Monday, September 21, 2009

Good cult, bad cult.

Cults, or "New Religious Movements", are as American as baseball, blues, and apple pie, going back almost to our legally tolerant Republic's founding. A slew of prominent ones come to mind: weird messianic offshoots of Christianity like Oneida or the Shakers, oddball sci-fi groups like the Scientologists or Heaven's Gate, Mormonism and Christian Science that became more or less mainstream, and several, like Trascendentalism and Ayn Randist "Objectivism", the practitioners of which insist aren't even religions. I suspect that there's something about American culture that encourages formation of cults as an expression of religiosity--and even if belonging to one is still weird, I'm confident many readers know someone who is a member of one.

This seems mostly like harmless fun. Consider Arizona's Church of Cognizance, which I first heard of due to a recent state Supreme Court decision. It seems to be a group set up so that members have an excuse for smoking cannabis. Maybe the belief is sincere and maybe it isn't--if it was a mere scheme it was clearly poorly thought out given the results in court. I have to remember to forget my Catholic upbringing and not to intellectualize it. "Pot is the key to enlightenment, and the Avesta rocks because it says so too, here and here and here..." is probably closer to the story than "let's find a religious scripture that maybe supports our smoking, so we have a better case." Cults mostly take weird people and give them a framework for their weirdness. I know a person who thinks lizard men are part of a conspiracy to dominate the government. He's also very much into neo-Vedanta.

"Mostly" is the key. Clara Rose Thornton, a Vermont freelance journalist (and former Chicago South Sider) recently went to live with a group called the Twelve Tribes to learn organic farming and reported that the group maintains that servitude is good and proper for people of African descent.. The whole article is one of the better examples of independent journalism I've seen in a long time--not the non-analytic, flaky, affectedly-breezy stuff usually found in alt-weeklies--and is worth a read from front to back.

Freedom of religion is an interesting thing in a free society. Adults converts will believe what they want to believe and it takes nothing short of psychosurgery to get them to stop. Nothing we can do about it. But teaching children things that go against the very foundations of liberty--such as that some are to be subordinate to others due to the location of their ancestors' homeland--presents a conundrum. The children get no choice in the matter, yet teaching religion to children has always been considered part of the adult's freedom of religion.

I'd like to think it doesn't matter because groups like the Tribes are small, but larger religious groups for a long time promoted the subordination of women and some reasonably socially acceptable ones would have God hating homosexuals and somehow it therefore being OK for Man to abuse them, too. And there's a continuum from harmless beliefs--God loves you and you will even get to live with him because his son, who is God too, was a Jewish man executed by the Romans, or we must all go to Mecca and walk around a big rock within our lifetime if we can, or "Mu...and at that moment grasshopper attained enlightenment--to mostly harmless beliefs--you are one of the Chosen People, or conquer the infidels and tax them if they don't convert, or smoke all the weed you like--to harmful ones like the blessing of Châmites is to be servile.

Maybe we've struck the right balance, but when I consider how many people think that scientists must be wrong about global warming because God would never let that happen I have my doubts.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Empty-head syndrome and Facebook memes.

Stupid is as stupid does, but what's obnoxious is intelligent people, people one knows to be capable of analytic, critical thought, being willfully stupid, or at least glib, their head emptying out unpredictably when certain topics come up. Given the current public discussion of health care and health insurance reform, it's an everyday occurrence. This isn't the "why are these people ignorant of free market reform proposals to the point where they think people who oppose their scheme support the status quo" gripe. This is worse.

Circulating on Facebook today as a veritable "Internet Meme" is what seems to be a sort of credo in unum deum for supporters of a broadly leftist agenda for health care reform. (Let's get something straight right now: Virtually nobody is "anti-reform"; most opponents of the "public option" plan support fixing the market.) As follows:
No one should die because they cannot afford health care, and no one should go broke because they get sick. If you agree, please post this as your status for the rest of the day.

This sounds nice, but let's think about it for a moment.
  1. "No one should die because they cannot afford health care" ("one...they" is grating to the eyes, but that's not the trouble.) The trouble is that this is unattainable unless we go down really nasty paths. There are a few ways to interpret this statement.

    One is as an expression of dissatisfaction with living in a world of finite abundance. Our grandparents are older than molecular biology. Things are getting better and less expensive, but we would always wish them to be better still. This doesn't have any policy implications for health care reform aside from preventing government from thwarting progress by breaking the mechanisms which drive it. It's more of a pro-market than an anti-market sentiment.

    The other way to interpret it is as a call for market abolitionism. I'm not saying that the people posting this this are old-time socialists. It's more slouching toward market abolitionism. Everyone should be entitled to all lifesaving treatments. There should be no way of obtaining lifesaving treatment by paying, because that means that some will go without lifesaving treatment because they cannot pay. This entails a ban on paying for new and better care. Rationing, in other words.

    And don't be so glib to say "but insurance companies ration already." They don't. An insurance company cannot forbid one from paying for treatment. (I support very drastic insurance reform, which would have us shopping around for policies with less uncertainty in what is covered, but that's neither here nor there. I say it because some jerk will say something stupid, nasty, and bizarre if I do not. Times are strange and ideology clouds minds!)

    If you do not support a ban on paying for care, you should not have posted this statement.

  2. "No one should go broke because they get sick." "Fewer people should go broke because they get sick" is something I could sign on to. Get rid of every silly mandate that makes it difficult to purchase cheap health insurance. Mandatory purchase of insurance is something I'm ambivalent about. On the one hand, if someone chooses to not purchase something and assume risk himself, that should be taken seriously. On the other hand, Americans are not going to let people go without basic treatment even if they chose to not hedge against risk, so mandatory purchase may be better than free riders.

    But here's something to consider: What if I get sick and I choose to go broke to purchase the newest, best treatment? Should I be forbid from doing that? Should the State step in and subsidize my choice, transferring from others to me to support a luxury?

The lesson? Think hard before making statements about "no one". More often than not they are far too strong and have you committed to things you probably don't support.

My posted response:
No one should die because redistributionism prevented development of care that could have saved his life. Nobody should go without treatment due to rationing intended to prevent bankruptcy of a government monopsony. Nobody should go bankrupt becaus...e the government prevented purchase of affordable insurance. If you understand this--even if you disagree--you are approaching health care reform intelligently.

Not as catchy, but at least one other person picked up on it.