This has serious ramifications for society. While all of society is affected by the arbitrary breakpoints, the serious impact comes from government and that is what I will discuss first.
"I believe there are more instances of abridgment of freedom of the people by gradual and silent encroachments of those in power than by violent an sudden usurpations..." - James MadisonAs I discussed above, the various functions provided or imposed by the government have an equilibrium breakpoint determined by the opposing desires, the desire for more money by the government and the opposition to more taxes by the citizens. Both of these sub-functions can be manipulated by the government, the press, and others.
First off, the government may increase its desire for more income. In general, government tends to grow and their desired benefits continue to increase. For example, the staffing level of the congresspersons and the administration have both increased enormously in the last few years. Much of the money that the politicians spend has to do with buying votes. As politics has become more sophisticated and more competitive, the cost of buying these votes has tended to increase dramatically. This also has increased the desire for more money.
But the most important way that the equilibrium is changed is by manipulating the "public opposition" side of the equilibrium equation. It turns out that the public is quite easily manipulated with regard to most government issues, but particularly so with taxes. The best example of how this "opposition" can be manipulated, is the simple invention of the tax withholding scheme, described below.
Politics and governing is the epitome of what this series of essays at this site is all about for it incorporates all of the problems, paradoxes, and dilemmas discussed herein. Vagueness is a major part of politics and governance as will be demonstrated in the remainder of this essay. The Social Dilemmas raise their ugly head in every aspect of governance from voting (by both citizens and representatives) to rent-seeking to taxation and distribution. The whole system of compliance of citizens without rebellion is founded on the application of memes. Finally, it is all made possible by the lack of common sense and rational thinking by the majority of the citizens.
The government has also been very successful in convincing the public that they cannot take care of themselves but need multi-billion dollar programs to ensure their health and safety. Therefore, we have the huge agencies devoted to health and safety. To create the equilibrium point that allows the necessary taxing, the public must be made to feel that they are quite helpless in day to day living. So, we have programs that tell farmers that they should put up signs warning that cow manure on concrete is slippery, public announcements that tell us that the wonderfully tasting theater popcorn should be avoided, and labels on beer bottles telling us that drinking could cause us to get drunk and possibly pregnant -- or some such.
A related successful technique of the government is to create massive public guilt. The government has billions of dollars at stake and thousands of jobs in the fields of welfare and related functions such as child abuse. While these areas of public duty are certainly valid concerns of the citizens and need to be addressed in some way, that is not the real concern of the government. It is simply used as a tool for more spending and more government jobs -- which often results in great human tragedy (see the web page by VOCAL) -- just to support a few government jobs. To ensure the success in these operations requires massive propaganda -- primarily through the liberal press and academia.
While many of our "leaders" would have you believe that morals are absolute and God given, the reality is that morals are an arbitrary set of rules that the community agrees to live by (see my Common Sense essay). Actually that definition is a bit generous -- a primary purpose of morals is for some people to control the actions of others. To do this, it is beneficial to keep the rules vague.
Another example is the commandment to "Honor thy father and mother". What if my father and murder were disgusting perverts, drug addicts, and petty thieves? Modern moralists would cut us some slack and allow us to turn them into the police. Note that God makes no mention of such qualifications.
Pornography is also a vague term that is the basis for throwing people in jail. At the present time (December, 1996) we have a federal law that provides serious penalties for putting anything indecent on the internet. What is indecent? I suspect that my definition, your definition, and the judge's definition will all be different. For example, I think the law itself is indecent. But I find nothing inherently indecent about the naked human body. Of course, pictures that contain naked humans can be created that are indecent. But so can pictures that include fully clothed human beings. It is not the nakedness that makes them indecent. Not even if they are involved in sexual activity (imagine a picture of a loving man and wife in sexual intercourse -- is that indecent?)
What about such terms as charity, compassion, tolerance, prejudiced -- terms that are currently used mostly by some to make others feel guilty? None of these terms have clear, well-defined definitions. For example, which is more compassionate: to give your lazy teenage son more money every time he begs for more or to force him to get off his butt and get a job? Many today would endorse the first option. In any case, compassion is not an absolute term but a relative term. That is, the best you can say is that Joe might be more compassionate than Sally but it is dishonest to say that Joe is compassionate and Sally is not.
GOBLES, Mich. (Feb. 11) - A high school honor student who said she brought a knife to school to cut a friend's birthday brownies will serve a 10-day suspension.
Amber Nash, 15, admitted bringing the knife to school earlier this month. When she rushed to help a friend who had fainted, a school employee noticed the kitchen knife.
Gobles Superintendent Tom Saylor had recommended that the freshman be suspended 33 school days and be barred from making up missed classes for violating the school's weapons policy.
The "weapon" was a kitchen knife. The problem is that there is no justifiable place to set the break point for "Dangerous Weapon". So it must be set at "anything". That is, anything that could possibly be used to hurt someone must be forbidden.
LEXINGTON, North Carolina (AP) -- These days, a kiss isn't just a kiss -- not even in the first grade. A 6-year-old boy who kissed a girl on the cheek was suspended last week on the grounds of sexual harassment. Jackie Prevette said the school overreacted to an innocent peck on the cheek by banishing her son, Johnathan, to a room apart from his classmates. Johnathan said that the girl asked him to kiss her and that he was expressing friendship, according to his mother. "Can't you just imagine children skipping down the hall holding hands? Isn't that Norman Rockwell America?" Prevette said. District spokeswoman Jane Martin said the policy is clear: "A 6-year-old kissing another 6-year-old is inappropriate behavior. Unwelcome is unwelcome at any age." The rules are outlined in a student handbook given to each child at the start of the school year. Parents are asked to sign a form confirming that they explained the do's and don't's, Martin said. A teacher who saw the incident reported it to the principal, who decided the first-grader should be punished. Johnathan missed out on coloring and playing with his friends. He also missed an ice-cream party honoring students with good attendance. Prevette said she could understand a sexual harassment rule directed at older students. She said she will ask the school board to make allowances for children in third grade and below. "This makes children wonder `Should I hug somebody?"' she said. "It's no wonder we have all these people with behavior problems."
O.K., the child was only 6 years old. But where would you set the age limit for Sexual Abuse? And exactly what is Sexual Abuse? The easy answer (always the choice of bureaucrats, politicians, and law enforcers) is to make kissing by anyone of any age an act of Sexual Abuse!
Note the suggestion by the official to set the age breakpoint at "third grade and below". Can she justify that?
The law is the law and in this case we have clear breakpoint. But is it what we really want? Notice that if she had of been one day older than 16, that is, 17, then he would not have been in nearly as much trouble if he had abandoned her! Does that make sense?
Individuals in society and, in particular, the government take advantage of this phenomenon (See "The Boiling Frog Syndrome", by Steven Yates). If only a very small change in a continuous entity is made, it cannot be detected and, in any case, is below the threshold for which anyone would object. But the accumulation of many of these small increments can be very serious. The technique of small gradual changes is called the "Slippery Slope" by many but I prefer to call it the "How to boil the frog" method!
I quote the story from "NTC and the Boiling Frogs" (no longer on the net):
If you place a frog in a pot of boiling water, it will immediately try to scramble out. But if you place the frog in room temperature water, and don't scare him, he'll stay put. Now, if the pot sits on a heat source, and if you gradually turn up the temperature, something very interesting happens. As the temperature rises from 70 to 80 degrees F., the frog will do nothing. In fact, he will show every sign of enjoying himself. As the temperature gradually increases, the frog will become groggier and groggier, until he is unable to climb out of the pot. Though there is nothing restraining him, the frog will sit there and boil.An example of the "Boiling the frog" approach -- the incremental change of the breakpoint -- is the definition of drunkenness by the state. At first it was set at 0.1% alcohol in the blood. Purely arbitrary, of course. Later, they changed it to 0.08%. Who would complain about that? It is not a significant difference. Changing it to 0.06% from 0.08% would also be insignificant. So, while they can't defend their value of the breakpoint, you can't defend it either! So, who can object to 0.02% changes?
The same goes for the National Debt. How can you argue with a small increase (a few billion dollars!)? But now it is over $5 trillion! Same for military readiness. Same for the "poverty level". Small changes cannot be challenged, yet the summation of the small changes can be a disaster.
Consider this scenario. Suppose you buy a nice place in the country. Later, your next door neighbor builds a fence between you and him. You notice that the fence is about a foot over on your property. You figure he managed to take about $500 worth of your property. You go to a lawyer. The lawyer says it will cost you at least $1,000 in legal fees to try to get it back. So, you forget about it. But what would you do if a few years later, he moved the fence over another foot on your property?
So, how are breakpoints established? Often a breakpoint is establish as the dynamic equilibrium point between opposing forces. The government wants more taxes, the citizens want less. The value settled on is the point where these forces are balanced.
Other examples of arbitrary breakpoints are demonstrated by issues of morality and law.
Finally, we see that breakpoints can be incrementally changed with little or no opposition. This is often called the "Slippery Slope" or incrementalism. It is the way that a society can be made to accept what would be an unacceptable imposition if it were all done at once. The National Debt is a good example.
While defence against government and other societal functions that abuse our welfare with vagueness is difficult, having a little knowledge about what is going on cannot hurt.
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