Thursday, September 25, 2014

Why We Still Need The Electoral College

The American Electoral College causes a lot of confusion. Many Americans are unsure of how it works and why it is still in use. Isn’t the Electoral College just a relic of the days when the absence of up-to-date mass media made the average American so uninformed about the candidates for whom they voted that they had to delegate certain knowledgeable citizens to vote for them? I won’t comment on whether today’s median voter is any better informed than his eighteenth century counterpart, but I do think that the Electoral College serves an important and beneficial function in our political system. Those who wish to abandon it should reconsider their position.
To be clear, I am only defending the specific system of giving a certain number of votes to each state, equal to its total representation in Congress, and then choosing as President the person who receives a majority of those votes.

Critics are often quick to dismiss the system as anti-democratic, without reference to why it exists in the first place. The Constitution very intentionally does not establish our country as a democracy. The framers themselves were very skeptical of democracies, which lack a mechanism to protect minorities. What they wanted was a system in which the majority rules, but minorities are not trampled. In the case of a Presidential election, that goal is achieved by means of the Electoral College.

The Electoral College is important because it is an expression of our republic as a federation of states and not a monolithic, singular entity. To become President, a candidate must win a large number of states, not simply a large number of votes from a few areas; must gather a coalition of support from around the country. This effect benefits republicanism because the President is one person who has to represent and serve the entire collection of states. In a purely popular vote, candidates have no incentive to represent the interests of small states or less populated areas because they could be elected by simply scoring very high percentages in densely populated areas.

The majority of the population of the United States is concentrated in or near major metropolitan areas. The map below from Business Insider shows counties which contain half of American (as of the 2010 census). In a popular vote system, a candidate could win the election by winning only the blue counties.
Image via BusinessInsider.

Having the College system is like playing a regular season in the NFL instead of calculating the winner based on total points scored. The best team is not the one that runs up the score against some teams but loses by a small margin to most opponents; it is the one that is consistently better than its opponent in a variety of separate matches. The Electoral College system demands a winner of many contests and not just of some isolated blowouts.

Many have objected to that justification because they say it only shifts the disproportionate attention of Presidential candidates from urban centers to “swing states” at the expense of states that are already likely to be “safe” for one candidate. Swing states, however, are just undecided states, and safe states are states in which the majority already agrees that one candidate represents them well. If the candidate ceases do so, his safe state will become a swing state. This shift has occurred several times in recent years; West Virginia, for example, has moved from the blue column to a more Republican leaning state in Presidential elections. In Virginia the opposite happened and the once safe Republican state is now consistently purple.

The swing state objection highlights a strength of the system rather than exposing a weakness. While a direct popular vote would merely incentivize candidates to campaign where the most votes are, the Electoral College system incentivizes them to campaign in undecided states. Rather than camping out in “safe states” and running up the score where they already have a big lead, Presidential hopefuls must focus their efforts on states in which neither candidate is guaranteed victory. They must win a variety of states and so must impress as much of the country as possible.

The framers developed an ingenious system to elect a President, which balances the complexities of a large federal republic and continues to work well for picking an executive who represents nationwide concerns.

 This article was first published on Rightly Wired.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Rethinking Social Justice (Part 3 of 3)

This is part three of  a series critiquing social justice, as normally defined, and suggesting a new definition we all can support. Previously: Part 1 - Part 2

As previously proposed, justice ought to be defined not by the preferences of bureaucratic engineers or even by the will of a majority but by the protection of objective, natural rights. Social justice is an admirable goal only insofar as it stays within the boundaries of true justice. A system generally defined as classical liberalism, based on the protection of individual rights and liberties, fulfills the objective of justice because it calls for a limited government to enforce natural law so that no person violates the rights of another, and which may adjudicate conflicts in these rights; all the while, however, it must be careful not to violate the rights of individuals. In such a society, not only are natural rights preserved, but the social problems to which the aforementioned social engineers seek solutions in pursuit of justice are, to a great extent, mitigated. The superiority of liberty to other conceptions of justice is evidenced through both theory and history.
In a just society, as I have defined it, all interactions and transactions would be voluntary. This simple fact is best observed in the economic realm. In a free marketplace, when people seek to exchange goods and services, neither party is coerced into doing something he or she does not want to do. Therefore, since every rational person seeks to do what benefits him (I do not mean that every rational man is selfish, but that he has wants and seeks to achieve them; insofar as he does this, he is working for his own benefit even if what he wants is the well-being of others), every transaction will result in both parties benefiting. Take this simple example. If Sally believes she will not benefit from trade with Steve, then she will not trade with Steve. If she thinks she will benefit, then she still cannot consummate a transaction unless Steve concurs. If both decide they can benefit, then, and only then, will a trade take place. This concept of mutually beneficial transactions is central to the justice of free markets. There can be no exploitation of anyone if no one is forced to do anything. The result is that free interactions are positive sum. They create more value than previously existed. No transaction can ever take place unless both parties agree and expect to benefit.

Notice how this fact affects the ability of the rich few to take advantage of the poor masses that the Progressive definition of social justice so fears and tries to guard against. In a free system, the only way for anyone to get rich is to give other people what they want. In fact, the only way for anyone to get anything he wants is to give others what they want. It is difficult to think of a more moral system than one in which legitimate economic advancement comes only as a result of helping one’s fellow man.

History also vindicates the justice of free societies when put into practice. For most of history, humans have suffered abject poverty and misery in unjust civilizations. Under emperors, feudal lords, and absolute monarchs, impoverished conditions were the norm. A privileged class of nobles and elites were entrenched and the poor could not hope to rise to anything greater status than that of their parents. It was not until relatively recently that classical liberalism became fully developed and began to change the cycle of hereditary determinism. The 18th century saw free people starting their own businesses, developing new technologies, and rebelling against tyrannous governments. It is no coincidence that the modern era of economic innovation and prosperity developed at the same time that Locke’s proposition that all men are created equal and endowed with rights to life liberty and property became “self-evident.” It was all made possible by the decline of mercantilist economic policies, which aimed to enrich the politically connected elite, and the rise of liberalism, which exalted the rights of individuals.

The cause of this great swelling of wealth, that makes the average man of today better off than the Caesars and which Progressives so yearn to redistribute, was the institution of free markets. It is free markets that lifted the nations of the world out of poverty. The strong monarchs of history could not do it. The redistributionists in communists China, Cuba, and the Soviet Union could not do it. As Milton Friedman put it when questioned by Phil Donahue about the justice of capitalism, “…the only cases in which the masses have escaped from … grinding poverty…, the only cases in recorded history, are where they have had capitalism and largely free trade.”[1]  Proponents of the contemporary leftist definition of social justice find themselves at odds with reality. They want to help the poor by taking from the rich, but they fail realize that the same system that allowed the rich to become rich is the only system that can raise the impoverished out of their destitute state. Not only do they misunderstand justice, but their misunderstanding leads them to undermine their stated goals.

From the preceding evidence, we may conclude that genuine social justice is the universal protection of the natural rights of each person in a society. A just society, under this definition, would differ greatly from popular left-wing notions of “social justice”. Such a society would be characterized by freedom, in which government is limited in its function as opposed to a coercive leviathan to enforce schemes of planners. It would be a flourishing society in which every man succeeds as far as his abilities can take him instead of a stagnant one in which desire for equality stunts individual and collective growth. Pursuing social justice, properly defined and rooted in natural rights, is both ethically and practically desirable and should be embraced by conservatives everywhere.

[1] Friedman, Milton. Interview with Donahue Phil. The Phil Donahue Show. NBC, WDTN, 1979.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Rethinking Social Justice (Part 2 of 3)

This is part two of  a series critiquing social justice, as normally defined, and suggesting a new definition we all can support. Previously: Part 1

A system that takes from a laborer what he has earned and gives it to those who have not is the lowest form of what Frederic Bastiat (1801-1850) called legal plunder.[1] All can agree that theft is unjust, but that is exactly how proponents of the Progressive theory of social justice propose to solve the problems of inequality, through a system of forcibly taking the property of some to give it to others. This is the opposite of justice. If we know that it is wrong to steal from our neighbor, why is just to do so with the government as a middleman? It is here that the contradiction in treating equality as synonymous with justice becomes evident. Social engineers may use the political process to mandate equality, but they cannot do so without committing injustices on the way. Justice cannot be achieved through unjust actions. Clearly there is something askew in the left’s definition of justice.

Let us say, however, that the equality zealots get their way. Will equality really result in prosperous “justice” for all? Quite the opposite; in the real world it results in poverty for all. Cuba pays everyone an equal wage, less than $600 (USD) per year.[2] Socialist utopias do not eradicate poverty; they enrich the ruling class and create a permanently poor underclass. In pursuit of equality they destroy everything we might think of as social justice. As Bastiat put it “instead of rooting out the injustices found in society, they make these injustices general.”[3] Far from helping the poor, the social justice programs of modern progressives make everyone equally poor. It turns out that the only way to make sure that no tree is taller than another is to cut down all of them.

In order to have a truly just society, we must think beyond contemporary ideas of equality of outcome.  As Russell Kirk writes, “the real causes of inequality, in nine cases out of ten, are differences in intelligence, strength, swiftness, dexterity, beauty, perseverance, and other physical and moral qualities.”[4] It is futile for anyone, including and especially government, to try to undo natural differences between people; it is not a task which is within their capacity to accomplish. Such differences are inevitable. The one who seeks to equalize all members of society would succeed to the same degree as one who commands the tides to stop.

[1] Bastiat, Frédéric. The Law. Whitefish, Mont.: Kessinger Publishing, 2004.
[2] Newman, Lucia. "The Truths and Tales of Cuban Healthcare." Features - Al Jazeera English. (accessed November 8, 2013).
[3] Bastiat, Frédéric. The Law. Whitefish, Mont.: Kessinger Publishing, 2004.
[4] Kirk, Russell. "The Question Of Social Justice." (accessed November 8, 2013).

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Rethinking Social Justice (Part 1 of 3)

This is part one of  a series critiquing social justice, as normally defined, and suggesting a new definition we all can support.

Social justice is an emotional and polarizing term. For some it conjures up images of misguided campaigns to redistribute wealth in the name of helping the poor or, as C.S. Lewis called it, “tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims.”[1] For others, it is a battle cry for righteous campaigns against greedy exploiters. But as justice is universally recognized as desirable, it seems strange that social justice should be so controversial. The reason for the tension is that the common conception of social justice is inherently unjust. Contemporary Progressives hold to a theory of justice that demands equality of outcome above all else. They condemn those who have more than others and claim that the only just thing to do would be to use coercion to take from those who have and give to those who have not. This perversion is what “social justice” has come to colloquially mean: redistribution of wealth. Not only are the moral claims of those who hold to this definition of justice exactly backwards, their methods for achieving the noble goal of improving the lot of the poor do not and will not work. A rethinking of social justice that is rooted in truth and reality, however, reveals that it can be virtuously pursued and achieved with positive results. 

Justice is properly defined negatively as a lack of injustice. Americans have traditionally recognized with Locke that humans have natural, inalienable rights and that any violation of them is an injustice. Justice, therefore, is a condition in which there are no violations of natural rights. In short, justice is freedom. This idea is evident in founding father John Dickinson’s quotation of Micah 4:4 to define his conception of a perfectly just society: “that they should sit every man under his vine, and under his fig-tree, and none should make them afraid.”[2] Social justice, then, is the application of this principle of to a society; there is social justice when all members of society are secure in their natural rights.

Given this definition, conservatives can concur with Progressives that government has an essential role to play in establishing social justice. In keeping with Jefferson’s ideas in the Declaration of Independence, the purpose of government is to secure our inalienable, natural rights, that is, given our definition, to promote justice. The American Constitution declares that its intention is to “establish justice.” The government certainly has a role to play in keeping society just. Many in contemporary society, however, have adopted perverse ideas about justice.

In common parlance social justice has come to mean helping the poor with a heavy emphasis on equality as a means to that end or as an end in itself. The focus on equality of outcomes results in ranking individuals into classes: haves and have-nots, privileged and exploited. Take the University of Arizona social justice program “Privilege Chains” for example. In this exercise students are asked to assess their level of privilege in terms of several criteria such as their ethnicity and where they have gone on vacation.[3] The end of the exercise asks students to consider how they can make sure underprivileged people are treated equitably. The problem with this way of thinking about justice is that it equates inequality with injustice. Rather than considering it merely a fact that your family took more vacations than mine, I am taught to think of it as a privilege arbitrarily given to you but not to me. This is the same attitude exemplified by President Barack Obama in his statement that higher capital gains taxes were justified, even if they decreased government revenue, because lower rates were “unfair.”[4] Ronald Reagan summarized the attitude behind this position saying, “We have so many people who can't see a fat man standing beside a thin one without coming to the conclusion the fat man got that way by taking advantage of the thin one.”[5] This idea, that exploitation is the cause of all social problems and that forced equality is the cure, is a poor substitute for justice.

[1] Lewis, C. S. "THE HUMANITARIAN THEORY OF PUNISHMENT." In God in the dock: essays on theology and ethics. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970. 287-300.
[2] Dickinson, John. "Letter V." Letters From a Farmer In Pennsylvania to the Inhabitants of the British Colonies, 1768.
[3] "Social Justice Program Guides." University of Arizona Residence Life. (accessed November 8, 2013).
[4] Obama, Barack. Democratic Presidential Debate. ABC, April 16, 2008.
[5] Reagan, Ronald. "A Time For Choosing." Speech, Rendezvous with Destiny from TV for Goldwater-Miller, San Francisco, October 27, 1964.