawn from over decade ago, one might wonder how he will fare with something like a crisis in the Middle East or another economic downturn.  There is also the concern about how he will handle the inevitable troubles of office that will lead the press to ask about various real or alleged difficulties or misdeeds.

However, it could be argued that Cain was actually genuinely baffled by the impact of the story and the fuss being made over it. Something that happened over a decade ago and was settled with a payout, one might argue, is probably not going to really stand out in the mind of a man who has been a major businessman and who beat colon cancer. Also, if the incident is as minor as Cain claims that it is, he would no doubt not have bothered to prepared a defense or even really worried about it. That said, it might be expected that he should have still been able to handle it better. But, to Cain’s credit he got back into the ring to fight the story and seemed to show that even if he was not ready to handle such things, he is at least a fast learner. I was also impressed by the fact that he did not resort to bashing the “liberal media” as a defense, but engaged the media in its own den. This does indicate that Cain has substance and not just empty talking points.

As a final point, this could actually help Cain by motivating his supporters to his defense and it will also appeal to the folks who do think that the liberal media is out to get conservatives.

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The Ethics of Protesting

Posted in Business, Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on October 28, 2011
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This past year has witnessed many protests ranging from those in the Middle East to the latest Occupy protests that are spreading around the world. Most recently Melissa Brookstone of the Tea Party Nation decided to get in on the protesting by calling on America’s small business owners to take the following pledge:

I, an American small business owner, part of the class that produces the vast majority of real, wealth producing jobs in this country, hereby resolve that I will not hire a single person until this war against business and my country is stopped.

This is being presented as an act of protest rather than as being an attempt to damage the American economy more in an attempt to lower Obama’s chances of being re-elected in 2012. Rather than debate this issue, I will, instead assume (for the sake of the discussion) that this is an act of protest. Likewise, I will take the Occupiers as being engaged in an act of protest rather than attributing to them any sinister motives.

In some cases protests raise little in the way of ethical concerns. To be specific, a protest that does not cause any meaningful harm or interference can generally be regarded as morally inoffensive. For example, if a group of people peacefully assemble on private property and make a statement of protest against some perceived injustice, that would most likely be morally inoffensive. However, some protests do cause actual harm or interference and this would tend to make them of greater moral concern.

For example, the Occupy protestors occupy areas and thus interfere with access on the part of other people. Police are often deployed in response to the protestors and this uses up police resources. As another example, people who protest by going on strike or by boycotting a business can do harm to that business (and the employees of that business). As a third example, if small business owners decide to take Brookstone’s pledge, they would presumably be harming the people they would have otherwise hired.

In the case of protests that interfere with others, these can clearly be such that they violate other people’s legitimate rights. For example, if protestors occupy a park, then other people are denied access to do what they would otherwise do. As another example, if protestors occupy a business, they are interfering with the rights of the owner and the employees.  As such, these sorts of protests would seem to require some moral justification.

One rather obvious and sensible standard is that the harm done by the protest should be proportional to the harm that is being protested. It also should go without saying that the harm needs to be real rather than merely imagined or a fabrication. Another reasonable standard is that there should not be a less harmful redress available that could be reasonably expected to solve the problem. After all, if the conflict can be resolved with less harm by these means, that would certainly seem to be the right (and sensible) thing to do. A third standard worth considering is whether or not the harm of the protest is suffered primarily by the target of the protest or by others. After all, protesting a wrong by  primarily  harming  people who are innocent of wrongdoing (or who are less significantly less responsible than others) would certainly seem to merely create more wrongs than it would protest them.

To use a simple example, imagine that a student fails my class because s/he never does the work and then disrupts my office hours and classes with shouts of “LaBossiere is unfair!” This  would seem to be unacceptable. After all, the harm was self-inflicted and would hardly warrant interfering with the education of other students (who had no role in the student’s failure). Also, there is an established process for disputing grades that do not require such behavior.

In the case of protests that are boycotts or non-hiring protests, these would seem to be well within the rights of the individuals involved in said protests. After all, I am under no special moral obligation to patronize a business or, if I owned a business, to employ anyone. As such, these protests would seem to fall clearly withing the realm of being morally acceptable (although there could be some exceptions).

That said, it does seem reasonable to hold that a person could be acting within his/her rights, yet still be acting unfairly and thus perhaps in a way that is at least somewhat wrong. Such protests, it would seem, could still be evaluated by the suggested standards given above.

For example, suppose that people are protesting a business that practices racial discrimination (such as giving minorities worse rates on loans simply because they are minorities). Provided that the protest is aimed primarily at the decision makers and the harm inflicted is in balance with the offense (for example, boycotting the company as opposed to fire bombing their offices), then the protest would seem to be morally acceptable (and perhaps laudable).

As another example, suppose that people are protesting an oil  company that has poor environmental practices. The protestors focus on not patronizing the independently owned gas stations (which follow the rules regarding the environment) that fall under the brand name of the company and end up putting some of them out of business, but this has almost no impact on the parent company’s bottom line. In this case, there would certainly be some very reasonable doubts about the morality of such protests.

As a final example, consider the call to not hire people to protest the alleged war on business and America. Even if it is assumed that such a war exists this sort of protest would seem to inflict the actual harm on the innocent potential employees rather than the alleged perpetrators of the war. To use an analogy, this would seem to be like protesting against a business not by boycotting or protesting that business, but by going after individual employees in the hopes that the protest would someone impact the business.  Also, there is a clear means of redress in regards to this problem, namely the upcoming elections. As such, this sort of protest would seem morally dubious (at best).

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Iran’s Fashion Police

Posted in Law, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on June 19, 2011
President of Iran @ Columbia University.

Apparently ties are also banned.

It is often the little things that reveal the big things. Iran is currently cranking out laws that are intended (supposedly) to fight Western and un-Islamic influences. These laws, at first glance, seem like little things. In fact, these laws seem like parodies of law. However, they are quite serious and reveal some significant truths about Iran.

The current laws include rules against men wearing necklaces and women wearing scarves that are too loose, overcoats that are too tight, and pants that are too short. These rules are, of course, reminiscent of the dress codes of some strict schools and, as such, the laws treat the citizens of Iran as if they were bad children.

There is even a law planned to ban dog ownership dogs apparently present a dire cultural threat to Iran. As the Iranian leadership seems to see it, Iranians want dogs not because humans like dogs and have partnered with dogs almost since humans have been around. Rather, they want dogs so they can imitate Westerners. While this might be true in some cases, I am reasonably confident in my claim that dog ownership is not an exclusively Western thing and that it dates back long before the rise of the West. I am also fairly confident in claiming that people often own dogs simply because they like them. Then again, maybe I am saying this merely because I am part of the Western Dog Conspiracy to spread western canine (preferably husky) dominance throughout the world.

Oddly enough, there are no laws aimed at ridding Iran of Western inventions such as the automobile, the airplane, computers, vaccines, phones, television, machine guns, or nuclear weapons. This seems to be a serious oversight. After all, if Western necklaces are a grave threat to Iran, one can only imagine the dangers posed by all that Western technology.

As far as the big things behind these little things, these laws give the regime an excuse to send over 70,000 “moral police” into action. This enables the regime to launch a campaign of intimidation under the guise of defending the citizens from Western influences. This strongly suggests that the rulers of Iran are rather worried that their hold is weakening and that they believe they need to crack down on the people, so as to prolong their time in power.

History shows that the boot can keep some people in line all the time. It can keep all of the people in line some of the time. But it cannot keep all the people in line all the time. At some point, the people grow weary of that boot pushing their faces into the ground and they rise up against their “leaders.” It is, I suspect, merely a matter of time before Iran has another revolution. It will probably be bloody and awful-tyrants do not yield their thrones lightly.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“It’s not only about clamping down on clothing, but they are spreading panic and fear by sending out this much of police into the streets under the name of this plan, to control the society. It’s unbelievable to see a regime that is not only concerned about its own survival, but it goes into your personal life and interferes in that,” one resident told the paper.

 

 

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Principles & Pragmatism

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on April 1, 2011
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While the United States and NATO has been busily bombing parts of Libya, Obama only recently presented a speech discussing the justification for that action. He also addressed the question of why the United States was intervening in Libya while allowing seemingly similar uprisings to go unsupported. While this oversimplifies the matter, his basic reply was that the United States is acting in accord with its principles, but is primarily acting in accord with its pragmatic interests. In the case of Libya, our professed values happen to coincide with our professed interests. In the case of other places, such as Syria, our professed values are at odds with out professed interests. Hence, we are bombing Libya and not bombing Syria (and doing nothing but support Saudi Arabia).

Some pundits have taken to calling this approach the “Obama Doctrine”, which is a rather silly thing to do. After all, a look at American presidents shows that this sort of approach is actually the “what all American presidents have done and will do doctrine.” Obama’s major change is that he reduced the rhetoric and was honest about the pragmatic aspects of the matter. That, I think, is to his credit.

While this situation raises many moral topics, I will focus on the specific matter of pragmatism and principle. This has, of course, been discussed by thinkers far greater than I, such as Kant. To steal a bit from that fine fellow, there seems to be a clear distinction between acting from moral principles (crudely put, doing what is right because it is right) and acting from pragmatism (doing what seems most likely to serve one’s perceived non-moral interests). In some cases these can, of course, be in harmony. After all, there is no reason why what is right might not also serve to advance one’s practical interests.

However, it is not these situations that provide the test of one’s principles. Rather, the morally challenging situations are those in which one’s principles and perceived practical interests are not in harmony. In one such scenario, one’s principles might provide a moral reason to act while such action might be against one’s practical interests. For example, supporting an uprising in Syria would seem to match America’s professed principles while doing so would seem to be against our perceived interests.  In another scenario, one practical interests might demand action that goes against one’s principles. For example, supporting dictators in the Middle East was long seen as being in our perceived interest while clearly being against our professed values.

On the face of it, to act only when our professed principles and perceived practical interests coincide would seem to show that our principles effectively amount to little or nothing. Truly having principles would seem to require that we act on them even when it is not in our perceived practical interest to do so. This also seems to require that we refrain from some actions, even when taking those actions would seem to be in our perceived interests.  Otherwise what do our principles amount to other than empty words? In any case, we can hardly make a claim to moral goodness or principles if we merely act on the basis of perceived practical self interests and dress it up with high sounding phrases about freedom and rights.

This is not to say that we must be moral saints and always act on principle even when doing so is terribly harmful and contrary to our perceived interests. After all, being principled means doing what is correct and not what is self-destructive or beyond what can reasonable be expected. We may, of course, properly have interests. However, to make a claim to principles these principles must play a greater role than merely dressing up actions we would do anyway on practical grounds.

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Middle East Uprisings: Fueled by Biofuel?

Posted in Uncategorized by Michael LaBossiere on March 30, 2011
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While rebellions and uprisings are caused by a variety of factors, one factor that often appears is the high cost (or unavailability) of food items-especially staple items like wheat (and bread), rice and sugar. The latest uprisings in the Middle East are no exception and food (or lack thereof) has clearly been a motivating factor in getting people into the streets. While Napoleon said “an army marches on its stomach”, it can also be said that much of the stability of a society rests on its stomach. A hungry population is often a rebellious population. While the world produces an abundant amount of food, food prices have been steadily increasing.

While some of the increases in food prices has been attributed to food speculators, some of it has come from what might strike some as an unlikely source: biofuel.

While the United States has long subsidized agriculture, this really picked up in regards to biofuel, which is fuel created from organic material (primarily plants). In the United States, corn based biofuel has enjoyed considerable government support and this has contributed to rising food prices in at least two ways. First, converting corn (and other food crops) to biofuel reduces the amount of corn available. This will, naturally enough, increase the cost of the remaining corn. Second, switching cropland over to growing for biofuel rather than food means that there will be less food available and the remaining food will be more expensive. Throw in some food speculation, an increase in oil prices (which impacts growing and transportation costs), and some crop failures and the result is the high cost of food.

The reduced supply and greater cost means that people who are less wealthy will have a harder time getting the food they need. Not surprisingly, the people of the Middle East were hit fairly hard by this due to the relative poor economic conditions (which have certainly not been helped by the selfishness and avarice of various dictators and their cronies).

In a nice bit of irony, the unrest in the Middle East has been used to justify raising the price of oil. This makes biofuel even more attractive and hence could spur on increased production of biofuel at the expense of food production, thus leading to even higher food prices. This, in turn, could lead to even more social unrest and social ills. Of course, this can also mean amazing profits for those with the foresight and resources to cash in on this situation. For others, of course, this can mean a time of hardship, suffering and even death.

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A Cure for Tyrants

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on March 22, 2011
Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679)

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The revolutions in the Middle East have served to draw attention to the fact that many people live under the power of dictators and tyrants. This is, of course, not true merely of the Middle East. Many of the people in Africa live in abject poverty while their “leaders” enjoy lives of excess. In most cases, these tyrants are backed by outside states and receive support in return for access to natural resources or for how well they serve strategic interests. In many cases, the United States has a hand in keeping these people in power. Given that we are supposed to be a democratic state committed to justice for all, this sort of behavior seems especially wicked. After all, given our professed values and revolutionary history, we should be crushing tyrants or, at the very least, not lending them support and comfort.

It might, of course, be argued that we are acting in a realistic manner. In the global game of politics and power, we cannot afford be to impeded by such things as ethics or principles. We need to play to win and this means being willing to support tyrants who rob their people and control them with the tanks, tear gas and torture implements we fund or provide. This does have a certain appeal and has been argued for by folks such as Glaucon and Hobbes. Of course, taking this approach does rob us of any claim to moral goodness and empties our talk of justice and rights.

It might also be argued that people get the government they deserve. If, for example, the dictator of Equatorial Guinea and his family loot the government, it is only because the people (many of whom live on $2 a day) allow him to do so. They could, one might argue, rise up and provide a cure for their tyrant. That they elect not to do so shows that they have consented to this rule, however tyrannical it might seem.

Of course, there is the fact that this dictator, like so many others, is backed by outside powers (like us). As such, the people are at a terrible disadvantage-they are up against someone who has far more resources as well as outside backing. Hence, their alleged consent is the “consent” that an unarmed person gives to the robber who has a gun pressed to their head-hardly consent at all.

There is also the argument that while tyrants are bad, they are (in a Hobbesian style argument)better than the alternatives. Better to have a single tyrant that maintains some degree of order than chaos or an even worse tyrant. Also, history seems to show that tyrants are often replaced by other tyrants-so why try to cure the problem of tyranny if the cure will not take? As such, the people should simply endure the tyranny to avoid something worse. Even if they try to rebel, the result will be death and destruction followed by a new tyrant.

At this point, some might point to Iraq: the United States removed a tyrant and poured billions into constructing something that is sort of nation like. Perhaps the United States or other countries could use that sort of cure: roll in, kill the tyrants and rebuild the nations.

While this has  certain imperial appeal, the practical fact is that we cannot afford to do this to every dictator. There is also the concern that even if we do roll out one dictator, we cannot be even reasonably confident that the results will be better for the people.

One rather extreme option would be to simply assassinate tyrants. This would be far more cost effective than a war and would, on Lockean grounds, be morally justified. Of course, there are the concerns that doing this would result in hostility towards the United States and that killing one tyrant would merely pave the way for another (or chaos). However, there is a certain appeal in ridding the world of the wicked and it is easy enough to kill anyone. After all, tyrants are just humans and a single well placed shot or knife will kill them easily enough.  If potential tyrants realized that the reward of their tyranny would be death, then they might be less inclined to become tyrants.

There would also seem to be a certain rough justice in making tyrants live in the sort of fear that they inflict on their own people. To steal a bit from Hobbes, if the people need to be kept in line by fear of the sovereign, it would seem to make equal sense that the sovereigns should be kept in check by fear as well. Just as a citizen can expect to be harmed when they cross the line, so too should a sovereign expect the same justice. As such, perhaps the proper cure for tyrants is death.

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Capsizing the Ship of State

Posted in Business, Ethics, Law, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on March 7, 2011
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One perk of being a professor is that I get a chance to talk to experts in other fields about various issues. Recently I was discussing the matter of income inequality in America in the context of both historical empires and recent events in the Middle East.

No doubt some folks will accuse me of being a “professional leftist” or engaging in “class warfare” by discussing such matters. However, I will show that my goal is not to cause class warfare but rather to argue how it can be avoided. My motivations are grounded both in morality and patriotism.

Income inequality in America has increased significantly since the middle of the 1970s. Those Americans in the lower 80% have seen a reduction in their share of the big economic pie. In stark contrast, the top 1% has seen its slice expand over 120%. Now the top 10% of Americans earn roughly 75% of all the income. As such, 90% of Americans only get 25% of the pie. As is often said, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.

Not surprisingly, some folks will argue that this is a good thing or at least fair. People can speak about trickle down economics and claim that the rich earned their income. I will not argue any of this here. Rather, I will focus on the consequences of this concentration of wealth.

While there are many factors that lead to the fall of empires, there are at least two that are directly linked to income disparities. The first is that the disparity in income is harmful to the general body of society. To use an analogy, society is very much like a human body (which is nicely illustrated by the cover of Hobbes’ Leviathan). It has various parts that make it up and these parts have varying degrees of importance. However, all need resources to survive. In the case of the body, if some organs receive the vast majority of the resources while the others do not receive enough, then those parts of the body will weaken, wither away or even die. In some cases, such as with fat, this is fine and even desirable. However, in other cases this can be very bad indeed and lead to the death of the whole. The same applies to the political body: its parts need enough resources to survive otherwise this can spell the death of the body.

Assuming this is correct, it follows that extreme income inequality is actually a threat to the entire society. Even if the extremely rich argue that they earn every cent, this does not change the fact that such concentration of wealth can prove to be rather harmful.

One obvious reply is that it is not the concentration of wealth that is the big worry. Rather, the worry is that the other parts of the body have enough resources to keep going. As such, there could be great inequality in income while the body as a whole does well.

This is, of course, a reasonable reply. Obviously enough, we are currently in a situation of massive inequality, yet the body as a whole certainly seems healthy enough. No doubt the Romans said the same thing. However, this does not entail that the inequality is not harmful nor does it entail that inequality can continue to grow without leading to harms to the political body as a whole.

Some might suspect that I will call for a redistribution of wealth and are ready to lash me with the whip of socialism. However, I do not advocate forced distribution of wealth via socialistic means. Rather, what is needed is a more equitable tax system and an economy that is more open to competition. Currently the state often serves the needs of the established wealthy very well and protects them. This leads, as it always has, to an ever increasing concentration of wealth. This is not due to a “free market”, but largely due to a market that is manipulated by politicians who are guided by those who hold this wealth. See, for example, the state of Wisconsin.

A second factor is that citizens need to believe (correctly or incorrectly) that they have a stake in society. When citizens believe they no longer have a stake or something to gain, they tend to “check out” of society. This can begin with simply electing not to vote and can end in actual rebellion.

Income, obviously enough, plays a significant role in this belief. True, propaganda can be used to convince people that they have a stake in society and people can also believe they have a stake based on factors other than income. However, income is still an important factor as shown by the situation in the Middle East.

The countries in the Middle East that have been rocked by revolution have many factors in common. One of these is that that wealth is highly concentrated.  Others include the fact that unemployment was high and opportunities where low. Naturally, the repressive nature of the states is also a critical factor. However, the economic inequality has clearly been a major driving force.

Interestingly enough, the folks at Fox News, such as Glenn Beck,  have claimed that the events in the Middle East are comparable to the protests in Wisconsin. Interestingly enough, Beck was right to make the comparison. The people in the Middle East realized that the system was favoring a small, wealthy minority and had little or nothing to offer the majority. Hence, they checked out of the system and rebelled. In the case of Wisconsin, people are seeing that the state government is beholding to the Koch brothers and is intent of serving the interests of the wealthy minority at the expense of the many. Hence, people are protesting. Obviously, the Middle East is a far more extreme situation, but many of the core causes are the same.

Currently, most Americans have good reasons to stay checked in, even though many people do not vote. However, the concentration of wealth and the economic situation means that more people will have less reason to stay checked in. The pundits at Fox, the forces behind much of the Tea Party and others are doing their best to keep people convinced that corporate greed and selfishness are virtues and are in the best interest of the people. They are also working overtime to brand any suggestions that the inequality is a problem as “class warfare” or socialism. Some people do buy into this propaganda. Hence, you see lower income people rushing to defend corporations, the rich, and the free market despite the fact that the system ensures that they will remain in the lower classes. It is indeed a brilliant trick to get such people to passionately defend the rich and rail against those who would do things to make the situation of the middle and lower classes better. However, as Lincoln said, one cannot fool all the people all the time.

I do not, of course, see the solution to the problem in socialism. Rather, what is needed is a means to ensure that the good aspects of capitalism remain in play while ensuring that the concentration of wealth does not reach the point where too many people are checking out. At that point, as has been seen throughout history, a society collapses, is conquered or falls into rebellion. I do not want to see any of these happen here, hence I believe that income inequality must be addressed.

Interestingly enough, the really rich also have an interest in an adequate distribution of income After all, they need a society around them to provide stability, order, products for them to consume and people to work for them. Presumably some of the rich also have a sense of patriotism and community as well. As such, it would seem that everyone has a good reason to ensure that the concentration of wealth does not hit the tipping point.

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Oil

Posted in Business, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on February 21, 2011
El Saharara oil field, in Libya, operated by R...

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As revolution and rebellion sweep the Middle East, Americans watch as their gas prices creep upwards. Oil is, of course, the defining factor of the Middle East and the foundation of our interest in the region. Oil and the money it generates have helped create and sustain autocratic leaders and dictatorships. It yields the funds needed to maintain oppressive states. It also provides the  influence needed to ensure that other nations will be willing to support almost any regime that can keep the oil flowing.

Speaking of oil, given that the region is so volatile, one might wonder why we are still so reliant on oil and why major companies are quite willing to stick with it as their prime source of profit. One obvious reason is inertia and investment-the economy grew on oil and is designed to run on oil. Switching over is seen as costly and difficult and hence there is little inclination to do so.

Another possible factor is that the volatility provides a built in price enhancer. After all, almost as soon as news of trouble in the Middle East makes the news, oil prices begin to rise. For example, the unrest in Libya is currently used to justify a significant increase in the price of oil. These surges in prices provide excellent sources of profit boosts and they happen often enough that they can be counted on.

Of course, the unrest does present some risks. Facilities can be damaged, people can come into power that are not friendly to the oil companies, supplies can be cut in a way that actually interferes with profits and so on. However, it does seem that a crisis in the Middle East is generally money in the bank for certain companies.

For the rest of us, the fluctuation of oil prices would seem to give us yet another reason to get away from an oil based economy. Of course, such attempts are slammed as being unrealistic, leftist, unnecessary or otherwise defective and hence little or anything is every done.

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