Development with Dignity

Human dignity is the central focus of a fascinating new book written by Tom Palmer and Matt Warner Development with Dignity–Self-determination, Localization, and the end to Poverty.  They spotlight the treatment of every person with the dignity due all people as a critical factor in unleashing the innovation and entrepreneurship that has dramatically raised the standard of living to virtually the whole world over the last three hundred years after thousands of years of no progress. The book is rich with interesting examples.

Palmer and Warner argue that the top-down approach of most development agencies and aid projects of “teaching them how we do it in our developed countries,” often fails as a result of overlooking and/or ignoring the knowledge and ways of social organization found in the local communities aid is meant to uplift.  Such knowledge is important to understand where the problems are and what is working well in a community. Any improvements must start from there and be embraced by the people we want to help. The IMF calls this “ownership.” It must start with treating every individual with dignity.

A wonderful example of the importance of understanding and building from local knowledge and practices is provided by Jennifer Brick Martazashvili and Ilia Martazashvili in their recent book on common law property rights in the villages of Afghanistan: “Land, the State, and War –Property Institutions and Political Order in Afghanistan.”  They argue very convincingly that the common law traditions of many Afghan villages can provide satisfactory property rights until there is a central government that can be trusted and has sufficient administrative capacity to administer the registration of legal land titles.

Both books reflect an attitude toward individuals and the importance of their agency for prosperous, liberal societies. I am struck by the similarity of attitudes in the above approaches to development aid and our approaches to social welfare in the United States. Our Federal, State, and local governments provide a wide range of programs to assist the poor or temporarily unemployed.  The food stamp program, for example, epitomizes the attitude that people “on the dole” can’t be trusted to make their own decisions about how to use such assistance. I don’t want to ignore the fact that there are people we shouldn’t trust to make their own decisions (drug addicts, the emotionally unstable, etc.). But the view that government can make better decisions about how food aid should be used than the hungry who receive it is at the heart of the Palmer – Warner discussion about the importance of dignity.

Those of us who support Universal Basic Incomes (UBI) are on the side of those who believe that most people know better than government bureaucrats or even well-meaning social workers what their needs are–i.e., how best to spend their money. UBI payments are made to every person with no strings attached. Unlike current unemployment assistance and other safety net programs UBI would not diminish the financial incentive to work, though the incentives to work include more than just money. With a UBI any additional income from work is kept. The UBI is not reduced by work. See my: “Our Social Safety Net”

Pilot tests of the impact on recipients and on their incentives to work are being carried out in a number of countries and cities with generally very promising results. A two year pilot that was recently concluded in the Washington DC area is typical:

“Placing money into people’s hands without restrictions empowered them to address their needs, program administrators said, and removed the typical layers of bureaucracy and eligibility requirements that can frustrate recipients and hamper the effectiveness of aid efforts. The study’s quantitative and qualitative data showed that “participants often struck a thoughtful balance between addressing immediate survival concerns like paying rent and longer-term concerns like accumulation of debt,” analysts concluded. Recipients surveyed for the study, which was released Thursday, reported lower rates of mental health stressors and food insecurity than people with comparable incomes in the District and nationally.” “Guaranteed basic income-dc-poverty thrive”

When Universal Basic Incomes are combined with the replacement of income taxes (both individual and corporate) by a flat consumption tax, the result is a nicely progressive tax rate relative to income. See rough estimates here:  “Replacing Social Security with a Universal Basic Income” It also simplifies the process of financing the government expenditures that we want.

Trusting the choices of individuals about their own lives doesn’t mean that we (government or private institutions) shouldn’t offer information to help inform and guide their choices. But it does mean that we do not make those choices for them. We give them the dignity with which free societies can and have flourished.

What to make of 2022?

Some ostensibly smart people believe some, well, unbelievable things.  Those who believe, I mean they apparently really do believe, that there are funny and dangerous things in the Covid vaccines are doing all of us harm. But the damage to the rest of us of such beliefs will be limited. Those tens of thousands of people who will die unnecessarily as a result of the unvaccinated, will largely, but not exclusively, be those refusing to get vaccinated.

But what about the 70% of Republican voters who still believe that Trump actually won the election despite the Trump team’s complete failure to present any credible evidence in any court, and even after the “Republican-dominated Arizona Senate hired Cyber Ninjas, a Florida cybersecurity firm with no prior election auditing experience, to review the 2020 election results in Maricopa County, where Phoenix is located,” which found that Biden actually won several votes more than the official count. “Fact-check Arizona audit affirms Biden’s win” Do such believers, in the face of the contrary evidence, constitute a danger to America?

“This isn’t some shrug-your-shoulders-and-roll-your-eyes partisan circus. How Americans understand Trump’s months-long, falsehood-fueled campaign to overturn the 2020 election, ultimately calling on supporters to march on the Capitol a year ago, remains a clear and present force shaping U.S. politics.” “Biden-Trump face off this week-jan-6”  Thousands of Trump supporters stormed the U.S. Capital on January 6 in an effort to get Congress to overturn Biden’s election in favor of Trump. “Federal prosecutors in the District have charged more than 725 individuals with various crimes in connection with the deadly Jan. 6 insurrection….” “Capitol deadly attack-insurrection-arrested-convicted”

While the investigation into this event is ongoing, public trust in the integrity of our elections has fallen. Laws in many states have been changed to take the oversight of state elections from public officials and give it to political bodies (state legislatures). What might happen in 2024 if Trump runs again and is again defeated? Or wins? Will the public accept the result or challenge it, and what form might that challenge take?

I was shocked to read that 1 in 3 Americans say that violence against the government might be justified.  “1-3 Americans say violence against government can be justified”  Congress is sharply divided and unable to pass legislation reflecting traditional bipartisan compromises. Senator Ted Cruz has stalled the Senate’s consent to a large number of President Biden’s state department appointments at a time when the strengthening of our diplomacy is badly needed in the national interest. “Senate confirmations stalled by Cruz” The winning party is (or these days we must say “should be”) allowed to appoint its own government. How will the public react to all of this? Is increased violence in prospect? Is civil war in the 21st century America possible?

It is time for the Republican leadership, who have cowardly fallen silent to Trump’s steady stream of lies, to speak up for the traditional values of the Republican Party. It’s time for all of us of all political parties to present and debate our views civilly with a reasoned presentation of the pros and cons of what we believe. We must stop labeling our opponents as enemies. We must find common ground where possible and live graciously with policies supported by the majority. We will and should continue to promote what we each think best for our country but within the commitment that we are all one big family.  The radicals of the right and left will still be there but hopefully on the fringes of a broad moderate middle. There is no silencing the Marjorie Taylor Greene’s of the world, but few take her wacky conspiracy theories seriously. If more of us were willing to say so, few would pay attention to such nut cakes.

Our diversity has been a strength and will be again when we recover our manners and treat one another respectfully and courteously even when we hold different views. The large sphere left to us each individually to do and live as we choose enables and supports that diversity. But we must change our tone and speak up in defense of our neighbors’ rights to their views. And we must ignore, if not condemn, the hopefully limited number of truly bad apples among us.

Where Does Senator Josh Hawley Stand?

Upon what basis should we make our decisions to do or not do something? Upon what basis should the government take the right to make decisions for us? The quality of our individual choices depends on the values and principles that guild us. These profoundly influence the quality of our lives in our given or chosen societies.  I have discussed this issue before:  “The great divide-who decides” 

The issue of Covid-19 vaccination mandates and related issues are currently providing vivid and noisy examples of these questions. A few of my reactionary libertarian friends (in contrast with more thoughtful libertarians) insist that it is their right to decide whether to get vaccinated or not. Perhaps, but it is not their right to knowingly infect others (the freedom to swing my fist ends at your face). Specifically, the unvaccinated do not have the right to be where they are not wanted or permitted by private establishments. Businesses (restaurants, theaters, sports events, etc.) should have the right to determine who they serve (subject to the sometimes problematic limitations imposed by the 1964 Civil Rights Act Virtually all such businesses wisely go out of their way to reassure potential customers that they are save places to visit. This generally takes the form of mandating that their employees and customers are vaccinated for Covid. In my opinion the government, in addition to collecting and disseminating the best possible information on Covid risks and how to minimize them, should protect the freedom of businesses to make Covid policies they consider appropriate to their own business and should mandate that all of the government’s own employees be vaccinated. Only specific health issues should qualify for potential exemption. Religious and other beliefs should not.

Sports, and the Beijing Winter Olympics in particular, also raise the issue of who decides to participate in the face of serious Chinese human rights violations. I generally think that sporting competitions should not be influenced by politics. So, should athletes participate in the upcoming winter Olympics and who should decide?

In his December 9 column in the Washington Post Josh Rogin makes a strong case for each of us to speak out against violations of our principles: “Enes Kanter Freedom takes bold stance on China” “’We must always take sides,’ Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel said while accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986. ‘Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere.’”

President Biden recently declared a diplomatic boycott of the China games, meaning that the U.S. government will have no representatives there, though the American Olympic teams and individual athletes are free to make their own decisions. The Economist reported that “France will not join the partial boycott that America, Australia, Britain and Canada are calling against the Beijing Winter Olympics in protest at China’s treatment of its Uyghur minority and of Peng Shuai, a tennis star. President Emmanuel Macron complained that the Anglophone countries’ merely withholding diplomatic representation—while their athletes compete—is not an effective way to alter China’s objectionable policies.” “The Economist Morning Brief”

“Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., [also] ridiculed the Biden move, echoing Hagerty’s claim that the diplomatic boycott did not go far enough.  ‘A diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Olympics is a joke,’ Hawley told the Daily Caller Monday. ‘China doesn’t care if Biden and his team show up. They want our athletes.’”  In short, Hawley wants a presidential mandate forbidding participation of American athletes in the Beijing Winter games. “Republicans blast Biden apos diplomatic”

On the other hand, Sen. Hawley opposes President Biden’s proposed mandate that every eligible person must receive an approved Covid-19 vaccination.  “Senator Hawley-Biden vaccine mandate shows contempt for religious liberty”  In this area the good Senator puts “choice” over “life.”  With regard to abortion Senator Hawley sides with “life” over “choice.”

“U.S. Senator Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) issued a statement in support of Missourians who traveled to Washington, D.C., today to participate in the 46th Annual March for Life. The group of nearly 3,000 Missourians represented all ages, from high schoolers to retirees and came from all over the state including Cape Girardeau, Jefferson City, Kansas City, Sedalia and St. Louis.

“’It’s incredible to see people of all ages and backgrounds, from Missouri and across the country, who have made the trek to our nation’s capital to speak their hearts, their minds, their faith – to tell their elected leaders that this nation was founded on the dignity of every person and that every life is worth fighting for,’ said Senator Hawley. ‘I am proud to stand for the right to life. Always.’”

“Senator Hawley commends missourians participating in march for life”

Where is Senator Hawley coming from and where is he going?  Regarding health and vaccination against Covid-19, Hawley is “pro choice” rather than “pro life.” Regarding the abortion of non-viable fetuses, Hawley is pro (potential) life rather than pro choice.  What are the principles guiding when he is one and when he is the other (beyond political expediency)? When should government mandate our choices and when not?

Social media and false information

America is suffering from the wide dissemination of misinformation.  The advent of social media on the Internet, such as Facebook, has introduced new means for the rapid and widespread dissemination of potentially deadly lies. Most of us retweeting or “sharing” lies believe them to be true. The motives of those who invent them are another matter.

Determining what information to trust has always been a bit of a challenge but social media has certainly upped the game. “What to do with social media”   “New tools require new rules”

A great deal of attention has focused on Facebook. What should it do to protect us from misinformation and who should set the rules? Facebook is a private platform on which we post our thoughts and pictures or repost information supplied by others. It does not provide content of its own. Facebook’s business model is to attract as many users/viewers as possible and to keep them happy in order to connect them with advertisers selling products that might interest them.

Some have claimed that the Facebook “like” button and other reaction indicators has enabled Facebook to direct posts that are liked or that create a strong reaction to the reacting users, thus creating echo chambers (bubbles) in which people increasingly only hear what they already agree with. If they are viewing misinformation, it risks going unchallenged.   “Must Read on Facebook”  

Without delving (again) into how well or poorly Facebook is doing its job of bringing useful information to its users, I want to address (again) the question of who should be responsible for rejecting and filtering out false information. “Facebook covid misinformation” 

Should it be the government (the Xi, Putin model only with Trump or Biden at the helm), social media themselves (the charming Mark Zuckerberg), or its users (us)?

Anyone who has read more than one of my blogs knows where I stand. America’s greatness derives from the fact that sovereignty in America resides in each individual (us) and we delegate rule making upward (to our family and friends, then our clubs and villages, then our cities and states, then to the Federal government, and finally, on a very limited basis, to the world community) as needed to protect ourselves and our property and to facilitate cooperation and commerce among us. In short, while Facebook and other social media platforms should continue to work at improving their game, the choice of what to believe should rest with each of us.

We should learn from our parents and schools how best to evaluate information and where to look for trustworthy information. The success of American democracy will depend, in part, on how well we each perform this duty. I recommend that you start with the new book by Jonathan Rauch: The Constitution of Knowledge: a defense of truth“Trust”