Saturday, December 27, 2014

One of These Things is Not Like the Others

One of these things just doesn't belong,
Can you tell which thing is not like the others
By the time I finish my song?

I would like to proceed with a simple examination of the success (or not) of the various US Federal cabinet departments toward their stated missions.  I will do this by selecting for examination one or two appropriate measures for each department. 

NB: Keep in mind, the success is relative to the mission statement, not based on my views of either the Constitution or libertarian theory.


The mission of the Department of Defense is to provide the military forces needed to deter war and to protect the security of our country.

There are fourteen major military operations listed for the United States since World War II.  Other than the 1991 Gulf War, the rest might – at best – be considered dubious victories; more often, embarrassing defeats.

A success rate of 7% would qualify as horrendous.  Weighting the conflicts for cost and lives destroyed, I suspect the success rate would be lower than 1%.  Is there a category below horrendous?

Maintain a strong economy and create economic and job opportunities by promoting the conditions that enable economic growth and stability at home and abroad, strengthen national security by combating threats and protecting the integrity of the financial system, and manage the U.S. Government’s finances and resources effectively.

Protecting the integrity of the financial system?

The financial crisis of 2007–2008, also known as the Global Financial Crisis and 2008 financial crisis, is considered by many economists to have been the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression of the 1930s.  It threatened the total collapse of large financial institutions, which was prevented by the bailout of banks by national governments, but stock markets still dropped worldwide.

Total collapse = Horrendous.

The U.S. Department of the Interior protects America’s natural resources and heritage, honors our cultures and tribal communities, and supplies the energy to power our future.

·        Living conditions on the reservations have been cited as "comparable to Third World…"
·        …depending on the reservation, four to eight out of ten adults on reservations are unemployed.  Among American Indians who are employed, many are earning below poverty wages…
·        The overall percentage of American Indians living below the federal poverty line is 28.2%.  The disparity for American Indians living below poverty on the reservations is even greater, reaching 38% to 63% in our service area…
·        “…30% of Indian housing is overcrowded and less than 50% of it is connected to a public sewer.”
·        "The average life expectancy for Native Americans has improved yet still trails that of other Americans by almost 5 years…”

We provide leadership on food, agriculture, natural resources, rural development, nutrition, and related issues based on sound public policy, the best available science, and efficient management.

·        Obesity in the United States has been increasingly cited as a major health issue in recent decades. While many industrialized countries have experienced similar increases, obesity rates in the United States are among the highest in the world.
·        Obesity has continued to grow within the United States. Two out of every three Americans are considered to be overweight or obese. During the early 21st century, America often contained the highest percentage of obese people in the world.
·        The United States had the highest rate of obesity for large countries, until obesity rates in Mexico surpassed that of the United States in 2013.

The highest rate…well, until last year.  As one year does not make for a trend, the Department of Agriculture will remain, for now, in the horrendous category.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

The (Notoriously) Great War

Paul Fussell, “The Great War and Modern Memory

Fussell has written a wonderful book regarding the First World War; in it, he does not cover in detail the strategies, the politics, or the battles; instead, he focuses on the people and the literature – the literature that came before, during, and after the war, thus shaping the road to it and our remembrance of it.

In this post I will focus on his description of trench life: the geography, the glorified tale, and the reality.

The Geography

From the North Sea coast of Belgium the line wandered southward, bulging out to contain Ypres, then dropping down to protect Béthune, Arras, and Albert.  It continued south in front of Montidier, Compiègne, Soissons, Reims, Verdun, St. Mihiel, and Nancy, and finally attached its southernmost end to the Swiss border at Beurnevisin, in Alsace.  The top forty miles – the part north of Ypres – was held by the Belgians; the next ninety miles, down to the river Ancre, were British; the French held the rest, to the south.

The line ran about 400 miles; yet there were about 25,000 miles of trenches, counting those of the Central Powers – enough to circle the globe.  There were normally three lines of trenches: the front line or firing line, from 50 yards to one mile from the enemy; behind it, the support line; behind this was the reserve line.

A firing trench was supposed to be six to eight feet deep and four or five feet wide.  On the enemy side a parapet of earth or sandbags rose about two or three feet above the ground.

Many dugouts, no straight-line trenches (a zig-zag every few yards), sumps for the water (rarely sufficient or effective), crumbling walls supported by sandbags, corrugated iron, or branches.  Barbed wire out in front – far enough away to keep the enemy from hand-grenade distance.

Each section had a staging town: for example, for Ypres it was Poperinghe; for the Somme, Amiens.

The trench was not far from home…

…what makes experience in the Great War unique and gives it a special freight of irony is the ridiculous proximity of the trenches to home.  Just seventy miles from “this stinking world of sticky tricking earth” was the rich plush of London theater seats and the perfume, alcohol and cigar smoke of the Café Royal.

An officer heading out on leave could have breakfast in the trench and dinner in his London club the same evening.

The Glorified Tale

Exhibitions of trenches were presented in Kensington Garden for the home-town folks: “These were clean, dry, and well furnished, with straight sides and sandbags neatly aligned.”

R.E. Vernede writes his wife from the real trenches that a friend of his has just returned from viewing a set of ideal ones.  He “found he had never seen anything at all like it before.”  And Wilfred Owen calls the Kensington Gardens trenches “the laughing stock of the army.”

The Reality

The British trenches were wet, cold, smelly, and thoroughly squalid.  Compared with the precise and thorough German works, they were decidedly amateur, reflecting a complacency about the British genius for improvisation.

The men were not the only living beings in the trenches; lice and rats were constant companions.  The lice fed on the living and the rats fed on the dead.

Dead horses and dead men – and parts of both – were sometimes not buried for months…. You could smell the front line miles before you could see it.

Bodies and parts of bodies would often become part of the trench wall.

…in the trenches there was very seldom any fresh meat, not for eating, anyway…

The futility was overwhelming.

In the three lines of trenches the main business of the soldier was to exercise self-control while being shelled. 

…even in the quietest times, some 7000 British men and officers were killed and wounded daily, just as a matter of course.  “Wastage,” the Staff called it.

Life in the trench was both literally and figuratively not far removed from the grave.

One saw two things only: the walls of an unlocalized, undifferentiated earth and the sky above....It was the sight of the sky, almost alone, that had the power to persuade a man that he was not already lost in a common grave.

By the end of 1916, the possibility that the war might be endless “began to tease the mind.”  One officer calculated that the British would reach the Rhine in 180 years, given the rate of advance to date.

“We held two irreconcilable beliefs: that the war would never end and that we would win it.”

The war didn’t end – not for another 30 years; and it is not appropriate to consider that Britain won much of anything.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Libertarians and Abortion

This post has a backstory.  Regular readers might recognize it – or at least a different version of it.  I wrote the original post almost two years ago.  Shortly thereafter, I was encouraged to get it published at a refereed journal, by whom and for what purpose I will leave unsaid as I don’t have permission (and haven’t asked) to publish the details.

I have never had an interest in taking the time and effort necessary to get published in any such journal – such an objective fits nowhere in my reasons for writing.  To address the last 10 percent necessary to make it presentable takes more time than writing the original post in the first place.  And I have no need – professionally or otherwise – to get published in such a forum.

But, as I was strongly encouraged by this respected individual within our small circle, I decided to try.  I significantly cleaned up the original and submitted it to more than one publication.  No luck.

Well, a couple months ago the same individual contacted me again for the same purpose.  I pushed back quite a bit – I didn’t like much about taking the time and effort the first time, why would I again further improve the post for the same purpose?  But, I was talked into it, and was again rejected by more than one place.

I received good and helpful feedback on the rejections; if it was more important to me to get published, I could make good use of the suggestions.  However, I want to spend no more time on this.  In the meantime, I want to get something out of all of this effort – hence, posting it here, where I have an “in” with the guy in charge; no chance of rejection!

Note: You will note different formatting than my usual; the post is exactly as submitted, except I changed the footnotes to endnotes, for obvious reasons. 


Libertarians and Abortion

Jonathan Goodwin[i]

THERE ARE A HANDFUL OF THORNY ISSUES for libertarians – in some cases, significant issues on which there is significant disagreement.  One such issue is that of abortion.

I will approach this issue via the positions of two of the staunchest and most principled libertarians of recent times – Murray Rothbard and Walter Block, and primarily Block.  Both have written in favor of abortion (Block via his concept of “evictionism”), and both have defended their respective positions from what they consider to be a libertarian viewpoint: a trespass by the unborn child on the property rights of the mother.

With this in mind, I will present the case that it is the unborn child, and not the mother, that has the right of use of the womb for the term of the pregnancy.  I base this on causation, reasonable reliance, unilateral contract, and, as Block has introduced the language of landlord and tenant, a lease and the covenant of quiet enjoyment.  I rely on established contractual principles that are not in violation of the non-aggression principle.

I.       Abortion is Killing, but is it Murder?

Block and Whitehead offer their personal view regarding abortion.  From “Compromising the Uncompromisable: A Private Property Rights Approach to Resolving the Abortion Controversy,” by Dr. Walter Block and Roy Whitehead:

…we maintain that abortion is an abomination. It is a massive killer. More people die annually as a result of it (1,591,000) than perish from heart disease (720,058), cancer (505,322), stroke (144,088), or all accidents (91,983). Adding insult to injury, death occurs in these cases because of the purposeful action of other people.[ii]

Rothbard begins with a recognition of the “Catholic” side of the argument.  From “For a New Liberty: The Libertarian Manifesto,” by Murray Rothbard:

For the essence of that case – not really “Catholic” at all in a theological sense – is that abortion destroys a human life and is therefore murder, and hence cannot be condoned….Murder is not an expression of religious preference; no sect, in the name of “freedom of religion” can or should get away with committing murder with the plea that its religion so commands.  The vital question then becomes: Should abortion be considered as murder?[iii]

II.     When Does Life Begin?

Rothbard suggests to not get bogged down in the “minutiae about when human life begins….”[iv]  Block and Whitehead develop this concept further, concluding that it is appropriate to consider that human life begins at conception:

At what point does human life begin?  There are really only two reasonable possibilities: at conception or at birth; all other points of development in between are merely points along a continuum which begins and ends with these two options.

So which is it? Does life begin at the beginning point of this nine-month continuum or at the end of it? We take the former position. We maintain that the fetus is an alive human being from day one onward, with all the rights pertaining to any other member of the species.[v]

I am no scientist, and cannot claim any unique knowledge on this question of when human life begins.  An exploration of this question is far beyond the scope of this paper, however I offer the following:

When discussing the philosophical and/or ethical issues, surrounding the start of life the desire for science to provide a clear cut human/non-human boundary is very understandable. We need to be able to define this because it is important in our laws and our understandings. However, even from the brief descriptions given above, it is clear that there is no simple answer that science can give. It may well be that reality doesn't have an answer for us, and that "when does life begin?" is, in fact, a meaningless question.

Scott Gilbert concludes based on these premises that:

The entity created by fertilization is indeed a human embryo, and it has the potential to be human adult. Whether these facts are enough to accord it personhood is a question influenced by opinion, philosophy and theology, rather than by science.[vi]

Science appears to offer no definitive answer – what remains is “opinion.”  Therefore, I find no reason to disagree with either Block or Rothbard in their conclusion.  I am certain that the life is human one minute before birth (and science agrees on this point), and as science offers no conclusive answer to the question of when life begins, my examination proceeds assuming that human life begins at conception.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Libertarian Surrealism

Libertarians are often accused of being utopians.  Well, Reason Magazine devoted its January 2015 issue to realism – in this case, realism regarding foreign policy and non-intervention.  In Search of Libertarian Realism: How should anti-interventionism apply in the real world?”  Contributors include Sheldon Richman, Christopher Preble, William Ruger and Fernando Tesón. 

I will frame my review as a minarchist, although regular readers know that I believe such a position to be not only contradictory to libertarian theory (after all, non-aggression means non-aggression), but not realistic or reasonable in a world populated with human beings. 

The Case for Realism and Restraint, Will Ruger

Right off the bat, you will see why I must approach this as a minarchist (else there would be little point):

The U.S. should adopt a foreign policy that is both consistent with a free society and aimed at securing America's interests in the world-in other words, libertarian realism.

So, I will stick to the minarchist fallacy that only a government monopoly can provide such services.

The primary goal of the state should be to protect the territorial integrity of the United States and the property rights—broadly understood, including throughout the global commons—of the people residing within it.

Why “broadly understood”?  Such open doors are sufficient for interventionists to cause all manner of havoc.

Why “throughout the global commons”?  I assume this means the oceans and the airspace above same.  Why not outer space as well?  Can you envision a government powerful enough to effectively patrol and secure three-quarters of the world’s surface area, the skies above this same area, and the entire universe beyond the atmosphere of earth?

Can you envision such a government in any way consistent with a free society?  The US government cannot effectively exercise this control today, yet look at the size and reach of the current leviathan.

Why “throughout the global commons”?  Why should a US resident expect protection via the US government in the “global commons”?

…a libertarian realist foreign policy will have positive benefits for Americans and people of other countries beyond achieving these fairly limited ends.

Of what business is it to the US government to concern itself with benefitting citizens of other countries? 

In the military realm, the watchword of U.S. policy should be restraint. The restraint approach harkens back to the traditional American thinking about defense that dominated from George Washington's Farewell Address to the beginning of the Spanish-American War in 1898.

With the ability to effectively secure the peace on and over the world’s oceans, as well as throughout space, can restraint be envisioned, realistically?  Who are the generals and CIA directors that will command this restrained omnipotent power?  Jesus and the Twelve? 

Defense and deterrence will be the primary methods of meeting U.S. security needs. However, this is not the absolute noninterventionism or the functional pacifism often advocated by left-liberals and libertarians.

Get ready for wise and considered pragmatism, as opposed to anything unrealistic, like principle:

Aggressive military action should be on the table where and when warranted, such as what might have been necessary had the French, in the early 1800s, been unwilling to sell New Orleans and threatened to forcibly close off our trade down the Mississippi.

Get this?  A libertarian that doesn’t believe in property rights.  What is “libertarian” if not being for property rights?

Saturday, December 20, 2014

The Shortsighted Thomas Sowell

Apparently an advocate of torture as practiced by agents of the US government.  I will not go into a detailed review / analysis of his post – I would have not much new to add since earlier today.  I will only comment on one line, his last line in the essay:

If we cannot see beyond the moment today, we will pay dearly tomorrow and in many more tomorrows.

To see beyond the moment requires some principle, something to believe in, future orientation, a set of values for guidance, culture.

Sowell knows well the value of culture. He can see beyond the moment when it comes to the various welfare and dependency programs of the US government.  He can see what these do to the culture.

From Nuclear Deterrence, Morality and Realism, by John Finnis, Joseph M. Boyle, Jr., and Germain Grisez:

For even if one has a serious moral responsibility, one can be morally barred from using the only available means to fulfill it…. If one finds oneself in circumstances such that there is no moral way to discharge one’s positive duties, then one should not discharge them.

Even accepting Sowell’s far-fetched hypothetical – of which I am completely certain does not describe the situation of even one of the tortured detainees – the methods applied will both be shaped by and shape the culture.

Ideas have consequences; values have consequences; an accepted culture has consequences.  A culture of constantly degrading, dehumanizing, and otherwise devaluing human life is a culture not long to survive.  When something is not valued, there will be less demand for it, and the market will ensure that less is therefore produced.  Simple economics.

Torture is just the latest discussion topic that demonstrates that this is the culture of today’s West.  Valuing human life is not demanded; therefore, as time passes (beyond the moment), the market will ensure that this is reflected in all aspects of relationships.

This is Sowell’s shortsightedness; inexcusable for someone so well-versed in both economics and the social sciences.

The Cultural Abyss

Abyss: 3(b): the infernal regions; hell.


Libertarian theory is focused on answering the question: when is aggression justified?  The foundation of libertarian theory is the non-aggression principle: aggression is justified only in self-defense.  This foundation leads to several corollaries; most fundamental is the absolute right to private property.

Libertarians will be the first to suggest that libertarian theory does not answer every question in life; it does not offer a complete philosophical or moral framework for man to live as an individual, to live with his fellow man, most importantly to develop a thriving community.

I have struggled in thinking through these additional necessities – more specifically, I have struggled through what is and isn’t derivable from libertarian thought; call these necessities “thick” – not for the purposes of turning libertarian theory into an unrecognizable bloated mess, but for the purpose of thinking about what is necessary to develop a thriving community – one able to sustain and enhance life, as opposed to one withering away in a slow death. 

“Thick” can be called by another, better known term: call it culture.

The Culture of the West

Relative to the small surface area I have scratched regarding libertarian theory, I am rather unqualified to discuss with any knowledge the cultural history of the West.  Not knowing much about a subject has never stopped me before….

Western culture as it has come to be known cannot be explained without understanding the impact that Christianity has had; of course, there was Greece and Rome before, and there were valuable contributions made by Muslim and Eastern thinkers, scholars, scientists and philosophers.  But the basic story can be told without these; I don’t believe it can be told without Christianity.

Don’t believe me?  I wouldn’t either; I already admitted I am not qualified.  Ask Jacques Barzun.  Seventy years of his scholarly work is summarized in his magnum opus, “From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life.”  His opening chapter – his “dawn” of “Western Cultural Life” – begins with Martin Luther.

But Luther wasn’t born from a virgin.  He didn’t nail his 95 theses on the post of the rathaus.  It was a church, a Catholic church.  For one-thousand years before this event, the Catholic Church played a major role in the culture of the west – some good, some not so good. 

It seems to me, mostly good.  Absent the Church, the misnamed Dark Ages might not have given us anything more than scattered tribes such as lived in North America when the Vikings, Chinese, or whoever first touched the land.  Instead, there was civilization.  Law, not based on edict, but law that was grounded in the old and the good.  Laws based on oaths – sacred oaths.  These oaths were the foundation of interpersonal relationships.  More than contracts, they were binding promises between men with God as a party to the agreement. 

Further, progress in the time included inventions and mechanizations; development of a society more liberal than the Rome that preceded it or the Europe that followed it; the preservation of the Greek and Roman classics.  Much of this discovery, this foundation, was to be formed in monasteries.

The Middle Ages ended in a convulsion – what is now remembered as the stereotype of the period was primarily to be found only in the later years, beginning in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.  Wars, famine, plagues.  After this came Luther.

The Reformation, Renaissance; enlightened liberal – and liberalizing – thinking.  Italian banks, Dutch trading companies, British (to include all people of the Island) political and philosophical thought.  By the time of the American Revolution, the white, Christian populations of the Empire lived in perhaps the most free condition on earth – at least if considering the developed, division-of-labor economies.

The Peak is Glimpsed

The west was so close.  While certainly not extending the franchise to the non-white, non-Christian, significant progress was achieved – culminating in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  Slavery abolished peacefully in much of the west; international arbitration often used instead of war; international commerce peacefully regulated by gold.

Wars were kept brief – at least when European against European; treaties designed with the future peace in mind, not as punishment for past (perceived) transgressions.  Citizens were as well-armed, relatively speaking, as those who governed.

This achievement – centuries, if not a millennium, in the making – would not be celebrated long.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Writing Doldrums

You will have noticed that I have not been writing much recently.  I think it worthwhile – both for the sake of those of you who regularly visit as well as for my own – to try to work through the reasons why.  Perhaps this exercise will help open the logjam.

To begin, I don’t like that I am not writing much; it is one of the things I enjoy – to learn, explore, and to try to understand / describe / explain / communicate; to receive feedback that helps me improve in all aspects.   A close cousin is that I am also not reading much – my usual sites, a stack of books waiting for me, etc.

The most direct reason is that my schedule in the real world has been consumed by both a work project and some personal projects.  I am past the workload peak, but I am not sure how soon I will get past the mental peak – where I am therefore able to keep my thoughts focused on writing. 

About ten days ago, I felt a sudden mental freedom – I don’t know from where it came.  I put out about three pieces in 2-3 days.  I really enjoyed that I was able to do that.  Then, it went away.

In any case, the workload cannot explain all of it; even when I have had some available time, I have found that I am not able to focus on writing something.  I think the events of recent months – the escalation of tensions regarding Ukraine, the incessant propaganda regarding ISIS, the flood of information regarding CIA torture, etc. – have overwhelmed me.

Not overwhelmed in a sense of hopelessness (I can never fall into this); more like a sense of what to make of it – trying to make some sense out of all of it.  There are times when – while reading someone’s view of the various events – I feel I capture a brief mental glimpse of some reasonable interpretation, a needle in their haystack that points me to something bigger, something else; but then it disappears, with me left unable to put any of it into words or even remember it.  And then I get (mentally) caught up again in these projects….

It isn’t clear to me which logjam needs breaking – the projects or my ability to mentally make some sense out of these recent events.  In the meantime, I really miss writing.