The Conservative Fear of the Community

Conservatives believe in individual autonomy and fear ceding any individual control to others. This view undergirds their disdain for any type of collective or communal activity. It is why they don’t like unions, why they don’t like the government, and why the disdain communism more than anything.

Unfortunately this hostility toward collective action shows a surprising ignorance of human nature, human history, and human behavior.

Human Nature: Humans are a social animal and cooperative species. We evolved in kin groups and evolved with a learned sense of living with, working with, and cooperating with, other human beings. While humans are not herd animals like bison, they are also not lone animals like wolves or sharks. Humans are primates, and virtually all primate species are social animals that live in extended family groups. Humans evolved with a sense of sharing and cooperation. Human survival depended on the ability of each person to work with the people around them.

Human History: Society is perhaps the greatest human invention. Humans began to dominate the world when they began to live in larger and larger groups. Humans only thrived when we became communal, when we invented civilization.

Human Behavior: Conservative disdain for group behavior seems based on faulty logic. They don’t seem to understand that there is a difference between cooperative behavior and outside control. Humans often work together, and there are various levels of interaction. The lowest level might be cooperation, where two or more people work individually but on a group project. A neighborhood pot-luck dinner might be an example. Everyone brings something to share. The next level might be collaboration. Same neighborhood, but now a Halloween Party where a couple of families arrange for the food and drinks, and invite everyone else. At the far extreme would be communism, where all property is owned communally. An example would be a Kibbutz in Israel.

There are undoubtedly many levels between cooperative behavior and communism, but most conservatives conflate it all. Any group effort, of any kind, is, in their mind, the first step toward the commune.

A Deep Fear of Human Nature

Yesterday Kentucky Senator Rand Paul gave a speech at Liberty University where he warned against eugenics, or the use of scientific biological engineering to selectively breed people. He said that the combination of abortion and advanced medical technology could allow people to selecting “out the imperfect among us.” Paul Warns About Eugenics

It was typical Paul hyperbole, and amusing since it turns out that he lifted much of the speech from the Wikipedia page for the movie Gattaca, which he referenced in his speech. Paul Lifts Anti-Abortion Speech

Paul made the remarks while campaigning for Virginia Attorney General, and gubernatorial candidate, Ken Cuccinelli. Most of the commentary about the speech accused Paul and Cuccinelli of being anti-science. They noted that Cuccinnelli sued the University of Virginia under state anti-fraud laws to stop research on climate change. There is no doubt that Cucinnelli is anti-science, as is most of the modern Republican Party, and it is more than a little likely that Senator Paul is also anti-science.

But the real issue, in my view, is what this says about Paul’s view (and by implication Cucinelli’s view and the beliefs of much of the conservative movement) about human nature. Paul doesn’t just fear science. What he fears is that people will misuse science. In fact, Paul seems convinced that, given a tool, scientists will misuse it. This shows a deep disdain for human nature. This deep skepticism of human nature is a common current running through much of, if not most of, conservative thought. They are tough on crime because they believe that most people, if given the opportunity and believe that they can get away with it, will commit crimes. They fear government because government is run by people. They fear government most when it is run by liberals, whom they are predisposed to believe are inherently evil.

Most conservative policies are defined by this belief that people are inherently bad. And the one thing that seems to unite all segments of conservatism, from libertarians to free-marketeers to Christian conservatives to the members of the Tea Party, is a deep and abiding fear of humanity.

The GOP and Human Nature

Rick Perry said recently that he wants to “make abortion, at any stage, a thing of the past.” (He was speaking at a press conference organized by Texas Right to Life on Tuesday December 11, 2012.)

This may seem like an admirable and laudable goal, but the problem is that it does not relate to human nature. Whether we like it or not, abortion has existed since the beginning of time, and has existed in every human culture. Abortion exists because unwanted pregnancies exist. And unwanted pregnancies exist because of the fallibility of human nature. People are the product of their nature, and desire, and a hundred other emotions bundled up with the urge for sex, is a product of human nature.

We can only end abortion if we end unwanted pregnancies, and we will only be able to stop unwanted pregnancies if we are somehow able to change human nature.

I recently read a quote from Abraham Lincoln on drinking. Lincoln was addressing the Illinois Temperance Society when he said that to think that criminalizing alcohol would stop drinking and drunkenness is “to expect a reversal of human nature, which is God’s decree and never can be reversed.” [From Raiding Consciousness: Why the War on Drugs is a War on Human Nature, by Lewis Lapham, published in the Winter 2012 issue of Lapham’s Quarterly, and on-line at TomDispatch:

I am neither praising nor defending abortion, just suggesting that we need to address it as a product of the human condition.

Personality and Political Orientation

An article in Salon summarizes the research from a new book, “Authoritarianism and Polarization in American Politics.”

Briefly, those who are disposed towards order and hierarchy tend to be Republicans, and those who tend to be adventurous and free thinkers tend to support Democrats.

Here’s the article. How your Personality Predicts Your Politics.

More on this later.

Rush to Judgment, Rush to Stupidity

I will assume that you know the story of Shirley Sherrod the USDA worker who was recently fired for allegedly making racists comments only to be rehired when it was revealed that her comments were part of a longer speech about overcoming racial prejudices. If not you can read the latest version of the story here:

I am not going to comment on the story itself, but rather discuss that the story tells us about how some conservatives (and in particular Andrew Breitbart) view the human nature and the American public. The Sherrod saga began when Breitbart posted on his web site a short snipped of a speech that Ms. Sherrod gave to a state NAACP gathering in Georgia. (Ms. Sherrod was an official with the US Department of Agriculture based in Georgia.) He then notified all of the usual right wing media outlets about the snippet, and implied that it proved that Ms. Sherrod was a racist, and by implication the NAACP condoned racism. Within a day the snippet was all over the news, starting of course with FoxNews, and within another day Ms. Sherrod was fired by the USDA. Then, within another day, the full tape came out, and it showed that Ms. Sherrod was really talking about overcoming racism.

This incident should bring into crisp focus what some conservatives think about human nature and the American people.

First they think we are idiots. They think that they can release heavily edited tapes and sway public opinion because we are all a bunch of shallow nitwits. And apparently they are right. Breitbart did it earlier this year with the selectively edited ACORN tapes which purportedly showed staffers from the community activist group ACORN advising a purported pimp about how to establish a prostitution ring. Subsequent state investigations showed that these tapes had been heavily edited to show things that had not actually happened. The problem with the ACORN situation is that the facts did not come out until months after the incident. Fortunately this time the facts came to light close enough to the incident. But the fact that Breitbart is perfectly willing to manipulate information proves that he thinks that the American public can be manipulated with phony information. This indicates that he thinks we are idiots.

Second they think that people are one dimensional. In the snippet first posted, Ms. Sherrod does say that she was reluctant to help a white farmer. But the entire speech was about how she learned to overcome her own prejudices. The speech shows the breadth and depth and complexity of human nature. It shows how people deal with situations based on preconceived notions, but also about how people can learn and change. But many conservatives do not see that. They think that people are simple and one dimensional. They think that a single racist statement proves that a person is a racist. It is a strange and constrained view of human nature, and one that is disproved by history and disproved by people daily. One good example of the lack of correlation between nasty words and actual beliefs comes from President Lyndon Johnson. He had a foul mouth, and frequently made racists comments. But he forced a number of civil rights laws through Congress, which changed this nation and put it on a path to be a fairer more tolerant country.

In any event, people are clearly not one dimensional. They can and do overcome past prejudices. They learn and grow and improve.

But Mr. Breitbart and his fellow travelers apparently don’t believe that because they think we (me and you, but perhaps me most of all) are idiots.   


Take Your Pick: Complex Laws or Legislating from the Bench

President Obama signed the sweeping financial reform bill on Wednesday, July 21. One of the criticisms by Republicans and other opponents of the bill is its complexity. The bill itself is over 2000 pages long. This was a major complaint about the Health Care reform bill that Obama signed earlier this year.

It is certainly troubling that bills are so long that our elected representatives are not able to read them completely, and certainly not able to understand them fully. In many cases these complex laws are written by staffers in consultation with lobbyists. TIME Magazine recently had an article about how Lobbyists were helping draft the Financial Reform Bill. It was enlightening if not a bit scary. It is available here:,8599,2000880,00.html   

Many critics say that things were better back when Congress passed simple laws. Critics noted that the law establishing social security was only a few pages long. But is it really better to pass short and simple laws? The problem is that short and simple is not the same as clear. Short and simple often means broad and vague, and this leaves the law open to a variety of interpretations.

When Congress passes a broad law the matter moves to legislative agencies to create the rules necessary to administer the law. And this means that a second set of laws (make no mistake, Federal Rules are laws) are drafted by unelected government bureaucrats. Is that what we want? That is inherently undemocratic. (It should be noted that there is a detailed administrative rule making process that is supposedly designed to ensure public input on these rules, but the reality is that only interested parties (read lobbyists) get involved at this level.) So a broad law leads to undemocratic rule making by vested interests. Is this better than a detailed and complex law? Maybe it is, and maybe it isn’t.

The second problem with broad laws is that they leave lots of room for judicial interpretation: you know, legislating from the bench. Courts are generally bound by the laws that are enacted by Congress (the exception is when the law violates the Constitution). But where the law does not address a specific issue the Courts (by the long established judicial tradition known as the common law) fill the gaps. The more gaps, the more the courts write the law. And when Courts write the law they are engaged in an undemocratic process that is known as judicial activism or legislating from the bench. So broad laws lead to judicial activism. Is that better or worse than a detailed and complex law?

It is interesting that the people who complain the loudest about the complexity of these laws are also the same people who complain the most about legislating from the bench. It think it points to their naiveté about politics, law, government and the modern world.     

Judging an Imperfect World

Not long ago I wrote about the problem likely to occur with of increased partisanship in judicial elections. Critics will say that the current “a-political” system also has its problems, and they are right. The fact that judicial candidates cannot talk about issues makes them either a blank slate, or disingenuous, neither of which is a good thing for a judge. There are two other options for putting judges on the bench, and both have their problems. In the Federal system judges are appointed for life by the President. This keeps them above petty politics during their tenure, but it can create problems if a judge is incompetent (a Federal Judge can be impeached for “high crimes or misdemeanors” but not incompetence). Perhaps the best system is the “Missouri Plan,” where the governor appoints judges from a slate established by a panel of citizens and lawyers, and where these judges must periodically stand for retention elections. This is a pretty good system, but even it has problems. In some cases a judge can make an unpopular (though legally sound) ruling which raises the ire of activist groups who seek to remove the judge, not for good cause, but merely for ruling in a way that angers that particular group. Retention elections, in those states that apply the Missouri Plan, are generally very low key, but every once in a while they are incredibly nasty and petty and a disservice to both the judiciary and the political process. .

 The problem is that we live in an imperfect world, so there can never really be a perfect system. Not for selecting judged for courts, nor for much else. People are imperfect beings, and unfortunately when you put them in a group you don’t overcome the imperfections, rather you tend to multiply them. And the world is an immensely complex place. Adding imperfection to complexity is not a formula for creating simplicity or perfection.

But we like simplicity. It is much easier to understand simple ideas and slogans than the complexity of the real world. But simple slogans, and simple solutions, are unlikely to solve complex problems. Sometimes they will, but more often than not they won’t.

Politicians and political commentators love to say “the solution is simple.” But unfortunately nothing is really simple. They might seem simple, but on further analysis they aren’t. Driving a car might seem relatively simple and straightforward, but the reality is that driving a car is dependent upon an incredibly complex system of roads, traffic laws, and fuel distribution networks, not to mention everything that goes into putting the car onto the road in the first place, which implicates everything from the mining of steel and aluminum (for vehicle parts) and coal (for steel production and generating power to run factories) to growing the rubber for the tires and educating the engineers who design the car in the first place.  

If you scratch below the surface of just about anything you will find complexity. And this can be quite madding. So it is understandable that people turn to the idea of simplicity, but it is a false hope.  

I think this misplaced desire for perfection and flawed belief in simplicity underlie many of our current political problems.  

The First Amendment, Good and Bad

On Tuesday, July 13, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals struck down most of Kentucky’s Judicial Cannons of Conduct which banned judicial candidates from claiming party affiliation and from direct fundraising. The Opinion, by Judge Jeffrey Sutton, said banning campaign fundraising and party affiliations violated the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech. “Elections are elections, and the same First Amendment applies to all of them…”

The full opinion can be found at:

The Herald-Leader story can be found here:

This ruling is interesting because many judges, including former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor are actively trying to get politics out of judicial elections. There is no doubt that this ruling will increase the partisanship of judicial elections, and also inject partisanship into the courts in a way that has not been seen in Kentucky before.

This partisanship will have a price. If a judicial candidate says, for example, that he will be tough on crime, and then gets elected, it seems extremely likely that criminal defendants will seek to recuse that judge from the case. I suspect that this will become increasingly common. This will increase the cost of criminal trials and will also shift the workload among judges. If the defendant is unsuccessful in the recusal motion and the judge issues an unfavorable ruling, the Judge’s campaign statement will be the bases of an appeal. This also seems likely in some (but certainly not all) civil cases. Where a judge has said something as a candidate during the campaign, his or her words will be fair game to future litigants. And the cost of litigation and the cost of the court system will go up.   

That is the immediate problem with this case, but there is a deeper issue that I would like to explore. There is a tendency to think that because something is good, everything that emanates from it is also good.

The First Amendment is an important foundation of our democracy. It allows us to exchange ideas and debate issues, and allows our democracy to function. It is vital to our system of government, and therefore is good. True, but everything that emanates from the First Amendment is not automatically good. A perfect example is pornography. The Supreme Court has said that obscenity is not allowable under the First Amendment, but pornography is. Now a purist, like the litigants in this case, would argue that the First Amendment says that “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech” and a restriction on obscenity is a restriction on speech, so therefore it must be struck down. But most reasonable people have no problem with preventing obscenity because of the harm it can do to society. A judicial political free for all, which conceptually is allowed under the First Amendment, is similarly not good for society.

The bottom line is that simply because the First Amendment (or any other right) allows something it is not necessarily good for society. There must be some attempt to weight the good and the bad, and where appropriate restrict the bad.