Thursday, July 1, 2010

Dystopia is Hilarious.

The Onion couldn't write articles this comically absurd.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

The Most Fundamental Threat to the Continued Prosperity of the United States is an Uncontrolled Prejudice Towards Action

When I was a kid my schoolteachers used to tell me that I lived in the freest and most enviable nation on earth. They told me that America was the greatest nation that has ever existed, that no other people lived in such secure prosperity, that millions upon untold millions of people fled their home countries and came here for those very reasons. At the core of this myth was the guarantee that every generation would live in greater comfort and prosperity than the last. I believed it. No reason not to, no reason to believe that my life wasn’t as good or better than it would be in any other nation on earth.

If a citizen of a nation perceives his lifestyle to be the most desirable (or adequately desirable) lifestyle attainable, and attributes the lifestyle (the possibility of its practice) to certain characteristics unique to the nation in which he lives, then this question becomes one of sustainability: how can the nation continue to provide the desired lifestyle to the maximum number of generations? If the goal is to maintain and preserve the American way of life, we have to identify those things which make that lifestyle possible.

I guess the best way to go about forecasting the long-term sustainability of American pre-eminence in the world is to define what exactly it means for a country to be “#1” in the eyes of its citizens-what are those characteristics of this nation that allow for such a desirable lifestyle, and what are the antecedent factors that create those characteristics? We have to start with the assumption that America is #1, that the assertion is well founded. Indeed, there are a great many reasons to believe this, first among them the unrivaled military and economic hegemony we enjoy on a global scale. No country is stronger, no country more powerful, no culture recognizable, no political institutions more influential. This strength creates a global power structure that allows American economic interests to trump those of local populations in almost every place on earth-the American consumer will never find himself wanting for anything, provided he has the resources by which to acquire it.
But the strength itself is not a comfortable lifestyle, it is only a necessary prerequisite, and it is coming very much into question. The situation we find ourselves in is not good. The challenges confronting the American Empire are vast: unprecedented national deficits being fed by uncontrollable debts incurred as result of undisciplined government spending that is used to feed unsustainable polices that themselves threaten the reputation and strength of the United States. We are beset by a crisis of energy complicated by a crisis of will. Our economy is periodically ravaged by the vagrancies of boom-and-bust cycles that have become its hallmark. The physical infrastructure of the nation is outdated and crumbling. American industrial capacity has been gutted; an entire generation of working people has been cast aside. Exacerbating these problems-the primary impediment to their resolution-is an unresponsive and corrupt political system, entrenched in its ways, complacent with its power, comfortable with its status, controlled by a privileged elite that have lost the trust and support of the citizens they have sworn to serve .

In short, our desired lifestyles, fueled by cheap oil, are only attainable when our government pursues economic and foreign policies that are the very source of the problems confronting the United States. The policies are unsustainable because they assume sustainability, they take power for granted and allow for no flexibility in judgment or implementation. The empire has become unwieldy in its size, undisciplined in its use of the power that makes it so great. This will be its downfall, but it doesn’t have to be.

The fact is, we’ve been in worse situations, confronted harder circumstances, faced more existential threats, and have consistently managed to be stronger for it. The American spirit is remarkably resilient. In a very real sense this nation is defined by crisis- our finest moments are defined by crisis, our most revered and respected figures are those who prevailed against the greatest odds (or met their end doing so), our greatest presidents governed through times of immense upheaval. Self-sacrifice is a hallmark of the American experience: I work hard so my children don’t have to.

I’m sorry to say that the United States will not be “#1”, will not remain a haven for the lifestyle its citizens so cherish, in two generation’s time unless the people of the United States are willing to come to terms with a great many unpleasant truths. Our military is overextended and increasingly unable to confront future challenges-fully 40% of the Army and Marine Corp’s equipment has exceeded its useful lifespan . We must understand this. We must stop acting like an empire. We must demand honest and open discussion from our leaders. We must demand leaders who are willing to say things to us that we do not like.

But perhaps that’s the thing that makes a recovery so difficult. We don’t like being told to stop driving our cars. We don’t like being told that we shouldn’t buy frivolous luxuries with other people’s money. Our leaders will never be able to tell us to wise up because the ones that do are chased out of office: this is the most inherent and crippling weakness of Liberal Democracy. American freedom has degenerated into a simple freedom of mobility: it is the freedom to buy whatever we want in whatever quantity we want for as low a price as possible, woe to the politician who tries to take that from us. That is the freedom our empire delivers us. Our economic stability is not hampered by our military strength, rather, it is very much a product of that strength, and quite possibly unsustainable (in its current form) without it. We engage in unsustainable foreign policy practices because our unsustainable collective lifestyle demands it.

The most fundamental threat facing the American Experiment is a lack of bold, innovative, honest, humble leadership. Solutions cannot be dictated to us, they must be organic, must be developed and instituted by the citizenry and the private enterprises they comprise. We can’t afford to continue to be content with waiting for government to provide incentives for action. This process will only be effective if the political system is responsive to the demands and desires of the electorate. If we do nothing, a solution will be imposed upon us by outside forces.
The American people must recognize that the institution of government in a Liberal Democratic society is not designed to react to every conceivable circumstance a society my find itself in. There are things central government does very, very well, of course, but that list is insignificant compared to the things central government does very, very badly. For a very long time the default position for government officials has been a prejudice towards action. This prejudice has instilled in the American psyche a predisposition to government intervention in moments of crisis great and small. This prejudice towards action has and will continue to hamper efforts to extricate ourselves from the problems we have created. There are things that no government structured as ours is should bothers itself with doing, for fear of exacerbating problems that would otherwise be solved by the society itself. We must recognize that a government such as ours only injects itself into inappropriate situations when its people demand it. We must stop demanding that government fix our problems. It can’t do it. The will isn’t there. More importantly, the institution itself is not designed to do the things we are demanding of it.
We are faced with two options: we must either change the way we live, or we must change the means by which we acquire the resources that allow us to live the way we live. There are no other options.

Perhaps the United States would be well served by a more humble view towards the outside world. Power can be a corrosive, dangerous influence on a nation if it is taken advantage of. Perhaps, in the end, we will realize that the concept of administrative rights was misguided. Perhaps we will find that the modern social welfare state was a grand experiment that failed. Perhaps we will start to question the long-term sustainability of the very idea of a social welfare state. Perhaps we will go back to living the way our ancestral Americans lived: the old cared for by their children, the poor cared for by churches and charities. Perhaps we will wake up one day and look around and realize that government efforts to establish equality of condition have bankrupted the only institution in our society that can guarantee equality of opportunity. Perhaps then your children will inherent a stronger nation than you.

Why We Can’t Leave Afghanistan

Gen Stanley McChrystal's recent misadventures have been dissected quite enough, I'd say, by people intelligent and well-read enough to make my voice comparatively unnecessary. Excellent write-ups regarding the perilous nature of the Afghan mission and the are available here and here. As I see it, there is simply no way of building a modern liberal democracy in a place like Afghanistan, short of eliminating the local population and colonizing the country with American settlers. The goal of denying a safe haven to Al-Qaeda has already failed. What other justification could possibly exist for continuing this endless war?

While I agree with the general sentiment expressed in the above linked articles, I am, in the spirit of debate for debate's sake, going to present an unpopular argument, beginning with an unusual assertion: the United States of America is an empire. It is an empire in every conceivable definition of the term. This is not a pleasant reality to recognize, if for no other reason than the implied consent that passive recognition seems to entail. Our cultural history is certainly inhospitable to the idea of “empire”. Haven’t we risen above that primal stage of civilization? We like to think that the principles of liberal democracy are antithetical to “empire”. After all, we have a President and a Congress and a Judiciary. No Emperor strolls these marble halls.

Stop lying to yourself. You are a citizen of the grandest and most impressive empire ever to exist in human history. You should be proud. Besides, this isn’t a new phenomenon. We’ve been an empire for a very long time now. We’ve even had colonial holdings: in the Philippines, in Panama, in Cuba, among countless hundreds of insignificant islands scattered across the South Pacific. The westward expansion of the American citizenry in the 19th century and the dislocation of native peoples that it entailed is the very definition of Imperial expansion. The time for the American people to come to terms with the fact of its empire has long since passed.

It is only logical, then, that in order to develop a working understanding of America’s current military misadventures we must view them through the lens of empire, as imperial projects designed by conquerors with hegemonic intentions. Empires are net consumers of resources; as such, they must exist in a state on constant geographical expansion. An empire that fails to conquer will implode on itself. This is what Machiavelli says in his Discourse on Livy, which is good book that you should read.

All that expansion requires an enforcement mechanism: a standing army. Here’s the rub: that standing army actually causes the wars it fights. When a man is isolated from society, his spirit and body broken down and built back up, when he is becomes willing to kill at command and feels no moral reservations to doing so, that man has been imbued with the expectation that he will kill. He expects to be used for the purpose for which he was created. Champion thoroughbred racehorses aren’t kept locked in barns. As Madeline Albright put it, what’s the point of having this excellent military of ours if we don’t get to use it? A large standing army turns simple ideological fantasies (damn those commies in Panama, we ought to bomb them!) into feasible reality (Operation Just Cause).

I will now make another unusual assertion, also vital to understanding Iraq and Afghanistan: the United States military is the single largest social welfare program on the planet. It employs a massive number of the least educated and least employable segment of our population-people who would otherwise join the ranks of the un- or underemployed. It provides those individuals with job skills training. It provides the basic necessities for survival, and when it is finished with them they enter the general workforce as well trained, hardworking, disciplined, and highly respected individuals. That is not to say that every grunt in the Army is a dim-witted high school flunky, quite the contrary, a great many American servicemen are incredibly intelligent individuals who turned down other career fields to serve their country. That noble fact does not change the reality that a great many people in the military would have trouble finding comparable employment in the private sector. Likewise, American military spending provides employment to hundreds of thousands of defense industry workers, people who (like those in the military) would be out of jobs if not for our collective insistence upon a global military presence.

Here’s where it all comes together. American freedom is mobility: it is the freedom to buy whatever we want in whatever quantity we want for as low a price as possible. That is the freedom our empire delivers us. Our economic stability is not hampered by our military strength, rather, it is very much a product of that strength, and quite possibly unsustainable (in its current form) without it. The simple fact is that we’re in these wars because the American people demand a minimum living standard that cannot be achieved without the force projection and economic safeguards the wars provide. Afghanistan itself is ungovernable. It shouldn't be a single political entity, and our attempting to create a centrally governed nation-state out of what is essentially a cartographic accident of the previous century's imperial ambitions only serves to create resentment among local populations that know the Taliban will be in Afghanistan long after the United States is forced out. COIN has failed. But that's beside the point. Afghanistan's internal stability is not nearly as important to the United States as having an outlet by which to showcase its military capabilities to potential rivals.

The next time you think about going to an antiwar rally remember one thing: the lifestyle you demand, the lifestyle you flaunt with such blissful mindlessness, is the product of a geopolitical order that is fundamentally imperial in nature and relies on American military force projection for its continuation.

You, average Joe American, make this war necessary through your insistence upon empire and all the benefits that empire confers onto its citizens. You, who do not fight, yet have a clear and defined personal stake in its outcome, through your passivity and your apathy and your unwillingness to adjust your own lifestyle in response to clear revelations of its unsustainability, make this war necessary.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The Importance of the 14th Amendment, or: An Alternative Libertarian Approach to States' Rights

The continued exercise of individual liberties relies on the voluntary restraint of the institution of government, and it assumes a society operating under a government so restrained can be a free society. But a distinction must be drawn between the practice of power and the capacity for power; between possession and utilization.

But what of the argument that the Federal government of the United States, understood to be the amalgamation of entities structurally distinct from one another through their capacity to exercise power over specific and limited areas of governance, is restricted in its actions by the interests of the States which comprise it? It would be logical to conclude that the presence of multiple hierarchically organized power structures ensures that no single level of government explicitly exercises absolute control over the functioning of the society it governs, because the “society” regulated by the government of the United States is not a single society at all, but the amalgamation of many.

In fact, it is this very Federal nature of American government-the division of function and power among competing levels of government-that ensures American society can never be “Free” without Federal Court oversight of lower institutions. This is the essential necessity selective incorporation addresses. Wherever power is left unexercised by the Federal government (which is admittedly few places) it is done so only by virtue of that government’s inaction upon them. The people are free from binding restrictions from that level of government.

Those powers are nonetheless exercised by subsequent lower levels of government, which exercise authority over the smaller geographic subdivisions that comprise the United States. Taken in the aggregate, the institution of “Government” in the United States wields unquestioned absolute power. Whatever gaps may be left in the restriction of action are easily and readily filled by the regulations of State, County, and Municipal governments.

This is the problem the 14th Amendment was designed to address by burdening state and local governments with the same Constitutional restrictions on action that had previously only applied to the Federal government. The problem lies in enforcement, that is, with the courts. The Constitution limits the powers exercised by each level of government; strict adherence to these limits is guaranteed by the presence of competing entities within the same institution of government. Constitutionalism as the founders conceived it is, in short, a flawed model. It cannot ensure individual liberty because it cannot ensure the prevention of an overwhelming concentration of power in the institution of government, but only the prevention of an overwhelming concentration of power into one of the hierarchical entities comprising that institution. This is the paradigm that exists until the Fourteenth Amendment is ratified in 1868.

These shortcomings are not inherent in the American experience as a function of American exceptionalism. These are universal conditions originating from the very nature of government as a concept. Government is inherently coercive. The liberties that are so fundamental to the character of a free society are enjoyed only by virtue of their status as having not yet been prohibited. Our society decided long ago and decides once again that the ability to own and use a firearm for individual self preservation is one of those liberties.

Freedom is present when a society finds itself lacking any single institution capable of wielding undue power. But where there are a great many smaller institutions, none of which control a preponderance of power but each of which wields enough influence to regulate a small contingency of individual action, the result is the absolute and unquestionable control of every mode of action it may please the individual to engage in. In this situation, may I still be said to be free?