Friday, February 27, 2004

Civil Discourse

Some people call the period that we are entering a Culture War. Gay marriage, abortion, broadcast standards, all of these have come down to two phrases: "How dare you offend me," and "How dare you decide what is right for me." Both sides of the issue cling tightly to their principles, so tightly that they can not accept that other principles exist. So tightly that anyone who is not with them on their issues must be of some variety of stupid or evil.

People are even losing friendships over politics. This isn't right, and the way things seem to be going scares me at times.

I have written that the ability to judge others' actions and to grant or withhold one's company from people is a fundamental right. I stand by that. We've all heard "Judge not, lest ye be judged." Matthew 7:1. That is frequently used to attack any type of judgementalism. The passage continues, however, "For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again." Matthew 7:2. I used to read that as if you judged harshly, you would be judged harshly; judge mercifully, and you will have mercy. Now, I see that it goes to other qualities, that how you judge others is more a reflection on yourself than on the one you judge. Are you harsh or merciful, tolerant or intolerant, do you value honesty or expediency? I don't give a damn what you say about yourself, show me by your actions and your judgments, and from that I will show you my values in my judgment of you. Then you may judge me by that.

The "friend" in the e-mail discussed in the link two paragraphs above has shown his character. If he is someone who calls himself tolerant, then he has shown the quality of hypocrisy.

And now for another point entirely. Back when I was in college, I had an Economics professor who discussed just about everything under the sun in class except economics. He said that everything was economics. At the time I thought he was just a windbag, but now I think that I am starting to see that he was right. The economy that I see in American society is not fundamentally based on money, but on rights. Forget about the government, the government in this country is merely the manifestation of the power of the society. Whenever I say society, you might just as well replace it with "everyone else", because that is the only thing society is. The economics come in when I want to have a mutual exchange of rights. In this country, we want a straight up, equal exchange. I want to do what I want to do within limits, while everyone else has the same rights and limits. But how do we determine what is a fair exchange. This exchange does not happen only once, but with every interaction we make as individuals, communities, and governments. There has to be some method by which we can say that the trade has been fair.

In my economic post below, I wrote that money typically fills in that gap for the trade of goods and services. It is the concrete middle ground that has to be agreeable to both sides for the exchange to take place. Despite what some would say, money does not provide that middle ground when it comes to the exchange of rights. In this case, we do not have a thing, but a process, a means by which the parties can measure the rights. In society, that has to be the Rule of Law. The knowledge that the rights and responsibilities you grant and receive will be measured in a consistent manner is the only way for individuals to predict the outcomes of the exchange. Without that predictability, informed decisions and moral choices can not be made.

That is why I am so worried about the course of events over the past few weeks. The process of Rule of Law is breaking down. We have state judges defying the decisions of judges placed above them, we have city officials defying state laws when they see fit, we have a president seeking to amend the Constitution out of distrust of the Courts that have sided against his fundamentalist Christian supporters time and again. Both sides are guilty of refusing to accept the system of Law when it suits their purposes to do so. Both sides are eroding at the stability of the common place where we must meet to engage in our exchange of rights.

I do not mean that the Law must never change. That type of stasis is ironically antithetical to the stability that freedom demands. What I say is that the means by which the Law can change, while providing the flexibility necessary for true stability, must not be changed itself. Is that method of change perfect? No. Can we find that perfect method? No again. The whole idea of a perfect system is dependent on the individuals' principles, and no system will satisfy all. All that is required is that the method of change be constant. The defiance of the Law and the Courts is a direct threat to the ability of people to have the exchange of rights in a society. Without it, no society. What happens after that, I don't know, but it won't be good.

Thus endeth the rant, pending some later editing

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