Thursday, May 28, 2009

On God: Why I Believe

Something I always struggle to put into words is why I believe in the existence of but one God. I wasn't raised to believe in Him. At a superficial level, I actually tend to prefer to think as an atheist. I'm definitely a great big sinner by the standards of many religious creeds. But believe I do, and I think, at this moments, I may actually have the words. Hopefully I can get them down before they fly from my mind yet again.

Suppose you were an engineer, and you came across a functioning device of unknown origin. You spent many years studying this device, seeing how all the parts go together, determining the principles by which it operates. However, the one thing you could not get a look at no matter how hard you tried was the power source. The device was clearly self propelling, but the power by which it operates was, for whatever reason, hidden from view. You'd diagrammed the entire thing, but at the heart of the diagram was an empty spot simply labeled "phlebotinum device". No other configuration seemed workable, and any other model you could come up with required a lot of arbitrary adjustments to even function, a bit like the Ptolomeic model of the solar system. In a situation like this, it would be foolish to debate the semantics of what the device should be called, or the existence of the device.

For me, the field is moral philosophy. No, I am not formally trained, but the majority of my life has been spent musing on the subject, whether I believed in God's existence at the time or not. To me, one of the primary functions of scientific thinking is to discover the order in a seemingly chaotic mixture of facts. And so far as I could tell, notions of right and wrong were only questions of seeming, and could not be justified according to any ultimate principle or structure of thought. Ultimately, right and wrong were purely matters of either futile and circular reasonings, or assertion.

And nobody asserts that more than the more traditional, less thoughtful believers... but ironically, the time I spent trying my best to be as religious as possible, attending church and reordering my thoughts to account for His existence, brought a spark of order to all these chaotic musings. For though in the short term, submission to a written code and a social order (so far as I was able... I've never been good at submitting to social order) brought me a brief reprieve from my own crisis of morality, in the long term, the "God" principle became the "phlebotinum device" at the core of my own moral structure.

(Note that I recognize that this "God principle" is not God himself, but rather a memetic structure that fits into the only consistent memetic structure I have ever run across. I do not worship this principle; that would be idolatrous. Indeed, I do not ordinarily worship, unless my wonder at the brief flashes of insight this principle enables me to have counts. I say this not to brag, but more as a confession.)

What is this structure? Hopefully I can elaborate on this further in future entries, but there are a few platitudes that I regard as being more true than false, that point to the existence of some benevolant guiding force.

For example, "leave the rest up to God," or "Matters beyond that will attend themselves." It is, I believe, a fact that there are limits to individual responsibility. One simply does not have the power to order the entire world around him... but there are so many who drive themselves to the grave attempting to do so. Worry worry worry... but it isn't even necessary. For the world is not a dark place with potential enemies around every corner... unless you have made those enemies yourself. One CAN focus his attention on that which is within one's own power without worring about sudden unexpected disaster... and be more effective at life as a result. For though sudden unexpected disaster does strike from time to time, worrying about it accomplishes nothing. And afer a natural disaster, or "act of god", the key to moving on is acceptance of the situation, "trusting God", not howling at the arbitrary and senseless nature of the universe.

What is the engine that enables "matters" to "attend themselves"? One can suppose an inherent benevolance of humankind... this is not, in my opinion, a reasonable supposition. One can throw up his hands and simply say "I don't know." I don't know either, but the first phrase I quoted suggests something that is true...

What is the mind that guides the "invidible hand" that guides the distribution of resources? How are the species that survive amid extinctions on the one hand, and the social and moral systems that continue to the present day, selected? Is the chain of cause and effect infinite, with no original cause? Or is there a "base" cause from which all effects arise... and what is that "first cause"? What is the equation behind the fractal pattern that seems to emerge in such disparate places in nature? And why does it always seem to function, at the macro level, better than any human planner?

What is it that made Jews and Jewishness indestructable? What is it about the cult of YHWH that was so compelling it spawned two world religions, and numerous other ofshoots? What was it that drove Jesus to knowingly and willingly approach the cross? Which is less reasonable: to entertain the notion that the old prophets may have known something (or someone) we do not, or to valiantly squeeze one's eyes from even the possibility (whatever you think of the old religions) that the ordering of the universe has a conscious intent behind it?

To me, human morality simply does not make sense without a "God principle" at the center.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Something To Read

I enjoyed Robert P. Murphy's recent article refuting some objections against Austrian Business Cycle Theory. Just thought I'd bring that up.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Iraq: Why Leaving Slowly Isn't Enough

A subject that came up recently was Why I Didn't Vote in 2008, and my answer was Obama Wasn't Going To Leave Quickly Enough. But pressed with the question, what's so great about leaving quickly, Leaving The Iraqis Out To Dry, I found myself unable to answer. While cleaning up after dinner, I found myself musing on the subject, and I think I have an answer.

I'd forgotten, since it'd been a moot point for some time now, but originally, the Iraq (totally not a) War was not, for me, about America vs. The Terrorists, or America vs. the Islamist Extremists, or America vs. The Insurgents, or any form of America vs. Those Guys Over There. I was well aware that nobody in Iraq had anything to do with the 9/11 attacks (or at least, nobody that anybody knew of). So far as I was concerned, America had nothing to do with anything going on in Iraq. Regardless of whoever else was involved across the seas (in this case, the enemy of my enemy is definitely not my friend, nor does he need to be), the Iraq War (sic) was to me about a coalition of military suppliers, oil companies, Iraqi exiles, others who thought they might gain from the conflict, and a few genuinely deluded souls, vs. the American People, and our Constitution.

It is my understanding that military officers, congressmen, and the President himself swear an oath to defend the Constitution against all enemies, "foreign or domestic." My opinion: exiles seeking to embroil this nation in their own conflict? Foreign enemies. Big business interests seeking the same end for their own purposes? Domestic enemies. I was well aware that the "conflict" part of the Iraq "War" would end during the next administration, regardless of who won the election. The only question was, would it happen quickly enough to burn those who were reaping an advantage from the fight? Would it be a victory over the enemies of the Constitution, both Foreign and Domestic? Because that's what the election of 2008 was about, for me.

A quick and total withdrawal from Iraq would have hurt the balance sheets of the military supply companies reaping American tax dollars, by bringing a swift end to the practice. For the big oil companies, dreams of securing advantageous contracts with a compliant Iraqi government established with other people's money would have quickly gone up in smoke. The exiles who lobbied to have us fight their enemies for them would have suddenly found that their "allies" had signed a separate peace... their own plans foiled.

And what of the Iraqi People, who had to go through military invasion and occupation, all for naught? The people whose hearts bleed fat the thought are often the very same people for whom there is an acceptable level of "collateral damage" (that is, the destruction of the lives and livelihoods of noncombatants) to be had in war. So lets just call it that: the fate of the Iraqis after we "leave them hanging" or whatever is "collateral damage"... with a difference: neither I, nor anyone else involved in our side of the conflict are the ones pulling triggers and pushing buttons, if indeed the nightmare scenarios painted by some supporters of the "slow withdrawal" are, in fact, the actual result.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Musings on Moral Equality

I have at the tip of my mind a series of essays on how the ideal of moral equality can be described in terms of the proper relationships of individuals and communities to the general categories of labor, land, and capital. The problem I am having is the verbalization of the reasoning behind the concept itself: Why should people be regarded as being morally equal?

At first, I wonder if it's even necessary. For me, the ideal that all people have equal moral rights to things like freedom, even existence, is self evident. It's axiomatic. It's not something I question, and as is the case with all people, my natural presumption is that everybody shares this axiom, and that disagreement is a matter of the interpretation of the logical consequences of this axiom.

But this isn't the case, because a lot of people, quite possibly a majority, seem to have a tiered system whereby some people matter more than others not only in practice, but in reality. At the top is the self. Just below it is a circle of immediate family and close friends. Next comes one's extended family and peer group. Below that comes the primary identity group, whether it national, religious, racial, class based, or otherwise. There may be a series of secondary identity groups below that, but, at the very bottom, come the "unpersons."

Certainly, one cannot get away from the reality of distance, that one is only capable of carrying out responsibility to a limited number of people. But I see, in the voraciousness with which large numbers of people are able to literally cry out for the blood of people they've never met and who have not been proven to have done any harm, a moral relativism. "We" do not only know one another better, "We" are not only more able to both to help and to judge one another, "We" matter more than "they." "We" have a right to rob, oppress, or even kill anyone we perceive as a threat, so long as they aren't one of "Us." "Our" existence takes priority over "theirs." The standard of proof, if even necessary, is lower for convicting "them" of wrongdoing; and on the flip side we should stand united against any of "their" accusations against our own.

Thus, a nobleman has the right to harass, rob, or even kill a peasant, simply because he is not a fellow noble... but woe to the peasant who strikes his better! Master may beat his slave mercilessly, deprive him of food, or take any other measures he feels appropriate... but a slave who so much as glares at his master may be struck dead on the spot. Native may abuse, torment, con, or even murder foreigner at will... but a foreigner who so much as grumbles against his treatment has overstepped his bounds. Any from the conqueror's people may do what they will to the natives, and at worst will be transferred back to the homeland for "rehabilitation", but if a native too slow to obey his conqueror's orders he may be justifiably shot, in "self defense." And if my brother strikes you, it was justified... no investigation is needed. However, if you strike my brother, that demands retribution!

Certainly, some people place some identity group above themselves in their moral hierarchy: family, nation, religious organization, or what have you. Such people can potentially dehumanize to a greater degree, since such a hierarchy requires that they submit their own will to that of the group... meaning that if their group is at odds with another, the individual member has no choice but to respond with hostility to individuals of the other group!

My general moral hierarchy has but one or two tiers. One contains the mass of humanity... all of them, regardless of nation, race, creed, or even possibly occupation... and within this, men are judged by their actions, not their origins. The only other possible tier is one above, the one in which God resides, with authority over all men individually and directly.

Certainly, there are structures of authority within that second tier, but those grants of authority are always exchanges in which both seek and deserve advantage; one is not "above" the other, but rather simply has something different to offer than the other. Laborers exchange their efforts for access to resources and knowledge they otherwise would not have. Laymen exchange their deference and resources for the wisdom of his priest of pastor. Soldiers submit to their commanding officers in exchange for a better chance of surviving, or at least not dying in vain. Children submit to their parents in exchange for sustenance, guidance, and the approval all children desire from their parents. Husbands and wives submit to one another in exchange for the various things one can obtain only from the other.

However, in any relationship, both sides have the right to terminate the relationship if they believe they are being cheated or abused. Note that the following are not necessarily established rights in our society, but rather things I believe flow naturally from the notion of the moral equality of humankind. The laborer can quit his job and seek another, while his boss may fire him. Laymen can stop listening to their clergymen, and a clergyman may step down from serving an ungrateful congregation. Soldiers, should they believe their commander unfit for leadership, can decline to serve further; the commander can likewise refuse the service of any he regards as unfit for duty. The child, though he must rely upon his own abilities for sustenance in such a case, is under no moral compulsion to return to his parents should he decide to leave; likewise, though despicable to consider, I can see no profit in attempting to force a parent that lacks a natural paternal instinct to support a despised child. And husbands and wives, though they should make every effort to continue the relationship for the sake of any children that might be involved, ought to have the right to unilateral separation.

This is my question to my readers: do you regard moral equality as an acceptable axiom (even if you don't think I've correctly applied it in the preceding paragraph)? Or is it really okay to judge men more or less favorably depending upon their social distance from yourself? Figuratively speaking, if your brother wronged another, would you protect him from the consequences? If another acted against your brother, would you consider that in itself a wrong, without investigating what your brother may have done to provoke that response? Is it truly acceptable that US contractors, when found guilty of crimes, are simply transferred back to America, while an Iraqi or Afghani that is too slow to obey orders barked by soldiers can be shot on site often with little consequences? Is it okay that a policeman need only claim he was "scared" to get away with shooting a dog, let alone a man, but that the average person is often denied even the right to carry a weapon... and that regardless of the outcome, a policeman may not generally be prosecuted for his crimes, but only "disciplined"?

I am actively requesting feedback on this one. Is moral equality axiomatic for you? Do you have a deeper reasoning for it? Or do you regard moral equality as a falsehood? What do you propose in its place? Why?

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Gold: Theoretical Nexus between Austrian and Geoist Economics

Lately, I've been paying a lot of attention to the work of Dr. Michael Hudson, whom I discovered via his many interviews on Guns and Butter, a radio show I used to listen to regularly via KFCF. (It's a shame my newly local WPFW doesn't carry that show.) A theory that is somewhat new to me that I've encountered via his work concerns taxation as the source of money value. Initially odious to a libertarian thinker like myself, some thought about the role gold typically plays has lead me to believe there might be some truth to the notion.

I wish I could point you to a definitive page outlining this theory. I'm pretty sure it's at least related to the Fiscal Theory of Price Level (the wikipedia article could use some development, but it's the best introductory link I could find, the others being equation-heavy and highly technical papers from various Federal Reserve Banks). But the basic idea I'm so recently exposed to is that money derives its value from the demand for it created by its acceptance to satisfy tax liabilities.

This contrasts with the theory I'm most accustomed to, which is a simple question of supply and demand with its utility being a question of its durability, divisibility, and scarcity, and general acceptance in payment for other goods. Durability: How long can it be stored before it degrades? Divisibility: Can I make change? Scarcity: How much value can I store in how little space? Acceptance: Will anybody care that I have this? Gold fits all four of these. It doesn't generally oxidize, nor does it shatter, you can divide it down to tiny grains without reducing its "goldness" one bit, it is rare enough that one could potentially buy, for example, a car, for an amount of gold that could be carried in a small sack. So then the question arises: where does its initial demand come from? Why would anybody want gold?

The answer is obvious: the stuff looks good, and unlike other things that look like gold but aren't, it will continue to look good pretty well indefinitely. It makes an excellent decoration. There is always somebody who is willing to accept it in payment. The question then becomes: who? And in payment for what?

The short answer is "the rich", the richer the person is, the more gold they are (were?) likely to make use of, relative to their use of everything else. A middle class person might hold a few important pieces of jewelry (such as a wedding band), but a rich person might have many otherwise common items either constructred from or plated with gold. In other words, he'll use more. But who is likely to be rich?

These days, we like to focus on the successful entrepreneur: the Bill Gates' of the world. And yes, it is true that the richest tend to be those whose efforts have produced new tools, products, processes, and so on. But this has not always been the case historically, and even today, below the super rich "new money" types you have "old money", who largely collect their wealth in the form of rents.

"Rent" is nothing more than money received for access to an opportunity or good in excess of the resources actually needed to enable access to it in the first place. Land is the primary example, the cost of making it available being the cost of securing exclusive access (basically the protection of capital improvements against thieves, vandals, etc.), and economic rent being the amount actually received in exchange for access minus that cost. Those who are in the business of collecting rents will tend to be richer than those who pay them, and those who are rich by other means will tend to "invest" their newly earned wealth in rent collecting opportunities (adding their descendants to the existing aristocracy).

We now have a reason gold is always acceptable in payment for goods: it is always acceptable in payment for rent, due to the fact that the rent collectors are also the ones who have the most use for gold other than as a medium of exchange. If the gold supply becomes excessive (as can happen after a large discovery), the rent-collecting class will tend to absorb the excess in the form of luxary goods. This, then, ensures that there is always a demand for gold, making it acceptable at nearly all levels of society as a medium of exchange. You can't eat gold, but you can pay rent with it.

If one considers rent to be a "tax" of sorts (and I do), then what you have is gold satisfying the "tax value" theory of money value (or whatever its called), and it does so naturally, without the intervention of legislative declaration, monetary "policy", or even a functioning government.