Farmers of Men

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When people use the term “the homeless,” they make them sound like a leper colony of the damned, invaders from outer space, or some sort of creeping fungus. This attitude dehumanizes homeless people. Which is highly ironic, since those most likely to use the term see themselves as brimming with compassion. How can people be recognized as human beings if they aren’t viewed as individuals? Yet almost never do I get the sense, from those who decry the plight of “the homeless,” that they visualize real faces or remember actual names.

We’ve been getting a number of homeless people at church. The sudden influx is startling. One lady brings her four little dogs. She has nowhere to leave them except in the yard of our parish house, next door to the sanctuary. She sits in a pew, slightly off by herself, and soaks up the liturgy the way a flower soaks up sunshine. We are a progressive church — we Care About The Homeless. But nobody seems to know quite what to do with her.

When we hand over to the government the responsibility to care for those less fortunate than ourselves, we also give it the notion that it has taken the matter completely out of our hands.

Some are baffled that she’s got four dogs, when she probably struggles daily just to feed herself. They evidently fail to realize that the dogs may be the only living souls that show her unconditional affection, or perhaps any affection at all. Being one of those annoying people who get big ideas, I have several times wondered aloud what we might do to help our homeless guests. And I mean, really help them — not just go through a few motions to make ourselves feel better. Every time I do this, I get looks of horror.

Then comes the inevitable litany of “we can’ts.” We can’t give them hot meals, baskets of groceries, job referrals, or affordable housing. We are not, after all, a soup kitchen, a food bank, or a social service agency. But I’m pretty sure that though they may not know this the first time they come, it doesn’t take long for them to figure it out. If they keep coming back — as some do — they may actually want the same things out of the experience as the rest of us.

The homeless aren’t as different from us as I suspect we want to think they are. How did we ever come to think of them as a different species? As something alien, strange, and potentially dangerous?

I suspect it began to happen about the time we decided to hand all responsibility for the care of the unfortunate over to the government. It became Someone Else’s Problem — not our own. We tell ourselves we’ve done this because we’re so compassionate, but actually it has made us considerably less so. We have merely pushed the needy out of sight and out of mind, lulling our consciences to sleep with the narcotic delusion that Someone Else can do our caring for us.

We have no evidence, however, that the government overflows with compassion. And when we hand over to it the responsibility to care for those less fortunate than ourselves, we also give it the notion that it has taken the matter completely out of our hands. Once we surrender anything to the state, it never wants to give it back, and certainly resents having to share it.

Much ado is currently being made about how persecuted conservative Christians are when the state does not mandate mass compliance with their beliefs. That this seems to be the highest purpose to which they think the Gospel calls them does not strike them as the least bit odd. But the same government they want to enforce their dictates has taken away much of their ability to minister to the needy. A duty they have surrendered, for the most part, without a whimper.

This past winter, when much of the country was gripped with arctic cold, a number of churches brought homeless people into their buildings to keep them from freezing. In more than a few cases, this may have made the difference between life and death. Now, one might think this was exactly what churches are supposed to do. But several municipal governments thought otherwise.

When we farm the homeless out to government care, they get no care at all. The government treats them as less than human.

Where were the cries of religious persecution, from the Right-wing Umbrage Industry, when these cities ordered churches that were sheltering homeless people to turn them out into the streets, threatening them with hefty fines if they refused to comply? I certainly didn’t hear any, and since I pay close attention to such matters, I listened for them.

Perhaps the best thing we can do for the homeless among us is really to see them as people — and I mean, before they turn into blocks of ice we must step over on the sidewalk. When we farm them out to government care, they get no care at all. The government treats them as less than human. Given the fact that it’s more likely to care for stray dogs or cats than for homeless people, it treats them as even less than animals.

The only way we can treat homeless people as people is to take back our responsibility to care what happens to them. When they come through the doors of our churches, we can recognize them as spiritual beings, who hunger for more than food. They need to know that they are valuable. That it matters whether they find a warm place to belong, or rot into oblivion in a gutter. This, no government can give them, and when we farmed out the responsibility for their care, all understanding of their deeper needs got lost.

Today we clamor, like baby birds, for the government to give us goodies. Our dependence has bred a malignant narcissism, in which we identify primarily as members of some grievance group to be appeased. The very convictions that form our core we see as somebody else’s responsibility to ensure. But the government cannot give us our souls; it can only take them. It’s high time we took them back.




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Structure vs. Belief

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Many libertarians embrace public choice theory as a sophisticated, intellectually rigorous political analysis that is consistent with libertarian ideas. This does not mean that libertarians should accept it uncritically.

Public choice theory looks at politics through a lens that treats politicians as selfish actors striving to maximize their power and self-interest, not as people chiefly motivated by the public good. Public choice theory has identified several structural defects in the American political process that lead politicians to destroy liberty as a byproduct of their self-interest. One such defect is the dispersion of interests problem, the fact that a rent-seeking law imposing taxes to help a special interest group has a highly concentrated interest group to lobby for it, whereas the interest to lobby against it is dispersed over the entirety of the taxpayers. Individual taxpayers aren’t sufficiently aware of the tax to be highly interested in fighting it.

Another defect is the fact that politicians usually get noticed by the media for what they do, and not for what they don’t do, so election campaigns tend to reward politicians for being active, which leads to bigger government. Because of the fame that attaches to moralistic crusades, the structure of democracy also rewards legislatures for passing new criminal laws, which leads to overcriminalization.

It is the beliefs of the people that caused the decline of liberty and the rise of big government in post-New Deal America.

But despite public choice theory’s analytical value and libertarian leanings, I would argue that it is mistaken about the fundamental cause of statist laws. As an alternative to public choice theory I would present the rule of intended consequences: the reason for the existence of any given law in a republican democracy is the voters’ belief that the law is good and performs a just purpose; the unintended consequences of a law are usually not the primary reason for that law’s existence. This rule holds that the best way to get an unjust law repealed is to persuade the voters that the law is unjust, so that voter pressure will lead the politicians to repeal it.

For example, the reason why gambling is illegal is that mainstream American voters have inherited a Puritan conservative Christian morality dating back to the colonial era, and they feel that gambling is evil and should be illegal. The Indian casino owners and the casinos in Las Vegas and the state lotteries all benefit from the anti-gambling laws. And they all have lobbying power. But despite the lobby whose interest is favored by criminalization, the primary reason for the anti-gambling laws is the feelings of the voters, not the lobbying of the special interests who benefit from the law. If the voting public did not believe that gambling should be illegal, then it would be legalized.

I doubt that any amount of lobbying or special interest funding could keep gambling from being legalized if the politicians thought that the voters strongly favored its legalization. Legislators who fought the tide of public opinion would simply be voted out and replaced by legislators who would obey the public will. Gay marriage and Prohibition are two other examples showing that the law tends to change when the beliefs of the voters change. The rise of gay marriage laws and both the start and end of Prohibition illustrate the fact that politicians will adopt policies that were once unpopular if they see that the mainstream beliefs of the public have changed.

I would characterize the debate between public choice theory vs. the intended consequences rule as a quarrel between structure and belief. Public choice theorists think that the structure of a republican democracy disadvantages liberty and favors the growth of government. In contrast, I think it is the beliefs of the people that caused the decline of liberty and the rise of big government in post-New Deal America. The rise of socialist sympathy in the Democratic Party in the 1930s coincided with the seepage of socialist theories from the late 19th century into the consciousness of the American public. The expansion of our government has followed Americans’ abandonment of the libertarianism of the American Revolution and their acceptance of modern liberal dogma.

If I am correct, then the key to restoring liberty is not to alter the institutional structures of the nation. Instead, the key is to persuade the voting public to believe in liberty, to transform the people’s moral sentiments so that they feel that statist laws are unjust. This challenge may seem difficult to meet, but altering beliefs would be easier than the task presented by public choice theory, which would be nothing short of fundamentally altering the structure of American government. Public choice could probably succeed only through a series of libertarian constitutional amendments, which seems unlikely. The war of ideas and persuasion is the right path for libertarians to focus on.




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Backwoods Wars, Front Page Problems

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Responding to the September 11 attacks on US embassies in Libya and Egypt, Fox News correspondent Ralph Peters made this controversial statement: “Obama’s appeasement policy . . . won’t work against these radical Islamists. With people like these, when they kill four of yours, you have to kill 400 of theirs.”

Peters’ outrageous, counterintuitive “defense plan” is more a cynical observation than a suggestion. It reminds me of a scene of hillbilly justice portrayed in Lawless, a movie set in 1930s Virginia, during the Prohibition era. As thugs from one group prepare to kill two bootleggers from another, one young victim cries out his name and where he is from. The leader of the attackers immediately releases the boys and punishes his own men for what they were about to do, explaining in disgust, “The last thing I need is a blood feud coming after me.” We kill two of theirs, they’ll kill 200 of ours. So we don’t kill their two.

The title Lawless obviously refers to the renegade behavior of the film’s moonshining protagonists, but it also refers to the corrupt police officers who look the other way while they get their share of both the hooch and the profits. More importantly, the title refers to the kind of violent thuggery that often erupts in the absence of sensible laws — laws that protect property rights, the freedom to choose, and the freedom to be left alone. Without a legal framework of basic rights enforced by judges, tyrants generally rise up to fill the void and enforce their own “laws.”

Lawlessis based on the true story of the Boudrant brothers, Howard (Jason Clarke), Forrest (Tom Hardy), and Jack (Shia LeBeouf), who operate a moonshine business in the hills of Virginia. Forrest is something of a legend in the area because he has survived so many life-threatening events: for example, injuries sustained during World War I, the Spanish flu that killed both Boudrant parents, and violent attacks by would-be robbers. In the film he is a complex character, fiercely protective of family and friends but with an indifference to pain and just a hint of sadism that makes him unpredictable and dangerous. He is a sympathetic foil for the antagonist in the story, Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce), a fancy-dressed germaphobe with more than that hint of sadism; he’s cold, he’s mean, and he likes it. A big-city lawman from Chicago, Rakes is sent to Virginia to clean out the stills, but instead he demands a cut of the action from all the moonshiners in the area, using the local law officials to enforce his new regime. When the Boudrant brothers refuse to pay, a backwoods war breaks out.

Narrating the story is the youngest Boudrant brother, Jack, a gentle soul who eschews violence and would rather spend his time hanging out with his best friend Cricket (Dane DeHaan) and wooing his Mennonite girlfriend Bertha (Mia Wasikowska). But when his brothers are attacked, Jack defends the family’s honor. He takes over the business, despite the added risks involved in transporting the hooch past Rakes’ mob of outlaw lawmen. Because fewer moonshiners are willing to take that risk, Jack can demand higher prices. Like drug dealers today, he takes advantage of the profits created by the government ban and spends his newfound cash on fancy clothes and fancier cars. Predictably, his gentle character begins to harden.

Rakes is sent to Virginia to clean out the stills, but instead he demands a cut of the action from all the moonshiners in the area, using the local law officials to enforce his new regime.

The film has moments of bloody violence, including a scene reminiscent of the groundbreaking shootout that occurred midway through Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and pushed the limits of acceptability. But Lawless also has moments of sublime beauty, especially in the musical score, which is filled with folk music of the Virginia hills. Tom Hardy continues to stretch his acting muscles with another knockout performance as Forrest. Hardy first caught my attention in Inception (2010), then as the conflicted Ricki Tarr in last year’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and as Bane in The Dark Knight Rises. He even stood out as the lovestruck political assassin in the lightweight This Means War. I can’t wait to see what he does with the title role in the upcoming Mad Max: Fury Road.

My favorite part of this film occurs during the epilogue. We all know that Prohibition finally ended, so I’m not giving away too much to let you know that life changes in Virginia when the law is repealed. Mason jars filled with colorless “white lightning” fade into Mason jars filled with colorful fruits and vegetables. It is reported that one character finds work in a cotton mill, while another turns the family property into a farm — a tobacco farm, ironically. “Choose your poison” indeed. Yes, they could have engaged in legal employment all along, but let’s face it: labor follows the profits. Who is going to work in a factory or a fast-food joint for minimum wage when black market profits are so much more lucrative? Governments can ban access to certain products and activities, but they can’t ban the demand for those products and activities. And when supply is artificially limited through government intrusion, prices and profits go up. It’s simple arithmetic.

Lawless is a timely reminder of the unintended consequences that inevitably arise when governments try to mandate social behavior. Do-gooders in the early 20th century deemed drunkenness socially unacceptable, and outlawed the sale of booze. Crime syndicates, corrupt police, and shooting sprees were the unintended results. Missing the point, do-gooders followed in the footsteps of Prohibition with the War on Drugs, and untold misery has resulted: violent drug cartels, corrupt police, countless men and women languishing in prisons, and more shooting sprees. This week, Mayor Bloomberg brought the war against individual choice to new lows when he banned the sale of large sodas in New York City. Large sodas! Doesn’t he have more important things to worry about in the face of burgeoning welfare rolls, massive unemployment, and the skyrocketing price of public transportation? What new market distortions and legal corruption will result from this ridiculous ban on large soft drinks?

As a film, Lawless may not prove to be a timeless classic. But its themes are certainly timeless and, unfortunately, timely.


Editor's Note: Review of "Lawless," directed by John Hillcoat. The Weinstein Company, 2012, 115 minutes.



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Blow Hot, Blow Cold

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The Rural Electrification Act of 1936, one of the New Deal’s proudest accomplishments, is often cited as an example of government’s ability to do good and generate progress. In 1910, nearly 50 million rural residents (over half the country) lived without electricity. By 1950, 45 million of those formerly "unhooked" were "on the grid," thanks to the REA. Or so the story goes.

Commercial electric utilities, with low voltage transmission lines and facing huge infrastructure investments for universal service, were loath to extend power to far-flung homesteads. Additionally, these were regulated monopolies with prices fixed by the government. But Charles Kettering, developer of the electric starter for automobiles, sensed an opportunity.

After selling his company, Delco, to General Motors, Kettering introduced the Delco-Light Farm Electric Plant in 1916. The small gas-powered engine coupled to a 32v DC generator and a set of batteries came with an entire line of optional peripherals: lights, appliances, well pumps, and electric motors. It was an instant hit. By 1936, nearly 150 companies were selling farm electric plants and more than 600,000 rural homes and businesses were generating their own power.

Meanwhile, according to Craig Toepfer’s just-released The Hybrid Electric Home (Schiffer, 2010), a bunch of radio enthusiasts in Ohio were giving birth to the renewable-energy industry.Fine Homebuilding, a respected journal of the building trades, reports that the first wind generators were made by Great Plains farmers whose living-room radios were hooked up to car batteries that they got tired of lugging into town to be recharged so the farmers could listen to “the Clicquot Club Eskimos, the Ipana Troubadours, or WLS’s National Barn Dance.” So they mounted homemade propellers onto car generators, stuck them on a pole, and wired them to their radio batteries.

Other entrepreneurs sensed more opportunities. In 1930, the Jacobs Wind Electric Company opened its first factory in Minneapolis. Eventually, more than 20 companies were making wind generators. Ever frugal farmers, faced with scarcer funds, soon hooked up the wind generators to their oil-based farm electric plants to save fuel, creating the first hybrid generators.

But then Congress passed the first Rural Electrification Act in 1936, effectively killing the nascent off-the-grid power generating industry. As Toepfer argues, “In a monumental act of irrationality, justifiable only by a lack of knowledge or understanding, the federal government decided to do what no investor-owned utility would even begin to consider doing, extending the central station wires from the major urban centers to every rural and remote part of the nation.”

According to the stipulations of the Rural Electrification Administration, hookups performed under its aegis required the removal or destruction of wind and oil-based farm electric systems. The rationale for this misguided policy was that the only way to increase profitability for regulated monopolies with government-fixed prices was to increase demand, and this was most expedient method of reducing REA subsidies to electric utilities.

The REA doubtless improved the lives of millions of Americans. But Toepfer argues that for the $210 million that the government spent under the REA act, it could have provided every electricity-deprived homestead with a farm electric plant and a wind generator, and still not have spent all its money. Although there is no question that the REA supplied a much greater amount of power than the basic, self-reliant technology that was just getting off the ground, Fine Homebuilding opines that “we put all our eggs in one energy basket, committing the country to an inefficient electric grid, sanctioning tremendous environmental damage in the process, and squelching what could have been an enormous start for alternative energy."

Instead, 90 years later, the federal government’s industrial and energy policies see fit to reverse course and channel taxpayer funds into the same industries that it once saw fit to destroy. Go figure.




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