Faith in the Real World

I read an interview a couple years ago that has stuck with me in odd ways. Some magazine interviewed the inventor of the Ethernet (not a tool for catching the Ether bunny). Ethernet is the most popular way to network computers in a close geographical area. I have a small Ethernet network here at home, and any of you who have a network connection at work probably use Ethernet, too. Before the Ethernet concept, network traffic was highly regulated in order to insure that no data was lost in transition. There were strict rules--each computer had to know exactly where the data was headed and then wait for the right time to send it that way. In order for a computer to send data to another computer it had to map out the route and then wait for the block of time that the network allocated for data to head to that route.

The Ethernet changed all that. The key change for the Ethernet was nothing less than a leap of faith. In fact, that is the source for the name "Ether"net. In this new network, each computer just sends its data out (into the Ether) whenever if feels like it. Each computer simply exercises the "faith" that the data will be taken up and delivered to the correct destination. It works best when each "node" (computer) just assumes that the other nodes will understand the routing information attached to the data and push it on to the next station. This assumed competence is the heart of the Ethernet. Each computer knows the rules and assumes that the others will as well. Since each computer doesn't have to do all the mapping and routing, a lot of time is saved and the whole network goes a great deal faster. That faith creates efficiency. At the time, many people assumed that this faith would crash the network. Because scientists couldn't see and predict what would happen, they assumed that the result would be chaos. When the pioneer in faith (I wish I could remember his name, he died recently and I should try to at least remember who he was) ignored his critics and simply built his network, he showed that their fears were unjustified and the speed increases were, well, compelling.

The reason this concept has stuck with me so long is that the lesson learned by the Ethernet is not just a technological one. This principle of faith has been used profitably in many networks relying on complex routing. FedEx built a business around it despite the proposal earning a C from the professor it was originally submitted to. Wherever you have systems that interconnect, you will see benefits provided by faith between the components.

Our founding fathers knew this over two hundred years ago. They created a system of faith between interconnected individuals and adopted a system that left each component free to make its own decisions--determine its own route in the network. At the heart of freedom is faith. This fundamental principle is the foundation of our representative democracy. Freeing each individual to their own pursuits in a land rich in resources has created, in time, the most powerful nation currently on Earth. This is essentially the message of the Libertarians.

There are two problems with this over-rosy picture. First, there is a vital companion to freedom that is often over looked--much to our peril. In order for freedom to prosper, an underlying rule of law must exist. This is easy to establish in artificial environments like computer or package networks. Fundamental rules and infrastructure are provided in these systems that allow the faith of the system to have power. In human systems, this rule of law is needed in order to prevent people from having power over others unfairly. Basic guards to our freedom have to exist if our faith is to have any power to enhance our lives. Rules must exist to enforce contracts, prevent coercion, and protect property. The efficient growth of our economy is insured when people are free to contract with each other for their needs and they need to have recourse when those contracts are breached (to prevent swindlers). Leaving each unit (family) to fend for itself can seem cruel or neglectful, but is the key to our prosperity for as long as we remember to provide a system to enforce contracts, prevent coercion, and protect property.

The second problem with this system is our waning faith. We live in an age when people express increasing doubt in the capability and integrity of their fellow citizens. An increasing call in our society is to "protect" various groups from, well, often from themselves. They want to help them, to determine their course for them. Help is nice, but helping people by determining their course breaks the whole system down. If a node (computer) on a network insisted that certain packets couldn't be trusted to arrive safely on their own and decided to regulate the route in order to ensure arrival, not only is the intended packet delayed from its goals, but the whole network suffers a slow down as the route is hardened temporarily and that packet delivered. This is what is happening in our school systems right now as people determine that families aren't capable of determining the best avenue of learning for their children. The result is a hardened system that is frozen in order to hand-deliver certain packets that are feared to otherwise be lost--at a per-pupil cost that is twice the private school average.

And before you think I'm talking about liberals alone, consider that the same fear exists in other industries as they seek the hardening of their own routing systems. The United States sugar industry, for example, benefits from import tariffs that effectively double the retail price of sugar. This tariff limits your freedom to buy sugar at a lower price--oh, and anything that contains sugar is affected as well.

It is no coincidence that lately any new technology that streamlines our economy is introduced to us in terms of how many jobs it will cost. We seem to lack the faith that the people displaced by the new systems will be able to work at other positions in our economy. This lack of faith leads us to make poor decisions that end up hurting many more than it helps by denying new efficiencies that free people to work in capacities that are now more important to all of us. It is good news when the position of a worker in a factory becomes automated, because the labor of that worker can now be utilized in a manner that produces more benefit to all. I know that seems a callous analysis of the despair of a family that must search for new employ. And certainly, there is no small discomfort for those affected as they try to find new positions that will suit them. It would be easier on them if we hand-delivered them to a new destination. But that very hand-delivering (or worse, preventing the implementation of efficient processes) taxes the entire system, slowing everything down and eventually, costs everybody (including those protected) more than a temporary reshuffling will.

Please don't misunderstand. I do not mean that all assistance is useless in our economy and that displaced families should have no assistance. All I am saying is that they should not have protection. By following our instincts to protect (and encouraging the instincts to be protected), we take an inappropriate role in the workings of individuals capable of fulfilling their own routing needs. Displaced families, or even industries, should be left to determine their own course of action given their resources, abilities, situations and inclinations. Any assistance given them should be careful to support that autonomy and very wary of usurping it. Our ancestors understood this principle well when they taught the autonomy of the family and the responsibility of each to look after their own. Looking after your own used to be the way that society showed faith in their neighbors, the faith that they would each route their lives in a way pleasing to them, with an underlying assumption that we could expect them to live up to their promises and contracts. Communities were built and segregated by specialty, not by force and assigned allotment, but by one family choosing to supply food (a farm), one family choosing to buy goods from outside and sell them to their neighbors (a local merchant), one family choosing to pool excess resources to provide them to other families in need of temporary support (a bank). Others chose to ferry goods from one community to another, or connect communities by train, caravan or ship.

Those who consider the "look after your own" principle discredited seek to run the lives of others by restricting what they can or cannot do with their resources. You cannot use your land according to your best judgment because we fear you won't value it highly enough (environmental protection). You cannot use your labor according to your best judgment because we fear you don't value your labor enough (minimum wage). You cannot use imported cars because you do not value domestic cars highly enough (import tariffs). You cannot hire who you want for a job because you might not value the right people enough (affirmative action). You cannot interfere with the established education system because we fear you do not know what is best for your children (don't get me started). All of these represent a loss of faith in the judgment of our neighbors. These are examples where people allow their fears to corrupt the necessary rule of law to purposes that end up weakening instead of supporting our freedoms.

Watch people who want to protect you very carefully. If they aren't providing basic rule of law, then they are sending clear signals that they don't trust you. Beware of any law that seeks to piggyback on the needed functions of government to force people to have the same values they do. It's one thing to protect you from a thug who wants your wallet. It is quite another to want to protect you from the natural vicissitudes of life.

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17. August 2001 10:23 by Jacob | Comments (0) | Permalink

Controlling Government

I've been reading a lot lately about what the constitution does and does not say. So, just for kicks, I went and read the thing (available from the government if you get a similar urge). I looked for two things, mainly. First, I wanted to see in what ways the federal government was justified in taking our money in the first place. Second, I wanted to see in what ways the federal government was justified in spending our money on all the crap currently in our federal budget.

Well, the first thing that occurred to me is that the vast majority of the constitution is concerned with the mechanics of choosing our representatives. Who can vote, who can run, that kind of thing. This is significant, but I'll return to it later.

On the first point, it turns out that the original constitution allows the federal government to make any taxes that are not individual or based on capitation. i.e. no taxes on individuals. It leaves the federal government able to tax literally any transaction if feels like. They can tax sales, or transportation, or mail delivery, or creating a business, etc. A later amendment (the 16th) then gives the federal government the unlimited authority to tax income (business and private) as long as it is based on universal rules and not targeted at individuals. That amendment was, in my opinion, a huge mistake, but there you have it. One article I read said that the 1909 amendment debates considered capping the amount of income taxable at 10%, but that limitation was voted down on the basis that no congress would be crazy enough to raise taxes that high.

So that means that the federal government is perfectly in its rights to raise all the taxes we currently pay to them.

On the second point, I thought I was in the clear for my gripes against continued federal funding of social security, welfare and other poorly run bureaucratic nightmares. I didn't find anything in the constitution that would allow spending outside of the military, sciences, the arts and some other, specific regulatory functions. Unfortunately, I brought this up in a learned gathering. While there, a certain clause was pointed out to me that is very small, but wide in its implications. It's called the general welfare clause and calling it that is pretty much as long as the clause itself. The clause is in the very first article section 8 "The Congress shall have power to ... provide for the common defense and general welfare of the United States; but all duties, imposts and excises shall be uniform throughout the United States". Note that the general welfare clause is kind of buried there. That's how I missed it.

The effect of the general welfare clause is that the federal government can spend money on anything it wants to, as long as it can claim it is a benefit. Right now, that is interpreted so wide that literally anything fits under the general clause as long as it isn't targeted at a specific individual or region. That means it has to be based on some governing principle and not on individual instances (for example, disaster relief as a policy as opposed to disaster relieve for Florida residents only). Personally, I'd like to raise the bar (so that general welfare includes at least 50% of the population), but frankly, anything goes under the original wording and the current interpretation is certainly justifiable.

So what good is the constitution anyway, if it gives so much power to the federal government? Well, remember what I said earlier about the bulk of the constitution being taken up by procedural rules? I think that is the real genius of the constitution. Those procedures do two things that are extremely important. The first is that the constitution splits up the power of government in the three branches. This is important because it ensures a great deal of gridlock. I like government gridlock. Every time some media outlet or activist group gripes at gridlock, I am thankful for the foresight of our founders in creating a naturally gridlocked system. Budget battles? Do-nothing congress? Good. Please give me more of the same.

The second thing that occurs to me about the genius of the constitution is that it is designed to make sure we have a better government than we deserve. The federal government has a lot of discretion in interpreting the constitution. They have to have that kind of discretion in order to provide for important things (and some things do need to be handled at the federal level, I just think that it's a lot fewer things than most people think it is). The only check on rampant reinterpretation and grabs for power is that we get to elect representatives. The aggregation of these representatives, coupled with the natural gridlock at that level, conspires to give us a deliberative body that will on the whole tend to be unable to control and limit good people, yet gives them incentives to control and limit evil or corrupting people.

The only thing I can see that would improve the representative system is to take steps to make representation tighter. Right now, we are represented by people we just don't know and have no way of knowing. We are forced to elect people based on their public presentations and the depictions of an increasingly partisan press. I would very much like to explore systems that would make representation a little more like it was originally when it was far more likely to either know a candidate directly or at least know of them through personal channels. With our current population, this would substantially increase the size of congress unless we did something radical like introducing further layers of representation (representatives electing representatives electing representatives etc.).

Anyway, my point has become this: you can stop looking to the constitution to save you. It won't. It has no power to. If you really want to improve our government, you are going to have to first improve the people. It just doesn't work to go the other direction. I really do believe that we have a better government than we deserve. We are very fortunate to live in the United States of America. There is no better country on the planet at this time. I'm very glad I live here. Don't let my griping fool you. I've lived in another (first world) country and there just is no comparison. But we stand in very real danger today and we will feel the consequences of our choices for generations as we work so hard to destroy the moral foundations of our people.

5. October 2000 13:13 by Jacob | Comments (0) | Permalink

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