Friday, June 23, 2006

Brits Worried Over Lenience on Crime

In an excellent and highly informative article in Tech Central Station, former British Crown Prosecution Service executive Peter C. Glover points out that a steady stream of high-profile cases in which serious offenders have received minimal sentences has created a rising sense of fear of violent crime among the English public. As happened in abundance in the 1970s in the United States as crime rates rose, this public concern in Britain is reflected in a film currently in production:

The minimum five-year sentence for convicted pedophile Craig Sweeney has deepened the public's crisis of confidence in the British criminal justice system -- and stirred the government into pledging a 'sentencing review'. But while the mother of Sweeney's three-year-old victim spoke of wanting to "throttle the judge" who sentenced Sweeney, it is actually the liberalized system itself which may need "throttling". That's the point soon to be made by an explosive new film currently in production entitled Outlaw.

Nick Love's film, starring Sean Bean and Bob Hoskins, is designed to show the devastating consequences of a British justice system soft on criminals. The film focuses on five vigilantes who, "betrayed by their government and let down by the police", take matters into their own hands, meting out summary justice with baseball bats, knives and fists. What Charles Bronson's Death Wish character brought to cheering audiences in the 1970s, Love's Outlaw appears destined to repeat for contemporary audiences.

Outlaw is more than just another film for Love, who is himself a reformed teenage criminal and heroin user who claims to have been saved by the "short sharp shock" Tory policy of the 1980s. "I'm the living proof, if you like, that taking a hardline approach to young criminals works," says Love.

Love began writing the screenplay two years ago. At the time he suspected the British public were already beginning to lose patience with the government's liberalizing of criminal policies. He could not have realized how soon that patience might run out.

Love is an example of an individual reforming from a life of crime, but his redemption came through paying a hard price for his crime, he notes, not by immersion in therapeutic treatments by a system more concerned about offenders than for victims and the community. As Glover puts it,

Love's film is set to further highlight how a society soft on criminals suffers when it makes the basic mistake of deeming pragmatic liberalizing policies - revealing a greater concern for the offender than for the victim and for the individual than for the community - a higher priority than justice.

Love's film, Glover's article, and the situation in Britain all point out that true justice has real, positive, practical consequences. As Glover notes,

Nick Love's Outlaw is not, as some will undoubtedly claim, a prescription for vigilantism on the streets. Rather, it is a stark warning of the perhaps inevitable consequences when a state fails to perform its central function: the protection of society and its law-abiding citizenry.

As Love's movie lead puts it, "If you want to spend the rest of your life being raped and bullied . . . and letting the pedophiles wander the playgrounds while you smile mutely and pay your taxes, then walk out the door." I suspect there won't be too many "walking out" on Outlaw however, unless it is because of its explicit content.

Two decades ago I wrote a long article for Chronicles magazine in which I pointed out that vigilante narratives have a long tradition and that they tend to arise when crime rates are rising and government authorities do not appear to be doing enough about stemming the increase. As such, I pointed out, they are a useful barometer of public attitudes. I also pointed out that they are not calls for vigilante violence but warnings about how the public can see itself as forced to step in when their government fails to do its elemtary duty of keeping the public peace.

Vigilante films, although still occasionally made these days—the recent remake of Walking Tall, for example, or some of the comic-book films such as The Punisher and the Spider-Man series—are not nearly so popular as they were in the 1970s. That's a good sign for the United States. Outlaw is indicative of the current uneasiness regarding crime in Great Britian. Whether it will spur a lasting trend in the UK cinema is up to the government and will depend entirely on its resolve in ensuring that criminals pay for their crimes.

Glover's article includes much more detail on and examples of some of the decisions that have disturbed the British public, and I strongly recommend that you read the full article, especially before commenting on the issue if you are so inclined.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Supreme Court: Not All Properties Are Wetlands

A wide variety of interpretations has already arisen regarding the Supreme Court's decision yesterday on federally enforced wetlands preservation. Two things seem clear, however: that the federal government may regulate human development of wetlands (which was not in doubt), and that the definition of what is a wetland cannot be stretched beyond reasonable bounds. This makes sense. Here is the libertarian Cato Institute's description of and opinion on the decision:

Supreme Court Rebuffs Senseless EPA Regulation
Supreme Court Sides with Cato Brief

WASHINGTON -- Today, the U.S. Supreme Court rebuffed an expansive reading of federal power by environmental regulators. In Rapanos v. United States, regulators claimed federal wetlands laws allow them to micromanage development of Michigan property through which a trickle of water drained, even though the land was high, dry, and land-locked. The landowner, John Rapanos, fought back, arguing that the federal Clean Water Act doesn't give regulators control over any land from which water might occasionally flow. In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court agreed.

According to Tim Lynch and Mark Moller, authors of Cato's friend-of-the-court brief in support of Mr. Rapanos, the Court reached the right decision: "If the government can regulate any land from which water occasionally drains, no matter how speculative the effect of this drainage on navigable water, wetlands law gives it almost limitless jurisdiction over private property, except perhaps in the heart of the Mojave desert. In essence, the federal government's reading of the Clean Water Act would turn the EPA into a vast national zoning board.

"The English language says otherwise. The Clean Water Act gives the federal government the power to protect navigable water and regulate some land 'adjacent' to navigable water -- not control every rivulet of water that trickles through your lawn. What's remarkable about this case is not the outcome -- but the government's ability to argue its reading of federal law with a straight face."

Picture for Future Use

Just getting a headshot up where it can be viewed:

Interesting Immigration Proposal

Tech Central Station contributing writer Nathan Smith offers an interesting proposal regarding immigration, in today's issue of TCS Daily. Smith's idea is that instead of putting a number on the amount of people allowed to immigrate into the United States, or allowing all comers to live here as long as they like without having to meet any criteria for their presence here, we should tax immigration.

His proposal has merit in that, as he says, it applies economic incentives to let the market find an answer to how many immigrants should be here at any given time. He also leaves open the question of exactly what the right numbers for the taxes should be, though he gives suggestions to start the discussion rolling.

Smith's proposal does not directly address assimilation, though it is possible that his proposed tax program could be used to create incentives for immigrants to assimilate and could be used to indemnify the nation's current residents for any losses of cultural values.

Naturally, the tax numbers and associated policies, including enforcement measures, would become a matter for gross political manipulition, but at least the discussion would be out in the open and legislators and presidential administrations could be held accountable for their positions. That would be a great improvement over the current situation.

Of course, if the U.S. Senate and House can reconcile their two very different bills, it's possible that this train has already sailed. But if that doesn't happen, this would be something to consider.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Science and the Problem of Political Values (EXTENDED)

Sometimes we act like the scientific method was only invented a few hundred years ago. Don't you know that even an absolute savage seeing a thin tree spanning a narrow river would use something like the scientific method in deciding whether to cross at that point? He'd probably figure in his mind whether the the tree would bear his weight. He'd test it near the bank. He might get as far out as he could without totally committing and then come back. If he were really ambitious he might even roll a heavy log out onto the tree to see if it would hold. Then, he would take his data and decide whether he should cross. That's scientific thinking and it's been going on probably for as long as there have been human beings.

We like the scientific method. I'm a devout person, but I prefer knowledge vetted via the scientific method to any other kind. I think everyone does. If I hear about someone claiming to have been healed of cancer, I ask whether they've had it confirmed by a doctor and some tests. Anybody who tells you they don't like knowing things scientifically is probably lying. The scientific process is a good thing.

However, the scientific method is really limited in terms of what it can tell us about life and how to live it. No matter how much we learn about the natural world and how it works, the simple fact is that science has zilch to say about most of what we talk about in politics. For example, there is a lot of passion on this website about the policy the United States takes toward dealing with poor people. What does science have to say about that? Is mercy a scientific matter? Is compassion? The truth is that virtually all of us want to see the poor better off, but if we try to discuss why that should be, science just won't much enter the picture.

Science helps us figure out how to do things we want to do, but it is very little aid in figuring out what the wants are. Does science say whether we should have an anti-poverty policy? No. Does science say whether we should be aggressive or pacifist in our foreign policy? No. Does science say whether we should rebuild Iraq? No. Does science say whether we should have an affirmative action policy or that we should have ended slavery? No. Science is blind to most of politics and not surprisingly, to much of life.

Values help us figure out what our wants are. Things like freedom, loyalty, brotherhood, mercy, love, bravery, honesty, commitment, etc. Now, there are different ways to decide what your values are, but none of them are dead-on scientifically rational. I'm sorry, but it's true. This is why we get jarring statements like the one from Richard Dawkins the atheist who tells us he is a passionate Darwinist (and atheist) who is just as passionately anti-Darwinist in his politics. He is telling you that scientific knowledge about the world won't resolve the issue of your politics and for once, he is right.

What will resolve the issue of your politics? The answer is that you have to think about things like what is the nature of human beings, what is good for human beings, what does good even look like, whether something like evil exists and if so what qualifies as evil, what should you care about, what should government care about, etc. In figuring out your politics you figure out yourself. For most people, that process includes thinking about what God thinks and looking for clues to answer that question in religion. It should be clear, however, that those who do not look to religion to help answer these questions are no more rational or scientific than their religious co-seekers. Both persons or groups of persons, religious and irreligious, are filling their cups of value with something and they are not doing so on the basis of scientific analysis.

I think that is the substance behind Ann Coulters's claim that left-liberals are religious. They are engaged in the experience of determining their values and they do so in a way that is no more logical or reasonable than those who are religious. This is the ineffable territory of the soul -- defined as who you are.

Further Thoughts

This inability of science to provide any warrant for our longing for things like justice, good order, compassion, fairness, truth, etc. leads us to where we are and have been for some time. Despite the moniker "political science" we have no science of determining political (or personal, for that matter) ends. Thus, we accept the non-mathematical precision presented us by politics (as did Aristotle) and try to reason from experience and observation about ourselves and society. Natural law tries to deduce our morality in this way.

Religion enters the picture either as a mystical dropping out, a dismissal of the earthly world as an illusion, or (more relevantly) as a massive claim upon history. This last is what we encounter with the Jewish and Christian faiths in particular. Both say "This really happened (the giving of the law or the resurrection of Jesus)" and "Because this thing happened we can draw the following conclusions from it." The Christian faith in particular offers us this way out of the conundrum of little-explained or mysterious values.

The first kind of religion, that which drops out, is in fact irrational and proudly so. The latter kind, that based on a witness of real history, can only be seen as an attempt at rigorous rationality, perhaps even of the scientific kind. Thus, the Christian claims to have a better idea of what values one should advocate than others who grasp at the issue with no better guide than practical reason well beyond the parameters of the scientific method.

Acton's Jordan Ballor Responds on Christianity, the State, and Gay Marriage

Got this from Jordan Ballor last week:

There are at least two ways I see that are helpful for getting at the question of the church's attitude toward the recognition of gay marriage by the government. I'll outline the short way, and give some hints at the long way, which I believe both end up arriving at the same conclusion.

Before this, however, I want to take a moment to define some terms. For the purposes of this discussion, I will use the term gay marriage to refer to the legal and public recognition of the union of two same-sex partners. My use of this term should not be construed as an acknowledgment of this social relation as a species of the genus marriage. I explicitly do not believe that so-called gay marriage is really marriage at all.

First, the short way. If we take Aquinas' rule of thumb as a starting point, that not all immoral things are to be illegal (quoted here), the determining factor becomes whether the criminalization of an immoral behavior would result in more or less evil, i.e. whether by doing so the state would be stirring up more evil or restraining it.

From a Christian perspective, that gay marriage is immoral is beyond doubt and that it violates at least the commandment regarding adultery is undisputed. Note that the scope of the seventh commandment is sexual purity, and that as has been the traditional Protestant and Roman Catholic practice is to interpret these commandments with both positive and negative aspects.

As part of the second table, Calvin, Luther, and others would agree that the enforcement of the adultery commandment at least theoretically falls under the purview of the state. The traditional differences which you relate that are often observed about the relationships between the first and second table are thus of no real relevance for this discussion, since first table commandments are not at issue. Gay marriage is not simply a "religious" issue as the first table is often construed, but a moral/civic one relating to the second table. With this in mind, we must at least consider the possibility whether or not homosexual activity, and certainly the kind of homosexual relations characteristic of gay marriage, ought to be criminalized.

Let's assume for the sake of this argument, as so much of American society already has, that this sort of legal prohibition does not meet Aquinas' prudential criterion: it creates more evil (in the form of an intrusive government, among other things) than it restrains. This, I believe, is a possible and tenable argument against the criminalization of homosexual activity.

This recognition does not leave us with only one option, that is, for the government to recognize gay marriage. This merely leaves us without any laws whatsoever from the government on this point, and thus leaves the government's approval or disapproval of this activity as moral or immoral ambiguous at best.

But for the government to actively recognize and therefore promote gay marriage would be to explicitly sanction this activity as morally praiseworthy, just, and helpful for society. We have already established that homosexual activity is immoral, and therefore the government has no valid role in promoting or establishing such activity as normative. There is thus a difference between saying something is legally permissible and that it is morally permissible or even praiseworthy.

In this way, the Christian view of the government's role regarding gay marriage can take two forms. First, the Christian might say that the government should prohibit and enforce this portion of the second table in pursuit of restraining evil. Second, the Christian might make a prudential judgment and say that the government would create more evil by making and enforcing such laws, and should therefore make no positive law on this point. There is no third option for the Christian view of the state, that is, that it should actively promote, recognize, and protect an immoral set of social relations.

I understand the current attempts of Christians to argue in favor of some sort of marriage amendment to prevent the third (non)option, in favor of the second, which leaves homosexual relations legal but does not allow for them to be codified and sanctioned by the state.

The long way of going about this argument would be to outline the roles and relationships between the various institutions, spheres, or mandates, specifically regarding marriage/family, government, and church. I understand these in a similar way to what Bonhoeffer says regarding the four divine mandates (marriage, work, government, church), which I believe is consistent with a line of social thought including at least one possible form of Kuyper's view of sphere sovereignty (not specifically Dooyeweerdian conceptions, for example) and going back through various Reformers including Wolfgang Musculus, who wrote of three laws in the Garden of Eden, relating to procreation, dominion, and work/provision of food.

On this account, marriage and family exist apart from and distinct from government and the church, and so both of these latter institutions merely recognize, affirm, and ratify the prior relationship rather than creating it de novo. I believe gay marriage would be a legal creation, not the recognition of an actual prior social relation that is continuous with the created and preserved order of heterosexual marriage. I don't have time more than to hint at this latter method, but again, the result would be that the state certainly has no obligation, or even permission, to recognize, promote, and/or establish, a set of social relations that violate the moral order, especially as articulated in the second table commandments.

A few other issues:

1. Can you explicate further this distinction between an instrumental vs. sacred function of the state to which you refer? Do you get this terminology from Luther? For Luther, the state is sacred, insofar as it is God's rule with his left hand.

2. The recognition of the state as an order arising from the Fall rather than something embedded in creation is of ambiguous relevance. Calvin would certainly agree that the coercive nature of government arises as a result of sin, even though he might argue that government without this characteristic is at least hypothetically manifest in the primal state. But Calvin is not representative of the entire Reformed tradition. A more modern example, like Brunner, who at least in some ways is taken to represent a Reformed position, argues explicitly that the state is an order of preservation arising after the Fall, distinguishing it from an order of creation.