Search This Blog

Monday, February 26, 2018


Consider the following excerpt from a recent article.
Imagine America had as its president a man manifestly unfit by character and temperament to hold such an important public trust and exercise the important constitutional powers of the office. The president’s conduct in office had demonstrated him to be racist, mercurial, intransigent, personally crude, obsessed with his own public image and perceptions of his authority and success, and prone to intemperate public tirades, heaping abuse upon political enemies, the press, and all who opposed him. 
As president, he expressed sympathy for – at times even seemed to side with – the nation’s avowed enemies: persons and forces that until very recently had been the nation’s overt military adversaries and who still sought to undermine America’s political system. He collaborated openly with such persons. He offered excuses for vicious racists – and uttered some distressingly racist remarks himself – as he failed to protect a large swath of the American population from racial violence, intimidation and oppression at the hands of private parties. He blamed the victims, as much as the perpetrators – for supposedly having pressed too far and thereby provoked the retaliation that fell on their heads.
... He arguably abused the power to fire subordinates, removing or seeking to remove from office those who would not pliantly carry out his wishes to defy or disregard the law. He valued personal loyalty to him above all else and seemed indifferent to competent service to the nation. As shocking as it might sound, many judged the president unfit to issue direct commands to the military – impulsive, capricious, erratic and thus potentially dangerous.
He was an intemperate bully. He was politically artless and witless. But he was a snazzy dresser, or so he fashioned himself.
A couple of days ago was the 150th anniversary of the impeachment of Andrew Johnson and the above excerpt was describing him (just in case you thought it might have been describing a different president).

The most interesting thing about the article to me is that, according to constitutional scholars, the phrase "high crimes and misdemeanors" need not be linked to a specific crime but can instead include the president's overall character and conduct. That was the first I had heard that.

The article also served to remind me that bad presidents (and other politicians and bureaucrats) have not been vanishingly rare, but simply do come to power from time-to-time. Yet another reason that checks and balances are so important.

God and the Collective

I've often stated the following analogy:
A neuron is to a brain (network of neurons) as a person is to the collective (network of people).
Here I'm defining "collective" as a "network of people," nothing more (yet), nothing less.

A neuron is a pretty complex and amazing cell, but it's nothing compared to the network of tens of billions of them with many hundreds of trillions of connections between them. A single neuron has some very low level intelligence all on its own (depending on how you define "intelligence") but has absolutely no capacity to understand the large network that it's part of or the capabilities of that network. In fact, it's only in modern times that we can even believe that our intelligence and consciousness are based in that network of neurons. Before that, it was assumed that something external, the "soul" or something similar, was the center of all that.

A human is a pretty complex and amazing animal, but it's nothing compared to the network of almost ten billion humans with tens of trillions of connections between them (yes, I've written this before, but it's worth repeating in my opinion). A single human animal does have intelligence on its own.

But can a single human animal understand the intelligence or agency of the collective?

To me, the answer is no, absolutely not.

Just like the neuron, individuals cannot even begin to comprehend the entity that is the collective. Many don't believe that there is an entity that is the collective that is anything more than simply an aggregation of individuals. Indeed, this is a central tenet of quite a few influential economists such as Mises and Rothbard. For example, here is a quote from Rothbard explaining his view:
Only individuals have ends and can act to attain them. There are no such things as ends of or actions by 'groups,' 'collectives,' or 'States,' which do not take place as actions by various specific individuals.
To me, this is analogous to saying "there are no thoughts within a brain that are not the result of various activity by specific neurons." To me, both this and Rothbard's statement are both true and not at the same time. Yes, a thought can't happen without specific neurons doing specific things, yet it is to ignore the elephant in the room to not recognize that a thought is so much more than just a bunch of neurons firing.

Yet if collective agency and action are so far beyond what we can comprehend, what's the use of even identifying the possibility of it? There may not be any, but I personally wonder if the focus on the individual, especially in libertarian and some conservative circles and even some liberal groups, has been taken too far to the detriment of both the collective and therefore everybody in it. After all, we can't survive individually without the collective.

One of the things I've noticed is that when I try to think about this collective entity is that it has a lot in coming with how people describe God (I'm not personally religious, but neither am I anti-religious). The collective entity may not be all knowing, but relative to an individual, it might as well be. The collective entity may not be all powerful, but again, relative to you or me, it's unfathomably powerful. And just like "God's Will," the collective's will is also unknowable and yet is extremely important because it's critically important to our individual destinies as well as the destiny of the future of human kind and perhaps even all of life. And while on the surface it would seem to make no sense whatsoever to pray to the collective, what if individual prayers led to prayers by larger groups which aligned needs and desires by significant fractions of the collective which did then influence the very powerful collective?

And what if, as social animals and then primates evolved, the ancestors of our species and then our own ancestors had this sense of something beyond merely the aggregation of individuals? Could that be the basis of the evolution of most people over the ages believing in God? Could it be that we both understood there was something more than the individual yet that entity was beyond understanding? Wouldn't many of the common conceptions of God fit pretty well with that?

Friday, February 16, 2018

Anagram of the Month

Did you know than an anagram for "The New York Times" is "The Monkeys Write"?

A remarkable coincidence!

Sunday, February 04, 2018

An American Tradition

Apparently, controversies over immigration are as American as apple pie, for both the pie, and the complaints about immigrants, precede America itself:

"Why should the Palatine boors be suffered to swarm into our settlements, and, by herding together, establish their language and manners, to the exclusion of ours? Why should Pennsylvania, founded by the English, become a colony of aliens, who will shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us?"
-- Benjamin Franklin, circa the 1760's.

When reading about Franklin, what is most interesting is the intersection of his life and the formation of America. I dare say he embodies 1700's America, a one-man version of the entire country: pulling himself up by his bootstraps, toppling old rules and assumptions, showing singular potential and ingenuity, forewarning a new age.

And while much has changed in those nearly three centuries, some things look like just the same. The politics of immigration, with the 'old' migrants worrying about the voting power of the 'new' ones, as this snapshot of Franklin's times in politics show us:

This [the excerpt I quoted above] was reprinted now to injure
him [Franklin] with that people, and succeeded only too well.
Yet, though the Irish and German votes were thus
united against him, - a combination almost unfailingly
successful in America, - and though he was pelted with
pamphlets, broadsides, and caricatures impugning his
every public act and laying bare his private life, his
hold was so great with the masses that he would have
been reelected but for an error of judgment in the party
managers. A graphic account of the struggle was
written by a Pennsylvanian :

"The poll was opened about 9 in the morning, the 1st of
October, and the steps so crowded, till between 11 and 12 at
night, that at no time a person could get up in less than a
quarter of an hour from his entrance at the bottom, for they
could go no faster than the whole column moved. About 3
in the morning, the advocates for the new ticket moved for a
close, but (O ! fatal mistake ! ) the old hands kept it open, as
they had a reserve of the aged and lame, which could not
come in the crowd, and were called up and brought out in
chairs and litters, &c., and some who needed no help, between

 3 and 6 o'clock, about 200 voters. As both sides took
care to have spies all night, the alarm was given to the new
ticket men ; horsemen and footmen were immediately dis-
patched to Germantown, &c., and by 9 or 10 o'clock they
began to pour in, so that after the move for a close, 7
or 800 votes were procured ; about 500 or near it of
which were for the new ticket, and they did not close till

3 in the afternoon, and it took them till 1 next day to count
them off."

The incident is one of peculiar interest, because it is
the only time Franklin ever failed of an election, and,
indeed, his political success was so uniform that a
Quaker demanded of a mutual acquaintance, "Friend
Joseph, didst thee ever know Dr. Franklin to be in a
minority?". Yet, though defeat is hardest to the most
successful, he seems to have taken it well. "Mr.
Franklin," continued the above narrator, "died like a
philosopher" ; and writing of his opposition to the
Paxton rioters, and of the resulting political effect, the
defeated assemblyman said: "I had, by this transaction,

made myself many enemies among the populace ;
and the governor (with whose family our public dis-
putes had long placed me in an unfriendly light, and
the services I had lately rendered him not being of the
kind that make a man acceptable), thinking it a favorable

opportunity, joined the whole weight of the proprietary
interest to get me out of the Assembly ; which
was accordingly effected at the last election, by a majority of
about twenty-five in four thousand voters."

So after complaining of the newer arrivals, Mr Franklin was voted out of office - a bit like the GOP establishment of today fearing the new immigrants may be a Dem's trojan horse, and the resistance among many to giving Dreamers a path to citizenship (and vote).

The analogy is so good, it holds for the backlash to the above incident too:

The triumph to the proprietary party was more apparent than real: though they had succeeded in defeating Franklin, they had not been able to beat his party,
for " the other Counties returned nearly the same
members who had served them before, so that the old
faction " had "still a considerable majority in the
House." The Assembly, therefore, when met, chose
Franklin its agent to go to Great Britain with a petition to the king that he end the proprietary government;
so all his opponents had accomplished was to place him
in a position to do them infinitely more injury than would
have been possible had he been reelected to the Assembly.


Which is a bit like ignoring anti-immigrant voters for a while, only to have them doing infinitely more damage by electing Trump.