Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Skepticism about government

I was going to put this at the end of my previous post, but it needs its own thread. Here's a question for everyone. Why are conservatives not more skeptical of our government's ability to A) choose when wars are justified and B) fight them? They're (rightly) skeptical (as I am) of our government's ability to manage and run Social Security, implement universal health care, etc., and they decry "our tax dollars" being spent on the above programs and also things with which they disagree (federally funded abortions.)
Bracketing off the facts that for most of us, 1) our tax dollars come back to us in our paychecks and 2) the government is intimately intertwined with the corporations we work for, why should my tax dollars go to pay for wars I disagree with? Shouldn't we err more on the side of caution in a war than in a public program? The social service goes wrong--we wasted money; we need reform. The war goes wrong/badly--people are dead. Don't/shouldn't wars require a higher standard of proof? In effect, conservatives are saying something like:
"Iraq: why our government can't be trusted with universal health care, but can be trusted with invading and managing a country 10,000 miles away that's never done anything to us."
Hit me.


At 4:22 PM, Blogger Jackscolon said...

Rather than give you reasons justifying the Iraq war or posting links (read the bulleted points at the bottom) showing Iraqi involvement in 9/11, I think the problem is that we disagree on the purpose of government. I believe we need the government to do things such as wage war, make roads (excluding personal favors such as the Big Dig), maintain economic health, and imprison criminals. I don't believe we need a government to fund welfare or art, pay for healthcare or abortions, enforce rent control, subsidize failed business ventures (such as Amtrak,)or broadcast television.

That said, I'm not worried about the government spending money on a war (especially one 98% of them wanted to fight) as much as I worry about them taking another five cents off every dollar I make to waste on some failed social experiment. Also, every war we start has the possibility of ending successfully and most of them do- while a majority (I'd say every but there might be one or two execptions) of social programs crash and burn.

Also, and most of you won't like this, there is not a single US soldier who wasn't aware that joining the army could mean their death if we decided to fight. Going to college next to the largest Army base in America and knowing quite a few soldiers- I've never heard a single one of them complain that the Iraq war wasn't "justified". Granted, I do not wish for a single one of them to die and I don't think we should needlessly put them in harm's way (especially without the best equipment we can buy), but military service isn't compulsory. They VOLUNTEERED to give their lives for the country should the need arise (not sacrificially of course) and when a majority of our elected officials vote to go to war, well, we elect them to make those decisions.

At 8:53 AM, Blogger CharlesPeirce said...

jackscolon wrote:

"I'm not worried about the government spending money on a war (especially one 98% of them wanted to fight) as much as I worry about them taking another five cents off every dollar I make to waste on some failed social experiment."

Wars cost more than five cents on the tax dollar, my friend.

At 11:19 AM, Blogger J. Morgan Caler said...


“I believe we need the government to do things such as wage war, make roads..., maintain economic health, and imprison criminals.”

That’s fine, but it doesn’t answer the question in any way. First of all, simply by stating what you believe our government is for gives no indication of your justification for thinking that. More importantly (and more on-topic), however, is that even if you think that these are the purposes of the government, it doesn’t answer the question as to why you (by you I mean “Conservatives”) are so trusting that the government will properly execute those duties. It may well be within the job description of the government to wage war, but that has no bearing on whether or not they will justifiably and effectively do so.

“That said, I'm not worried about the government spending money on a war (especially one 98% of them wanted to fight) as much as I worry about them taking another five cents off every dollar I make to waste on some failed social experiment.”

98% of whom wanted to fight? And since when is wanting to fight a war justification for it? Look, the question is not about money necessarily, it’s about trust. So you don’t grudge the government the tax dollars to wage war because you think that is what the government is there for? Fine. That has nothing to do with why you trust them to wage war at the right times, for the right reasons, with the right means.

“there is not a single US soldier who wasn't aware that joining the army could mean their death if we decided to fight.”

A soldier’s willingness to die for his/her country and our willing to let him/her act on that has nothing to do with one another. Simply because soldiers are brave and committed defenders of America does not mean that they are expendable, does not mean that we are justified in asking them to make that sacrifice under any circumstances, and does not mean that the loss of their life is morally justifiable simply because they do not object. Say nothing of the hundreds and thousands of civilians who were killed.

At 5:28 PM, Blogger Jackscolon said...

Before I jump in the lion's den again, let me first preface this response with the quote, "Is democracy a perfect system? No, but its the best we have" and let me pray that eventually redhurt will come to my defense.

J. Morgan- I meant I believe that the only role of government is to serve those ends, and since we built the government specifically for those roles- I believe the government is well-equipped to handle them. An example of a governmental role would be the military (something that can only effectively be done by the government)- and a quick survey of American military engagements over the years should prove that the military is HIGHLY effective at waging war.

As to the justification for the war, we elect politicians to make decisions (such as going to war if they think American interests justify it) and empower the government to act on those decisions. That said, since 98% of the Senate voted to go to war (I believe it was 98-0 or 98-2, I could be wrong) it seems that the war was justified enough at the time. Do I think there is some universal, clear-cut, moral litmus test that we can apply to see if a war is "justified"? No. If there was, we wouldn't need a body of elected officials to vote on a war, or even a president, as we would always have a simple yes/no answer to guide us.

By being a participant in the American governmental system, you are allowing the government to make some decisions for you in terms of national interests (since our government is a representative democracy, not a pure democracy) I'm not sure if you are raging because you think the system we have is flawed, or simply because it reached a decision you didn't agree with. If I were to build a calculator and it told me 2+2=5, it would be worthless for me to complain that the answer is wrong without changing whatever it was in the system that caused the error. Likewise, if our system of government is wrong, I want to hear suggestions for fixing it instead of outrage at the answer it returned. If you don't trust that the government can fill the roles it was designed for, than you have no faith in it at all.

Since I believe that our government is properly built for things such as national defense, and I know of no better system for self-governance- it follows that I would trust the government to choose and wage war and not begrudge the tax money it needs to do so. If you don't have a better system in mind, then your anger would be more constructive if directed at the democratic leaders who sold your beliefs out (like charlespierce).

At 8:46 AM, Blogger CharlesPeirce said...

I don't know if this is going to be a fruitful thread anymore, but jackscolon is still missing one of j. morgan's crucial (albeit implicit) distinctions: that between being EFFECTIVE and being RIGHT. The US is an unstoppable juggernaut in every area of life; so? That doesn't tell me anything about whether or not it's RIGHT to be that way.

You wrote:

"Do I think there is some universal, clear-cut, moral litmus test that we can apply to see if a war is "justified"? No."

Well, I do--if your sovereignty is threatened by an invading power, it's just to go to war to protect yourself. From there everything gets morally murky very quickly. Examples of justified wars: our invasion of Afghanistan; the Allies in World War II; the Afghani resistance against the Soviet Union. Unjustified wars: our invasion of Vietnam; our invasion of Iraq.

You're undercutting yourself by saying that there's no clear litmus test; if there isn't, we can't know if a war is justified; and if we can't know that, we better not be sending American soldiers to die for it.

At 2:21 PM, Blogger Jackscolon said...

Look, I believed the Iraq War was the RIGHT thing to do at the time and I still do. However, even if I had changed my mind as to whether or not we should be there in the first place- I believe that the RIGHT thing to do now is finish it out, not just pull out and leave our Iraqi allies to their fate. That said, I'll stop debating and clarify my post.

I hate to start down the slippery slope of moral relativism here, but my point was that America isn't ruled by what we (you and I, even though I'm not currently religious, I get my moral tenets from Judeo-Christianity) may believe to be absolute right and wrong, but by right and wrong as determined by the majority. Eventually, enough people will probably be in favor of homosexual marriage to make it culturally RIGHT in America. While I will still think homosexuality is morally wrong, I can't dictate my views (unless I'm a judge) when the majority is against me. If I tried to enforce a minority opinion because I believed it was RIGHT, I'd be advocating a theocracy, not a democracy.

At 3:35 PM, Blogger CharlesPeirce said...

jackscolon, you're all over the place. I wanted to know why the government could be trusted to fight wars (sketchy affairs) but not manage Social Security (flawed, but not as sketchy.) For someone who claims to be as skeptical as you do, you're not very skeptical about the international actions of our government. It's not just that I disagree with you, it's that I don't understand you; don't you question the motives of those with the power and the weapons? Don't you think that's appropriate?

You also go back and forth between being absolutely certain that specific things/actions/wars are wrong or right, and saying that there's no clear way to decide on these things, and that minorities shouldn't impose their views on majorities. It's like I told you to go to the grocery store and get me some bananas, and you came back with apples, oranges, and plums. That's all well and good, but...we're missing something here.

You buy into the conservative notion that nations will conduct themselves as they will, they can't act like individuals, and they shouldn't. That's FINE, but we can still approach events with moral clarity. I know that rape will (probably) never be wiped out, but that doesn't prevent me from unequivocally and utterly condemning it in general. Similarly, bombing civilians without good cause is utterly immoral. The same principle which allows me to condemn 9/11 allows me to condemn Iraq, Mr. Slippery Slope.

At 3:39 PM, Blogger CharlesPeirce said...

Senate votes are utterly irrelevant to what is wrong or right, just as are the views of the majority, just as are the views of the minority. Just because we can't STOP something doesn't mean we can't CONDEMN it. Have some moral clarity, Mr. I get my tenets from Judeo-Christianity.

At 5:28 PM, Blogger Jackscolon said...

Ok. I am a bit scattered, all I can say is that things are more cohesive in my thought than my writing.

I believe the government can be trusted to fight wars because the government hasn't betrayed my trust. I fully support the Iraq War, and every other war we've ever fought. Although Vietnam ended badly and is easy to disparage in retrospect, I would have supported any action against Communism at the time, including Vietnam. Frankly, I don't have the need to question motives when I believe they match my own. I believe Bush's motives for the fight against terrorism are more for the good of the country then a personal vendetta against Saddam, and that's how I feel. Were I President, I would have wanted to take down Saddam too- if not for his defiance of every standard set by the global community, then for the simple fact that he declared himself an enemy of America.

I don't trust the government in affairs such as social security because the government has proven itself incompetent at handling them.

I am totally unwilling to concede that the Iraq War is as evil and deserving of moral condemnation as you would have it. Were I to be drafted for the Iraq War, I would gladly go.

If anything, I'm guilty of being off-topic when I said that I believe in absolute right and wrong, but that I don't believe democracy is based on them. My point was merely that you can't expect America to make every single judgement according to your moral standard. I believe that invading Iraq was morally right, and apparently so did most of America at the time. Since you don't agree with me there, feel perfectly free to condemn me.

I could be wrong, but I believe your argument rests on the notion that this war is obviously, beyond a shadow-of-a-doubt wrong and I'm unwillingly to concede that. Since I don't believe that- I can't condemn it like I can rape.

As to Judeo-Christian tenets, God instructed the Hebrews to commit genocide when entering the promised land. While I'm not suggesting we turn the Middle East into a giant sheet of glass, I believe that taking preemptive action against an enemy sworn to our destruction is morally palatable. I don't think that our military is guilty of specifically targeting civilians, and our enemy is- so even if a few are killed accidentally by us in the course of a war, we STILL hold the moral high ground. If you are implying that the shock-and-awe campaign was merely bombing civilians without good cause, I will, as is my right, call BULLSHIT. I don't see it like that, period. Flying a plane unannounced into the WTC is different from bombing targets of military value (such as communications locales) after a declaration of war.

That may not be as complete as I like it, but I have to leave work so I'm posting it.

At 8:49 AM, Blogger CharlesPeirce said...

To hone in on one point, jackscolon, you made a nice, empirical claim that isn't simply going to end in our first principles angrily staring at each other across an unbridgeable gulf. To paraphrase, you basically said:

"The government has a proven track record of effectively fighting wars with moral purposes. It also has a proven track record of incompetently handling domestic issues."

And now that I've identified your salient point, I think that with this statement of yours,

"I fully support the Iraq War, and every other war we've ever fought."

...this conversation is over, because if it's as clear as day to you that all the wars we've fought have been moral, and as clear as day to me that most of them have been debacles (albeit many times with good intentions), then this thread has run its course, and I invite you to join me in the evolution thread above.

At 9:16 AM, Blogger Jackscolon said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

At 9:20 AM, Blogger Jackscolon said...

Ok, I planned on putting a much more detailed exemption in my previous post regarding Vietnam but abandoned it as I thought it was somewhat beyond the scope of the thread and would detract from the rest of my arguement.

"It's as clear as day to you that all the wars we've fought have been moral"

If you change "moral" to "justifiable", then I think you'll understand me. I don't believe most of the Indian Wars were moral... but I do believe they were necessary and justifiable.

At 9:41 AM, Blogger J. Morgan Caler said...


What is the distinction you are making between “moral” and “justifiable?”

What criteria must be satisfied to makes a war justifiable?

At 10:43 AM, Blogger Jackscolon said...

I mean justifiable in the sense to "show to be reasonable or provide adequate ground for", rather than "To demonstrate or prove to be just, or right." A dubious distinction, but I think an adequate one.

If a woman kills her husband after years of domestic abuse, a case can be made that her actions, while not moral, are certainly justifiable.

In terms of criteria to make a war "justifiable", I think there are two major conditions that should be met.
1) Has to serve Nation's self interest, i.e. the benefit of the war has to outweigh the negative consequences
2) Has to be in response to a threat against it or its allies (doesn't have to be overt), i.e. war
can't be an aggresive action to improve nation's status (like a land grab)

Ok. Thrash away :) - I'll just defend from there rather than try to cover every forseeable objection.

At 4:17 PM, Blogger J. Morgan Caler said...


I appreciate the sense in which you are using justifiable, because, to me, it is the only sense of that word that can apply to war. To you, it may not, but in either case, I think it appropriate for this conversation. With that said, I have a response to your most recent post and then another comment on something from earlier that I just noticed:

While there is certainly nothing wrong with your criteria for a justifiable conflict, it provides a very low threshold (i.e. it would be very easy for almost any nation to meet these criteria in almost any circumstance). For instance, by your criteria, Saddam Hussein would have been justified in invading Kuwait in 1990: had the United States not intervened (and, if these are in fact the only criteria you propose for a justifiable conflict, then the United States had no right to interfere, thus eliminating that as a factor), the self-interest standard would have been satisfied, and because Kuwait was stealing oil by means of slant drilling from Iraq, the threat threshold would also be satisfied.

That said, depending on how we understand “self-interest” and “threat,” several U.S. wars/armed conflicts would violate your own standard (the American Revolution fails the second standard, the forced removal of Cherokees from Georgia fails on both counts, the Civil War fails on both, the Spanish-American War fails both, the Korean War probably, although debatably, fails the second, the Vietnam Conflict definitely fails both, and Grenada definitely fails both).

Earlier, you said:

“ point was that America isn't ruled by what we ... may believe to be absolute right and wrong, but by right and wrong as determined by the majority.... If I tried to enforce a minority opinion because I believed it was RIGHT, I'd be advocating a theocracy, not a democracy.”

I am going to have to say that you are way off here for at least two reasons:

1) American legality and morality is not majoritarian, but historio-cultural. I have argued this before, but the gist of it is that our nation is intentionally designed to combat this very issue (what Madison called “the tyranny of the mob”) by setting the third branch of our government, the Judiciary, apart from the democratic process and “the will of the people.” The point is that there are principles that are foundational to American culture and law that cannot simply be disregarded even if people don’t like them.
2) Enforcing the rule of law and the foundational principles of American society and the law therein is not theocratic, but essential to maintaining a civil polity. That is part of what government is for (see the U.S. Constitution for more details) and essential to what we are all about. To defer to the majority at the expense of the minority when the minority is right is why we have a judiciary in the first place.

That said, part of my skepticism about the American government's trustworthiness regarding war is derived from my insistence that they meet the historio-cultural standards of their own cultural and legal foundations. It is also derived from their failure in the past to meet even the most lenient standards to justify wars.


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