Posts Tagged ‘ authority

More Encryption Is Not the Solution

I’m always pleased to see the recognition that, ultimately, politics is just people with lots of weapons doing what they want. In this instance, Poul-Henning Kamp, highlights the fact with respect to encryption as a “solution” to revelations about “government” spying.


Nation-states have police forces with guns. Cryptographers and the IETF Internet Engineering Task Force do not.

Several nation-states, most notably the United Kingdom, have enacted laws that allow the police to jail suspects until they reveal the cryptographic keys to unlock their computers. Such laws open a host of due process and civil rights issues that we do not need to dwell on here. For now it is enough to note that such laws can be enacted and enforced.
. . .
Any person can have the right to privacy removed through whatever passes for judicial oversight in their country of residence, so that authorities can confirm or deny a suspicion of illegal activities.
. . .
if a nation-state decides that somebody should not have privacy, then it will use whatever means available to prevent that privacy.

via More Encryption Is Not the Solution – ACM Queue.

The article is short and worth reading. The author is clearly not an economist, “In the past quarter century, international trade agreements have been the big thing: free movement of goods across borders and oceans, to the mutual benefit of all parties. I guess we all assumed that information and privacy rights would receive the same mutual respect as property rights did in these agreements, but we were wrong.”

He also has an unhealthy optimism that the guys with the guns can be persuaded to dismantle the spy agencies (who, I’m sure, have lots of dirt on the guys with the guns); all -in-all the conclusion section is the weakest part of the paper.

Overall, his point is important: as long as institutions exist that are overwhelmingly recognized to have the right to do whatever they please up to and including caging and killing anyone who doesn’t obey, encryption will, at best, protect small handfuls of people. For people generally, a general solution is necessary, which is a delegitimization of the use of force by “government.”

Trust and Obey

Then in fellowship sweet we will sit at His feet,
Or we’ll walk by His side in the way;
What He says we will do, where He sends we will go;
Never fear, only trust and obey.

Trust and obey, for there’s no other way
To be happy in Jesus, but to trust and obey.

– Classic Creepy Hymn

For a number of reasons, I’ve been thinking, recently, about my history with religion. I’m perceived as being hostile to (most specifically) Christianity and even accused of “hating” it. I honestly don’t feel like I hate Christianity–I’m not even sure what that means–but I wanted to think through the possibility and explain my opposition to religion and why it is often so fierce.

Most atheists’[1] primary objection to religion is that it’s not true. Believers are like our primitive ancestors who think the earth is flat. The atheist can’t understand why, when faced with very clear, logical, and conclusive[2] arguments against the existence of whatever god(s) are in question, believers refuse to modify their position or admit its obvious absurdity.

The argument is about what is factually correct, and most of the “wrongness” of the religious is thought to be in their lack of understanding of reality. In this context, the argument against religion is like an argument about where the 1928 olympics were held[3] (well, ok, an argument taking place before search engines . . . and away from libraries). Somebody is right and somebody is wrong–or both might be wrong–but if everyone is convinced of their “facts,” then there’s no means by which to end the argument or make progress in any direction.

And of course this is annoying and, if the individuals in the discussion stake enough of their identity in their positions, it can even be infuriating for them. Nevertheless, it’s often enough chalked up to a difference of “opinion,” or a matter of faith, or a to-each-his-own scenario or whatever.

Religion has a much, much darker side however, which is it’s training in obedience in the face of things one is told one “can’t understand.”

This isn’t a trait of hardcore evangelical faiths (aka fundamentalism), but is a common thread throughout all varieties of religion. Religions are premised on the notion that the universe we perceive and can bring our senses and mind to bear on isn’t “real.” Beyond the senses, beyond matter and energy, there is a much greater, majestic, and eternal reality filled with spirits and, most importantly deities, that determine the fate of your eternal soul and are very interested in your choices and actions[4].
Conveniently, these Gods can’t simply tell you what you need to do. Unless you’re a Moses, Mohammad, Joseph Smith, or L. Ron Hubbard, you’re going to want the guidance of an expert–a priest, minister or other clergy. These people will help with the interpretation of religious texts at the very least and may even be in a direct chain of communication to God himself.

Baby praying--super creepy
Even though a cursory lay-persons reading of, for example, the New Testament reveals a pretty simple message–don’t hurt other people, help children, the poor, the sick and the old–the primary message of every religion is, as the song goes, Trust and Obey.

Children, obey your parents; women folk, obey your men folk; slaves, obey your masters; church members, obey the church; and everybody, obey the government[5]. Submit and obey. Obey and submit. You have been put on this earth under the supervision of various god-appointed authorities. They exist to interface with the mysteries and complexities that are beyond your comprehension and to deliver to you divinely prescribed commandments that you are to follow.

Of course, religion is not alone in this endeavor. The other authorities at the top of the previous paragraph reinforce each other. Parents tell their children to obey the church (priests, sunday school teachers) and the state (police, school teachers). The government legislates, public schools teach and elected leaders constantly harp on the need for obedience to spiritual leaders and parents (or adults more generally).

Religion adds the mystery and ritual, however, and goes beyond right and wrong, legal and illegal to a special dispensation on what is transcendentally good and evil.

These two things–1. casting doubt on the biological means of comprehending the material world (senses and reason)[6] and 2. elevating blind obedience, faith and submission to authority into the highest realms of virtue–move religion from the category of factually-and-infuriatingly-wrong to that of fundamentally-destructive-of-human-well-being.

There’s much more to say, and it’s likely that my real-life conversations about religion will inspire future posts, but I’m going to wrap this post up and leave you with the dirge that inspired this post. Warning! If you know this song, think carefully about re-subjecting yourself to it–it can stay in your head for days.

  1. [1] For the purposes of this article, I’ll refer to all manner of non-believers as atheists
  2. [2] At least, as conclusive as any argument against the existence of anything can be.
  3. [3] I tried to think of a better example: evolution, global warming, geology, but most break down along religious lines.
  4. [4] One could argue that the “personal deity” is more a description of western, abrahamic religions, but even easterners seem to receive directions to kill based on religious differences, so I’m going to cast my net widely
  5. [5] On very rare occasions these things can be in conflict, but after a brief, usually violent, sorting-out they tend to self-correct and harmonize.
  6. [6] I may follow up about this, but a really good analogy can be found in this Stephan Molyneux podcast.

The Bikecast Episode #19: What is Government?

I’ve started to think that, in many cases, the “show notes” are actually superior to the recorded material. The bikecast seems to be functioning as notes that turn into a more coherent and complete written form. When dealing with more structured topics, like this one, that tendency goes double–the notes will provide a much more complete picture than the bikecast. Hopefully they are supplementing each other well. Let me know what you think.

Download this episode of the bikecast.

I’m sensitive to the statelessness meme. With the emergence of the tea party and the reemergence of political libertarians and their sympathizers, Rand Paul among them, the topic of “the role of government” has reared its ugly head. In my perhaps fanciful personal narrative, the left-libertarian/anarcho-socialist/anti-state-pro-human, message is being repeated loudly and often enough now to register among the politically conscious. The idea of no state is being responded to, and it’s clear that the participants in the public discussion don’t have an agreed upon definition for the state–though they are uniformly terrified or dismissive of the prospect of its absence.

I myself sort of skipped a clear definition of the state in the bikecast, and operated on an unstated definition. It occurred to me that it might be worthwhile to go back and fill it in–especially given the amount of blog noise about the subject lately.
Here’s a good starting point.

A government is a compulsory territorial monopolist of ultimate decision-making (jurisdiction) and, implied in this, a compulsory territorial monopolist of taxation. That is, a government is the ultimate arbiter, for the inhabitants of a given territory, regarding what is just and what is not, and it can determine unilaterally, i.e., without requiring the consent of those seeking justice or arbitration, the price that justice-seekers must pay to the government for providing this service.

Put simply, a government claims a monopoly on the use of force. Its other powers, ultimate arbitration and taxation, stem from the monopoly of violence. I’m happy to entertain other definitions, but this one battled its way through a bunch of alternatives for me and has maintained its truth value for a couple years now. So much so that it is in the category of things that I sometimes forget “we” don’t all agree on.

Most other definitions are a cursory dressing up of this truth. The use of “authority,” “political unit,” “control,” or “administration” is a conceptual ruse to draw the mind away from the fact that the state exists and imposes the will of the rulers through violence. They don’t, however, disagree or challenge the above statement significantly.

More disingenuous are attempts to indicate the inhabitants of a geographical region as the source of government through some kind of social contract or expression of collective will. But at least this type magical thinking implies that the originator had some notion of the important questions around the nature of government.

The stuff I’ve seen over the last few weeks shows a shocking lack of even the most basic logic applied to the analysis of the state. Take Tristero @ hullabaloo

Living in society – like breathing! – is unavoidable; we can’t escape it for very long. Every society, no matter how small, has rules, ie, a government. . . . that government exists, must exist, and will always exist as long as there are humans . . . Social structures – government – are as vital to an individual as breathing. We cannot exist without governments.

See IOZ for a more thorough and hillarious refutation of the whole nonsensical post.

The idea that government == society == rules is just bizarre. If this narrative is believed then it must indeed be terrifying to imagine oneself outside the life bestowing protective shield of government. Tristero’s post seems to indicate that either 1) violence is required for rules to be followed–in which case, I’m never inviting him/her to board game night–or 2) the government doesn’t require violence to enforce it’s statutes–in which case, he/she is dangerously naive about the nature of the state in an all-to-common way.

On the same post, there’s a comment by mtraven:

There’s a libertarian syllogism that goes something like this:

1) violence (“coercion”) is bad
2) government has a monopoly on violence
3) therefore, if we get rid of government, we get rid of violence!

The first two premises are roughly true, but the conclusion rather obviously doesn’t follow. But it’s amazing how much libertardian reasoning reduces to this form.

Boy, aren’t libertardians dumm! It’s possible that there’s some young, sheltered libertarian who thinks that all human interaction is peaceful and voluntary except those involving the state. I imagine such a person would be one hell-of-a-fantastic human being, albeit naive.

Most of the rest of non-political libertarians certainly understand that people use violence to solve problems outside of government. Guess what? That’s bad too! What’s really fucking stupid is jumping back and forth between booing and cheering when the story of a murder unfolds: “a guy shot an unarmed man in the back” (boooo!), “but he was a police officer and the man was a drug dealer” (yayy!); “a village full of shepherds and their families was vaporized” (boooo!), “by a US airstrike to protect America!” (yaayyy!).

Either killing or threatening to kill people as part of social interaction is wrong or it isn’t. If it’s wrong, then the state cannot function morally. If it isn’t wrong, then we should expect that people will use it in social interactions. The state claims that violence is a legitimate way of achieving goals. As long as enough people agree the state will continue to use violence. Spousal abusers, child abusers, violent racists, and the like claim that violence is a legitimate way of achieving goals. As long as enough people agree, they will continue to be violent. It’s tempting to imagine that violence can be compartmentalized (state violence is good, private violence is bad), but the government is just a concept. In reality one person is actually hitting, kidnapping, stealing from, or killing another person. The morality of the situation doesn’t change because the aggressor self-applies a concept (police, soldier, parent, spouse).

BTW, kudos to the commenter for a least sort of admitting points 1 and 2!

I linked to this salon article a couple of bikecasts ago, but it displays a narrative similar to the one above, albeit more sophisticated.

. . .we got capitalism in the first place through a long process of flirtation between governments on the one hand, and bankers and merchants on the other, culminating in the Industrial Revolution . . . Get it? The government didn’t just help make the “free market” in the first place — although it did do that.

To be fair, I’ve introduced, with this quote, a couple additional words typically ill-defined in peoples’ minds. When the author talks about capitalism and free markets, he’s referring to state corporatism–and yes, it does require a state to do that. But to trade? To produce and exchange? To organize complex social structures to tend to peoples’ needs? These things were clearly done, in many contexts, before the police and legislators pointed their weapons and demanded a cut. They still are done in defiance of statutes in a whole host of cases (see “illegal” labor, drug trade, agorism, mutual aid). The ideas that 1) we should be thankful that the state has done such a great job of protecting bloated, vile corporations that should have ceased to exist decades ago, and 2) beneficial and thriving economic activity is predicated on the existence of government, are both examples of deeply flawed, ahistorical, statist propaganda. They are also widely believed.

Alot of what I consider achievable freedom is the freedom from illusion. I don’t think that society will be free anytime soon of the small groups of violent sociopaths who direct the robbing, imprisonment and war waging on the rest of humanity. But I can be free of the illusion that they’re somehow my creation necessary for my existence and that I owe them some kind of allegiance and gratitude. Once this myth is sufficiently widely dispelled, and enough minds are freed from the narrative that people are incapable of peaceful interaction, the sociopaths will have to find other ways of making a living. They cannot exist without a critical mass of legitimizing worshipers.

Other notes:
In the bikecast, I also reference Andrew Tobias’ post. He’s arguing that the government is the agency which takes from the rich to give to the poor and that this is a necessary function. He doesn’t really ask the obvious question: “Does the state take from the rich and give to the poor?” the answer to which would challenge his claim that this is a necessary function of government.

Education, Schooling, and John Gatto

“We want one class to have a liberal education.  We want another class, a very much larger class of necessity, to forgo the privilege of a liberal education and fit themselves to perform specific difficult manual tasks.” — Woodrow Wilson

Education and school have been the subject, direct or tangential, of a number of posts lately.  Most notably this fantastic, honest piece about Antigone’s school experience.  Government schooling is an emotionally charged subject since most of us attended school every non-summer weekday for 12+ years.  Many of us are sending or planning to send our children to this institution for the same duration.

The “public education” narrative is that the fabric of our civic society is founded on universal, compulsory education.  According to this narrative, the difficult and time consuming job of distilling curricula and applying it to individuals and groups of children in a scientifically validated manner should be left to state-certified professionals, freeing the parents for work more suited to their specific talents.  Deviating from this model will result in a society in which only the sufficiently wealthy and privileged will receive the education to succeed in life while the poor will not have access to the tools to remove themselves from poverty.  Additionally, many adults will not be capable of critical thought, but will instead learn about gods, ghosts, creationism, and a worldview supporting racism, nationalism, sexism and homophobia.  As with most state-centered narratives, the consequences it claims will inevitably occur are already manifest all around us.  State education has been, if not wholly responsible, at least a large component in creating the reality that we’re told we should fear.

The purpose of this post is to introduce and wildly recommend the works of John Taylor Gatto.  He was a teacher for 30 years, was awarded New York City teacher of the year 3 times and retired after winning New York State teacher of the year in 1991.  He’s got a handful of books–an online version of one is available via the prior link–plus he and his former students have been covered fairly regularly in mainstream’ish media.

My prescient partner Alisa got me a collection of his essays, A Different Kind of Teacher: Solving the Crisis of American Schooling, during my brief stint as a high-school math teacher.  I expected it to be a motivational, Lean on Me style book.  Instead it was The People’s History of the United States, shredding everything I had previously been taught and understood about the role of state education in society.  Anyone who wants to speak authoritatively about education reform and definitely anyone who is considering how their own children are or will be educated would benefit tremendously from Gatto’s experience and research.

Well, that’s kindof it for the post–more of a slightly-too-large-for-a-comment-comment.  I am comforted by the fact that, should you read a few dozen pages of his work, your mind will be sufficiently blown to justify this recommendation.

I will leave you with  a couple sample passages with links to the relevant resources to tempt your palette:

There were vast fortunes to be made, after all, in an economy based on mass production and organized to favor the large corporation rather than the small business or the family farm. But mass production required mass consumption, and at the turn of the twentieth century most Americans considered it both unnatural and unwise to buy things they didn’t actually need. Mandatory schooling was a godsend on that count. School didn’t have to train kids in any direct sense to think they should consume nonstop, because it did something even better: it encouraged them not to think at all. And that left them sitting ducks for another great invention of the modem era – marketing. — Harper’s Magazine (easier to read in this reprint)

Something in the structure of schooling calls forth violence. While latter-day schools don’t allow energetic physical discipline, certainly they are state-of-the-art laboratories in humiliation, as your own experience should remind you. In my first years of teaching I was told over and over that humiliation was my best friend, more effective than whipping. I witnessed this theory in practice through my time as a teacher. If you were to ask me now whether physical or psychological violence does more damage, I would reply that slurs, aspersion, formal ranking, insult, and inference are far and away the more deadly. Nor does law protect the tongue-lashed. — The Underground History of American Education (the entire book is available online)

I will tell you this – a kid who learns to read at five, and a kid who learns to read
at 9, will be indistinguishable to each other at the age of fourteen, assuming
they both like what they’re doing. On the other hand, we can say its too
inconvenient, or too expensive, to allow that and impose a learning curve in
first grade that produces this wonderful bell, we can then assign the people on
the fringes of the bell to special ed and the people in the middle of the bells
– the walls of the curve – to the dull classes and so on. And we will create a
class system by simply doing that. Inside of a year or two, the kids will impose
that kind of class system on themselves! It’s a phenomenally intricate, but
rather easy to unravel puzzle there – reading is pathetically easy to teach, you
assume that once you assemble 30 people in a room, and do it in the same
routines, that you’ll fail to teach it to some of them, that this bell will
appear, and the atmosphere in the classroom is that the humiliation of being a
dull reader or bad reader will never wear off. You can predict the rise of a
giant remediation industry.  — Interview with Jerry Brown

Authority and Social Organization

Authority is a common thread of many of the topics that I am interested in thinking/blogging about. We on the political fringes have an interesting relationship with the concept of authority and I imagine it (and related concepts that I have in mind to bring up later) will provide a nearly endless resource for examination and introspection.

Authority originally meant the legitimate power to achieve a given end. This brings together the physical dominance to impose one’s will and the assent of the dominated that such dominance was just. Modern conceptions also allow for non-dominance based authority. Someone like the pope, for example, cannot (any longer) marshal armies to impose his (god’s?) will on man. And yet, he can bend outcomes to his desire because he is seen by many as a legitimate director of human affairs.

I have a very ambivalent relationship to authority. This ambivalence plagues the left-half of the political spectrum. The right has no problem legitimizing the unleashing of any amount of violence on anyone who opposes the United States government–an extension of the legitimacy accorded to the unleashing of violence on women who oppose the will of men, children who oppose the will of parents, and other “traditional” relationships based on dominance.

The natural tendency, then, is to eschew authority all-together. This may be the best, albeit utopian, alternative. In a given real-world, situation, however, I am beginning to find authority of the non-violent kind to be constructive and emotionally comforting. The essential requirement for ‘good’ authority, if such a thing exists, is that it must accord with my subjectively experienced self-interest.

The Dinner Party

The other night, 15 or so friends and acquaintances gathered together to make a spectacular dinner. Nobody had access to “old-school” authority–nobody would have stood for someone physically threatening somebody else to perform some task. If this had been a family dinner, the social dynamic may have allowed for such things, but in this setting, it wouldn’t have even entered anyone’s mind to do so.

And yet, authorities emerged. The chefs, whom everyone recognized as the only people who knew how to make the dishes, handed out tasks, gave directions and provided feedback. No one challenged their status as those whose will we collectively sought to realize. The host provided authority over other matters, which tools should be used, where work areas to use, how to deal with waste, and so forth. I “authorized” them to lead me because I knew that their aim was to create food and an enjoyable environment in which to eat. I am especially grateful for their authority in the matter because I have no idea what I’m doing in a kitchen.

Of course, this is exactly the organic, self-organizing and non-violent social structure that like to imagine organizing education, health, security and so forth. But I don’t want to mentally derail the post reader with these thoughts–at least not entirely.

I have had enough experience with dominance-based authority that, at one point, any hint of hierarchy would cause an immediate emotional and physical reaction. By surrounding myself with good people, as much as possible, I am learning about new ways to relate to those who need my help to manifest their will in the world. Even something as simple (actually, it wasn’t that simple) as making dinner allowed me to experience a different emotional and physical circumstance with respect to social organization. I am grateful to my friends for the experience.