December 30, 2012

Review Corner

I had the good fortune to share the evening with 2.5 Heinlein scholars on Friday night. That is an excellent method to prepare for a Review Corner -- I'll try to keep that up whenever possible: convene a small panel. I got some interesting historical perspectives, plus the empirically provable observation that "I am weird."

I was also reminded that I was not the target demographic. The martial tone and the action sequences were better tuned to younger folk, who would then encounter the more serious ideas in the book.

This very personal relationship, "value," has two factors for a human being: first, what he can do with a thing, its use to him . . . and second, what he must do to get it, its cost to him. There is an old song which asserts "the best things in life are free." Not true! Utterly false! This was the tragic fallacy which brought on the decadence and collapse of the democracies of the twentieth century; those noble experiments failed because the people had been led to believe that they could simply vote for whatever they wanted . . . and get it, without toil, without sweat, without tears.

I enjoyed it but yearned to return to my boring old non-fiction as I have lost much of my taste for fiction and novels. Ergo, I do not intend to pen the world's 3,463rd literary review of Robert A Heinlein's Starship Troopers. I suspect ThreeSourcers would better enjoy a discussion of its central premise.
We have had enough guesses; I'll state the obvious: Under our system every voter and officeholder is a man who has demonstrated through voluntary and difficult service that he places the welfare of the group ahead of personal advantage.

Heinlein, Robert A. (1987-05-15). Starship Troopers (pp. 192-193). Ace. Kindle Edition.

I'll let the Rand-Heinlein Axis squirm on that pivot for a moment, but I think most know that citizenship needed to be earned by national service. Our protagonist impulsively casts aside a cushy fast track through Harvard and family wealth to fight in the Mobile Infantry so he can vote. (And, of course, to pick up chicks.)

Blog Brother EY suggested that this was the only solution to democracies' devolving into voting themselves bread and circuses from the Federal Largesse. I too am tortured by this problem -- especially so after November 7, 2012. It is a perfectly valid hypothetical and would probably provide a government better than most. I'd be more comfortable placing my trust in America's veterans than the polity at large. Even though my friend JC would vote but not me, I could be persuaded.

But I am going to dissent from this solution on two counts.

One. It is hypothetical. I am a big fan of the United States Constitution. It started with some flaws that we fixed; and it had some original genius that we broke. But in between, it created a continental nation, and a global economic and military power. I make the same complaint that I do of the Rothbard - Rockwell - Lysander Spooner libertarian wing. Your ideas are interesting, but I am wary to compare the text on clean white sheets of paper (or Kindle eInk) to messy, real world empiricism. That, and well-tailored Che T-shirts, are what make Marxists look good.

Two. The two greatest things in American government -- and I will suggest they are one -- are civilian control of the military and our peaceful procession of power. Tears of joy at every inauguration: even when I disagree, I am happy that the people can choose to get it good and hard (Thanks, Mister Mencken!)

Reading Gibbon's little book on Rome, I was struck by the tumult of keeping the military in line. In all the contretemps and intrigue, the path to a career as Emperor seems to consist of knocking off the present officeholder and then getting the support of the armed forces.

The command of these favored and formidable troops soon became the first office of the empire. As the government degenerated into military despotism, the Praetorian Praefect, who in his origin had been a simple captain of the guards, was placed not only at the head of the army, but of the finances, and even of the law. In every department of administration, he represented the person, and exercised the authority, of the emperor.

Gibbon, Edward (2011-10-14). History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, All 6 volumes plus Biography, Historiography and more. Over 8,000 Links (Illustrated) . Packard Technologies. Kindle Edition.

Witness Gens. Wesley Clark and Colin Powell and (seven?) generals who have ascended to the Presidency. It is a political profession. A branch of most governments. Do we want to introduce a closer integration between the military and government?

I'm less worried about taste for adventurism and conquest. Rep. Ron Paul's candidacies remind that that appetite may be suppressed among those who have tasted it. I think that over time the lines would blur between military and government. And that losing that sharp interstice might introduce new problems to politics which we have been fortunate to avoid.

Review Corner Posted by John Kranz at December 30, 2012 11:08 AM

Yes, all of that, but also - how much suspension of disbelief is required to swallow the notion that those who choose "a cushy fast-track through Harvard and family wealth" would sit still for a system that disenfranchises them. A Constitution has not safeguarded our government from self-dealers; could a simple restriction of the vote do any better? I think the rich and powerful would find a way to take over the government.

Posted by: johngalt at December 31, 2012 12:58 PM

Oh yes, and thank you for recognizing me as half of a Heinlein scholar. I'll add it to my resume!

Posted by: johngalt at December 31, 2012 1:17 PM

The fantastically wide-ranging discussion of the other night was one of the best of my life! I will write something coherent about the meeting later this week.

I don't see limiting the franchise as "hypothetical" though. In fact, it was limited for much of the history of the (our) Republic by various tests. In his collection Expanded Universe RAH presents some alternative tests to Service; some tongue firmly in cheek, some more serious. You might want to have a look. The one about letting only women vote for the next hundred years is stimulating. Or something.

Posted by: Ellis Wyatt at December 31, 2012 9:23 PM

We had a great time as well. Thanks.

I fear brother jg may be correct that self-rule will always implicitly tend to devolve toward direct democracy. Do you restrict the franchise -- which is questionably moral -- or do you concentrate on limiting the purview of government, which is unquestionably moral?

By hypothetical, I meant that the existing system has been tested by 112 Congresses, 17 Supreme Courts, Civil War, LBJ, TR, FDR and Woodrow Wilson. I suspect a lot of damage could have been done to any system in 224 years.

If you can keep their hands off the pie, there is less pressure to control government and fewer opportunities for graft or rent-seeking. Make the ruling class small enough and it doesn't matter which loser the populace elects. That's why I think strict attention to enumerated powers has a better chance at success.

Posted by: jk at January 1, 2013 11:58 AM

Last night I heard a serious sounding discussion of a Constitutional amendment for spending limits under "article 5" or something like that. The forces of liberty have already lost the masses, but the US map is still, geographically, mostly red. Could be some hope there.

Posted by: johngalt at January 3, 2013 11:43 AM | What do you think? [5]