Friday, October 23, 2009

Slavery or the Highway: "Volunteerism"

I have been thinking about this issue for several months, but upon hearing that over sixty television networks plan on directing their broadcasting towards promoting the "ideal" of service to others, I see that I must bring myself to action. Service is not an ideal at all; it cannot even be called a mistaken ideal or an immoral ideal, but rather it must be called a vicious idea. Its consistent practice leads not to a society of people happily assisting each other, but a society where everyone mutually resents each other for being each other's slave.

To be clear, in this essay, by slavery I mean the state in which one is physically forced to take a course or courses of action at the commandment of another party over an extended period of time (as opposed to a single instance).

Slavery as such is becoming the case in a certain degree with the enactment of The Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act, which uses federal funding to promote service-based functions such as groups set up for middle school and high school students. (I strongly recommend reading the article and its comments section.)

Now the claim, admittedly, seems to be exaggerated and overly bold: how can the mere encouragement by the government of performing service be considered slavery when no one is being dragged away in chains? As of now, it is being offered to people the option to participate or not to participate. While this may be true, it is still the case that it is slavery or will lead to slavery for two reasons: slavery is a logical implication of this ideal and the choices available are being coercively limited.

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* Slavery as a ideological implication: The morality of altruism, the code of morality which states that other people should be the beneficiary of your actions, holds that man does not exist by his own right, but rather by the right of other people. In other words, you do not belong to yourself; you belong to other people.

Such an ethical tenet leads to an inverted view of individual rights where, instead of having the right to be free from physical coercion, people view themselves as entitled to the efforts of other people by right of an innate obligation on the second party. Under this view, if I were to earn a great amount of money from various business ventures that money would not be viewed as my property, but rather as something I have an obligation to distribute to other people. Logically, this means that if I do not distribute this money it is to be considered as a violation of the rights of the potential recipients. Rights violations, of course, are dealt with by physical force. In such a society the agents of the government would go after those that wished to keep "their" property and then would redistribute it among chosen recipients.

Service to other people is an altruistic ideal, which means that it is not merely viewed as being good to perform service to others, but as proper as par the nature of man. Altruism, practiced consistently, would mean that performing service would be enforced by governmental force since it would be held that other people had a right to be served and that by not being served their rights are being violated.

However, this prompts the question: if this is what the ideal of service will lead to if practiced consistently, then why can a person not practice the ideal inconsistently in order to prevent such a consequence?

The simple answer is that opposing principles, when mixed, lead to failures in practice and therefore require that one abandon one set in favor of practicing the other(s) with full consistency. If one does not do so, the failures will continue and one will not be able to honestly claim to be practicing those principles. Look at what the mixing of government controls and freedom has lead to in the economy: economic disaster. In each economic disaster, courses of action were judged by the standard of philosophical principles held in the culture at large. Since individual rights are largely misunderstood, freedom thought as a superfluous luxury, and the government thought as a practical solution to any and all problems, the principle of freedom is most commonly given up in favor of practicing statism more consistently. As economic disasters keep happening, freedom will continue to give in to statism until there is no freedom left, unless people accept the other principle wholesale. (This is not to say that practicing a single principle consistently will always mean success will follow; it merely means that the fullest logical consequences will be experienced by that principle.)

* The number of choices being coerced: This issue is a little more complex to understand, but it is the one that is most relevant to the claim that the government encouraging service is slavery, at least to a certain degree. Let us start off with a quote from my essay Socratic Questions about the Israel-Gaza Conflict:

3.) Who is responsible for the killing of innocents in war?

This is by far the biggest issue in the Gaza war and by far the most lazily treated by the public. The popular answer merely consists of “It is morally wrong to kill innocents in war” without further digging. We shall give this one a lengthy treatment, for not only is it the worst misconception but also the most damning one for Israel.

This is where is becomes evident that these “self-evidencies” are being asserted outside of context. Yes, it is true that killing innocents is wrong in war, but one must distinguish between the person(s) who physically carries out the killing and the person(s) that is responsible for it. Because of this failure to distinguish, people automatically assume that the responsibility of killing lies with the person who physically does it. In truth, the responsibility lays with those that have caused the situation to arise and force a person to act in such way. If Gaza had not been aggressing against its own citizens and against Israel then Israel would not have had to go on the offensive as it did, so therefore the government of Gaza is to be blamed for the casualties of innocents. To clarify our thinking for the future, do not equate killing with the notion of being automatically responsible for it, but do equate being responsible for murder as the same thing (in a moral sense) as having done the physical killing itself. To rephrase using these terms, Israel has killed civilians but the government Gaza is responsible for it in the same fashion as if its agents had done it.

But the public’s mistaken conception has done much more harm than merely misplacing responsibility; it has undermined Israel’s efforts and empowered the Hamas army. What the public failed to perceive is that some ideologies, evil ideologies nonetheless, maintain that the end being pursued is of such moral status that it becomes morally acceptable to use any means to acquire that end. As the familiar saying goes: “The end justifies the means.” Since both the majority of the United States and Israel accept the notion that the killing of innocents in war is wrong (in the context-dropping sense), Hamas is empowered by being able to exploit this ethical tenet. And so then we have the case where Hamas soldiers dress in civilian clothes, use children as helicopter spotters, and hide in civilian buildings. Israel was put in a damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don’t situation, for if they restrained themselves towards “civilians” Hamas got the upper-hand, and if they did not restrain themselves then Hamas would use the casualties as propaganda. Hamas succeeded in creating a situation where it was seemingly impossible to act morally.

Not only that, but this ethical tenet offers a deadly distraction. Consider this philosophical hypothetical:

Let us assume you are driving a trolley car. After a while on the trip, you come to three people tied to the track. You can save them by pulling a lever and changing track, but if you do that then you will set the trolley on course to where one person is tied. What should you do and why?

Nowhere in this hypothetical is there even so much as a passing mention of the person who is tying people to tracks. All the focus, and perhaps even blame, is directed at the poor soul driving the trolley, while the villain is forgotten. It works exactly in the same way in the Gaza war. By accepting that any direct killing of innocents in war is wrong, everyone has focused on how many civilians Israel has harmed while ignoring the people who put them in that situation, so Israel is blamed while Hamas is forgotten. To prevent such from happening again, we must always first ask as to why the situation has arisen to begin with instead of examining how the people have acted in it. [Quoted as is. 10/2009]

To summarize, Israel was harmed in three ways: 1.) it received blame from the world for killing civilians, even though the civilians were thrown in the line of fire by their own government; 2.) it weakened itself in the war due to accepting moral responsibility for killing civilians and acting accordingly (restraint), and, worst of all, 3.) it empowered Gaza by restraining itself and allowing attention to be diverted away from them.

We shall refer to the logic that is employed by the army of Gaza as treating coerced choices as metaphysically absolute. By metaphysically absolute I mean inherent in the nature of reality itself and independent from anyone's choices or wishes, such as the law of gravity. The logic behind this phenomena is simple: person X chooses to coercively limit the range of choices another person can choose, but when person Y picks out of this artificial set of choices X holds Y absolutely responsible for the outcome of his choice, evading the fact that person X could have chosen otherwise and allowed for other choices to be available. In the case of the army of Gaza, soldiers actively threw civilians into the line of fire, thereby limiting, or even eliminating the choice on the part of Israel to NOT fire at civilians, but when the army of Israel did fire at civilians it was held responsible as if the alternatives of firing or not firing were metaphysically absolute, i.e., it is evaded that these options do not arise as inherent in the nature of reality itself and that the army of Gaza could have chosen to do otherwise and not have put its constituents in danger.

It may surprise you that this type of logic is virtually everywhere. Have you ever heard the saying "nothing in life is certain except death and taxes"? Here taxes is treated as a metaphysical fact, completely evading that men identified it, employed it, and maintain such a practice all on their own freewill. Have you ever gotten home from school, complained about your homework load, and then had your parent state "that's life"? This gives homework a metaphysical status and evades the fact that the school officials could have exercised their freewill as to not issue homework or to issue a smaller amount. And so on.

All variants serve the same purpose: for a person or group to manipulate a set of choices available, (implicitly) deny having any choice in the matter of manipulating those choices, and then to claim the entirety of the responsibility lies with the person(s) who now have to deal with that set of choices.

Ask yourself just how far a murderer would get with this line of reasoning:

Person X is enjoying an afternoon stroll with his daughter in the park when suddenly person Y jumps out at him and pulls out a gun. Y demands that X either give up his daughter or Y will shoot him dead. X refuses to give up his daughter, and so Y shoots him dead. A police officer sees that Y has committed a murder, and so restrains him, calls an ambulance, and begins questioning the criminal. Surprisingly, Y is surprised that he is arrested. When asked, here is the exchange that occurs:

Y: But I did no wrong! I am entirely moral!
Police: What are you talking about?! I just saw you murder a man right in front of me!
Y: I did not murder him! He chose to be killed!
P: What?!
Y: I offered him a choice. He was to either give me his daughter or he was to be killed by me. Since he chose not to give me his daughter, he chose death. I merely carried out his wish.

Obviously, today that defense would not go very far, but in other cases not involving murder this logic escapes unnoticed. In the case of the Gaza war the actual murderers of the civilians go unnoticed in favor of the army that is forced to do such killing or be killed itself. In the case of taxes the politicians exempt themselves as conductors of stealing. In the case of a heavy homework load the teachers avoid being an object of frustration.

And in the case of The Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act, it is evaded that its enactment leaves people with fewer and fewer choices than to not participate and its enactors are viewed as providing "more" choices.

For one, such programs are going to be funded either by taxed money or printed money. As a result, either your income will decrease or prices will increase and you will be unable to afford the same amount of goods and services as before. As a result, you will have less to choose from. As a result, more and more people will have no other choice than to participate in these programs if they should desire to have money or to get an education.

Furthermore, the enactment of this legislation is equal to partial censorship (albeit indirectly and perhaps unintentional). When the agents of government undertake to use tax money to support one ideology, other people will have fewer funds with which to support their own ideology and will be unable to advocate their viewpoint as strongly as the government agents can advocate their stances. Plus, when the government speaks: people listen. Therefore people's choices are further limited by their knowledge; you cannot make a choice you did not know was available or a choice that was prevented from coming into existence (e.g. a business that eliminates a paid internship position due to resources being limited by taxation). Ignorant of other choices available, people will have fewer choices than to participate in these programs.

And let us not forget that some government-run schools have a service requirement for graduation, and so some people have no choice but to participate in these programs if they should want to pursue their goals, and that is slavery, however temporary.

* * * * *

Combine the first reason with the second, and given an ignorant enough people, you could have a very discreet form of slavery. Someone one once said, "If socialism comes to America, it will come without anyone knowing." The same can happen to slavery, that is, there can be a case where slavery exists but few, if any, know about it explicitly. We must break free from what slavery looks like in our imagination and understand what it is.

Consider the case of Kira Argounova of the novel We the Living. (While I know this is a fictional novel, I present this as a good illustration, especially when considering the fact the author is writing from her own experience.)

Kira lives in the Soviet Union. In this time one cannot obtain food legally except through government rations and government approved private stores. The selling of food without the government's permission is illegal. Buying food is nearly impossible by legal means, since the opening of a shop means competing with the government, a Sisyphean endeavor since the government gives away its items for no price and imposes astronomical operating costs on private businesses and the "bourgeois" in general. As a result, most shops go out of business, illegal vendors are punished, and people are left with little else but the choice of the government supplier. But there is a catch in obtaining government rations: one has to be a Soviet employee. And to be a Soviet employee one must claim to support the regime. Kira eventually manages to get a Soviet job, but has a hard time keeping it as they demand she actively remember Soviet trivia day and night, and to "prove" her support by being an activist. If she fails in one instance to show her support, she could quickly, if not instantly, lose her job.

In one particular case she is "suggested" to attend a workers' protest "voluntarily" to show her support of the regime in the face of British workers. But look at the facts. If she does not attend this protest she will lose her job, and if she loses her job she cannot obtain food rations, and if she cannot obtain food rations she will starve to death, literally not metaphorically. This is obviously enslavement of the people by their government, but as you can see here there are no whips and chains or slave masters in cotton fields; there is just the "suggestion" that one go support the Soviets, with a simple withholding of subsistence to motivate. Here a Soviet would apply the same logic we have been familiarizing ourselves with: that if Kira did not choose/could not maintain a Soviet job, she brought death upon herself by her own will (which evades the fact that she is forced from being able to sustain herself).

This is rapidly becoming the case in America today, although in a smaller degree. What the slavery amounts to today is the stealing of some time from your life to support a cause chosen as worthy by the agents of government by threat of making it harder for you to pursue your goals (e.g. making service a graduation requirement, decreasing your income and then offering service initiatives as a method of funding, and so on). While this is not absolute slavery today, it could become so if the ideal of service is not opposed at its root: the morality that claims man is not a being in his own right. Since economic disasters are the result of government intervention in the economy, and since such disasters are treated with more government intervention, that means eventually our economy could lead to total government ownership, private schools and all.

And if the agents of government still advocate the morality of altruism, they will still advocate the ideal of service, and will then be able to provide you with no choice but to participate, lest you choose to starve.

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