Archive for January, 2007

 Epic Movie

Never has so much been spent on so little to entertain so few. The budget for this film was certainly epic, so it’s a shame the comedy was so lackluster. No expense was seemingly spared on the CG effects, or the sets and wardrobe, but it was still a disappointing outing from the same group who brought us the laughs with the Scary Movie franchise. Perhaps they tried to reach too far, skewering everything from last year’s Nacho Libre (which I recognized from the trailer, since I would never actually pay to see that) to The DaVinci Code. The only notable scenes in the whole movie are Darrell Hammond’s spot-on parody of Johnny Depp’s Pirates of the Carribean character: Capt Jack Swallows — but don’t waste your money on this one. Wait for video. Actually, no, don’t bother.

 God Hates St. Louis

He apparently hates Ameren too. But not as much as I do. And not as much as half of St. Louis, after this, the third major outage in our city in six months.

Once again, the ice comes and the power goes. Thousands are plunged into the dark and the cold, as if we were still living in the 19th century, and this new-fangled “electricity” has gone out again. This month and last the beleaguered utility has been holding a series of public forums for customers to voice their opinions of Ameren’s proposed rate hike. Needless to say, the responses have been overwhelmingly negative.

It is my hope that this latest storm and the resulting outages will seal Ameren’s fate in the eyes of the Public Service Commission and they will make good on their threat to not only block Ameren’s increase, but require them to lower their rates. I am generally opposed to government regulations, and anything that would force a private company to bow to the will of the public. But Ameren is not a private company, and as long as they refuse to compete in an open marketplace for my dollars, they will continue to feel the wrath of their customers (not to mention God’s) every time the weather turns bad.

 The Good Shepherd

The acting is superb, and DeNiro’s direction is spot on, but don’t go see this movie if you are in need of a nap. Drink some caffiene and be prepared to pay attention. I think I was just lucky, and noticed the right details, otherwise the whole thing might seem like a parade of random scenes. Despite the convoluted plot, there is a worthwhile message in this film. Although the message I took may not be the one intended, it is this: the excesses of our government allow agencies like the CIA to be even more dangerous than they would be otherwise.

I wonder if tourism will increase at the Skull and Bones Society‘s Deer Island after being glamorized in this movie? I have nothing against secret societies, indeed, they are often necessary to keep a runaway government in check. But when the members of these societies are also the same people wielding power within the government, the dangers are simply multiplied.

Some say the intent of this movie is to draw parallels between the Mafia and the CIA, but this is not a novel concept for those of us who long ago stopped viewing our government as a collection of benevolent heroes. Only the most naive among us will find this revelation at all shocking.

 Lego Designer

A while back I wrote about a really cool and addictive board game called Cathedral. Ever since I got the game, I thought it would be cool to make a copy of the game and its pieces using Legos. Well, the Lego folks have some software called Lego Designer that you can download from their web site. It is a CAD application that lets you build anything your heart desires using the your choice of any bricks that Lego makes.

It took me a while to get used to it, but the software has some popup help to get you started. Once I got rolling, it was really cool to be able to build the model and then spin it around in 3D and look at it. The best part is once you are done, you save your design and upload it to Lego’s web site. You can then purchase the model you just made in a custom-printed box. If you add it to the gallery, then others who are browsing can buy your model too. My Cathedral game is here, if you’re interested in seeing it.

It’s actually cheaper to buy the real thing, so unless you’re a fanatic of both Cathedral and Legos, I wouldn’t recommend you spend your money, but definitely check out the software! [Update: you should also check out this guy’s design, which is, I have to say, better looking than mine, but is probably more expensive to make.]

 You Have the Right To Do Whatever You Want, Unless or Until It Infringes Upon the Rights of Another To Do the Same

This is the third in a series of three essays.

Thomas Jefferson said, “Of liberty I would say that, in the whole plentitude of its extent, it is unobstructed action according to our will. But rightful liberty is unobstructed action according to our will within limits drawn around us by the equal rights of others. I do not add ‘within the limits of the law,’ because law is often but the tyrant’s will, and always so when it violates the right of an individual.” It’s as if each of us is circumscribed by an invisible membrane that defines where our own rights end and the rights of those around us begin. A person is harmed when this membrane is punctured by another. Crimes occur when this membrane is breached. Legitimate laws exist only to define this membrane, but cannot extend past it.

If someone is going to disagree with one of my three principles, this is usually the one. While some may argue that what constitutes a right is not clearly defined, and what constitutes infringement is often ambiguous, as I pointed out in my second principle, our own justice system is predicated on our innate ability to judge for ourselves when the rights of another have been violated, when this membrane has been pierced. If this were not true, then juries would have no purpose.

Often referred to as the Libertarian Principle, it outlines a third class of laws, which are by far the most numerous in our society. These laws may not be in direct opposition to natural law. They may not be obviously immoral. They may even, at first glance, seem entirely sensible. But nonetheless they require the violation of individual rights, either by themselves or by their means of enforcement. This class of laws seeks to define victimless crimes — things like speeding or the use of drugs — outlawing actions that by themselves harm no one. They do not cross the membrane, so they violate no one else’s rights. Without a violation, there can be no victim, and without a victim there can be no crime.

We’ve all heard a friend or acquaintance say, “there should be a law…,” in response to some perceived injustice. The truth is, there shouldn’t, and this is the principle they are attempting to violate when they say that. As we saw in my first principle, no one has the right to tell other people what to do. And, by my second principle, when you say there should be a law, what you are actually saying is, “someone should initiate force against that person, up to and possibly including lethal force, in order to make them stop whatever it is they are doing, even though it isn’t directly harming anyone else.” I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to live in that world.

It’s been said that there are two kinds of people in the world: those that just want to be left alone, and those who won’t leave them alone. Which one are you? I am definitely one of the former, but most people are one of the latter (even if they say they’re one of the former). They are perfectly willing to live and let live. That is, until their neighbor puts up a basketball hoop in his driveway. Or someone wants to stock up on cold medicine at Walgreens. Or they want to travel to, or buy something from, Cuba. Then suddenly they want the authorities to step in and prevent and/or punish this so-called “crime.” I’ve only listed a few examples, but the list of victimless crimes is almost endless in our society today. From the ridiculous (preventing model rocketry hobbyists from storing rocket engines without BATFE permission), to the even more ridiculous (federal regulations dictating how much water per flush your toilet can use). So much for live and let live.

Legislators are enacting this nonsense, and it makes one wonder if they even pay attention to the oath they take to uphold and defend the Constitution, when the Ninth and Tenth Amendments remind us that the Constitution is there to limit the government’s powers, not we the people’s. We retain the right to do whatever we want, until we harm someone else.

 The Initiation of Force Is Immoral

This is the second in a series of three essays.

The notion of laws and the rule of law are an attempt by humans to codify what each of us is born knowing to be true. Our behavior towards one another is governed by something called natural law. Natural law is a product of who we are as humans. It is our natural understanding of right and wrong that has evolved in us right alongside our aversion to falling from a great height and our ability to throw rocks accurately. Without these faculties we would not live as long as our brethren, dying because of our lack of hunting skills, or from falling off a cliff because we didn’t know enough to stay away from the edge, or simply because we misjudged our companions’ motives and succumbed to their evil schemes against us. Yes, judging the morality of the behavior of other humans is something we all innately have the ability to do.

Some doubt that this is true. But consider what it means if it is false. Our current justice system is predicated on the ability of twelve jurors to judge the morality of the actions of a defendant, to be presented with both the facts of a case and the attendant law, and to adjudicate. If humans are not capable of making those judgements, then justice can never be served under our current system. We would all be just as well off simply rolling dice or flipping a coin to determine the outcome of a trial.

Sometimes our laws are incongruent with natural law and we judge the laws themselves to be immoral — the Fugitive Slave Laws, for example. Other laws, however, simply reinforce our inherent understanding of natural law, and declare things like murder and rape to be immoral, for example. A third class of laws fit into neither of these categories and will be discussed in more detail as part of my third principle.

A common thread that runs throughout the behaviors defined as immoral by natural law is the initiation of force. Just about any crime you can name involves the initiation of force against someone. The important point here is that it is the *initiation* of force that is immoral, not merely the *use* of force — self-defense is therefore excluded as perfectly legitimate. But those that would initiate force against another by way of theft, fraud, or some other means, run afoul of natural law and would be judged accordingly by a jury of their peers.

George Washington said that “Government is not reason; it is not eloquence; it is force!” Indeed, at its most fundamental level, that is all government can claim to be. So it is interesting to note that when that force is used in response to someone’s unlawful behavior, we say that the government does good. But what about when government initiates force against one of its own citizens that has done nothing to deserve it? That action is also immoral, regardless of the fact that government was the actor. The only purpose of government is to protect the rights of the individual. Actions taken by government that violate these rights (including the enforcement of laws that violate these rights) are not legitimate.

So it would seem that for a law to be legitimate it must be congruent with natural law and not violate the rights of the individual. But what rights are we talking about? That brings us to my third principle.

 All Men Are Created Equal

This is the first in a series of three essays.

Who among us, besides the most xenophobic and bigoted, would deny that this truth is self-evident? Regardless of your own personal beliefs on the origins of the universe, there can be little doubt that all human beings on this planet exist in a state of equality with one another. If history has taught us nothing else, it has underscored this point over and over again. From the colonial aspirations of empires in centuries past, to the grim tales of the conquistadores, to the lessons learned more recently about slavery, genocide, and the struggle for equality among the races in our own country. Who can view these incidents without wincing at the pain and suffering that results when one group of people assumes it is superior over another?

I turn to the chronicles of slavery in the US for empirical evidence of the truth of this statement. For if the moral values assigned to slavery are not objective and distinct from the political will of a simple majority, then slavery would yet exist here. Fugitive slave laws would have been upheld as morally correct, the KKK would continue as a respected community organization, and ethnic minorities would still toil for the benefit of the white majority. The fact that this is no longer the case is all the evidence I need that human equality is a fundamental truth in our universe. The transition from hegemony to equality is never swift nor painless, but it is inexorable. It is constant. And it is right.

There is a deeper implication, however. It goes beyond acknowledging that we lack the authority to enslave/eradicate our brethren based on arbitrary attributes. It speaks to a fundamental corollary of equality. For if we are truly equal, then we all possess an equal right to self-governance. That is, the right to rule over ourselves comes from within, not from any other source. That is not to say that this right cannot be delegated to an agent of our choosing, but this delegation must be completely voluntary, and may be revoked at any time we choose. If we are all equal, then no one has an inherent right to rule over us, for any reason, regardless of the number of people who might consent to it.

This revelation strikes at the heart of civil government as we know it, and it is often this aspect of equality at which even its proponents bristle. One may be in favor of equal rights for everyone, as long as that means a centralized government is still in charge, ready to mete out punishment to anyone who harms us. And, indeed, this is a fairly accurate description of the system under which we currently live, however, it is logically untenable as long as you believe that all men are created equal. For equality excludes the possibility of democracy.

Benjamin Franklin is quoted as saying that democracy is two wolves and a sheep voting on what to have for dinner. Do not let the humor of this quote obscure the deeper meaning. It amplifies the near unanimous concerns of the Framers about the type of government they were crafting. They all understood all too well the dangers of democracy as taught by history, and they strove to create a system of checks and balances that would prohibit the wolves from voting the sheep onto the menu. They called this government a republic, recognizing the fundamental difference between it and the mob rule of a democracy being that the rights of the individual are supreme, and that no individual’s rights may be violated even if 99.9% of the people are in agreement that it should be so.

And yet, this is the system we find ourselves living under, where majorities of 50.1% are allowed to enact laws and regulations that violate the equal rights of 49.9% just because it is politically expedient. Those 49.9% have no obligation to subjugate themselves to the will (and the tyranny) of the majority, regardless of how legitimate the system of voting appears. The right to rule over oneself is absolute, and no one can take that right away. That is what it means to be created equal.

Some will allow their mind to expand enough to absorb that idea and its implications. Others will simply call it fallacy, claiming that producing and enforcing laws is the purpose of government, and this idea draws all of our current laws into question. For if one looks hard enough, there is surely someone out there whose rights are being violated in some small way by virtually every law ever passed in this country. Following this premise to its logical conclusion means that all of our laws are null and void, and surely that can’t be right. What would society look like without laws? To embrace equality is to embrace chaos.

Do not be misled by this overstatement. Recognizing equality does not lead to a society without laws. It only means that for our laws to be legitimate, they must be held to a higher standard than simple popularity. The laws themselves, and the means of enforcement, must both respect the rights of the individual first and foremost. And the first step in that direction brings us to my second principle.