Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Meet Dennis Baxley...

Florida State Representative Dennis Baxley turns out to be a fascinating public figure.

(image from Fl. House)

I came across him while reading about the murder of Trayvon Martin (link via The Grio). This guy seems to be the epitome of everything I despise in the Republican party. Let me do the list...

(image from ervinlaszlo.com, turned up on a random search. I have no idea who Ervin Laszlo actually is.)

Baxley sponsored the "Stand Your Ground" legislation that will be the basis of George Zimmerman's defense.  This law removes the obligation of Florida citizens to avoid a confrontation. The relevant language seems (not a lawyer) to be section 3, which reads:

A person who is not engaged in an unlawful activity and who is attacked in any other place where he or she has a right to be has no duty to retreat and has the right to stand his or her ground and meet force with force, including deadly force if he or she reasonably believes it is necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony.

Which this lay person interprets as the right to attack someone you think is out of line. Again, I'm not a lawyer, but if I can stand my ground till the situation has scared me, and then attack first...

this strikes me as insanely bad public policy.

(This and unlabeled images from Wikimedia Commons)

In fairness to Baxley, he may not have actually written the legislation he sponsored.  "Stand Your Ground" is part of the NRA legislative agenda of increased gun ownership, tax-payer subsidies to the NRA's "Eddie the Eagle" program, and exemption of gun manufacturers from consumer product safety liability.

But Baxley gives and he gives.  He also sponsored Florida's latest attempt to disenfranchise it's own citizens, by making it harder for likely Democrats to vote. 

I understand that people are really, really good at lying to themselves.  I understand the cognitive basis for equating your interests with the general interest. I try to resist the conclusion that people are evil, and to conclude instead that they're prisoners of their neurology. But Jesus H. Christ...

(image from Graphitti Designs)

if you're a politician, in a democracy, and your interests are served by FEWER citizens voting...

you're on the wrong fucking side. Develop some self-awareness. Looking at you, Representative Baxley.

It is a source of some perplexity to me that Baxley is a Board member of The Florida Council on the Social Status of Black Men and Boys. That seems like a strangely regressive name for an organization, but what do I know? I'm as lilly white as they come, and this is unquestionably an African-American organization with an African-American Board. I've asked them to comment on Baxley's various legislative initiatives, and will post any response they make as an update.

Baxley's in a position to do a lot of damage, and he has.  According to his site he's the Chairman of both the Criminal Justice sub-committee of the Judiciary Committee (oddly, he's not listed as a member of either that committee or that sub-committee on their web pages) and the Health and Human Services Access sub-committee of the Health and Human Services Committee. That last chairmanship has been helpful to Baxley as a launching point for anti-Choice legislation, embodied in HJR 1179.

This bill amends the state Constitution so as to prohibit public funding of abortions. Except, the laws of Florida already prohibit public funding of abortions, just as Federal law does. Even Baxley admitted that the Amendment's importance is purely symbolic.

"I think it's far-reaching and it's controversial, but we as a state will address the sanctity of life, which is a foundational issue," he said.

"That's the overriding issue, and the public should speak to it — and that's more important than how much money we spent on abortions last year."
Finally, Baxley helped push a stealth school prayer bill through the House.

I find these last two pieces of legislation of particular interest. Neither of these bills will have a significant public policy effect. Their entire purpose is the payment of symbolic deference to Christian Conservatives in the hopes of maintaining their political support, at the expense of all Florida tax-payers.

The nice way to say this is that Dennis Baxley aggressively promotes the interests of a particular constituency in the Florida State Legislature. Instead of saying who that constituency is, there's some value in examining who it isn't....

it's not black teen-agers being menaced by a racist vigilante.

It's not members of the permanent underclass attempting to exercise their right as Americans to vote.

It's not women seeking to terminate an unwanted pregnancy, or the tax-payers being forced to fund a purely symbolic exercise in interest group fellatio.

And it's not people uncomfortable with being evangalized by people convinced you're going to burn in Hell.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

An Empirical critique of Libertarianism

I have a certain respect for Libertarianism that I lack for Conservatism, at least in its American form. Conservatism, like all political ideologies, is a rationalization for the interests of a particular constituency. But since Conservatism supports the interests of existing elites, it has a much tougher time articulating a coherent set of principles.

(unlabeled images from Wikimedia Commons)

REAL Libertarians (and I'm not speaking of Racism entrepreneur and anti-choice activist Ron Paul here) are the intellectual heirs to the minimal government, individual liberty thinkers of the 18th century that political scientists call "Classical Liberals".

They believe in maximum liberty.  They don't want government doing anything except enforcing contracts, and they'd be happier if there was some way to outsource that function.

But if we start with their initial postulates, we see that the stated objective and intent of their proposed Utopia are to maximize individual liberty. This is a laudable goal...

if we can agree on a definition of "Liberty", and the desirability of maximizing it, and deciding how to reconcile the liberties of different individuals, and how to avoid the Hobbes Problem.

It's also clearly a normative judgement; it's based on the judge's individual preferences, and beliefs, and biases. This is not an ideal starting point from which to analyze human social behaviors. And the analysis of such behaviors must clearly inform any attempt to create social institutions, regardless of whether the goal is the maximization of individual liberty, or order, or prosperity, or any of the other metrics proposed by 2500 years of political theorists.

My preferred analytical starting point is cognitive/biological. Human beings are organisms attempting to survive and reproduce within an ecosystem. And while the nature of that ecosystem, and the adaptive behaviors necessary to succeed within it have changed radically since the last Ice Age, we remain what biological evolution made us: social primates adapted to hunting-gathering in small groups.

Human beings form dominance hierarchies in any group you place them.  If you put 3 people in a room, one or more of them will behave as an alpha. In hunter-gatherer groups, the small size and intimacy of the group tends to keep the dominance hierarchy relatively egalitarian and informal.

But the adaptive behaviors required for human reproductive success have changed radically since the end of the Ice Age. The first new adaptive strategy came with the domestication of other social animals, and the eventual development of pastoralism as an alternative survival strategy to hunting-gathering.

Animals represent the very first form of wealth that didn't have to hauled around by you or your family. They could move livestock around under their own power. People could have more than they needed. People could be more than well-fed, they could be rich.

Herding is like anything else; some people are better at it than others, some people are luckier than others... the adoption of pastoralism created the first sharp, long-term differences in social status.

If you have a huge herd of cattle, and sheep, and goats, you can host an enormous Tony Soprano style barbecue for the entire tribe, and important people from the next tribe over, every time there's a funeral, or a wedding, or religious service. You can send the guests home with a week's worth of greasy leftovers. You can take the less fortunate some starter stock for a new herd, or food. You can reward your friends...

and you can punish your enemies.

(Okay, this image from Tony Soprano's Pizzeria. Not kidding)

So what I'm telling you is that by about 4000 BC we run into the first problem with the libertarian model. The effect of increasing inequality of circumstance, combined with human social dominance mechanics, are what lead to the earliest forms of the State which Libertarians seek to minimize or to eliminate. And I'm not guessing about this; we've got the archeological evidence for all of this.

(image from The World of Ancient Art site)

From the libertarian standpoint, things just get worse with the domestication of the Horse, and the invention of the Wheel. The quantum improvement in transportation technologies available to elites allowed them to exert their influence at greater distances. It increased the geographic range of their patron-client networks. Most importantly of all...

the world got bigger.

Transportation improvements brought together groups of previously isolated people, with different cultures and practices and life-styles. The difference between "us" and "them" got a lot sharper, as "they" became people who talked funny, and who dressed funny, and who didn't cover their dead with red ochre. These recently introduced neighbors traded.  They intermarried.  They raided each other, particularly for cattle. They competed, and that competition was lead by elites who increasingly were coming to resemble the State. 

And the technologies kept improving. Around 3200 BC some nameless genius in Egypt invented the sail. Other geniuses started using the sail on ocean going vessels. The distances across which elites could exert influence kept getting bigger. As the distances got bigger, they included more people, and the patron-client network maintained by powerful men more elaborate and less egalitarian. Finally, ancient Sumeria took the next step in making the State inevitable.

The State, (which most people think of as "the government") has been with us one hell of a long time. It is the expression of social dominance behaviors applied to very large communities. Each new improvement in communications and transportation technology has created larger communities, and in every human community there will be elites and masses. The "nation-state" is a fairly new invention, but it is the logical outcome of a process which continues today. 

The Libertarian preference for a minimal or even absent State fails to take into account why States exist in the first place. As long as there are people, and those people share membership in a community, you will have a State of some sort.

The history on this is irrefutable.