October 24, 2014

Facts, Principles, and the Nature of Liberty

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Sometimes, as Shakespeare wrote, brevity is the soul of wit (meaning, the essence of wisdom). A new comment on a very brief post by The American Culture’s Mike Gray from six months ago brings up some important issues.

Mike’s post simply quoted a PJ Media article by Barry Rubin which characterized the nation’s elites as “fear[ing] less [about] the country going to hell than being identified as one of those unwashed, ignorant, backwoods fools who actually think the Constitution should be respected, free speech is a basic right, and unlimited debt is bad.” The quote from Rubin concluded, “We are looking at an establishment-approved program of snobbishness as virtue.”

To characterize other people’s political positions as morally deficient appears to be firmly embedded in the human DNA, as both Rubin’s quote and the commenter’s response to it indicate.

Writing this morning, Strangeyoshi stated, “So Rubin is calling leftists/liberals snobs because they think that religious and family values are for bumpkins? On the contrary, it’s religious freedom that liberals value.” So far so good. However, Strangeyoshi does not fail to characterize others’ minds himself: “Christians seem to think that the US was meant to be a Christian country, but leftists are trying to make the religious right realize that other people have the right to follow their religions as well.” The imputation of one’s opponents as ignorant is just the same as characterizing them as snobbish.

I will not comment on the parties’ personal characterizations of each others’ mentalities, but I will comment on the substance of the issues here.

Strangeyoshi makes his or her case succintly, as follows:

On the contrary, it’s religious freedom that liberals value. When everyone is forced to say a prayer in school (and as a Jew in the south, I’ve experienced this) it can be very awkward for those who are not Christian. . . .

Public funds should be used for the public good. How is preventing unwanted children against the public good? Would it be better for the state to support all the unwanted children from unplanned pregnancies on welfare or in prison? Religion is and should be irrelevant to governmental policies—that is why churches and such do not have to pay taxes. The church has no right to say what can and cannot be done by government.

This is a mix of utilitarian claims with statements of principle. Among the former, we have phrases such as “would it be better?”, “I’ve experienced this,”  “it can be very awkward,” “support all the unwanted children,” etc. Among the latter we have “religious freedom,” “Religion is and should be . . . ,” “The church has no right to say . . . ” and the like.

It is good to connect facts with principles and vice versa. In his argument, however, Strangeyoshi tends to judge principles by reference to claims about their consequences. Yet it is equally important to employ principles in evaluating facts. Facts are not good or bad; they are just facts; and without principles to guide us, we cannot evaluate facts or make justifiable judgments about what should be done about them. Moreover, in Strangeyoshi’s argument some facts appear to be more equal than others, and some principles appear to be more equal than others, and in each case the latter go unmentioned.

“Preventing unwanted children,” for example, is a euphemism that means destroying human lives. This is a fact. With that fact in hand, we may consider it according to principles. I do so thus: Killing an individual can never be for the public good unless the person is or has proven to be a mortal danger to someone. In the case of a fetus, that can be true only when the pregnancy truly threatens the life of the mother. In other cases, society has the right and responsibility to protect human life. It is one of the few tasks of government.

Strangeyoshi’s utilitarian claim that the only alternative to a massive regime of elective abortions is for “the state to support unwanted children” is what is known in logic as a false dilemma (as should be obvious and as I will show in a moment). In fact, the welfare state that pays women to have children with or without marriage and a father in the home (and which in fact creates incentives to remain unmarried) creates the conditions for the conceiving of unwanted children, as studies of the effects of the welfare state have overwhelmingly proven. (And this is still the case despite the 1996 transformation of AFDC into TANF.) Removing those incentives will change behavior, just as creating those incentives changed behavior into what we have now. Hence, that is one perfectly viable alternative in utilitarian terms.

There is also a powerful claim of principle in the matter. Personally, I adhere to a simple principle which I consider to be dispositive over any utilitarian claims whatsoever: It is an outrage against liberty and indeed against human decency to force some individuals to pay for the bad decisions other people make. One may consider it utilitarian to do so, but it is still an outrage against liberty and decency. In any case, contrary to Strangeyoshi’s assumption, there is nothing at all limiting our options as a society to either (1) killing hundreds of thousands of human lives in the womb every year or (2) supporting those children through a welfare state built on the confiscation of money from other people. There are in fact numerous other possibilities, though, as I note, I incline toward total destruction of the welfare state and all government-enforced pseudo-charity of this sort.

As to the school prayer issue, Strangeyoshi’s solution is another instance of the fallacy of the false dilemma, and his employment of it unnecessarily favors the atheist’s position. Justice requires equal treatment under the law, and forcing some people to be indoctrinated in others’ worldview does not accord with that principle. Strangeyoshi is correct about that. However, forcing people to pay for schools that treat Christianity as an alien and indeed dangerous ideology is an offense against equal treatment under the law. People should not be forced to pay for things that go against their conscience and which just happen to serve others’ interests.

Two obvious alternatives would avert that injustice while also completely preventing children from being forced to pray in schools. One, true school choice in which the taxpayers’ money follows the child to the school of their parents’ choice. (This has been repeatedly declared constitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court.) Under such a system, no child would be forced by the government to pray in school, nor would any parents be forced to send their child to a school that disrespects or otherwise undermines their religious beliefs. This is a truly just and liberal-minded position regarding the thorny issue of schools’ ideological position.

The other alternative is for all public money to be withdrawn from K-12 education. Education would then be as it had always been before anti-Catholic sentiment among the nation’s dominant Protestant electorate resulted in laws requiring universal public schooling in order to halt the “indoctrination” of Catholics’ children into their faith in Catholic-oriented schools. It would be for the family to decide on and finance their children’s education on their own, just as they choose and pay for essentials such as shelter, food, health care, and the like. A half-century ago Frank S. Meyer rightly pointed out that public schools are an outrage against liberty because they must necessarily do the bidding of the state, which means indoctrination into whatever ideas and attitudes the government believes will keep to a minimum the amount of public questioning of its agenda. That is indeed a fundamental outrage against liberty.

A truly liberal person will steadfastly oppose actions of government that force people to act against their conscience or allow individuals to do harm to other human beings. I believe that those are the principles we should consider when looking at facts about government-financed public education and a government-enforced policy of unlimited elective abortions. I welcome those who disagree, to state the principles by which they do so, with equal directness and brevity. Nothing else can justify any sort of collective action against individuals.

Now let us consider the last part of Strangeyoshi’s argument: “Religion is and should be irrelevant to governmental policies—that is why churches and such do not have to pay taxes. The church has no right to say what can and cannot be done by government.” This is a matter where Strangeyoshi ignores both important facts and critical principles. Churches are not exempt from taxes as a trade-off for removing their right to speak out on government policies or receive public money if the voters should decide to support them so. Their tax exemption is entirely statutory and is based on a sense that churches contribute to the public good. One may consider that assumption to be correct or not, but that is the reason behind the tax exemption. It is neither a matter of constitutional principle nor of basic liberties.

The public has the authority to decide whether to tax churches or not, just as it has the right to decide whether to tax any charitable or other nonprofit endeavors.

Strangeyoshi’s desired  muzzling of churches from making public statements about government policies is, by contrast, a matter both of constitutional principle and basic liberties. Both of these stand firmly against such government oppression.

Strangeyoshi’s argument is, in fact, another fallacy: to confiscate money from productive people to give it to unwed mothers is certainly no more justifiable than giving it to organizations that support people in their spiritual needs. One could indeed see the latter as a good deal less so, in fact, given the effect the welfare state has in undermining family formation—a reference to facts, or what some people might consider an “inconvenient truth.”

Being itself made up entirely of individuals who have basic rights, the church, like any individual or group of individuals, has every “right to say what can and cannot be done by government.” Indeed, citizens have a responsibility to speak out about their government and hold it accountable. To act on Strangeyoshi’s contrary premise  would be to establish a  forced prejudice against the church and all the people who make it up.

That would be an outrage against liberty and human decency, and I urge Strangeyoshi and all those who may dislike the messages conveyed by other people to recognize their right to freedom of speech and invite them into reasoned argument instead of trying to force them into silence through government or social intimidation.

As noted above, when judging people and policies, it is essential to acknowledge the principle that what applies to one person must and should apply to all. When governments impose ideologies and silence opponents, they act as despots. That is a fact which can be remedied only by application of universally applied principles of liberty and justice. Francis Bellamy had it just right in composing the nation’s Pledge of Allegiance: this republic is not worth having if it does not stand for “liberty and justice for all.”

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