Friday, December 24, 2010

The Worst Christmas Gift Givers

Published 12.28.10 at Townhall and Crosswalk.

“Christmas is just commercialized materialism. Nobody even thinks about Jesus anymore because all they’re doing is putting up lights, decorating some pagan tree, and watching nonsense like Santa and Frosty on TV. Besides, Christmas isn’t even endorsed in the Bible. It’s only in two of the Gospels, the date isn’t given, and Jesus never tells us to celebrate it. It’s a holiday created by the Pope to broker a political deal with 4th Century pagans. And worst of all, on top of all this, you don’t even have the decency to say, ‘Merry Christmas,’ on the birthday of our Savior, instead kowtowing to political correctness with your inane, ‘Happy Holidays!”

Christmas has a funny way of bringing out some people’s inner weirdo. And if you’ve ever heard some Christian critic of Christmas, then you’ve certainly heard these and perhaps other, related complaints.

So, on behalf of my fellow idiot Christians (or at least in their stead), I’d like to apologize to the secular culture for our behavior at Christmas. We’ve been dumb and mean, and I’m sorry. Please forgive us. There’s absolutely no excuse for our behavior, precisely because it’s so completely out of line with what we actually believe.

Allow me to explain.

At Christmas, of course, we celebrate the gift God made of Himself to us in the form of His Son, Jesus Christ. In the Bible, this occasion was proclaimed by angels, was celebrated by all of heaven, was attended by the wealthy and the poor, and induced people to poetic outbursts (Mary’s Magnificat and Zacharias’s Benedictus). It’s an event of such unique historical significance that we actually base our calendar on it. The nature of the gift was that God condescended to become human, live a perfect life, and die in our place so that we could be in right relationship with Him. That’s what we Christians are celebrating.

But over time, that story and gift have been frequently misunderstood, neglected, and even twisted and distorted so that it’s barely recognizable to those of us who cherish it. None of this surprised the Giver, and He still gave it freely. This is because God is an extremely good gift-giver. He knows that if you give a perfect gift to a widely diverse group of humans, everyone will play with it differently, especially over centuries of time.

On the other hand, most Christians in America can’t say the same thing about ourselves. Christmas has evolved. Once banned by the Puritans, for a brief time in the 20th Century it became a decent, religious holiday for most observers. But in the last 50 years or so, the transformation lamented above has taken place. For most Americans, Christmas is lights, trees, songs, shopping, food, gifts, and family. And this drives my fellow Christians nuts because our God gave you this awesome gift of Christmas and you’ve ruined it by removing Jesus and replacing Him with all this other claptrap.

And so what?

Completely devoid of Christ, Christmas for millions of people is a wonderful time of year focused on family, fellowship, and generosity. If the only things that happed every December 25th were that people sent cards, wrote emails, and got together with loved ones for a big meal and some movies, why would that be such a bad thing? It’s far better than nothing at all, right? It’s a second Thanksgiving. And who doesn’t love Thanksgiving?

But for my critic friends (and perhaps myself in former years, I must confess), we’ve allowed the fact that you played with our gift in your own way and for your own purposes to terribly rankle us. Why? Because we’re very bad gift-givers, the sort of relative who gives a child a toy and then stands over him brooding at every little miscue in his own unique way of playing with it. “You’re not doing that right! Stop that right now! You’re ruining it! I’m going to take it back if you don’t use it the proper way!” Ah, there’s nothing quite like the joy created by the self-indulgent tyrant’s “gift.”

Everyone knows there’s something inherently contradictory about the Christian who claims to love the Prince of Peace and serve the Spirit of Joy but then runs around belittling everyone who doesn’t do things just his way. In our silly efforts to fight off the ACLU with our cultural pitchforks, we’ve become the most alienating Grinches of all, inspiring resentment and despite everywhere we go. And worst of all, just like good little Pharisees, we usually then sit back to bask in the afterglow of our handiwork, pleased as Pyrrhus.

Nevertheless, our God is patient with us, too. Just as He is patient with sinful non-Christians distorting His gift, He is also patient with sinful Christians reacting foolishly to that misuse. He just keeps on blessing us, in spite of our stupidity, hoping that one day we will learn to imitate Him in simply being glad to give a gift to people who might not use it exactly the right way.

So, if I may be so bold, here again is our gift to you. Enjoy Christmas any way you like. There’s much more to it than you might understand or even care about at this moment, and if you ever want to know more about that, I’ll be glad to explain it to you. But in the meantime, have fun, eat good food, and spend time with your loved ones. My Daddy is just glad you’re enjoying His gift so much.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

How Big Should Government Be?

Published 12.17.10 at Townhall.

Where do you find the largest, most intrusive and liberty-violating form of government?

You may be tempted to answer North Korea, Cuba, or (possibly) San Francisco, but none of these answers is correct. The most totalitarian forms of government are found in two much less exotic places: prisons and nurseries.

Say whatever you will about any despotic government on Earth, even in their wildest dreams they can only fantasize about having the sort of control wardens and mothers exert routinely. To put the matter another way, what convict (or toddler) doesn’t dream of acquiring the sort of freedom experienced by ordinary citizens in Burma or Iran? But if, as we’ve often been told, totalitarianism is so intrinsically evil, why do we embrace it in these situations?

The answer is obvious.

In the nursery, a child is incompetent and must be constantly shepherded away from self-destruction. This entails controls of every sort. He is told what to eat, when to sleep, and with whom to associate. He is subject to corporal discipline (depending on his age) and is continuously told what he will and will not be doing with his life. When his pursuit of happiness conflicts with his mother’s agenda, she regularly violates it…as has every parent since the dawn of reproduction.

In the jail, a convict is not so much incompetent (although it may be so) as immoral. He is more incapacitated than shepherded, depending on the goals of the particular prison system. Like an infant, however, he is told what to eat, when to sleep, and with whom to associate. He may not be subject to corporal punishment, but restraint and harsher flavors of confinement are certainly common possibilities for misbehavior. Again, his ideals about the pursuit of happiness are never paramount and are violated on almost every level.

So this prepares us for an important question about both of these very intrusively governed municipalities: would either of them function better with less oversight? Although there may be particular ways in which a specific jail or nursery’s governance might need tinkering, the general premise that both demand highly regulated environments is undeniable.

But since it has become fashionable for libertarians and (sadly) conservatives to say that reducing the size of government is always a good to be sought in itself, I thought it might be useful to see whether this is so. And as these two rather extreme cases clearly demonstrate, shrinking the scope or intrusiveness of government must at best be a contextual goal, not a universal principle.

When the level of government is reduced in a prison, you anticipate riots and/or escapes. When it’s reduced in a nursery, we call it parental negligence. That’s because the correct size and shape of government depends essentially on the character of the people being governed. Ten-year-olds get less government than toddlers, and minor felons get less than murderers. But the advocates of “smaller government always, everywhere” seem to not grasp this rather basic political fact.

They are fond of saying that government is at best a necessary evil, with most of the emphasis on the evil and barely any on the necessity. But as someone who appreciates roads, police, clean water, and competent doctors, I think government is often a tremendous force for good. If a citizen stopped others from polluting or practicing fraudulent medicine, we wouldn’t call him a necessary evil. We’d call him a hero. So when government does what would be heroic if individuals did it, at least some of the time we should applaud it.

But still, how big should government be?

It’s a silly question.

Two better questions must be asked instead. First, what sort of society do we want to live in? Second, how good at creating it on their own are the people who live here?

The “government-is-bad” folks don’t usually like either of these questions. They seem to think that a nation can exist without a collective notion of what it means to be a good or bad society. Usually, they will mouth some cliché about how freedom is the only meaningful political good. But this is absurd. Freedom is a means to an end, not an end in itself. More freedom in the hands of virtuous people is a source of great good. But that same freedom in the hands of stupid or evil people (as in the nursery or the jail) only leads to chaos, a very bad thing.

The faith that people left to their own devices will magically and consistently manufacture a vibrant, stable society is pure mythology. Our country was founded by much more practical men who so deeply distrusted human nature that they built our government around the assumption of human depravity by carefully dividing power. But they all came from states that were wildly intrusive by modern standards because they knew that order and prosperity are not the spontaneous result of mere maximized freedom. As they knew, limited government presupposes good people.

So, before you bother discussing what size government is best, you must first consider what sort of society you’re trying to construct. This will help you know in what direction that government’s policies should aim and also frame how to answer the second question: what caliber of people are being governed?

If they are very competent and moral (in producing the sort of society we collectively agree is desirable), then they need very little regulation. To the degree and in the areas they are either incompetent or immoral, government must be made larger to combat the problems arising from their deficiencies. Where the people are good, government can be small. Where the people are bad, it must be large. And, sadly, the average virtue of the society can be easily pulled down by only a few bad actors.

This is why when teenagers misbehave, most cities institute curfews, despite the fact that the percentage of miscreant teens is actually fairly low. Nevertheless, a few ruin it for all by inviting such restrictions. The “government is evil” theory would have you believe that merely rescinding the curfew would fix everything because more liberty is always its proposed solution. But that alone would do nothing to address the underlying cause of the problems: irresponsible youth.

It’s true, there are some social arrangements in which almost no government (or truly none) is necessary. These always involve small groups of morally decent adults with similar values (families, friends, churches, and social organizations, for instance). But any large society with varying degrees of virtue and differing concepts of the good life will require much more external limitation. Simply reducing those restrictions for the sake of reducing them is as foolish as granting more liberty in a nursery or a prison. (Expanding them for the sake of expanding them is also quite foolish, by the way.) But carefully reducing government in areas where people are relatively good and carefully expanding it in areas where they are not is the wise way to constantly adjust the government to fit the people being governed and to maximize the societal ideals we want to see realized. It’s what every good parent and every competent warden already knows.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Did Prohibition Fail?

Published 11.16.10 at Townhall and Crosswalk.

“Well, since we all know Prohibition failed….” This assertion is widely taken as the starting premise to many discussions on such modern social issues as prostitution, drugs, and gambling. In reply, the advocate of enforcing moral norms through the law must either explain how his plan differs from Prohibition or else admit defeat. In fact, the reliability of this premise is so widely taken for granted that even raising the question of whether it’s true rings absurd. But if a thing is both widely held and true, there shouldn’t be any real danger in exploring to verify it, right?

Of course, being widely held does not always guarantee truth. Most Americans believe that the people of Columbus’s time thought the Earth was flat. Sadly, they don’t realize this
myth sprang from anti-Catholic propaganda and was cemented in the 19th Century by two unreliable histories and Washington Irving’s fictionalized account of Columbus. Even common sense would tell you that lesser-educated people in a society (sailors) are unlikely to risk everything on some novel academic hypothesis. They knew the Earth was round (you’d have to be a special fool not to grasp the meaning of a horizon), they just didn’t know how big it was. Columbus thought he had reached the “West Indies” because he didn’t know the Americas existed, thinking that the Earth was perhaps only 10,000 miles around.

Another widely held myth is that the colonists came to America because they wanted to establish a land of religious pluralism. The reality is that most of them came here to flee cultures they viewed as too corrupted in order to establish more rigorous religious societies than those they left behind in Europe. This is why so many early states had
explicit religious identity. (“Mary”land was Catholic and surely no one thinks Puritans were renowned for their lax ideas about public morality and religion.) It’s also why it was so necessary to have a First Amendment and the Constitutional ban on religious test oaths: not to protect Muslims, but to insure that the Federal Government wouldn’t squelch the States’ devout religious identities.

So is it possible that the failure of Prohibition could be yet another widely held historical/political myth? Well, it seems that two questions need to be answered. First, what were the harms of Prohibition? Second, what, if any, benefits came from it?

The harms are fairly well known. Prohibition led to bootlegging, death or blindness from consuming adulterated alcohol, loss of tax revenue, loss of business activity, and crime as the mob expanded from gambling and theft to liquor. It also was the first period in American history when the law was so widely broken that disrespect for the authority of the law became its own social evil. As I said, all of this is well known.

But here’s something a little trickier: Can you name any of the benefits of Prohibition?

To hear the tale most people believe, Prohibition was such an unmitigated failure that it’s scarcely believable it was passed in the first place. “How on earth could the wise people of 1933 have just 14 years prior been the imbeciles of 1919?” But if the 18th Amendment was so foolhardy, why did it come when 19 states had already banned alcohol (starting with Kansas in 1881), when roughly 65% of the country was already dry, and when the margin of “dries” to “wets” in Congress more than 2:1? And if it was so obviously a mistake, why did it take until 1966 for Mississippi to repeal it and until 1987 for Kansas to allow “by the drink” alcohol sales?

Again I ask you, can you tell me any of the benefits of Prohibition?

The reason I ask is because it’s generally unwise to be dogmatic about anything without at least some knowledge of the other side of the discussion. Although believing there just isn’t one feels like certainty, it’s really the precarious security of ignorance.

So what was the benefit of Prohibition? Here’s a hint: It’s the one thing people arguing against current behavioral taboos don’t like to acknowledge. The main benefit of Prohibition was…you guessed it…people drank a lot less alcohol. But to hear the tale often repeated, Prohibition either had no effect on consumption or, more amazingly, actually increased it!

The reality is that average consumption of alcohol in the years prior to most legal restrictions (1906-1910) was
2.60 gallons per year. In 1934, when it was again possible to accurately measure, the number had dropped below one gallon, and it didn’t return to the pre-Prohibition level until 1973! During Prohibition, admissions to psychiatric facilities for alcohol-related issues dropped 60 percent, arrests for drunkenness decreased 50 percent, cirrhosis deaths for men dropped over 70 percent, and welfare agencies reported tremendous drops in alcohol-related family problems. Also, although crime is widely cited as the result of Prohibition, organized crime was actually well-established in cities by 1920. And until the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre in 1929, most voters believed Prohibition was succeeding, if imperfectly.

Temperance movements have been around since at least the founding of the country with Dr. Benjamin Rush and other religionists. Consumption was so high in the middle 1800s that Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Abraham Lincoln all urged abstinence for the good of family and country. Long advocated by wives, mothers, and Christian groups, Prohibition was the “final straw” solution to rampant alcoholism. And if you asked those victims, they would have told you that their lives were better off because of the effects Prohibition had on their husbands.

I’m not saying Prohibition was a complete success, or even that on balance it was a success. I’m just saying that it had the most direct success at its intended goal: reducing alcohol abuse. And in discussions about other socially harmful behaviors, it’s important to at least be honest about our past efforts to regulate such things.

One final note is worth mentioning. Alcohol was widely used long before Prohibition, which means the culture had a longstanding acceptance of it. In a sense, then, it’s amazing this same society banned it at all. The legal restriction of it brought a significant reduction, which isn’t all that surprising, and those who wanted it eventually got it back, thankfully at lower levels of abuse.

But it should be obvious that restricting a thing people are already long accustomed to having is much more difficult than simply keeping a thing restricted they have long viewed as forbidden. The cultural shift on contraception and abortion (both universally despised just 60 years ago but now widely accepted) should serve as an illustration of what would happen if currently illicit behaviors were decriminalized.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Marijuana: No Worse Than Alcohol?

Published 11.2.10 at Townhall and Crosswalk.

One of the hardest things with any complicated topic is to deal with just one particular slice of the discussion on its own merits. Instead, we usually try to handle the whole pie all at once, which usually leads to handling each bit quite poorly. With that in mind, let’s look at one limited aspect of the debate over legalizing marijuana: the premise that since marijuana is no worse than alcohol, it’s only fair to give it the same legal status as alcohol.

I think most people fight this idea by trying to show how much worse than alcohol marijuana is. Instead, I’ll grant the assertion for argument’s sake and show that even if marijuana advocates are right, there are still good reasons to not treat it the same as alcohol.

As I think anyone will agree, consuming alcohol in large quantities is bad. It’s bad for marriages. It’s bad for children. And it’s bad for simple health concerns. I also think anyone will agree that numerous Americans consume alcohol in precisely such quantities. Thus, I think reasonable people would agree that our current situation with regard to alcohol overuse is undesirable. If only there were some feasible way to fix it, we would want to.

Furthermore, the current efforts to control alcohol are an abject failure. Teenagers have virtually as much access to it as they would like, and this is certainly true of underage college students. Although drunk driving has been the focus of intense legal and media attention, the number of accidents and fatalities in which alcohol is a factor is still absurdly high. And of course alcohol is a major contributor to domestic assault. All of this is common knowledge.

But that’s the point. Even if marijuana is no worse than alcohol, why would we want to permit people to use yet another drug when the problems from alcohol abuse are so obvious?

If I may rephrase the argument a bit uncharitably, marijuana advocates seem to be saying the following: “Even though our society’s handling of alcohol has been abysmal, we think it’s only fair to let us start handling yet another drug just as badly. We know the social and personal problems from marijuana abuse are likely to be similar to those with alcohol, but it’s just not fair that we’re only allowed to have one substance that harms people, families, children, and society.”

Also, keep in mind that unlike alcohol, marijuana is not ordinarily consumed in moderation by anyone. The point of having access to it is to get high, the rough equivalent of being drunk. Nobody smokes a little pot with dinner for the flavor. So the effect of legalizing marijuana would be to replicate only the worst parts of having alcohol be legal.

It seems to me that a smart society, like a smart person, learns from it’s mistakes. And although I haven’t mentioned tobacco, a cursory exploration should conclude virtually the same problems exist there, albeit replacing drunk driving and domestic violence with more mundane issues like lung disease and cancer. We as a society simply don’t handle recreational drugs very well, particularly when it comes to their overuse and use by young people.

Taking that observation in hand, it seems beyond strange to me that some people want to add another similar substance to those already available. And just to reiterate, the single, simple argument we’re dealing with is that of fairness, as in, “It’s unfair to prohibit marijuana since you permit alcohol.”

Unfair? Perhaps.

Unwise? Not so much.

Some analogies may help clarify at this point.

Imagine that I have hired two employees at different times from the same college. Although each looked quite good on paper and in interviews, both turned out to be much less excellent than hoped for. Even though I can’t figure out a practical way to fire either of them, does that mean I’m obligated in fairness to hire the next applicant from that college who applies to me for a job? “But you hired both of them!” “Yes, and look how that’s turned out. I don’t intend to be so naïve a third time.” It’s a sadistic philosophy which holds that individuals or societies are beholden to the standard set by their worst decisions for any future choices.

Again, imagine some woman who picks up a man at a bar, dates him for awhile, and then finds herself being abused by him. She breaks up with him and returns to the bar to pick up a new man. She dates him for awhile and finds the same thing happening again. So she ends the relationship. Amazingly, she returns to the bar, but this time, she explains to the man who chats her up how she’s a bit wary of being abused by yet another guy from a bar. “Well, honey, don’t you think you owe me the same opportunity you gave those other two?” Please tell me our public policy advice is better than this.

Yet again, imagine that we as a nation involved ourselves in a failed war such as Vietnam but from which we actually couldn’t extricate ourselves. Then imagine we found ourselves on the verge of another war with similar-seeming difficulties. Would we really believe that consistency required us to engage in it because advocates assure us “it isn’t any worse than Vietnam?” Fool me once, shame on you….

Yet a fourth time, imagine that you have before you a heavy drinker who smokes two packs a day. I don’t imagine you would ever dream of saying to him, “I think you’re being inconsistent. Don’t you realize that marijuana isn’t as bad as either of the drugs you already abuse? And since you already smoke and drink a lot (even though you wish you could quit both), don’t you think for the sake of consistency you should add weed to your unhealthy regimen?” But how is this different from the argument at hand?

“So are you saying you favor prohibition of alcohol and tobacco?”

Nothing of the sort. I’m simply saying that the obvious problems we already have from both of those drugs being legal is the best reason to avoid embracing any more recreational drugs.

Now if you offered me a hypothetical society in which neither alcohol, nor tobacco, nor marijuana was in use and asked me to choose which of the three to permit, I can’t really say what I would pick. But it should be pretty clear we don’t have such a fantasy society in front of us. We live in a real one with a real past and a truly entrenched familiarity with alcohol and tobacco. If we add marijuana to the list, there will be more use of it than there is currently, which means more young users, more occasional users, more regular users, and more impaired driving. Needless to say, none of this will make our country stronger.

It seems to me that a wise society is the kind which learns from its mistakes rather than feeling obliged to repeat them out of a misguided sense of consistency. Our standards should improve because of our prior errors, not be permanently held back because of them. “It’s-no-worse-than” thinking is simply not the guiding light toward great personal or public policy.

Of course, as I mentioned at the outset, I know this is only one particular piece of the marijuana discussion, albeit an ubiquitous one. But I hope at this point you agree that this one invalid argument can safely be discarded. Naturally, we might choose to legalize marijuana for other reasons, but we certainly aren’t obligated to do so on the principle of fairness.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

You Call Yourself A Firefighter?

Published 10.28.10 at Townhall and Crosswalk.

Imagine one calm afternoon while you sit on your patio reading a book that your phone rings. On the other end is your 33-year-old firefighter son sounding rather anxious. “Dad,” he says, “I don’t know what to do. We’re out at a fire in the county, and it’s about to reach this guy’s house, but we’ve been told not to stop it because he didn’t pay his service fee. Some of the guys are feeling a little unsettled about all this, and I told them I’d ask you, since you’re the deacon of a church and you always have the right answer for me. What do I do?”

Reply 1: “Well, son, this is a difficult world where people need to learn personal responsibility. I know it seems callous and harsh to let this man’s house burn, but it’s not your fault he didn’t pay. This country is falling apart because everybody wants to be a freeloader, and sometimes you just have to make an example out of someone. If people don’t think they have to pay in advance, no one will pay at all. Don’t worry, God will understand. This is how He deals with us, after all. He only protects us if we do what we’re supposed to do.”

Reply 2: “I understand what you’re struggling with because I know part of the reason you became a firefighter was you thought it was a way to help people and serve the community. But sometimes the only way to be a hero is to obey orders. You can’t just go around doing whatever seems right to you. If everybody acted on their own conscience, there’d be no order in the world. God tells us to obey authority, even if they’re wrong. So you just have to trust in the fact that it’s not your decision to make.”

Reply 3: “How can this even be a question for you? The Bible says that if we refuse to help someone when we can, we don’t have the love of God in us. I know I raised you better than that. If you want to call yourself a firefighter or a Christian, you’d better get off the phone with me and go put out that fire, son.”

So, which answer would you give him?

On September 29th, a group of Tennessee firemen first refused to respond to a fire at the rural home of Gene Cranick and then did show up to sit and to watch the fire consume his house, his possessions, his three dogs, and the family cat. Only when it eventually threatened to spread to a neighboring property did they finally act to put it out. The reason for their neglect? Mr. Cranick hadn’t paid his annual $75 protection money for rural fire service. He says he forgot this year, despite paying in the past, and he had offered to pay the department whatever amount they named if they would only save his home.

Having read a number of commentaries about this outrageous event, I’m torn which is more scandalous: the behavior of the firemen or that our country seems to be full of people who think that anything other than answer 3 is morally or theologically plausible.

See, I can comprehend a city so incompetent that for 20 years it never came up with a simple proposal like, “Rural fire calls will be charged to the property owner at a rate equal to 120% the actual cost up to a maximum of $20,000, secured by a lien against the property if necessary. In lieu of this, $75 may be paid as annual fire service insurance.” But politicians are notoriously stupid. So such a total failure of legislative imagination isn’t inconceivable. The part I can’t wrap my head around is the firefighters refusing to stop the fire, even to the absurd point of sitting idly by watching it burn.

I’ve known a few firemen in my life, and I can’t imagine any of them doing nothing while a fire destroys someone’s home. The ones I’ve known would have told anyone issuing such an evil order to either step aside or be thrown aside while they put out the fire. Most firefighters are heroic and humble, viewing their jobs as nothing more than the duty of a decent citizen. That’s why the contrast between these thugs in firefighting gear sitting on the sidelines refusing to stop destruction and actual firemen rushing headlong into catastrophes like the World Trade Center is so stark.

Our culture treats firemen as heroes, and rightly so. But heroes have to behave heroically in order to deserve the label, and the sort of person who would watch a fire and claim he was only obeying orders is certainly no hero. By definition, he’s not even a firefighter.

I have three young boys, and I simply can’t imagine coming home to tell my wife or my sons that their daddy let a family’s home get destroyed over something as petty as $75 and a ridiculous city policy. Moreover, I can’t imagine what it would be like to go to church the next Sunday and try singing praises to God standing between the guy whose house I watched burn to the ground and the city manager who defended that decision.

“But if we put out this fire, then no one will ever pay their $75, and we won’t have the funding to fight any rural fires.”

Are Americans really this despicable? Or does such a claim end up saying more about the people making it than it does about the real people of rural Tennessee?

“Well, the ones who pay would have to pay more, and the others would just sponge off of them.”

It’s hard to quantify the scope of such cynicism, but here’s an indicator of how misguided it is. The Cranick’s neighbors (you know, the ones who paid their fees) were begging the firemen to fight the fire. Begging!

See, my theory is that Americans are better than the cynics give us credit for. Part of that betterness is that most of us will pay in advance anyway and then rejoice that our contributions made it possible to save someone else’s home.

But the other part of that betterness is that we want to live among people who behave as if we’re a community with values like neighborliness and cooperation. We want to be people who act more nobly than the cynics predict and who can then look each other in the eyes with civic pride. We want to be the Tennesseans who came together after the Nashville floods, not the Tennesseans who stood by indifferently as a man’s life went up in flames.

We want to pay our dues, then go to church with the guy whose house was rescued when he didn’t, the firemen who fought the fire they didn’t get paid for, and the city manager who told them to help a guy even though he didn’t really deserve it. And I want us to sit there, grateful for such wonderful neighbors, listening to a pastor tell us, “Praise be to God that I don’t need to preach a sermon on the importance of loving your neighbor as yourself in this county because we’ve got that one down pat.” That’s the sort of community I want to live in. Truth be told, don’t we all?

As Edmund Burke almost said, “All that is required for evil to flourish in the world is for good firefighters to do nothing.”

Friday, May 7, 2010

Articles Index

2011.01.31--Who Is Most To Blame For The Shootings?
2010.12.28--The Worst Christmas Gift Givers
2010.12.17--How Big Should Government Be?
2010.11.16--Did Prohibition Fail?
2010.10.29--Marijuana: No Worse Than Alcohol?
2010.10.21--You Call Yourself A Firefighter?
2010.01.27--Who Cares About "the Will of the People?"
2009.11.18--Who’s Legislating Morality Now?
2009.11.13--Is Obamacare Like Mandatory Auto Insurance?
2009.10.05--What’s Racism Got To Do With It?
2009.09.19--An Open Letter To President Obama About Health Care
2009.01.22--A Reminder to Pro-Life Christians
2008.12.17--A Christmas View of Abortion
2008.10.29--Do the Rich Owe Us?
2008.10.10--Teaching a Four-Year-Old
2008.09.08--Why Do They Hate Sarah Palin So?
2008.08.19--Perhaps Homophobia Isn't A Choice Either
2008.07.29--Five Logical Errors of Born Gay Ideology
2008.07.21--To Conservatives in a Pro-Gay Culture
2008.05.15--Should We Invade Myanmar?
2008.05.13--What Love Isn’t
2008.05.07--Why I Support Capital Punishment, Part 11
2008.05.06--Why I Support Capital Punishment, Part 10
2008.05.02--Why I Support Capital Punishment, Part 9
2008.04.24--Why I Support Capital Punishment, Part 8
2008.04.23--The Danger Of Hating What You Used To Believe
2008.04.22--Why I Support Capital Punishment, Part 7
2008.04.23--The Three Kinds of Rules
2008.03.28--Why I Support Capital Punishment, Part 6
2008.03.20--Why I Support Capital Punishment, Part 5
2008.03.12--Why I Support Capital Punishment, Part 4
2008.03.07--Should John McCain Start Being A Coward Now?
2008.02.04--Why I Support Capital Punishment, Part 3
2008.01.29--Why I Support Capital Punishment, Part 2
2008.01.26--Why I Support Capital Punishment, Part 1

2007.12.24--Bad Christmas Gifts, Part 2: What To Do When You Get Them
2007.12.21--Bad Christmas Gifts, Part 1: Not Giving Them

2007.12.20--A Religious Test Oath?
2007.11.20--How And Why I Do Radio
2007.11.07--To Husbands: How To Have A Great Wife
2007.10.23--What I Learned About Liberalism From Barry Manilow
2007.10.17--Why Dr. Dobson Is Wrong
2007.10.09--To Wives: Some Advice On Preventing An Affair
2007.09.01--A Chat With My Friend About What Makes Sense
2007.08.01--Should Children Be Encouraged To Think For Themselves?
2007.06.01--Must Trust Be Earned?
2006.11.14--Of Whom Are The Newspapers Really Afraid?
2006.10.03--When Penalties Aren’t (A Modest Baseball Proposal)
2006.09.09--Stand Up For What You Believe?
2004.10.04--Can a Catholic vote for John Kerry in good conscience?
2004.07.04--Love it or leave it? I say fix it.
2004.04.04--Just a little harmless entertainment?
2004.01.09--What Should You Read In the Bathroom?

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Who Cares About “the Will of the People?”

Published 01.28.10 at Townhall and Crosswalk.

It’s currently in vogue among conservatives to argue that health care reform should not pass because it is unpopular. The argument sounds like this: “Public support for Obama’s plan has dipped to just 36%. Nevertheless, Democratic legislators bull ahead, ignoring the will of the people in a mad dash to plant their ideological flag on the hill of political ambition, no matter how many Congressional bodies it costs.”

I could attribute this basic idea to any of a dozen of my fellow conservative authors, and now, with the stunning election of Scott Brown, the pleading has turned to shouting: “How dare you turn a deaf ear to the clear, express sentiment of the electorate! Will you so flagrantly disregard the people you’re supposed to represent?”

As you may already have surmised, I am not impressed by these lines of argument. In fact, I’m writing this column because their use disturbs me so greatly. To put the point bluntly, conservatives who denounce the Democratic leadership in this way have either forgotten what we believe or else are willing to sacrifice what we believe on our own altar of political persuasion.

Make no mistake, this particular appeal to the “will of the people” works with an audience. If it didn’t work, no one would use it. But effectiveness alone is not enough. The strength of our political position is that our arguments flow from a clear and consistent set of principles. Unless our party is very badly named, we don’t believe in direct democracy. We believe in a republic. In a democracy, the people decide what policies are followed, whereas in a republic, the people elect leaders who decide what policies are followed. This is far more than a trifling difference.

The question is simple: Are our leaders obligated to do what the majority wants, or are they obligated to do what seems right to them? Although an ideal world would allow both outcomes, that world and ours don’t always coincide. In the present case, we have an overwhelming Democrat majority in Washington pushing an overwhelmingly unpopular health reform plan. And so what?

Although many journalists may shudder to acknowledge the fact, political authority in this country does not flow from opinion polls, even reliable ones. Zogby, Rasmussen, Pew, Harris, and Gallup all combined have zero Constitutional authority. Even if it could be reliably known that 85% of all voters opposed some proposal, it would mean precisely nothing in terms of the authority to abandon that proposal at this moment. The only opinions that count are those of the 535 members of Congress and the President.

That being said, there is one poll that matters. It’s very rigorously conducted and involves 100% sampling with no statistical projections whatsoever. All adult citizens without felony convictions are allowed to participate, and we conduct it every two years. It’s called an election, and the winners get to make the decisions for the next two, four, or six years. Once those offices are granted, there is simply no Constitutional authority to impeach for the offense of unpopularity, as un-Californian as that may be.

Now don’t misunderstand me. I like the idea of legislators listening to their constituents. But that’s because I want them to be aware of all the viewpoints on a particular proposal and its impact on the people they serve. However, there is a gulf of difference between listening to the people and being led by them. I want Congressmen to think deeply and then do what they believe is best, even if it’s unpopular. Even if they disagree with me. The word for that is leadership.

In contrast, I suppose a Congressman could simply count the number of in-district calls he gets on a particular issue and then vote according to that tally. Another approach might be to see what actual polling data in his district indicates. As idiotic as both these suggestions are, notice that they at least restrict the sample taken to the particular district. A USA Today poll of 1500 random Americans should be of no consequence whatsoever since no Congressman represents that district. But in any of these approaches, we still have the same basic flaw: political opportunism, which is simply a euphemism for cowardice.

When President Clinton was in office, conservative commentators regularly said he had only one core principle: benefit Bill Clinton. The oft-leveled criticism was that he would stick his finger in the wind to see which way things were blowing and then do the popular thing. This description of his Presidency has become almost core doctrine for most of us. But it should be obvious by now that we can’t coherently criticize him for governing by the polls and then also criticize President Obama (or Congress) for ignoring them.

Consider another case. President Bush did many things that either were at the time or else later became very unpopular. For those of us who liked them, however, we supported and even praised him for showing the “courage of his convictions” and “the willingness to do the right thing even if it’s unpopular.” Fine. But we simply can’t say that a commitment to unpopular policies we support shows leadership and a preference for principle over politics and then turn around and say that a commitment to unpopular policies we oppose is a flagrant disregard for the clear will of the people. Such arguments of convenience eventually make us sound like we really are just opposed, rather than being opposed on principle.

Besides, let’s be honest for a moment. Our opposition to these reform plans wouldn’t be one bit weaker if we happened to not have the majority on our side, nor would any of our arguments change. Why then do we think this bandwagon appeal is likely to persuade those on the other side?

Moreover, since it is our arguments which have been moving the marker rather than this ad populum fallacy, let’s stick with what we really believe and leave bad arguments to the foolish. The simple fact is we do not want to open ourselves up for the future criticism that some idea we oppose is popular and therefore we should embrace it. Yet if we are going to build our house on the shifting sands of public opinion, future battles will either force us to embrace that chaos for consistency sake or reject it by recanting our current emphasis on popularity.

All this being said, there is one nuanced shift which could make this argument work. Instead of feigning outrage that the Democrats are ignoring public opinion, we Republicans might instead simply allow this to prove that they are not the “ear of the people” party they claim to be. In this approach, we aren’t acting like we truly care that they are more committed to their agenda than to public sampling. We are simply showing that Democrats are guilty of the one thing they relish alleging about us: hypocrisy. Failing to live up to their own professed responsiveness to majority viewpoint, we’ve caught them in this one most culturally unacceptable sin.

A final note. Out of consistency, I think it’s fair to give one bit of credit where it’s due. Though I disagree vehemently with President Obama’s health care agenda and though I deeply hope he fails to pass it, I have to respect his courage in pursuing it despite such widespread public opposition. He’s wrong and he may lose his majority in the process, but I respect a man who stands by his convictions. Let’s also stand by ours and not embrace the tar baby of pretending to care overmuch about “the will of the people.”