A Grab Bag of Observations About Torture

And because this is a grab bag, we will just rummage through it for now. Maybe later we can unpack it. If you would like to read more, a couple of good articles from opposing corners can be found here and here.

That said, here are some thoughts of my very own.

1. You can be morally serious without being morally grounded. The fact that you feel the pressure and the weight of the responsibility you have to protect American lives does not mean you have an ethical system able to bear the weight that situations like this will place on you. Morally serious is not the same thing as moral. Relativists can be anguished, and frequently are.

2. Consequentialism is not a biblical ethical system. There are times when it seems to turn up a no-brainer answer to your question — if we could prevent a nuclear bomb from going off in Baltimore by slapping Khalid Sheikh Muhammed a couple of times, why wouldn’t you do that? That seems reasonable. But without an ultimate anchor, the little dingy of secular smart people can drift a long way out to sea. Now suppose you can prevent the Baltimore nuke by having a dark ops team rape KSM’s mother, sisters, and daughters. Suppose the threat of that prospect would break him sooner than waterboarding would? At some point, pretty soon in the process, you will need more ethical light than horrendous consequences of not doing “something” can ever give you.

Smarter Than Thou

Some people enjoy their allotted fifteen minutes of fame with modesty and decorum. Others, like Jonathan Gruber, cannonball into the deep end, having had the good grace to get most of it on video beforehand. For those whose discretionary news time was all taken up with the comet landing and the tacky shirt aftermath, here is a basic rundown of Gruber’s exploits.

The reason this story has the traction it now does is that it represents far more than the conceit and hubris of one individual man — although it does do that in addition to a bunch of other stuff. The thing that is remarkable about all of this is how unremarkable Gruber was in the settings in which he was speaking. He was speaking to particular predictable groups, and he was getting laughs at the places he was expecting to get them. The videos only appeared in a different light when they got aired — as they just recently got aired — to the audiences who were the object of his derision. As it happens, wireless coverage has now gotten out here to Dogpatch, and we are now treated to the prospect of watching videos made by our betters. Once the whole thing was explained to Mammy Yokum, she took it ill.Mammy Yokum

Gruber is a class phenomenon. He is a representative. He is the poster child of the whiz kid brainiacs who know better than you, and they don’t care who knows it. Actually, they don’t care who knows it until something unexpected happens, and a goodly number of the great unwashed come to know it. Then they spend a great deal of energy trying to get the smell back in the barn.

If you find Gruber and his class mystifying, then I have a couple of book recommendations for you. The first is Thomas Sowell’s The Vision of the Anointed. The subtitle says a lot, “Self-Congratulation as a Basis for Social Policy.” The second book is Angelo Codevilla’s The Ruling Class. Both books are great, and while Sowell is always a heavyweight, Codevilla’s book is smaller and lighter, punching way out of its weight class. Start with him, and move on to Sowell.Ruling Class

These books make it plain that we are getting these supercilious rulers because we put up with them. One Gruber is insufferable, but a ruling elite made up entirely of Grubers is something that would take a far more talented writer to describe. I am thinking of someone who was a mix of Dante and John the Revelator, on hallucinogens, trying to paint something described to them by Hieronymus Bosch. Someone at that talent level could complete the master work I have in mind, and it could be called The Cabinet Meeting.

Three Feet of Partly Cloudy

The real losers last night — not that anyone is likely to take real notice — were the pollsters. This is not the case because we had a wave election, because a number of people were predicting that. The surprises all came in the margins.


“What I drink and what I tell the pollsters I drink are two different things.”

Races that were not supposed to be close, like Warner and Gillespie in Virginia, were close. Races that were supposed to be close, like Kentucky, weren’t close at all. This kind of thing happened in state after state, in race after race. Now when this happens from time to time, as it does, the one-off surprise is chalked up to the electorate having wild mood swings. The twenty point spread between the poll results the week before the election and the actual election results is attributed to a whole bunch of people making up or changing their minds. But it is actually the result of the very nature of polling itself.

What happens in a poll is that 2,000 people are asked their views, the necessary “scientific” adjustments are made, and this is then assumed to be the mindset of three million people. The reasoning process is called induction, where you are going from the particular to the general. Whether or not that reasoning is strong or weak depends entirely on whether your sample size is representative. Of course, you don’t know whether it is representative or not until after the election, at which point you should calibrate your methods. But we have now gotten to the point where the poll results are treated as mini-elections, with settled results, and the elections are treated as big elections, also with settled results.

What ought to happen is that our pollsters should be on television this morning, acting like a local teevee weatherman who has had to deal with multiple irate callers who had to shovel three feet of partly cloudy off their driveways. “Folks, this is not an exact science . . .” At its best, polling is educated guessing. At its worst, it is wish fulfillment therapy. At its best, polling is having thousands of conversations with people in the run-up to an election. At its worst, it is little better than telling the king which way he should go because your guild is the best haruspicy firm in the business.

Only God knows the end from the beginning. Mortal men want to know the future and they cannot. Mortal men want to know the future so badly that they are willing to pay big money for any plausible account. And much of the time, it can all seem pretty plausible — because the voting public is following the polls also and many times a reinforcement theme is created. Polls can and do create real momentum, and really can affect the outcome. But of course, if a bald eagle happened to land on a general’s helmet right before the battle, that could affect the outcome as well.

In all this, we should remember Isaiah’s taunt. “Shew the things that are to come hereafter, That we may know that ye are gods. Yea, do good, or do evil, That we may be dismayed, and behold it together” (Is. 41:23). Whatever else we may say about the political results of this election — and I would want to say that the unraveling of Obama’s apotheosis is almost complete — we can also take comfort in the fact that many of our nation’s soothsayers had their pointy cone hat knocked off, the one with the stars and crescent moons on it.

So the Election Is Tomorrow

As you prepare to go to the polls, please keep in mind that a stark choice lies before America. Tomorrow is a critically important election, one in which we shall choose between evil and fecklessness.

One the one hand we have the party of death and sodomy, lechery and license, while on the other we have the party of milquetoastery. Given such a choice, who can fail to be roused to action?

Actually, I really am hoping for an electoral bloodbath for the Democrats because their peculiar kind of hubris does need a few more holes in it. I hope that after the election a man would be unable to swing a cat on the Senate floor, not that this is likely to occur, without hitting a Republican. I do hope this is the outcome, and am planning on voting accordingly. Join me, will you?

This is because I am long overdue for a change up in my exasperation. I am tired of the Death Star blowing up planets, and want a quiet return to the petty mendacity of yore.

If this is a wave election — which it looks like it might be — one possible new exasperation will come from the fact that John Boehner may no longer need the Tea Party fire eaters in order to get anything passed, and will be in a position to tell them to do what the Republican establishment has long yearned to be able to tell them to do, which is to pound sand.

If the wave were big enough, Congress would be within shouting distance of being able to over-ride presidential vetoes — not that there would be that many Republicans, but because a wave election might put the fear of God into some Democrats. The first order of business would of course be to repeal Obamacare — and our exasperation will come when we see the fecklessness, a word that cries out to be used at least twice in a post like this — of the Republicans.

And of course, let us never forget that Article III, Section 2 of the Constitution gives Congress the authority to set jurisdictional limits on the federal courts, including the Supreme Court. Wouldn’t it be dandy if Congress prohibited federal courts from saying anything whatever about same sex mirage? Or abortion?

Although there are some Republicans I admire, I have no illusions about the Republican establishment. They wouldn’t do such things because they don’t want to. I am not holding my breath, in other words.

At the same time, I will go to the polls cheerfully tomorrow, whistling an environmentalist tune, but making it plural. Save the planets.


C.S. Lewis observes somewhere that there are two different motivations for spreading the political power as thinly as possible. The first is the motive of the sunny democrat, one who believes that man is the repository of wisdom, and that before we do anything of a civic nature, we ought to check in with as many of those wisdom nodes out there as we can.

The second motivation is driven by a Christian view of man, in which the radical nature of sin is acknowledged, and we confess ourselves unwilling to deposit too much power in any one individual or institution. And why? Because Lord Acton knew his onions, and aptly said that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

This adage does not apply to God, obviously, who is untempted and uncorrupted by His omnipotence. It does apply,  however, to all those little creatures who are still affected by the aboriginal temptation, which is “to be as God.”Taxes This Year

The former view is trying share the power with all those out there who are worthy of it, and the latter view is trying to keep the power from accumulating in any one place. The former view is pagan, and the latter is Christian. In this latter view, given the nature of the case, we are not trying to spread as much power as possible across the entire population, but rather trying to take essential precautions by limiting the exercise of any essential power by spreading as far as we reasonably can, separating the powers and checking the balances.

Now it could well be objected — and it is quite a reasonable objection — that if man is not to be trusted, then why should we trust him with liberty? Can a sinful man not abuse his liberty? He certainly can, which is why we want to limit the damage to what he can do to himself and those foolish enough to associate with him. Precisely because he is corruptible, we don’t want to put him in charge of the life, liberty, and property of everybody else.

The Problem of Tiffany Sugartoes

Scripture refers to that kind of ruler who frames “mischief with a law” (Ps. 94:20). Those who do this kind of thing are men who sit on thrones of iniquity, and God refuses His fellowship with any such thrones.

There are many ways to frame mischief with a law. Everyone grants that one example would be when a despot pillages all the poor peasants in order to fund his Belshazzarian kegger tomorrow night. That would be one example. That would be the big E on the eye chart.

But are there other examples of thieving mischief? While some established thieves are debauched, others are a bit more clever. If Suleiman the Magnificent takes 20K from me in order to beef up the personnel department of his seraglio, then that is both tacky and theft. But if Obama the Magnificent takes 20K from me in order to provide loan guarantees to Goldman Sachs, and they use it to provide a holiday bonus for a rising junior executive, who uses it on a weekend blowout in the Hamptons with a girl named Tiffany Sugartoes, then this is just as tacky, and just as much theft, but we can say that they cover their tracks better these days.

So let’s spend a bit of time distinguishing sins from crimes. When dealing with individuals, sins that ought not be crimes are either contained entirely within the person’s motives, or they are actual behaviors for which no scriptural case for attaching civil penalties can be made. An example of the former would be bitterness or lust. An example of the latter would be speaking rudely to someone in a crowded elevator.

A sin becomes a crime when we can make a scriptural case for attaching civil penalties to a particular behavior. Murder is a crime; hatred is a sin. Adultery is a crime; lust is a sin. With individuals, the distinction is relatively easy to make.

A ruler is not subject to the same applications of civil penalties, at least not in the same way. In a well-ordered biblical republic, it should be possible in principle to hold anyone accountable for their behavior, regardless of the office they hold. But even in a healthy society, bringing justice to bear in such cases is more challenging because rulers have supporters, and they often appoint their supporters to positions of influence over investigations of injustice. But enough about Eric Holder.

The “civil penalties” for rulers are not limited to the one process shared by all the citizens — indictment, trial, verdict, and so on. To whom much is given much is required. God holds rulers accountable by other means as well. He can do it by other means, such as natural disasters (1 Kings 18:17-19), military invasion (Dt. 28:48), a civil war (2 Sam. 15:10), or a coup (2 Kings 11:14). An average citizen can be punished for his crimes, and so can a ruler be. But when it happens to a ruler, there is a good deal more mayhem.

Property and Love for the Poor

I have written a great deal on how the framework provided by biblical ethics honors and preserves the institution of private property. The argument is not complex. Just as “thou shalt not commit adultery” presupposes and honors the institution of marriage, so also “thou shalt not steal” presupposes and honors the institution of private property.

The private property that is honored is that which comes to a man through the ordinary processes. “Or saith he it altogether for our sakes? For our sakes, no doubt, this is written: that he that ploweth should plow in hope; and that he that thresheth in hope should be partaker of his hope” (1 Cor. 9:10). God is the one who gives us the power to get wealth (Dt. 8:18), and it comes up to us from the ground. It does not float down upon us from the state.

We learn the principle when learning to love the haves — but it applies even more to the have nots. When a people are being liberated from covetousness, envy, and the larceny resident in every socialist scheme, they need to learn to mortify this sin in the presence of a neighbor who has manicured lawns, a red convertible, and a beautiful wife (Ex. 20:17). Learning what love means in this instance means learning how to hate the covetousness that arises so easily under every human sternum. Love that is the fulfillment of the law (Rom. 13:10) is a love that does no harm to its neighbor. Listed among the things that are harmful and destructive to our neighbor is covetousness (Rom. 13:9). This is why it is so necessary to elect men who fear God and hate covetousness (Ex. 18:21). And it should go without saying that you can’t hate covetousness if you don’t even know what it is.

But we must insist on something else. Mortifying covetousness is not just a blessing to the fat cats. In his magnificent book The Mystery of Capital, Hernando de Soto demonstrates how a societal refusal to recognize property rights by means of honoring and protecting clear title is one of the central reasons why poor people are locked in grinding poverty. Where property is not respected, property (whenever it is acquired) hides. And when property hides, it cannot come out into the daylight and do useful work. The useful work it could do is that of lifting the people involved out of poverty. But in order for property to be able to do this most beneficent thing, it has to be able to come out into public view and not be assaulted or confiscated. In short, property must be safe, and it cannot be safe whenever the people are envious and covetous. Perfectly Legal

This is why we must love liberty and hate every form of coercive theft. Making that coercive theft “legal” by sanctioning it society-wide only serves to make everything far worse. Legalizing activities prohibited by the Ten Commandments does not successfully whitewash the sin. If something is perfectly appalling, we do not fix it by nodding sagely and saying, “You know, the ways their laws are structured . . .”

With All Your Protections in a Binder on His Desk

After my Due Process post, I received a letter from a friend — a tax attorney — who agreed with my central point about the modern tyrannical state, but who did want to defend the IRS on the point I was making about due process.

“Although I agree with you that the modern administrative state is overreaching and Tyrannical, I believe it is untrue to characterize IRS assessment and collection processes as being ‘without due process.’”

As he defines his terms, I quite agree with him. And as I am defining mine, he (I think) would agree with me. By due process, I did not mean orderly process, or defined process, or published beforehand process. I agree with my friend that all that and more occurs during the processes of tax assessment and collection. Bureaucrats are nothing if not rule-guided creatures.

But before expanding further on what I mean by due process, I need to lurch off into this side paragraph for a moment to explain what I am doing. On this point, I am simply tracking and agreeing with Philip Hamburger’s foundational arguments in his Is Administrative Law Unlawful? This also addresses the objections of those who believe that I have inexplicably set myself up as an expert in constitutional law, har har har, doing so with a degree in philosophy from the University of Idaho, har har har. But Hamburger is a professor of law at Columbia Law School, and the book is published by The University of Chicago Press. Thus it is that I tentatively conclude that a man may agree with Hamburger while remaining clothed and in his right mind. Unless, of course, we have gotten to such a point of administrative tyranny that we are not allowed to decide on our own experts anymore, but must go with the constitutional experts who are assigned to us. These would usually be the living document johnnies, the ones who think that the right to keep and bear arms means that you can’t.

Where was I? As I mentioned, by due process I do not mean orderly process. I grant that the IRS gives us that. I am talking about three basic ways in which our interactions with the IRS — and the administrative state generally — violate the historical understanding of due process. First, the process is inquisitorial. Second, such processes tend to invert the presumption of innocence. And third, a man can get into serious trouble without ever coming near a court of law. This is a problem because the IRS is part of the executive branch. If I am in legal trouble, my troubles should begin in a judicial court, not end there, or miss a real court entirely.

Now as my friend pointed out, if a man plays his cards right, he can wind up in a legitimate tax court. But it is perilously easy for the average guy to not play his cards right.

In other words, if in one circumstance I am suspected of shorting the government by five thousand dollars in 2011, and in another circumstance I am suspected of shooting old Henry Spivvins in a bar fight in 2011, my legal exposure in these two scenarios is entirely and completely different.