Absolution and Responsibility

Among the civilizing aspects of modern culture is the fact that ancient traditions of personal retribution have been supplanted by a socially-administered system for public accountability. Victims and their families may no longer take the law into their own hands by seeking vengeance on predators.  Instead we, as a society, promise to see justice done on their behalf.

But that is a compact that goes both ways:  if society demands authority over the administration of justice, then it also assumes responsibility for it.  If we have promised to see justice done, then delivering anything short of justice is a breach of that promise.

Within such a system, justice demands that sentences we assign are and should be proportionate to the moral severity of the crimes committed. Ensuring, then, that those proportionate sentences are, indeed, carried out is how we fulfill society’s moral obligation to the victims.

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America’s Original Sin

American slavery was a sin, but neither an original nor an idiosyncratic one….

… On the other hand, Jim Crow — and the racialist foundation upon which it was erected — was America’s original sin: we invented it and allowed it to take root in spite of (or, arguably, as an excuse for disregarding) our founding creed of human liberty; we took far longer than we should have to rid ourselves of it – longer, indeed, than we did to rid ourselves of slavery, itself; and we yet suffer its furtive vestiges and endure its execrable repercussions more than sixty years after it was officially and formally consigned to the ash-heap.

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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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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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Health Care Payment Reform

From 25 years ago: My Proposal for Health Care Payment reform.

Still, I think, more rational than anything else I’ve heard. Agree with me or convince me I’m wrong — either is a good outcome if it means we end up with something that actually works without destroying either health care or our culture of liberty or both.

The original cover letter to the Concord Coalition and to various Senators and Congressmen

The original cover letter to then-Governor Howard Dean, of Vermont

The proposal

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Socialism, Capitalism, and the Liberal Republic

It is true that people — not only ignorant self-described “conservatives” but also many ignorant self-described “Socialists” — often throw the word “Socialism” around without seeming to understand what it means.  But,it is also true (OK, it is at least my not-so-humble opinion) that the many articles published recently trying to explain why various brands of “liberalism” are not actually the same as “Socialism” have been overly narrow and parochial in their view of what Socialism is and entails, limiting their argument to the simplistic (and flawed) formulation that it can’t really be Socialism if the government doesn’t “own” the means of production.

But, if that isn’t the defining nature of “Socialism”, then what is? For that matter, what is the defining nature of “Capitalism”? And how do either interact, for better or worse, with the moral premises and practical structures of our Liberal Republic?

In six parts:

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Stand Your Ground

There is, and has been for centuries, a genuine and earnest debate in this country about the requirements and limits of deference to the State when it comes to matters of personal well-being. People who value their right to protect themselves from the burdens of parenthood by having an abortion assert the same principle of personal autonomy as those who value their right to protect themselves from being the victims of predators by bearing weapons; and both assertions come from the same moral and spiritual sources.

There is a primal disagreement about whether, and to what extent, individuals do or do not retain a sacred right to protect themselves when they also claim protection from the State. One view, typically associated with the American political right, asserts that individuals do retain such a right, that the government’s duty to protect augments, but does not replace, that individual prerogative. The other view, typically associated more with the American political left, asserts that the individual prerogative to protect oneself is, and must be, significantly diminished — if not fully subjugated– in order for government to maintain the civil order required for its protections to be meaningful and effective.

To be clear, the legal imperative that you must retreat, rather than defend yourself, in the face of a threat is an explicit mandate that you must affirmatively participate in your own victimization. It reflects a political philosophy that assigns responsibility for and authority over personal well-being strictly to the State and it requires that everyone depend solely on the State for that function — it requires that, if the State can’t act in the moment to protect you against such victimization, then your responsibility as a citizen is to avoid fighting back, to accept being a victim now in the hope that you can attain some form of redress later. In effect, it transforms the role of individuals within such a polity from that of sovereign citizen to that of ward and supplicant, from autonomous and self-directed moral agent to just another drone playing his or her assigned role in the human hive.

Hyperbole? Of course. But these arguments go beyond philosophy to the moral and emotional core of what it means to exist as a human individual embedded within a larger society and, so, they invite a correspondingly moral and emotional response.

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“When Liberals Become Progressives…”

As a rule, I’m not much inclined to use this forum merely to link to other online information sources or posts without comment. That’s what Facebook and Twitter are for; this is something else.

However, given the fact that I wrote a whole book about what it means to be a ‘Conservative’ in modern America, the question of what it means to be a ‘Liberal’ in modern America — a subject I touched on in the book but on which I claim no particular experience or expertise — is a topic I find not only interesting but critical to the future well-being of our country. I am always on the lookout for good discussions about that.

I ran across one today, written by Greg Weiner, a former aide to Senator Bob Kerry (the other Senator Kerry), and published as an OpEd in The New York Times on 13 April 2018. I highly recommend it.

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