Wednesday, August 12, 2009

The 0th Amendment: Liberal Democracy vs Radical Democracy

If one has read the works of Isaac Asimov, one has probably encountered the 'Three Laws of Robotics.' These were first mentioned in short stories about robots that would ultimately be collected in the efficient little tome I, Robot, not to be confused with either the episode of The Outer Limits (good) or the Hollywood action movie (bad) of the same title. The Three Laws are communicated rather simply, though I am paraphrasing rather than directly quoting:

1. A robot may not cause harm to a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.

2. A robot must obey all orders from a human being unless doing so would violate the First Law.

3. A robot must preserve its own existence, unless doing so would conflict with the First or Second Laws.

Now, what does this have to do with politics, economics, or philosophy? Well, one can see Asimov's own ethical framework in the Three Laws. First, do no harm to others. Second, serve others as long as doing so does no harm to others. Third, protect one's self and one's self sufficiency while taking care to do no harm to others or prevent one's self from serving others. There are far worse ethics, though I suppose Ayn Rand would have thrown a fit at the idea that serving one's own needs would be at the bottom of the list of the three 'commandments.' If one studies it closely one can find its model in the Bible... 'Love they neighbor as thyself.'

Of course, the specifics of the Three Laws are not the point. The point is that 'I, Robot' was followed by three novels featuring the man-machine detective team of Elijah Bailey and R. Daneel Olivaw. The former was a human police detective from Earth, the latter a humanoid android from the space colony of 'Aurora.' In the third and final book, we are introduced to another robotic sidekick, the telepathic Giskard... who can read human minds.

One sequel to the 'Robot Trilogy' was written: Robots and Empire. It serves as a link between all three of Asimov's major groupings of novels the 'Robot', 'Empire', and 'Foundation' series of novels.

In Robots and Empire, Elijah Baley is long dead. The heroes are the robots, Daneel and Giskard, acting to attempt to stop a madman from Aurora who is bent on destroying Earth out of rage at the slow disintegration of the static utopia of the star spanning society of the original space colonists and the rapid expansion of the new wave of colonists into a potential galactic empire. As they move to prevent this disaster, they discuss the philosophical problems inherent in protecting humans from a human being and the startling subplot in which it is revealed an entire world was destroyed by robots who were programmed so thoroughly and minutely that they each recognized only their own masters as 'human.' In response to much of this philosophical difficulty, Giskard postulates an unwritten '0th Law of Robotics' which he believes trumps the three programmed laws. He figures it, roughly, as:

0. A robot may not harm humanity or, through inaction, allow humanity to come to harm. This supersedes the First, Second, and Third Laws.

This is, obviously, a double edged sword. It is both the justification for legitimate violence necessary to defend individuals and society and the excuse for utilitarian nightmare in defense of 'the greater good.' It requires a moral judgement of which many people are simply not capable of exercising.

Again, however, the point is not to judge the Laws of Robotics on their merits but rather to communicate the idea that an underlying, unwritten preconception of reality can create an overriding philosophical principle that trumps the actual written law. Giskard hypothesizes that those who wrote the Three Laws of Robotics were not seeking to simply prevent individual robots from killing individual people, but rather to protect humanity as a whole for potential robotic uprising. From this flows the 0th Law.

This is an important idea because our Bill of Rights has a '0th Amendment' which is not written, which is not communicated, and which exists only in the preconceptions and prejudices of the Framers. It was not written into the Constitution itself or the Bill of Rights, but it neverthless colors everything the Framers said and did... from the Revolution, to the Declaration of Independence, to the reaction to Shays' Rebellion, to the framing of the Constitution, to the bitter political fight over passing the Consitution, and even the first three American presidencies. Not to be aware of it is to be unaware of many of the real underpinnings of American political theory and our progress since the Framers... and most Americans are not as aware of it as they should be, because of the natural tendency in this country to canonize the Framers.

To understand the '0th Amendment' one must understand the underpinnings of Western liberalism. While we owe the doctrine of 'natural rights' to that liberal tradition, natural rights are secondary to economics in that tradition. It is economic rights (specifically the rights of the owners of property) that most concerned the liberal thinkers of the pre-Revolution. This is why conservatives in Spain, Italy and Japan call themselves 'Liberal Democrats.'

The fundamental right in the Western liberal tradition is the private right of an individual to own property. The second foremost right, which often trumps the first in practice, is the right of the individual to protect his property. Government, in the eyes of this tradition, exists only to guarantee the property rights and contracts of individuals and has no business meddling in anything else.

The 0th Amendment, prologuing the Bill of Rights, can then can be read very simply:

"Everything that follows applies to citizens of means, no one else really counts."

In this sense one can certainly argue that the Republicans (especially the neoconservatives) are far closer to the true beliefs of the Framers than anyone else. The question then becomes one of just how much the intent and desires of the Framers should matter to us today. Do we still believe that the protection of the property of those who own it is the chief justification for government or do we have a more educated and inclusive view of society today?

The alternative to a liberal democracy is a radical democracy. This means accepting that natural rights are of greater importance than property rights and that a citizen's rights cannot be enumerated in full in ten paragraphs. The rich man, the poor man, the wife, the single mother, the working woman, and the wage-laborer all enjoy the same basic natural rights in the same share and are entitled to the same protection and consideration under the law independent of their economic status, race, or gender. Those who do not own property are deserving of as much protection from the owners of property as those who own property are deserving of protection from them. Great concentrations of property in few hands are threats to the individual rights of the rest of society's members. Economic opportunity and property rights should be more openly 'democratic.'

I am not advocating communism or socialism in an economic sense, though I believe that certain socialist models (the workers' co-op and revenue sharing policies) work exceptionally well in a capitalist economy and Saturn (before GM bought the workers out to get a bigger share of the profits and ruined the company) and the NFL have provided us with the positive proof. The NFL is the most successful 'merchants' collective' in history and includes a tremendously successful 'workers' collective' in its operating system.

What I am proposing is that the values of the Founding Fathers, as they pertained to the role of government in society and the value and priority of individual rights, may not apply in a modern society. They were slightly ahead of their time and are far behind ours. In a perfect world, we would do what other nations have done when reaching such a divide between the philosophy of their constitutional law and the reality of their values system. They have written new constitutions and we should sincerely consider doing the same.

Of course the problem is not that universal values have advanced from the time of the Framers. While many have, many Americans believe exactly as the Founders believed on issues of wealth, property, government, and natural rights. They believe that 'equality' is a dirty word, that 'social justice' is proof of an argument's communist intent, and that wealth and freedom truly should be interlinked. They would argue that the alleged market stability created by monopolies and cartels outweighs the social and economic cost of such an imbalance of economic power... if they actually gave a straight answer. More likely they would spin a story about the 'free market' that bears no resemblance whatsoever to the facts of an unregulated business community. They defend the social and legal inequities that show the poor are treated very differently in the judicial system than the rich, and that the criminal justice system has failed to uphold the equity of justice with which it is charged.

This is not 'conservatism', which is a principle of safeguarding the good and measuring the effects of new ideas with sober seriousness. It is a blatant and reactionary support for the inherent rights of the wealthiest members of society or of concentrated business interests at the expense of the rest of society. It is a disregard for natural rights in favor of property rights and a belief that enumerated rights put on paper are of greater value than natural rights. It is a belief that the letter of the law trumps justice and mercy alike and that constitutional law prevents judges from fulfilling their constitutional role of interpreting the law in the changing world. It completely voids the idea of common law or moral law.

It is difficult to blame the Founders for many of their foibles at a time when their virtues were far greater than those of many of their contemporaries. They were a product of their time and managed, in many ways, to be ahead of it in philosophical matters. However, their time is not ours and we must operate in our world and not theirs. Many of their ideas were simply wrong, then and now.

Giskard 'died' because the 0th Law of Robotics was not compatible with his programming, and acting on it destroyed his circuits. The 0th Amendment is not compatible with the other ten. They need to apply to all of us, to have any value whatsoever.


Unknown said...

I'll be damned if you haven't explained in a nutshell the essential flaw in the trend to worship at the altar of the virtues of the Founding Fathers without placing them in the context of their time period. The
0th amendment explains it well.

The Eclectic Geek said...

Though it is primarily about economics rather than politics and sociology, and is a bit dry and scholarly if you aren't a an of academic theses, there is a book that I can't recommend enough. 'Towards A Radical Democracy' by Douglas M. Brown.

It examines the Western liberal tradition very closely and explains just why it is anti-democratic at its core. I don't agree with all of Brown's thinking (I don't believe direct democracy is preferable to a representative republic with democratic controls, for instance... I think Prop 8, in California, proved that 'the people' are not always the best engine of lawmaking) but it is impossible to fault his critique of Western liberalism and very difficult to argue with his economic conclusions.

Unknown said...

Thanks for the book recommendation. recently received a gift certificate to Borders and now I know what I want to buy with it. I'm in agreement with regards to direct democrary; the people are far too often easily swayed by limited personal beliefs that are focused only on protecting the rights of the most vocal.

Friar Zero said...

Beautifully well said. With that I am subscribing. A blog of substance, that's what this is and maybe it will inspire me to be more so in my own attempts at blogging.