Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Principles of Conservatism

I read this column this morning and it reminded me of something I have been wanting to post on here for a few weeks now. While Mr. Jeffrey's principles are universal and cohesive in scope, and very well thought out, I too came up with a list of conservative principles and I've been wanting to publish them somewhere where there's ever-so-small a chance that someone other than a few computer nerds would see them. The following is a based on something I wrote on Slashdot shortly after the midterm elections to counter the assertion that the election results were a repudiation of conservative politics and/or some kind of liberal mandate. In fact, it was neither.

Since I have often been one of those people who, as Mark Twain so cleverly put it, wants to have read classics much more that I want to actually read them, I decided it was time to take a break from my normal fare and read Upton Sinclair's "The Jungle". The topic of corruption in post-Industrial Revolution American capitalism has always been one that has interested me, particularly since I believe we are entering an entirely new phase of it, exacerbated by the hand-in-hand exponential growth of technology and bureaucracy, as well as the general complexity of life.

I'm only part way through the book, and while it clear to me that Sinclair's style of writing is absolutely tremendous, his story is gripping, and in places horrifying, I am trying to reconcile his documentation of the excesses and evils of early 20th century capitalism with his strong support for socialism. You see, to me, totalitarianism and capitalism are two sides of the same coin. The overarching principle of the world is "Power Corrupts", so any concentration of power, whether by a dictator of a nation or a Chief Executive Officer of a corporation, is bound to lead to evil. Basically we are talking about two extremes of a socio-economic spectrum with capitalism on one end and communism on the other.

The problem with pure communism, which is also the problem with pure capitalism, is that immoral people will inevitably wreck the system and enslave the less powerful in order to engage in tyranny. In fact, any system of government or economics that does not have a very meticulous system of checks and balances, as well as limited and decentralized power will suffer the same consequences. If the powers of regulation and commerce are not pitted against each other, or are at least not controlled by the same people, individuals will suffer. This is why I have a problem with the reaction to "The Jungle" being a call for socialism. If you take a corrupt system, in this book's case the unchecked "Meat Trust", and give control over it to the government, you are handing massive power to an organization that is already powerful. How can you expect the result to be less corrupt? The good will of men? How does that square with my "overarching principle of the world"?

I believe the correct response was the one that was actually taken: Unions, which were limited collectivism to acquire bargaining power, and government regulation, which was limited socialism, not to exert power, but to protect the weak. Of course, in the intervening decades, unions have become too powerful and are often as corrupt as the companies they were created to defend against, and government regulation has become so overly complex and burdensome that it has a direct, deleterious affect on our national economy and quality of life.

If you read the Acts of the Apostles, you will see the early Christian communities lived in what is pretty much a text-book communal (or communist) society among themselves, as did medieval monasteries and other religious communities through the ages. With a small group of people who are like-minded and zealous about their beliefs (as any new adherent to a religion, particularly if he is being persecuted for it, would be), this can work. But of course it didn't last too long, and once the Church became large and successful its wealth and power were often subverted for less-than-Christian ideals, which is one reason today why it specifically eschews political power and uses the vast majority of the wealth it collects and maintains for good works.

Similarly, it's relatively easy to have a startup company with, say 8 people, where everyone is top-notch, hard-working and delivers good results. It's practically impossible to have a company with 1000 people where everyone is of that same caliber. Similarly, communism doesn't scale. It can't scale. You can have a large company that is successful, but communism can't work at all unless everyone is equally invested and committed to it. Socialism bypasses the corruption stage and goes straight to tyranny. Capitalism can be subverted for evil, and will be if there is nothing to stop it. No system is perfect as long as we flawed humans are a part of it.

That said however, I still find the conservative principles to be qualitatively more sound than the alternatives.

Here's my take on "conservative" principles. Some of these are no doubt compatible with "liberal" principles or are at odds with "conservative" principles as espoused by some "conservative" politicians. Many of these are probably more accurately called "libertarian" principles, because at this point in the game, the entire body politic of the United States is hopelessly mired in big government, grotesque complexity, and obsession with tweaking details on issues when the overall strategy is hopelessly flawed, and any concrete steps towards solving problems is a step away from government interference.

I think that is a good thing that my ideas don't fit into the rigid molds our public discourse has created. Political philosophies in the U.S. have become too issue-dependent, and are often, even usually, not philosophies at all but merely a laundry list of grievances against specific practices or perceived and real problems, regardless of their causes and effects, and irrespective of the best way to address them.

My principles are:

  1. Equalize opportunities, because you cannot equalize results.
  2. People can generally take care of themselves, and they should be expected to, until they prove otherwise.
  3. Help people when they truly need it, but if aid to someone doesn't also come with a cost, it will be abused and ineffectual.
  4. The rights of the individual take precedence by default. Anything that compromises individual rights and opportunities will compromise their chances for success.
  5. Any aspect of government should be as local as possible. There are very few things that truly require implementation at the national level, or can be effective at a national level. This is especially true in a country as large and diverse as the United States.
  6. Real education is the best tool for any person, and the best way to prevent any problem. Investments in education will always pay off (but remember #3). Moral education is the most important kind.
  7. Humans are the best and most important natural resource on the planet. Human life, therefore, should be held in the highest regard, and its protection should be the highest priority.
  8. We are stewards of the Earth, we neither own it or are owned by it. We have a right to use it and to change it to suit our needs, but we have a duty to protect and preserve its value.
  9. There will always be evil. Be prepared to neutralize it, or you will be defeated by it.
  10. Liberty is not license. Freedom necessitates responsibility and duty.
  11. Sovereignty is a right for both individuals and groups. People have a right to associate with whom they please.
  12. You have no right not to be offended by others.
  13. Life isn't fair. You can't make it fair. Get over it.
Here are some notes and thoughts on these items, although I would hope they stand on their own:

#3 was the hardest to word succinctly. Here's what else I wanted to say:

Any social safety-net or entitlement will be gamed as much as possible and is guaranteed to be inefficient. Compassion is the most easily subverted intention, the easiest to take advantage of. People should not be allowed to starve or live without shelter, but without a real chance to fail, many people will simply let the system take care of them. Even more are trapped in a cycle of dependency because there are no concrete options that allow them to escape it. (See #1 and #6).

#10 is particularly important and is particularly misunderstood in this day and age. Liberty can only exist in a people whose individuals are willing and able to be self-governing. And yes, that implies moral absolutes. Liberty without morality is another name for anarchy. Since we rapidly losing (and disposing of) our morality, we will have to lose our liberty to maintain order. I think very few people understand this, and as a result, our government is having to become more and more controlling as we, as a society, are ceding more and more responsibility to control ourselves or our children. And as I said in princple #5, the best government is the most local. Nothing is more local than governing yourself, and anything else is by definition, less efficient.

In terms of the United States
, #11 means individual states should have the right to secede. We are united because in unity there is strength, but if it is forced, there is no true unity. As much as I am opposed to the idea of slavery, I think it was wrong to go to war to preserve the Union. And slavery wasn't the real reason the southern states seceded. In fact, they seceded for many of the same reasons the 13 colonies revolted from England in the first place. Ironically, the American Revolution was caused by an order of magnitude less government interference than we now deal with on a daily basis. The way things are going now, I believe it is likely this country will face this same issue in the 21st century.

#12 and #13 are specifically addressed to so-called liberals.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Why is my new 200GB harddisk only 186GB in size?

Or, Marketing Lies 2006.

Actually, this one is easy to explain.

Technically, a kilobyte is 1024 bytes (i.e., 2 to the tenth power), which of course is close to 1000 and of course "kilo-" means 1000. But we computer types always like to count by 2's and powers of 2. 1024 makes much more sense to a computer. It's really a coincidence that the
numbers work out like this.

Similarly megabytes really means 220 bytes or 1,048,576 bytes, but of course it's much easier to say it's a million bytes.

A gigabyte is really 1,073,741,824 bytes, although we humans (and especially lower life forms like marketing types) like to think it's a billion bytes.

So when your harddrive claims to be 200GB but your computer only reports it as 186GB, they are both correct. The marketing people just take the version of "gigabyte" that is most convenient for their purposes, whereas your computer uses the "correct" definition from a computer science point of view. The computer science gigabyte is 7% bigger, which explains the discrepancy. Of course, if your hard drive claims to provide 200GB of storage, you can rest assured that you are getting 200,000,000,000 bytes (give or take, formatting the disk takes up some of the space). Of course, since the price per byte for harddrives has dropped by a factor of about 20,000 since I bought my first harddrive in 1989, I'm not too worried either way.

There have been two proposals to fix this confusion:

1. The first proposal is that we use a different prefix when referring to the "computer science" versions of kilobyte, megabyte, etc, since "kilo-" is universally accepted to mean "one thousand", "mega-" universally means "one million". The idea proposed is to contract the word "binary byte" with the Systeme Internationale numerical prefix, so that 1024 bytes is "KIlo BInary BYTES" or "kibibytes". This also gives us "mebibytes", "gibibytes", etc. This has not caught on for two reasons: First, it is hopelessly pedantic, and second, it makes the speaker sound like he has some kind of speech impediment.

2. The second proposal is something I am making at this moment. A very dangerous plague that affects many parts of the world, especially third world countries, is that of land mines. There are millions of land mines around the world just waiting for some innocent person, years or even decades after the war in which the mines were used, to walk across it and lose a limb or even his life. I propose that we create an international task force for defusing all land mines and that they can be very effective by employing a very long stick with a marketing person tied to the end. If you are one of those people who claim (as I actually do) to hold human life precious, you can at least take the less satisfying alternative of mocking marketing types whenever possible, or at least buying a Dilbert book where it is already done for your convenience.

If you feel ripped off by the marketing legalese that gives you 7% less disk space than you think you are getting, be glad you weren't buying backup tapes in the early 90's. I didn't discover until too late when they described the capacity of a backup tape, they would assume a compression ratio of 2:1, meaning when they claimed the tape stored 120MB, that meant it really stored 60MB, and they "assumed" that you would use compression. Needless to say, this was much more dishonest that the "gigabyte" controversy described above, especially given the fact that the stuff I was backing up was usually compressed to begin with. I don't know if they do that any more since I haven't bought a backup tape in over a decade, but I wouldn't be surprised if there had been a class action lawsuit.

There actually was a successful class action lawsuit over the size of computer monitors. When describing the size of a monitor, the monitor manufacturers would describe the diagonal size of the cathode ray tube, a good inch to inch and a half of which was not usable because it was inside the frame of the monitor. The class action suit resulted, like all such suits, in some lawyers getting millions of dollars, while those of us actually affected by the wrong-doing got an insultingly small amount of money, and only if we went through some laborious process that would cost 5 or 10 or 20 times as much, given the value of our time, to actually receive. But at the least the monitor makers stopped this particular instance of lying.