Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Collective Action

The less government we have the better - the fewer laws and the less confided power. The antidote to this abuse of formal government is the influence of private character, the growth of the individual.
Ralph Waldo Emerson

To be a socialist is to submit the I to the thou; socialism is sacrificing the individual to the whole.
Joseph Goebbels

Obama's coronation inauguration has come and gone. The liberal media predictably fawned over his speech; the conservative media predictably gnashed their teeth. Both the fawning and the gnashing were about the same thing, Obama's frankness in admitting his liberal/Progressive/socialist agenda. The fawners acted as if this was news; the gnashers basically said "Told ya so!"

Obama, pretending to care about old dead white guys' trifles like the Declaration of Independence, made an effort to link his agenda with their principles, declaring: 

"For history tells us that while these truths may be self-evident, they have never been self-executing; that while freedom is a gift from God, it must be secured by His people here on earth … We have always understood that when times change, so must we; that fidelity to our founding principles requires new responses to new challenges; that preserving our individual freedoms ultimately requires collective action." 

That is, in order to secure "for ourselves and our posterity" these inalienable rights we must act collectively. So far, so good. Ben Franklin knew that when he said "We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately." But collective action of what sort? Individualism and collective effort aren't necessarily contradictory, but both God and the Devil are in the details. Let's look there.

The United States, founded on overtly individualist principles, has always benefited from 
collective action. Alexis de Tocqueville noted our fondness for voluntary association early in the 19th century, but it predates that. Americans work together to get all kinds of things done: help neighbors, care for the poor and the sick, promote enterprise, compete at games. In colonial and frontier times we helped each other build barns and harvest crops, and it's still happening today. We formed real militias to protect each other from Indians, bandits, and Brits. Towns formed volunteer fire departments, as they still do.
The key idea here is voluntarism, acting for the benefit of others of one's own free will. It's adding a clause to the social contract, that which enables free people to live together in harmony (well, mostly) without losing their freedom. The point of such collective action is to maintain and enhance each person's individual welfare.

The same principle can be seen in social action. The civil rights movement was about reclaiming the inalienable rights that had historically been denied to black people. When Martin Luther King said "I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character," he was speaking of individuals. Only individuals have character. Those who marched with him then did so in the tradition of American individualism and voluntary association. The Deacons for Defense and Justice was an organization in the spirit of the  citizen militias of frontier times, formed for the same reasons. 

It saddens and sickens me to see these ideals perverted. That's what happens when government-mandated "collective action" takes the place of real voluntary association.

You get Great Leaps Forward, Cultural Revolutions, Five-Year Plans, class warfare.
You get May Day in the USSR and Cuba. Worse, here's what happens when people define themselves by race, religion, language, as members of groups rather than responsible individuals. And worst of all, here's what happens when you combine the two.

So what now? I propose we give Obama and his minions exactly what they want--collective action, but in our own way. We don't need street demonstrations and we certainly don't want violence. Let's start in small ways. Recall all those "flash mob" videos? Not the violent ones, I mean the singing and dancing that occurs in public places, makes people smile, and then disappears. Like that, with a twist. Instead of one event, how about dozens all over a city, at random times and places? People could sing "God Bless America," then blend back into the crowds. Can't sing? No problem. Form a group, come together, raise a flag and say the Pledge of Allegiance. Then hand out little flags, or copies of the Bill of Rights,  to people in the crowd, then fade away. Have somebody video the whole process and post it on YouTube. What does this accomplish? Besides any public sympathy it gains, it lets people know we're here. It says we're everywhere and anywhere; we're not going away.

Want more direct action? How about a consumer's strike? No mass demonstrations, no parades. On a selected day, nobody spends any money. None. No gas, no food, no movies, no Wal-Mart, no online purchases. What's it about? It's a peaceful way of saying that we're here and we can cooperate on a large scale. We can shut things down any time we want simply by refusing to participate. On a more active level we can take a cue from the unions.
One of their most effective "job actions" short of a strike is called a "rules action." Simply put, it means everyone in an organization follows every rule to the letter. If you know anything about modern organizations you know that this inevitably brings the place to a grinding halt.
Suppose hundreds of thousands of people all over the country followed every rule everywhere? If they drove no faster than the speed limit, for example? 

You might ask how all this is to be coordinated. Who's in charge? Think creatively for a minute. Why does anyone have to be? There's Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. There's virtually instantaneous communication. Those are the bases of self-organizing systems.
Keep things simple and nobody has to be a director. Spread the idea and let people organize themselves in small groups with a common goal. Let ideas generate and spread the same way. Let the common message be this: We are a free people who will not surrender our rights, our arms, the products of our labor to an all-consuming State. We will not be plodding refugees on the road to serfdom. We wish no harm to anyone, but:

We will not be moved.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013


"We have four boxes used to guarantee our liberty: The soap box, the
ballot box, the jury box and the cartridge box."
  Ambrose Bierce (1887)

Once again, pro-Constitution pundits are pointing out that the gun control rhetoric is incoherent. With the same commendable reasoning as before (e.g. this from John Lott) they illuminate the logical inconsistency, lack of evidence and appeals to fear that the anti-Constitution crowd presents to justify gelding the Second Amendment. They're perfectly right and, sadly, perfectly irrelevant to this fight. Let me reiterate: logic, evidence, moral standards and the like matter in the governance of our own behavior. They matter in determining whether and how to respond to threats, whether and how to shoot at a quarry in forest or field, whether and how to practice, to safeguard our weapons, and so forth. Being factually correct, being logical, being moral will not help us win. Please note that I'm not recommending we be illogical, factually incorrect, or immoral. Those are the province of our enemies, the anti-Constitutional "Progressives."

Let's be brutally frank: Gun control is a civil rights issue. If Heller was the Second Amendment counterpart to the Brown vs Board of Education decision's Fourteenth Amendment victory, Obama's gun control proposals (like those hurriedly passed by New York) are the equivalent of Jim Crow. Andrew Cuomo might as well be the reincarnation of George Wallace, and anti-Constitution cabals like the Brady Campaign the new White Citizen's Councils.

How can I say that? Easy. First of all, gun control has always been about political power. The Sullivan Law in New York was about maintaining Tammany Hall's position atop a corrupt heap, and keeping the immigrants unarmed. Britain's 1920 gun restrictions were motivated by a fear of the "working classes." For the same reason, fear of revolt, they also disarmed the people of India.  After Reconstruction gun control was imposed to keep the newly free black population from resisting the Klan and other white supremacists. In 1930's Germany, Jews were disarmed. 

That can't apply here, say the Progressives. We have a wonderful racially harmonious society. Who would be the target? I would note cynically that Obama himself identified his enemies, those backwards rednecks bitterly clinging to their guns and religion. That his proposals would also disarm black people, women, Asians, Latinos, Jews and others who might need to protect themselves matters not at all to him and his co-ideologues. To Obama and his Progressives, as to all collectivists, only the herd matters. Individual losses are acceptable if it means the herd is better controlled. By them.

Progressives will deny this victimization, of course. Consider Jay Bookman, pet liberal of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, who wrote in Sunday's issue that "Guns Don't Guarantee Liberty." Of course they don't. Nothing does. Life doesn't come with guarantees. What guns do is make it easier to resist tyranny, either of the state or of criminal gangs. Bookman might read Max Boot's Invisible Armies, about insurgencies and guerilla warfare throughout history. He might also read about Jewish resistance to the Nazis, some of which involved shooting them. He could start here. He won't, though.

Surely one can't accuse Progressives of bigotry? They love diversity, welcoming all to their rainbow-illuminated Candyland. Don't they? Read Richard Parncutt, who wants to kill "global warming deniers." Oh, and the Pope. Read some Progressives who want to kill NRA members here, here, and here. There are more but you can use Google as well as I can.
Then there's the Occupy Wall Street crowd, who want to purge the US of "Zionist Bankers."

Is there any doubt that Progressives would love to disarm, to segregate, to disadvantage anyone who disagrees with them? To treat us as Stalin did the Kulaks? As the Chinese did the Tiananmen Square protestors or as they currently treat dissident Tibetans

If you're not a black person, imagine this: How would black people respond to new Jim Crow laws? How would they respond to "common sense" racial restrictions? If you are black, you don't have to imagine. Now, all of you, because you're all in this together: 
Govern your behavior accordingly.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Crime and Punishment, Part 1

My object all sublime
I shall achieve in time —
To let the punishment fit the crime —
The punishment fit the crime;
And make each prisoner pent
Unwillingly represent
A source of innocent merriment!
Of innocent merriment!

Gilbert and Sullivan, The Mikado, Act 2

According to the Jan. 14 Atlanta Journal-Constitution, US Representative Hank Johnson claimed that the United States imprisons a greater percentage of its population than any other nation. Since Johnson is not known for getting his facts straight , the intrepid AJC fact-checkers checked and--guess what?--Johnson was almost right

Johnson wants fewer people imprisoned, since felons make up a goodly part of his (and Obama's) constituency, but there are actual humanitarian and practical reasons to reduce the numbers of the incarcerated. Our jails and prisons are overcrowded, putting the (mostly nonviolent) convicts at the mercy of the most brutal inmates. Controlling prison gangs is virtually impossible. Convicts plan and supervise their collaborators' crimes from behind bars using easily smuggled cell phones. Guards, too often corrupt, cannot in any case adequately control the population. Jails and prisons are expensive, too; so much so that, for example, Fulton County GA cannot afford to put working locks on its cells in a timely fashion. Until they do, prisoners can apparently stroll around at will.

These problems lead to others, for instance early release and parole. Many relatively petty criminals are sentenced to probation--no punishment at all. Some are fined, the money going to the local, state or Federal government, guaranteeing that it will be largely wasted. Other than turning the United States into one huge prison, either maximum-security (the North Korean option) or minimum-security (the recent Communist Chinese innovation, at least if you're not Tibetan). What can be done?

I propose bringing back corporal punishment. Today's essay will deal with relatively minor crimes and misdemeanors, those causing minimal to no direct harm but which reduce other people's quality of life or present a potential danger. These would normally be punished by fines or short jail terms. Examples, in no particular order, are public intoxication, soliciting for (adult) prostitution, reckless or impaired driving, vandalism, public disturbance, indecent exposure or lewd conduct (not involving children), possession and sale of small amounts of drugs, aggressive panhandling and so forth.*

To be effective, punishment must be quick, consistent and certain. It should prevent recidivism, at least statistically, but not be so severe as to cause permanent harm (as, for instance, being raped and brutalized by violent inmates would). It should be inexpensive. To have a deterrent effect it should be public, and vivid enough to come readily to mind when someone thinks of performing an illegal action.

I propose reintroducing the stocks and the pillory to the public square. The former holds prisoners by the ankles, seated, while the latter holds the neck and hands, standing. Convicts are required to spend a number of hours or days so confined, exposed in a public
place where they are subject to abuse and taunts from passers-by. In deference to modern sensibilities I would not have convicts exposed at night or during severe weather, and would have guards present to prevent their injury. Prisoners would be supplied with water during hot weather and appropriate clothing in winter. The public would be kept at a reasonable distance. 

As in historical times, however, the public would be permitted to taunt and insult the convicts. They would also be allowed to to pelt them with rotten eggs, spoiled fruit and vegetables, and other non-injurious missiles (e.g. snowballs.) Prisoners would be supplied with goggles to avoid eye injury, but would be unprotected otherwise. Guards would be responsible for wiping or hosing away residue from time to time and otherwise assuring sanitation.

I believe public humiliation and discomfort would accomplish what our criminal justice and failed "rehabilitation" programs do not, at a remarkably lower cost. There may also be some direct economic and social benefit to bringing people downtown to amuse themselves at the convicts' expense. Besides selling otherwise useless spoiled foods for the amusement of the crowds, retailers of all sorts would have more potential customers, encouraging entrepreneurship. Children would have healthy exercise running and throwing things at their deserving targets. This would be a welcome change from video games, and less violent. The convicts themselves would serve a much shorter sentence, freeing jail space and corrections officers to handle the serious and violent offenders. And, at the very least, it would make good reality TV.

* Whether some of these should be crimes at all is another question. 

Wednesday, January 9, 2013


How can we lose when we're so sincere?
Charlie Brown, in Peanuts

The Second Amendment to the Constitution is under attack as never before. The excuse is the murders in Newtown CT , Aurora CO and other places. Make no mistake, though: these are simply excuses to enact intentions held for years. The real goal is to gut the Bill of Rights, and always has been. The same people who exploit the fears of the caponized pacifists will then turn their attention to "common sense speech control" and "common sense religion control." We've mostly given up on due process already. It's been done before, it's going on now, and anyone who thinks the US is immune is dreaming. People are people, all over the world and throughout history. Don't believe me? Read "The Politics of Obedience: Discourse on Voluntary Servitude" by Etienne de La Boetie. Written in the 16th century, by a Frenchman no less, it describes our situation with frightening precision.

What do we see opposing the latest wave of totalitarianism? Reasoned discourse. I can't recall how many editorials I've read which, with commendable logic and using the best available data, point out that gun control is absolutely ineffective in accomplishing the (publicly) stated goals of the gun-ban lobby. That's true, and it matters nothing. This isn't about reason and data.

Get over the idea that the Constitution protects anything. The Constitution is the embodiment of some of humanity's noblest ideals, but by itself gives no more protection than their Torah scrolls did to the Jews of Europe. What does matter? Power.

What is power, then? In physics power is the rate at which work is done, that is, accomplishing some change in the world. Work is accomplished when a force acts on an object, displacing it. So--- power depends on resources, but power doesn't exist until resources are used to accomplish work. Socially, money is not power. Guns are not power.
People are not power. Knowledge is not power. A supertanker full of gasoline is only a toxic spill waiting to happen until it is converted into a force, say a push on a piston via controlled combustion. When the piston moves a distance, that's work, and when that work is repeated over time you have power.

No resource confers power unless it is used and no power is produced without cost. That's a law of nature, as true socially as it is physically. How much power one can produce, at what cost, depends on how efficiently our mechanism works. If two mechanisms are opposed, like linked locomotives pulling in opposite directions, the better designed and operated one will dominate. The same is true in civil conflict, whether electoral or armed.

So far, those who stand for the Constitution have spent resources creating the political equivalent of sound and fury. It may make us feel good to watch, but like a fireworks display over a gulag it doesn't leave us any better off. What's necessary is to use the resources we have--the people, the money, the time, the intelligence-- to create and apply power. Force, multiplied by leverage, over time.

How should that power be used? The first thing we think of is resistance, because all we really want is to be left alone to live peacefully. But that's playing defense, and you can't win playing defense. You just lose more slowly. To win we need to use power to build something, to offer an alternative to the gilded prison that our opponents are creating. Power has to be used to communicate and persuade, as well as to dominate.  As to tactics, I'll leave that to the more knowledgeable. A man's got to know his limitations. But our goal should always be to win. Period.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Free Will

Cogito cogito ergo cogito sum -- "I think that I think, therefore I think that I am;" as close an approach to certainty as any philosopher has yet made.”

There is a controversy in my field, social psychology, that has implications far beyond the rarefied atmospheres of the classroom, laboratory, and editorial office. It's about a fundamental assumption of our society---the idea that people can freely choose their actions, that they have meaningful preferences that guide their lives, and that they are capable, at least under some circumstances, of rational thinking or a close approximation.
On one side of the controversy is John Bargh of Yale University, quite rightly respected as a preeminent scholar in psychology. His work has strongly influenced my own and has been required reading in my graduate classes for many years. He studies automatic, nonconscious influences on feelings, thoughts, and behavior, an example of which you can see here. One of his primary contributions has been to document how nonconscious processes influence conscious thought, so that even when we think we're deciding autonomously, we're influenced by whatever happens to come most easily to mind, as caused by (for instance) recent experience, cultural learning, emotional state and the like.
So far, no argument. But Bargh and his coauthors extend these results to an extreme and to me unjustifiable conclusion: that there is no such thing as free will. Our experience of it, they say, is an illusion maintained because it makes us feel better. There is another side to the debate, represented here by Roy Baumeister of Florida State University, equally prominent and well-respected (despite not having an Ivy League address.) He points to the essential indeterminacy of modern physical theory, finding the idea of quantum-like, probabilistic rather than mechanistic, Newtonian causality to be a better model for behavior. That's where "free will" lives, in the irreducible variation that defines small-scale physical events.  He doesn't doubt the validity of the processes Bargh and others describe; rather, he looks at the (substantial) variation they can't explain.
So why should you care? Even if we make the (possibly generous) assumption that neither camp's research is contaminated by the practices I discussed with disgust in "Liars Figure," what difference does it make in anyone's life? Consider this: If there is no such thing as free will there is no reason to allow its exercise. People may be manipulated by any agency with sufficient power, corporate or governmental, to any ends they desire. Teaching critical thinking is useless because whatever we might think has already been determined. (That the agents of control themselves have no more free will than anyone else is beside the point.) Whether done with naked force (consider China, Russia, North Korea, Cambodia, Vietnam, Burma...) or via more benign-seeming manipulations, the end result is the same, an Obamanista's wet dream.
Consider instead cultivating free will, teaching (and motivating) critical thinking. We know that, with effort, automatic inputs to behavior and judgment can be overcome. There's a lot of research on that. We know that knowledge helps the process. You can read about some of that here if you like. What's the social outcome? That's what Jefferson, Washington, Franklin, Adams, Madison and a whole bunch of other old dead white guys tried to give us (in contrast to Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, Mao and other not quite so old, just as dead, mostly white guys.)
Political philosophy aside, who's right? That's an interesting question but one I can't answer. Nobody can. It's not answerable. The problem with Bargh's position (as Baumeister notes but fails to make central to his argument) is that the central conclusion is unfalsifiable and therefore as far outside the bounds of scientific inquiry as, say, deciding between the Old Testament, Mayan, and Tibetan Buddhist creation stories. Neither Bargh nor anyone else can specify a set of events which, if they occurred as predicted, would mean that his ideas were wrong. 
Of course, Bargh doesn't try. No social psychologists do. The studies he cites as "support" are merely consistent with his ideas, as they are with many others'. This is common in social psychology, in part because our theories are so crudely stated and there's no incentive to make them better. In 1974 Richard Harris published an article entitled "This is a Science? Social Psychologist's Aversion to Knowing What Their Theories Say". It's a wonderful paper that nobody reads. Here's a version. If Harris is still around he could write a followup, but I doubt he could get it published today. In his spirit I offer the following comments on the implications of Bargh's denial of free will:
Consider that our system of criminal justice is based on the idea that actions are freely chosen. If one chooses to act in an antisocial manner, one is punished in proportion to the reprehensibility of the act. Rehabilitation may be offered in addition to punishment, in order to give miscreants the ability and/or motivation to make socially acceptable choices in the future. People judged incapable of making choices (e.g. the "legally insane") are excused from punishment although they may be isolated for the welfare of society. At least, that's the ideal.
If free will is an illusion then "choice" does not exist. The concept is meaningless and so is the idea of individual responsibility for one's actions. Our concepts of punishment and rehabilitation are likewise meaningless since both are intended to influence choice. Therefore, antisocial individuals should either be executed or permanently isolated, since there is literally no chance that they will ever make a positive (or even neutral) impact on society. The alternative is to turn our society into a vast prison (or Skinner box, which might be worse) in which no one is ever exposed to a stimulus triggering unwanted behavior. If that reminds you of some current political initiatives, it's not accidental.
Here's another implication of Bargh's position that might strike closer to home:
If choice and individual responsibility are illusions, and blame for antisocial behavior is meaningless, then so is credit for one's achievements. The most accomplished people in our society---the artist, the engineer, the scientist, the athlete, the entrepreneur or whoever---had no more choice in their "success" than the drunken ragged bum panhandling on the corner did in his "failure." In other words, they didn't build that.  Why, then, are they treated differently? Bargh's success is not due to his free choice to study rather than party in college, nor to his later dedication to research rather than, say, cocaine. There was no choice. 
I'm sure Yale pays Bargh a "one percenter's" salary. If he's right about free will, why should he get more money than whoever cleans the floor in his office? Neither deserves more "credit" than the other for what they could not help doing. Why should Yale not pay each employee exactly the same? If this sounds a lot like "From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs," that's not accidental either.
Theories, like elections, have consequences. I wonder if Professor Bargh and his cohorts will step up to take the consequences of theirs? 
Oh. Wait. That would be a choice, wouldn't it? 
Never mind.