Wednesday, January 21, 2004

Imposing freedom on foreigners

Mark Dorroh

There is a body of foreign affairs theory which questions the wisdom of imposing western-style institutions on other nations. Their argument against our (armed) encouragement of representative republics in places like Iraq is that these are cultures historically ill-equipped to handle all the choices afforded individual citizens by republican democracy.

One interesting thing about such arguments is their historical resonance, especially here in the American south. It wasn't so long ago that voting rights were being denied American citizens of color because a lot of white folks thought Negroes had a culture which had not equipped them to handle the choices afforded individual citizens in the voting booth.

The idea that only certain kinds of people can "handle" freedom has, at its heart, the racist notion that only we of European descent have sufficient historical ties to representative governmental institutions to be able to hire our own leaders and run our own economies.

While it is true that cultures go through stages of development, start small, grow great, then eventually become querulous old geezers, whining about the Good Old Days That Never Were (i.e. - modern France, Germany, Belgium, etc.), free enterprise economies and democratic government serve human needs that transcend geography, history and race.

Or to put it another way, people are people, and we all want basically the same things. Beyond food, clothing and shelter, we all desire a reasonable degree of comfort and security and a better life for our kids. No matter what your cultural tradition or ethnic derivation, those are your primary goals, shared with every other person on the planet.

Still, there are those who would discourage free economies and universal suffrage in some parts of the world, on the theory that some cultures don't adapt well to "western values."

The same people who make this argument usually also believe government is a more equitable distributor of wealth than the natural process of individuals making choices about where they'll work and where they'll spend the money they earn.

Historically speaking, the reverse is true. Governments devoted to income redistribution have never truly served the people they were set up to serve.

The worker's paradise of the U.S.S.R. was a mug's game by which a small number of party members took what they wanted from everyone else, then doled out what was left to the workers who actually produced it. Ranking party members got Black Sea dachas, everybody else got to stand in line for shoes.

The reason socialist economies have been so unsuccessful is that properly-functioning political and economic systems must be based on recognition of how individuals actually behave.

Capitalism and its political equivalent, democracy, recognize that people are, by their nature, self-interested. Rather than try to deny or change that, the democratic capitalist revels in it. Our nation accordingly has a system that protects the right to accumulate capital, lend it, tend it, and grow wealthy while helping finance everybody else's hopes and dreams.

The reason America is so rich and powerful is because free enterprise encourages each of us to perform to the best work we can do in exchange for the best wage we can get someone to pay us. It makes the companies we work for compete for our labor by offering better wages and benefits than alternative employers. And all that self-interested encouragement to do good work, plus market competition, helps customers get the best products and services for their money.

Compare the relative lack of poverty in America to the near-universal poverty in Cuba. There, some of the world's hardest-working people are trapped in a basket-case socialist economy. Back in the 1990s, Fidel Castro's own grandson was spotted by a reporter, playing in a rock band with an American dollar bill glued to the front of his guitar.

Some cynics think greedy corporations are exporting all our jobs to Mexico and China, but if that's so, why are there thousands of people, every single day, bending heaven and earth to get into America, legally or otherwise, just for the opportunity to work at whatever jobs remain?

There's an old Cuban joke about the Castro regime. It goes, "The revolution has had three great successes; health care, race relations and sports. And three great failures; breakfast, lunch and dinner."

Soviet workers used to say, "We pretend to work, and they pretend to pay us." May such jokes never apply to the U.S.A. So long as government's control over our economy remains minimal, they never will.

And yes, Virginia, people from other cultures, even those with no indigenous traditions of self-rule or market-driven economics, can prosper from our example. Because people are people, no matter where you go. We all crave freedom and wealth, and regardless of what you might have heard, that's a good thing.

Sunday, January 04, 2004

Little bitty thoughts from my little bitty mind

Here are some Christmas/New Year musings from (I hope) everybody's favorite noisy white male.

John Ashcroft is not my favorite U.S. Attorney General ever, and I'm not totally enamored of every single feature of the PATRIOT Act. But it's been two years and three months since the atrocities of 9/11, and because no attack even vaguely approaching that scale has been inflicted upon the homeland since, I must concede he got something right.

Some of us think the capture of Saddam does not make America safer, but consider; just a week after Saddam was shown to the world as a bearded, exhausted old man being inspected for head lice, Libya's megalomaniac Col. Kadaffi announced he will allow unfettered, unannounced inspections of all his suspected facilities for the manufacture, research and storage of weapons of mass destruction.

Coincidence? Somehow, I doubt it. Colonel Kadaffi may be a little nutty, but he's far from stupid.

1972 Revisited? Unless the Democrats get their act together, we're going to get treated to a rerun of the presidential elections of 1972. That's when a much-despised, moderate Republican incumbent routed a decent, slightly left-of-center Democrat who was a perfectly competent U.S. Senator but who would have been a lousy president.

Howard Dean calls himself "the candidate from the Democratic wing of the Democratic party." OK, but he's also the guy who, had he been president in 2002-2003, would have left Saddam Hussein in his numerous presidential palaces while the UN arms inspectors would have been either still kicked out of Iraq ... or still waiting outside the gates of suspected WMD facilities while some Ba'ath party bureaucrat gave them a song-and-dance about why they weren't allowed to go inside just yet.

Then again, President Dean might have been able to keep the French on our side. Whether that's more important than forcibly ending one of the bloodiest dictatorships in human history is something for future generations to determine.

Modern Graven Images and the Weird Judge Who Wants More of Them

Judge Roy Moore knew he was going to lose in his battle to keep on display, in a taxpayer-supported building, his ugly little graven image of some artist's impression of what the 10 Commandments might have looked like - had they been written in English instead of Hebrew. He's now launching an appeal which he knows he will lose.

His media-savvy grandstanding and utter contempt for both the First Amendment and Second Commandment remind me of two other famous southern demagogues: George Wallace and Huey Long. His object is not to win legal battles so much as to stir up enough anger and confusion to get himself elected to higher federal office.

His stated position, "Idolatry today, idolatry tomorrow, idolatry forever!" is curiously familiar to a lot of Alabamans ... not to mention in direct opposition to one of the 10 Heavenly Laws he says he seeks to honor. I can't imagine why no one else has noticed this, or at least not talked or written about it anywhere I've been lately. I just hope the people of Alabama eventually see through this particular false prophet. We were warned about guys like Moore in the Bible, and the U.S. Constitution gives us the power to stop them. Thank God (literally) and the federal judges who enforce the law, no matter how unpopular it makes them.

The (Wrong) Reason for the Season

Speaking of the Deity, while I certainly enjoy giving and getting gifts, I really do wish we could break Christmas into two holidays, one for the hoopla, the other for a quiet, dignified religious observance. The December occasion would be the loud and festive one; it comes at the traditional time of Saturnalia, the Roman feast days which celebrate the shortest days of the year. That's when it would be appropriate to have a big material deal of a celebration, give everybody presents, gobble figgy pudding and guzzle eggnog. When the days are shortest, what you're celebrating is the beginning of the end of the cold months, the preparation for the rebirth of spring.

Then, sometime in March or April, we could have the religious Christmas observance. It would be much more historically accurate, since spring is when the shepherds would actually have been out watching their flocks and looking for extra-bright stars. Look it up: most Biblical scholars and certainly any sheep herder know that spring, not midwinter, is when the ewes are lambing. In winter, the flocks are sheltered near home, munching fodder, not out in the predator-filled fields under the close watch of shepherds. For the Spring Christmas, we could have the religious holiday, the midnight services, the quiet gatherings of family and friends, the symbolic renewal of faith in the first months of the New Year.

My plan would put the Spring Christmas pretty close to Easter, but what's really wrong with that? It would be far less distressing than our current confusion and endless arguments over whether it's a good thing to combine a spiritual holiday with materialistic fun and games. The combination of Saturnalia with Christmas was a marketing scam aimed at converting Romans, just as allowing graven images into our temples was done to get gentiles with their Hellenistic beliefs and their love of fleshy art to convert to a better religion.

Isn't it time for modern Christians to correct those two specific abominations? But if we do, please don't tell Judge Moore. He's already darn near terminally confused. The overload of all that truth at once might literally kill the poor fellow.