Friday, March 12, 2010

Charity is no answer to systemic injustice.

Only a deep commitment to basic moral principles can resolve the systemic flaws that produce a civilization that is neither equitable nor sustainable.

The Golden Rule requires a strong respect for human rights, which include rights to property. Respecting property rights means respecting the right (and fulfilling the duty) of property owners to participate in the benefits (and responsibilities) of ownership. But we are committing a serious error when we only pay attention to some of the fundamental human rights that we can call property rights. We respect private property rights with the full force of law, while almost completely neglecting questions relating to ownership and management of public or commons property--the natural resource wealth of the planet. Legitimate governments must respect the moral principle that recognizes the Earth and natural resource wealth as a shared legacy, a kind of commons or public property vested in the people at large. Citizens who desire to live in a society that is democratic and just have a responsibility to ensure that their governments function in a way that ensures that commons or public property rights are respected.

Ownership in the Earth and the benefits and responsibilities of ownership ought to be vested within all of us equally. We need a paradigm shift – profound and sweeping change in our politics and economics. A society that respects public property rights will require industries that take natural resources or emit pollution in pursuit of profit to pay money to the people when they take or degrade that which belongs to all. The fee amounts to be paid could float up incrementally, until they are high enough so that businesses have the necessary incentive to change their practices so as to bring overall environmental impacts into line with the will of the people. A system of random surveys could reveal whether environmental impacts caused by human activity are being kept within acceptable limits. A democratic society would aim at creating conditions (rates of taking of resources or putting pollution) that most people say are about right. If most people felt that there should be more strict controls on pollution or slower taking of natural resources, we could raise the fees charged to industry to put pollution or take resources. Our political system would serve as an arbiter between owners and users of natural resources. As owners, we would all share in the benefits of ownership. We would share the rent proceeds from those environmental impact fees. We would share the civic duty to help decide what the overall limits ought to be for various human impacts on the Earth. Perhaps when we periodically receive our natural resource wealth stipend, we might also answer a few random survey questions on topics that most people agree are questions of public concern.

Within such a public property rights paradigm, the survey question about whether we ought to be more strict or more lenient in our control of environmental impacts is the same question as whether we ought to require corporations to pay more or less money to the people when they take resources or cause pollution. The self-interest of citizens to prefer higher payments to the people when corporations cause environmental damage or degradation helps to promote the general interest of the larger community of life and future inhabitants of Earth to establish stronger incentives to reduce environmental impacts of various kinds. Corporations seek higher profits, then, not by trying to ever-more-effectively externalize their costs onto the larger community but by trying to reduce environmental impacts in whatever way feasible. The happy coincidence between individuals' self-interest and the general interest is mirrored in the relationship between the corporate interest and the general interest. What is better for the corporation (reduce expenses; Reduce environmental impacts) will also be what is better for the larger community of life.

On a thoroughly populated planet, neglect of basic moral principles can make a world of grinding poverty and environmental degradation inevitable. Neglect of public property rights means that extreme poverty can exist alongside great opulence. Such neglect means that environmental damage and depletion of resources is more profitable than what would be the case if industries had to pay money to the people when they use or use up natural resources that belong to all.

If citizens of a free and democratic society resolve to live and act only in ways consistent with moral principle, we will see a shift in voting patterns toward green and libertarian alternatives (or left-libertarian). If we combine these threads, we may find both the principles that define a proper limit to government power (no first-use of force or coercion by government) and the programs that allow us to fulfill our responsibilities to one another and to the larger community of life on Earth.

Societies require for their proper functioning that members give due regard to the interests and concerns of their fellow members. If we look at a collection of neurons as a community or society of members in communication with and interacting with one another, we may see patterns that bring to mind some basic principles or rules of social interaction.

Because of the kind of molecular-quantum-machine entity that it is, a neuron has the tendency to want to be either in a resting state or in a state of steady activity. A neuron is no more likely to want to remain in a state of being somewhat active than is a ball likely to 'want' to roll along the mountain crest between two valleys. Neurons make adjustments in how they interact with their neighbors such that, if they are operating at a pace that is a bit slower than their most comfortable steady pace, they will increase their connections to their more active neighbors, so that they themselves become more active and thereby approach their ideal steady pace. Conversely, if a neuron is nearly quiet, it will want to decrease connections with active neighbors so that it can enter a state of more restful quiet.

But a neuron may not make these discernments and adjustments only with an “eye” toward what will improve its own state. It is a decision machine and it may try to make its adjustments in a way that allows it to meet its own goals while also aiding its neighbors in achieving their goals. There may be several ways that a neuron could adjust its pattern of connections with its neighbors that would improve its own state. The neuron may try to make those adjustments that most benefit both itself and the larger community. Otherwise, any attempt by one neuron to improve its own state might interfere with or frustrate the efforts of neighboring neurons in their efforts to improve their states. By trying to discern the states of and the interests of neighboring neurons (which of them are trying to become more active, and which are trying to move to a state of rest) and then acting to improve those states or serve those interests, a neuron improves the efficiency or functionality of the neural network and the quality of its work.

Within each neuron, there are countless microtubules that can connect and disconnect with neighboring microtubules to create, from a large number of possibilities, specific pathways for ions to travel. Both the tips of the tubes and the molecules in the walls of the tubes are in a peculiar state of oscillation between quantum and classical realms. There are moments when the pattern of connections among tube tips are in quantum superposition. It's as if the tubules were simultaneously connected to several of their neighbors (and those neighbors to several of their neighbors) and were sampling the various possibilities to see which pathway provides the best 'fit' for the context.

For a neuron, the golden rule says to make your decisions about how to interact with your neighbors in a way that aids them in achieving their goals of reaching a more comfortable state. Likewise for members of human society: We must follow our own Golden Rule to ensure the proper functioning of our society and civilization. We must act in ways that show concern for the interests of our fellows. Brains function only because neurons follow their own golden rule. So should we follow our Golden Rule if we seek to establish justice and sustainability as the foundation of a properly functioning global civilization.

The Golden Rule requires that we not use government as an instrument to initiate violence or coercion against any person. We would not want others to use government against us in this way. We should not support policies that involve government agents initiating force against peaceful people. Private behavior within private spaces should not come within the purview of government.

When we learn that our systems of governance are at odds with our most basic moral precepts due to our failure to adhere to principles relating to proper moral restraints on the use of force, and to principles relating to the sharing of natural resource wealth—when we learn that our inattention to these basic principles is the cause of abject poverty and environmental degradation—we have a moral duty to take steps to remedy the situation. A different way of thinking about the power and responsibility of government (and of citizens) could ensure that our political and economic systems will serve as a foundation for a sustainable and just civilization.

Where are the voices challenging us to exercise our moral sense as we form and participate in our political and economic systems? What responsibility do our religious communities have, if any, to address questions of public property rights, to ensure a sustainable and just civilization?

Natural law requires respect of public property rights, too

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