The Lesson of the Bonsai Tree – and an Idea for Government


It is perhaps appropriate that a bush rat like me would find a metaphorical center of gravity in a plant whose primary virtue is its restrained existence. The bonsai is the result of the ancient art of taking a tree and keeping it artificially small with constant care and intention. The tree urgently desires to reach its genetic potential, to reach for the stars, growing tall and wide. If left to its own devices, and if the conditions are conducive, it will continue to grow year after year. It is, of course, easier to just let it grow. The art of severely restraining its expansion is very involved. It is tricky to say the least, because the tree's every inclination is to actively oppose the restrictions. It requires remarkable dedication to achieve. It seems to me that this level of commitment is only possible when the destination is known. In the case of the bonsai, it is in knowing and understanding how exquisite the addition to a home this remarkable plant will be.

I have the McCarthy community in general, and my life here in particular, to thank for my evolution into a political being. When I arrived here in May of 1999 I was a leaf blowing in the wind. I woke up in a new world every day, sometimes throughout the day! Like everyone that settles at the end of the world, I too stayed in McCarthy because of the freedom that I found here. Freedom is a large and vague concept and perhaps this story will be better served if I use the word liberty:

Liberty: 1.a. The condition of being free from restriction or control. b. The right to act, believe, or express oneself in a manner of one's own choosing. c. The condition of being free from confinement, servitude, or forced labor. 2. The freedom from unjust or undue government control. (American Heritage Dictionary)

"…to secure the Blessings of Liberty for ourselves and our Posterity…" (Preamble to the Constitution)

"…Liberty and Justice for all." (The Pledge of Allegiance)

If our government, initially framed in 1787, and for all its flaws, was initially birthed with Liberty in mind; if the balance of decidedly limited federal powers described in The Constitution was intended to protect the people from their government by restricting the government, not the people; if the bonsai is an apt analogy for the framework of sustainable self-determination; then it seems clear that the gardener disappeared a long, long time ago and it is high time we got a prunin'!

From a tent to the 2008 Alaskan Republican Convention

I hope that you are willing to grant me the privilege (temporarily) of oversimplification so that we can establish a beginning. During my adult life, the Republican side of the aisle has tended philosophically towards conservatism; small government, faith in "the market", fiscal prudence; moderate, cautious, restrained. The Democratic side of the aisle has tended toward omni-present government as the means to correct the inequities of justice and the tyrannies of evil men. Ultimately, in my experience, the adherents to either direction have very similar intentions, but very different beliefs in how a sustainable attainment is accomplished.

This is where we run into our first problem. Beliefs are important, to be sure, to most of us, but they have no place in a philosophical inquiry. To be effective at actually unraveling a problem and getting to the nut of the matter, it is essential to question constantly the givens, and the act of belief is an act of acceptance. One of the primary differences between "conservative" and "liberal" positions concerns the market. My personal inquiry into this and the more general subject of economics has led me to discover what may be a great misunderstanding. My involvement last month on March 14th and 15th at the Alaska Republican Convention has confirmed my developing suspicion. Neither side of the aisle understands the market and both sides are equally guilty of "believing" something that just isn't so.

Six months ago I discovered a gentleman that does understand this subject, thoroughly, and contrary to what we all believe is not possible, he is an honest politician on the national stage! His name, of course, is Ron Paul! When I first discovered him I just about dropped my lunch. As I found out more, I spread the word as far and wide as I could about this remarkable man and the grassroots revolution bearing his name whose call word is Liberty. Ron Paul is a medical doctor who has spent 10 terms in congress leaving the pork in Washington and voting his ideology relentlessly, refusing his congressional pay and working tirelessly to trim the tree of government. The more I learned, the more excited I became, and a small Ron Paul movement developed during the dark days of winter here in our quaint little hamlet of McCarthy. On Super-Tuesday we held a preference poll for the Republican Party where eleven votes were cast. I was sent by district 6 to the state convention with eleven other delegates, four of whom were to represent the ideas of Ron Paul.

Before we get back to philosophy and the market, it is important to clarify some things Republican. The Republican Party, like any large party, is a mixture of interests and the past twenty years has seen the party on the national scale drift in action quite far from its conservative inclinations. So much so that the Republican establishment of 2008 actually loathes Ron Paul and would very much like him to go away. Ron Paul regards himself as the most fiscally and politically conservative member of congress, and he very well may be right. So why is he intentionally marginalized by many of his peers? To answer this very important question we must move back to the market.

Ron Paul is the rare political being who is not for sale – at all. His special interest is Liberty, so much so that he speaks from the heart, in his own words, and doesn't avoid questions, of any type, because he is not concerned about what interest he may offend. His interest is Liberty. It is becoming increasingly apparent to me that the root of the disease afflicting government is the sale of power. Liberal philosophy generally holds that while the "free market" is useful to move goods and services around, it is not to be trusted very far and should be leashed and watched. The conservative philosophy generally holds, in the words of the Alaskan Republican Party, that the free enterprise system is the most successful means of achieving economic justice. Yet neither side of the argument acknowledges that they have never seen a free-market in action. The reason they have never seen it is because the government has not let the market work. Some of the interference has been well-meaning, in the form of counterproductive regulations such as price controls and subsidies. And some has been the direct result of the sale of power to curry favor from powerful interests. The lynch pin of a free market is the existence of a level playing field. There must be an equal cost of entry into the market place for all interested players for the noble benefits of competition to emerge, allowing for the profit incentive to create sustainable action and the threat of losses to correct inefficient behavior.

Here lies the dilemma: Governments have power. People wield that power when employed by government. People are flawed. Very quickly, they begin to peddle that power, sometimes without even realizing it. This gives advantage to one group over another. Lobbyists are specifically in the business of buying influence, of paying for laws and regulations and generally special treatment that favor them and necessarily disadvantage others. They pay to institutionalize their profits and put a floor under their losses. They, in short, pay to limit competition and destroy the free market. The actually free market has a name – laissez faire; "an economic doctrine that opposes government regulation of or interference in commerce beyond the minimum necessary for a free enterprise system to operate according to its own economic laws." (The American Heritage Dictionary) It is nowhere to be witnessed today.

Corruption in the Alaskan GOP and Party Civil War

This brings us to the convention and some necessary details. The Alaskan Republican Party convention happens every two years and can host as many as 500 voting delegates. This year's affair brought 381 voting delegates together, the most ever in the history of our young state. Every convention deals primarily with the party platform and resolutions. It also elects party officials and every presidential year, it elects delegates to represent the state at the national convention. Many guest speakers move across the stage, and generally the two and half days are spent in formal and informal non-stop deliberation. I am glad to report that it was quite exciting!

This years' convention, however, was unusual. And not just because of the Ron Paul contingent, which was 104 voting delegates strong. This year's affair was dominated by the alleged criminal corruption taking hold of the establishment and reaching right up to our highest national representative. Much of the rank and file Republican contingent traveled to this year's convention to impeach the party chairman, Randy Reudrich, who is viewed by some to be front and center of the corruption, or more specifically, in the sale of power. They were unsuccessful.

And there are a lot of ways to sell power. Some are to be found in the non-criminal "conflicts of interest". A good example of this is being personally invested in industries that you participate in writing laws for. And some are more direct, like taking cash in the form of campaign resources to shield a particular interest from the rigors of fair competition.

This friction and upheaval was better than TV! It was conducive to open and progressive deliberation and to positive change. On the afternoon of the first full day, Friday, March 14th, we separated into committees to work on platform planks and resolutions. The Alaskan Republican Party Platform begins by stating its mission and principles. They typify conservative, and to some degree, libertarian thought. They include: The conviction that America was founded on the fundamental principles of Liberty and Freedom; that the government must preserve individual freedom by observing constitutional limitations; that the entrepreneurial spirit should be unburdened by excessive government regulation; and that Alaskan Republicans believe in the sanctity of human life, from the time of conception until natural death.

These sentiments are very Ron Paul-ish. So why would his movement be reviled by the establishment? We have to look closer. First of all, we must note that most Republicans admit they agree with much of what Ron Paul stands for. It is his relentless consistency on two specific issues that create irreconcilable differences.

The first is the most glaring. Republicans, even in Washington today, claim to adhere to the principal of fiscal restraint while they continue to deficit spend.

They claim to want to reduce the size of government, while they add departments and increase budgets. To be a fiscal conservative in America today, you must cut spending, whether you reduce taxes or not. You must cut programs. You must identify and eliminate waste, regardless of how politically unpopular this will be.

The second is less obvious to most. Ron Paul stresses that we must lead by example, encouraging other nations to emulate us, and never down the barrel of a gun. He is a fierce advocate of the sanctity of all human life. The platform plank entitled Constitutional Rights reads, "The right to life is bestowed by our Creator. It is the responsibility of government to protect that right. The right to life exists from the moment of conception until natural death, and every human being deserves protection under the law."

I find no qualifying condition to this clear statement. There is no reference to revocation of this belief as regards certain individuals or groups, such as perpetrators of violent crime. And what of the citizens of other countries that we have waged war on? Is their life not sanctified? By any estimates, and many are severe, far more civilians have been slaughtered brutally than have the "enemy". How is this reconciled with the above statement of principle?

The truth is, this statement sounds good and is a matter of pride for those who adopt it in word, but it has strong and far-reaching implications that the vast majority of Americans are unwilling to consider.

Why are we overseas killing people? George Bush says they are bad and we are good. He has offered no proof, save some vague notion of "terrorist threat", but no proof and plenty of documented un-truths if not outright lies. I ask, why do we not demand evidence? Shouldn't proof be provided and thoroughly verified before the killing begins? And since we are facing absolutely monstrous unfunded liabilities in the form of Social Security, Medicaid, and federal pensions, and we already are nearing a ten trillion dollar deficit on a 3.1 trillion dollar budget, why on earth do we think we can afford this course of action even if we were to carefully determine that it was prudent?

But we get no answers.

We can't be for states’ rights and a strong national government simultaneously. We can't spend money we don't have because Dick Cheney has suggested that deficits no longer matter. We can't secure liberty for a few. It is for all of us or none of us. And as a wise person said to me recently, "To be a strict constitutionalist, you have to defend it all and no more. If you don't like part of it, then change it, with one of the two methods it provides. A living constitution, or the notion of interpretation to meet the current judicial mood, is no constitution."

I went to the convention to make these points. I was not on the national defense committee, fortunately, for I discovered afterwards that no discussion was allowed on the subjects of war/Iraq/Afghanistan/terrorism/ fiscal suicide, except in support. How is this possible, considering the national and international climate on this monumental subject? Reportedly, 60–70% of the country is against the wars for many different reasons, and in Alaska in GOP caucus we can't have an open debate?

On Saturday, the committee work went before the floor and it was at that point that I objected to the National Defense platform plank that reads, "We support an active, aggressive worldwide war against terrorism and support military action in Afghanistan and Iraq as a part of this war."

Mr. Chairman,

I move to strike "and Iraq" from the first plank of the Alaskan Republican Party platform on National Defense.

Mr. Chairman,

Whereas sons and daughters of people in this room and hundreds of thousands of brave American women and men are risking their lives, their bodies, and their sanity,

Whereas trillions of dollars we do not have are being spent on war with the only reasonably attainable objective being semi-permanent occupation that we can not afford,

Whereas Jesus Christ, himself, has clearly commanded that we do unto others as we would have done unto us,

I move to strike "and Iraq" from the party platform.

This was met with an immediate moving of the question, which only requires a simple majority to end debate and move to vote. My motion was resoundingly voted down with enthusiasm and vigor.

Next committee.

The Value of Challenging all things Unjust

The next committee to come before the floor was Constitutional Rights. One of the primary reasons for the renewed interest in national politics is that a growing body of Americans believes that President George Bush and the complicit Democratic Congress are dismantling the Bill of Rights with their "war on terror". After the passionate denial of my motion the room was ripe for the passage of the following new plank:

“We recognize the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects as guaranteed in the 4th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution; recognize the right of the people to be secure from any search or seizure that violates the 5th Amendment right against self-incrimination; and oppose legislation that violates these two Amendments including, but not limited to, any infringements that may be contained in the Patriot Act, the Real ID Act, NAIS Act, and the Violent Radicalization and Homegrown Terrorism Prevention Act. Furthermore, we propose that these acts be repealed immediately.”

And it passed, just barely. I'm pretty sure the room was not completely sure what they were voting on, but once they discovered what had happened, the question was called back to the floor under the guise of new information. Ultimately, a division of the house was called for to get an accurate vote count and it still passed. YAHOO for Liberty!

I was on the Judiciary, Law, and Crime committee and we had an honest, lively and principled caucus. It was a joy to participate. We made many changes to the platform, including removing opposition to the legalization of hemp and strongly supporting a defendants rights to argue both the facts of the case and the merits of the law under which the charge has been made. This very old tenant of English Common Law, known as jury nullification, has itself been essentially nullified. The judiciary has repeatedly, nation wide, threatened to de-bar defense attorneys who attempt to educate the jury as to their right to release a defendant solely on their verdict that the law is without merit.

YAHOO for our civil liberties!

New planks and resolutions from other sections of the Party Platform were also passed on the floor, including abolishment of the IRS and the Department of Education and a firm stand against implementing action of the Real ID act of 2005, demanding its immediate repeal.

I am going to start growing Bonsai Trees

If after an exhaustive rational inquiry into the nature of government and the consequences of letting it grow at a pace it determines, we were to discover that indeed, the liberty of each one of us is dependent on our collective willingness generation after generation to prune and trim the sovereign, would we do it? Would we be up to the task? Are we women and men enough to stay this kind of course?

I was very disappointed and impressed, encouraged and concerned, by what I witnessed in those two and half days. I saw individuals behave both admirably in defense of principle and like zombies who can not even recognize their own self-interest; so many times that it became obvious what a mixed bag we all are. Sometimes we are willing to take a stand against tyrannies and sometimes we are willing to cover our eyes and ears and let oppression wash over us.

But mostly I came away hopeful. I saw very clearly the connection between rational thought and liberty, between critical thinking and the dedication to VERY small government. 119 voting delegates were not seated. You could have been one of them. The sad truth is that all things that are wrong with our government are wrong largely because we don't go to the meetings.

April 14, 2008