Thursday, August 30, 2012

On the wolf and the sheep

Liberty is a concept that I visit often here, despite my essentially atheistic theme. This is due to a variety of factors, one of which is that there is a cult of Liberty, which I refer to as capital-L Libertarianism, that runs a course throughout American history and is quite the problematic feature of it at present, and this particular cult of Liberty is at least quasi-religious, if not outright religious, around the central doctrine that liberty, as they define it, is the highest possible ideal, taken to such an extent as to outstrip the well-being and suffering of sentient beings, which I have taken from Sam Harris (author of The Moral Landscape, a landmark piece on moral philosophy) to be the foundational conceptualization of salient morality (see link for clarity on this matter, as compared against various relativistic conceptualizations of morality).

This problem, as indicated, is not a new problem in any respect. Indeed, it was such a prevalent problem a century and a half ago, at the beginning of the end of the American slave business, that President Abraham Lincoln sought to clarify the debate about liberty, or Liberty, in his "Address at a Sanitary Fair," in Baltimore, Maryland, on the eighteenth of April, 1864. Of course, Lincoln's speech is directed at the abominable practice of slavery (a practice from which we could throw quite the pot-shots at the One True Faiths, if we wanted), called by Harris one of the "easiest moral questions," and one we got quite wrong (as did the Bible--New Testament and Old--and the Qur'an). Lincoln said after a characteristically short preamble,
The world has never had a good definition of the word liberty, and the American people, just now, are much in want of one. We all declare for liberty; but in using the same word we do not all mean the same thing. With some the word liberty may mean for each man to do as he pleases with himself, and the product of his labor; while with others the same word may mean for some men to do as they please with other men, and the product of other men’s labor. Here are two, not only different, but incompatable things, called by the same name———liberty. And it follows that each of the things is, by the respective parties, called by two different and incompatable names———liberty and tyranny. 
The cult of Liberty that winds through American history and that rears its head now, even while denying the charge, is of the latter type. Then, it sought to hold men in literal bondage, forcing tremendous labor in return for not a bit more than meager subsistence, all the while condemning men, women, and children to be chattel, able to be bought and sold for a price on the here-ironically named "free" market. Now it seeks to glorify the corporate structure and the C-suites behind them as a veritable Golden Calf, allowing increasingly challenging working and living conditions--including pay structures, benefits traps, disastrous housing situations, and lack of regulation that takes away from all by modifying the food supply and poisoning our very environment--that, while far from slavery, funnel money and opportunity upward while slamming those doors on the fingers of those below.

Lincoln went on, articulating what may be one of the clearest metaphors on the matter that has ever been provided--one the Bible would have done very well to have included, though in this it also failed. It is on this topic that I will elaborate.
The shepherd drives the wolf from the sheep’s throat, for which the sheep thanks the shepherd as a liberator, while the wolf denounces him for the same act as the destroyer of liberty, especially as the sheep was a black one. Plainly the sheep and the wolf are not agreed upon a definition of the word liberty; and precisely the same difference prevails to-day among us human creatures, even in the North, and all professing to love liberty. Hence we behold the processes by which thousands are daily passing from under the yoke of bondage, hailed by some as the advance of liberty, and bewailed by others as the destruction of all liberty. Recently, as it seems, the people of Maryland have been doing something to define liberty; and thanks to them that, in what they have done, the wolf’s dictionary, has been repudiated. (emphasis his)
This metaphor is telling, and hopefully it will allow us to make some sane and balanced commentary on the question of quasi-religious Libertarianism, the philosophical libertarian position underlying it, and the reality of a world that is deeply changed even from Lincoln's time (jumps to his prophetic "corporations have been enthroned" quotation are, evidently, inappropriate as that quote is potentially spurious).

The challenging part of looking at the matter from the perspective of this metaphor is that, clearly, only the most foolish mind would accept the proposition that wolves are to be destroyed. Indeed, it is rather clear to any thoughtful person that wolves have a "right" to live in as much as do shepherds a right to raise sheep for human purposes and thus to defend their flocks (n.b.: the idea of "rights" is another complex topic for a later post). That wolves have a better chance of living if they are able to pick from the shepherd's flock, then, raises the question of where the line must be drawn to create an effective societal balance between our wolves and our sheep. Indeed, for the purposes of this particular metaphor, it is essentially best to assume that there are no other food sources for the wolves, and thus that the shepherd's defensive actions directly impact their "right" to live. (Indeed, here, if we see profit-driven corporations as the wolves, consumers as the sheep, and regulatory agencies mostly in the form of government as the shepherd--which is not a perfect analogy--not only do the wolves have a "right" to live, they very well may serve a profoundly important function to the entire dynamic system.)

Note on the shepherd and the sheep: The shepherd as government is only an appropriate analogy in terms of its protective function in this particular metaphor. In reality, of course, the shepherd makes his living off slaughtering the sheep, which he has an economic interest to protect from the wolf but not from himself, which is not an entirely apt metaphor for governments that act as an extension of the people. I realize in going with this that it gives the anti-government Libertarian crowd a certain amount of ammunition to try to create anti-government red-herring arguments, but for that reason, I state plainly that the role of the shepherd in Lincoln's metaphor is solely one of being a protectorate of the sheep. Indeed, calling the people sheep, despite the popular meme, is not entirely appropriate either, but it matches Lincoln's metaphor and makes the entire picture a bit more visceral than does the collection: opportunists, consumers, and regulatory agencies.

If we agree that there is an essential "right" for the wolf and the sheep to each be able to have livelihood in some measure, and note that the situation may not be quite as dire as the metaphorical one, then we are left having to negotiate a social contract between the various entities (these, in fact, are likely not the only sorts that apply in such a metaphor, if we are seeking completeness).

A working social contract, of course, is what the Libertarians seek to deny, or at least fail to understand, in their glorification of capital-L Liberty, deified and taken as a good unto itself, self-evident in its goodness (beyond evidence or argumentation). That is simply because a social contract is a model in which people in a society willingly abrogate some of their own rights, via behaviors termed as "responsibilities," in order to support the general rights of other people. Capital-L Libertarians see responsibility as taking care only of oneself and those people that one purposefully chooses to care for, essentially breaking the reciprocal nature of abrogating rights for the purpose of allowing others to have their own without some caveat emptor qualification required. In other words, Libertarianism seeks to establish an "interacting individualist" contract as opposed to a true social contract, which parametrizes a society. That is to say, the Libertarian believes that there should be no sheep, based upon the rather morally repellant idea that if nature had intended for sheep to be able to withstand wolves (individually or in packs), something more than their herd mentality would have been granted to them, i.e. that the sheep rather have it coming to them, unless they will become wolves of a kind themselves.

The outcome of this state of affairs is that Libertarians act in practice, however lofty their ideals, as though they want their ability to exercise their own rights to be secured while affording no such guarantee for anyone else, essentially hiding behind "all men are created equal" while embracing a survival-of-the-fittest mentality that shouts "except that they are not." Instead of wanting to level the playing field in order to ensure that Liberty can shine her blessings on all as equally as reality allows--in accordance with the fact that literally no one chooses the circumstances of their births and can thus hardly be held accountable for those lucky or unlucky accidents--they want to dwell in the natural order that indicates that those who can will while those who can't... oh well. The supreme irony, of course, is that this creates something of a societal entitlement that provides for the Libertarian for no better reason than that he can, as he is, now, due to whatever strokes of luck and efforts applied in that context. Never mind the possibility that almost anyone can get the peanut butter off the shelf with the help of a small step ladder.

This phenomenon can be blamed on a lack of understanding of emergent phenomena, that when any two entities interact, there is immediately a third entity involved: the relationship between them. This creates a very complicated matter very quickly since meta-relationships exist ad infinitum, accounted for in reality by the fact that each meta is of sufficiently diminished impact on the dynamics of the system as to suggest strong convergence (going well beyond the description given by Orson Scott Card, who touches this concept by noting that among three individuals, there are at least 7 entities).

Capital-L Libertarianism, or any other cult of the exalted individual (esp. Randian Objectivism, something of the socioreligious engine of Libertarianism in the modern era) seems to be insufficiently sophisticated to recognize this very complicated phenomenon that defines people not only as individuals but also in relationship to each other, to groups, to the relationships between themselves, people, and groups, and so on. Since these emergent ideas are ephemeral, however societally meaningful, they are relatively easy to deny in favor of the exalted individual, who is here, concrete, solid, and easy to imagine as being profoundly alone against a complex and hostilely indifferent world. That the full complexity of the emergent phenomenon of even a small society is vastly beyond what we can fully understand, it is even more easily dismissed (or simply missed) by insufficiently careful thinkers.

The metaphor, indeed, can be informed by mathematical understanding of population dynamics, though in a limited sense. Usually, simple population models are presented via a Lotka-Volterra model, though more complicated factors, such as predator control, can be introduced. In fact, these models have returned information that suggests that "upper-trigger controls," meaning that predator populations are nipped whenever they are estimated to exceed a particular value, provide the best return of investment and reduce prey extinction likelihoods the most. In Lincoln's metaphor, then, we might be able to suggest that the Libertarian laissez faire economic model, in which wolves can do what they will, is hardly optimal. Indeed, given limited resources from which to draw, top-end regulation of wolf behavior seems to be the best choice approach. Certainly, by adding in the conception that the "wolves" here aren't merely predators but are also functionally contributing to the overall success of the enterprise, we might see that these kinds of controls of excesses are the most appropriate, a lesson with which history would agree, as we saw in the strongest days of American prosperity, achieved following the New Deal Era after the Great Depression--which we nearly revisited by taking the leash off the wolves again over the last few decades.

Note: Lowercase-l libertarianism is not devoted to the worship of Liberty to the exclusion of a reasoned understanding of the rights of others or the social contract that binds us but merely to the assumption that people (and sentient beings) are essentially provided liberty balanced by responsibility to others: the duty to do what one ought is intimately connected to the right to do as one will. This difference is of profound importance, as is the fact that capital-L Libertarianism exists (is not simply a straw-man) and is even gaining momentum rapidly at present, mostly via the Tea Party Movement. Lowercase-l libertarianism would say, in the context of Lincoln's metaphor, that the wolves have the right to do as they will so long as they don't unreasonably infringe upon the rights of the sheep, i.e. that they would agree that some regulation of predatory practices is not only important but critical to the maximization of total liberty in the society, as captured by the social contract and made concrete by the legal structure that makes it explicit.


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