Saturday, November 16, 2013

Government and Currency Rant

So recently someone on Facebook posted a quote from Frank Herbert, the author of the Dune series, that ran like this: "All governments suffer a recurring problem: power attracts pathological personalities.  It's not that power corrupts but that it is magnetic to the corruptible."


I like this quote, I like it quite a bit.  It aligns pretty well with my own thought that power in and of itself does not corrupt, but that perceiving it as a power or right rather than a responsibility is what leads one down a dark path.  Basically this, a good leader sees the responsibility as the point of a position and a bad leader sees the powers as the point of the position.  In the first case, a good leader may be reluctant to use certain powers, those powers still remain tools to performing his task.  A bad leader simply sees the powers and what he can do with them and tends to forget the responsibilities involved.  And, yes, a person can go from being a good leader to a bad leader or even vice versa (though much more rare for a bad leader to turn good), but for the most part a good leader's administration will be largely overlooked unless they solved some major pre-existing problem.  When you have a series of good leaders, nothings going wrong, the system's working the way it was designed to work and there's no reason to talk about it.  When you have even one bad leader, the system starts getting misused and a cascade effect results where things screw up.  The bad leaders are note-worthy while good leaders are not.  It creates an overall impression that the bad outnumbers the good.

This is magnified by the fact that a government is a collective of multiple individuals.  While effort is magnified so are mistakes.  Like any organization, a government eventually becomes something that it was not originally intended to be.  As people come along and add their own procedures or policies to the mix while re-interpreting or dismissing older ones, the overall color and purpose of the organization begins to shift and change.  Also, organizations and governments are prone to being victims of sacred cows.  Points of inefficiency in younger organizations are more likely to be related to the system encountering a situation that had not been considered previously.  As the organization gets older, while those new problems pop up occasionally, the majority of points of inefficiency come from the persistence of old policies that were instituted to handle a situation that is no longer a concern. 

There is a lot of impetus the longer a policy has been around.  For example, welfare was originally intended by FDR as a temporary measure.  There was a lot of concern that having the government hand out resources to people in need would be more harmful in the long run, because why work when you can get money for free?  The worry was that you would create a nation of dependents with no ambition or initiative.  To a certain extent this has become the case.  There are plenty of people for whom welfare is a way of life rather than a temporary and emergency help to get past a rough time.  What happened was that after the temporary run was finished, the welfare was voted back in because it now had impetus and politicians were concerned that they'd lose votes if they didn't vote to continue it.  This under the assumption that it would go away eventually as it was designed to do.  However, the longer it stayed in place, the more it became accepted fact until we come to the current time where welfare is considered a basic governmental function, and in some cases seen as a right, as adverse a temporary and emergency measure.  Not being an expert on the system, I can't be sure, but I suspect that a number of the problems that exist in the system come because the people who originally designed it didn't take long-term institution into account.  This is sort of like having a bucket with holes in it that you repair with duct tape in the interim, expecting to buy another bucket later when instead you just keep replacing the duct tape.  Just to clarify, I have no real problem with the concept of the government applying aid to people in need.  I merely suspect that a policy intended to be a temporary ad hoc measure would have problems when you try to stretch it over a long period of time.

Welfare is only one such system which resists change essentially because of a "that's the way it's always been" attitude.  The government has a number of these.  Likewise, some of the security measures we're taking now are meant to be temporary ad hoc but might become more way of life if we aren't careful.  Difference being, they're inconvenient to people rather than helping people, which makes it more likely they'll be removed than kept in.  Though "more likely to be removed" in the case of organizational impetus is still a bit too much of a chance that it will stay in place.

Philosophies and religions suffer the same issues.  I suspect that most "isms" and similarly suffix-ed concepts started as a person or group of people trying as best as possible to explain their thoughts and policies when asked by someone why they are so successful.  They're mostly explained in ideals rather than practicalities.  This is because practical application is much more complex, and often complicated, than an ideal.  When the people that started the philosophy have an actual firm understanding of what they've done, as adverse just being lucky, the approach or philosophy or whatever tends to be more successfully imparted to any students that come their way.  However, the more the philosophy spreads, the more often it falls in the hands of people who understand it less well than others and while individuals come and go who are more aware of the way things should work as adverse do work and can adjust to better match the should, the majority of people purporting to follow the older "isms" will tend to be of the sort that are following the shallow, surface instructions rather than the adapting the ideals to match the real situation.  Which is how you get "capitalists" who don't understand that money spent on luxury items for themselves is not really capital or that the less buying power the public has the less capital there is in the system; how some atheist groups can go from "we don't believe in God" to "we need to ban the belief in God and punish anybody who says they're a believer"; and how some religious zealots can ignore the primary teachings of a religion in favor of obscure lines of many-times re-translated text that can be obliquely interpreted to fit their own biases and aims. 

Now, in the comments section of the Facebook post that started me thinking about this, the person who posted it eventually commented that people were going to learn that they didn't need government.  This is as naive as assuming that government is going to be perfect and potentially just as problematic.  The assumption is that the government exists to tell people what they can and cannot do, which is a fact, and thus limits the rights of the populace.  The poster focused on the idea that the concept of the government protecting the people was a malicious illusion through which they gain and keep power.

The money I get paid on a monthly basis from my day job is yen.  This currency is given credibility by the backing of Japan.  Without that backing, it is either a slip of paper, a piece of metal or a few numbers in a computer program.  Because of Japan's backing of the currency, I can hold up my coins or bills and say "I have this thing here which says that I have done work and deserve to get a reward."  That's what money essentially is, it is a voucher of work performed or produce provided.  It is, essentially an IOU that can be drawn from the government.  Once upon a time it was backed by some physical resource such as rice, water or gold.

Thanks to that currency, I can exchange my time spent teaching for a meal or gas in my car.  Coupons are likewise a form of currency, but they are only backed by a particular company as adverse a country.  If I tried to take coupons for food to purchase clothes, I'd be out of luck.  Maybe I could trade my teaching time in exchange for coupons for various goods based on what the family of the taught child did for a living, unfortunately that wouldn't be much better.  I'd have coupons for lots of individual things, like housing, food, clothes, gas and so on, but I'd have cases where I would have not enough of one thing but more than enough of another thing.  To handle that I'd have to go looking to find somebody that had the thing I needed and see if they needed the thing I had too much of.  If I didn't, I'd have to go and see if I could find something they needed in the hands of somebody who needed what I had.  This searching and trading takes time because a voucher for, say, food has a different value to someone who has lots of food compared to someone who is starving.  The same is true for clothes and shelter. 

Plus there will be some people that don't need my services as an English teacher.  I can always put myself forth as a math, science or history teacher since I know a bit more than the average person, but there are plenty of people who know much more on those subjects than me, so I'd be low in the competition.  I do have books I can sell, of course, but that's another issue. Oh I have a story here, but now I have to find someone who wants them.  This is going to need a lot of going around and showing people the book or telling them the story and hoping that after my explanation of it, they'll be willing to give me something in exchange for the story.  That's a lot of time to find enough people interested in the story or wanting to be taught to be willing to pay something out for it.  Especially since they might not give me what I need or want.  Meanwhile there might be someone who wants my story or wants me to teach but they don't have anything I need and giving them service for something I don't need when I could be getting something I do need is potentially harmful.

Well, there's the internet, but how do I have internet?  How do I pay for it?  Do I teach the provider's children or give them a book?  Or maybe I give them a voucher for food or something.  Now think of things from the provider's view point, they're collecting coupons or services from all over the world, but they live in only one part of it.  How can they use these vouchers to help themselves survive?  The people that gave them vouchers aren't around.  To get use out of those vouchers, the internet provider has to go around looking for people that can trade coupons for coupons for coupons so that the coupons they got from city A eventually get into the hands of someone who can get to city A while the provider is now able to have coupons that he or she can use in city B.  And it is a risk to accept these sorts of trades.  You could trade vouchers all over the place and then find out that some of the vouchers you have are worthless because something happened to the person or company that issued them and thus no one is taking them anymore and you have worthless paper.

Power, entertainment, internet and teaching are abstract products.  They are very difficult to make a living on outside of a system where there is a central currency.  A single coupon that has an agreed upon value which can be traded for any other service or product.  This is, essentially, what dollars and yen are.  Now, what does this have to do with government?  Well, how do you get people from disparate industries and professions to agree upon a value for a currency?  You have to set them down and come to an agreement about it.  Or else there has to be one coupon that everybody needs that they're willing to trade for.  For example, some guy who owns an oasis in the middle of a desert gives out some sort of voucher that people can turn in to get water.  That's a resource everybody needs and thus those vouchers can become the basis of a central currency.  However, once that person, the people providing the central currency essentially become a government because that central currency needs to be protected or else everybody is back to bartering coupon vouchers for different goods.  If the person or group backing that central currency falls ill and dies or otherwise leaves someone else behind to handle the oasis, then you have some chaos while people try to figure out the changes this new person is putting into place.

Just giving food or water or other services to whoever asked for it without expectation of pay is similarly problematic to the barter system because eventually you will run out of food to hand out, or you won't have the time to teach all the people you're asked the teacher, or you otherwise can't provide and thus some people go without.  It is very possible in this case that you go to some farmer to ask for some food but they've already given it away and only have food for themselves left.  Then you have to go "oh well" and move on.  If that keeps happening, well, starvation is a thing.

At this point it's not primarily about greed, it's about survival because a central currency makes survival easier for everyone from farmers to teachers.  Greed has some influence in getting to this point, but overall, the adoption of a central currency makes more professions viable and all professions more efficient.  Greed becomes more evident once a central currency is stable and strong and efforts are made to accrue more of said currency than is strictly needed.

Then you come to disagreements.  Two people in a minor disagreement could possible work out their differences to a mutually acceptable situation but it is often easier to do so when there is an outside element guiding your decisions.  Laws and rules provide the most common set of external guidelines in most developed nations.  This rather works because we're often better able to accept a third party insisting on a way of doing things than we are able to accept the person we're arguing with insisting on a way of doing things.  Even if it remains a non-violent argument, the end result could easily be the argument not getting resolved and neither person getting what they need or want. 

I'm sort of running out of time here before I have to do something else.  This could easily be a huge rant and, in fact, there are entire volumes of books dedicated to the analysis of governmental models.  Suffice to say that no government is as major a problem as a bad government.  There are several real life examples of places that have lost governments and what the effect was on the country.  Even without the violence that seems pervasive in places where government is either unstable or collapsed, life is very difficult without a central authority of some sort.  On the other hand, a culture where there are individual freedoms is healthier than one where people are heavily restricted.  The existence of a government, however provides the opportunity for the survivable expression of individual rights.  It's a balancing line.

The society exists to support the individual.  The individual exists to support the society.  Without one the other falls.  I lean a bit toward the individual myself, but I probably lean more toward society than most Americans.

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