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Blog author: jballor
posted by on Thursday, September 15, 2005

I’ve finally had a chance to respond to this piece on Tech Central Station, “The State of Nature in New Orleans: What Hobbes Didn’t Know.” In this article, TCS contributing editor Lee Harris takes George Will to task for his citation of Hobbes, to the extent that, as Harris writes, “my point of disagreement is with Hobbes’ famous and often quoted characterization of man’s original state of nature as one in which human life would be ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.’”

Harris’ problem with Hobbes’ formula is that in his estimation, it is patently and empirically false. Harris writes:

The problem I have is with the first adjective: solitary.

If you step back and look at what really happened in New Orleans, the fact will jump out at you that human beings, instead of running around solitary and alone, immediately clumped together into gangs and groups, of two fundamental divergent types: one purely aggressive, and the other purely defensive.

On the one hand, you had gangs of ruthless young men who looted, raped, and murdered, doing whatever they pleased and taking whatever they wanted. On the other hand, you had weak and frightened individuals who could only defend themselves by gathering into protective clumps — circling the wagons, so to speak.

The problem with Harris’ criticism is that it doesn’t really apply to Hobbes. The conception of Hobbes’ state of nature is, in Hobbes own words, one which “It may peradventure be thought, there was never such a time, nor condition of warre, such as this; and I believe it was never generally so over all the world.” Hobbes allows for the existence of the state of nature in localized pockets, but doesn’t think it was ever the sort of thing that existed at one time in all places.

But even further, Hobbes’ point is to get at the basic state of human existence in nature. When he emphasizes that it is “solitary,” he doesn’t mean that man is always alone in the state of nature. He means, rather, that the basic unit of human reliance and trust is individual. People tend to trust themselves the most. As Jimi Hendrix once said, “I’m the one that’s got to die when it’s time for me to die, so let me live my life the way I want to.” Hobbes sense of this solitariness and independence of human existence isn’t primarily about physical proximity, but rather an astute judgment about the corrupted and fallen condition of human social relations.

Thus Hobbes writes, “Men have no pleasure, (but on the contrary a great deal of griefe) in keeping company, where there is no power to over-awe them all. For every man looketh that his companion should value him, at the same rate he sets himself: And upon all signes of contempt, or undervaluing, naturally endeavours, as far as he dares…to extort a greater value from his contemners, by dommage; and from others, by the example.”

The fear of competition and the enmity thus created, and inherent vulnerability shared by every man, creates the motivation for men to join in league conspiring together. This is the natural and expected result in the state of nature. The solitariness of man’s existence creates the context in which men will see one who possesses more, and “will come prepared with forces united, to dispossesse, and to deprive him, not only of the fruit of his labour, but also of his life, or liberty.”

Harris’ criticism falls flat, as a contextual read of Hobbes’ formula shows that the tendency for people to join together in gangs or bands of brigands is an expression of the state of nature rather than the opposite. After all, these bands are usually united around a lead figure, who dominates the others. In this way, physical human proximity and relationship can still manifest the state of natural war and domination.

The critique of Hobbes’ judgment concerning the state of nature is not, as Harris would have it, that it is inaccurate. It is rather all too accurate…but limited in the sense that it only gets at “natural” or “fleshly” man, not “redeemed” or “spiritual” man.

Blog author: mvandermaas
posted by on Wednesday, September 14, 2005

In Tuesday’s Wall Street Journal, Brendon Miniter notes that many of those stranded in New Orleans after the levee breaches were literally caught in a trap set by government “assistance”:

We still only have anecdotal evidence to go on, and we can be hopeful as the death toll remains far below the thousands originally predicted. But it’s reasonable to surmise that Sen. Kennedy is correct about those who wanted to leave: Most people who could arrange for their own transportation got out of harm’s way; those who depended on the government (and public transportation) were left for days to the mercy of armed thugs at the Superdome and Convention Center. It was an extreme example of what the welfare state has done to the poor for decades: use the promise of food, shelter and other necessities to lure most of the poor to a few central points and then leave them stranded and nearly helpless.

The Katrina disaster is yet another in a long line of lessons reminding us that government-mandated charity isn’t really charitable at all. But it also provides all of us with an opportunity to apply the principles of effective compassion.

Andy Crouch was kind enough to respond to my article on climate change (which itself was penned in reply to Crouch’s original piece), and I’ve included a response of my own. His words are in the large blocks of italics below:

While I’m disappointed that you don’t even try to engage the work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, by far the most extensive and diligent effort I’m aware of to evaluate the science of global warming,

In my defense, I did refer to Sir John Houghton, co-chair of the Scientific Assessment Working Group of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. As an experienced writer, I’m sure you know of the necessary limits of a 700-word commentary piece. I chose to limit the scope of my piece to engage your original article.

If you would like to see me engage your claim that “there is in fact no serious disagreement among scientists that human beings are playing a major role in global warming,” I refer you to one of my responses on an earlier thread, wherein I cite the following statement from Hans von Storch, who heads the Coastal Research Institute of the GKSS Research Centre in Geesthacht, Germany: “A considerable number of climatologists are still by no means convinced that the fundamental questions have been adequately dealt with. Thus, in the last year a survey among climate researchers throughout the world found that a quarter of the respondents still harbor doubts about the human origin of the most recent climatic changes.”

There’s a lot more that could be said on the science of course. Suffice it to say that consensus (or even unanimity) of opinion among scientists does not rise to the level of establishing ontological truth. The majority can be, and often is, terribly wrong.

And since your piece really is more about the economic benefits of political action on climate change than the science (which you rather take for granted), I’m disappointed that you didn’t engage the work of the Copenhagen Consensus of 2004, whose “basic idea was to improve prioritization of the numerous problems the world faces, by gathering some of the world’s greatest economists to a meeting where some of the biggest challenges in the world would be assessed.”

what really disappoints me, coming from the Acton Institute, is your failure of economic imagination. Why should the action to mitigate global warming be a drain on economic resources? That has not been true of past major technological initiatives. I have every expectation that the world economy will *grow* as a result of the efforts to develop and transfer new technologies.

You may call it a “failure of economic imagination” to see the possible technological advances and innovations, but I question your optimism regarding the economic benefits of pursuing potential cures for a perceived problem that may or may not be caused by human activity. I would liken your argument to a sort of “broken window fallacy” writ large.

If you are disappointed by my lack of economic imagination, I in turn am disappointed by your lack of some basic economic understanding (e.g. opportunity cost). Your whole concept of an “environmental wager” is predicated on the concept that it doesn’t matter if Sir John and the IPCC are wrong about global warming, we’ll still be better off acting as if they were right even if they aren’t. The following thought experiment is intended to show why this just isn’t true. The science does matter…and so do economic costs.

“Back in the 60′s, I developed a weather changing machine which was in essence a sophisticated heat beam which we called a ‘laser.’”

To illustrate this with a bit of pop culture, we might think one day that a killer comet is hurtling toward earth. Let’s say we’ve only got twenty years before impact. Naturally after the initial panic passes, we come up with a plan. We have some time, so we get all our pointy-headed intellectuals together and invent some really cool comet-busting technology. I mean real nice sci-fi stuff. We send out our mission and get all our lasers (or whatever else) ready, and let’s say we do all this in just ten years. We’ve got plenty of time. We’re set to go, but when it’s time to “ready, aim, fire,” we only get to “ready.” As we try to aim, we realize we were wrong. There is no comet (or there is a comet but it’s not heading towards us).

What’s the result? Yeah, we’ve got some really cool comet-busting lasers. It might even be helpful to us if we want to build a Death Star. We employed a lot of pointy-headed intellectuals during those 10 years, so that’s good. Unemployment was down because everyone was working on the comet-busting laser. It’s all good right?

Take that, global warming!

I don’t think so. Maybe we stumble across some useful technological advances during the five years and in the course of spending billions if not trillions of dollars. But I don’t think we’ll accidentally stumble across the cure for AIDS, or the answer to malaria epidemics, or the means to clean water access, or the solution to political corruption in developing nations.

The point is our time, money, and resources can better be spent, right now, elsewhere. Maybe in twenty or fifty or a hundred years man-made global warming really will be a challenge…if we’re faithful with our resources and fight the problems we really have today, those later generations will be a lot better prepared to fight the problems of their day. If we squander our efforts on things that may or may not ever be real threats, then we can be sure that real people today will pay the price.

Furthermore, there is little need for command-and-control government policies — the creation of markets in carbon emissions should do much of the work very efficiently. I recently reviewed a study — I’ll try to track down the reference, but I’m traveling and don’t have it with me — suggesting that the Environmental Protection Act, which opponents at the time saw as a major threat to economic growth and jobs, actually *created* jobs and contributed to economic growth. And there is every reason to expect that policies to mitigate carbon emissions will be better designed to harness the energies of markets than the EPA.

I can agree with you that government policies that at least attempt to deal with the realities of the marketplace should be better than the EPA, again I’m not as optimistic that government-imposed carbon emission markets would “do much of the work very efficiently.” You can try to package the deal in market-friendly terminology, but the limits of emissions would still have to be set by governments. The Kyoto Protocol allows for “emissions trading,” but as this article title succinctly demonstrates, “CO2 market needs federal push to blossom.” For more on the future of cap and trade systems, see this article.

Really, if the science were so unsettled and the potential economic consequences so calamitous, why would corporations like BP, GE, and Shell (Shell!) be endorsing action on climate change? I believe they see tremendous economic opportunities in this area.

I can think of any number of reasons. For starters, such multi-nationals might think they perceive the handwriting on the wall, and that the kinds of regulatory standards that are coming out of the EU and efforts like Kyoto will inevitably be enacted globally, and the US will eventually capitulate. They already have to meet standards in many other countries…so why not make those standards consistent across their own operations?

If they are right, it’s of course more valuable from a public relations standpoint to be at the forefront of the shift. Thus, “earth-friendly” companies like BP and GE make a point of running commercials, wherein cute dancing baby elephants tell us about their “eco-magination.”

If BP, GE, and Shell want to take action on climate change, they should do so, and consumers who support their positions should make it a point to patronize their places of business. But these companies are not only advocating for action on their own part, they are advocating for imposed action on everyone. That’s whole different ballgame.

If these companies are right about climate change, then they’ll be richly rewarded for their business-savvy and their economic and technological imagination. If they’re wrong, then they’ll have wasted a lot of money and resources on not-immediately-useful technology. In either case, the market should be sufficient to reward or punish them. I don’t think we need “command-and-control government policies” on top of it.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Friday, September 9, 2005

It’s one thing to have a great government policy put in place with intention of seeking justice. It’s quite another to continue to promote policies whose unintended consequences hurt the most vulnerable populations.

Even though Iraq has the world’s third largest oil reserves, the lack of a reliable infrastructure, sabotage, and government-imposed price controls (oil is $.05 a gallon, a holdover from the Saddam Hussein regime) make gas for law-abiding citizens hard to come by.

These price controls result in forced government rationing. Now new regulations allow driving only on every other day, depending on your license plate number. Last Tuesday was the first day of the restrictions, and only cars ending with odd numbers were allowed on the streets of Baghdad.

Reuters reports on the effect that these policies are having on Iraq’s working classes, such as they are. Taxi driver Amir al-Hameeri, who did not take his car out on Tuesday, fearful of a fine equivalent to $20 if his even-numbered licence plate was spotted.

“It’s a ruthless decision against the poor,” he grumbled. “How can I feed my family now?”

This is a prime example of how policies which may have the best of intentions (affordable fuel for all Iraqis) that ignore the realities of the marketplace have adverse consequences. And as always, it is the poor among us who suffer the most.

Here’s an NPR story with more on how motorists are “beating the system” through black markets and other means.

HT: John Powers

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Wednesday, September 7, 2005

In a move that sets a dangerous precedent in an already muddled area, U.S. immigration officials revoked the asylum of a Chinese Christian who had been imprisoned for organizing underground church meetings. The INS decision was upheld last month by an Appeals court panel. Here’s an in-depth story from Christianity Today.

Ann Buwalda, founder and executive director of human-rights group Jubilee Campaign USA, said that the ruling “Essentially…removed religion as a basis of gaining asylum.” The U.S. government’s contention was that when China imprisoned Xiaodong Li “for engaging in illicit religious activities, China was simply motivated by a desire to maintain social order, not persecute based on his religious beliefs.”

The idea of maintaining social order by sharply restricting and heavily regulating religious worship and activity strikes me as a throughly Hobbesian notion (see post below).

HT: Persecution Blog

Pro running back Warrick Dunn, a native of Louisiana, is challenging every NFL player (other than New Orleans Saints) to donate at least $5,000 to hurricane relief efforts. “If we get players to do that, that would amount to $260,000 per team. I have heard from so many players both on my team and around the league who just want to do something. Well, this is the best thing that we can do and it’s something we should do,” he said. Dunn, a former Pro Bowler, starts for the Atlanta Falcons and played college ball for Florida State.

Dunn is from Baton Rouge, but he still doesn’t know the status of his grandfather who lives in New Orleans. His is clearly a heartfelt and genuine plea: “We’re such a great country and it’s at times like this a great country has to come together. We’re looking at people on TV who have no money, no homes, no job and no idea what they’re going to do with their lives. Now is when they need us most. We just have to respond and we have to respond.”

Warrick Dunn

This effort by Dunn is a clear reminder that the purpose of work must be oriented beyond the mere accumulation of wealth. As the Heidelberg Catechism states, one of the major reasons that a person labors is “so that I may share with those in need” (LD 42, A 111).

The donations will be coordinated with the Arthur Blank family charitable foundation and a vote by NFL player representatives will determine which agencies receive the funds.

Dunn’s challenge is a pointed one: “If guys don’t donate they’re being selfish,” he said. He not only talks the talk, but he walks the walk. Dunn started the Warrick Dunn Foundation in March of 2002, dedicated “to help single mother families obtain first-time homeownership.”

This purpose flows out of Dunn’s experience growing up. Here’s a brief biographical excerpt from the foundation website: “As the oldest of six, Warrick grew up watching his mother, Betty Smothers, provide for he and his five siblings. As a single mother she worked endless hours as a Baton Rouge police officer and several off-duty jobs to make ends meet. During Warrick’s senior year at Catholic high school, his mother’s life was taken in the line of duty, leaving him the responsibility of keeping the family together. Although she worked hard all of her life, Betty was never able to realize the American dream of owning her own home.”

Clearly Warrick Dunn, diminuitive by NFL standards (5′ 9″, 180 lbs.), has a huge heart.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Courtesy of Rev. Eric Andrae, Lutheran pastor Bo Giertz offers us a great exposition of the “great cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1) and sums up the importance of the pastoral ministry. “‘It is a great thing to receive a heritage…. It is wonderful to stand in the same pulpit, to learn of [those who have gone before us,] and to carry forward the work they began. Sir…, can anything be greater than to be a pastor in God’s church?’” (Bo Giertz, The Hammer of God, 191).

President Bush offered an indirect answer to Giertz’s question last week. According to the McLaughlin Group (see Issue one: Uncle Sam wants you bad), in a speech from Fort Bragg, North Carolina, the president said: “I thank those of you who’ve reenlisted in an hour when your country needs you. And to those watching tonight who are considering a military career, there is no higher calling than service in our armed forces.”

The juxtaposition of these two quotes gives us an excellent opportunity to recall Jesus’ most excellent maxim: “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s” (Matthew 22:21 NIV).

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Tuesday, August 30, 2005

You may have heard of “fair trade,” one of the more recent economically-myopic efforts to act as “guarantees that farmers and farmworkers receive a fair price for their labor.”

I’ve written before about the fair trade coffee movement (especially in the Church), which has perhaps gained the most public attention. But fair traders haven’t overlooked any consumables, and the broader movement is likely to receive more attention in the future, as fair trade is a plank in platform of the ONE Campaign (see the text of the ONE Declaration). I’d like to point you in particular to this FAQ about fair trade bananas.

As the FAQ states, fair trade can be seen as the global equivalent of more locally-based minimum wage laws, and arguments against the living wage can thus be applied to fair trade: “Low conventional market prices for bananas often leave farmers unable to cover even their cost of production. The Fair Trade price is the equivalent of a living wage.”

The apparently obvious unfairness of the free trade system, in which so many people subsist on less than $1 per day, is complicated by a number of factors. One of these is that the current global system is not really all that free.

But another important economic reality is what economists call purchasing power parity (PPP). Even Ron Sider, in his 20th anniversary edition of Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger, integrates a number of economic analytic tools into his argument, including PPP (see pages 27-28). So the fair traders’ appeal to a fact, such as that farmers do not make enough to “cover even their cost of production,” cannot simply be taken at face value.

And even in instances where this is the case, the fair trade movement does not bother to take any account for why “low conventional market prices” for a particular commodity exist. In most cases, such as with coffee, the supply far outstrips demand. The world doesn’t need more coffee production. To artificially subsidize the production of yet more coffee is to flood the market even further and undermines the long term viability of the fair trade project.

For more on churches and fair trade, check out this commentary.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Friday, August 26, 2005

It’s been determined that the view of the human person at work behind “The Human Zoo” exhibit is best exemplified by Agent Smith’s monologue from the original installment of “The Matrix.”

“Do you hear that, Mr. Anderson? That is the sound of inevitability.”

While Morpheus is held captive, Agent Smith tells him the following:

I’d like to share a revelation that I’ve had during my time here. It came to me when I tried to classify your species. I realized that you’re not actually mammals. Every mammal on this planet instinctively develops a natural equilibrium with the surrounding environment, but you humans do not. You move to an area, and you multiply, and multiply, until every natural resource is consumed. The only way you can survive is to spread to another area. There is another organism on this planet that follows the same pattern. A virus. Human beings are a disease, a cancer of this planet, you are a plague, and we are the cure.

He continues:

I hate this place. This zoo. This prison. This reality, whatever you want to call it, I can’t stand it any longer. It’s the smell, if there is such a thing. I feel saturated by it. I can taste your stink and every time I do, I fear that I’ve somehow been infected by it.

This comes, of course, from a piece of software representing the machines who view humans as essentially batteries and feed the liquidated dead to the living. It is perhaps not the best anthropological foundation to adopt.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Friday, August 26, 2005

Just in case you were thinking that the rabid anti-human elements of environmental movements had dissipated, take a look at the newest exhibit at the London Zoo.

Titled “The Human Zoo,” the exhibit features 8 people living in “natural” conditions over the course of three days, and is “intended to show the basic nature of human beings,” that is, our inherent animalism.

The world’s first ever human zoo exhibit is unveiled. Photograph: Gareth Cattermole/Getty

In the words of a London Zoo spokesman, “We have set up this exhibit to highlight the spread of man as a plague species and to communicate the importance of man’s place in the planet’s ecosystem.” One commentator notes, “We may be watching evolution in action.”

There are a number of important issues here. The first is the linkage of the view of humans as a “plague species” with the myth of unsustainability of the population explosion. This anti-human perspective is manifested in any number of policies and programs around the world, including PETA and things like the UN’s World Population Day. Now the London Zoo is joining the fray. For a literary movement embodying this position, go here.

Of course, another questions you have to wonder about is why an “ethic” based on a Darwinian philosophy of natural selection should be concerned about a “plague species.” Isn’t it just survival of the fittest?

This soft sentimentality and romanticism of the environmental movement isn’t based on philosophical rationality, of course. If we really are no different than animals, why should our behavior be held to a higher standard? The position is fundamentally self-defeating.

The only perspective that accounts for all of the complex realities of human existence and the rest of creation is one normed by the Bible. The creation accounts, along with the dominion and stewardship mandates, of Genesis 1 and 2 describe both the continuities and discontinuities between humans and the rest of the animal world and our resulting responsibilities.

The fall into sin gives us a basis for understanding how and why humans do negatively impact the world and fracture the created relationships. But the history of redemption gives us hope for a consummated new heaven and new earth…a hope that cannot be approached from a merely naturalistic worldview. It also gives us a reason to be concerned about stewardship of the world (rightly construed).