Monday, April 20, 2009


The theory of socialism does have some intellectual appeal, just not as a universal concept. It is quite easy to imagine a setting in which socialist principles might work better in practice than a capitalist approach, specifically one in which a society has only a few discrete types up resources with which to produce wealth. Socialism might be just the ticket for an oil rich state with nothing else but sand with which to provide necessities for its people. In general, if the sparse resources are fully exploited with only a fraction of the workforce, then "spreading the wealth" makes sense.

On the other hand, in a country such as the United States, or South Africa or Russia, with a vast array of resources with which to drive an economy, the efficiencies afforded by capitalism are much more likely to produce higher standards of living, and allow people to pursue those activities most meaningful to themselves. Free markets presuppose a degree of liberty that the socialist simply cannot afford.

Sunday, April 19, 2009


People that prefer their moral thinking to be straightforward might be somewhat vexed in applying principles to the treatment of detainees in the war on terror. Laying aside whether one form of interrogation or another consitutes torture, or what exactly the definition of torture is, anomalies abound when trying trying to apply moral reasoning to the treatment of human beings in the setting of war. An obvious illustration of this point arises from the use of unmanned aerial vehicles to conduct targeted airstrikes in Pakistan and Afghanistan. The human targets of these strikes are killed and maimed without warning. There has been no judicial process by which their status has been determined or their conduct condemned. Furthermore, the manner in which the strikes are conducted raises the risk of collateral damage, potentially killing and maiming innocent bystanders. Similarly, when Navy SEALS assassinated three pirates holding an American sea captain, the event caused little moral consternation, in stark contrast to interrogating terror suspects by use of sleep deprivation techniques or pouring water over a cloth covering their faces to simulate drowning.

For some reason, killing adversaries in the field is more readily accommodated than causing physical and psychological stress to a captive, and soul-searching ensues in the latter case when our collective conscience seems unvexed by the former. There is an obvious disconnect in the ways in which we view the treatment of different adversaries whose past histories and enmity of the Unites States are indistinguishable. In the one case, we have the power to kill them and in the other to cause them discomfort or indignity, but in each case the decision is ours. There may be an arguable distinction arising from the threat posed by terrorist still in the field and one in our custody, but this distinction fades when viewed in light of the purposes of a Hellfire missile strike or enhanced interrogation.

It might be that the paradox of legitimate assassination and illegitimate interrogation arises from some infirmity in the arguments used to justify the two cases, but a more fundamental question arises regarding the concept of justifying one or the other in the first place.

The term "justify" means to make just that which ordinarily is not. We do not justify educating our children or providing emergency medical services. We need not justify paying our debts or contributing to charity because these things need no justification; they are already just. We speak of justifiable homicide or justifiable use of force because these are not inherently just, but may be considered so in the appropriate circumstances. Aquinas spoke of just war because it is quite natural to conceive of war as an enterprise unconcerned with the common attributes of justice.

The conception of all activities as just, justifiable or unjust would seem to be theoretically elegant; classifying as it does all human conduct according to some notion of reason and moral values. But in the context of warfare, it would seem that such an assumption is not valid. During the Second Word War, Churchill ordered the Royal Navy to attack the French fleet anchored at Oran. Was this justified? Churchill also sacrificed the Highland Division to achieve more political than tactical ends. During the Doolitle raid on Tokyo, U.S. Navy destroyers fired on unarmed picket ships to prevent them from alerting the Japanese military of the raiders' presence. Each of these could arguably be justified by the circumstances, even though they may make us uncomfortable when viewed retrospectively, but even then the concept of justification seems somewhat superfluous. There is a quiet suspicion that the exigencies of war are so extraordinary that they do not conform easily to our customary moral reasoning.

Back in the 1980s certain Jewish leaders opposed the idea of studying the Holocaust to identify its causes. Their position was that such evil was best considered as evil, rather than as some understandable quirk of human behavior. They believed that the crimes of the Third Reich should not be candidates for rationalization. It seems obvious that one cannot "justify" the Holocaust, not because such a catastrophe does not meet rational and considered grounds for justification, but because it is practically impossible to find a context in which our moral reasoning and judgment can even comprehend the historical fact. It is quite literally absurd to ask if the Holocaust could be justified.

There are several references to an occurrence, subsequently adapted as part of the plot for the last episode of M*A*S*H, in which a Jewish mother suffocates her infant child to avoid detection by the Nazis. Is it even reasonable to ask if this woman's action was justified? Can anyone find a context in which such a decision is even remotely amenable to the moral judgments that we make based on our experience and abstract notions of just and unjust? Can anyone even imagine, much less understand how remote such a decision is from our experience and judgment? Who is competent to make such a judgment?

It is perhaps a conceit of civilization that we should judge our conduct against standards that we ourselves adopt, but it is likely the case that there are some activities so foreign to our abstract notions of morality and justice, and so peculiar to our own experiences that we can neither justify them nor condemn them. Some things cannot be understood, much less justified. They arise in that chasm in man's nature, on one side of which are the base fears and instinctive drives of survival, and on the other, the aspirations and virtues that he seeks through reason. War is terrible in part because it gives rise to acts that we cannot honestly judge as just or unjust; the acts themselves are terrible, the natural acts of ordinary people confronted with mortal threats not of their own choosing. Sometimes life presents dilemmas where each of the alternatives is appalling, and only the deluded and morally frivolous will presume to judge those who are forced to choose.

Sunday, April 12, 2009


Societies protect rights because they benefit from doing so. Religions are tolerated because most religions advocate altruistic principles that are socially beneficial, not to mention that the oldest constitutional government is less that two hundred and fifty years old, but several religions have survived for millennia. When governments try to force citizens to choose between political interests and religious beliefs, it can't be sure that the masses won't opt for the latter.

The right to privacy arises from the fact that when people must interact in a society, reputations and public impressions are necessary to the relationships that allow that society to function. Recognizing a right to privacy allows a person some measure of control over his public image, and consequently allows him to function as a productive member of society. Libel and slander laws, it should be remembered, protect not privacy in itself, but reputation.

Freedom of speech recognizes that most worthwhile adeas originate with individuals, collective creativity being so fanciful as to be almost an oxymoron. Freedom of expression is necessary to access individual inspiration, and recognizes that the great ideas of history were largely solo accomplishments.

The right to own property assumes that individuals will have an incentive to put property to its most efficient uses, and as a consequence maximize the benefits of enterprise.

Rights are not altruistic accommodations by tolerant government; they are the essential components of the success and ultimate survival of societies.

Saturday, April 04, 2009


Socialism is a doctrine of the average, the middling, and the mediocre. There are at least three inherent characteristics that limit achievement under socialist doctrines.

The first is that it does not have the optimizing advantage that competition provides to capitalism. Competition, and thus capitalism inherently rewards efficiency; socialism inherently rewards uniformity, a condition that is unavoidably opposed to exceptionalism.

The second characteristic that handicaps socialism arises from the concept that the value of money, like all values, is largely a matter of opinion. This principle is largely self-evident, and examples of it abound. When the stock market tumbles and investors lose billions, what has happened is that the opinion of the worth of the implicated investments has changed. The natural consequence of this is that economic growth results from providing captial to the production of goods and services that people generally find valuable. The disadvantage of socialism in this regard is that some central authority tries to prescribe what people should value, and if that authority is wrong, stagnation follows.

It is quite natural for a government to decide that everyone would be better off if they preferred fuel efficient vehicles at the expense of safety, or certain food choices at the expense of individual preference, or economic security at the expense of opportunity, but if these do not refect what the majority of peoplel value, no amount of regulation or stimulus will remedy the defect. Governments cannot force the people to want something, even if it is for their own good.

The third shortcoming of socialism is that human beings are inherently progressive creatures, and by that is meant that they will always strive to find more efficent means of pursuing individual interests. Efficiency is simply the amont of something desirable per amount of something necessary or expendable, and if the socialist limits the amount of the desirable thing, the natural human response is to increase efficiency by limiting the expenditure of something else. If the governemtn caps salaries, workers will respond by limiting the amount of effort they expend.

Socialism is a doctrine of caution, not of vitality or inspiration. It is suffused with the catchphrases of social justice and equality, but produces only artificial facsimiles of these. Socialism seeks its ends by minimizing risk, but in so doing minimizes the rewards to be gained from accepting those risks. Socialism requires that people in significant measure give up some of the aspirations, ambition and daring that is a natural part of human nature, all in the interest of achieving something that works much better in theory than it does in practice.