Notes from a Byzantine-Rite Calvinist

30 January 2012

Douthat on government and its rivals

Writing for The New York Times, Ross Douthat's mention of "liberal communitarians" sounds a little odd to my ears, but he is dead on in his analysis of the current situation south of the border: Government and its Rivals. An excerpt:
Liberals know that it takes a village; conservatives pretend that all it takes is John Wayne.

In this worldview, the government is just the natural expression of our national community, and the place where we all join hands to pursue the common good. Or to borrow a line attributed to Representative Barney Frank, “Government is simply the name we give to the things we choose to do together.”

Many conservatives would go this far with Frank: Government is one way we choose to work together, and there are certain things we need to do collectively that only government can do.

But there are trade-offs as well, which liberal communitarians don’t always like to acknowledge. When government expands, it’s often at the expense of alternative expressions of community, alternative groups that seek to serve the common good. Unlike most communal organizations, the government has coercive power — the power to regulate, to mandate and to tax. These advantages make it all too easy for the state to gradually crowd out its rivals. The more things we “do together” as a government, in many cases, the fewer things we’re allowed to do together in other spheres.

Sometimes this crowding out happens gradually, subtly, indirectly. Every tax dollar the government takes is a dollar that can’t go to charities and churches. Every program the government runs, from education to health care to the welfare office, can easily become a kind of taxpayer-backed monopoly.

But sometimes the state goes further. Not content with crowding out alternative forms of common effort, it presents its rivals an impossible choice: Play by our rules, even if it means violating the moral ideals that inspired your efforts in the first place, or get out of the community-building business entirely.

Read more.

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13 January 2012

Facebook politics


The following appears as the latest instalment of my monthly column, "Principality & Powers," in Christian Courier, dated 9 January 2012. Please subscribe today.

Facebook has been around for almost eight years, having been started by a group of enterprising Harvard students. Although it was intended initially for the Harvard student body alone, it was soon expanded to include other Ivy League universities and eventually the entire globe. In a short time it has remade the way we communicate with each other. Speaking for myself, I am now in constant touch, not only with immediate family and former students, but also with elementary and secondary school friends, my grade 5 teacher, and geographically distant relatives in Cyprus and elsewhere. Every week or so, I receive a friend request from someone who has read my book or shares my interest in sung psalmody.

It is not surprising that Facebook would begin to reshape political life as well. Candidates for public office now have Facebook pages, which supporters are encouraged to “Like” and thereby spread the word to their own expanding list of “friends.” Although the internet has been around for a decade and a half, and candidates have been posting websites for some years now, Facebook has developed into a distinct medium of communication in its own right. It has radically democratized the communication process by allowing users to reveal as much as they like about themselves in addition to following the activities of well-known personages. Facebook has made all of us potentially famous – to someone at least.
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Perestroika. . . again?

From The New York Times: New Days to Shake the World. An excerpt suggesting that official attempts to control information are singularly ineffective in the 21st century:
Mr. Putin devised a new model of media management, keeping tight control of national television and most newspapers while allowing free rein to a few Moscow outlets (the newspaper Novaya Gazeta and the radio station Ekho Moskvy), providing a steam valve to the intelligentsia and a display of tolerance to foreign critics. But the growth of the Internet, which now reaches more than 60 million of Russia’s 140 million people, has begun to undermine the scheme.

Are we seeing the beginning of yet another Russian revolution?

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