Thursday, December 11, 2008

Boxed Milk and Chinese Movies

Actually, Ben makes a good point. Quite often those who govern simply manipulate the public into accepting something that, if put to them honestly, would be handily rejected. A lot of the time it is "wrapped in the flag" as Ben points out, so that it's hard to reject. "The Patriot Act" is a good example of this: lets give the government a bunch of invasive powers that threaten civil liberties to a degree that would at the very least make most Americans a little queasy, and give it a name so that anybody who opposes it will look "unpatriotic." I have to say, I actually fell for this (but then again, I was barely 20 years old at the time). Another common trick is to play up the proposal as being "for the children." Don't like it? You must hate children. Then there is always the misnomer, as Ben points out, like NAFTA, which doesn't include many countries in North America and isn't free at all. Why not call it what it is? Why, that would be silly. This is politics we are talking about. Probably even more common and more insidious is the "bait-and-switch," which Thomas Sowell comments on frequently. The idea is simple: say that the bill is for one purpose, get support for it, then make it actually be something completely different by the time the vote comes up. Nobody will notice. One example that comes to mind is the Texas Lottery, which was originally sold to the public as providing money for education. Most people didn't want a lottery (gambling is illegal in Texas) but were willing to accept a lottery if the money were for education. So the bill was passed, and the money ended up in the general public coffers, NOT earmarked for education as had been promised. Quite a few people were pretty hacked off about that. Now there is talk of privatizing the lottery to raise money for the state. Gambling was illegal in Texas for a reason; Texas is not Nevada. So the state brought it in under the auspice of government, "for the children," then stole the funds for itself, and now it may be going private, just like any other business (except, of course, with a government granted monopoly...) I'm pretty sure that NOBODY would have voted for this thing if it had been known that this was how it would turn out. A program "for the children" will have had the net effect of granting a government monopoly to a private gambling ring in a state with a fairly Victorian mindset when it comes to issues of vice. Nice. Of course, all this is true, and yes, the common folk are getting things rammed down their throats which they would have opposed if they had known honestly what it was that was being legislated. But I would make several comments:
  • voters would have to be insanely naive at this point to continue to believe what was being sold to them by government
  • voters would have to be insanely stupid to keep reelecting these politicians, yet the incumbency rate is typically around 98%
  • this kind of thing happens a lot more often in some places than others
  • this kind of thing is allowed to go to much further extremes in some places in others
  • it wouldn't happen much at all if government power had actually been limited to the extent provided by the Founders, but which we smarter, younger, more modern folks found too restrictive for our tastes
  • said politicians still have their heads attached to their shoulders and are remarkably free of .30 caliber holes in their person
Which is to say: the voters put up with it. So they get more of it. They have given the government the power to meddle in their lives, and it shouldn't surprise them that the government abuses this power. This is a very simple law of the universe, or as Gary North would say, an example of "ethical cause and effect." The government shouldn't have 90% of the power it has in the first place, so whether they realize it or not "the people" are getting what they asked for. They didn't understand the question, and it was wrong of them to ask. I heard a quote from an economist one time, and wish I could find it again, which went something to the effect of: If you would like to know how corrupt a particular government will be, the fact which you must know is how much corruption the public will put up with just before it throws the government out and replaces it with another. Then you can be sure that this exactly how much they will get. And as another wiser man than I has said, "All that evil needs to succeed is for good men to stand by and do nothing." Which is pretty much what is going on. I guess my point is that Ben's observation, which is completely true, is the exception that proves the rule. The fact that this stuff is happening is a reflection of the fact that American has given up its limited government ways. It has culturally forgotten what big government means, and abandoned many of its former ethical beliefs in this regard. We want the meddling, just not in the particular forms we are getting. What we don't understand is that we are asking for a physical impossibility. We are trying to legislate the color of the sky, then getting hacked off when the rising sun reveals that the sky has not complied with our wishes. Politicians will always do this stuff. The question is a) will we limit their power to have a substantial effect on our lives b) will we oppose them vigorously enough to keep this garbage in check and c) will the population as a whole act with enough civility on its own that people do not turn to government to settle petty differences. All to often, the answer is negative to all of the above. All require a very strong ethic of individual responsibility to be adopted by the culture at large, which is an exceedingly rare trait. Exceptions have historically been few. It seems that modern America has slowly become, well, less than exceptional. I never meant to say that all governments are exactly what people want, only that the government is a manifestation of the properties of the people. Perhaps it is better to say that government is a function of the culture, as one thinks about a mathematical function, say government = f(culture), or something like that. The whole "f" part one could consider to be something like natural law acting on the properties of the culture variable. Ironically, I arrived at my conclusion precisely by the same route that Ben uses to criticize a particular aspect of it. Having spent a very, very long time in graduate school, and having married my wonderful Chinese wife Yu, I have had an awful lot of contact with very different cultures, especially Chinese. And like Ben, I have been shocked by how different things can be. (Also like Ben, I have experienced "boxed milk," though mine was Chinese and probably laced with melamine. It is nasty.) Like a typical American, I had always believed that people were "all basically the same." I had swallowed the equalitarian, multiculti argument hook, line, and sinker, and thought I could relate to pretty much anyone as if he were just like me. Boy, was I wrong. People are not interchangeable parts. They are not even close. There really are stark differences, and I could probably write a book on all the things I've observed. Many Americans who have not had such encounters would call it racist, but I care little of the opinions of such people. Epithets are no substitute for arguments. It became obvious to me that people's most basic assumptions about life wind up influencing their behavior so heavily that the effects cascade into gaping differences in social arrangements, including, and especially, government. Watch a Chinese movie sometime. Any Chinese movie. Watch four or five of them. I'd be willing to bet that in nearly all of them: 1) most or all of the good characters get killed by the "bad guys" and pretty much everybody winds up dead with the possible exception of the "baddest of them all" 2) somebody commits suicide 3) somebody gets brutally beaten by an authority figure 4) the bad guys win, and most importantly, 5) the message of the movie is something along the lines of "Life is hopeless. Idealists are lambs to the slaughter. Just give up." After about 10 to 15 of these suckers, I have given up on them. I have yet to see a single Chinese movie that I have liked, purely for this reason. Likewise, I've had the opinion expressed to me that all American movies are childish, naive and unrealistic. Once, after watching the movie "Stargate," it was remarked that "this is the perfect American movie. Americans go running around, find some strange people, give them guns, set them free, and have sex with them." I have been told that the Declaration of Independence is childish, immature, and completely unrealistic, and that an older, wiser, more mature civilization would know better. Anyway, I've run off on a tangent. Suffice it to say: beliefs have consequences. Culture has consequences. We as Americans or Mexicans or whatever may not have voted for all these things and outright reject a lot of what is going on, but that does not mean that we don't deserve them just the same. If we really cared enough to erect a gallows on the Capitol steps if that was what it took to keep our politicians in check, those things wouldn't happen. When this stuff happens, it can only be because the citizenry is not taking its responsibilities seriously. It is still a function of popular choice, the choice of apathy. We simply don't care that much, and we quietly acquiesce. We tolerate it, as long as we are kept relatively comfortable just the same. This is not to say that all Americans are apathetic, childishly naive navel-gazers who fantasize about sleeping with space aliens, but neither is the average Chinese Joe a nihilistic authoritarian monster. Both characterizations are ridiculous. It is to say that, taken as a whole, our two respective groups have such qualities as lead to the outcomes which we observe. We are all subject to the same universal natural laws. We don't get to pick the laws of God; we only control how we respond to them. How we act determines what outcome we produce. It is not a matter of chance, or conspiracy, as I have pointed out, as conspiracy still requires popular consent. There is simply no human force capable of overcoming the will of the masses. I do acknowledge that Ben has a very good point in saying that a lot of what goes on is not with "the people's" consent. However, I will stand by the larger argument that regardless of this all cultures have qualities that led to their respective historical and governmental situations, and if we'd like those situations to change, it is not the government we should target, it is the people themselves. Great post Ben, very thoughtful and thought provoking.

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