Saturday, October 24, 2009

A Religious Belief

It is a truism that there are two things one does not discuss in polite company: politics and religion. I've found it impossible to shut up about the first, and almost impossible to avoid discussing the second.

The most common assertion by my conservative friends is that our society is based on belief in God and the teachings of Christ. Therefore, any attempt to create a society without reference to God is to build an edifice on the quicksand of highly debatable human reason. Human reason, after all, is what Communism was based on...and that didn't turn out so well!

This is not a discussion of the relative merits of belief or non-belief, nor the political ramifications of excising God from the Constitution (actually, He's been missing from that document from the very beginning). No, this is about dealing with my friends, acquaintances, and people who think I am the tool of the devil.

To the true believers out there, there is nothing I can say that will put you at ease about my intentions. Nevertheless, let me repeat: I have no desire nor intention to curtail the free practice and evangelizing of your religion. I don't mind churches (I find many of them quite beautiful), I am not offended by religious displays (even on public land, though that's another can of worms), and I do not get bent out of shape when the occasional religious solicitor comes to my door to save my soul.

A little part of me gets annoyed, however, when I (a non-believer) am accused of destroying Western Civilization via immorality and hate. I believe allowing those kinds of statements to go unchallenged can lead to an appearance of agreement, not only about religion (which I could care less), but also about ipso facto policy prescriptions. Like mandatory recitation of the Pledge of
Allegience. Like outlawing the purchase of liquor on Sundays. Like banning pictures of naked women. Like justifying the killing of Muslims.

So I draw the line and I dispute. This is where it can quickly turn into an all-out war of misunderstanding topped with willful distortion. Defusing the situation is sometimes not possible and the best course of action is to walk away before really nasty things get said. Most often, however, I find that taking (ironically!) Jesus' advice and turning the other cheek while refusing to attack in-kind tones things down considerably. Then sticking to the facts of the libertarian philosophy (the principle of non-aggression, whether arrived at by a belief in God or Nature) means I cannot be a threat to others.

This is the point at which the discussion often morphs into an attack on freedom in general, and that is a good thing. Now, instead of discussing belief or non-belief in God, we are discussing the very real and very important definition of human freedom and the likely results. Preconceptions die hard. I will do ten rounds defending drug use, prostitution, and price gouging. But in the end, I have introduced ideas that will rattle around in their brains for a long time.

I don't like these religion based discussions because they are highly emotional (on the other side). Nevertheless, these are some of the most important discussions I can have. Many of the public policies advocated by the Religious Right are every bit as anti-freedom as those of the Radical Left. Usually, after some time, the advocates of religion come to understand I am not endorsing an anti-religious public policy, they themselves become more circumspect in their approach to libertarianism. They, indeed, become mini-libertarians themselves!

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Good sense?

Carrying a weapon is an individual's natural right. Threatening others with the weapon is not. The difficult question is: when is carrying, threatening?

There was a post on the today that told the story of a father who took his son to the neighborhood park while openly carrying a sidearm in a holster. When walking home, the police stopped him and, through a series of give and take exchanges, the father ended up handcuffed and peppered with questions from several cops. Eventually he was released with no charges, but the event was traumatizing to him and his son.

The story is about the encounter, but I have a hard time getting past the initial event. What possessed the father to wear a handgun to a park with his young (4 year old?) son? Was he legitimately concerned about his safety in a dangerous neighborhood? Was he making a point about his right to carry? Was this his normal habit on any given day?

All of these reasons are perfectly defensible from a traditional libertarian perspective. Being armed is not, in and of itself, anything to condemn anyone for. On the other hand, wearing a gun to a children's park is something akin to a touched homeless person haranguing passersby on a busy city sidewalk. He may be harmless, but his actions are disconcerting to the point of being threatening to some people. Does civil society assume the peaceful intentions of the gun carrier and ignore all displays of weaponry until a shot is fired, or does society work to protect the gentle feelings of the people who are shocked and fearful of the sight of an openly carried gun?

The people who responded to the post at generally agreed that the father had done nothing wrong. The police, they said, overreacted and violated the father's rights. I a point. Then I remember another story from a number of years ago....

A man chose to carry a shotgun down a busy city sidewalk. The state in which he did this had an open-carry law, so technically he was within his rights to do so. The man was stopped by police, and questioned. The police agreed that he was within his rights to carry the gun down the street. Then they ticketed him....for disturbing the peace. The man had caused such a fright by his actions, the police contended, that it was very similar to intolerable unruly behavior. In other words: go ahead and carry, but don't scare people. I was tickled when I read that story because it showed uncommon common sense on the part of the police.

As humans living among other humans, interpersonal relations are messy. The exact points at which my rights begin and end are anything but totally objective, though the general outlines should be visible for anyone with the willingness to see. On the raw edges between people, sometimes rights don't mean much. Sometimes it comes down to the very unphilosophical and sloppy approach known as "common sense."

Instead of the gun toting father insisting that every last drip of his "rights" be respected, a little charity toward his fellow humans (in the form of considering how his actions will affect others) would go a long way toward gaining the respect he desires.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

My Stumble

I couldn't sleep the other night because I had not been honest. Well, that doesn't really get to the root of the matter. I couldn't sleep because I knew I had to correct a dishonest decision and, no matter what I did to fix my transgression, it could all end up badly.

One of my favorite people called me up and informed me that, while closing stores in the latest round of downsizings, she was going to sell off some electrical accessories and use the money to give her people a party. The amount of money was a few hundred dollars, the fixtures were going to be thrown away anyway, so I paused for a second or two, then said "we didn't have this discussion."

The moment the words came out of my mouth I knew it was wrong. If it were my business, I'd have given her the money without a second thought. But that was the thing that weighed on my mind: it was not my business and I had just condoned stealing from the owner. Worse yet, my employee, though she presented the plan to me as a done-deal, was more honest than me because she was asking for my official approval, albeit after the fact. In my career, I'd seen people make such a personal attachment to the company they worked for that the lines of ownership were, in their minds, confused. They believed, wrongly, that they had been entrusted with powers well within their rights to exercise, though in doing so they went well over the line. These people were usually good, loyal, dedicated, honest, and well meaning. They were, also, usually fired and disgraced.

I believe I had fallen into that same mindset. My authority to make decisions affecting finances and business operations is quite extensive. I can obligate the company to large expenses merely on my say-so and without any counter signature. I can hire and fire; I can give raises and pay cuts. I literally have the power to make or break the company.

What I don't have is the power to use or authorize the use of company assets for personal gain, and that is what I had agreed to by using the wormy phrase "we didn't have this discussion." I was no better than a thief, for I had been informed of a future theft of assets I was charged with protecting and had done nothing to discourage or prevent it.

I had a few options. I could call the employee and tell her I could not condone the appropriation of company property, even though it was being discarded, for personal purposes. It seemed, on its' face, to be a petty thing to do. I could tell the owner someone was going to steal from him, but that seemed equally petty and just about as dishonest since I had already given tacit approval to the theft. Or, finally, I could ask permission to allow the sale of useless assets for employee use.

I took the last option. If the owner said "no," then I'd have to rescind my approval and be vigilant to be sure no assets were being sold without my knowledge, which would put the strain of distrust between me and my favorite employee. I might even find myself in the position of firing her for theft. Oh, how I could have avoided all this with just a simple statement of "this is not right."

I put the question to the owner simply, "would you mind..." He said he didn't. Total time of discussion: fifteen seconds. Total amount of sleep lost: hours and hours.

Today I called the employee. I told her I had gotten approval for her plan and it was all good. She thanked me profusely. I could hear the sound of relief in her voice. She, too, had been bothered by her own plan. Maybe she had been bothered by my response, since I had not given official approval and therefore had put her in jeopardy if the scheme had been found out. Whatever the case, we both breathed easier.

There is not much about this story that is exclusively libertarian except that being libertarian is, at its' core, perfect respect for the property of others. I had failed to live up to my principles. Or maybe I had just stumbled on my path and regained my balance.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Legitimate beneficiary, or tax sucker?

I graduated from high school during the late 70's, when the country was in a blue funk from losing the Vietnam War, there were periodic shortages of the strange things like toilet paper and paper clips, inflation and interest rates were in the double digits, and unemployment was higher than at any time since the Great Depression. Prospects seemed dim.

Neverthelessw, my parents instilled in me and my brothers that there was no excuse for being on the dole, and they would sometimes speak in hushed tones of someone they knew who had succumbed to taking unemployment insurance. Their tone and delivery made it clear that unemployment was a moral failure, and taking unemployment insurance was a scandal.

When I attended the University of Michigan, I hooked up with the local Ann Arbor Libertarian League. I found in that rag tag group of students, grad students, former students, assistant professors, and various adult leftovers from the 60's, kindred spirits and fellow travelers. We partied together, ran petition drives to get Roger McBride on the presidential ballot, and hung out at the office. These were my kind of people: fiercely independent, intellectual, and principled.
Imagine my dismay when I found that the reason some of these people, especially the adults, were able to spend extraordinary amounts of time being politically active was they were unemployed and living on unemployment insurance payments. The argument was that unemployment insurance was a tax on their wages, so they in effect paid premiums and were now due the benefits.

I didn't buy it. In fact, I felt it was a major cop-out for a libertarian to succumb to taking government money of any kind (which was one of the reasons I quit U of M).

Thirty years later I am watching the company I work for go through a major downsizing during the deepest recession since the 70's, maybe even the 30's. We have had to let many good people go and some of them seemed to have had extraordinary problems getting back on their feet. During that time, most of those let go have taken unemployment insurance. One of the managers who will lose her job soon has flat-out stated that she is done working, and she has every intention of taking unemployment payments for as long as they are offered, but she has no intention of looking for or taking work.

She and I argue about politics and policy on a regular basis. When we took up the subject of unemployment insurance, she made her position clear that if I argued with her over it "we'd come to blows." She said it with total conviction in her always intimidating deep south drawl. If we ever "came to blows" I would not bet on the winner.

She is a conservative Republican, yet she believes with all her being that the money paid by the company for unemployment insurance is no different than the money paid for health insurance. No one is expected to live with discomfort, pain, or chronic disease...that's what the insurance is for. Even non-life-threatening medical events are considered good reason to take advantage of the insurance offered. Could unemployment insurance be any different? They're that's what the insurance was paid for.

As I grapple with this issue, I note that there is a difference in intent and use of unemployment insurance versus health insurance. Health insurance restores you to health after an outside event (disease, accident, etc.) that made you unhealthy. Presumably you cannot simply wait-out the disease/injury (unlike a cold or a flu) but instead require some kind of medical intervention to restore your health. That restoration requires doctors and hospitals, and paying for all that is the purpose of insurance. On the other hand, unemployment may also be an outside event (you are not considered "unemployed" if you quit your job voluntarily), but its' continuance is very subject to personal actions. You can, as the "patient" of unemployment insurance, frustrate attempts to make you whole again by simply refusing to take work that is offered. The insurance pays you to be unemployed, unlike health insurance which pays to make you healthy.

The next question is: does any of this matter? Insurance can be structured to cover anything you like, including bets at the blackjack table. That is true, so maybe the difference is more cosmetic than substantial.

The premiums for unemployment insurance, unlike health insurance, often do not cover the real expense of the payouts. During difficult economic times, like now, the unemployment funds often run dry and require an infusion of tax money to keep them afloat. Anyone accepting unemployment checks once the fund has been depleted is, for all practical purposes, living at the expense of someone else. Is it reasonable for a beneficiary to worry about what the source of the money that pays the benefits? Didn't they, after all, pay premiums in good faith? Maybe it was the OTHER guy who got the tax money.

If libertarians adhere to the non-aggression principle, then unemployment insurance is tricky ground. Yes, it is a form of insurance that is at least partly paid for by the worker in the form of premiums (taxes) that are specifically earmarked for paying the benefits. However, the morality of taking the insurance payments once the fund is depleted seems clear: the fund is bankrupt and you are just plain SOL.

My parents were correct, at least in part. The extent to which we have paid for a service, we deserve the benefits, but once the money is gone, even if we did not get any, we no longer have a legitimate claim. Forcing someone else to pay the benefits is aggression. Unemployment insurance benefits, when the fund is dry, is nothing more than the dole. It behooves a good libertarian to avoid it.

With my mind now made up, I can prepare for my beating from my good friend in Texas. It won't be fun, and it won't be pretty, but it will be right. Let the abuse begin.