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Got Choices?

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Principles for Choice

It would be nice if we had a better, fairer and authentically compassionate way of organizing ourselves into a civil society. As culture and technology have developed, mankind has evolved from anarchy to monarchy, and then to various systems ranging from socialism to democracy. But each system has typically resulted in some form of oligarchy, where a relatively small group of ruling elite live at the expense of a larger working class of producers. In order to evolve to a better way, we should take the best of what past social organizations have had to offer, and then combine it with the values modern technology allows us to achieve for increased individual choice. We need a way to get the best parts out of socialism, individualism and democracy but without the oppression that is all too commonly the result.

From socialism, we derive the concept that some problems are better solved in groups than as individuals. From individualism, we are reminded that free will and the ability to direct our own lives define the very difference between lives of joy and lives of misery. And from democracy, we should remember that, the authority to govern must be granted by those being governed rather than thinking our rights and entitlements are somehow granted to us by those who rule over us.

Is there a way to combine the best of these approaches to promote our ability to make choices according to our own individual Faiths, without being unduly burdened or restricted by other people who may have different ways of thinking and believing?

In theory, it shouldn’t have to be that hard. It would simply mean picking the lowest form of government possible for each particular task and somehow resisting the urge to continually migrate power up to higher forms of government or to concentrate decision making authority where it affects an entire nation, or even the whole world. If the national government could focus first on foreign policy and then limit its domestic agenda to a simple framework that acknowledges basic inherent rights, such as those which flow from nature, rather than from other people, then people would have to solve other more specific problems by organizing themselves at a state or a local level.

Ideally, where individuals could exercise responsible self-governance, no further imposition upon them would be necessary. But where people choose, by a fully informed, democratic vote to have their government impose regulatory limits on their own behavior, hopefully much of this could be done at a community level. Most other regulatory issues could be resolved by a system of democratic representation at the state level.

If we could resolve more policy matters in this community-centered way, our country would contain a truly diverse mixture of social organizations, operating at more of a grass-roots level where individual citizens have the greatest impact on the way things are done. Since different people often disagree about how things should be done, individuals and families must be free to migrate toward areas where community values are more consistent with their personal views and beliefs.

Because democracy would be used at lower levels of government to decide how things will be done, a majority would win and a minority would lose. But because local jurisdictions are not far apart, it would be relatively easy to find a neighboring locale more compatible with one’s way of believing. So the burden of the majority upon the minority would be much less of an issue. Different people will have different opinions about what various functions should be socialized. So we could make these decisions by a democratic vote of the people, but within a scope limited to a community level so others who believe differently would not have to become part of a set of ethical beliefs they do not support.

And how do we resist the urge to migrate responsibilities higher than they should be in government? The first step is to base our approach on sound principles.

Principles are those things that remind us to do the right thing when the wrong thing seems like the right thing.

Let us try restating some principles related to the peaceful exercise of choice, but now in the context of government:

  • I prefer to be able to exercise my own free will as much as possible. This includes choosing what I will believe, how I will live, how I will work, and what other endeavors I may pursue.
  • I agree that others feel the same way about their freedom, so I understand I must refrain from choices that would unduly infringe on other people’s enjoyment of their own free will. Such choices would be an act of aggression toward others and so are not acceptable in a civil society.
  • I accept that there is room in the world, and also in each country, for many different ways of living, thinking and believing. We can coexist and even cooperate even though we are very different. We don’t all have to hold the same Faith and we don’t all have to have the same kind of government. If a broad diversity of choices exist, people will have enhanced options to move, if desired, to an area with a method of social organization more compatible with their own beliefs and values.
  • I understand that social groupings, from the individual, to the community, and all the way up to the nation, should exist in equal status with their neighboring peer entities. As such, they have an obligation to refrain from acts of aggression against their peers. And they have a right and an obligation to defend themselves against such acts of aggression as might be perpetrated by an offending peer.

Can a large majority of us agree on these basic principles? Can we agree that where democracy is used to decide the challenging issues of our day, we should apply it at the lowest, or “most local” level possible? Can we agree that we do not all have to do things the same way? Can we accept the idea that different states and even different communities might have more control over establishing the laws and regulations to which their citizens are subjected?

Can we begin to live with each other and near each other without continually trying to impose ourselves and our individual Faiths upon each other?

To make it work, our commitment to the principles of choice would have to be stronger than the urge for greater degrees of centralization of power. At the pinnacle of this notion is the idea of “one world government.” The biggest problem with world government is that it is in conflict with the belief that there is room in the world for many different ways of living and governing. It assumes everyone needs to be under a common set of laws. And worse yet, it implies an all-powerful regulating force–a world government that has the power to impose and enforce a single way of living world-wide. If we all live under a single set of rules, who gets to choose what those rules will be? What big corporations will be able to use their power to influence this governing body? What set of values will they force us to support and subsidize? What will become the one approved Faith?

Conversely, in a world of sovereign peer nations where each establishes its own policies and beliefs, each one tends to serve as a check and balance to the others. While it is true, bad practices will arise from time to time, hopefully other nations with better ethics will stand up to them, resist them and/or shame them into better behavior. Where pockets of true freedom exist in the world, they will serve as a beacon of inspiration to others who live under more oppressive regimes. If even a few countries can successfully foster the principles of peace and choice, people of other nations are more likely to begin to organize and bring about positive change in their own countries as well.

It is at the national level where we need most to resist the urge for further centralization of power. In fact, we should probably strip a whole range of public policies out of national politics and turn them back to state or local jurisdictions where they can be better addressed within the context of local prevailing values. National governments should instead focus first and foremost on a foreign policy which defends and protects the ability of individuals within the nation to live free from any aggression that might otherwise be initiated by peer nations.

To the degree national governments are involved in domestic policy, they should refrain from most regulation and/or law enforcement. The exceptions to this include a set of basic laws which recognize and protect the natural rights of individuals to exercise their will, to truly own themselves and the product of their labors, and to move freely from one community to another within the nation if they are dissatisfied with the systems of social organization where they live.

National governments may rightly be involved in the establishment of standards but they should generally stay out of the business of enforcing them. For example, a national government might define a standard monetary unit for currency. But they should not be allowed to establish a monopoly, either within government or in the private sector, for the issuance, regulation, or mandated use of a particular currency.

Similarly, a national government might establish standards for safety in the workplace. But it should be up to states and communities, acting within a democratic process to determine if businesses are required to adopt those standards. A national government would do well to establish standards for clean air and clean water. But primary enforcement in these matters should originate in the States where the regulatory power can better be kept in check.

A national government should only be allowed to enter into enforcement issues is when a matter crosses state lines, and the individual states have been unsuccessful at resolving the issue among themselves. A good example is when a polluter in one state is sending contaminated water into an aquifer which then passes into a neighboring state. Individual state agencies should regulate their own businesses according to their chosen environmental standards. But when one state becomes a victim of the lax policies of another state, it may not be able to solve the problem on its own. It should then be able to petition a national government to intervene and decide the matter. In any case, the federal government should not be dealing directly with the individual citizens and businesses of those states.

National governments should also be expected to regulate trade with foreign nations. In this effort, they may choose to lay trade tariffs where appropriate to protect domestic production capabilities and/or to assert power with foreign competing nations. Such tariffs will be a natural source of revenues for funding the activities of that government. Where additional revenues must be raised domestically, federal governments should look to member states for those revenues and not be taxing citizens individually. Otherwise, they evolve power away from the states and concentrate it at the federal level where it becomes a greater temptation to big business, foreign powers and other special interests who will tend to misuse it for their own selfish purposes.

A national government should establish standards which promote the general welfare of the citizens of its member states. But this phrase should never be interpreted as taking wealth from one voting faction and giving it to another. Where government programs are to be initiated to care for the poor and needy, these would much more ideally be instituted and administered at the state level, or preferably, even community levels.

General welfare means just what it says: well-being that is general, or the same for everyone. It should apply to all people equally, not just the friends, allies or voters of those in power. It most certainly does not imply taking the private property of one citizen and giving to another. This notion is not general at all but rather, very specific to the person or class receiving the benefit.

One good example of promoting the general welfare is to establish a standard for the enforcement of private contracts which can be adopted according to individual state legislative processes. Most of us understand, in order to enjoy a good standard of living, we will need to not only be productive ourselves, but we will also have to cooperate with other producers, in a free and voluntary way. Producers in an economy are much more productive when they can focus their efforts on a specific product or service. This is called specialization.

In economies where each individual or family has to provide for all their own needs, it can be very difficult to survive. If everyone has to grow their own food, repair their own roofs and build their own cars, not much at all will get done. But if one person concentrates on growing corn, another in raising cattle, and another provides transportation, the combined productivity of the group will be many times higher than if they were all trying to do everything for themselves.

In order to cooperate in this way, we often need to make contracts, or promises with each other. And those promises require a degree of trust. If I only have to trade a bushel of my corn for a pair of your new shoes, not as much trust is needed. But if I want the shoes today, and I need to wait to give you the corn after it has been harvested, then your trust level must be much higher.

As we will see in a later chapter, this very kind of promise forms the basis of our monetary system. Most money is simply a promise. And when we can use money in an economy to encourage and facilitate the exchange of goods and services, the quality of life can be many times higher than if we were limited to direct barter and exchange.

However, a problem arises when two parties make an agreement, expected to be satisfied at a later date, and then one party fails or refuses to honor the agreement. At the level of nations, there is no higher authority to appeal to. So such disputes may result in embargoes, sanctions or sometimes even war. But it would be unfortunate if we had to settle disputes over money with our neighbors by such methods.

It is much better if we can appeal to a system of civil law whereby the government will review contracts between informed, competent parties and force the breaching party to honor the obligations it has made. When people and businesses can trust government to enforce their contracts, they are encouraged to engage in more cooperative commerce. They are encouraged to take risks and to trust other parties as they work together on projects that otherwise would be unachievable.

While individual states should be relied on to enforce contracts, there are bound to be cases where one state has a complaint that cannot be resolved with another state. In these cases, states should have the ability to appeal to federal authority to resolve the issue. But otherwise, individuals and businesses should make their agreements subject to the laws of an individual state and then be bound by the courts of that state to enforce the contract. Where judgments cross state lines, the federal government should ensure that various states honor such judgments with each other and will cooperate to see that justice is served across state lines. This is how we should interpret the power of the federal government to “regulate inter-state commerce.”

Another thing the federal government should avoid is injecting itself into the details of what two parties may agree to in a private contract. No law established at the federal level should limit what two or more consenting, informed and competent parties may agree to as long as its fulfillment does not constitute an undue act of aggression against some other party. This does not mean there should never be laws establishing a minimum wage, prohibiting prostitution, or limiting the use of drugs or alcohol. But such laws, when established, should be enacted at a state or preferably a community level and then only through an informed, democratic process. This should not be done at the federal level and certainly not through a decision of the federal courts.

As mentioned, this approach attempts to incorporate the best of many different systems, including socialism, individualism and democracy. Under a purely individual, or libertarian approach, it is often claimed that such practices as prostitution, pornography and drug use would be legal. The argument is, free adults should be able to choose these behaviors even though they are not looked upon favorably by people of a more socially conservative Faith.

But many people don’t want to live in a community where their children are exposed to advertisements or other promotions for such things, at least until they come to an age where their decisions can be made in a more informed, mature and competent way. This is a part of their Faith and so should be protected to the degree we reasonably can. There has to be a balance between the rights of the person who wishes to pursue happiness by living in a community free of prostitution and the rights of the people who wish to engage in that activity. By addressing such difficult decisions at a community or state level, we can achieve a better balance between these competing rights.

As an extension of this argument, we should not imprison people simply because they engage in activities we disapprove of. Rather, prison should be used only as a punishment for those who have been shown to commit acts of aggression against other people. Instead of trying to force each other to live the way we think is right, let us voluntarily segregate ourselves into separate, but cooperative communities which recognize the rights of each other to exist in freedom, act according to our individual community standards, and stand united under a national government which protects us from potentially hostile, outside forces.

As mentioned, federally established standards should ensure that, individuals can remain free to exercise their own choices to the greatest degree possible. In addition to national defense, this implies a need for an internal justice system to punish those who commit acts of aggression against their peers. Again, the federal government should establish standards and states should enact laws, by their own democratic process, which refers to those standards and enforces a level of conduct consistent with the prevailing standards and expectations of the people in that jurisdiction.

The important thing to remember about justice is that, we live in a world with other free beings capable of making choices of their own. This creates a potential conflict between the individual freedom of one person as opposed to the individual safety and security of another. The only way to make sure everyone is completely safe from the aggressive actions of their peers would be to lock everyone up in an isolated cell where they could not hurt anyone else. And even if you could do such a thing, who would have the authority to do the locking, and who would remain free to enjoy their safety?

In this sense, freedom and security become mutually exclusive, to some degree. In order to assure absolute security, no one can be free. And in order to assure absolute freedom, no one can be totally secure. The best substitute we have come up with is called “justice.”

We must recognize that we can not effectively prevent a person from committing an act of aggression, particularly when committed for the first time. But when a person does act badly, we can punish and confine him or her. Although this does not undo the crime, it can often create a deterrent to future crime. In the aggregate, it is the best we can do to assure the greatest possible degree of both freedom and security.

We should not make the mistake of thinking a justice system is supposed to somehow prevent all injustices from ever happening. Once we get in the business of preventing crime by attempting to restrict or regulate innocent people, we are on a slippery slope to rapidly eroding freedoms. And the ultimate result is tyranny and slavery.

In summary, an ideal system of government would regulate people only when necessary, and at the lowest, or most local level possible. Where individuals are capable of regulating their own behavior and staying within the bounds of non-aggression, they should largely be left to the unfettered exercise and enjoyment of their free will. We should avoid punishing people simply because they engage in behaviors we do not approve of. Rather, people should be punished only when they have committed acts of aggression that diminish the natural rights of others.

Where naturally occurring mechanisms exist that provide regulating feedback, they should be recognized, fostered and encouraged. In some cases, this might mean simply educating consumers so they can make more informed choices. It might also mean spreading information to expose bad actors who try to trick or cheat people into making choices they would not otherwise make.

We should also try to be tolerant and remember, the error signal in a natural feedback system can never be completely eliminated. Stated more simply, this just means things will never be perfect. And we should not expect them to be. We may have to be satisfied to keep the unfortunate side effects of freedom such as crime, accidents, hunger and poverty to a tolerable minimum.

Where artificial regulation is truly required and can be administered at a community level, it is best done there. Where a higher degree of centralization is required, regulation should be handled at the state level. But in large part, it should stop there.

We should avoid the temptation to concentrate power in the federal government wherever possible. And we should avoid the case where individual citizens are directly subject to a federal government on matters of taxation, regulation, contract enforcement, or law enforcement. Most certainly we should never allow such power to coalesce at a world-wide level. In order to protect choice and freedom for individuals, independent and sovereign nations must continue to exist and compete with each other in a global marketplace of ideas.

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