Sunday, May 19, 2013

Citizens and Liberty

A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

This is the text of what may be the most famous, or most popularly known, of the first ten amendments to the US Constitution.  Among a significant portion of American citizens, this amendment is considered the most important.  On it, the claim is made, all the others depend.  If you don't have a "well armed" populace, you can't protect liberty from overweening government.

This claim has no basis in history.  No original supporter of the Constitution endorsed this view -- not at the time of its writing, nor at the time of its ratification, nor at the time of ratification of the first ten amendments, sometimes known as the Bill of Rights.  That does not in itself invalidate the claim.  Times change, as does our understanding of the Constitution and of our rights as citizens.  

What invalidates the claim is its assumption that liberty can only be, or even finally be, defended with weapons.

Liberty is defended by citizens living free.  It is defended by citizens who refuse to yield.
Citizen Job Action
Raoul Wallenberg diplomat issued protective passports and sheltered Jews in buildings designated as Swedish territory saving tens of thousands of lives.
Oskar Schindler businessman saved over 1000 Polish Jews by employing them in his factories and warehouses and hiding their Jewish identities
Martin Luther King minister Marches, jail and magnificent speeches to inspire Americans to do what is right
Rosa Parks secretary, civil rights activist refused to give up her seat on segregated bus
March 7, 1965 protesters "Bloody Sunday" marchers were beaten, gassed and jailed while attempting to march from Selma to Montgomery to register to vote
March 9, 1965 protesters "Turnaround Tuesday" march ended with the KKK beating to death a Unitarian minister from Boston
Ron Kovic Vietnam Vet, bronze star, purple heart, quadriplegic, antiwar protester "I had been beaten by the police and arrested twelve times for protesting the war and I had spent many nights in jail in my wheelchair. I had been called a Communist and a traitor, simply for trying to tell the truth about what had happened in that war, but I refused to be intimidated."
Nancy Wake journalist Courier between Allies and French Resistance during WWII. Her husband, a businessman, was captured by the Gestapo. Although tortured, he refused to reveal her whereabouts and was executed.
Dietrich Boenhoffer minister German anti-Hitler pastor who took part in an assassination plot, imprisoned, tortured and hanged in 1945
Freedom Riders civil rights activists May 1961, attempted to desegregate interstate bus travel, beaten and in one incident, locked inside a burning bus

All these disparate incidents have one common element: citizens who refused to yield.  Citizens.  They did not wait for the guns to arrive, they did not want guns; they did not wait for the troops to arrive; they wanted liberty.  And liberty was "liberty for all," for "injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere."  By securing liberty for others, they secured it for themselves.  They understood that liberty is for those who take the risks, who act.  Liberty is not gained by killing those whom you find disagreeable nor even those who represent a real or imagined threat.  
Violence can never provide the answer. The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it. Through violence you may murder the liar, but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth.  Through violence you may murder the hater, but you do not murder hate. In fact, violence merely increases hate. So it goes. Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that.  Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.  -- Martin Luther King, Jr.
In vain, the RTKBA'er fantasizes that crushing a couch cushion and banging down pounders is all that he needs to do -- because he has an arsenal of firearms in his basement.  All he has to do is kill that vague "someone" who "threatens to take away his guns."  And send more money to Glenn Beck, who will tell him who needs killing.  In the meantime, he can catch the game on TV.

"The notion of liberty amuses the people ... When a butcher tells you that his heart bleeds for his country he has, in fact, no uneasy feeling."  -- Samuel Johnson

The RTKBA'er already has agreed to warrantless and secret searches by the FBI.  He's agreed to Federal agents infiltrating and spying on local political activist organizations.  He's agreed to NSA listening posts in every telephone exchange CO.  He's agreed that protesters must be kept blocks away from delicate, sensitive politicians and multimillionaire corporate CEOs who bribe them.  He's agreed to militarized police squads, aka SWAT, that on a regular basis, break into the wrong homes and businesses, beating and even killing innocent citizens and inflicting millions of dollars of uncompensated property damage.  He's agreed to let local, state and Federal prosecutors seize and dispose of citizens' property before trial and often, even before charges.  He's agreed to indefinite imprisonment without trial, even for American citizens.  He's agreed to copyright laws that make it illegal for a shade-tree mechanic to fix the electronics on a car engine.  In fact, there's hardly any aspect of real liberty that the RTKBA'er is not willing to part with, so long as he maintains ownership of his firearms, to kill that deadly "someone" who "threatens to take away his guns."

Keep you doped with religion, and sex and TV,
And you think you're so clever and classless and free.
But you're still fucking peasants,
As far as I can see. -- John Lennon

No liberty without sacrifice.  And by "sacrifice," I mean being prepared to bear the brunt of unlawfully or immorally wielded state power: refusing to yield. Workers at lunch counters; marchers on the bridge to Montgomery; a man in a wheelchair leading a protest march; a female journalist carrying secret messages. These people didn't get up in the morning and say to themselves, "I'm going to do something heroic today, I'm going to defend liberty."  No, they just bore witness to injustice and refused to accept it, refused to yield.  Their actions came out of the moral imperative.

No sensible person is going to show up at a protest march armed with a semiautomatic rifle and engage in a firefight with police and National Guard troops.  But, you can join in and engage with your fellow citizens and put your own body on the line.  You may find yourself gassed, beaten, arrested.  For liberty.  No sensible person is going to pull out a gun and accost a group of police officers kicking and clubbing a suspect handcuffed and lying on the ground.  But, you can pull out your phone and start photographing -- you may find yourself arrested, beaten, your phone confiscated.  In extreme cases, citizens have lost their jobs.  But congratulations.  You've taken on the responsibility of a free citizen.  You refused to yield. 

Welcome to the free world.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Fun With Economics: Keynes v Hayek

Keynes Hayek: The Clash that Defined Modern EconomicsKeynes Hayek: The Clash that Defined Modern Economics by Nicholas Wapshott

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I must be among the few to describe as a "page turner" a book comparing the economic theories of John Maynard Keynes and Friedrich August Hayek.  The two economists are stalking horses for the two competing conceptions of modern macroeconomics -- the top-down, fiscal policy theory of Keynes and the bottom-up, monetarist theory of Hayek.  Still, guilty:  this well-written, thoroughly researched book combines history, economics and character study.  The combination results in a readable and fascinating discovery of modern economics, how the characters of men shaped its development; and the politics of its development.  Most satisfyingly, we are left at the end with uncertainty -- neither the advocates of monetarism nor those of fiscal policy having produced wholly satisfying accounts of the national economy.  This is as it should be, since the real world has not provided the empirical answer.

No depth of background nor understanding of economics as a discipline is required to read and enjoy this book.  The focus of the book is on the interplay between character, events and politics, and not on the crunching of numbers.  Even a knowledgeable reader will likely come away from this book with a better understanding of the grounds of the arguments; and especially, how the arguments between monetarists and interventionists were more shaped by the political realities of any given time, than by the empirical evidence that could lead to sound judgement. 

I regret that the texts written by Keynes and Hayek themselves, are so frequently nearly impenetrable.  "Even for a trained economist with the benefit of decades of hindsight, the differences between the two men are often erudite to the point of impenetrability," notes Wapshott at one point.  So it is that, unless we are prepared to undertake a years-long education in "the dismal science," we must submit to the transliteration of their writings by others.  The Pure Theory of Capital may one day grace my shelves, but as a reference only; and will not likely be perused end to end.

The larger, political, divide between the two accounts of economics is clear enough.  In later years, Hayek retreated ever farther from any notion of gov't intervention in the economy. He believed in privatization of "all those [services] from education to transport and communications, including post, telegraph, telephone and broadcasting services, all the so-called 'public utilities,' the various 'social' insurances and, above all, the issue of money." (Hayek,Law, Legislation, And Liberty: A New Statement Of The Liberal Principles Of Justice And Political Economy,v.3, 1979)  In Hayek's vision, the liberal utopia would be a society in which nearly every aspect of life was governed by "quasi-commercial corporations competing for citizens." (Ibid.)  Representative democracy was a "tyranny of the majority" that unnecessarily limited individual liberty and led inevitably to political corruption.

So, the great irony of this debate may be that Keynes, broadly regarded as the "revolutionary" who trampled down classical economics and its monetarist basis, emerges as the "conservative."  "Conventional conservatives have regarded Keynes as a dark and evil influence bent on undermining the free economic system.  In fact, however, he helped save the free system at a time when much more radical changes in it were being seriously advocated." (Herb Stein, 1986)  Keynes saw as his mission the "rehabilitation" of capitalism so that it would continue to outperform alternative, socialist systems.  In that respect, we may conclude that he succeeded.

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