Binary Code

Either/or. This or that. Only this or only that. Government or individuals — and only government (Leviathan) or only individuals. Laws or markets — and only laws or only markets. Anarchy or tyranny.

What a weird, unreal and inhuman way of looking at the world.

Yet strangely popular.

I just don't get it. The real world, of course, doesn't look anything like this. Yet when adherents of this strange binary outlook encounter the real world, they never consider adapting their theory. Instead, they set about to change the world to make it more compatible with their theoretical construct.

So they get up in the morning and take their kids to school and there it is, this thing called a "school," and it must be regarded as either a thing of the market or a thing of the state. It is a "public" school, and "public" is a troublesome word for these folks. All that is not private belongs to the Leviathan and threatens all that is private. And so this "public school" is a creature of the state, a threat. It's got to go.

And they drive from the school to work, paying no heed to the public infrastructure that makes such a trip possible. They get off work at 5:00 without being forced to stay longer or to work unpaid hours, while simultaneously viewing the laws that guarantee such protections to be the corrupt, market-hobbling, freedom-limiting tools of the Leviathan.

And then they go to pick up their kids — and God forbid they should ever begin to consider that obligation through the either/or prism of their inhuman theory.

In an earlier post — "Who is you?" — I criticized this either/or outlook for failing to recognize the existence of multiple actors and agencies, with differentiated responsibilities, in society:

These differing responsibilities are complementary. They are not — despite the popular American confusion — exclusive.

In Christian thought, we talk about these different roles and responsibilities in terms of the principles of "subsidiarity" or "sphere sovereignty." These principles help us to avoid the either/or foolishness of thinking that one actor's particular responsibility precludes any responsibility on the part of other agents or agencies.

Regarding the state, this helps us to avoid bizarre and irrelevant arguments about the size of government by keeping our focus on the actual question — what is the proper role of government?

(Is it wrong to suggest you go read the whole thing when it's something I wrote?)

A primary role and responsibility of government, of course, is to secure and protect the rights of individuals. It seems counterproductive, then, to insist in the name of freedom that government be whittled down to something too "small" to be able to fulfill this role.

Stephen Colbert had a great crack about this view during this weekend's White House Correspondents Dinner:

I believe the government that governs best is the government that governs least. And by these standards, we have set up a fabulous government in Iraq.

  • cjmr

    …well, actually, we prefer mead…

  • bulbul

    … then mead it is! To each his or her own, I say.

  • Duane

    Truth(TM), now with lemon(TM)
    Man, I could go for a big glass of that kind of truth.

  • Constantine

    The problem with building a government that’s big enough to do everything you want is that you have no guarantees that it will _only_ do the things you want.
    Ultimately, this turns into the “law enforcement and military” problem. When people decide that the primary purpose of government is to crack down on “lawbreakers” and “protect us from [military] harm,” every problem in the world starts to look to our politicians like a law enforcement and military problem. In this sense, the “libertarians” of the modern variety have become the modern police-staters. They believe that the primary function of the state is to police, and there’s no limit to how intrusive or harmless that they feel government should be, as long as it’s for “policing.”
    On the other hand, the liberal instinct is for government to solve problems. sometimes those problems might require law enforcement or military solutions. sometimes a dash of foreign aid. sometimes regulation. sometimes other sorts of “government programs.” But the instinct is a lot different than “let’s concentrate on extending the force of the police and military as much as possible” which has become the modern “libertarian”/”secular-conservative” mantra.

  • Doctor Science

    I view my own “conservativism” as a kind of scepticism to any major change. Y’know, like “don’t change horses in midstream” or “if it ain’t broke why fix it”.
    There’s certainly an important place for this kind of conservatism, the kind that in old-time (e.g. Dante) Christian virtuology (or whatever it’s called) was covered under the cardinal, pre-Christian virtues of Prudence and Temperance.
    The trouble with it as a political approach is that it doesn’t address the core issue, which is “who has power?” Do you change ruling classes in midstream? Do what degree does the distribution of wealth have to be broken before you fix it?
    Justice is also a cardinal virtue, and it is by nature not conservative: it defends the weak against the strong, it undermines the natural conservative order of things.
    I’m chewing over in my mind whether the rise of fundamentalisms and other reactionary conservative movements is due, perhaps, to Future Shock. Not just the technological shock Toffler mostly talked about, but the shock of seeing the society around you constantly and acceleratingly changing. I can’t remember if Toffler predicted a new wave of fundamentalism as a response to future shock, but he should have.

  • Bugmaster

    I view my own “conservativism” as a kind of scepticism to any major change. Y’know, like “don’t change horses in midstream” or “if it ain’t broke why fix it”.
    Those are two different things, though. If your current horse was broken, wouldn’t you want to fix it, before it dragged you deeper into the stream of sewage ?
    Mixed metaphors 4tw !

  • J

    Here’s the problem with the horse-in-stream argument:
    Horses generally do what you tell them to.

  • J

    Should’ve added this too:
    If a horse is clearly out of control, motivated by fear of me rather than trust of me, constantly obeying the commands of other, wealthier riders than me, possibly rabid or congenitally mad, then yeah, I’m going to get off it in mid-stream. I’m a far better swimmer than rider.

  • Melkor

    OT again – Hey, Fred? World’o’crap has moved too. (I tend to notice these things as I use your blog as a shortcut to all the good stuff on the ‘net)

  • Andrew Wade

    Scott,
    There are gradations of involvement
    No there aren’t.
    Yes there are.
    If the govt can pass any economic regulation it wants to, then anything outside it’s current sphere is so at it’s whim.
    Your premise here is dubious, but be that as it may…
    If the govt has the right to be an ultimate economic decider, then there are no graduations (if nothing else, the threat is always there).
    … your conclusion doesn’t follow. How is the distinction between a threat of involvement and actual involvement not a gradation? And what’s with limiting the discussion to the economic sphere anyway?
    If I’m “John’s” legal owner of record, he’s still a slave, even if I choose not to beat him today.
    Well sure. But if you choose not to beat him today he doesn’t get beaten up today. He’s likely to find the distinction between being beaten up and not being beaten up significant. I take it you believe that government involvement in the economic sphere is evil in all its forms, just as slavery is? But that doesn’t mean all form of government involvement in the economic sphere are the same.
    Not all forms of slavery are the same either. Contemporary slavery isn’t necessarily legal. It’s not necessarily recognized as legitimate by the surrounding social milieu. “Slave” isn’t necessarily a status for life. The slave may be able to escape if he/she chooses to without any danger of retribution, but chooses not to. (One of the problems in addressing contemporary slavery is that the slaves often recognize the institution as legitimate). Even if you are against slavery in all its forms, these distinctions are not unimportant. Certainly I find it significant that slavery is no longer legal in the United States or Canada despite the fact that it still occurs (it’s rather different that historical slavery and fortunately fairly rare).

  • none

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