By JOHN HASNAS
While announcing Sonia Sotomayor as his nominee to the Supreme Court, President Barack Obama praised her as a judge who combined a mastery of the law with "a common touch, a sense of compassion, and an understanding of how the world works and how ordinary people live." This is in keeping with his earlier statement that he wanted to appoint a justice who possessed the "quality of empathy, of understanding and identifying with people's hopes and struggles." Without casting aspersions on Judge Sotomayor, we may ask whether these are really the characteristics we want in a judge.
Clearly, a good judge must have "an understanding of how the world works and how ordinary people live." Judicial decision-making involves the application of abstract rules to concrete facts; it is impossible to render a proper judicial decision without understanding its practical effect on both the litigants and the wider community.
But what about compassion and empathy? Compassion is defined as a feeling of deep sympathy for those stricken by misfortune, accompanied by a strong desire to alleviate the suffering; empathy is the ability to share in another's emotions, thoughts and feelings. Hence, a compassionate judge would tend to base his or her decisions on sympathy for the unfortunate; an empathetic judge on how the people directly affected by the decision would think and feel. What could be wrong with that? Frederic Bastiat answered that question in his famous 1850 essay, "What is Seen and What is Not Seen."
There the economist and member of the French parliament pointed out that law "produces not only one effect, but a series of effects. Of these effects, the first alone is immediate; it appears simultaneousl with its cause; it is seen. The other effects emerge only subsequently; they are not seen; we are fortunate if we foresee them." Bastiat further noted that "[t]here is only one difference between a bad economist and a good one: The bad economist confines himself to the visible effect; the good economist takes into account both the effect that can be seen and those effects that must be foreseen." This observation is just as true for judges as it is for economists. As important as compassion and empathy are, one can have these feelings only for people that exist and that one knows about -- that is, for those who are "seen."
Saturday, May 30, 2009
Friday, May 29, 2009
There is a time and place for government intervention in the actions of the people. But I'm more convinced than ever that the true role of government in economics is much smaller (and the importance of private business is much greater) than anyone in DC would have us believe based on their policies.
An excerpt from The Economist
The American economy is dynamic because Americans like it that way, even now. A Pew poll released on May 21st found that 76% of Americans agree that the country’s strength is “mostly based on the success of American business” and 90% admire people who “get rich by working hard”...
Yet Mr Obama—and, even more, his Democratic allies in Congress—could do lasting damage to this marvellous machine. That is not because the president is a socialist, as his detractors on talk radio claim. No true leftist would be as allergic as he has been to nationalising tottering banks, nor as coldly calculating in letting Chrysler, and probably General Motors, end up in bankruptcy court.
Moreover, even the most stalwart defenders of the free market, including this newspaper, admit it has shortcomings that only the government can address. The financial system requires close oversight, or crises will destabilise it. In recent years, such oversight has often been absent or fragmented...And the current crisis calls for aggressive and temporary fiscal and monetary intervention that is not justified in ordinary times.
But the Democrats’ present zeal for government activism often goes well beyond addressing market failures. The president and Congress seem to believe that they can surgically intervene in the economy but overlook the unintended consequences.
Fiscal and monetary policy are more powerful than an atomic bomb. Milton Friedman said that they should only be used to balance the natural growth of the economy, that there is no place for monetary activism in a stable economy. I wouldn't even go so far as to say that this is a "crisis" in the way that most Americans imagine it. Economists are the last ones to freak out in a recession because they have a long-term, "big picture," wholistic perspective of what's going on. (That's just one of the reasons economics is such an attractive subject to me. Everyone's just chill and levelheaded. It's beautifully unemotional.)
We talk about "what should be done" but fail to consider that things often sort themselves out with less intervention than we suppose when we're in the middle of it. Economics always seek equilibrium and rarely need government assistance to do so. Whether we're implementing a National Sales Tax or creating a Systemic Risk Council, if we think in terms of "There's no room for more delays!" as José Manuel Barroso said, we will run into more trouble than we can see from our shortsighted perspective.
Wednesday, May 27, 2009
I've been all into Fear and Trembling these days and it's surprisingly consistent with my own experience. One thing that's particularly striking is how Kierkegaard writes that faith is not something we can easily communicate. We cannot express it in mere words. I've definitely faced this in the last few months. Words fail. Expression is impossible. Any noise I might let loose falls short of conveying the truth and conviction of what I know in my head and my heart. I've been driven into spells of silence. Not going mute, but succumbing to the feeling? passion? thoughts? (even now words are insufficient for me to say what I mean) that are overwhelming. I can hardly describe them to myself, much less another human being.
Kierkegaard also describes faith as something beyond mere resignation of what we cannot sustain on our own. Abraham did not merely sacrifice Isaac with no expectation that God would do something great through it all. He didn't just "let go" or "give up." The difference is that he expected--he had faith--that God would follow through with His promises even though the obvious means were gone. Perhaps true faith was even the very specific expectation that, though God was taking Isaac away, He would surely give him back somehow.
The question comes, though, regarding specificity and subjectivity. When we seek God in faith, can we come to Him with great expectations that very specific desires of our heart will be fulfilled (though, perhaps in His time)? Or do we give Him a ton of slack, acknowledging that He will in some way fulfill our happiness, whether in this life or the next.
The former option requires a lot of wisdom. In fact, it seems irrational to others (perhaps why we fail to communicate it well.) These are things we desire that couldn't easily be explained away. What we ask for--expect, even--are almost miracles. And yet, we can't go wishing things completely subjectively, arbitrarily even, and say that God will bring it about because we "have faith." Perhaps we go on with this "faith" through the rest of our lives, living in perfect "confidence" that God will give us our hopes and desires. But then we die and discover that, though good things have come and more good awaits, in this specific instance we have been deluding ourselves. We lived in illusion and to God's disgrace, we dubbed it "faith."
The latter option seems to be entirely irrelevant in its vagueness. If we hope in generalities, thinking "whatever comes, God will work it out," it will no doubt become true. But there is no test in that, no determination, nothing to try a person and test their trust and dependence on the Father. As the Cheshire Cat said to Alice, it doesn't matter what road you take if you don't know where you want to go. We almost make our God too little by giving Him little expectations. Ask for big things and see what He gives you.
So I suppose it comes down to discernment. We can't be arbitrary, but neither can we be limited. Pure reason falls short, but mere feeling or intuition is absurd. Faith is the grey area where we seek Him, give all for Him, and acknowledge that when it all works out, it's because He acted on our behalf. "Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express... He who did not spare His own Son but gave him up for us all, how will He not also with him graciously give us all things?"
Tuesday, May 26, 2009
For example, my sister got a book called "The Life of the Mind" for my dad for Father's Day. I picked it up and started reading the back and a certain giddiness overcame me. There's a very pure pleasure in simply holding a book that is obviously a vessel of wisdom and knowledge. And it's not just me, either. Same aforementioned sister received a philosophy book after graduation from one of her profs and she showed it to Dad. He said, "Can I see it for a minute?" Sally replied, "No, I'll never get it back!!" So Dad asked, "Well...can I at least hold it?"
Ria and I were sitting on the screen porch (I was engrossed in Fear and Trembling) and she interrupted to ask, "Do you have a huge list of books to read this summer?" To which I excitedly and enthusiastically rattled off my (growing) list of Readables for the next three months. She smiled at me and said, "I thought so."
I love my family.
Sunday, May 24, 2009
Saturday, May 16, 2009
1. Degenerate Moderns by E. Michael Jones
2. The End of Racism by Dinesh D'Souza
3. Roughing It by Mark Twain
4. Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky
5. Notes from the Underground by Fyodor Dostoevsky
6. God in Search of Man by Abraham Joshua Heschel
7. Fear and Trembling by Soren Kierkegaard
8. Democracy in America (to finish) by Tocqueville
9. The Everlasting Man (to finish) by G.K. Chesterton
10. The Divine Conspiracy (to finish) by Dallas Willard
Wednesday, May 6, 2009
What can I say but that this is the most peaceful book I've ever read. Once again, this man gives words to my soul's schizophrenic thoughts. He puts things in a layman's terms while describing things in such detail--sometimes even erotic detail--that it brings me further and deeper into the God-realm of things.
"Why does the image of God feel such passion for the cold salt water? Why do immortal spirits created only a little lower than the angels fall so desperately in love with a trillion tons of H2O laced with NaCl? Most books about the sea are full of external data. They tell you what causes storms, for instance. But they don't tell you what causes our fascination with storms: they don't tell you about the storm within. They tell you how the wind raises waves. But they don't tell you how the waves without raise waves of wonder within."(Confession: the first time I've really swam in the ocean was over spring break when I was in Nicaragua. Lake Mich and other freshwater paradises have been my home for the last 19 years. I never realized the real sea was so salty!)
"We know where we find what we want: at the sea. But we don't know what we want there. We know what we long for -- the sea -- but we don't know what it is that we long for when we long for the sea. Perhaps we never will. Perhaps the infinite sea can never fit into finite mental or physical cups. Perhaps all that can be clear is this: that all there is can never be clear."Best vacation ever: last summer when I spent hours -- straight up HOURS -- lying on a floating raft in the middle of a bay in Lake Mich. I slept on the dock at night and when the sun got warm, I swam out 200 yards to the little wooden raft with the sketchy ladder and probably Zebra mussels underneath and I slept in the sun, getting super hot and way tan (by August I usually have such a solid base tan that I don't even care about sunscreen anymore.) It was the most perfect week I can remember. And when I wasn't sleeping under the sun in the middle of the lake, I'd either read David McCullough in the hammock or the chicas and I would bike into town for ice cream or to read Howl's Moving Castle at the marina.
"The mind as well as the body can drown in the sea. If you have the habit of staring into it like a lover into the eyes of the beloved, its eye can hold you like Medusa. The spirit of the sea is far stronger than the human spirit, and captures it easily, especially in storms, the most exciting of all the sea’s charms and also the most destructive...When we were swimming in the Pacific over spring break I experienced the beach like never before. Waves twice as tall as me (or were they? Constantly moving, I could hardly even tell.) And I was so overwhelmed. It was exhausting just to keep breathing and no shit. I kept thinking, "It's sure as hell good that Mom isn't here -- she'd never let me swim in these conditions!!" (Love you, Mom!) But being overpowered like that?? Oh, was it good. Like apologizing or being humiliated or failing. Utter incomptetence. It could have killed me at any second.
Why do we find the most destructive things the most captivating and enrapturing things?...
But she gives the poet, and the poet is in all of us, a strange, deep pleasure that is a kind of pleasant terror; not just a contentment and satisfaction but a wonder and fear that we find more delightful than the contentment that calms fear. For the fear is not a fear for our personal safety but simply a fear at her size and majesty...
We feel this wonderful fear most when we are alone. The sea looks tame when seen from a crowded beach full of blankets and umbrellas and chairs; but the same sea looks very different at night when the beach is deserted and you are alone. The water seems to leap up and bow down. It rises and falls like a drunken sailor. It is unpredictable. Little waves seem big at night when you are alone. And this is when we love the sea in a peculiar way, when we fear it most.
Why do we love what we fear?"
I've mentioned this before, but one of the most excellent moments of my life was when I was on the beach at night (mostly by myself except for Dad who was praying at a picnic table nearby) and it was storming. Baby, was it ever. That wind picked up the most wonderful waves and I could hardly hear myself in the roar of it all. And I shouted at the very top of my lungs (though you probably couldn't hear me anyway) "WHAT THEN CAN WE SAY IN RESPONSE TO THIS?" I wonder how loud God's voice is...
"All waves speak, but they speak in tongues, and we can’t interpret their speech. That’s probably because it’s too simple, like God’s. Maybe all they’re saying is I LOVE YOU, I LOVE YOU, I LOVE YOU, I LOVE YOU, I LOVE YOU until the end of time. Like God."
Is this really possible? Can the government really do all of this so blatantly? I don't know, and I suppose I wouldn't put it past some people. But I'm a little skeptical and I'll be intrigued to follow this in the future.
Monday, May 4, 2009
Lots of uncertainty and that bugs me. I'm not an uncertain person. I think and I conclude and I act. But there's no solid ground these days. My plans have been thwarted left and right, replaced by new plans, and then those change, and still nothing is decided. Even my thoughts have all been half-baked lately. I just can't figure it out. The only respite I find is when I mob over to the prayer chapel and admit to God that the words just aren't there. They aren't sufficient. My prayers begin, "Oh, Father..." and even my mind simply babbles something like, "I'm tired...don't understand...how?...thank you for...I can't begin...what will happen?...am I beginning or ending?...what now?..." etc. etc. until I just say, "God, you know my heart. Accept my silence." It's a profoundly humble feeling.
But still, I don't like the constant wandering. Lewis talked of it in A Grief Observed. He called it "empty successiveness," "a permanently provisional feeling," like my life is just something temporary, waiting to be traded in for the real thing.
Jars of Clay: "You know who you are and you know what you want. I've been where you're going and it's not that far. It's too far to walk, but you don't have to run. You'll get there in time."
Hebrews chapter 11 pt. one (summary): lots of men and women of great faith were wanderers, too. They had no city to call home. They were exiles.
Lewis wrote about a certain sense of unbelonging in the Horse and His Boy, my (probable) favorite of the Chronicles of Narnia. "We were made for something greater." I've always resonated with Shasta. "What about all my troubles?" Oh, yes. Haha, my troubles. "'Who are you??' the boy asked. 'Myself. Myself. Myself.'"
Hebrews chapter 11 pt. two: The people who were exiles lived in anticipation of a better world instead of looking constantly backwards. Like Shasta, they were made for something greater.
for he has prepared for them a city."
That's consolation if I've ever heard it.
Sunday, May 3, 2009
Here's a map of our great and grand journey.
View Outward Bound 2007 in a larger map