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Monday, November 21, 2011

If you Can't Play Nicely Then None of you Get the Toy

 Big warning, I think that this is the most political and potentially divisive post I have written. Or maybe not. It's certainly on a topic for which I have little to no awareness of public opinion. To wrap up the waffling and prevaricating, I have no idea what you will think of this.
While I was growing up I was in the habit of getting into fights with my siblings, especially my younger brother. Many of those fights were over who would get to play with some much coveted toy. I am reasonably certain that at least once, my parents resolved the situation by confiscating the toy and informing us that if we couldn't play nicely with it then we wouldn't get to play with it at all. If that didn't actually happen to me then it did happen to so many friends and TV characters that I have adopted it into my own experience. Before anyone throws my parents (or some now-nameless TV parents) under the bus for this atrocity, let me suggest that it worked pretty well. I have very clear memories of making efforts to resolve fights over various toys before they escalated to the point that my parents would take a hand.
Yeah this was pretty much

I want to suggest that we take the same approach with marriage in this country. For quite a few years now, we have been fighting over who has the right to get married. The conservative crowd wants the government to define the word in such a way as to exclude certain times of lifetime monogamous commitment and the liberal crowd wants the government to step in and guarantee everyone the right to call their relationship marriage (and thereby receive the important social and legal benefits that married couples enjoy). So as a starting point I want to suggest that the kids have been fighting over this too long and it is time for us to take marriage away from the conservative and liberal politicians.
But that is really just a starting point. As I reflected on it, I realized that I don't think the politicians have any real right to claim power over the term in the first place. Historically it looks as though marriage first became an important legal term to the government (state governments I believe) when they decided to write bigamy laws. After that the federal government got involved with the income tax. Various child welfare and adoption laws joined the mix at some point as well. But all of this, with the interesting exception of bigamy which I am not going to touch, worked without any technical definition. A marriage was what everyone knew a marriage to be. No point in defining it.
Now we have various political interest groups trying to get their representatives to define a word in one way or another. Which is really silly. Can you imagine a campaign to define a chair as a "tool for sitting involving no more or less than four legs and a back"? The stool lobby would be up in arms. Why should the government have the right to define a marriage? The only answer I can come up with is that it is an important term in several tax and legal codes. But surely those codes would work just as well with the phrase "committed-cohabiting couple" substituted for marriage.
I like this document

And on further reflection, doesn't the idea that the government has the right to define marriage violate the free exercise clause of the first amendment? Historically, marriage is a religious concept. At least in western civilization, we hold that God makes or at least recognizes a marriage between two people (possibly more if you are an old school Muslim but again - not going there). And if that's the case then aren't my fellow religious people out there a little offended that our government has even thought about giving itself the power to define one of the sacraments - even if they want to define it in a way you like? After all, if they get to claim that power today what assurance do you have that they will use it well tomorrow. Today they define marriage as only between a man and a woman, tomorrow they define the Eucharist as the ceremonial partaking of cotton candy and soda pop.

Now it certainly is the government's job to protect contracts (see my earlier two posts on capitalism) and if Uncle Sam wants to give tax breaks and extend insurance benefits to people who commit to act as one unit for the rest of their lives, I say let him (I am generally in favor of tax breaks and insurance benefits for people who care about each other and are willing to make life-long commitments to one another, in addition to visitation rights and other basic rights of attorney and so forth). So my "solution" is to replace the legal concept of marriage with a number of standard domestic partnership agreements. Then those people who are legal domestic partners can go to the religious (or non-religious) institution of their choice and take part in whatever ceremony they think will create a spiritual union between them, and call their union whatever it is that they want to call it - probably marriage.

Update: Same sex marriage is now legal throughout the United States, a situation I thoroughly support (though I would not be sad to see the implementation of my recommendations above). You can read my series in support of LGB folks within the church starting HERE.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

And Here Comes Capitalism - Take Two.

  For those of you who are keeping score or who are possibly trying to make a convert out of me (love and appreciate the attempt by the way, if you think you are right about something, the nicest thing you can do is try to show me the truth you have found), the mission is not yet a success. I am still a pretty hard-core free market capitalist. A big part of that is probably the fact that I haven't yet heard (or read) a response to my "it is immoral to force people to spend their own money in a particular way" objection. Still waiting on one -really- so that I can at least be in dialogue with someone about it.
  In the mean time I though it might be worth recording some of musings on the strengths of free market capitalism in a modern liberal society and why it is that I think more and more good people find themselves against capitalism these days. I have been re reading The Abolition of Man recently and it occurred to me that we (the western world in a terrible over-generalization) used to combat the major flaws of capitalism in a way that is, at best, only minimally effective in modern culture. It used to be that the average westerner held two particular views in regards to the use of their financial (and material) resources: A) that their stuff was their stuff; only they have a right to decide how to spend it so that if anyone else tried to force them to use it in a certain way they would be justified in being offended, outraged etc... B) that they ought to be generous with their resources, help those less fortunate than themselves (especially their friends, family and neighbors) so that generosity and concern for people in need was a basic part of being a decent person.
  The result was a worldview which protected societies (in theory and at least sometimes in practice) from the worst impacts of a purely free market system. If people view charity (in the middle-old sense, "giving resources to the poor") as each persons duty, then the poor will generally be kept from starving.
  But we can't teach that any more. Back in the day, this moral obligation to help the poor was taught as just that, a moral obligation - usually a religious moral obligation. Today we don't teach children that they have any moral obligations other than tolerance (and something akin to but not quite the same as non-violence). We tell them that everyone has a right to their opinion and then we tell them that all statements of ought or moral sentiment are statements of opinion. And once we have taught them this moral subjectivism, a lesson they pick up with alarming speed, they are almost perfectly defended against any appeals we make to some duty of charity. We have already told them that they have a right to define their own moral code, thus we lose all right (in their minds) to tell them what that moral code ought to look like. So charity becomes a matter, not of moral obligation, but of pragmatic utilitarianism.
  This, by the way, is why I think so many older movies are popular as left-leaning films simply because they contain the message that the rich ought to be generous with their wealth. But that is not a socialist message, that is a capitalist message. It is the capitalist who says "the rich have a right to their riches and a responsibility to do the right thing with them. The truly evil man is the miser who has great wealth and does not use it for the good of his neighbors". The socialist thinks of the rich man as un-deserving of his treasure and insists that it be stolen from him and used to make the middle class feel better about the suffering of the poor.
  Now, the average schoolchild's reaction to poverty is not "I had better do something about that" but "that makes me feel bad so some thing ought to be done about it". Do you see the difference? In the first case, the problem demands concrete action (generosity) on the part of the individual. In the second it demands action on the part of "society".
  That is why I see it as only natural that good people, people who happen to care about the poor, the mistreated, the abused, are trending more and more towards socialism (not all have gotten there and I see no great shame in being a socialist - though I think that it is a very bad economic and political system). These are the people who want the problem fixed and have noticed that nobody is standing up to fix it. In short, socialism is on the rise because the free market capitalists have forgotten their moral duty.

  I believe that being truly moral (something I would still like to be) means not breaking either of two principles. I must not let other people suffer if I can do anything about it and I must not steal, even from those who can afford it, to alleviate the suffering I see around me. Being a free market capitalist means taking responsibility for my fellow man, not because the government forces me to but because it is the right thing to do. A socialist society is a society which does not provide it's citizens with as much of an opportunity to learn to be good; because it is a society with less freedom, it is a society for rule breakers (in Blue Ocean terms - socialism is a good system for a stage 1 society which needs rules and the threat of violence to make it be good). A capitalist society is an audacious experiment in free will. A wager that given the necessity, the rich will voluntarily give of themselves to feed the poor. Let us pray that the experiment does not fail.