20 August 2014

The Perry Case

Last year the district attorney of Travis County, Texas, was arrested for drunk driving. She displayed the arrogance of the privileged while under arrest, demanding that the local sheriff be summoned to take care of her problem. She served 45 days for the offense and returned to work. Texas doesn't provide for automatic removal of such an official for such an offense. Nor does the governor of the state have the power to remove her. However, he shares in the power of the purse. The governor's idea was to cut off funding for her office, which includes a Public Integrity Unit, by vetoing the relevant spending provision, thus rendering her powerless. She has not resigned, though she will retire at the end of her term. Now the governor is in legal jeopardy. A special prosecutor claims that the governor abused his power and illegally attempted to coerce a public servant by using his veto and, apparently more damningly, stating explicitly that he would veto the funding if the district attorney didn't resign. Some observers have suggested that the governor might not be so deep in trouble had he simply used his veto without issuing the threat. Since this is America, most people will base their judgments on the matter on the fact that the governor is Rick Perry, a Republican who made a fool of himself in the last presidential campaign but may run for that office again in 2016. Regardless of his identity, it's probably a more relevant fact that the district attorney's Public Integrity Office was investigating the Cancer Research and Prevention Institute of Texas, a project in which cronies of Perry were closely involved, and that Perry would be able to name the d.a.'s replacement had she resigned. But all this shows is that there are no good guys in this particular story, since the d.a.'s drunken spree arguably demonstrated her unfitness for public office, and especially for a post responsible for "public integrity." It may be that Perry took advantage of an opportunity he didn't create to try to force her out of office, but it's not obvious to me, not being a Texan, that his actions, however opportunistic or even cynical, are also illegal. A decade ago, I recall it being suggested that Congress stop the war in Iraq by denying funding to the military. That's obviously another level of government, but it suggests that in general denying funding is a legitimate way to check unpopular or unwise policies. It's being argued in Texas that it isn't a legitimate way to target an individual or force her out of office. But it follows from none of this that this person should still have herself, except according to the letter of an inadequate law. She shouldn't be the victim or hero of this story, since its real moral seems to be, however much we'd like to reject stereotypes of a "political class," that politicians in the American Bipolarchy are too often just plain jerks.

19 August 2014

One man's summer is another man's spring

You know things are messed up in Ferguson MO when even the Fox News reporters are questioning police tactics. Last night was the worst since Ferguson became the focus of the nation, and both sympathizers with the police and sympathizers with the young man slain by the police were quick to blame outside agitators. Groups like the Revolution Club of Chicago and the New Black Panther Party (that favorite of Fox), as well as white anarchists, are in town to cause trouble or, in their minds, to speed up a true uprising. A lot of people in Ferguson, residents included, are sick and tired. In other countries when a critical mass of people get sick and tired a government can fall and they call it a spring. There's far from a critical mass today in Ferguson, much less the United States, but you can wonder how different in spirit the protesters are from protesters in Tunisia, where a kid killing himself helped bring a government down, or in Egypt, where people got fed up twice over in three years' time, or in Ukraine, where one group of people got fed up with the government and overthrew it, and another group got fed up with the first and seceded. Americans like to cheer on spontaneous protests in other countries but distrust them on their own soil. That's understandable if you think your fellow citizens don't actually have serious complaints, but couldn't that have been what a passive majority thought in Tunisia, in Egypt, or in Ukraine? Maybe we imagine that we know what all these people stood for, but the one thing they have in common across their borders is that they felt oppressed. On our own soil, we're more critical of protests against oppression -- my own temptation just now was to write "alleged oppression." We don't give our own protesters as much benefit of the doubt as we do protesters against foreign regimes -- and it isn't even a matter of whether the country in question is an "enemy" of America. Egypt wasn't, but many of us rooted for the people in Tahrir Square, and some rooted both times, when a second wave of revolt overwhelmed the first. Sometimes who you're against makes a difference; America loved the Maidan in Kiev but hates the Russophone Ukrainians who rose in turn against it. I'm not going to suggest that the people in Ferguson are moral equivalents of any of these groups. All I ask is that Americans show a little of the same skepticism many show toward the Ferguson protesters toward mass protesters elsewhere in the world, before we make more commitments we regret. But if we think it is good to rebel everywhere else on Earth, perhaps we shouldn't dismiss so quickly or contemptuously those who feel a need to rebel at home.

18 August 2014

Transparency and paralysis in government

David Frum has a provocative piece in the September Atlantic in which he argues that reforms undertaken since the 1970s to make government more transparent and less corrupt have only made it more difficult for government to do anything useful. What's really provocative about the argument is the implication that strong leadership rather than rules and procedures, much less checks and balances, is what gets things done. Here's the argument in Frum's own words:

We have had campaign-finance reform, and reform of the seniority system in Congress, and endless rounds of anticorruption measures in the federal government. Calls for “transparency” and “accountability” have meant more administrative and judicial supervision. In turn, power flows to impersonal institutions (agency review boards, courts, and so on) and away from elected leaders who can get things done—and who can be punished at the ballot box for delay and disappointment.

Frum's argument is related to the line of political thought I've called Neo-Lincolnism, which values leadership in forms ranging from deal-making to arm-twisting over an idealized notion of deliberative persuasion in which leaders make things happen by making speeches. Lyndon Johnson is as much an exemplar of the leadership advocated by neo-Lincolnism as Lincoln himself. While Neo-Lincolnism has focused on presidential leadership, often as a critique by Democrats of Barack Obama's alleged over-emphasis on speechmaking, Frum expands the argument to criticize a loss of congressional leadership over the last forty years. An unintended consequence of liberal Democrats' efforts to break the power of their elderly, reactionary southern compatriots over congressional committees is that "Committees and subcommittees multiplied to the point where no single chair has the power to guarantee anything. This breakdown of the committee system empowered the rank-and-file member—and provided the lobbying industry with more targets to influence. Committees now open their proceedings to the public. Many are televised. All of this allows lobbyists to keep a close eye on events—and to confirm that the politicians to whom they have contributed deliver value."

Frum finds it bitterly ironic that reforms enacted "to eliminate backroom wheeling and dealing" having only given lobbyists more influence over government. Well-meaning reformers are only "eliminating governance itself." Whether you agree or not, the charge begs the question of what Frum means by "governance." In simplest terms, of course, we can say "getting things done." As Frum, a moderate conservative, well knows, many Americans believe that the point of our system of government is to prevent things getting done when getting things done seems to threaten either vested interests or enshrined individual rights. Frum realizes that activist "conservative" judges have contributed to the current problem by subjecting politics to excessive judicial supervision. But the original impetus to which he traces our current torpor came from liberals who resented "wheeling and dealing" and were determined to root out corruption wherever they perceived it. Liberals of a certain stripe resent most deal-making because they wish that politics could be settled through principled deliberation. While LBJ and Lincoln are, in their respective fashions, icons of liberalism, the insinuation of neo-Lincolnism, as echoed in Frum's article, is anti-liberal (though not conservative) in one particular sense. A great liberal hope, inscribed in the Constitution itself, is that procedures should suffice to get things done while compensating for the foibles of individual leaders. James Madison hoped that checks, balances and so on would channel the ambitions and other impulses that make men less than angels toward constructive, mutually beneficial ends. By the 21st century,  it seemed as if ambitions checked ambitions too well, too thoroughly, so that none seemed to prevail and nothing seemed to get done. Neo-Lincolnism hints that real, effective leadership can't be contained entirely by the strictures of proceduralism -- that at least in the sort of society we've lived in all along, wheeling and dealing, horse trading, arm twisting, are all inescapably necessary even if they betray or belie the liberal ideals of principled deliberation. What redeems Neo-Lincolnism as a democratic idea is the insistence of both original neo-Lincolniam Sean Wilentz and a possible sympathizer like David Frum that leaders remain accountable to the people for whatever they do in a way that unelected actors, from judges to lobbyists, are not. This political philosophy allows ends to justify means more than pure liberalism does, but as long as we agree that the people, not the leaders, are the ultimate judges of ends and means alike, Neo-Lincolnian arguments may contribute to getting things done in the long run.

17 August 2014

How many wrongs make a right?

It's been an interesting weekend in Ferguson MO starting with Friday's revelation of a convenience-store security tape apparently showing a young man roughing up a shopkeeper while trying to steal cigars a short time before a cop shot the young man to death. Reactions to the tape were fascinating. Some cynics were happy to see the story told by the victim's family of an innocent "gentle giant" belied by the footage. It confirmed an impression that a black man who gets shot by a cop must have done something wrong, or at least something stupid. Unfortunately, many observers made an unjustified leap in logic to argue as if the young man deserved death for his actions in the store, even as the police made clear that the cop who killed the youth didn't know he was a robbery suspect. Meanwhile, sympathizers with the victim treated the footage as an ad hominem argument against the dead man, a distraction from the crucial question of the police procedure when the youth was stopped while jaywalking. In fact, no one has a right to infer from the security footage how the doomed youth behaved when the cop stopped him. If the footage has encouraged a belief, in advance of definitive testimony about the shooting, that the incident was a justifiable homicide, on the assumption that the victim was violent and menacing, than releasing the footage was an irresponsible act. Yet it will still be welcomed as a contribution to the whole truth of the story, regardless of its legal implications. Its social consequences were less welcome; it seemed to provoke new rounds of rioting and looting, including some spiteful targeting of the store with the cigars. No one approves of this yet no one can stop it. "No justice, no peace" has a compelling logic that defies efforts by community leaders and activists to turn the rhetoric on and off. For the mob, "justice" is the arrest and at least the prosecution of the cop for murder. He is presumed guilty by many, some of whom probably see any killing of a black by a white as murder, if not an act of war. Objectively, however, the issue is not whatever attitude he might have had toward a large black man but the leeway for lethal force given police everywhere. Even in the worst-case scenario imagined by police apologists, in which the victim was trying to take the cop's gun, it isn't unreasonable to expect cops to be capable of defending themselves and protecting their gear without using lethal force, particularly when the assailant, as everyone agrees, had no weapons of his own. The rules police make for themselves may exculpate the cop depending on what actually happened, but that won't necessarily make his walking away without penalty just. It's the people's prerogative to question justice as defined by police, but if they can't find a better way to articulate their questioning than to sack unoffending stores they surrender much of the sympathy to which they might otherwise be entitled. Worse, it shifts the subject back to "what should be done with black criminals?" from "what should be done with cops who use excessive force?" where it belongs. On the other hand, if mass anger is at all justified, excess anger shouldn't entirely dismiss the grievance from the minds of presumably objective observers. If the cop did wrong, you can't let him walk just to spite the looters or Al Sharpton or whoever's protest offends you. We still need to know exactly what happened, and it would help if we could agree on what should have happened before anyone passes judgment on anyone else.

14 August 2014

Is this a Libertarian moment? How would we tell?

Conor Friedersdorf rises on the Atlantic webpage to defend libertarianism from the scoffing of other opinionators. Friedersdorf takes offense at some pundits' "disdainful" and "vexing" rejection of the proposition that we're on the verge of a "libertarian moment" in American politics. It becomes apparent that he and his antagonists are writing about different things. To be more specific, Friedersdorf's notion of "libertarianism" differs from that of most people. The problem with most people, he believes, is that they identify "libertarianism" with the most extreme ideas of avowed libertarians, when libertarians as a whole are far from monolithic or fanatical in their views and priorities. "There are a lot of people, including commenters on this site, who laugh at Fox News' absurd characterizations of liberals," he protests, "yet somehow cling to similarly cartoonish notions of what libertarians are."

If a "libertarian moment" comes, Friedersdorf predicts, it won't come in the form of wholesale adoption of libertarian views or the uncompromising enactment of libertarian policies. He tentatively defines a libertarian moment as one when "younger voters will support policies and elect leaders that enhance liberty in comparison to the status quo." If we want to know what this might mean in practice, Friedersdorf insists that we not focus on the most obvious or most extreme sources in the Libertarian Party or the Ron Paul movement or the fans of Ayn Rand. What, then, is the "liberty" younger voters may prefer? It becomes clear that Friedersdorf envisions a "moment" in which libertarianism is not defined primarily in economic terms. He prefers a libertarianism that's synonymous with "civil libertarianism," from resistance to national-security surveillance to drug-law reform to the expansion of gay rights. Hence:

If fewer people are caged for inhaling the smoke of a plant, that's a libertarian victory. If fewer people's doors are kicked in late at night by police officers dressed in combat fatigues, that's a libertarian victory. If more cancer patients can legally obtain a substance that alleviates their suffering, that's a libertarian victory. If fewer assets are seized by police without proof of guilt, that's a libertarian victory.

A fair number of writers in the comments thread have questioned this particular assumption. The adjective "civil libertarian" may be more popular nowadays, but some observers note that all of the above can just as easily be called "liberal victories." They would have been recognized as such unanimously not so long ago, and some reactionaries probably still see these phenomena as primarily "liberal." The only reason, it seems, to call them "libertarian" instead is if you identify "liberalism" with the "statism" against which formal libertarianism protests. For libertarian politicians, whether formal party members or individual ideologues, the main reason to promote "civil libertarianism," apart from believing sincerely in these victories, is to identify these most obvious goods with the more controversial libertarian economic agenda. However, I take Friedersdorf at his apparent word that he wishes to downplay the economic aspects of libertarianism. For him, I infer, libertarianism in most general terms means a less intrusive state. His libertarian presumption, I presume, is that in nearly every instance a less intrusive state is better for society. More committed libertarians no doubt hope to convince young voters that the way to prevent any reversal of the victories Friedersdorf cites is to minimize government intrusiveness at all levels. We'll have a libertarian moment if they can convince a critical mass of people, but I suspect that few people will make so sweeping a generalization. Whatever ideology or even the Constitution says, each generation has to decide for itself what is properly subject to democratic regulation and what isn't. It doesn't follow that we must give up the welfare state or the regulatory state to secure the right to smoke pot. It may or may not be a libertarian moment if Americans actually draw that conclusion, but it definitely won't be a good moment for the country.

13 August 2014

In Missouri, the latest rush to judgment

Here we go again: a policeman kills a black person. The victim is reportedly unarmed, but it's as yet officially unknown whether he fought with the cop. Most people draw their own conclusions: a racist cop acted out of fear, hatred or arrogance; a stupid punk got what was coming to him for showing attitude, getting confrontational, etc. Outbreaks of looting follow, which only harden the attitudes of many white observers, whose comments only harden the attitudes of black observers. Who is the victim? As with Trayvon Martin, some see him as a child, others as a "gangbanger." Who is the cop? The general public doesn't know his name yet, yet some think they know him in some essential way. They assume either that he lashed out at a stereotype of black youth, or that he had no choice but to defend himself from attack. The fact is, most people following this story don't need to know anymore: black kid vs. cop is all they need to know, no matter whose side they take. A surprisingly nuanced look at the latest controversy comes from a figure in the last one: the attorney for George Zimmerman. He writes for CNN that attitudes either way -- cops toward blacks, blacks toward cops -- are problematic and dangerous, but argues that police have to take "the first step" toward reconciliation, since their authority places responsibility on them. "In return," he emphasizes, we must respect police authority and the risks of their work. It is a "grave reality," he argues, that "the way we engage a police officer can affect whether we walk away, whether we are driven away in handcuffs, or whether we are taken away on a stretcher." But this is still also a matter of police responsibility, and we might note that, ideally at least, the people should set the rules of engagement for their police. If Mark O'Mara concedes these points, a more respectful environment for police may result. But if he looks like a voice of reason this time, you can always scroll down to the comments thread for what are most likely more typical opinions, from those absolutely convinced that the cop committed murder to those who believe that black people's problems (or, more likely, the writers' own problems with black people) would end if they'd only talk and dress better. Prejudice is rampant in our land of individual liberty, no less than in the past. As ever, prejudice belies any pretense of individualist sentiments. A true individualist really has no choice but to reserve judgment until we know more about the two individuals who confronted each other in Ferguson, but reserving judgment seems to be a lost discipline in this paranoid nation.

12 August 2014

Statism and American (or Russian) exceptionalism

Last week's New Yorker piece on Russia by David Remnick, an old Russia hand before he took over the magazine, drove home a real cultural difference between Russians and Americans.  For supporters of Vladimir Putin, the state is a focus of national pride in a way it most certainly isn't for many Americans. A repentant liberal tells Remnick: "Back then [as the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991] we believed we could build a democracy without a state....But society began to change, and I am a reflection of that change." A Russian right-winger, hence a strong Putin supporter, tells how he hated Boris Yeltsin, the successor to the USSR, for "hollowing out the state." The same man assumes that the West has always sought "the destruction of the [Russian] state." He sees Putin's Russia as the country's "fifth empire" and the latest resurgence of a state ordained by "some sort of mysterious forces."

While in the U.S. anti-statists identify statism with liberalism, Russian statists see the state as the antithesis of liberalism, or a bulwark against it -- liberalism here being understood as western decadence and immorality. This is something bigger than Putin or "Putinism," as Julia Ioffe notes when writing in The New Republic that wishing Putin away would only result in someone similar, if not worse from a western or liberal standpoint, taking over. To Ioffe, Putin "is giving Russia something that is quintessentially Russian:" reverence for a powerful state based on the feeling that "there's not much separating you, or anyone, from the void." She traces Russian statism to a perpetual "fear of the future" due to a perpetually dysfunctional economy. Each "empire," she suggests, fell due to bankruptcy; Putin's may go the same way, but we still shouldn't expect a liberal dawn in Russia if that happens, if by liberalism we mean liberation from a craving for, if not a dependence upon, a powerful, always potentially oppressive state.

Americans no doubt will be tempted to find a character flaw in Russian culture to account for all this, as if Russians deviate from an American norm in their attitude toward the state. It's probably more true that Russians and Americans occupy opposite extremes in their attitudes. Americans seem to see statism as a negative measure of self-reliance or "personal responsibility;" if you want a powerful state, it's because you're weak or afraid or simply lazy. It's said that the American Founders regarded the state as a necessary evil; it's probably safe to say Russians don't think that way. It's more likely that, despite several generations of allegedly atheistic Communism, Russians retain a traditional belief in the state as part of a hierarchy of life or a great chain of being -- a natural if not sacred phenomenon. At this point of comparison the U.S. does appear exceptional in its founding by colonies of settlers cutting ties from the previous source of authority, disregarding any indigenous sources, and making up rules to minimize any state's impact on free men's commerce. The American presumption seems to be that we are not inherently subject to some power on earth, while some such subordination seems implicit in the sort of conservative statism, dedicated to preserving and advancing a traditional culture, seen in Russia and other places. The state is the vessel or vehicle of culture; to belong to the culture, it may be thought, is to belong to the state.

Whatever that culture is, it's not the same as the "civil society" liberals idealize -- it's not so voluntary and obviously not as scrupulously separate from the state. Liberals presume that this degree of statism, compounded by traditionalism, handicaps cultures, keeping them intellectually and economically backward, even though the conclusion doesn't necessarily follow. Putin himself thinks differently. Remnick quotes him: "[T]he point of conservatism is not that it prevents movement forward and upward but that it prevents movement backward and downward, into chaotic darkness." In practice, however, conservatism too often confuses forward and upward movement with downward or backward movement, since it presumes that progress depends upon and serves tradition. American conservatism seems more straightforward these days: it opposes any movement that may discomfit vested interests, and its whole design of government is to protect vested (or founding) interests from interference or subordination. From a perspective favoring the welfare of humanity as a whole, there may be little to choose from between statist and anti-statist conservatism, except that the former, by retaining a right to command (which the latter abhors) may be better suited for collective survival in extreme circumstances. I'd rather take my chances with a self-styled American progressive, Theodore Roosevelt, who credited Abraham Lincoln with the idea that "a strong people might have a strong government and yet remain the freest on the earth." Both American conservatives, who favor a weak state, and Russians, who allegedly favor a weak people, are missing key pieces of the equation. They shouldn't be that hard to find and put together.