Conservative Politics for Dummies

I read a lot. I read a lot about politics and government, in particular. I read factual reports filled with opinions and opinionated editorials supported by facts. I also have a habit of shooting my mouth off in comments sections and on Facebook posts. And I read the comments and remarks on those, too.

I may have mentioned before how much it bugs me that people spend a lot more time projecting their prejudiced expectations on others than they do calmly discussing issues and reaching some form of accord. If I had a dollar for every time a progressive friend of mine expressed a false stereotype of conservative policy, I’d be rich enough to have more liberal friends.

It doesn’t help to tell people how they think, or to tell people who agree with you how to debate those who don’t. Those sorts of guides always result in lots of preaching and no debate or discussion. So, conservative that I am. here’s my guide to the conservative take on a list of issues. Feel free to disagree with me. That’s how discussions happen.

“Conservative” doesn’t mean what you think it means

It may surprise you to learn that nearly every conservative position expressed by policy wonks on MSNBC and Fox News is utter bullshit (maybe not, who am I to judge?) This is partially because allegedly conservative media outlets use hilariously slanted polling methods and “balanced” media outlets like MSNBC have a bad habit of creating straw men. That’s not the whole of it, however.

We, as a people, err in thinking that political thought can be expressed along a single line, when it’s more accurate to express it in a matrix. Essentially (and I’m not the first person to say this) political thought breaks down along the lines of money and power, and opinions can be charted on that graph in the same way.

Click for slightly larger image.

Click for slightly larger image.

The vertical axis is all about power and who has it. Liberals want people to have most of the power; Authoritarians want that power safely in the hands of government. The horizontal axis expresses money, and how the government should spend it. Progressives are all about social engineering and using tax money for (presumably positive) social change. Conservatives would like to keep their own money in their own pockets, thanks. Mind you, a political conservative may be socially progressive, the difference there is that he believes the funding for social change should be voluntary and not gained through taxation.

And that’s the thing. Saying “Conservatives oppose gay marriage,” is like saying “Red Sox fans hate the New York Jets.” Not only does it pigeonhole an entire school of thought behind a single issue, it draws that issue from a different game, entirely.

Moral issues are divisive among conservatives

People who identify as conservative are widely divided on the moral issues, even if we occasionally reach an accord for disparate reasons. I see myself as a liberal conservative (but not so far out either axis as to be Libertarian), so my first reaction to any moral debate is almost always, “I don’t have a dog in that fight.” If I’m pressed, my reaction will probably end up somewhere around, “Sure, why not?” More authoritarian conservatives will have highly developed opinions on such subjects, usually based on their religious beliefs.

I’m always amused at the number of people who call themselves conservative and complain about the government in their front yard, but have no problem putting the government in someone else’s bedroom. I am not amused by the laundry list of assumptions people make about me when they learn that I’m a conservative.

For instance, I would never eat this kitten (unless it was served with a side salad and a good dipping sauce).

For instance, I would never eat this kitten.

Republican politicians aren’t conservatives

American politics is a popularity competition to see who gets to play with the money and power of the American People. This isn’t new. By extension, no professional politician is either liberal or conservative, because those philosophies are all about keeping power and money, respectively, out of the government’s hands.

So straight off the boat, any politician saying he supports “good conservative values” is lying to you (never mind that it’s a senseless phrase–there are no political values, only issues and concerns), because he wants your money and your power.

Telling us what we think just pisses us off and shuts down discussion

No conservative is “anti-immigration.” Many are sick and tired of giving illegal immigrants and those who enable them a free pass, but that’s not the same as being anti-immigration any more  than punishing your child for stealing money off your dresser makes you “anti-allowance.” Conservatives are not, as a group, racist, sexist, homophobic, luddite, or jingoist. Some are some of these things, a microscopic minority are all of them, but most are none of them.

If you talk to people, instead of flinging random accusations at them, you might find out that their concerns are as valid as your own.

Crime and Punishment

I have been thinking, lately, of crime and punishment. Maybe it’s because I’ve been watching Blue Bloods on Netflix, maybe it’s just because the media have been soaked in an unending stream of stories about police officers, criminals, and the innocents trapped between them. Maybe it doesn’t matter.

I think we’ve been going at this whole crime and punishment thing all wrong. We act like people are something we can standardize, like traffic lights. The thing is, laws aren’t there to keep us all the same, they exist to set boundaries so we can be different in ways that don’t harm others. Societies, even small ones like families, cannot exist without rules of behavior, and without societies, we’re all just monkeys waiting for the next hungry leopard.

So I’ve been thinking. The first thing that occurred to me is that we keep looking at all felony crimes as if they were the same thing. The truth is, a lot of felonies should be misdemeanors—some shouldn’t be crimes at all—and punishing them all with hard time (and a lifelong social albatross) serves no one. I think our justice system should be scaled to reflect how a different crime directly affects society and the people that make it up.

Moral Crimes

What I’m calling moral crimes, is any crime that offends someone else’s idea of what’s right, but has no other direct effect on other individuals and society as a whole. Recreational drug use, gambling, sexual activities involving only consenting adults, these are all things that, when they are illegal, are not illegal because of any actual harm they do, but as an effort to enforce some arbitrary standard of virtuous behavior.

In my mind, none of these should be crimes at all. The guy who undertips (or downright refuses to tip) a waiter is doing far more harm than the one who cools down after work with a joint, but only one of them is going down to Huntsville if he tries to limit his trips to the Fifth Ward to just one a month.

That’s basically my thoughts on moral crime. If you’re reason that something should be illegal is, “I don’t do it, so you shouldn’t either.” It shouldn’t be a crime. You should just learn to get past the differences expressed by others. That our jails are full of people whose only crime is needing an easy means to avoid the harshness of their day is an embarrassment to our nation.

Procedural Crime

A procedural crime is one where the law sets a minimum standard in order to protect the rest of us from your negligence. Most traffic, consumer protection, and building and safety codes are procedural laws. Essentially, if you break a procedural law, you may not have hurt anyone, yet, but you’re going to.

Often, a procedural crime informs the understanding of a greater crime. A family dies because one man was driving while intoxicated. Twenty men and women are hospitalized because someone cheaped out on building supplies. Negligence at a food processing plant results in hundreds of casualties, some fatal, from a preventable contaminant. In my mind, these are all violent crimes (more on those, later), but they are informed by the existence of a procedural crime.

Procedural crimes should carry fines if, and only if, there is no evidence of other crime resulting from the violation. Of course these fines should vary with (a) the potential severity of the violation, (b) the financial situation of the accused, and (c) how many times the accused has been found guilty of committing similar offenses.

In cases where such crimes are the result of company culture, the fines should go right up the hierarchy until the offending company can show that the supervisor had no reasonable means of expecting the violation. Companies that have a stated safety or quality policy would need to show that they didn’t set sales or production standards that made adhering to that policy impossible.

The lion’s share of money from procedural fines should go into a fund to compensate any potential victims. Failure to pay those fines, elevates the crime from a mere procedural, to a

Property Crime

Any time you deny someone the use or enjoyment of something that is theirs by right, you commit a property crime. Theft and vandalism are obviously property crimes, but so are fraud, profiteering, and predatory lending practices. Non-payment of taxes and fines are also property crimes (against the government).

This is where jail time should begin to rear its ugly head. The primary aim here should be restitution. It does the victim no good for the accused to go to jail. The victim has still suffered a loss (and don’t say “blahblah insurance blah” you know as well as I do that getting full value out of an insurance policy is like getting milk from a cat—it’s possible, but one of you probably won’t survive the experience).

Anyway, the punishments here should run on a sliding scale from simply paying the victim back (plus a punitive fine) through probationary labor or wage garnishing, up to incarceration on a work farm or prison factory. The length of any labor or incarceration would be wholly defined by the value of the lost property and additional fines for recidivism.

Violent Crime

If you knowingly bring harm to another person, you have committed a violent crime. As I said, above, committing a procedural crime informs the charge, here. If you were speeding through a school zone, and hit a child, in my mind, you are guilty of battery against that child (assuming he lives) just as much as if you had taken the tire iron out of your trunk and used it on him.

I should point out that I don’t consider simple assault (a threat of violence combined with the means to carry out that violence) to be a violent crime–it’s procedural. Assault raises theft to robbery; by removing the option of consent, assault turns sex into rape. On it’s own, however, assault should not be treated as a matter on par with violent crimes. There’s a wide gulf between, “I’m gonna kick your ass!” and someone getting their meals through a straw while they wait for their jaw to heal.

Violent felons should be removed from society, because they pose a clear and present danger to that society. First time offenders should be offered therapy and training to (hopefully) give them the tools to avoid committing their crime again. Repeat offenders should receive longer stays and more severe punishments depending on the severity of their offense and how many times they’ve committed it.

Violence should be looked at as partially a property crime. Hospital bills, lost wages, physical and psychological therapy are all expenses the victim would not have to shoulder if not for the actions of the convicted. So part of a violent felon’s sentence should be working for restitution for his victims. As a society, we should re-acquaint ourselves with the idea of weregild, because human lives have value, and that value should be paid by those who willfully destroy them.

Capital Crime

Some people commit crimes so heinous they can never be allowed to interact with society. Those people need to be removed. Lacking a secure habitat to exile them, I believe the only real solution is to put them down.

We must, however, ensure that we have the right person. Rules of evidence and debate in capital cases must be orders of magnitude greater than those in regular trials. Prosecutors must be prevented from using theatrics of any kind or any sort of visceral appeal during the trial phase. Juries must be allowed to determine guilt or innocence based entirely on the facts. It’s hard to say, “Not guilty” when you have ten crime-scene photos of bloody victims in front of you, and an officer of the court telling you, “This guy did it, are you going to let him get away?”

But that’s what we expect juries to do in capital trials. We shouldn’t, and we shouldn’t allow prosecutors to put juries in that position.

Obviously, there are holes in my plan, and much would need to be discussed, but I think it’s a good starting point.

Share This or They Win!

I am, I have been told, an intellectual elitist. I am oddly okay with that, because my elitism comes from a reliance and insistence on facts. I like facts, because the more of them I have, the better I am able to shape an informed opinion. Unfortunately, it’s getting harder and harder to locate actual facts on the internet. Hence, the elitism.

Mind you, I don’t mind opinions. I love to hear other people’s opinions, and have not, to my knowledge, ever told anyone that their opinion was wrong. Your opinion is yours, and welcome to it. I won’t even say anything if your reason for your opinion is something visceral. “I don’t like gingers because I find red hair and pale skin monumentally creepy,” is a perfectly valid opinion. Just don’t throw out a rationale base on bullshit and expect me not to check your facts. “I don’t like gingers because 87% of red haired people must eat babies to survive,” is not something I will accept at face value. And neither should you.

She's thinking of eating a baby right now!

She’s thinking of eating a baby right now!

Obviously, this was hyperbole to make a point. I’m sure fewer than half of all gingers regularly eat babies and fewer still have sold their souls to the dark gods that allow clowns to exist. The thing is, it’s only a joke in this one instance. I have had (and I am sure you have, too) more utter bullshit posted and shared to my Facebook timeline than…you know what, I can’t even think of a hyperbolic metaphor.

So, purely as a public service, I am going to share with you my tips for reading the Internet and discerning reliable facts.

Truth is malleable, Facts are absolute, Statistics are meaningless

If you try to live with an open mind, the first thing you discover is that there is no one single truth in anything. You can present any two people with the same set of facts, and both of them will derive completely different ideas that they consider the truth. This is why juries exist. The theory is that getting twelve people to all agree that the defendant committed the crime with knowledge and forethought is difficult enough to rely on a guilty verdict to determine someone’s need for punishment.

The best truths, like jury verdicts, rely mostly on facts, because facts are absolute. A fact is a fact, no matter how many times you look at it; this is called verifiability. However, facts are limited, and have to be stated precisely to be facts. When you say, “Mark Spitz won seven gold medals in swimming at the 1972 Olympics,” you are stating a fact. Here’s another: “At the 1972 Olympics, Mark Spitz won four gold medals for individual competition.”

So, what do these two facts have in common, other than that they are both about Mark Spitz? Well, to begin with, they are extremely specific. All facts have this in common. That specificity makes facts infinitely reliable. You cannot deny that Mark Spitz won seven gold medals in swimming at the 1972 Olympics without misinforming or at least temporizing.

That specificity, is what makes facts limited. Facts have to be universally verifiable. You can’t say, “Mark Spitz is a great athlete,” and call it a fact, because, while it may be true, it is not universally verifiable; in order to be universally verifiable, you would have to compare a 65-year-old man, not only to a wealth of other swimmers who are currently in their prime, but to runners, football and basketball players, skiers…a whole world of athletes who have skills and talents well outside of Mark Spitz’s wheel house.

That leads us to statistics. Used properly, statistics are a valuable tool for determining where research should be directed, but they are not, nor will they ever be, facts. By definition, statistics are measures of probability; they are ways to guess at what will happen. On a roll of a standard cubical die, you have a statistical probability of rolling a three 1 out of six times. That does not mean that, if you roll the die six times, that one of those rolls will definitely be a three. It doesn’t even mean that you will roll a three if you roll the die a thousand times, or a million. Probability isn’t guaranteed, nor is it universally verifiable.

Math, no matter what anyone tells you, is simply a language—one used to describe an infinite number of concepts and realities. Statistics are a specific dialect of that language, as separate and distinct from common usage as Middle English is from Facebook discussions. In fact, the rules of statistical language are so taxing that properly expressed statistics are almost impossible for the layman to understand.

Words like “median,” “mean,” and “standard deviation” that sound a little weaselly on their own are absolutely necessary when discussing statistics of any kind. Then you add in “sample size,” “external variables,” and other temporizing words, and you start to get the feeling that those who make their living analyzing and compiling statistics can’t ever just make a direct statement.

That’s all to the good, because statistics cannot provide any information beyond a starting point for further research. Statistics are excellent if you’re a bookie or a scientist looking for a new project, but they’re awful for making and kind of declarative statement. Expressing that “black men make up 38% of state prison populations in the US” doesn’t tell you anything except that almost 2/5’s of male prison inmates are black. It’s a basis to investigate further.

With all due respect to those who derive conclusions from that statistic, it does not mean that the American Justice System is inherently unfair any more than it means that American Blacks live in a culture of criminality. Further, it does nothing to explain how to fix any perceived unfairness or repair a culture that appears (from the outside) to glorify criminal activity. You have to look further for real answers, because statistics don’t give answers, they just point you at the right questions (and even then, they can be misinterpreted).

Everyone has an Agenda

So all of this jostling with truth, facts, and statistics means that, not only do you have to be careful what you read and listen to, but in how you read and listen. People speak, write, and share information for a reason. Usually that reason is that they want you to agree with them; sometimes, it’s that they want you to agree with them enough to give them money or power.

This is not a bad thing. Symbolic expression is designed to influence you. Whether it’s an artist manipulating the elements of the visual world to move your emotions or a cave man jumping up and down and gargling incoherently to get you to help him protect the village against the local giant sloth, people communicate to affect your thoughts and actions. It then becomes your responsibility to ensure that you want your thoughts and actions to respond the way they expect.

Never give a single source your full trust until you have verified what they have to say. Ideally, you look at what their opponent has to say and try to objectively assess their opinion. Be especially careful if someone states that you have to act to solve a problem without adequately describing the problem or supporting their reason for believing that the problem exists.

A good rule of thumb is this: If something you heard or read makes you outraged, check the language, check the facts, and analyze the statistics, because I can guarantee they said it in a way designed to make you feel that way.

Assent to Laws

Now we’re into the actual reasons the colonists felt they needed to “sever the bonds” with England. It’s a pretty big list, and while it’s not rare for a document of this type (like a request for divorce) to list some frivolous or minor complaints, it’s important to note that most of the specific complaints were addressed in the Constitution, either in the body or the first ten amendments.

He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.

He has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing importance, unless suspended in their operation till his Assent should be obtained; and when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them.

He has refused to pass other Laws for the accommodation of large districts of people, unless those people would relinquish the right of Representation in the Legislature, a right inestimable to them and formidable to tyrants only.

So, by the time of the Intolerable Acts, the process of passing laws in the colonies had become somewhat ponderous. The colonial legislatures would pass a law they considered very reasonable, say, “Orphans may not be used as fuel.” Then they would send it up to the colonial governor, usually a position appointed by the King. He would pass it with his signature—sort of—then he would send it across the Atlantic for approval. There it would go through Parliament (or at least the Foreign Office) to decide if the law was even worthy of being presented to the King. If it was worthy, it would go, along with any Parliamentary amendments or notes (“Orphans may not be used as fuel. Unless it is very cold.*  *This law does not apply to gingers or the Irish.”) The king would then use the law to line his birdcage, because Lord Chirpy-chirp wouldn’t go on common newspaper.

I've seen things man...

I’ve seen things, man…

Originally, the Founding fathers fixed this by making the individual states supreme in the new nation, with a national government so laughably weak that the Marvel Cinematic Universe panel at SDCC has more legislative power than Congress under the Articles did. The President under the Articles was such a meaningless figurehead that more people remember Millard Fillmore’s Vice President.

That worked out as well as you’d expect, so they made a Federal government with slightly more teeth, but they still addressed the root causes above. Under the Constitution, states have the right to make their own laws without asking the Fed’s permission, to begin with. More so, the President can’t just sit on a law forever—he has to sign or veto it within a certain time period. If he does veto the law, Congress can overturn that veto (by getting 387 lawyers and hacks to agree on something that may not directly line their pockets). Further, the ninth and tenth amendments clearly state that the Federal Government only has those powers specifically granted by the Constitution, reserving any other powers and rights to the states or the people.

He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their Public Records, for the sole Purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures.

He has dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly firmness his invasions on the rights of the People.

He has refused for a long time, after such dissolutions, to cause others to be elected; whereby the Legislative Powers incapable of Annihilation, have returned to the People at large for their exercise, the State remaining in the mean time exposed to all the dangers of invasion from without and convulsions within.

This sounds a little nitpicky, on the face of it. “Whah, Whah, the King won’t let State representatives earn a stipend for helping to decide if the state bird should be the Blue Jay or the Prothonotary Warbler.”

Yes, that's my real name. I wanted Asskick McAwesombird, but no one listens to a five ounce bird.

Yes, that’s my real name. I wanted Asskick McAwesomebird, but no one listens to a five ounce bird.

Except that’s not the whole thing. Believe it or not, almost every meaningful law that regulates your life is a state law, and federal laws are usually meaningless to everyday living. Also, it helps to remember that, before the rise of the automobile, any trip over thirty miles was at least an over-nighter. I also gather that this meeting-place resetting would happen without notice, so representatives would go to the colonial capital only to learn that they needed to be in West Stinkville, twenty miles up the road.

Of course, moving the legislature was generally less the action of the King himself, and more a thing the appointed colonial governors did, mostly for the reasons stated.

That last paragraph is the kicker, however. Laws are how we humans prevent the worst of us from making hay from the best of us, and they need to be periodically adjusted as they become pointless, or as truly inventive douchebags develop a workaround. Without a recognized government passing and enforcing laws, large-scale societies tend to fall into chaos, and, contrary to what the activities in Boston might lead one to believe, chaos is what they were trying to avoid.

Prudence, Indeed

Okay, I went a little off on the responsibility of free people to maintain a free society in the last bit, but now we’re getting into the colonists’ specific complaints against the King.

Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.

Oh. Hmm… So it turns out that they weren’t the hot-headed firebrands they might, at first, appear to be. This sentence basically says, “We admit that it’s stupid to knock it all down and start over if it can be fixed.”

And that sentiment is valid today. More and more I read about petitions and calls for a variety of new constitutional amendments from those seeking to counter the ridiculous conclusions of the Citizens United decision to the recurrent calls for a “balanced budget” amendment. The thing is, Supreme court decisions are mere interpretations of law and are often overturned, Plessy v Ferguson being the one that springs first to mind.

The 18th and 21st amendments should both stand together as solid examples of why it is a dumb idea to use the Constitution as an instrument to create rules too specific to circumstance. And why any change to the foundation of our country must be one of necessity and not momentary whim.

But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their further security.

And we’re back to what we were talking about yesterday.

Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.

The colonists’ real beef was with Parliament, not the King. You will find nobody on the planet who will tell you that George III was in any way a tyrannical monarch or even a particularly active one. However, it was easier to publicize and cement public support against the Evil Dictator King than Parliament Trying to Pay Off the Seven Years War Debt While Expressing their Right to Govern the Colonies. Sound familiar?

I’m not saying they were making shit up. The specific complaints (which I’ll get into tomorrow) were real and valid. I am saying that it was neither as simple, nor as black and white as they made it sound, or as we Americans like to believe.

The trouble started with the French and Indian (7 Years) War. Depending on who you ask, that war was the direct result of the French encroaching on Colonial lands, Colonial speculators seeking new profitability from the recently-opened Cumberland gap, or British Imperialists seeking to expand British territorial claims in the New World. Whatever it was (my vote goes to all three in an amusing international cocktail I like to call a Murderita because it always starts with a bunch of festive nationalist songs and ends with someone burying half their family while facing a Mastercard charge they can’t quite remember accruing), the war was expensive, and the homeland felt that the colonies should shoulder some of the expense since much of it was incurred on their behalf.

This led to a number of new taxes, mostly aimed at the North American colonies. Mind you, most of the colonists, while not in love with the new taxes, just shrugged and started paying them. The New England colonies, however, who depended on trade for their livelihood, protested against the taxes. I should point out that when I say “protested,” I mean a drunken mob marched violently through town threatening and bullying anyone who didn’t agree with them. These protests often ended with a crudely-made effigy of the King (or, more likely, some local official) being hung and/or burned.

The most famous of these, the Boston Tea Party, was less a protest than a frat prank. Contrary to impressions, they didn’t sneak onto the ships, they were allowed on by the guards who saw right through the clever “Indian” disguises worn by the Sons of Liberty and may have greeted some of the members by name. It took them all night, by which time, they were almost certainly sober, but, by then it had become a macho thing, and they continued dumping the taxed tea into the harbor, grimly scooping it up and re-dumping it when the dump pile overwhelmed the ship’s gunwales. Later, the richer sponsors of the act paid for the tea (tax and all).

Parliament repealed most of the more obnoxious taxes, but because you can’t get five humans together without at least a little dick-waving, they passed other acts to show the Colonists that they were still in control. Then they passed the Stamp Act, which, besides being a dumbass tax on all paper products, including newspapers and spittle-emitting screeds, was extremely annoying to the Colonists because the collectors of the new tax were all so obviously selected by nature of their willingness to climb under the Royal Governors’ desks.

Boston, long known as the seat of calm, intellectual discourse*, of course, expressed their displeasure through calm, intellectual drunken riots. As a means of debate, this worked about as well as it does now, and Parliament responded with the Punitive Acts (better known in America as the Intolerable Acts). They rescinded the Massachusetts Colonial Charter and followed that up with a number of other laws limiting mobility and trade in all of the colonies.

The response was the First Continental Congress. Delegates from all 13 colonies got together and came up with the revolutionary notion of writing a letter asking Parliament (and the King) not to be so mean all of the time. This was passed around the House of Lords, getting a good laugh like a LoLcat meme, and they doubled down by essentially announcing that the colonists, who had thought themselves full citizens of the British Empire, had exactly as many rights as meatloaf.

This angered the colonists so much that, as the 2nd Continental Congress convened, they decided to write another letter, which was quickly returned to them folded up like a used Kleenex. And that’s how we ended up on July 4th, outlining just what a douche King George was, and why we weren’t going to be his friend any more.

*My wife and I were once eating in a Boston MacDonald’s when some guy walked in and started screaming at the manager, who started screaming back, both spewing more expletives than actual words in their incomprehensible accent. This went on for five minutes until the guy left and the manager went back about his business.