Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Two Concepts of Society

Repeatedly in history we see two ideas of what human society is, or should be. Whether in the form of Cicero versus Julius Caesar, or the political candidates in the 2010 elections in America, these notions remain essentially the two versions of human community, despite myriad re-packagings over the centuries.

The first, although not exactly corresponding to the writings of Aristotle, is close enough that we can call it Aristotelian. The key element of this understanding of society is the concept of inter-connection. In society, each individual is connected with other individuals via a smorgasbord of relationships: parent/child, employer/employee, friend/friend, spouse/spouse, coach/player, etc. Interconnection reflects a deeper interdependence among human beings, and each contributes and receives in a variety of ways. Society is, in this view, a network.

The alternate view, while not precisely taken from the texts of Plato, is close enough that we may call it Platonic. In this view, society cannot self-manage, but rather needs the state to maintain it. The government forms the basis and both supplies and organizes society. Individuals stand on the foundation, which is the state, and carry out their roles, empowered and directed by the state. The key element here, then, is the direct dependence of the individual upon the state.

The choice presented by these two models is, thus, either interdependence of members of society upon one another, or the dependence of all members of society directly upon the government.

Friday, February 19, 2010


History is filled with examples of humans treating other humans terribly. The history of the Jews living in Spain under the Islamic occupational armies is no exception. What is different about this series of atrocities, however, is a concerted propaganda effort made to portray this era a one of tolerance. A public relations effort tells us that the Jews lived in freedom and prosperity after the Muslims invaded Spain. Nothing could be further from the truth.

As subjects of an occupational army (the Arabic word is "dhimmi"), Jews were denied civil rights, forced to pay extra taxes, and subject to harassment, persecution, and occasionally death at the hands of the invaders. At Princeton University, Professor Bernard Lewis writes:

The claim to tolerance, now much heard from Muslim apologists and more especially from apologists for Islam, is also new and of alien origin. It is only very recently that some defenders of Islam have begun to assert that their society in the past accorded equal status to non-Muslims. No such claim is made by spokesmen for resurgent Islam, and historically there is no doubt that they are right. Traditional Islamic societies neither accorded such equality nor pretended that they were so doing. Indeed, in the old order, this would have been regarded not as a merit but as a dereliction of duty. How could one accord the same treatment to those who follow the true faith and those who willfully reject it? This would be a theological as well as a logical absurdity.

Lewis explains the essential worldview which underlies the way in which the Muslim armies treated the Jews in Spain:

Unbelievers, slaves, and women are considered fundamentally inferior to other groups of people under Islamic law.

Also at Princeton, Professor Mark Cohen has exposed legends of Islamic tolerance in Spain as "myth" and "propaganda" used to justify the fact that Islam's invasion of Spain in 711 A.D. was an unprovoked attack against a peaceful region which offered no military resistance.

During the years after 711 A.D., the Jews in Spain were no allowed to build or repair synagogues, or to celebrate many of their usual feasts and holidays. As the years went on, Muslim soldiers orchestrated pogroms: large riots against the Jews, smashing the shops and houses of the Jews, murdering many of them, and forcing the others to flee the region. Major pogroms occurred in Cordoba in 1011, and in Grenada in 1066.

Jews fled for safety to regions of northern Spain which were being liberated from the Islamic invaders. Just as the propaganda tells us that the Muslims ushered in an era of tolerance, so it also tells us that, when Spain was freed from these invaders, the Jews would suffer intolerance. In fact, we see just the opposite: when the "Reconquista" was partially completed, the flow of Jewish refugees was away from the territories under Islamic control, toward the liberated territories, which offered them more liberty.

While Muslims were persecuting Jews in the south, other areas of Spain, enjoying departure of those occupational soldiers, opened up social and economic opportunities to the Jews: Garcia Fernandez, Count of Castile, (974), placed the Jews in many respects on an equality with Christians; and similar measures were adopted by the Council of Leon (1020), presided over by Alfonso V. In Leon, the metropolis of Christian Spain until the conquest of Toledo, many Jews owned real estate, and engaged in agriculture and viticulture as well as in the handicrafts; and here, as in other towns, they lived on friendly terms with the Christian population.

Alfonso VI, the conqueror of Toledo (1085), was tolerant and benevolent in his attitude toward the Jews, for which he won the praise of Pope Alexander II. To estrange the wealthy and industrious Jews from the Moors he offered the former various privileges. In 1076, he not only granted the Jews full equality with the Christians, but he even accorded them the rights enjoyed by the nobility.

Who is Tamerlane, and Why Should we Care?

Tamerlane was a conqueror from Central Asia who built a large empire in the second half of the 1300's. He never set foot in Europe, and although he exchanged numerous letters with European rulers, they were mainly about military and economic matters, so he had no significant interaction with Western Civilization. Yet he became a popular figure in European legends and storytelling. Why?

The Ottoman Empire, at that time, was placing significant military pressure on Europe. It cost money, effort, and lives for the Holy Roman Empire to maintain a large defensive force on the southeastern edge of Europe. These attacks had been directed against Europe for decade upon decade, until finally the Crusades had been launched as a counter-offensive.

And then Tamerlane attacked the Ottoman Empire from the east. This meant that the Turks could not direct all their forces into invading Europe, but rather had to divert substantial assets to defend themselves against Tamerlane. This, in turn, gave Europe a little break. Hence Tamerlane's popularity in the West.

The fact that Tamerlane was a Muslim didn't stop him from attacking the Ottoman Empire, which was also Muslim. The farmers of southeastern Europe were thankful for a respite from constant incursions by Islamic soldiers, and were quite content to have the Muslims trouble each other for a while.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Important Distinction

In ordinary life, we tend to be sloppy with our ideas and words. This sloppiness may arise from being in hurry. In any case, we slow down, and sort out our words more carefully, when we rise above everyday life and deal in the realm of philosophy and scholarship. Locke reminds us of this when he writes that people who

will with any clearness speak of the dissolution of government, ought in the first place to distinguish between the dissolution of the society and the dissolution of the government.

Locke was interested in the right of the people to dissolve a government, but certainly not to dissolve society. We have a strong interest in our right to dissolve a government: we want to ensure that we have justice, and that our rights are not violated. We have a strong interest in maintaining our society, and seeing that it is not dissolved: because our society is based on principles of Western Civilization and European Culture, the dissolution of our society would yield injustice and the violation of rights.

Only a few decades after Locke wrote the above, Thomas Paine, participating in the formation of a new form of government in America, expressed a similar thought:

Some writers have so confounded society with government, as to leave little or no distinction between them; whereas they are not only different, but have different origins. Society is produced by our wants, and government by our wickedness; the former promotes our happiness positively by uniting our affections, the latter negatively by restraining our vices. The one encourages intercourse, the other creates distinctions. The first is a patron, the last a punisher.

Society in every state is a blessing, but Government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil; in its worst state an intolerable one: for when we suffer, or are exposed to the same miseries by a government, which we might expect in a country without government, our calamity is heightened by reflecting that we furnish the means by which we suffer. Government, like dress, is the badge of lost innocence; the palaces of kings are built upon the ruins of the bowers of paradise. For were the impulses of conscience clear, uniform and irresistibly obeyed, man would need no other lawgiver; but that not being the case, he finds it necessary to surrender up a part of his property to furnish means for the protection of the rest; and this he is induced to do by the same prudence which in every other case advises him, out of two evils to choose the least. Wherefore, security being the true design and end of government, it unanswerably follows that whatever form thereof appears most likely to ensure it to us, with the least expense and greatest benefit, is preferable to all others.

The principle of limited government, the roots of which can be seen as far back as the structure of the Roman republic, and more recently in the Magna Carta, in motivated by the desire to preserve society. If government is not limited, it will harm society. The more narrowly we limit the activities of government, the broader freedom we give society to flourish.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Lessons from Haiti's Earthquake

As the world's electronic media processes the misery caused by the recent severe disaster in Haiti, historical and economic principles are visible.

The world's governments have responded quickly, sending help in various forms: medicine, food, clothing, and relief workers. As is often the case, the United States leads the world, sending more aid than other nation.

But as impressive as the millions sent by governments may be, that aid is dwarfed by the billions sent by charities and other relief organizations. Responding faster, and with more resources, non-governmental organizations (NGO's) not only are the real source of help for those who suffer, but they also illustrate well an economic and historical pattern: private-sector charity trumps government programs.

For any form of human need, a government program is a poor answer. Charitable giving, by contrast, is more effective, more flexible, quicker, and less wasteful.

From tsunamis to droughts, from earthquakes to famines, meaningful and significant help can never come from any form of government. It comes from individuals who decide to give, and from the organizations to which those individuals give. Governments use money taken by threat of force (taxes), and distribute it through large offices which take a percentage of that money to pay their employees, their photocopiers, telephones, filing cabinets, and staplers: a recipe for inefficiency and ineffectiveness.

Volunteer organizations and private-sector charities are focused on goals: distributing food and medicine, building school and hospitals. Government aid agency are focused on providing continued employment for government workers, regardless of whether or not actual human needs are addressed.