Archive for December, 2013

Nietzsche, Romanticism, Reason, Nazism, and Squished Worms

December 31, 2013

imagesThe other day in the post office I saw two caregivers wheeling severely disabled people – and I do mean severely. Such sights are disturbing to me, like seeing squished worms is disturbing. But my second thought was that these people were not squished – to the contrary. I doubt they were even capable of having any kind of lives, but our society does its damnedest for them. Maybe it doesn’t make sense from a strict utilitarian standpoint. But we do it anyway, because we consider it a moral imperative. I exited the post office feeling very good about our society.



Shortly after, I happened to read an article about Bertrand Russell and his attributing Nazism to German philosophical antecedents. The article actually criticized Russell’s analysis. But in any case, a basic point should be clear: We’re often told that the Holocaust was the (perhaps inevitable) end product of The Enlightenment’s “cult of reason.” Yet in fact, the Holocaust was not the child of Enlightenment philosophy, but of the reaction to it – romanticism – not the cult of reason but of feeling, the cult of abjuring rationality.

Of course, Nietzsche’s name was prominent in the article, whose author sort of defended him against Russell’s critique.

Nietzsche Nietzsche Nietzsche Nietzsche

Nietzsche Nietzsche
Nietzsche Nietzsche

Though dressed up in a lot of grandiosity and histrionics, what Nietzsche was really all about was the supposed moral rightness of squishing worms – or, rather, human beings, some of whose lives he deemed worth less than others, and hence they should be victimized by their betters. The article’s author denied that Nietzsche was necessarily thinking of himself as one of his superior beings. I don’t see how that matters. This is still a crock of garbage; the antithesis of humanist Enlightenment rationalism. And one can easily see how such bad ideas get you to Nazism, squishing people like those I saw in the post office, and of course a great many others, whose lives were considered unworthy in exactly the Nietzschean sense, who were thus exterminated not merely from expediency but as a positively right thing to do.

images-2But, to be fair, I too believe that some people should be killed. Like the Nazi leaders hanged at Nuremburg.

Modi for India

December 27, 2013

imagesI have a mental “Wall of Shame” with pictures of the world’s baddies (and relish X-ing out the face of any who (like Qaddafi) goes down). In 2002, Narendra Modi earned a spot on that wall.

That was the year of a veritable pogrom by (majority) Hindus against (minority) Muslims in the Indian state of Gujarat. It was horrible; a thousand or more died. The state’s recently elected leader was Modi, of the BJP, a Hindu nationalist political party.

Narendra Modi

Narendra Modi

It would be too much to call him responsible for the atrocities – but only just. He was certainly responsible for doing way too little (almost nothing) to stop them. And ever since, he’s refused to express any remorse over what happened.

Now Narendra Modi is the BJP’s candidate for India’s prime minister.

India, since 2004, and for most of the time since independence, has been run by the Congress Party; and the party has been run by the Gandhi family dynasty (no relation to the Mahatma; it’s Nehru’s descendants).

Manmohan Singh

Manmohan Singh

The current party chief is Sonia Gandhi, the Italian-born widow of the assassinated Rajiv; she sensibly passed up the prime minister’s post in favor of Manmohan Singh, a well-intentioned technocrat who had played a big role in India’s early 1990s economic reforms. Previously India had been mired in stultifying socialism, “the license raj,” and the consequent “Hindu rate of growth” (i.e., very little growth at all).

That had kept India as the poster country for squalid poverty – a country where most people didn’t even have toilets and went in the streets. images-1Half still do. But the mentioned reforms undid socialism’s worst effects, boosted economic growth, and began lifting millions out of poverty.

It’s true, and inevitable, that the progress has been very uneven, great numbers remain in deprivation, and inequality may even have increased as more have grown rich. But the country as a whole is richer, the middle class is expanding, and poverty numbers have been shrinking. It’s simply due to a freer economy. Lefties hating market economics will try to insist India’s poverty has worsened. That’s nonsense.

I heard anti-capitalist crusader Arundhati Roy indict a litany of alleged evils of free market economics in India. I kept thinking: she’s missing it completely. Nothing she denounced is actually free market economics; to the contrary, it’s non-free market economics, it’s India’s culture of cronyism, corruption, and over-regulation that stifles competition and economic opportunity; it’s government perverting the free market. Unknown-2So fixated was Roy on demonizing “capitalism” that she couldn’t see this Indian elephant in the room.

Which, despite the 1990s reforms, is still there. India’s growth has been slipping back down toward the “Hindu” rate. Desperately needed is another round of reform, to attack the true problems behind Ms. Roy’s indictment, and further open up the economy. But the 81-year-old Singh and his Congress party government seem to have completely run out of steam, paralyzed by inertia and populist political pandering, as well as cronyism and corruption.

Unknown-3Waiting in the party’s bullpen is the next Gandhi scion, Sonia’s son Rahul – a nothingburger who nobody, not even he, can imagine leading a nation of a billion people. India has had enough of the Gandhis and their Congress party.

Which brings us back to Narendra Modi. Who, in contrast to the Gandhis, is a self-made man from low-caste antecedents. And who has done in Gujarat what so desperately needs doing for all India: he’s curbed corruption, run the state effectively, opened up its economy, slashed stifling regulation, and attracted investment. Unlike typical Indian politicians, Modi eschews all language of wealth redistribution, talking instead of wealth creation. And it hasn’t been just talk. Under Modi, Gujarat’s economic growth and improvement, and consequent poverty reduction, have greatly outpaced the rest of India’s.

Yet Modi continues unrepentant about the 2002 riots, and his BJP remains a Hindu supremacy party. Bad stuff; though Modi has softened his Hinduist rhetoric, now insisting leaders must be secular, and that economic development trumps religious factionalism. And if he won’t apologize to Muslims, he seeks to change the subject: “I want to ask poor Muslim brothers whether they want to quarrel with poor Hindus or fight against poverty. I want to ask poor Hindus whether their concern is disputes with poor Muslims or the fight against poverty. . . Let’s defeat poverty together.”images-3

We do not live in Heaven where perfection reigns. Human life is messily imperfect and often presents us with problematic choices. But choose we must. India should vote for its future, not its past, and choose Modi.

Book Review: The Koran

December 21, 2013

UnknownHaving enjoyed great success with his first book, The Bible, God followed up (after a gap of centuries; writer’s block?) with The Koran.

I am cognizant that Muslims hold the book sacred. But all ideas offered in the public square should be subject to critical examination. This does not mean disrespecting people holding the ideas; the issue instead is what others should think. Thus, after reading it, I present my objective review of The Koran.

Muslims consider it God’s (Allah’s) word, transmitted to the prophet Mohammad, over two decades. Mohammad preached it but wrote down little or nothing; followers compiled the book after his death. It’s not a sequel to The Bible; indeed, a very different book. Whereas The Bible was written mainly in the third person, The Koran is mostly in the first person, with God directly addressing the reader (or hearer). images-4And while The Bible is full of narrative story-telling, The Koran is mainly exhortation. It does rehash some biblical stories, like Noah, Joseph, and (especially) Moses*, but only in disjointed bits and pieces interspersed among other matter.

We are often told the book’s poetic language (in Arabic) is beautiful. I can’t say; I read a translation by N.J. Dawood (Penguin edition) and if there was linguistic beauty it didn’t come through. But I will say the book could have used a good editor. It’s way overlong, completely disorganized, and numbingly repetitive.

The Koran sets forth a lot of rules, such as for inheritance and marriage; but unfortunately doesn’t deign to explain any rationales for them, so they come across as rather arbitrary. A widow must wait four months and ten days before making the scene again. Four months might seem reasonable, but why the ten days? God doesn’t tell us.

Curiously, while stating that some verses have precise meaning, the book does acknowledge opacity in others, whose explanation unbelievers will maliciously demand – “But no one knows its meaning except God.” (3:8) (It’s a mystery, you see; just get with the program.)

images-5Christians may be pleased to see some praise of Jesus as a prophet; but the author denies paternity, saying “God forbid” he should have had a son. And while The Koran does talk a lot about treating others fairly and kindly, it certainly doesn’t incorporate Jesus’s message. Turn the other cheek? No – “If anyone attacks you, attack him as he attacked you.” (2:194) And “Fighting is obligatory for you, much as you dislike it.” (2:216) And “If you do not go to war, [God] will punish you sternly.” (9:39)

Religion of peace? I  think not.

But mainly the author pounds away relentlessly on two basic themes: (1) how great he is; and especially (2) unbelievers are “evil-doers” who will be punished severely.

images-6As to the first, he claims omniscience and omni-potence; he knows all, and can do anything. It’s mostly braggadocio; much more telling than showing. He insists he is greatly to be feared. “Fear God” is repeated endlessly. And yet he also repeatedly says he’s merciful and forgiving; it’s even okay to break his rules, if you have a reasonable excuse.

But the one thing he’s unforgiving about is unbelief. This he hammers on so compulsively – unbelievers will get “woeful punishment,” “grievous punishment,” etc. – that he can’t go very long without bringing it up, sometimes irrelevantly while talking about something else. images-3“Unbelievers will be punished” – that’s The Koran in a nutshell. It’s kind of bizarre, really, con-sidering all the awful atrocities people commit – the “foulest deeds” can be forgiven, if you fear God – while he positively obsesses over disbelief. This is “thought crime” par excellence. In a rational appraisal, surely a mere personal belief (or disbelief), even if mistaken, cannot be the most heinous of human crimes.

Joe Schmoe

Joe Schmoe

I’m not a trained psychiatrist, but all of this smacks of a monumental insecurity complex. Why else the unrelenting assertions of his greatness and power, the “Fear God” refrain, and especially the fanatical concern over people’s belief? Why even create a book like this? Why would he care? If omniscient God knows he exists, and can smite anyone with a finger flick, what difference does it make whether Joe Schmoe believes it? If God is so great, we humans would be as vermin to him. Sane people don’t obsess over whether termites believe they exist and fear them.

Of course, The Koran was given through Mohammad as God’s mouthpiece. And if God’s obsession with disbelief makes no sense, it would have made perfect sense for Mohammad, who was literally fighting a war to put his new religion across among a skeptical people. In fact, The Koran sometimes acknowledges how hearers scoff at what Mohammad is saying; the answer (again) is that they will burn. Mohammad’s role also explains, of course, all the book’s exhortations to battle.

The Koran asserts, at various points, that the book itself is such a marvel that no human could have produced any of it. I would say it’s so uninspired and uninspiring that no god could have produced it. imagesJust like The Bible, the book can be understood only as the self-interested work of its very human authors, not of some deity who, if he did do it, would be absurd. To believe he’s behind these books is an insult to God.

* At least Joseph Smith, in the Book of Mormon, made up new stories.

What is it Like to be a Bat? A Cat? Or Me?

December 15, 2013

imagesI’ve written before about the problem of the “self.” What is it like to be a bat? was the title of a famous article by philosopher Thomas Nagel. All sentient creatures experience life – that’s what sentient means – but how does that work? For a bat, it’s so different that we have a hard time imagining what it’s like, to the bat.

I have a better idea of what it’s like being a cat, having long lived with one; still, his interior life is very alien to my own. But never mind bats and cats. What is it like to be me?



This I ought to know. But David Hume said no amount of introspection enabled him to catch hold of his “self.” And I have repeated his experiment (continually) with the same result. The problem is using the self to seek the self. Like using a flashlight to find light. images-1Hard as I try to grasp the true essence of being me, it slithers away like jelly.

I’ve also written about free will. Sam Harris wrote a book against it – but was his writing it not an act of free will? There’s a big difference between activities like that and quotidian everyday life. My choreography of motions in showering is exceedingly complex. And of course I’m conscious during it. But that doesn’t seem required, the motions are on automatic pilot, while my mind can be elsewhere. Like on another Humean attempt to fathom my self while it’s doing the shower routine. (Yet my free will could have chosen not to shower.)

Experiments have shown that the brain forms an intention to act milliseconds before one is consciously aware of it. This has bugged me no end. I try to beat it. images-4When I’m ready to get out of bed, I’ll try to do it precisely when I consciously decide, not when some uncon-scious process pre-decides. And it’s impossible! No matter how much conscious concentration I muster, I can never feel I’ve trumped that interior system. I’ll lie there, knowing it’s lurking, waiting to spring its decision on me. If I say “Now!” and get up, what made it happen at that particular microsecond? Me, or it? Even if I decide I’ll get up on the count of three, and do it, didn’t the decision to count to three at that moment precede my conscious awareness? Sam Harris would say this proves there’s no free will. However, I could have chosen to stay in bed.

We know what pain and pleasure are. But the true nature of these “qualia” is similarly elusive. images-5What is it like to experience eating a cookie? Or having sex? It’s in the mind where the pleasure takes place. And we not only have experiences and thoughts, but thoughts about them, attending to them. So when I have sex, I try to make sure I experience the experiencing of it; to reify it by, at the same time, visualizing that I’m doing the things I’m doing. As though watching myself doing them, with another part of me, apart from the part doing them. So that it’s being experienced on more than one level.

However, as this suggests, there’s a recursiveness here, a loop that cannot be closed. Unknown-1The problem once more is Hume’s: the attempt to unify experience with the self that does the experiencing. And is that even enough? Don’t you need a further experiencer that experiences the experiencing? And so on endlessly? So on what level do I truly experience anything? That’s why I struggle with the Nagelian question of what it’s like to be me.

Cookies, and sex, produce complex sets of sensory inputs, and why do our brains do a pleasure response, whereas some other set of inputs produces a very different response? That might seem an easy question: evolution has programmed our brains to respond in certain ways to certain stimuli, as adaptations, for survivability, to make us seek or avoid those respective stimuli. Calories (and sex) were good for survival and reproduction; pain (from injury), bad. So could a brain be reprogrammed to change those pre-installed responses? Of course; we do it all the time. images-6Some people somehow even get reprogrammed to feel whipping as pleasurable.

What is it like to be such a person? Almost as mysterious to me as what it’s like to be a bat.

So I sit here trying to truly understand who wrote that last sentence, really. We could go on like this all day, as better minds than mine have done, with no better result (or hardly any better).

But at least I understand the problem. At least I think so. Whatever “think” means. And whoever “I” is.

Pacific Rim: R E A L L Y B I G Monsters

December 11, 2013

We saw Pacific Rim because we were at a resort and that was the film shown. The night before was Grown Ups 2; it had a great cast; but also Adam Sandler. We left after 20 minutes. But Pacific Rim was sufficiently entertaining that we watched the whole thing.

Unknown-1Set in the near future, the film’s essence is conveyed in my heading: REALLY BIG monsters. And I do mean BIG. They’re called “Kaiju,” a Japanese word for “monster,” especially of the Godzilla type, and Pacific Rim’s Kaiju are supersized Godzillas on steroids. In researching this blog post (what, you think I just pop them off? They’re intensively researched) I came across this Wikipedia gem: “Kaiju are typically modeled after conventional animals, insects or mythological creatures; however, there are more exotic examples . . . monsters based on traffic lights, faucets and tomatoes [or] based on household objects such as umbrellas and utility ladders.”images-7

I don’t know about you, but I’d love to see a film with umbrella monsters, or utility ladder monsters. Now that’s scary.

But Pacific Rim’s Kaiju are more orthodox beasts; though at least each differs from its confreres. Now, for combating this menace, humanity’s powers-that-be must have seen enough films in this genre to believe that conventional weapons would not work; images-5that bullets and bombs would scarcely tickle them (but see below). I myself might have sought for a biological-type approach. But no; instead, Mankind hits upon the brilliant innovative tactic of . . . wait for it . . . punching them.

This is the Jaeger (pronounced “Yager”) program. “Jaeger” is German for “hunter” (more research). Jaegers are humanoid contraptions (I understand “mecha” is the term of art here (yet more research)) as big as the Kaiju themselves, costing $100 billion each to construct, and deployed to engage Kaiju in fistfights. I kid you not.

Jaegers are piloted by humans, but the task is so daunting it takes two, joined in some kind of mind-meld. You might think they’d have elaborate control panels. But no; they control the Jaeger by miming bodily its intended motions, which are transmitted mechanically by gears and pulleys. Super high-tech!

Yes, this scene was in the film. Didn't make sense -- but was included for coolness

Yes, this scene was in the film. Didn’t make sense — but was included for coolness

They do utilize rocket engines. How? Why, of course, to add oomph to their punches! And they have some additional weapons. Late in the film, battling a Kaiju high in the sky – as an apparent last resort – the Jaegermeisters deploy    . . .  wait for it  . . .  the sword. Yes; it unfolds like a switchblade, and swiftly slices the Kaiju apart. Why didn’t they use this more? Not in the script. Better to just pick up handfuls of shipping containers to bash Kaiju with. Or ships, to use as clubs. Much cooler visuals.

But lest you think the Jaegers were limited to Fifth Century BC war technology, earlier in the film one’s chest opened to reveal a battery of . . . wait for it . . . cannons. And blew away that Kaiju. But if that would work . . .  well, it does make one question the film’s basic logic. Never has so much lavish production value been invested in a premise so fundamentally silly.

images-1Speaking of silly investments, when the Jaegers are failing, humanity turns to Plan B . . . wait for it . . . a wall. Perhaps inspired by Israel’s success keeping out Pales-tinian terrorists. However, Kaiju are tougher customers than Palestinians, and it seemed nobody ran studies of how the wall would work before wasting mega-billions on this cyclopean construction project, which inconveniences the rampaging Kaiju only momentarily.

But (spoiler alert) the Jaegers come through in the end and save us.

Curiously, director Guillermo del Toro is some kind of pacifist, and for all the violence in this hyperslugfest, one never sees a human actually harmed by a Kaiju (except for one quasi-villain swallowed, but even he escapes). “I don’t want people being crushed,” del Toro said (more research); he strangely added: “There is no fear of a copycat kaiju attack because a kaiju saw it on the news and said, ‘I’m going to destroy Seattle.’” Huh?

Unknown-1The Brobdingnagian size of the Kaiju made me recall a (very) short story I read long ago, with even bigger monsters, perhaps the biggest ever the mind of man conceived. Thanks to remembering the last line, I was able to find the story online – to read it click here.

Israel: Triumph and Tragedy, Past and Future

December 6, 2013

Unknown-1A recent Thomas Friedman column discusses a book by Israeli newspaper columnist Ari Shavit – My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel. Friedman deems it an antidote to both the “do no wrong” Israel of its slavish defenders and the “do no right” Israel of its harshest critics. Here’s my take on Friedman’s take on Shavit’s take.

Zionism did succeed in a miracle of sorts, transplanting a people from one continent to another; resurrecting and reinventing their culture; and “making the desert bloom” was no myth. images-1But there was a problem: the land was already inhabited. Woe to those in the way of someone else’s dream.

Shavit has a chapter titled “Lydda 1948.” Lydda was a Palestinian Arab town in Israel, ethnically cleansed during the independence war.  Thousands of its inhabitants were expelled on July 13 by Jewish forces. This was not the only such crime. While it doesn’t make the whole Zionist enterprise criminal, and it’s far too late to rectify, Shavit deems it a moral duty for Israelis to own up to the truth, to empathize with the Palestinans, and help them overcome it.

But the Palestinians, for their part, have not overcome the trauma, and remain frozen in victimhood. Too many are imbued with the fantasy of undoing 1948; undoing Israel itself. This leads to the tragic intransigence that rejected, in 2000, the best chance ever for a two state solution; a perfect case of the perfect as the enemy of the good. Since then one could only weep as Palestinians remain intransigent while expanding Israeli West Bank settlements inexorably make a Palestinian state ever more untenable.

But, Shavit argues, Israel cannot wait for the Palestinians to come to their senses. It must find a way to separate from the West Bank (as it did from Gaza), or (Friedman’s words) “the spreading Jewish settlements there will be the virus that kills the original Israel.”

imagesI would put it a bit differently: the underlying virus is religion. Perhaps odd to say about a country whose fundamental identity is uniquely religious. The idea of Israel as a Jewish homeland is okay; but unfortunately it attracts extremists. These are the “Haredim,” the ultra-orthodox, whose men believe they should not work but instead study the Torah* while their wives stay home and raise their children – at public expense. Tolerable perhaps if indulging a small minority, but when it comes to those children the Haredim are highly prolific – I guess the men don’t spend all their time immured in scripture. So they are growing much faster than the rest of Israel’s population, making their privileged status a toxic public issue. UnknownObviously, you can’t have a country full of men doing nothing but moon over scrolls and procreating.

Such religious zealotry also plays a big role in the settler movement. They believe they’re on a mission from God to populate territories he gave them. As these West Bank settlers become thicker on the ground, cheered on by the growing Haredi population back home, their increasing political clout makes it ever harder to rein them in.

And this, again, undermines prospects for a Palestinian state within the same West Bank. It will effectively become part of a Greater Israel, wherein religious zealots have greater say, and Palestinians (outside Israel proper) have none at all. But they’re not going away; in fact, their population growth rates are also high. The only laggards in this population race are unfortunately the moderate secular Jews, who understand that the idea of an apartheid Israel keeping the Palestinians down forever is insane.

Nor could Israel fully assimilate all the Palestinians as citizens without giving up its character as a Jewish state. The zealots seem oblivious to this fundamental dilemma, and are driving headlong toward catastrophe. But that’s zealotry for you.

Where is the Israeli – or Palestinian – Mandela?

* The first five books of the Bible, and related matter.

Nelson Mandela: Will and Goodwill

December 5, 2013

My remembrance post about Margaret Thatcher lionized her for something all too rare in political “leaders” – will. Thatcher knew what was right. That’s not unique. But she also had the political will to see it through, no matter how hard. And it was very hard, encountering a virulence of opposition few politicians can withstand. However, she stood firm, believing voters would ultimately support what was right – and if not, then so be it. We need politicians willing to lose.

UnknownNelson Mandela represented a very different but no less important leadership quality – goodwill. Now, if ever there was a man coming to power with a justifiable grievance against his foes, it was Mandela. They’d imprisoned him for 27 years! And of course had denied his people the most basic rights. So if he’d used power to do down those enemies, to settle scores, we should not have been surprised. But that was not Nelson Mandela. Instead, he did the opposite, and that was surprising – again, something all too rare in political life.

So instead of showing his opponents a fist, Mandela reached out the hand of goodwill. He had the vision to understand how that was best for all South Africans, black as well as white. A vindictive policy would have perpetuated the ugly and dysfunctional past conflict. Mandela inherited a “for whites only” country but did not seek to make it “for blacks only” (unlike, say, Zimbabwe’s vile Mugabe). Instead he sought a South Africa that would settle down, rise above its past, and join together to get on with improving quality of life rather than rubbing old wounds.images-2

That made Mandela unique. And what a shame that is; a shame that one who thus was genuinely a “uniter rather than a divider”* was in fact so unique. I am too often disappointed and frustrated that “leaders” so persistently lack that sort of vision. Ones like Mugabe. And, I hate to say it, Obama. And, alas, Mandela’s own successors in South Africa, gone from bad to worse. All relentlessly pursue partisan agendas. They imagine it serves their interests – but does it really? Is it better to be a Mugabe than a Mandela?

Mandela’s death occasions an outpouring of veneration. Mugabe, they’ll spit on his grave.

* As George W. Bush promised to be. (And Obama too.)

Robert Nozick and a Socialist Libertarianism

December 2, 2013

UnknownThe late philosopher Robert Nozick authored a classic libertarian text, Anarchy, State, and Utopia. Subsequently, he didn’t exactly recant it, but did decide its viewpoint was incomplete.

In an essay, The Zigzag of Politics (in his book, The Examined Life), Nozick begins by noting that democratic institutions and liberties are not only about government; they “express and symbolize, in a pointed and official way, our equal human dignity, our autonomy and powers of self-direction.” That’s what we express in voting; we do it not because we expect to affect the outcome, or even because the outcome itself is so important. images-1What’s more important is our membership in, commitment to, and honoring of this social arrangement of ours. Voting isn’t just a utilitarian act, it’s a public sacrament.

That’s why I keep saying “democracy” isn’t merely elections; it’s a culture, a way of life. Elections don’t create that, they reflect it. We see the lesson again and again. In Egypt, it was a lack of such democratic culture that caused Morsi to behave as he did; and caused the subsequent rotten behavior of his ousters.

Nozick says his previous libertarian position didn’t adequately incorporate the way politics is not just politics, but also symbolic, images-3a temple wherein we give expression to our civic togetherness. The purist libertarian would limit government to doing only what enables people to freely flourish, and otherwise leaving them alone. So if your social conscience moves you to support a certain project, recognize that others have a right not to; it should be funded voluntarily, not by coerced taxation. But Nozick now says this “would not constitute society’s solemn marking and symbolic validation of the importance and centrality of those ties of concern and solidarity.” The point is “to speak solemnly in everyone’s name, in the name of society, about what it holds dear.” And while a particular individual may prefer to speak only for himself, that’s not compatible with living in society, which sometimes must speak for all.

Nozick goes on to suggest some work-arounds, like allowing a program’s “conscientious objectors” to opt out of the associated taxation, provided they pay compensatory taxes to fund something else.

I could scarcely take that seriously. And I found the rest of Nozick’s argument unpersuasive, especially in light of the modern realities of society and government.

My libertarianism is not anti-social. Indeed, you might call it “socialist libertarianism,” imagesnot because it incorporates anything of socialist economics, but rather recognition of our being profoundly social animals. (David Brooks, in his book The Social Animal, regretted that the world “socialist” was already taken, by the left.)

Why did we invent society, and support it? Not because “society” is some greater entity to which we must bow down and subordinate ourselves. That pernicious idea is at the heart of all collectivist ideologies. No – it’s because society serves us, its individual members, enabling us to realize most fully our human qualities, including our human need to interact with our fellows. Empowering this is, again, the basic limited role of government, says the libertarian.

But that may conflict with other things that our social consciences may, per Nozick, want government to do, which entail restricting and coercing people (or taxing them, also coercive). Of course, nobody much wants it restricting, coercing, and taxing him. But doing it to others . . . this is where the libertarian becomes very cautious and skeptical.

It’s all well and good to talk about noble minded projects of social solidarity, as Nozick does; Unknown-2but in the real world, opening this door lets in not only saints and angels but a host of creepy crawlies. I’m actually all for the social solidarity of helping the less fortunate, but the problem is that, like the Staten Island ferry of the old political joke, this drags in behind it a huge load of garbage.* And special interests know how to exploit this, much better than do the needy.

But Nozick seems to be writing from Mount Olympus images-2(or the proverbial ivory tower; he did teach). My own ideology, as I’ve explained, is an ideology of reality — that is, I let my understandings of reality shape my beliefs, rather than vice versa. And the salient reality I see in the modern world is government grown vastly in its size, scope of operations, and role in society. We may indeed want a government and politics that give symbolic and solemn expression to our social solidarity – but haven’t we now gotten rather more of it than we’ve bargained for? Unknown-1Surely the role for government that Nozick is talking about is not in deficiency. It is hugely in surplus, so very hugely that this – not a need to express social solidarity – is the greatest challenge facing us today. That being so, libertarianism is the only reasonable position.

* As the ward boss explained to the worried neophyte candidate at the bottom of the ticket, “Al Smith is the ferry. You’re the garbage.”