The ivory law

See here for a Washington Post article on this “law”.

I’m not intending to write about the enormous unconstitutionality of the Obama administration’s actions here; legislation by the executive branch, and an at-will reversal of the burden of proof in a criminal case (ie. you are now guilty unless you can prove yourself innocent, as to the matter of the age of the ivory or its purchase date) is nothing to a president who has publicly declared his authority to kill anyone on Earth with a drone strike, purely at his own discretion.

Rather, I want to write about the actual effect such efforts have on the survival of the African Elephant, including recent policies such as the destruction of contraband ivory (See this Fish and Wildlife page for details). Now the conservationists are concerned about the record level of elephant poaching in 2011, at 10,000 elephants killed. This level of pressure is pushing the species back into danger of extinction, and has been the impetus for the renewed cries for legislation beyond the original provisions of the CITES treaty and the 1989 ivory ban. Obviously, obstructing the Ivory trade should undermine and reduce poaching, shouldn’t it? And by thus reducing poaching, we should be able to drag the species back from near-extinction, right?

On a topic that may seem unrelated, in the same year that 10,000 elephants were killed in the continent of Africa, fifty times that number of cows were slaughtered in the state of Nebraska. And the state of Texas. And the state of Kansas. In the month of January. And every successive month for the whole year except for February in Kansas, when they only slaughtered 495,000 head, and December when it was only 497,800. Slackers. In fact, there are only handful of US states that did not kill more cows in 2011 than the whole of Africa killed elephants. Continue reading

Conceptual brief: Negative Rights

In Idealistic thought about what human rights are, the Negative Rights view is the position that a Right is a moral veto on actions by another, a sacred domain of each individual which no other individual can touch. Obviously this would be the reverse of a Positive Right, or a right which is not a veto on another’s action, but a requirement or entitlement. Freedom of Speech is conceived as a Negative Right by those who say that it means that one must not censor or suppress or interfere with the words of others. It would be conceived as a positive right if we said, say, that Freedom of Speech guaranteed everyone the use of a printing press or a megaphone, meaning that we are morally bound to provide these things, where in the Negative Rights scheme we were only restrained from confiscating or breaking them. The Negative Rights position has a huge practical advantage as part of a philosophy, and that is that it entirely avoids the “Ought implies can” problem you almost immediately encounter with the alternative.

If the Rights of my neighbor are negative, I am unconditionally and entirely capable of fulfilling the moral obligations involved in these rights in every case. I will never be without the resources necessary to withhold my hand from violence against his rights, for withholding my hand is a duty I can perform without even having a hand, without even living. So in that sense the burden of respecting Negative Rights is much lighter than that of fulfilling the obligations involved in a proposed Positive Right; one might say that you automatically owe your neighbor neglect under the Negative Rights scheme, and call that a cynical or selfish view of morality. But consider the real meaning of a law founded on Positive Rights, on the belief that there are specific services a man must do for his neighbor else he breaks the law. If we really did say that Freedom of Speech meant that everyone was owed a printing press, where would one get all those printing presses? It would not be very hard to effectively argue that you were excused from the duty of providing the printing press, because you yourself had none. If we proposed to tax to provide printing presses for those who did not have them, it would not be hard to argue that those in poverty should be excused from the tax, because of the repugnance of snatching away their survival for the sake of printing presses. Yet if we called the Positive Right a right at all, we have proposed that to go against it is fundamentally immoral and an abuse of the individual who goes without a printing press; and in so proposing we have immediately entangled ourselves in a series of exceptions. We have perforated the protections of the right by trying to force it to cover more things than it should. In the end it becomes a real policy question which portion of humanity will be forced to bear the full burden of the rights of others; the universal human right is transformed into a highly specific set of obligations, imposed on specific people. And this is exactly what we see in Progressive thought: Rights are believed to be positive, and as a consequence, the Progressive spends a lot of time telling one group they have an obligation to another group who has no obligation to them. The Rights, which we naturally consider an element of our fundamental equality, are thus made into a weapon for inequality before the law. The Positive Rights scheme, like so many other Liberal thoughts, reaches its full maturity in the form of a monstrous contradiction of the original purpose: The equal and universal Rights of human beings are the basis for preferential and unequal treatment of human beings.

So the Negative Right scheme, though it appears to offer far less in terms of free lunch, free healthcare, free phones, etc. offers far more in terms of the justice which it is the true function of the law to defend. Because the Rights are conceived in an intellectually disciplined way, driven not by sympathy but by a conception of what obligations a human being really can have because he really can always keep them. By demanding of men only what they surely can do, the Negative Right is a much stronger voice as to what they must do.

The Affordable Care Act and starvation

So, Human Resources sent everyone at my workplace a summary of benefits for the 2014 year, and long story short, they are slightly reduced benefits at a more than doubled cost. In fact, a friend of mine calculated that a typical hourly worker would be paying 22.98% of his take-home in health insurance alone, for the minimal family coverage. We’re not an unskilled bunch, either. If we had minimum-wage employees on this plan, they would practically be laboring for compensation only in the form of high-deductable health insurance. Of course accusations are flying in every direction, but “Thanks, Obama” has just become a much more popular phrase than it recently was. As to the opposite claim, that this is the work of greedy insurance corporations, let me just say that in 2013 they were at least as greedy as they are today, but in 2013, you’d laugh at an insurer asking such premiums; in 2014 the government is standing behind him with a truncheon, making sure that you don’t laugh.

I really wonder how many people are going through this right now, whether this is or is not a national moment of realization Continue reading

Snowden as traitor

The most interesting thing in our current flurry is the government’s reaction, which has clearly been a combination of embarrassment and self-righteousness.  It has called Edward Snowden a traitor for revealing to the American public the activities of its own representatives, and that’s a funny thing.  The humor is that the clear meaning of the charge of treason is for a man to act against those to whom he owes loyalty, and in favor of their real enemies.  To hit Snowden with this charge, among all the complaints which they could bring against him, has something of the poetry that attends the punishments in Dante’s hell.  Edward Snowden, it seems, is to be pursued and imprisoned as a traitor, for he has turned his back on the American Government and handed its secrets to its most deadly enemy: The American People.  He has inarguably undermined the interests of his government by the singular act of upholding the obvious interests of his fellow citizens.  What better demonstration could we have of the opposition between state and citizenry that a direct service to the public is regarded as an unendurable disservice to the state?

If a man aided you, and then was for it dragged before a court on charges of aiding the enemy, the implication would be hard to ignore.  And this is exactly what has happened.  The embarrassment of the administration is not any shame over its blatant abuse of privacy or even its clumsy likeness of 1984.  It is embarrassed because Snowden made them say out loud what was supposed to be an open secret: The state wishes to impose its program on the public against our will, and as such is in a relationship of quiet enmity, of effort directed at defeating the self-determination of individuals and replacing it with governmental oversight.  “Oh thanks a lot Snowden!  We were trying to get these masses under control without it getting awkward!” they fairly seethe.

 

On Intervention in Syria

The Syrian situation highlights a general difficulty that afflicts the United States: the question of humanitarian intervention overall.  Historically, this is a relatively new invention, as it is almost taken for granted that the United States has an obligation to use military force to bring about what are almost utopian outcomes to crises involving war.  The idea seems to be that America is remiss if a war has the consequences of a war when it did not intervene, and is a cynical villain when a war has its consequences where America did intervene.  And the obligation created is of two parts: firstly, to make war, and secondly, to erase or prevent all the death and destruction involved in a war, as if the services of the US Military were advertized like those of a flood restoration company: “Like it never even happened!”

Now the case for humanitarian intervention derives from a moral scruple against standing idly by while another person suffers what we can prevent; it is the moral veto on neglect of our neighbor which is translated into a foreign policy of bombing and occupation.  I do not mean to say this cynically; I mean that humanitarian military intervention is still military intervention.  Our tanks and fighterbombers cannot help victims of invasion or genocide without at the same time imposing on them the hardships which inevitably attend the operation of that hardware.  When we call for military action to aid BLANK, we are calling for surgery to be performed on BLANK, a risky and painful surgery.  Yet we hear NPR blithely rebuke the president for his inaction in the face of “his moral duty” to help those entangled in the civil war in Syria.  When one has a specific moral duty to do something, it is unilateral; one does not need to calculate costs and benefits as when one is addressing a practical need.  If I have a moral duty to protect my family, it specifically means I have no duty to consider whether the bear threatening them is endangered, nor to consider the feelings of a home-invader’s mother before opening his chest with buckshot.  Moral duty is unilateral duty; Obama’s duty (if any) to intervene is, on the other hand, conditional on the helpfulness of his intervention including consideration of the highly unhelpful consequences with should, after a decade of war, be familiar to Americans.  This, I feel, is the first error of interventionism in this case: Because it is treated as a moral problem, the costs are dismissed as irrelevant, which is sound logic except that the moral principle invoked is one that calls for practical benefits.  Any costs which detract from these benefits actually do undermine the moral rightness of intervention, because the moral duty of intervention (under this theory) was created by a moral duty to provide practical help.

This fact alone explodes the NPR attitude of automatic duty of intervention, because they have overlooked a fundamental truth about war: that it destroys messily, indiscriminately, inevitably.  The miracles of modern war technology, i mean the actual performances of sending a missile down the dictator’s chimney or the near costless (yet really tragically costly) armored engagements of the first Gulf War, are the hole-in-ones of warfare; one should no more charge into intervention in the belief that it is harmless than he should stand on the green while golf champions are hitting their drives, in the belief that they will surely hit the ball straight into the hole.  In any case, i need not belabor the real destructiveness of war; NPR itself and a thousand others have tearfully documented the real human costs of what we have regarded as a clinical practice, a tool of foreign policy.  If we bring our tanks and infantry divisions and missiles and attack helicopters and Tomahawks to Syria, we bring them a benefit, perhaps, but certainly a danger and a terrible cost.  If we installed a nuclear power plant in their country, the Liberals would certainly recognize the danger and the risk cost which we imposed on the populace; how is it that they fail to recognize the same qualities in sending what was actually intended to destroy?

And then there is the whole question of moral duty itself.  Does Barack Obama have a moral duty to solve Syria’s internal strife?  If so, that is his concern, not that of the American taxpayer or the American soldier who signed on to defend his own country, but may be retasked by executive fiat to defend a land he has never seen.  There is also an “Ought implies can” concern here, since Obama and the taxpayer and the soldier almost certainly have the capacity to bomb the absolute shit out of Syria and destroy any or every military force within it, but quite possibly don’t have the capacity restore it to stability and peace.  Which of these actions is actually desirable?  If the restoration of Syria to peaceful existence by the application of American military force isn’t actually possible, what the hell do we hope to achieve through such intervention?  What can we possibly have a duty to achieve besides this?  In this case, the interventionist argument is essentially that because we must do something, it does not matter that all we can do is destroy, and thus we are left with a moral obligation to go in, bomb a bunch of buildings, kill a lot of people, and leave the country without real peace.  Just like we did in Viet Nam, Iraq, Afghanistan, Korea, and a dozen secret wars in Latin America and East Asia.  We don’t have a moral duty to achieve what we cannot.  If South Korea enjoys independence from the North, great.  But let’s not have any bullshit about the relationship between the two being peace, or our military intervention being capable of achieving what only political genius and national will and effort can.  Let’s not pretend that we bombed South Korea into nationhoood, nor that the outcome we wearily endure is a victory.  Let’s not pretend that we had a moral duty to go in there because our Marines and missiles are a magic wand that makes everything okay.  We have left a condition of tremendous tension on that peninsula, and we are likely to do similar things wherever we go.  If we send our troops to force upon Syria exactly what we want, we certainly install a regime that is undesirable to all Syria’s neighbors and likely not all that popular within the nation.  Consider for a second who or what would actually support such a regime: There is only one answer, and that is the US.  And how long will the US care to maintain in a hostile environment a government which really provides no benefit to itself?  Once the risk of a real genocide is mitigated, Syria will be entirely off the front page and thus off the radar of government.  What is most in our interest is not the most pro-US, or even the most democratic government available, but the lowest-maintenance government  which steers between the extremes of real oppression and real regional weakness.  Even a puppet government which serves some other power (perhaps Turkey or Russia) is preferable to a government which is a puppet of the US.

My overall concern is that our moral duty to do something about Syria (a mysteriously unique duty, among nations) is a dubious one, but the duties which we will create if we add our hands to those which have shed blood in that war, are both real and nigh impossible.  The peace of Syria is realistically in the hands of Syrians, whether they choose to fight for it or to appeal to other powers and incur the historically well-known costs of foreign military aid.  Perhaps the end of internal peace in Syria really should be the end of Syrian independence, or perhaps the next government of that nation will be granted legitimacy by their victory over the present chaos.  We cannot tell from here; I say only that if the Syrian rebels, Syrian government, and Syrian civilians are in a consensus to settle this war internally, we have no business defying them in their own country.  The day a really representative delegation of Syrian noncombatants says to the US (or to Russia, or the EU or the UN or to Turkey) “We care not how, end this war and make of Syria what you will, because Syrians have made of it an unendurable horror,” then I will say the US (or Russia or the EU or the UN or Turkey) has a duty to intervene.  Until then, this is an internal matter among adults, to be settled on the terms of those actually involved.