Friday, November 23, 2012

Preaching to the Choir

The recent election in the United States, the reactions to it, and the news of the looming “fiscal cliff” in which rising taxes and decreased government spending are said to threaten driving the economy into a second recession or worse unless the President and Congress (particularly the House of Representatives, which is dominated by the party the competes with the President’s party) can reach a compromise agreement have served as reminders of how polarized the country has become.  Compromise seems to be getting more and more difficult.  There is a tendency among not just politicians but people of all political ideologies – conservative, liberal, and libertarian – to think of those who do not share their opinions to be at best misguided and at worst extreme and dangerous.  We tend to associate mostly with people who share our opinions and reinforce our belief that they are correct and based on reality.  We read books, watch television programs, listen to radio programs, and view websites and blogs that reinforce our opinions and avoid those that express a contrary opinion.  I am as guilty of this as anyone.  There are a couple of reasons why we should resist this tendency and communicate with those who have ideologies that differ from our own.   One reason is expressive, a reason why we should express our ideas to those with whom we disagree, and another is receptive, a reason why we should seek out opinions different from our own and examine them seriously.  The expressive reason is that we can’t spread our ideas by preaching to the choir.  Trying to convince those who are already convinced is not productive; to continue with the religious analogy, we need to leave the congregation at least once in a while and go out and become missionaries.  The receptive reason is that some of what we believe may be false and some of what we don’t believe may be true.  We should be grateful to those who help us align our beliefs with the truth.  Even people we distrust or despise most of the time are right some of the time.  We should recognize that and learn from it.
There should be a forum for open-minded people of all ideologies to get together to debate and share ideas in a civil manner.  Certain ground rules would have to be followed.  Each person would promise to be open to new ideas even from those with whom he disagrees most of the time.  In return, he would have an audience for his ideas that would be open to being persuaded.  It would be a place in which attacks on ideas would be encouraged, but attacks on personalities would not be tolerated.  A visitor to such a place would be exposed to a wide variety of ideas that he might find both entertaining and enlightening.  It might be a blog with a number of contributors from all perspectives.  It might be a magazine.  It might be a show on television or radio.  There have been some efforts along this line, such as “The Five” on Fox News Channel, in which four conservatives gang up on one liberal, or “The View “on ABC, in which the liberals gang up on the lone conservative.  Sometimes conservatives appear as guests on shows dominated by liberals and the other way around.  However, there never seems to be balance, and the problem with television format typically used is that everyone seems to be trying talk over everyone else, with no one listening, which is annoying and not enlightening to the viewer.  A blog or Internet site seems the best format because it can be timely, inexpensive to operate, and avoids the problem of everyone talking over everyone else.  I have toyed with the idea of creating such a blog, or turning this one into such a blog, but frankly, I don’t know if I have the time or the ambition right now.  I mean so far, my blog posts have been sparse and irregular.  The last one was in May and it is now November.  However, I do have some acquaintances who are liberal but who seem to be respectful of people with conservative and libertarian ideas and, being a combination of conservative and libertarian myself, I have some friends with conservative and libertarian opinions.  So, here is the plan:  I plan on contacting people whom I know to have liberal political views who seem to be respectful and civil and ask them to point me to the sources of information (books, blogs, television programs, etc.) that seem to them to best explain the liberal ideology and which they think would be most convincing to someone who does not share their ideology - yet.  I have some ideas of my own about sources of information about conservative and libertarian ideas.  Naturally, I hope to convince rather than be convinced, but I am willing to read, watch, or listen to anything that might change my mind in return for persons with political ideology completely different from mind to so the same.
Whoever reads this can help out in this project is asked to help.  Whether you are conservative, liberal, libertarian or have some political ideology that I haven’t mentioned, please comment about what books, articles, blogs, or whatever you think is most likely to persuade someone that your ideology is the correct one.  I will start off with one of mine:  The book The Road to Serfdom by F.A. Hayek is an excellent explanation of why, in spite of the best of intentions, socialism tends to lead to totalitarianism.  I challenge any liberal to read it and tell me he or she has not learned something.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Time for Constitutional Convention 2.0?

One of the best things about the Constitution of the United States of America is that it created a process for amending the Constitution. The people that created the constitution (who are called the “framers” in political science literature) knew that despite all the work they put into it the Constitution was not perfect. Even if it had been perfect for the time in which it was written, many things have changed. In the almost 225 years of its existence, the Constitution has been amended 27 times. Although Article V of the Constitution provides two separate ways of proposing amendments, every one of the amendments has been proposed by the same method. The means of proposing amendments that has always been used has been a vote by a two-thirds majority of both the House of Representatives and the Senate. The means that has never been used successfully (the process was started, but not completed) is the calling of a convention for the purpose of proposing amendments upon application by two-thirds of the states. It is time we started thinking about using the constitutional convention process. Relying on Congress as the only means of proposing amendments means that the only amendments that are proposed are the ones that Congress finds convenient. If there is a need for an amendment that reduces the power or prestige of the Congress or its members or which Congress finds to be inconvenient, it is highly unlikely to be proposed. For example, the 22nd Amendment limits the President of the United States to two terms. Congress would never propose a similar amendment limiting the number of terms of office of members of Congress: they could limit the terms of the President because the President has no role in the process of amending the Constitution. Polls have shown that the American public is losing faith in Congress as an institution. It doesn’t make sense for an institution in which the American public has so little faith to have exclusive control over proposing amendments. It is time to give more control to the people and the states.

The method of proposing an amendment to the Constitution that has not yet been used successfully is that of a convention for proposing amendments that Congress calls on the application of two-thirds of the states. Such a convention is referred to in political science literature as an “Article V” convention, because Article V is the part of the Constitution that says how the Constitution is to be amended. There are a number of problems involved in applying for and calling an Article V convention, and much of the problem comes from the wording of Article V itself. For example, there is no standard about what an application by a state for an Article V convention is. Must a state call for a convention that may then make whatever amendments it wants and as many as it wants, or can a state restrict its application to calling for a convention that is restricted to proposing one amendment on a specific subject matter? If several states apply for Article V conventions regarding amendments on similar subjects, how is the decision made about whether they are about the same subject matter? Who keeps track of how many applications are submitted? May a state retract an application for a convention once it has applied? How is representation at a convention apportioned – by population or be each state having an equal number of delegates? Who chooses delegates to a convention and by what method? In order to keep any potential Article V convention from becoming a big controversial mess, I propose first that Article V itself be amended to clear up these issues.

In future posts, I intend to discuss the history of applications by states for an Article V convention, the problems with the process that the history reveals, and specific suggestions I have to clean up the mess. Meanwhile, I ask readers of this blog to participate in the discussion. If you could propose amendments to the Constitution, what amendments would you propose? Some people have suggested that an Article V convention could degenerate into a “runaway convention” proposing many amendments that could do harmful things such as limiting the rights protected by the Bill of Rights. Others think that the fact that amendments needed to be ratified either by three-fourths of the states or be conventions in three-fourths of the states (whichever method of ratification is proposed by Congress) prevents a possible runaway convention from being a realistic threat. What do you think? Post a comment with your thoughts. Comments may not be available for others to view right away because I moderate the comments.

Tuesday, April 03, 2012

There Ought to be a Law, But Not So Many

The fact that the last time I published anything on my blog was July 16, 2011 make it seem that I am missing the whole point of having one, but I have been finishing up a Master of Arts degree from American Public University in Political Science and writing for the courses there has drained my energy for writing. I have now finished the requirements for the degree (with honors); conferral date is May 15. It will be my fourth degree, which makes me nearly as much of an education junkie as my wife Sandy, who has six. Now that I am done writing about things because I have to, I can write about things because I want to. Sandy also has ambition to do more writing, both on her own and in collaboration with others and me. A couple of topics that interest me are (1) the rule of law (2) Article V of the United States Constitution, the one about how the Constitution is amended. I intend to write more about both topics in later posts, but let me get started scratching the surface of one of those two topics, the rule of law. Plato sparked my interest in the rule of law when I read about an observation of his in my course on the history of political philosophy. Plato observed that lawlessness does not mean the absence of laws. It can also mean the habitual disregard of laws by the government, especially those laws that are meant to restrain it. A government that can change laws merely because it finds current laws to be inconvenient is lawless. He made that observation more than 2000 years ago. It occurred to me that we are currently developing a type of lawlessness caused laws that are too numerous, too complicated, and even laws that contradict other laws. It is becoming more difficult to be a law-abiding citizen because to obey the law, one must be able to know what the law is (or at least be able to find out what it is with reasonable effort), be able to understand it, and not be forced into a situation in which to obey one law one must disobey another. In most cases it is easier to obey laws that are harsh and unreasonable than laws that cannot be understood, are too numerous to follow, are contradictory, or can be interpreted in unpredictable ways by an adjudicator. Since I am writing this in early April and haven’t filed my income tax returns, the example that springs first to mind of a set of laws that is way too complicated is the Internal Revenue Code, or what it would be named if names of acts of Congress were more accurate – the Attorneys and Accountants Full Employment Act. If the only goal of the federal income tax were to raise revenue, the Internal Revenue Code would be simple and complying with it would be uncomplicated. However, the Internal Revenue Code has developed multiple goals that are designed to engineer behavior – to encourage behavior that the federal government approves of and to discourage behavior that it does not approve of. More recent examples of laws that are not only large and complicated by themselves (over 2000 pages each) but invite countless regulations to be written to further complicate the lives of people in regulated industries trying to obey the law are the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (otherwise known as Obamacare) and the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act. I have much more to say about the rule of law, but that will have to wait until later. Meanwhile, I would appreciate comments from readers about personal experiences regarding difficulty following laws because of their volume or complexity or situations in which following one law required disobeying another. Comments reflecting a different viewpoint are also welcome.