Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Keeping Away from the Bible: How Not to Defend Israel

Elliot Resnick is the editor of the Jewish Press (the Jewish Depressed, as I used to refer to it when discussing it with my grandfather of blessed memory). Resnick is a few years older than me but we overlapped at Yeshiva University and before that we were together at the Lubavitch Yeshiva in Pittsburgh. Here, on the Tom Woods Show, he debates Gene Epstein over the question of Israel with Resnick taking the pro-Israel position. As someone who considers himself to be pro-Israel and an observant Jew, I think Resnick absolutely blew this debate. He lost me in the first few minutes when he decided to lead by arguing from the Bible. And this is on a libertarian show. If there is a context in which religion is going to be less relevant even among people who are serious about religion, I am hard pressed to think of one.

There are good reasons to actively avoid even bringing up the Bible when defending Israel as it implies that there are not good secular liberal and even libertarian arguments to be made. This allows opponents of Israel to accuse us of "Israeling their juice."

In truth, even from a biblical perspective, one is on weak ground to make any political argument that Jews have a right to the land. A critical part of the larger biblical narrative is that the same God, who gave us the land and allowed us to slaughter the Canaanites also kicked us out of the land. The very circumstances under which allowed the Israelites to enter the land in the first place ultimately led to our own exile when we failed to live up to God's demands. Furthermore, we have the example of Abraham, who bought the Cave of Machpelah in Hebron from Ephron. If God's direct promise to Abraham did not get him out of having to pay money to the inhabitants, how much more so do we not have the right to take anything from non-Jews living currently living in Israel at gunpoint.

In general, it is important to keep in mind when reading the Old Testament that it is a running dialogue between ethno-supremacy and its subversion. Israel is both the honored chosen people of God and the cursed people who violated his commandments. God is both the tribal god of Israel and the God of the entire world who loves everyone equally. Just as Christianity requires its paradox in the form of Jesus being both God and man, Judaism needs its paradox of being both parochial and universalistic. To resolve the paradox may be reasonable but ultimately it would destroy the religion.

The Bible can serve a purpose in defending Israel in terms of a larger narrative. Consider the issue from the opposing perspective. The whole point of inventing a Palestinian people was to give them a narrative. As long as the Palestinians are just Arabs who lost property in 1948 and became refugees, they will get very little sympathy even from libertarians. Such Arabs can get in line behind millions of other people who were chased from their land in the aftermath of World War II. Being in favor of private property does not mean that you are going to even try to rectify historical injustices. Even today, if the Palestinians are just Arabs, what is so wrong with simply paying them off and shipping them to other Arab countries, particularly if that could solve the Arab-Israel conflict?

The moment you have a Palestinian people, everything changes. Now the Israeli War of Independence did not simply have the unfortunate side effect of uprooting some innocent civilians for which Israel should perhaps pay reparations. There was a people that were uprooted and a culture destroyed. Money cannot solve this problem. The only solution would be for this people to be reconstituted upon their land. If that means that the current Jewish residents might have to be moved out of the houses that they are currently living in, so be it. Until this happens, the world is a poorer place for the lack of this Palestinian culture. As such, all right-minded people, even those with no connection to either Arabs or Palestinians should care about this issue and work for justice for the Palestinian people.

Part of the reason why the Arabs needed to do this was to counter the fact that the Israelis already had a narrative and it behooves us to remember it. Jews are not simply Europeans who showed up in Palestine at the end of the nineteenth century. They are natives of this land going back to biblical times. Note that one does not have to be any kind of religious fundamentalist to accept the Bible as evidence that Jews lived in Israel during antiquity. While this does not give Jews the right to kick anyone off of their land, it does give a reason for the wider world to care about Zionism. You do not have to be Jewish to be inspired by this narrative of a people who kept their culture without the aid of a political state and then, after two-thousand years, re-established that state. If that state were to be abolished and those people had to leave their homes, even if they were paid off and are now living in comfort in New York and Los Angeles, that would still be a tragedy.

Even though this kind of biblical argument has some validity to it, it should only be used to counter Palestinian arguments that they are a people and that Jews are simply European colonists. One should not lead with this argument. National narratives, while they may be useful as a way to inspire people, do not offer a productive means of working toward practical solutions. Finally, there is no reason to bring it up within a libertarian context. A critical aspect of libertarianism is the rejection of national narratives as having any political relevance. The only meaningful political actor is the individual property owner with rights and the ability to enter into social contracts with other property owners.

Monday, November 12, 2018

Taxation is Theft and the Pharmacist Dilemna

I generally like John Stossel but here, in his discussion with Ben Shapiro, he utterly fails to provide a coherent libertarian response to the question of what taxes are theft. He argues that taxes that provide national defense are necessary so, therefore, such taxes do not count as theft. To be clear, my objection is not to whether we need a tax-payer funded army as opposed to perhaps a private army paid for by life insurance companies for the protection of their dues-paying members. I readily acknowledge, particularly for the near future, that there may not be a better solution and we will have to live with some government programs, like an army, for all of its imperfections.

The problem with Stossel's response is that it turns the question of taxation into which taxes do you support and which do you oppose. This means that we libertarians have no principled objection to Bernie Sanders' type free health care and college. Clearly, those on the hard left believe that these policies would benefit society and it is hardly obvious that they are wrong. Worse, there is a clear benefit to being part of the larger package of the government. Hence, even the taxes for policies you oppose do not hold up as theft. Part of the package deal of living in a democracy is that you will end up having to pay taxes to fund policies that you actively oppose.

When we talk about whether taxation is theft, it is important to distinguish between whether taxation is theft and whether or not we should still tax people even if it was theft. Implicit in this is that fact that the claim that taxation is theft does not refute the concept of taxes. It is theft to take a single penny from a billionaire to buy guns so that soldiers would be able to fight off an invading Nazi army. As much of an anarchist as I may be, I am willing to put aside my scruples for such national emergencies. In both my religion and in my politics, I am guided by the Talmudic principle of "you shall live by them." My beliefs are not a suicide pact and all of my values may be subordinated to saving human lives. None of this changes the fact that taxation is theft. It just means that some kinds of theft are a mitzvah. As a Burkean, I accept that life has a tragic dimension to it and not everything breaks down into neat and clean principles; sometimes we have to get our hands dirty and become morally tainted.

A useful example to consider is the classic moral dilemma of robbing a pharmacist. Your mother is deathly ill. You go to the pharmacist and he has the only available bottle of medication that can save your mother but he will only sell it to you for $10,000. You do not have that kind of money so you plead with him and try to negotiate for a lower price but to no avail. He refuses to sell you the medicine and walks away leaving the medicine on the counter. Do you grab the medicine and make a run for it? I bring up this example not to take a side in the question of what is more important, letting your mother die or stealing, but to note that a critical point for even beginning to discuss this question is that, regardless of whether you should or should not do it, taking the medicine is stealing. It is not necessarily the case that stealing is wrong in all cases and, under certain circumstances, might be necessary and perhaps commendable. That being said, theft remains generally wrong. Even if you are thirsty, you cannot steal a coke from the pharmacist.

For me, the purpose of proclaiming that taxation is theft at every opportunity is not that we should not have taxes but that we should radically limit the number of issues that we would seriously consider funding through taxes. If you would not be willing, for the sake of a cause, to put a gun to someone's head and tell them to hand over their wallet or else you will splatter their brains on the pavement then you cannot use government even if that would mean the defeat of your cause. As much as I love Shakespeare, I am not willing to threaten to kill people in order to fund the teaching of Shakespeare in schools. If that means that Shakespeare is no longer studied and we are left with a much poorer culture then so be it. I may be a hypothetical thief but there are some thefts that really are outside the pale.

Thursday, November 8, 2018

From Conservatism to Libertarianism: My Personal Journey (Part II)

Part I

It is very dangerous to believe that one is on the right side of history. It makes one arrogant and it excuses all kinds of behaviors when you do not have to fear standing in the dock with those you persecuted on the bench. Historically, one of the advantages of conservatism over liberalism is that, if you are a conservative, it is harder to believe that history is going your way. On the contrary, one learns to accept that history is a tragedy in which you are going to lose. A good conservative should see themselves in much the same way as the Norse gods going out to Ragnarök. One thinks of the famous example of Whittaker Chambers who, when he abandoned Communism for Christianity, said: "I know that I am leaving the winning side for the losing side." Conservatives of a religious disposition can take comfort from the Judeo-Christian tradition of martyrdom. A life spent in choosing to be one of Foxe's Protestant martyrs as opposed to the triumphant Catholic tormentors can have meaning. 

By the time I entered college at Yeshiva University in the fall of 2001, I had already spent years believing in the twin threats of Arab/Islamic terrorism and of liberalism. It was only a matter of time before the terrorism faced daily by Israelis would reach the United States and the left would be exposed as the moral bankrupts they were. And then one morning, several weeks later and only several miles to the south, 9/11 happened to “prove” that I was right. Now it was going to be “obvious” to all reasonable people that the United States had no choice but to wage war against Arab/Islamic terrorism in much the same way that we once fought Nazi Germany. As with World War II, this would not just be a military struggle but also a moral struggle in which the United States would have to embrace a new understanding of itself as the global defender of freedom. (My teenage self was a bit obsessed with World War II. In fact, I read through Winston Churchill's six-volume memoirs on the War while in Israel, several months before 9/11.) 

I held this position for several years through the beginning of the Iraq War. Since even Bill Clinton had built a major part of his foreign policy around the assumption that Iraq had an ongoing weapons of mass destruction program, I took it as a given that the weapons were there as the Bush administration claimed. The lead up to the Iraq War seemed to play into my assumptions of a liberal collapse as the question of invasion served as a perfect wedge to split the pragmatist faction of the Democratic Party from its ideological wing. Once the weapons were found and post-war Iraq turned into post-war Germany, the ideological left would become irrelevant and go the way of Charles Lindbergh’s America Firsters. 

The difficulty with being on the right side of history is that it has a habit of throwing uncomfortable curveballs. As it turned out, Saddam did not have an operational weapons of mass destruction program. The occupation of Iraq proved to be a bloody mess. To top it all off, the Republicans proved to be a poor model of competent honest and limited government. In a similar vein, the Christian right, the power behind the Republicans, proved to be bullies rather than caretakers of a nation moving to the right and hypocritical incompetent ones at that. Not surprisingly, the ideological left, instead of slinking away into oblivion, was suddenly becoming very relevant and even someone far from the left like me could see it.

By the fall of 2006, several months before I first started writing this blog. I had stopped listening to talk radio. Part of it was the change in my life. I left Yeshiva University for Ohio State to work on my Ph.D. and my daily schedule was different. The biggest thing, though, was that I had gotten bored of the genre. I had been waiting for years for the collapse of liberalism and it seemed even less likely to happen now. Furthermore, neither Limbaugh nor Hannity seemed to be reacting to this fact. It was as if they were in some kind of time warp in which it still was September 2001 or even March 2003. (I am reminded of the German movie Goodbye Lenin, in which the hero shows his mother old East German news clips to hide the fact that the Berlin Wall had come down and Communism was defeated. The fact that the clips are old does not matter as East German news tended to be the same thing every day anyway.)

Did this make me more liberal? It was also in my first year at OSU that I was diagnosed with Asperger syndrome and became involved with the autism community. I had been aware of Asperger syndrome since my father had brought it to my attention in high school. I had long since accepted that I was on the spectrum but I did not do anything about it. As I started work on my doctorate and pursued dating, I was forced to confront the fact that if I wanted to get a job or get married I would need to radically rework my people skills. This led me to seek out psychiatric help and a diagnosis. Much like my Judaism, being on the autism spectrum served to make me an outsider to established society. While this may have made me more open to alternative lifestyles in general, it did not make me more liberal politically. On the contrary, it simply fed my alienation from the left as I became conscious of the fact that my group was not on the left's list of special groups to be protected. 

This had implications for how I related to the gay rights movement. Like many Americans in the mid-2000s, I was conscious of the issue of gay marriage and was growing, at a personal level, to accept homosexuality as an alternative lifestyle. It probably helped that I had a number of friends who identified as LGBT (a number of them in my autism group). That being said, I was bitterly opposed to the gay rights movement as I saw it as privileging homosexuals over people on the autism spectrum. For example, when I visited the health department and saw the various pro-LGBT stickers on offices, what I noticed was the lack of autism-friendly stickers (and no Autism Speaks puzzle stickers would not have counted). For me, this meant that the people who put up those stickers had either consciously decided that we were not important enough to put up stickers or, even worse, had not taken us into account in the first place. Hence, I came to take gay rights advocacy as a personal insult that hypocritically used the claim of tolerance to deny my very humanity.   

Most conservatives reacted to the failures of the Bush administration with cognitive dissonance and doubled down on their hatred of the left. This would eventually enable the rise of Trump as you had a generation of conservatives who lost all of their conservativism except for a desire to “stick” it to liberals. As for me, perhaps because I was no longer operating within the bubble of conservative media, instead of focusing my anger at liberals, I started losing patience with the Republican Party. Liberals, however much I might dislike them, were who they were. Republicans were supposed to be something better and they had failed. 

Instead of going into an apocalyptic panic mode and saying that we must stop liberalism at all costs, I made my peace with the fact that, whether I liked it or not, the left would dominate our society and our politics (even when Republicans won elections). If it was going to be my opponents and people that did not share my values who were going to dominate society, then my only chance of survival would be to make sure that political power was limited as to stop anyone from actually being able to interfere with my decidedly illiberal life-style. (In a sense, I had stumbled on Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option in starting from the premise that I was going to be on the losing side both socially and politically. The fact that, as a Jew, I accepted it as a given that my religion would never dominate American society likely helped.)

As I lost the conservative movement as a base, I lost the ability to consistently focus my hate on the left. I did not spend eight years fuming at Obama and 2016 was not some kind of flight 93 election in which Hillary Clinton needed to be stopped at all costs. The Democrats were who they were, a fact of life living in America. Until the men and resources could be placed for mass civil disobedience with the goal of bringing radical constitutional changes, they were to be endured. 

Rabbinic messianism made the Messiah irrelevant in practice by exiling him to the daily prayers and the claims of the supernatural. A mere political leader, who could restore Jewish self-rule was no longer enough and therefore there was no reason to work toward it. Similarly, I lost interest in fighting the left through electoral politics as that would not be enough. I was waiting for the revolution (likely not in my lifetime) and while I was waiting I was not going to disgrace myself by exchanging that hope for a mere Republican victory.