21 Feb 2002
Tangents Modified
28 Feb 2010


In each culture, people organize their lives around ideas held by that culture to be true beyond question.  In the United States, for example, we have gravitated toward popular notions of liberty, democracy, family, entrepreneurship, and so forth.  Sharing such general concepts, we fall into the habit of assuming that our specific notions about them are universally accepted as well.  In fact, however, there is much variation in perception from person to person, from group to group, and from generation to generation.  To an American of the early 19th century, democracy meant participation in government by educated caucasian men of property, but today it implies participation by adult citizens of both sexes, all ethnic backgrounds, all educational and economic levels.  Similarly, liberty suggests significantly different things to liberal individualists, conservative traditionalists, socialists, and capitalists.

Following are some questions confronting us in today's world, questions for which each of us might have very different answers despite some common general assumptions.  How would you answer them?

These questions are developed more fully below.  I invite your thoughts and comments about them, as well as about any similar issues which may occur to you.

With the demise of AT&T's message board feature, e-mail is now the preferred medium for expressing your thoughts.  If response is sufficient, I will initiate a "MAIL BAG" area where feedback messages will be posted (with senders' permission).  To facilitate this effort and to indicate that your remarks are for publication, please include the word "mailbag" in the Subject line of your e-mail.

Recent events have made it clear that modern technology in the hands of men with medieval minds is not a good idea.  Allowing such a situation to arise is roughly equivalent to handing a four-year-old a hammer and telling him to go entertain his baby sister.  Many would argue, though, that "the genie is now out of the bottle and cannot be put back in."

  • What realistic measures could satisfactorily minimize the threat of mass destruction / death / terror, perpetrated by radical groups or individuals who consider themselves responsible to no one but their own cause / god?
  • What effects would those measures have on your personal liberty, and would those effects be acceptable to you?
  • Bonus question:  Does it make any difference if the people with modern weapons and medieval attitudes happen to call themselves a "Coalition" or a "Militia" instead of "al Qaeda"?  Why / Why not?

Constitutional representative democracy has become widely regarded as the most agreeable system of government yet devised.  The "one-man-one-vote" principle has strong popular appeal, and history warns us that excluding various groups from the political process can have crippling effects.  However, government by the people cannot work well unless the people are well informed and act with good intention toward all.  Indeed, democracy is a fragile entity which can be weakened by ignorance, destabilized by narrow interest, and consumed by unrestrained greed.
     From the councils of ancient Athens to the founding of our own republic, therefore, there have been attempts to give preference to the opinions of the wisest in democratic society.  Unfortunately, these schemes have typically used wealth or land ownership as indicators of wisdom, and experience has shown that association to be all too frequently and disastrously in error.

  • What measures could be taken to ensure that government policy reliably reflects the collective wisdom and benevolence of society (rather than its collective stupidity and selfishness), while also guaranteeing that the concerns of all (including those who, for whatever reason, are neither particularly wise nor benevolent by nature) may be fairly considered and addressed?

Thomas Jefferson once said, "The government that governs best governs least."  Some libertarians seize upon that thought to propose that the best government is no government at all.  But are people who actually live under anarchy really better off?  Consider places which have little or no consistently effective government — Afghanistan, Rwanda, Somalia, for example.  It is difficult, if not impossible, to name any place on earth which has no government, yet enjoys cultural stability and living standards which we would consider satisfactory.
     It would seem that government of some sort is a practical inevitability in human society:  People will be governed, if not officially by leaders of their own choosing, then unofficially by gangs and thugs.  For all practical purposes (as Jefferson himself discovered when he became U.S. President), a "no government" option has never really been available.

  • For those who cherish liberty, the abolition of government might seem an ideal state.  However, all current models approaching pure anarchy are inherently unstable under real-world conditions.  Is there any way in which anarchy could be made stable, practical, defensible, and workable over a reasonably long term?  Could such a system still be considered a true anarchy?

Political conservatives' standard complaint is that government is too big, spends too much, and interferes in people's personal lives.  Yet conservatives typically advocate as much (if not more) government spending as liberals (though usually for different things—"star wars" instead of schools, prisons instead of job training, business subsidies instead of debt reduction, etc.).  And while they are staunchly hands-off in the matter of government regulation of business, these same conservatives are ironically the very ones who advocate policies to invade, investigate, and control people's personal lives and arbitrarily restrict the liberties of individuals and families.  Such glaring contradictions, between professed ideology and actual policy, give rise, not to just one or two questions, but to many.

  • Why do those who so loudly bewail the inefficiency and waste of a huge federal bureaucracy suppose that distributing its functions among 50 overlapping and conflicting state bureaucracies is a superior option?
  • Why do those who decry the excesses of government also advocate compulsory religious indoctrination of school children?
  • Why do those who complain of government meddling in people's personal lives insist that individuals and families cannot be trusted to make their own decisions in such private matters as reproduction, religion, and choice of reading / viewing material?
  • Why should those advocating promotion of religion at taxpayer expense assume that such support should be enjoyed only by their own particular religion (or at most, only by monotheistic religions)?
  • Why do those who trumpet "family values" seem to feel that those values can and should be determined and enforced by government?
  • Why do those who agonize over deterioration of society's moral fiber seek to undermine and impoverish those institutions – art, education, science, etc. – which preserve and reinforce the positive aspects and creative traditions of our culture?
  • Why do those who preach fiscal conservatism invariably end up supporting deficit spending?
  • Why do those who profess sympathy for overburdened taxpayers think nothing of burdening them with the interest on trillions of dollars in public debt?
  • Why do those who call for "economic stimulus" prefer to funnel most of it into a narrow sector unlikely to stimulate any increase in broad consumer demand?
  • Why are conservatives captivated by the notion that the legitimate rights of the wealthy and powerful include the right to dominate, abuse, exploit, and censor everyone else?
  • Why do those who profess concern for ordinary people turn a blind eye whenever workers and consumers are exploited and abused by business, banks, and insurers?
  • Why do conservatives shout "states' rights" whenever infringement of people's rights becomes an issue?
  • And finally, why do people call themselves "conservatives" when they apparently do not know the meaning of the word "conserve"?

Many people report having "religious experiences" which change their lives in some way.  I, too, have had what might be called a religious experience, although it consisted of several relatively small but cumulative events, rather than a single overwhelming one.  Indeed, my "religious experience" might be seen as an incremental enlightenment rather than a sudden revelation—with the ironic effect of having compelled me to reject religion altogether.*

  • Have you ever had a "religious experience" that altered your life in some fundamental way?  If so, would you care to share it, and perhaps offer your personal reflections and evaluations?

*Detailed in the article, "Religion: How I Lost It But Found Something Better," located in the Philosophy & Religion section of ISSUES.

I invite your thoughts and comments about these and any similar questions which may occur to you.

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