• Tag Archives social contract
  • Las Vegas Shooting Prompts Reminder of How the Social Contract Should Work

    We don’t elect people to condole and pray. We elect them to solve public policy problems. When one man can equip himself with enough firepower to kill dozens, injure hundreds, and terrorize tens of thousands in a single violent act, we have a public policy problem that cuts to the core of why we form a society.

    We live under a Constitution and laws instead of under thatched roofs in the wilderness because we got tired of living under the constant threat of rape, rapine, enslavement, and violent death. On our own, our lives, loved ones, and belongings are only as secure as we can make them by our own force of arms. If we want to hold on to anything more than a bundle we can carry at a full sprint—a collection of good books, a sturdy tepee, a pregnant wife—we must amass strength—muscle, weapons, family and friends willing to fight beside us. We must stand ever at the ready to use that strength, to do violence to all comers.

    That constant vigilance gets tiring. The man who is always ready to kill on a moment’s notice cannot rest to enjoy his books, his tepee, or his wife and children. His murderous alert and exertions may well go for naught, for among all comers, there is always a killer who wakes while the man sleeps. No matter how hard a man works, he can always find a rival with a stronger fist, a better bow, more friends, or more treasures to bribe the man’s wife and friends to betray him. Principles like love and loyalty often count for squat against raw power in the state of nature.

    We escape such solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short lives by entering the social contract. We all go in together on creating laws that we all will follow. We all chip in for a government to enforce those laws. And, most importantly for today’s discussion, we all agree to give up amassing our own personal armories and armies and any intention of waging our own personal wars. Enforcing the law and securing our lives, wives, and property become the mostly exclusive purview of the government, of all of us working together to protect each other. We prohibit any party to the social contract—individual or institution—from amassing so much power that it poses a threat to the balance of rights we are supposed to enjoy under the social contract. We even check the government’s power—through the Constitution, elections, separate branches, federalism, an independent press, initiative and referendum—to ensure that even if an unfit tyrant manages to take over the government, the general public still has refuge from and remedy to his tyranny.

    Consider, then, the power that Stephen Paddock carried into his final room at the Mandalay Bay Hotel in Las Vegas last night. He had ten rifles, at least one of them able to fire at a remarkably fast pace, fast enough to wound or kill one person per second.

    Who in civil society needs ten rifles?

    Who in civil society needs a stockpile of ammunition capable of imperiling the lives of 22,000 people?

    We have understood since the beginnings of civil society that a mere social contract, an agreement among neighbors to follow the same rules and obey a common government or else, does not stop certain dolts or dastards from risking or else. No legal measure that America’s latest mass shooting may inspire—banning assault rifles, requiring storage of anything bigger than a six-shooter (or at least the ammo, à la Suisse) in a public armory, mandatory training and testing for gun permits, bulletproof glass on every public building—will guarantee that America will not experience another mass shooting. Finite laws cannot preclude humanity’s infinite sinfulness and stupidity.

    But the imperfectability of the social contract should not stop us from trying to make it better. The fact that some sociopaths will keep finding ways to kill does not mean we should refrain from outlawing their killing or making that killing harder.

    Most importantly, within a healthy social contract, nothing should stop us from outlawing behavior for which there is no good reason. Allowing one man to accumulate, not to mention use, the power to kill, injure, and terrorize thousands of his neighbors at once fundamentally violates the balance of power that we expect from the social contract.

    If our social contract cannot forbid the kind of anti-social behavior in which Stephen Paddock engaged before he walked into the Mandalay Bay Hotel, we might as well give up our thoughts and prayers, retreat to our thatched huts in the woods, and stay up all night, slings and arrows in hand, forever at war with every fellow man.

  • Notes from the Campaign Trail: Faith, Death, and the Social Contract

    While out canvassing last night, I fell into a conversation with a couple of Franklin Graham voters—i.e., fundagelicals who accept Graham’s easy thesis that if we just elect godly leaders, everything else will work out. I replied that I have yet to see any reliable correlation between a person’s professions of faith and their practical efficacy and trustworthiness. (See also Scott Westerhuis.)

    My neighbors turned the conversation to the ultimate question (and yes, I know, bad canvassing—we’re well beyond the effective 30-second window, I should be knocking on more doors, not talking theology and social contract) of what happens when we die. I acknowledged that, given the way I bicycle and some Aberdonians drive, that could well be ten minutes from now. The lady of the house said the most important thing in life is to be ready for death and the Lord’s judgment that follows.

    I disagreed as respectfully as I could. Calling on Socrates, I said we know nothing for sure. (I know! the wife insisted. I know what happens when we die and what we must do to be ready… and I can’t bridge that gap.) We may adopt on faith certain assumptions and assurances to get us through our days, but having never died, we do not know what happens when we die. No amount of mortal discourse or earthly empiricism will prove that our souls ascend or descend, reincarnate, or switch off like a fridge in a power outage.

    While we know nothing for sure, I know some things more surely than others and far more surely than I know the ultimate fate of our souls. I know, with a practical and much substantiated confidence, that I live and enjoy liberty, learning, and leisure because I exist in a community, in society, not in anarchy. I know that I enjoy the benefits of society because a lot of people before me did a lot of work to create civic institutions that sustain society and give us the chance to raise families in relative safety, to create and invent, and to help others. I know that more people are coming after me who deserve as much of a chance at life, liberty, and property as I do. I thus feel an obligation to keep society going for those coming people, to maintain the schools, roads, courts, parks, and other social institutions we have and maybe build some new ones (e.g., asteroid defense, colonies on Mars and Titanstarships) that enhance my descendants’ chances of survival and opportunity to sit around thinking about answers to unanswerable questions.

    I don’t know for sure what happens to me when I die. I do know, absent Apocalypse, what happens to everyone else: they go on living. They go on dealing with whatever earthly messes I leave behind. It seems both practical and decent that all of us, believers and nonbelievers, heaven- and dust-bound, try to keep those messes to a minimum, that we leave our planet and our democracy in better shape (Second Law of Thermodynamics, another certainty even Socrates would concede, be darned!) than we found it when we woke up to life.

    That’s another reason I runPedal pedal, knock knock….

  • Van Gerpen’s Law: Increasing Taxes Decreases Freedom

    Senator Bill Van Gerpen (R-19/Tyndall) delivered the most impassioned remarks on the Senate floor in opposition to House Bill 1182 yesterday (his “Big Stones” speech, beginning around 1:49:50 in the SDPB video).


    In opposing the sales tax increase for teachers, Senator Van Gerpen called for turning over budget “stones” and finding existing funds to raise South Dakota’s teacher pay from 51st to 37th in the nation (tying our historical ranking peak in 1945–1946). He offered no formal amendment to pull that money out from under those stones; he just insisted that raising taxes while “our sons and daughters are fighting to protect our freedom” is wrong (scroll to 2:00:55 for full paragraph):

    When you take a dollar bill and you take another half-cent off that dollar bill, you take the opportunity for South Dakotans to choose how to use that half-cent. When you increase tax, you decrease freedom. When you increase tax, you sliver away people’s freedom. While they’re over there trying to protect our freedom, we’re back in this house trying to decrease their freedom. That’s what happens with a sales tax increase [Senator Bill Van Gerpen, Senate floor debate, 2016.03.01].

    25 Senators and Governor Daugaard evidently hate freedom and the troops.

    Senator Van Gerpen posits an inverse relation between taxes and freedom: if one goes up, the other goes down. f = 1/t.

    Senator Van Gerpen’s position is wrong.

    First, let us test his statement in the extremes. Imagine the state took all of your wealth in taxes. That would take away most if not all of your practical freedom, as you could not buy groceries or pay your mortgage. That’s clearly a bad situation.

    But suppose the state taxed none of your wealth, or anyone else’s. If taxes go to zero, freedom goes to… what? infinity? No. More accurately interpreting the mathematical expression above, we say the f of your freedom becomes undefined. Collect no taxes, and every public institution that allows you to secure, cultivate, and enjoy your wealth disappears. Schools, roads, police, courts, parks, laws, the Constitution itself—all become toothless or nonexistent. Whatever “freedom” you retain in a universally tax-free life extends only as far as the height of the walls you can build and the range of the rocks you can throw to stave off the barbarians who want to crush you, take your stuff, and hear your women lament. The freedom to hack away at invaders with your sword to hang onto a half-canteen of dirty rainwater isn’t really freedom. See also Thomas Hobbes and Mad Max.

    So somewhere between the state of nature and the soldier-crushing tyranny Senator Van Gerpen envisions arising from House Bill 1182, it seems reasonable to posit that there is some level of taxation that gives us more practical freedom. When we stop barbarizing each other and say, “Hey! Cease fire! Let’s make a state!”, when we collect those first dollars (diamonds? beaver pelts?) to pay for our first cop, our first school, our first jail, our first city snowplow, our lives get better. With our first tax, we buy our first liberty—not just the raw, wild freedom of hunting rabbit and then choosing whether to fight or flee when meaner dudes show up, but real liberty, with rights backed up by law and shared institutions that we create and support with our taxes.

    The relationship between freedom and taxes appears not to be inverse but a hill-shaped curve, with zeroes at the extremes (zero freedom with universal tax rates of 0% and 100%) and some peak freedom somewhere in the middle. Senator Van Gerpen himself tacitly acknowledges this truth when he speaks of using existing funds to fund teacher pay raises. Those funds come from taxes that had to have been increased at some point in the past. By Van Gerpen’s Law, those increases should have decreased freedom. Yet Van Gerpen doesn’t propose repealing those taxes; apparently he finds some increase in taxes and the concomitant (by his thinking) decrease in freedom acceptable.

    The question Senator Van Gerpen ought to ask about the HB 1182 tax increase is the same question we ask when we buy burgers and cars: “What do we get for our money?”

    With HB 1182, we get $67.4 million to support raising South Dakota’s teacher pay 20%. We get to shed our 30-year status as the lowest paying state for teachers in America. We take our boldest swing ever at ending the teacher shortage and making sure our public schools can keep quality teachers in every classroom. We reinforce our schools and ensure the next generation of kids can get a good public education, which will be the basis for their future freedom.

    The price tag for those gains: $212 a year for middle-income families. $4 bucks a week.

    Senator Van Gerpen and the rest of us should all watch closely to see if the new sales tax and funding formula produce the results in our teaching workforce that we seek. But Senator Van Gerpen’s abstract contention that “When you increase tax, you decrease freedom” is as incorrect as saying that spending money on a car is always a bad deal. We give up our hard-earned money to buy cars to get us to work and take vacations. We give up our hard-earned money to pay taxes to support public schools that make all citizens richer and freer. The additional tax we will start paying in June will improve South Dakota’s overall freedom.