"If human flourishing rose exclusively out of spiritual projects, the Dalai Lama
would have been the first man on the moon. "
That is a quote from Lileks at Screedblog in response to a post by Amitai Etzioni, whom I do not know but I suppose he is high on the social freedoms dimension and low on the economic freedoms dimension on the world's smallest political quiz. The quote is true - I think we would all agree, regardless of how we felt about the relative merits of spiritual projects versus the moon landings. I also liked this post, which breaks down all the deficit talk (from the defend-Obama perspective) into political motivations - it basically says that running up huge deficits is a great way to force the other party to clean up your mess when they get into power. I don't think it's a defense, but it's better than the firey discourse we keep hearing where one side's wrongs are justified by being not-as-wrong as the other side's.
I link them here because, while both are a bit snarky, they show's the level of discourse I would like to have in politics, and, really, everything. I see a lot of polarization out there right now. Something about the last two administrations scares the shit out of ordinary people. Rightfully so. It is not that the blog posts I read are seriously weighted - that is what one expects of the sides in a good argument. It is more that they don't take seriously where the other side is coming from. The Screedblog post above is a good example - both sides are obviously working from entirely different assumptions, and ignoring the others', or at best ridiculing them as puerile or self-evidently wrong. Like most people, I personally think material and spiritual health are mutually beneficial results of the same providence, so where am I in that argument?
Those who know me, or read what I write, can probably figure out where I stand on political issues. I've found recently, that in trying to communicate my stands I run up against "the Wall." You've all probably felt this. You're having a conversation about politics, the other person is not making sense to you, and you can tell the feeling is mutual. You try to backtrack to get at more basic assumptions, but the discussion becomes disconnected armchair philosophy and no one takes it seriously. Or you try to attack assumptions and turn into an asshole. Or the other person clearly doesn't see much importance at all in politics and just changes the subject.
It bothers me, because it affects me intensely and no one seems to care. "The best part about being a ______ is knowing you are right. The worst part is that people won't believe you until everything collapses." I know a lot of people, most of them very intelligent and rational and good and just as helpless as me. Why do they believe different things than me? I am going to try and deconstruct the types of people I see around me in terms of political beliefs. Then I am going to try and dismantle those beliefs at as base a level of assumption as I can reach and articulate. Before I start, here are the rules of the game:
- You are smarter than me, and I am smarter than you. If not, then someone who shares our views. Lack of intelligence is not a defense or weapon. Neither is lack of sanity, morality, foresight, hindsight, or fear of God.
- Assumptions are more important than arguments. Get to the roots. I've read enough blogs and comments to know that you can build a convincing argument for fucking a zebra if you make a dozen barely detectable leaps of ethical judgment in different threads of the argument. Really, but not really.
- Make up the labels as you go. There will be no pinko commies or capitalist pigs in this discussion. Feel free to re-label the groups to things you think are more appropriate, but re-label them - actually think up a term from your own brain that best describes the characteristics of the group.
- Similar to #1, it is improbably that all ______ists lack compassion, fortitude, sense of history, penises, and the like. We're probably all made relatively equal, though with different outcomes. What happens in the middle?
Four simple rules. So, since we're working from assumptions, I'll start. Here are my assumptions that I go into every political conversation with:
- "Rights" by their definition are alienable. There is no cosmic enforcer that stops one person from taking another one's life, or forcing another one to do something, or lying to another person. So it is up to us.
- Theoretically, right and wrong exists for every decision. This is the moral equivalent of Newton's law.
- There is no completely rational and omniscient person, and if there was there is no possible way he could process all the information available, and if he could chaos theory says that he would still be unable to determine outcomes. This is the moral equivalent of quantum mechanics.
- #2 and 3 are analogously extendible to groups. We can determine right or wrong more easily for 1000 people than we can for 1. If by killing one you save 999, that's right. If you are the person who has to kill the 1, then it is a lot more ambivalent.
- We have a set of inalienable rights, and it is a very small set. They essentially boil down to this: don't do things to other people that you don't want done to you. It is that simple, but it is not that simple, because almost everything one does is bound to effect someone else negatively. This leads to questions like, "Is it wrong to kill Hitler in 1941? How about in 1933? In 1900?". It suggests a philosophy utilitarianism where it is possible to measure or deduce effects, and sophistry where it is not.
- Talents, culture, and luck are the animal-vegetable-mineral of any outcome involving human life. All influences can be sorted into these categories, and all outcomes can be thus ascribed. One is a fixed internality, one is a fixed externality, and the third is unfixed. Maybe you'll win the lottery tomorrow, or maybe you'll get cancer, but maybe you're content with your current finances and don't need to win the lottery, and maybe your culture has managed to assemble medical researchers in such a way that this particular cancer has a high cure rate.
- People who are completely alone are animals in the wilderness, and will probably live short, violent lives and contribute very little change to their environment. By "alone" I mean not only isolated personally, but also isolated from the teachings of the past, and from the support of other humans. Even a hermit who grows his own food is beholden to the tools he uses, the generations of farmers who bred his crops, the skills developed over eons necessary to build his shelter, and so on. Whether we like to admit it or not, we are all in constant debt to countless others.
- Order is the quality of coherence amongst disparate parts. Now the controversial part - it is always emergent. You can draw a nice org chart, but actual outcomes are determined by a huge number of real actions. You must change the rules that govern the emergent system to recognizably change the outcome. It is probably futile to kill Hitler in 1935, because the conditions at the time would have bred a tyrant out of someone else.
- There are two forms of human exchange that are possible. The first is where both parties are on equal standing, and the second is where they are not. The most important distinction between them is a right (and ability) of refusal for both parties. We generally call exchanges with a bilateral right of refusal "trade," and those without it "force."
- There is something called "The Shit." This is when systems become unstable and collapse. First living standards fall, then rule of law collapses, then mass death happens - it would get worse, but it can't get worse than death, so it usually spreads sideways from there. Famine, war, genocide, ecological collapse, and murderous regimes are forms of The Shit. So far, it has happened to every society, ever. It usually happens suddenly. It happened in the US, in 1861. There are worse than the worst things we live with in the US today, and they can happen to you, in your lifetime.
So there are my assumptions for politics. They seem pretty non-partisan and neutral to me, but I'm sure there are some things to disagree with in there. Go ahead and weigh in on them.