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July 02, 2013

The "Let's Get the Government Out of..." Meme

Chief amongst the various and sundry things that vex, confuse, and frighten the Editorial Staff of late is the "Problem X would be better if the government would stay out of it" meme. It's a seductive world view; the root cause of our problems isn't human nature, competition for scarce resources, or competing interests. Nope - it's these artificial contrivances we call civilization/authority/rules.

The meme generates some pretty bold (and amusing) assertions:

...We can do a much, much better job taking care of the poor, the sick and the aged using the social and economic tools we already have at our disposal. Looking after the vulnerable is, in theory, the moral reason for having a coercive welfare state, but in fact politics does very little for them.

Is this actually true? Are society's weakest members treated more poorly now than they were throughout most of recorded history when government was far less involved?

How would this brave, new world of voluntary shared sacrifice come about? Would homo sapiens evolve into a worker antlike state where individuals spontaneously decide To Do Something About the Poor/Weak/Aged (the complete lack of a profit motive notwithstanding)? Perhaps we'll develop antennae and communicate/coordinate via oxytocin? If it worked for iPhones, surely a similar set of market incentives will ensure the same result for social justice?

While we're at it, let's get the government out of marriage, because the only reason people are fighting over the definition of marriage is that the federal government is involved:

Government neutrality -- or the closest we can get to it -- is the best way to ensure fairness and social peace on this and most other social issues. Marriage is too important of an institution to be dependent on the wiles of the state. Do we really care if the state validates our marriage licenses?

We certainly don't. On the otter heiny, we care very much how disputes are settled. Will couples stop divorcing if government gets out of the business of recognizing marriages? Will paternity and inheritance disputes go away? If there's no state law saying one cannot disinherit one's spouse, will surviving spouses meekly consent to having marital property jointly accumulated over decades pass to third parties who contributed exactly nothing to the household goods being disposed of?

Will disputes between families and spouses magically cease? What will take the place of government?

Discuss amongst your ownselves.

Posted by Cassandra at July 2, 2013 07:38 AM

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Comments

Quick poorly fleshed out drive by comments:

On Poor: The argument doesn't seem to be that people will become more moral but that three things will occur.

1) that those already predisposed to charity will have more funds available to be charitible with
2) that those non-government institutions are more effective at distributing those funds than is the .gov. Hell, Wal-Mart did a better job distributing supplies after Katrina than did FEMA.
3) It is true that when you subsidize something you get more of it. Individuals and small groups dealing with individuals and small groups are better at cherry picking the cases where this susidization is less likely to encourage future bad behavior. The .gov, is an axe and not a scalpel. What some people need is a kick in the butt and not financial support. The .gov is unable to differentiate the two.

On Marriage:

1) State recognition of Marriage is relatively new. It wasn't widespread until the 1700s if I remember correctly. Prior to that marriages really only involved the state among the nobility and that had more to do with military alliances than anything else.

2) Nothing precludes private contracts between any two (or more) people establishing how those issues, which you are correct to say won't go away, are to be handled. I know of no one who has claimed that the courts would not be able to adjudicate those contract disputes. Only that the .gov is to be agnostic as to whether these are or are not a marriage.

Posted by: Yu-Ain Gonnano at July 2, 2013 11:52 AM

that those already predisposed to charity will have more funds available to be charitible with

... which they did before the government got into the redistribution business (IOW, for most of human history). We know the outcome, then. Were the poor/weak/aged better cared for then?

It's tough to make that case but I'd love to see someone try (on some basis other than, "because I say so") :p

It is true that when you subsidize something you get more of it. Individuals and small groups dealing with individuals and small groups are better at cherry picking the cases where this susidization is less likely to encourage future bad behavior. The .gov, is an axe and not a scalpel. What some people need is a kick in the butt and not financial support. The .gov is unable to differentiate the two.

Based on years of experience working with charities, I have to say that this sounds like wishful thinking to me. It's not something I've ever observed in practice.

State recognition of Marriage is relatively new. It wasn't widespread until the 1700s if I remember correctly. Prior to that marriages really only involved the state among the nobility and that had more to do with military alliances than anything else.

There has been marriage law since Roman times (and even before) because marriage was inextricably intertwined with property. So how does one get the government out of these disputes?

Only that the .gov is to be agnostic as to whether these are or are not a marriage.

So in other words, the law cannot treat married people any differently than non-married people?

How does this make sense? If I have a room mate for 5 years, that's no different than being married for 5 years?

Posted by: Cass - Confirmation Bigot-in-Training at July 2, 2013 12:27 PM

The government may or may not contribute to improving the lives of the "poor" and "disadvantaged"; that is a tough nut to actually analyze fairly. There are certainly private and semi-public organizations that are very good at helping "the poor".

But the one thing that the large welfare state does do, and that is decrease liberty. If you only value the bread that fills your stomach (no small thing if you are hungry), and not also the nourishment of the spirit (being free), then this may not trouble you too much.

But that again was supposed to be at the root of American Exceptionalism, which we are told by our present President, does not really exist. Or something like that.

Posted by: Don Brouhaha at July 2, 2013 12:36 PM

The government may or may not contribute to improving the lives of the "poor" and "disadvantaged"; that is a tough nut to actually analyze fairly. There are certainly private and semi-public organizations that are very good at helping "the poor".

I'm actually very receptive (having made this argument many times myself) to the notion that the price of government policies is "too high" (now *there's* a value judgment if I ever heard one!) or that government interference creates perverse incentives (though I have to say that so does private charity a lot of the time).

What I'm extremely skeptical of are statements like "We could do so much better...". Sure, we can always do better (in theory, at least). The real question is, "Will we?". Have we ever? If not, then the statement requires some empirical support.

...one thing that the large welfare state does do, and that is decrease liberty. If you only value the bread that fills your stomach (no small thing if you are hungry), and not also the nourishment of the spirit (being free), then this may not trouble you too much.

That's a better argument, as it recognizes that not everything's equally important to every person.

Posted by: Cass at July 2, 2013 12:45 PM

"Are society's weakest members treated more poorly now than they were throughout most of recorded history when government was far less involved?"

Everyone is treated more poorly when the government is involved because government is never involved for altruistic reasons but for its own power.

From Theodore Dalrymple's essay Uses Of Corruption (2001):

"the British state has removed several important areas of human life from the responsibility of individuals to arrange for themselves or their families: health, education, social security, pensions, and (for at least a quarter of the population) housing... The entrapment of people in the psychologically and economically debilitating dialectic I have described is not a marginal, but a mass, phenomenon. It addles the brain and paralyzes action. It helps to explain the degradation and lack of self-respect that is so obvious in the streets of Britain..."

Further on, on marriage:

"The British, by contrast [with the Italians], are still attached to their state as calves to the udder. They have just voted massively for a party and a man who claim to be responsible for everything—whose government has recently issued, for example, an official booklet to every engaged couple outlining the advantages and disadvantages of marriage, as if the population were incapable of thinking for itself even about those things that most intimately concern it (which, under a regime like this, is increasingly the case).

What can be the future of a country whose government believes that the population needs to be told that marriage can sometimes result in marital disharmony?"


This government is beyond farce. The president is a token fool. Congress is a toxic wasteland. The Justice Dept has ceased to operate nomothetically (based on law) and now operates chromothetically (based on color). The arguments set before SCOTUS re marriage were distilled into five votes of five members of a little esteemed band of nine. The people await the announcement: the meaning of marriage and the degree to which the meaning may be distended. This is progress, this is up from superstition; this is enlightenment and reason, the advance of civilization over three thousand years – from Delphic Oracle to Potomac Oracle? Better they should have resorted to haruspicy; at least entrails suggest something more solid than penumbrae upon which to legitimize Gnostic urges.

We would better off with elders of the previously lost tribes of West Papua in charge than this satire (in great part of our own making).

Posted by: George Pal at July 2, 2013 12:56 PM

We know the outcome, then. Were the poor/weak/aged better cared for then?

Two differences
1) Societies were also much more poor then with less excess to go around. Poor people today are living like kings compared to the ancient Romans.

2) Define "the poor". Which is better: 10% of people being really poor or 30% of the people being moderately poor?

The latter is the issue with the extension of welfare benefits to single mothers. Those single mothers are indisputably better off than before, but there's also a whole lot more of them now because of it.


How does this make sense? If I have a room mate for 5 years, that's no different than being married for 5 years?

Depends. Did the two of you set up a private contract laying out that property is to be jointly held? Nowhere did I say that two people were precluded from arranging such a contract or that the courts shouldn't enforce it. Only that the .gov shouldn't care whether the contract is titled "Marriage Contract" or "Joint Household Contract", or "Civil Union Contract", or "Joining of People Forever or We Get Bored of Each Other Whichever Comes First Contract".

Posted by: Yu-Ain Gonnano at July 2, 2013 01:36 PM

Nowhere did I say that two people were precluded from arranging such a contract or that the courts shouldn't enforce it. Only that the .gov shouldn't care whether the contract is titled "Marriage Contract" or "Joint Household Contract", or "Civil Union Contract", or "Joining of People Forever or We Get Bored of Each Other Whichever Comes First Contract".

I guess I'm just too traditional. I think biology comes into it, and kids (who aren't parties to these wonderful contracts adults make between themselves, "but for" marriage and paternity laws that arise in all societies because these are real problems with no easy answers).

While I don't think the current legal system is anywhere near perfect, I think it does a better job of balancing competing interests than anything I've seen in the past.

I think it's a *good* thing, for instance, that men who father children can be held responsible for supporting the lives they create. I don't see a private system doing better because people are profoundly irrational when it comes to sex and love, and I don't see them signing forms in triplicate before they make the same mistakes they've made from time immemorial.

Posted by: Cass at July 2, 2013 01:43 PM

I think it does a better job of balancing competing interests than anything I've seen in the past...

...with the possible exception of the interests of unborn children. But even here, it was more technology than law that prevented more people from aborting their children. Let's not forget that it was considered perfectly legal to expose unwanted children or even murder them for a very long time.

Posted by: Cass at July 2, 2013 01:45 PM

I think biology comes into it, and kids (who aren't parties to these wonderful contracts adults make between themselves, "but for" marriage...

I guess I'm not understanding your "but for" distinction. Kids don't seem to have become parties to the disputes between parents "but for" marriage. They seem to become parties to the dispute whether their parents are married or not. And I don't see why they wouldn't become parties to these contracts but would when you title the contract "Marriage".

I guess I'm just too traditional.
Oh, I realize the suggestion is radical. And my conservative side doesn't really like it. I'm not really convinced it's a good idea. I'm not really convinced it's a bad one either.

and I don't see them signing forms in triplicate before they make the same mistakes they've made from time immemorial.

What I guess I don't understand about this line of argument is what is so much more burdensome about signing these forms than signing the marriage forms? You're signing forms either way.

Posted by: Yu-Ain Gonnano at July 2, 2013 02:00 PM

What I guess I don't understand about this line of argument is what is so much more burdensome about signing these forms than signing the marriage forms? You're signing forms either way.

Well, I never signed anything that spelled out in detail my rights and duties as a married woman. If there's no legal framework for 'what is marriage', than it all has to be spelled out every single time.

It seems unwise to me to expect society (and individuals) to rationally analyze and understand and deal with a gazillion permutations (some time tested and sensible, some not at all well thought out) of what rights and duties go along with marriage. Civilization (and law) is built upon the trials and errors and lessons learned of previous generations. If every new generation had to reinvent the wheel anew, we'd still be living in caves.

Offered the choice between a healthy respect for centuries of experience and a brave embrace of untried theory, I'm going to tend to come down on the 'respect for experience' side:

... innovation entails certain loss and possible gain, therefore, the onus of proof, to show that the proposed change may be expected to be on the whole beneficial, rests with the would-be innovator.

... the more closely an innovation resembles growth (that is, the more clearly it is intimated in and not merely imposed upon the situation) the less likely it is to result in a preponderance of loss.

...innovation which is a response to some specific defect, one designed to redress some specific disequilibrium, is more desirable than one which springs from a notion of a generally improved condition of human circumstances, and is far more desirable than one generated by a vision of perfection. Consequently, [the conservative] prefers small and limited innovations to large and indefinite.

... he favors a slow rather than a rapid pace, and pauses to observe current consequences and make appropriate adjustments. And lastly, he believes the occasion to be important; and, other things being equal, he considered the most favorable occasion for innovation to be when the projected change is most likely to be limited to what is intended and least likely to be corrupted by undesired and unmanageable consequences.

... The man of conservative temperament believes that a known good is not lightly to be surrendered for an unknown better.

Yes, we're all focused on the problems with the current system but we've never lived under the proposed one.

Posted by: Cass at July 2, 2013 02:21 PM

Everyone is treated more poorly when the government is involved because government is never involved for altruistic reasons but for its own power.

That's an opinion. My question was more a factual one. I don't much care about the motivations of people (which I can't really know with any certainty). Someone who has only the best motives, but who is mistaken about what is best for me does not hurt me less than someone who is selfish, but whose actions don't damage me.

What I was asking is whether society did a better job of caring for the poor/weak/aged/infirm before government got involved? I agree with Don that we can't only look at whether they're starving - we also have to look at other tradeoffs (moral hazard, loss of liberty). But as he noted, if you're starving, these things may seem less important than staying alive, at least in the short term.

Posted by: Cass at July 2, 2013 02:50 PM

The poor clearly are in less desperate staits now than they have ever been in human history. But is it equally true to say that people are doing a better job of looking after the poor in their midst, including their relatives and neighbors? I'm not so sure. We may be seeing only the effects of much broader prosperity. Americans in the last 50 years, at least, seem to be cutting themselves off more from their impoverished relatives and dumping the problem on taxpayers.

This is why I so often argue that the opposite of government is not the complete lack of social cooperation. We don't know what the state of the poor would be in a country with an even more vibrant economy but less state-mandated wealth redistribution. Can we be sure they'd be worse off? Or would the private traditions of charity kick in even better than they did in the past, because the wealthier friends, family, and neighbors of the poor would have even more to share with them?

Posted by: Texan99 at July 2, 2013 03:20 PM

I think those are all very reasonable points, Tex :)

On the question of charity, most studies I've seen indicate that affluence makes people less likely to give, not more.

This is totally unscientific, but that matches my experience with neighborhoods. Over the years as we've moved up the economic ladder (and consequently, moved to nicer and nicer neighborhoods), I've found that people are less friendly, less helpful to each other, you name it in more affluent neighborhoods.

The best neighbors (and ironically, most of the worst!) we've had were in poorer neighborhoods. I guess you take the good with the bad... and they're probably not unrelated!

Posted by: Cass at July 2, 2013 03:30 PM

One way to explore the question would be to compare poverty in cities of states with relatively less government-led efforts to cities in similar states with relatively more. It might be worth looking into the plight of the poor in Houston or Atlanta vice New York or LA.

Posted by: Grim at July 2, 2013 04:02 PM

"That's an opinion. My question was more a factual one. I don't much care about the motivations of people (which I can't really know with any certainty)"

It is an opinion, but based on empirical historical data with which the Founders and Framers were uniquely aware and worked to circumvent with a host of separations of powers – otherwise why the bother. Your argument is a fine one but an academic one. Mine is an argument is of despair. How do you, how does anyone muster a faith in government to adjudicate according to the law when it has become obvious that it now operates exclusively according to a political/cultural zeitgest – see IRS as but one of many examples.


"What I was asking is whether society did a better job of caring for the poor/weak/aged/infirm before government got involved?"

You have made of society the State where once it was families and communities. And families and communities did a better job of caring for the poor, weak, aged, and infirm because they were of the family and community, from doctors to the midwives, to the women who made and delivered the chicken broth. The government fails in every comparison and by any standard of measure with family and community. As a measure, take into account Obamacare. Will it provide for the poor, weak, aged, and infirm or will it cull them from the herd, saving valuable and limited resources for those who may still benefit the State?

Furthermore, poverty is not categorical but dimensional. It is today to be without the appurtenances of the well-to-do. To be smartphoneless is to suffer, and the suffering to be alleviated by Obamaphones. The wants have become the needs.

And who/what else suffers by government involvement?

Everyone/thing. Institutionalizing charity/virtue has the effect of hardening the heart and making compassion near impossible.

We have Mr. Biden, the miser Mr. Biden, as exemplar. He was quite proud of his Catholicism when he uttered during the debates:

“My religion defines who I am. And I’ve been a practicing Catholic my whole life. And it has particularly informed my social doctrine. Catholic social doctrine talks about taking care of those who — who can’t take care of themselves, people who need help.

So there you have it, Catholic Social Doctrine, the Christian virtue of charity, under the auspices and operation of the government, relieving ole Joe of any Christian obligation to be more than the uncharitable skinflint he is while allowing him to be munificent with other people's money. Here lies the stairway to heaven.

One more thing:

"artificial contrivances we call civilization/authority/rules."

Civilization is more an organic dynamic and is not a contrivance as are authority/rules. Authority was, in both state and federal venues, limited, delegated, and enumerated Constitutionally – until recently. The rules? Yes the rules are a contrivance, ever more contrived, daily it seems.

Posted by: George Pal at July 2, 2013 04:08 PM

One way to explore the question would be to compare poverty in cities of states with relatively less government-led efforts to cities in similar states with relatively more. It might be worth looking into the plight of the poor in Houston or Atlanta vice New York or LA.

What would that tell us?

Simple poverty rates won't tell us much as the cities and states have different economies, job markets, demographics, even cultures. Unless we believe that poverty is caused by government (a stretch at the best of times), I'm not sure that would tell us much.

Do cities have more government assistance because they're liberal? Or do they tend to have more government assistance if (and only if) they need it - IOW, because poverty is a worse problem some places than others?

I know what the dogmatic answer is (among conservatives, and among liberals). But I don't know the factual or causal answers. I agree it's an interesting question:

Census data show that metro areas in Texas and California have some of the highest poverty rates in the nation, with four metropolitan areas in the Lone Star State and three in California represented among the top 10, as well as cities in Florida, Alabama, and Michigan. Meanwhile, cities with low poverty rates are also far-flung. Six of these metro areas are in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic, and the rest are scattered, representing the West, Midwest, and both Alaska and Hawaii.

link: http://www.usnews.com/news/articles/2011/10/12/haves-and-have-nots-cities-with-highest-and-lowest-poverty-rates

Posted by: Cass at July 2, 2013 05:44 PM

How do you, how does anyone muster a faith in government to adjudicate according to the law when it has become obvious that it now operates exclusively according to a political/cultural zeitgest – see IRS as but one of many examples.

"Exclusively"? That's an assertion, not an argument. It's also not an accurate representation of what I believe.

"Having faith" in government (something I haven't said I have) isn't the same as wondering about the relative efficacy of imperfect vs. little/no government. And neither is a substitute for wanting to know the facts before making a choice between alternatives.

Posted by: Cass at July 2, 2013 05:46 PM

Even if the poor, sick, and aged are better off under our current system of government involvement than they were before government was so involved, that doesn't mean that arguing they can be better off still under a different system is a ridiculous claim. I don't know what Williamson is proposing or foresees (haven't gotten that far in the book) but as I understand it, part of his argument is that our current setup is going to fail at some not-too-distant point - we are simply going to run out of money. If he is correct and a massive government welfare state (by which I mean not just food stamps and government housing but also social security, Medicare, and tax write-offs for home mortgages) is unsustainable then we need to be thinking about what else might be workable.

Williamson is on the optimistic end of TEOTWAWKI spectrum, believing that we can do better. If I buy the argument that the modern welfare state cannot keep all the promises it has made, then I need to hope he's right.

Posted by: Elise at July 2, 2013 06:12 PM

Even if the poor, sick, and aged are better off under our current system of government involvement than they were before government was so involved, that doesn't mean that arguing they can be better off still under a different system is a ridiculous claim.

Ridiculous is different than unsupported (by evidence, or even a single example from human history).

If you're asking people to bet on your vision of the future, it helps if you can offer up some evidence that what you're proposing has actually worked somewhere or at some time.

Of course it is always possible that something that has never happened before, could possibly happen. If you (or society) is betting on this future, the fact that it hasn't happened before is certainly relevant in assessing the risk.


Posted by: Cass at July 2, 2013 07:47 PM

Observations:
1. Charity
a) folks are using different timelines in this discussion. While it is quite true that the 'poor' are objectively better off almost everywhere compared to any time more than a couple hundred years ago, it is also true that modern governance has supplanted private charity or social welfare groups for the heavy lifting of large scale 'welfare' activities in nearly all modern Western countries.
b) the Ayn Rind {sic} hard core libertarians can hate it, but fact is that *all* modern Western societies are effectively mixed Capitalist economically / Social Welfare states.
>>> the hard question is where to draw the line, and it goes back and forth in the countries w/ voters that are paying attention.

c) Excellent point to compare approaches to poverty in different locations, but I think a more instructive example by examining the starker contrasts:
- Seattle, or San Francisco, or Victoria, BC
compare to
- Detroit, Chicago, KC, New York, Wash DC
compare to
- Haiti, India, China, most of Africa . . .
- most Arabic countries . . .

d) personally I favor gov't programs to alleviate the worst effects of poverty (homelessness, starvation, addiction, basic emergency room health care), but not enough to make it comfortable. Gov't has proven itself wretched at lifting people out of poverty; that's waay better done through private charities.

2. Marriage
Cass has it right; in modern society marriage has been inextricably linked to property issues which have long been resolved by gov't civil courts in Western societies.
In very modern societies gov't courts have also been drug into family and child custody issues.
Admit I'd like to see gov't get out of being in charge of sanctioning marriage, but I see no viable alternative venue for resolving disputes (full disclosure, I'm going through a divorce right now).

Also agree w/ Cass that love, sex and marriage work best together, for the benefits of:
- raising children,
- mutual economic support (cost/person is lower in a nuclear family)
- mutual personal support (health, emotional stability)
> there's a *lot* of data that marriage extends longevity and happiness.

Best Regards,

Posted by: CAPT Mike at July 3, 2013 01:39 AM

Admit I'd like to see gov't get out of being in charge of sanctioning marriage, but I see no viable alternative venue for resolving disputes (full disclosure, I'm going through a divorce right now).

I'm sorry to hear that, Capt. Mike. One of the weirder things military wives (and possibly husbands - I don't know) do is rehearse what we'd do if we lost our spouses. Over the years, I've written the Unit's eulogy more times than I can imagine, and planned his funeral, and worked out how I'd break the news to our children and his mother. There's a very sick joke in there somewhere, except it's not funny. Even after 2 years of civilian life, just thinking about it brings tears to my eyes.

I don't know what it is about imagining the worst that comforts, but there it is. People are weird, and I can't believe how lucky I am that those imagined visions didn't come true, and that I never had to find out how I'd really handle losing him.

I've also imagined how I'd handle divorce a few times. For years, I thought that I'd just want to walk away from everything - money, furniture, house. I thought that I would want to move somewhere new, start life over.

But after 30+ years of marriage, your viewpoint shifts a bit. I don't really care about things so much. More the memories tied up in them. My life, and his, and our sons' lives.

I once worked in a family law practice. Without a doubt the worst job I've ever had, bar none. But so far as I can see, none of the problems were caused by government. They were caused by the people involved, or by circumstances that were more than the marriage could bear.

Government involvement makes private problems more visible, and we tend to blame the government when in truth the problems already existed. Blaming no fault divorce for the widely held (and wrong) belief that 50% of marriages end in divorce is endemic on the right. But the long term upward trend in divorces actually heeled over once no fault took hold in all 50 states. And as I pointed out in a long ago post, no fault was a response to the fact that people were falsely alleging fault to get around existing law and that was even MORE toxic than the new status quo.

We rage against the seen, and ignore what lies beneath. Removing the seen isn't going to "fix" human nature. Human nature is what gave us the government we have now.

Posted by: Cass at July 3, 2013 09:23 AM

I'm a small-l libertarian, and the positions you argue against are some of the reasons I don't bother going to Libertarian Party meetings.

OTOH, if your house is at 90, and you want it at 75, you start by pumping in air at 60, not 75. The gov't is Too Damned Big, and we may have to overshoot to get it the right size in time to prevent the disaster coming if we continue on the present path to the nanny state.

The problem is not philosophy, it's size. By that, I mean that regardless of where you draw the line between "useful" charity and "wasteful" abuse someone has to administer the amelioration in whatever form; free housing, free cellphones, free cheese - who gets what and how much is going to be determined by someone. If that someone is the gov't, the mechanisms turn into huge departments, and Pournelle's Iron Law comes into play, and the mission becomes secondary. This is the reason that private charity always seems to be better that public: the bureaucracy is smaller and can do less damage.

Marriage? Simple enough, let's do what the French and the Russians and a lot of other countries do: a civil ceremony which is the mechanism whereby the contractual obligations are acquired, and an optional religious ceremony which applies the appropriate spiritual sanctions. We title the document produced in the civil ceremony a "Civil Union license" and the document produced by the religious ceremony a "Marriage license", with the understanding that the later is not enforceable in the courts, only within the denomination's "justice" system. Voila! The definition of "marrriage" now becomes a theological dispute, and Americans are notoriously bored by them. I bowled on a league team once with a Mormon, a Catholic, a AOG, and a non-practicing Christian/Agnostic (me), and nobody worried about Moroni, transubstantiation, tongues, or hegelian bullshit. I think that "marriage" would become a similar "agree to disagree" topic in a few years. Donald Sensing advanced this argument 10-15 years ago, so this is nothing orignal.

Posted by: bud at July 3, 2013 02:19 PM

Cass, even if rich neighborhoods give less to distant, anonymous charities than poor ones do, it doesn't necessarily follow that rich families do a worse job of looking after those who are close to them. And anyway, it's not a question of whether the rich do enough, but whether the poorest find the minimal help they need to escape the worst emergencies. (I'm not concerned with equalization of wealth but with the allevation of the worst emergencies, no matter where the help comes from.) The poor families I'm most familiar with do an excellent job of acting as safety nets for each other, and the more spare cash they have the better job they can do.

Posted by: Texan99 at July 3, 2013 04:27 PM

I'd like to see the government get out of the foreign policy business. For the life of me, I cannot think of a single foreign policy success since George Washington & Co. kicked King George to the curb 237 years ago. Since then we've had nothing but trouble with foreigners mucking things up. Think about it: Every war that this nation has ever fought had something to do with a foreign country - even that little dust up we had 150 years ago (Hello? Confederate States of America? Foreign country!) If the government was half as good at foreign policy as it claims to be, then why, 237 years later, do Canadians still use the metric system? Look, if there's one thing that history has demonstrated repeatedly it's that just about any old idiot can do foreign policy so long as nobody minds that nothing ever gets accomplished. Sure, having John Kerry as Secretary of State does supply some much needed comic relief, but provide chuckles is not a core government function. Moreover, your average private sector idiot is also about ten million times more efficient than any government sector idiot, so if nothing is going to get accomplished anyway, shouldn't we want to save money not accomplishing it? Yep. Privatizing foreign policy is something that I hope to hear about a lot more from candidates for both parties in the run-up to the 2014 mid-term elections, although I admit that I am also open to possibly just eliminating foreign policy altogether and merging with Mexico.

Posted by: spd rdr at July 3, 2013 05:29 PM

(Hello? Confederate States of America? Foreign country!)

That's a good point. If the US government could have just agreed to that, we could have probably sorted out the rest of our differences.

Posted by: Grim at July 3, 2013 09:48 PM

Hi again Cass,
and thank you for your kindness.
This is the 30th year of my soon to be ended marriage, btw.

Posted by: CAPT Mike at July 5, 2013 12:16 AM

I've now finished Williamson's book and have a couple of points.

First, this book is not about demolishing the government we have now and building something pre-planned from scratch. It's about, well, the end being near, mostly because there is not enough money in the world for governments to keep the promises they've made to give people stuff. So what we are going to do when the government can no longer cash the checks it's written?

Williamson does believe that in the long run this will be a good thing because he believes that there are many things government is doing that can be done better by other means. He suggests some non-governmental ways to accomplish the care of the poor, the sick, and the aged - some from the past (like social insurance plans), some new (like "the Mortgage" to help the poor). He does not put forward any of these as "the" way to do things or even necessarily a way to do things; the best approaches (and I believe he would emphasize the plural) will evolve as we try things out.

As for human nature, I see no indication that Williamson is not aware of it. He simply does not see it as consisting only of self-interest or, if you prefer, selfishness. He believes that human nature includes cooperation, decency, kindness, altruism, and charity as well. The last three paragraphs of the chapter entitled "Social Insecurity" are remarkably decent and remarkably kind. They say, in part:

Human beings engage in acts of charity - meaning simply the act of taking care of other human beings - because we believe that human beings are valuable.

And in making the argument that we may want to be charitable even to those "who are to some degree culpable in their condition", he says:

... those who value human life might value human lives even in cases in which the owner of that life does not seem to value it very much.

Perhaps, to echo a discussion going on at Grim's, this book is simply an argument not for a civil society but for civil societies.

Posted by: Elise at July 5, 2013 10:22 AM

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