Risk, Part 2: Fear and Control

Part 2 of a 2-part sequence on different aspects of how American society deals with risk:

It seems that government policy – and social convention, and cultural aspiration, and the tyranny of public opinion expressed through social media mobs – is now all too often fashioned by a destructively self-reinforcing partnership between those, on the one hand, who have lost all trust in their fellow citizens and who want so badly to be protected from risk, and even from discomfort, that they will trade away almost any freedom for a promise of a bit more security; and those, on the other hand, whose innate and fervent proclivity is to tell everyone else, with great piety and self-assurance, how to organize and operate their lives.

The more we have come to – and the more we have been taught to – rely on government to regulate the behavior of others, the less we have come to rely on – and the less we have been taught or practiced – the virtue of regulating ourselves. The more success the solipsistic fringe – economic more than cultural on the “right”, cultural more than economic on the “left” – has had in attacking and emasculating the economic and religious and social and cultural mores that historically disciplined such self-control, the less able we are to count on self-regulation and the more pressure there is to empower government to impose yet more external regulation upon us.

We can no longer negotiate and compromise – we can no longer embrace a shared process for governance rather than seeking a raw power over others – because we no longer trust each other either to have empathy or, more importantly, to act in good faith.  Why are we intolerant of risk?  Because we feel a lack of control.  Why do we feel a lack of control?  Because we don’t trust each other to do the right thing, either as individuals or as a polity.  In the absence of trust, even small risks loom large.

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Under Color of Authority

The police act on our authority and in our name.  That gives us a corresponding responsibility to act, as well, when they step beyond reasonable bounds we have set.  And, if we don’t act – if we relax and extend those bounds, either intentionally or simply by failing to accept the responsibility to rein them in – then we are, as well, responsible for the consequences.  The color of authority becomes actual authority if we acquiesce to it; and, therefore, the moral stench of that authority, when exercised indecently, adheres to us as much as it does to whoever exercised it on our behalf.

The protesters want justice, but not the kind that a court can give them by convicting a particular villain.  Their protests are not really directed at the police or at the courts or at the politicians: they are directed at us.  And what they are demanding of us is simple: “Step up!  Stop accepting the unacceptable! Rein in those who claim to act in your name!”

That is, indeed, our responsibility.  How can we do less?

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Risk, Part 1: Trade-Offs and Value Judgements

Part 1 of a 2-part sequence on different aspects of how American society deals with risk:

…we all intuitively understand, even if we can neither articulate nor rationalize the precise placement of the implied ethical boundaries – or are loath to admit to them – that the trade-offs in risky human activity between the potential for loss of human life and the potential for benefit, economic or otherwise, are not as stark and as obvious as the simple and common mantra –that saving human life is always worth any cost – implies.

To be blunt: there is, indeed, some upper bound on how much cost, either in economic benefit or in liberty, represents a fair trade for a statistical human life.  And we all personally adjudge where that bound lies, implicitly if not explicitly, many times per day, every day, as a matter of routine. We all take risks and impose risks on others because we think we will reap some economic or physical or emotional or social or moral or spiritual reward from doing so…

There is a legitimate, important, and ongoing debate that we may and should have over where, on the continuum of behavior, the margin lies between prudent risk-taking and reckless disregard. But we must acknowledge that there is a continuum, not a simple border: not all risks are reckless ones and there are costs sufficiently dire, and benefits sufficiently valuable, that they may, indeed, justify the risk of precipitating some generalized and arbitrarily-distributed human suffering in order to forestall or foster them.

For those who have taken the position that no relaxation of the lockdowns should be even contemplated while any significant risk remains, that means accepting and acknowledging that zero risk is an unrealistic and unachievable standard.  It means acknowledging that reducing risk for some causes real and consequential harm to others and that, at some point, the harm of incremental gains in risk reduction exceeds the incremental harm of the virus, itself.  We can’t live in lockdown forever; and, in the absence of an effective vaccine or a cure, widely deployed to create widespread immunity, the lockdown will, indeed, stretch on forever because there will never be a time when releasing it will seem propitious and wholly safe.

For those who have been advocating for a quick and complete re-opening – and especially for those actively protesting the imposition of various modest public safety measures like the wearing of masks – that means accepting that we all have responsibilities commensurate with the rights we so self-righteously defend.  What we do affects the community.  Yes, we have the personal right to accept a risk of catching the virus in pursuit of some other reward.  But, assuming risks for yourself – by exposing yourself to disease carriers – and imposing risks on others – by carrying the disease to them despite their own best precautions – are two very different acts and should fairly be judged by different criteria, the latter more stringent than the former.  Whether you like it or not, in a world of pandemic you have a moral responsibility to protect others against the possibility of your own contagion.  If you cannot willingly and diligently assume that responsibility, then your moral claim to a “right” to be free of restraint is little more than a hollow defense of self-indulgence.

And for all of us, that means taking each other’s concerns seriously, with empathy rather than with contempt.  The pain people are expressing is real, not imagined.  What you find comforting, others may find distressing.  What you find to be reasonable precaution others may experience as destructive overreaction.  Neither side may or should presume they hold a monopoly on truth or on wisdom.  We are, indeed, in this together because this is a contagion.  But that doesn’t mean we all experience that contagion in the same way or bear its burdens in the same forms or to the same degree.  The fact that someone disagrees with your value judgements about those burdens means they and their circumstance are different than you and yours.  It doesn’t mean they are right.  But, it also doesn’t mean they are wrong.

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Executive Agencies Independent of the Executive

Here’s a proposal: If you want agencies that set policy and priority to be independent of the Executive, don’t make them part of the executive branch!

The issue with such agencies is really that their missions are split: they are as much legislative as they are executive.  Congress, in its wisdom (or recklessness) has delegated some large measure of its legislative authority, the authority to create the rules by which we live, to such agencies; but they have also tasked those same agencies with enforcing the rules that they, themselves, concoct.

Does that not violate the spirit, if not the actual text, of the Constitutional separation of powers?

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Reasonable and Unreasonable “Disclosure”

It is no more reasonable to demand that Pete Buttigieg disclose who he did work for at McKinsey and what that work entailed than it would be to demand that a doctor or a therapist running for office disclose his or her list of patients and all their medical and psychological histories, or to demand that a lawyer running for office disclose his or her list of clients and the details of all their legal troubles.

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Laws against “Domestic Terrorism Hate Crimes”

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo just penned an OpEd for CNN in which he touted a proposal that New York state “pass a national precedent: a Hate Crimes Domestic Terrorism Act.” He went on to explain:

For anyone who launches a mass attack and kills on the basis of race, nationality, ethnicity, religion, disability, sexual orientation or gender identity, the penalty should be the same as it is for other terrorist crimes: up to life without parole.

One might reasonably ask: what, currently, is the penalty in New York for someone who “launches a mass attack and kills” — on any basis at all, regardless of whether or not or they were motivated by some hatred from Governor Cuomo’s laundry list of special categories? If the answer is not, already, “up to life without parole“, then the problem would seem to be not a lack of laws against “Domestic Terrorism” or “Hate Crimes” but a casual and wholly inadequate attitude toward dealing generally with those who would destroy innocent human lives.

If, on the other hand, the punishment for attacking and killing people is already — as I would fully expect — “up to life without parole“, then what, exactly, does a new “Hate Crimes Domestic Terrorism Act” add, beyond empty rhetoric and craven virtue signaling?

The point is not that “hate crimes” and “terrorism” are not worth condemning: they undoubtedly are. The point is that it is the crimes, themselves, that deserve our revulsion and our censure, not the motivations behind them.

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Why Do Mass Murderers Murder?

What most mass murderers — and, for that matter, ordinary murderers — share is a form of solipsism, a mental landscape in which other people have no innate value but exist, rather, merely as props to facilitate the action in the murderer’s own self-scripted and self-focused drama.

That would appear to be the result of a moral disease, not a psychological one.

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Trump is Reprehensible: Does That Create a Moral Duty to Vote for His Opponent?

To use an analogy that is, admittedly, intentionally, and consciously way over-the-top in order to make the point utterly unmissable:

Yes, Trump is Hitler. But, if the choice you offer me is to get rid of Hitler by embracing Stalin, can I be blamed for, instead, wishing that a pox descend upon your house as well as his?

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An Open Letter to the Republican Party

For as long as I can remember — and my memory goes back to Lyndon Johnson – the electoral message of the Democratic party has included, fairly prominently, the following proposition:

Vote for me! I’ll give you something and make somebody else pay for it!

In recent elections that proposition has not only been featured prominently, it has been the highlight. Remember the 1%? Remember how “the rich” are not paying their “fair share”? Remember Thomas Frank’s lament, “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” What was his argument?

Hey, we promised to give you something and make someone else pay for it! You must not have been listening!

Yes, the Republican Party has been featuring its grumpy old men and its “back in the day…” cultural attitudes, and it has paid for that. Yes, it needs to have a serious internal conversation about what really are the core Republican principles, to differentiate them from the cultural and emotional fetishes that seem to absorb its “activists”.

But, in the end, even if they could get past all that, the question remains: how do you convince people to refuse a free lunch? How do you counter the allure of getting something for nothing?

You have to explain why that can’t work!

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