Charleton: The Great Misunderstanding

The Leftists said that the industrial revolution had created mass poverty by making the poor poorer. But the reality was almost the opposite that the industrial revolution ‘created’ poverty by making the poor richer, by keeping them and their children alive, rather than dead.

Congress is Perpetual Litigation

When important facts resist your model of reality, your model is wrong.  The American political chattering class has never found a non-fiction model for the State, and so are ever frustrated that  “government isn’t working.”   But when once you see Congress as just a perpetual litigation, then reality synchs with your model, all the facts make sense, and you accept that government is working at what little bit government can do, which is keep blood from running in the gutters.

By “litigation” I mean a non-violent adversarial contest where the stakes are unlimited asset seizure.   A courtroom is where adversaries seek to take each other’s money away, one step short of a gunfight. The alternative models for the political process are pious fictions, amusing until they become lethal.

Most amusing is this leftist cross-stitchery:  “government is just a word for what we do together.”  I can’t tell if this is naivete, from a disinterest in human nature, or a wish-dream so strong as to amount to religious mania.  Either way, I can understand how, if this is honestly your mental model, you would be frustrated when legislators from two parties spend time and energy squabbling, and getting nothing done.   In reality, Congress always gets done what litigation is designed to do, which is take money away from the other side and hand it to this side.  If you look at the American political process and expect to see “things we do together”, your cognitive dissonance will be severe.  But, let me help:  change your model.  Look at Congress through the lens of a perpetual divorce, and you’ll feel the pleasurable click of reality synching to your mental model.

James Madison was genius enough to see this.  The American system was originally designed to keep small the pool of assets vulnerable to litigation, and to balance the litigants against each other so they would need to consume their war chests inside the modest courtroom while life went on peacefully outside in the streets and farms.   That all fell apart when the progressives decided the courtroom should annex the streets and farms.  Now we are all perpetually suing each other via elections.  This is “progress”.   It ends in anarchy.

All litigation involves a cost/benefit calculation on both sides.   As the pool of assets that are at stake in the litigation gets larger, the litigants are willing to spend more and fight longer and dirtier.   Well, the pool of assets within the reach of Congress does grow ever larger.   As the size of the central government grows, the the assets at stake in the litigation become…all of them.   This can only, ever, look like the opposite of “what we do together”.   There has never been a pious dream as neurotic as that one.

The Three Stages of Democracy

As a society deteriorates, first elections don’t matter much, then they matter desperately, then they don’t matter at all.

1. When the central government regulates and legislates just enough to keep property safe from theft, elections are an important but minor part of life.

2. As the central government metastasizes so that any prosperity is only won by rent seeking and kept by bowing to the government, elections get more furious and violent, because each election has higher stakes. An election is simply a proxy fight for all the money, because the party that wins the election has the power to move the people’s wealth around. This is a corrupt, soul-killing political environment, and the high level of engagement you see in the electorate is like the last, desperate gasps of a strangled puppy.

3. The legislative body soon is making rules about all of life, and sees that this task is too complex, so they pass outlines of desired ends but hand the means over to huge, permanent bureaucracies. These unelected, nameless officials then rule the country by fiat, and even ossify against their own elected government. The electorate learns that the outcome of elections doesn’t matter any more. At first, they blame this on “gridlock” (a mythical entity), then they give up, and set about creating the shadow, illegal economy by which the official economy will exsanguinate. The country eventually collapses into bankruptcy and anarchy, and then centuries of petty dictators, or, if lucky, a new government of limited powers.

So: elections matter a little, then they matter a lot, then they don’t matter at all.

What is a Political Party?

There’s this constant obtuseness about how politics works, and it prompts a million words an hour on discussion boards, amounting to nothing. Let’s all grow up.

“The Republican Party” is a group of people who have banded together to get political power. To get political power, they use words tactically. One of the words they use is “conservative”. “Conservative” is a political philosophy.

A political party is not a church or a sewing club. It is not your family at the kitchen table. Don’t try to make it “represent your views”. A party is a group of people acting tactically together. That’s all.

To get the government to be whatever you think it should be, think about your philosophy, but use your vote, like all your other tangible assets, tactically.

Vote for whoever is 1. most likely to be given power 2. because of your vote and 3. use that power the most like you would. This is actually a fairly complex little piece of calculus – but it is entirely pragmatic.

All the rest is just what you do to make yourself feel good. “Joining” the Democratic Party” is, of itself, as meaningless as joining the GOP, feeling a part of the GOP, or trying to “change” a party.

Parties change the same way economies change – in response to real world changes, and by certain fairly explicable laws. Parties change in order to get 51% of the vote – of whatever the population happens to be at the moment. A political party is not an instrument to change the culture. It is simply an instrument to get the culture to delegate the power of the guns to these people with whom I have a transitory pact.

Snowdon and the Nuremberg Principle

If loyalty to the State is an insufficient defense, then disloyalty to the State is an insufficient indictment.  The world established forever at Nuremberg that immoral acts don’t have authority as a defense. If that is true, then the converse is also true: “treason” cannot be attached when the exposed secret is an immoral (or illegal) activity.  Conservatives in particular may not like this, or where it goes, but that debate is over. In fact, the American press has long sanctified this principle…Daniel Ellsberg was not a traitor, but a hero.

Listen to the very language of the current debate: “is he a traitor, or a whistleblower?” Then the discussion develops, but it typically centers on the one thing that does not matter: motive.  The media likes to personalize such things because it gives them superficial fodder for filling their daily word-count quotas, but the breathless talk of “who Snowdon is” and “what he wants” and whether he is sane or not – none of this matters one whit. I don’t know if he is a “hero”, because that does go to motive, which does not interest me.  I am interested in whether what he says is true or not.

You see, we’ve created a type, a role – “whistleblower” – that actually means “someone who exposes illegal activity”. We created this role in popular culture first, mainly on the Left, and we blessed this role with the reverse-Nuremberg immunity, as the writers romanticized corporate insiders who exposed evil capitalists – see “Silkwood”. Then we enshrined it in law, and for good or ill, that train is now running down the track.

So this debate will hinge on substance, not motive (as it should). Is Snowdon telling the truth, and if he is, is the Orwellian state he describes legal or illegal? If it is legal, he is a traitor. If it is not, he is not.

If I give away our codes to an enemy in wartime, that one is easy. But if I say to my fellow citizens “hey, your government is spying on you in ways you do not know and I believe you should know and have not authorized” – to equate these acts morally and legally is confusion.

By the way, the only thing that gives any loyalty to the government any moral force at all is individual liberty. The State has no ethical claim on me except as an apparatus by which we protect our life, liberty, and property. So the moral basis for convicting me for exposing codes to a military enemy is that I am actually endangering your hearth and plow. And that works. But go very slow before you extend that moral outrage to any leaker.  In fact, I’ll  extend the principle: any leak that endangers liberty is a crime against my fellow free people.  Any leak that protects our mutual liberties is not a crime, no matter what may written in some black-letter statute somewhere. And this has nothing to do with motive.

Don’t confuse this with another version of it, which is as relativistic as mine might sound. The current progressive left actually believes that any leak that furthers the progressive agenda is not a crime, and others are. This is very different, and deserves rejection.  It is actually what induces all the talk about motive, because as you know, on the Left, the pure motive of the State hallows it. Not so on this ground I’m staking: liberty is the objective, tangible touchstone of everything, and I think what makes my argument work where the Left bastardization does not.

This means every act of revealing government secrets has to be litigated as to substance. And if it is to be litigated, the substance can’t be secret. There is a real problem here that no-one knows how to solve and I’d suggest that once you serve on a Congressional intelligence oversight committee, no matter your party, you seem to take on the impulse to yell “traitor” quickly and before the litigation even begins. That might be because you understand just how important security clearances really are, or it might be because you understand there is no way in our legal system to litigate such events and you don’t want to have to write that law. Well, we are writing it.

Conservatives like to style themselves as patriots.  Many have been in the military, and value loyalty and discipline, and react viscerally to a violation of a security clearance and an oath.   But I’d urge you conservatives to go slow with your reflexive patriotism and consider whether this State is the same one that got into your moral DNA when you were younger.  If there is an Orwellian state, it is not immoral to expose it. In fact, the only thing that will save you from the gulag is insiders who break some sort of oath and talk about it.   Again,  those who cherish individual liberty should go real, real slow before condemning a person for claiming to know secret ways your liberties are being stolen.

Here’s my point: America, when you stripped Goebbels of his Nuremberg defense, you gave Snowdon his defense.  You are now going to have to litigate in open court.

I’d argue that the 4th Amendment in its original language, unadorned, gives Americans all we need to protect ourselves from both the Orwellian state and from domestic terrorists.  We should support the public, open litigation of the very notion that there can be secret surveillance of an American citizen apart from the probable cause and delineated subject matter that the Founders wrote into the simple language of the bill of rights.

If the NSA is doing what Snowdon describes, then it is a rogue, illegal State, and Snowdon is not a traitor.


The surveillant state defends its legality by noting that judges authorize the snooping, apparently under the auspices of the Patriot Act, and Congress is briefed.   This is supposed to satisfy the 4th Amendment.  But the simple existence of multiple branches of government in a process does not by itself rise to constitutionality, if the entire process is shut away behind iron doors the imperiled citizen cannot penetrate.

What makes the protection of the 4th Amendment real, as opposed to just words, is that the citizen can challenge the probable cause of the search and the scope and process of the evidence collection that is the weapon against him in court. If you, as an individual before the justice system, cannot reach all the way back to the moment when there was no evidence against you and litigate the police and prosecutor’s steps along the way to where you stand today in the dock, you r rights are a sham.

But these judges are anonymous and unelected, and the briefings are classified, and limited to small circles of Congressional leadership.  So if you are ever prosecuted using evidence collected by the kind of generalized data collection Snowdon describes, how will you challenge the origin of the prosecution?   How will you claim the evidence is “fruit of a poisonous tree” if the tree is locked away in a cloistered, invisible garden?   The secrecy of the process makes the powers of the State unaccountable to the people, and therefore illegitimate.

Political Debate is Inherently Corrupt

Political debate is conducted in mutual bad faith, and I’m not just talking about the general malicious intent.   There is a specific structural pattern to bad faith debate:  while the honest debater moves toward premises, the bad faith debater actively flees from premises.

Good faith debate, like you might have with a friend, is a search for the logical point where the two views divurge. If the friends can identify the node where they part, they can move upstream, as it were, to work directly on it instead of indirectly through their discordant downstream conclusions. Their work will yield agreement efficiently and quickly. Because, after all, what they want is agreement. Neither has a conflict of interest. Each is eager to expose his own premise to critique.

Good faith arguments proceed in retrograde: from assertion “backwards” to premise, and this same movement repeatedly, to deeper premises. Soon, agreement gets easier. It’s a search for agreement, and it honors the opponent.

Bad faith argument drives in exactly the opposite logical direction. Each speaker seeks to insulate, rather than expose his premise, and he seeks to trap the opponent in his static assertion and prevent him from moving retrograde toward his own premise. Neither speaker, of course, actually wants agreement. What each wants is victory. So you have two minds at work, each with a severe conflict of interest.

It’s tempting to say that the audience insults its own intelligence by subjecting itself to this. But most of the audience is corrupted already, to the degree the politics of a nation is a struggle over whose money will go to whom.