Sunday, May 24, 2009

Reading about the World

Finished Immanuel Kant's short (45 pages) book "To Perpetual Peace," which was where the idea for the United Nations, the Geneva Conventions, and lots of other stuff originally came from. Amazing that he packs so much into such a short space, and that he foresees and imagines so much that has or could come to pass--and does so in 1795!

Basically he says that if there's an argument for people having a country, then there's an argument for countries having a super-country. If we need a government among ourselves, then governments need a government between themselves, and for some of the same reasons.


Opponents are better things to have than enemies, all other things being equal. Lawsuits are better ways to fight than fighting, all other things being equal. Competition to push everyone to achieve their best is better than competition to eliminate the existence of the losers, all other things being equal.
Cooperation is not only better than competition, all other things being equal, but it is necessary for there to be healthy, life-giving competition at all. (Can't play football til everyone agrees where the sidelines and goallines are.)

Of course there's a "government is the problem" school in the US right now. Government is certainly A problem--as is big business, and any other large social institution: the church, the public schools, the Catholic schools, the hospitals, the prisons, etc. But it is not THE problem. (Human evil is, ultimately.) The idea that government is just a bad thing is actually a Marxist conclusion, which makes it funny that it is associated with Reagan. (But then Lewis said extremists of right and left are hardly distinguishable in the end.)

The bottom line is that people who gripe about the government do so under the umbrella and standing on the shoulders of the government. Like it or not, if you are suspicious of vaccines, it's only because the government has implemented vaccines so successfully that we and our children live in a place generally healthy enough to think we can get by without vaccines. If we didn't have them, we'd be screaming for them, and not allowing that other parent's kid to come to school til they got their vaccine--which is where that law came from in the first place.

If you hate the public schools, it is only because we had the social benefits that come from four or so generations of on-balance successful universal public schooling that we're in an economic position to talk about alternatives. If schooling were all home, there'd be a movement among homeschooled kids who were now adults to insist that our kids get the best, most professional teachers rather than caring amateurs. If it were all private, we'd be far more money in the hole as a society than if we just properly funded public education, and the underclass would be even worse educated, because it wouldn't be educated at all, since they couldn't afford it.

If you think private charity would fix all this, think again. The US defense department spends in six weeks what all the charities of all kinds--religious, community, educational, health, everything--spend in a year in this country. The budget to provide basic health, education, and social work care to people in need is probably ten times, taking state and local moneys into account as well as federal, as whatever is given charitably in this country. When we start tithing, we can start griping about charitable institutions not running benevolences in this country.

The car I drive to the restaurant I eat at, and the food I eat at the restaurant, while I gripe about taxes or government decisions or whatever, are both safe because the government requires businesses to make them be. Otherwise, plenty of businesses would cut corners at your and my cost in life and health, and we'd be back in Sinclair Lewis days. Regulation was popularly and morally demanded a hundred years ago, and now we're going to have to rejustify and reinvent it all. But the antigovernment crusade almost got us back there, robber barons (Halliburton, big pharma, hedge funds), unregulated products (peanut butter!), no safety net (1/4 of the country with no health insurance!) and all.

Am I an enthusiast for government? No. Rather, I'm annoyed by historical ignorance and astounding political naivete. Almost everything which other people around the world and down through history have striven for works for us, pretty smoothly. Any idea how, exactly, public sanitation happens? routine police work? tax collection? Delivery of gasoline to gas stations? We're oblivious, but only can be because these things work generally well. If they didn't, we'd all know it, and be up in arms about it, like a Dickens or a Jane Addams.

Government is good and bad, necessary and at the same time no substitute for my own freedom or my own responsibility. Eternal vigilance is still the price of liberty, at any scale, from your local congregation to the European Union. A United Nations with teeth--with a judicial and police system that worked--would be all the more susceptible to the temptations of absolute power. That's why the American system of open transparency (no government secrets in the interests of "national security"--i.e., so I won't get caught and can do whatever I want), checks and balances (no holding without trial, no unilateral decision-making or implementation of laws), and federalism is such a genius thing. It accommodates both our worth as people created in God's image (and so deserving of freedom and dignity) and our status as people fallen into evil (and so not deserving ever of getting everything our own way).

So Kant has turned out to be a pretty smart guy in political affairs after all. So much to apply to the news today from it. Good book.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

what is god's image?

11:48 PM  

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