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Obamacare question

For a while it looked like "Obamacare" might really get through, but recently I've been thinking that the project is hopelessly lost--we're only at the face-saving stage now. For those of us who really feel passionately about enriching the health care industry while screwing average Americans even worse than the current majority-government-controlled system already does, this is a grievous defeat, and there's a limitless supply of hand-wringing from the Democratic Party and its stooges about this.

But I could be wrong. Do you readers think it's still a possibility?

Partisan Rhetoric Hits New Low

Along the lines of "Where do they find these fucking people?", here's Melissa Lafsky:

We don't know how much Kennedy was affected by her death, or what she'd have thought about arguably being a catalyst for the most successful Senate career in history. What we don't know, as always, could fill a Metrodome.

Still, ignorance doesn't preclude a right to wonder. So it doesn't automatically make someone (aka, me) a Limbaugh-loving, aerial-wolf-hunting NRA troll for asking what Mary Jo Kopechne would have had to say about Ted's death, and what she'd have thought of the life and career that are being (rightfully) heralded.

Who knows -- maybe she'd feel it was worth it.

As a wise man once said, politics is the mind-killer.

Political Hero Worship

Once again a politician dies, and once again I'm shocked at the reactions by mourners who consider him a hero. To me, Ted Kennedy represented everything that's wrong with politics. He wasn't very bright, rode to the limelight on his family's name, and at the very least let some drown, possibly outright murdered her. Depsite that, he had a job for life, and no ordinary job at that, but a job that affects everyone. He was a product of a political machine, thrust into power despite his obvious shortcomings. And today, there are thousands (millions?) who look back on him as a hero.

Someone on a message board I visit once remarked--with pride I might add-- how he cried for days after Reagan's death. Despite murdering millions, Stalin's death was received with widespread grief. People literally wept in the streets.

It's non-sensical enough to adore celebrities who, though popular, don't affect our day-to-day lives. It's entirely another to worship those who control the almighty arm of the modern state. What is it about the human condition that causes adulation of the powerful? Do we all have a form of Stockholm Syndrome somewhere in the recesses of our minds? Is there some evolutionarily evolved trait that makes some of us naturally subservient to alpha males?

Days like today bring out the cynic in me.

Libertarian historical observances

Let's note two anniversaries today

1. The Battle of Warsaw, 1920, in which the Polish Army halted the Soviet Army in its march towards Germany. If the Polish Army had failed here, Soviet communism could have become the primary form of government in Europe, and who knows what else from there?

2. Uruguay's Independence Day, 1825. They became independent from Spain but were subdued afterwards by the Empire of Brazil, eventually regaining their independence. Libertad o Muerte!

Latest crop of isolated incidents

Rad Geek has a list of 42 "isolated incidents" from the last six weeks.

Pinker on the decline of violence

I finally got around to watching Steven Pinker's TED talk on the decline of violence.

He describes some theories as to why violence has declined which I summarize as follows.

Hobbes: peace-keeping governments
Other: life is more valuable
Wright: positive-sum interactions
Singer: empathy

It was a nice touch having a large black-and-white picture of Pinker behind him on the stage. If human-against-human death is considered "violence", so should death by government which would add another 100 million for the 20th century. That would probably only double that little blue blip on the graph shown.

My own thoughts lie mainly along Wright's, though all of the above reasons are probably true in part. We live in a much more interdependent networked world in which violence doesn't pay.

Here I'm brainstorming, but I believe polycentrism is a key also. Alpha males have always sought to climb to the top of social hierarchies. The more such hierarchies there are, the more alpha males can co-exist without violence. I had a boss a few years ago who was absolutely ruthless when it came to socio-political maneuvering within the hierarchy at a certain teaching hospital in Boston. He became the department chair and kept that position for many years. He was both competent and fair, but he wasn't going to let anyone challenge him, and he had no mercy for weakness. I could imagine that if he still lived in his native South America, he might have instead pursued politics, and rather than merely keeping his challengers from getting a promotion, he'd be jailing them and silencing the press. In the US, his fierceness was channeled into something productive, something constrained by the decidedly non-violent machinations of an academic medical center.

In an open society, there are all sorts of institutions and networks alpha males can climb. One can be CEO or Oracle, another can be Senator of Massachusetts, and yet another can be quarterback for the New England Patriots. Even institutions with a decidedly egalitarian bent--such as a commune--are ladders to climb. (And I bet the most popular guy at the commune still gets the hottest chicks whereas the omega male gets none.) In less developed societies, there is only one Big Man, and all the wannabe Big Men fight for the coveted position. Modern society forces Larry Ellison to run a multi-billion dollar company that makes useful software rather than wage war in order to achieve alpha status.

More brainstorming: what about sports, video games, and movies? All channel violent urges into non-violent activities. The usual criticism is the other way around, i.e., that they foster violence, but I wonder if they actually allow people to get their kicks and then go about the business of non-violent living.

Political isomers

Geoff Manaugh at BLDGBLOG almost catches onto something:

For instance, one man at a recent but quite bizarre anti-health care rally – during which a U.S. senator apparently praised this very man for his publicly announced support of terrorism – said that "he could trace his ancestors back to the Mayflower and said 'they did not arrive holding their hands out for help.'" Ergo, this man should not "hold out his hands for help" and ask the government for a doctor's visit. Of course, this same argument would surely never be advanced against, say, calling the police, calling the fire department, or accepting the defense of the U.S. military. Yet these are all tax-funded government services.

Indeed, the bizarre irony for me throughout all of this has been that police officers, fire crews, and members of the military are all, to use this language very deliberately, the most socialized subsector of the U.S. economy. That is, they are paid through what many people would call "government hand-outs." On the other hand, it is these very social positions that are often held up – by these same critics – as triumphant examples of national service and personal heroism. Indeed, it is not entirely inaccurate to say that The Greatest Generation was a generation of near-total tax-funded employment.

He's making a slightly different point, but to me, this sounds like an argument against government monopolies in all of these services. Our methods of thinking aren't necessarily so different that we can't have a conversation, but my conclusion is a lot more radical. We need to find a way to tap into this kind of feeling, but direct it to more productive ends than some phantom "reform".

Immigration and National Health Care

Ryan Avent argues that failing to include illegal immigrants in a national health care plan is shameful:

We’ll treat an immigrant kid with tuberculosis, because we don’t want him infecting our American kids, but you know, we’re not about to acknowledge the basic humanity of people who are enduring many hardships to give their families a better life, just as the ancestors of most of the population of America did.

This whole health care mess is enough to make a man lose his faith in people.

Derek Thompson (from whom I found the above) concurs:

Again, I'm with Ryan all the way morally. I think every person in America deserves health care. I think it's an issue of morality, of human rights. And immigrants are people, too.

I realize that few readers of the DR are both (1) in favor of immigration limits, and (2) in favor of national health care. But those are probably both majority opinions on the left, and so I hope someone here can explain this to me.

Here's my question, and I mean it in a completely non-snarky, honest-inquiry way: How can it possibly be the case that by breaking the law of a country, one acquires a claim against its inhabitants?

Consider: Virtually no one would argue that American taxpayers have an obligation to pay for the health care of a Nicaraguan in Nicaragua[*]. But if that person comes to the United States illegally, then apparently it becomes an obligation of Americans to care for him.

So what is it that the illegal immigrant has done that suddenly entitles him to my taxes to pay for his health care? Thompson thinks he deserves health care because he is "in America". But if health care is a "human right", then surely it belongs to the Nicaraguan while he was in his native land.

Maybe it's because the illegal immigrant contributed to the economy here? But I don't see how that can be the case. Suppose the person had remained in Nicaragua as a farmer exporting his entire crop to the United States. Then he is economically linked with Americans just as the immigrant is, but few argue he is entitled to health care.

Now for something like a communicable disease, then one rationale for providing health care would be naked self-interest. But I don't see how that applies to something like cancer or heart disease.

And I think it violates many (most?) peoples' sense of propriety to reward people for breaking the law, even if they don't agree with it. I spoke to several people during the immigration debates of '06 who were outraged about the amnesty proposal despite being in favor of continued (and even increased) immigration. They just did not think it was right that someone from India who had trouble keeping his visa (to take one example I know of) got nothing out of the amnesty, while someone who came here illegally did. And I have very strong sympathy for that viewpoint. Even if you think bad laws should be disobeyed, does it then naturally follow that legal advantages should accrue to that person? That is very odd to me.

So, I'm posing this question to Avent, Thompson, or anyone else who holds positions (1) and (2) above: Suppose there are two brothers in Nicaragua. Brother A illegally comes to the United States and gets cancer. Brother B stays in Nicaragua and gets cancer. Why should I pay for Brother A's chemo and not Brother B?

I'd like to avoid a discussion here of the morality of immigration restrictions and national health care, if possible. I'm saying that taking those as given, why should illegal immigrants here get preference over, say, those who stayed in their native countries?

[*] I'm going to use Nicaragua as a random example of a foreign country from whom many immigrate illegally to the United States here for concreteness sake, but I do not intend to stereotype.

The downside of easy information access?

Back in the pre-internet Dark Ages, a person could get a passing acquaintance with a large number of topics only by reading anything and everything within arm's reach. The range would be restricted to the things covered in pamphlets, magazines, books, and newspapers, and maybe the encyclopedia. It took a special kind of personality to delve into so many things. Nowadays, with the internet, any clown can acquire at least a conversational knowledge of any flower, battle, recipe, or architectural landmark within a few minutes. I bet I spend an hour a day on Wikipedia, for instance, going from Bulgaria to Japanese naming conventions to anti-radiation missiles effortlessly. I am expert about exactly none of these subjects, but if someone wants to bring them up at the bar I can shoot the breeze for a few minutes.

The cultural implications of this are huge, and overwhelmingly positive as far as I can tell, but I wonder if this phenomenon has had any kind of noticeable effect on governance. It used to be that people who wanted to learn about some specific topic had to be dedicated and read up on it, such that there would have been a larger gap between those who knew and those who didn't. Now anybody who wants to can pull up Daily Kos or Free Republic and have a completely half-assed acquaintance with a subject--and feel that they know enough to evangelize and vote one way or the other about it. We've only been in this period for a few short years, so it may be too early to tell.

Wednesday blog links

1. It's not just Cash for Clunkers, it's also IOUs for suckers.
2. It takes the average Berliner 19 minutes to earn the money a Big Mac costs, and only 15 in Frankfurt. Chicago, Tokyo, and Toronto: 12. Worldwide average: 37. This is a nice synchronic snapshot of purchasing power in understandable terms.
3. Who fucked over your dream of the Swiss bank account full of money? The U.S. government. To be fair, the Swiss government didn't help too much either.