30 April 2013

Welfare and the war on drugs: which is worse?

Most of the world ignores Ann Coulter these days, apart from the Republicans who idolize her and the Democratic propagandists who need someone for people to hate and fear every night. Why libertarians would invite her to any of their conferences eludes me, and the fact that she offended them at one such conference recently doesn't surprise. As Shikha Dalmia relates in the latest Reason, Coulter told attendees at the International Students for Liberty conference that they were "pussies" for supporting the legalization of marijuana. Coulter sees this as libertarians' attempt to "suck up to your little liberal friends," and rejects outright the libertarian argument that what you choose to put in your body is no one else's business. As far as Coulter is concerned, it is her business so long as there's a welfare state, since that means (to her) that she's forced, as a taxpayer, to subsidize the health care of drug users. She won't consider any drug legalization until we get rid of the welfare state.

It so happens that Shikha Dalmia wants to legalize pot and abolish the welfare state. Yet she has a problem with Coulter's position, and not just because she insulted libertarians. Her problem is twofold. First, she doesn't believe that abolishing the welfare state should be a precondition for legalizing pot or any other drug. If anything, to bring up the second problem, the drug war should end first.

One doesn't have to choose between the drug war and the welfare state. But if one must, the drug war is worse. The welfare state confiscates one's individual wealth to give to another. That's unfair. But putting people behind bars for smoking a joint that is less harmful than the alcohol and tobacco that Coulter pumps into her body is a travesty.

For one libertarian, then, there's a worse sin than "punishing success." That may be because prohibitions on drug use punish not only the successful; the libertarian ideal of freedom does, after all, mean more than the right to make money. Make no mistake, however; Dalmia despises the welfare state. She believes that "a government that habitually takes from one to give to another hurts both," an assertion that's debatable at one end of the equation and simply subjective at the other. The welfare state has "soul-killing consequences [as opposed to body-killing consequences] for its beneficiaries," she claims. Her beef with Republicans is that, rather than fight hard to end the welfare state, they exploit it to advance their own repressive moral agenda. That is, they use the "that's my tax money!" argument to curtail individual liberty in a variety of ways. For example, as Dalmia notes, "conservatives" who oppose immigration reform try to inflame public opinion against it by accusing immigrants of living off welfare. They wouldn't be able to make that argument in the absence of a welfare state, she implies, and would be exposed, one can infer, as simply hating Latinos and other immigrants. In sum, the welfare state "gives them an excuse to regulate individual choices" and serves as "their trump card for stopping liberty-oriented reforms they dislike." It may be naive of Dalmia, however, to imagine that conservatives would have no argument against further liberalization of society in the absence of a welfare state, though it's probably correct that they'd be left without arguments she could take seriously. Dalmia's main focus as a writer is on immigration issues, so on that point there may be no reconciliation possible between her libertarianism and Republican intolerance. But as far as the drug war and the welfare state are concerned her differences with Coulter are little more than matters of nuance, since both seem to dream of a world where no one has to give a damn if other people die.

29 April 2013

Profile of a libertarian Republican

The June 2013 issue of the libertarian magazine Reason has an interview with Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan, the second-term Republican congressman seen as one of Ron Paul's successors in the House of Representatives. Amash hopes that he represents the GOP's future, and the GOP hopes -- well, maybe not Speaker Boehner, whom Amash tried to topple last winter -- that he embodies a reassuring diversity in Republican ranks. He's an Orthodox Christian of Arab descent, his parents being Syrian and Palestinian. Amash says his faith puts a "strong emphasis ... on free will," though he's "not sure that my political views were necessarily shaped by that." His background may explain his preference for a non-interventionist foreign policy; he's understandably skeptical about anyone in Syria being better, for Syrians or Americans, than the admittedly bad Bashar Assad. His main point, as far as the U.S. is concerned, is that "our national defense should be used for our defense here in the United States. And it's very dangerous if we get in the habit of deciding who the good guys are and who the bad guys are." Hard to argue with that. He also reject knee-jerk GOP arguments against any cuts in defense spending. Amash considers the national debt a bigger threat to the country than any foreign power, though he sounds slightly unrealistic when he talks about waiting to spend the money until we actually do have a "major threat" to the country. There is an argument to be made for preparedness just as there's an argument, admittedly more imperative for now, for retrenchment on defense and foreign commitments.

Amash realized that he was different from most Republicans while he attended law school. At least he seemed different from Republicans who attended law school. As Nick Gillespie, Reason's interviewer, put it to him, "When you talked to conservatives in a legal setting, they would always be on the side of the prosecutor and you would be on the side of the defendant." Amash has "a natural sympathy toward the defense side" and in favor of due process. But this isn't the same thing as sympathy for the underdog, unless we make a distinction between underdogs in the legal system and underdogs in the national economy.  He has succeeded in Michigan politics despite favoring free trade and opposing the sort of protectionist policies on which many workers in that state might seem to depend. In doing so, he takes the perhaps paradoxically nationalist position we've seen among many libertarians and Republicans, putting the needs of the many before the needs of the few -- the many being consumers and the few the workers in any given industry.

[P]rotectionism doesn't help people. It helps the people in those companies. And those people in those companies are a small percentage of the population. I'm concerned about the entire population in my district, the entire population in the state of Michigan, and the entire population of the United States. Everyone is a consumer. Only some people work in a particular industry. It doesn't make sense to have laws in place to protect a particular industry and then hurt 100 percent of the people.

Amash has a nationalist consciousness that would be admirable were it not linked to a pernicious and ancient tendency -- you would have heard the same lines from Democrats 100 years ago -- to put the interests of consumers before those of producers. The need for trade-offs should be obvious for anyone who believes, as I presume a libertarian Republican would, that people need to produce before they can consume. Whether he recognizes an imperative to keep as many Americans as possible at work, or whether he believes that's up to the employers and employees themselves, is unclear but probably easily guessed. For someone like Amash, competition is synonymous with the spontaneous order espoused by his idol F. A. Hayek. "[I]f you allow people to make their own decisions, you actually get good outcomes for society," he says with alarming assurance.

For a professed libertarian, Amash came to Ayn Rand relatively late in life. He's not the archetypal jerk who read Atlas Shrugged in his teens and sacrificed some part of his humanity in the process.  Instead, Rand, whom he started reading no more than five years ago -- Amash is 33 -- adds an "emotional appeal" to ideas he'd already absorbed from Hayek, despite the differences in philosophy he acknowledges between the two. About this emotional appeal, the most we get from Amash is an empathy with the "frustrations" many of Rand's characters reportedly feel.

If Amash isn't a typical libertarian in the chronology of the shaping of his ideas, does his personal background have anything to do with that? As we've seen, he's reluctant to attribute his ideology to his religion, apart from the emphasis on free will and the belief that "people can make up their own mind about how they live their lives, and they will be judged accordingly." What they'll be judged for, and by whom, make all the difference, I suspect. He may not necessarily mean God's judgment of our sins, but rather the judgment of some more immediate tribunal -- call it the market, maybe -- for choices short of sin. Beyond his vague talk about Orthodoxy, his comments about immigration and assimilation may be most revealing. In his view, as the son of immigrants, the welfare state gets in the way of a necessary assimilation into an immigrant's new home and culture.

So what's happened historically in the United States, because we haven't had as strong of a welfare system as they do in Europe, people come here and they assimilate, they adapt, they go to work, they become a part of the culture, and they become Americans, and that's what we'd like to see going forward.

If work is crucial, however, encouraging and protecting employment ought to be a priority for a politician who believes that "It's important to have a regular flow of immigrants." It's one thing to believe that welfare becomes a crutch that hobbles an assimilation that only comes through employment, another not to care whether an individual can get a job or not -- and the ideas seem to contradict each other a little.  But what else can you suspect from anyone with such a particular, exclusive notion of the good, who nevertheless believes that the good can come about spontaneously as long as no one consciously attempts to control or regulate the process? Libertarians are muddled thinkers distinguished by their stubborn insistence on the irrefutable logic of the results. From such a mind the best we can hope for, probably, is his promise "to do what the Founders intended for this country and not just play the political games," by which he means "he's willing to work with both sides."

26 April 2013

Amoklauf and terror; guns and bombs

John Cassidy, a New Yorker columnist, asks a theoretical question: how would the American people and government have reacted if two guys had opened fire with guns rather than setting off bombs at the Boston Marathon finish line? His guess is that gun-toting amoklaufers probably would have killed more people -- though Cassidy doesn't speculate on whether shooters could top the Tsarnaevs' grisly score of nearly 300 wounded. He's more interested in what would have happened afterward. He works from the assumption that "there’s something askew with the way we think about and react to various types of extreme violence, and the weapons used in such episodes." He suggests that the government's reticence regarding gun proliferation reduces the casualties of amoklaufs to second-class victimhood compared to the victims of terrorism. Consider what happened in Boston last week:

Set off in a public space a couple of crude, homemade bombs that you appear to have made using a recipe on the Web, and the state will make you Public Enemy Number One. To ensure you are caught and punished, there are virtually no lengths to which the authorities won’t go. They’ll assemble a multi-agency task force overnight, calling on some of the enormous investments in hardware, intelligence, and manpower that have been made since 9/11. They’ll haul in anybody who might be remotely connected to the crime scene, and, if necessary, shut down an entire city. Once you’re caught, they’ll interview you in your hospital bed without reading you your legal rights and then charge you with using W.M.D.s. If you weren’t born in this country, there will even be talk about changing the immigration laws. 

Cassidy concludes that nothing comparable would happen should an amoklaufer flee his crime scene rather than killing himself, despite a shortage of examples to support the assumption. Had the recent California cop-killer holed up in a metropolitan area rather than the wilderness, we might have seem similar operations there. In the long term, however, Cassidy claims that "because of the association of guns and liberty in the minds of many Americans—an association assiduously promoted by the gun lobby—the political system no longer responds to gun deaths." That mistakes a part for a whole, of course, since the government responds to an extent but legislative rules enable a minority to thwart any response Cassidy might consider effective or appropriate.  He toys with the idea that a mass shooting, rather than a bombing, at the Marathon may have created a critical mass in favor of the legislation that was actually defeated last week. But how many minds in this country remain open to change one way or the other, for any reason, on the gun issue?  Our differences seem too fundamental for any episode to have that effect. One side believes that society can always be made safer; the other, convinced that society can't be made absolutely safe, worries that efforts toward that goal do more harm than good.

Cassidy includes a peculiar disclaimer in his article: "Let me make clear that I am not trying to equate, in any moral or legal sense, mass shootings that result from personal vendettas or psychological pathologies with acts of terrorism carried out for political purposes." But would it be wrong if he was? If he complains that amoklauf victims seem to count for less than terrorism victims, isn't he arguing for seeing these categories of crime as equal? The line separating the personal from the political isn't so solid as the disclaimer implies. The political is personal, or else no one would feel a need to kill over politics; the personal becomes political when someone abuses his perceived constitutional right and commits mass murder in public. The terrorist and the amoklaufer have in common an assumed entitlement to kill, for whatever reason. Not to equate them is to leave open the possibility that one or the other option is or might be more legitimate or permissible. I don't think Cassidy means to suggest that, but I'm not really sure what this disclaimer means, except that his article may not have been thought through thoroughly. 

25 April 2013

Did Russophobia cost lives in Boston?

The inevitable finger pointing has begun now that we've learned that authorities were aware of Tamerlan Tsarnaev's alleged consorting with Chechen terrorists during his occasional visits to Russia. The Russian FSB reportedly communicated with both the FBI and CIA during 2011, calling each agency's attention to Tsarnaev's associations with jihadists. The elder brother of the Boston Marathon bombing team was added to a U.S. watch list and was interviewed by the FBI, but that agency determined after six months that he had no ties with terrorists. By the time Tamerlan traveled to Russia last year, the fact that the FBI had closed its file made his movements appear less suspicious to the CIA. As well, although his name was on a watch list at the time he flew to Russia, it wasn't flagged at the time because the airline spelled his name wrong on its passenger list. All of this will raise questions about what one needs to know about a person before he can be deemed a threat and dealt with accordingly. But since Republicans will certainly draw conclusions about the Obama administration's incompetence (or worse) in assessing threats, let's look at the story from another angle. Second-guessers now wish we had acted more thoroughly and preemptively on warnings about Tsarnaev from Russia. But wouldn't that require more faith in Russia than Americans normally show? When Americans contemplate the conflicts in Chechnya and the Caucasus region in general they may have a hard time deciding whom to root for. Because we're inclined to think of Russians as authoritarian bullies, there's a temptation -- not without some legitimacy -- to look upon their Chechen antagonists as freedom fighters a la the Afghan mujaheddin of the innocent 1980s. When Russia reports terrorist attacks against their country by Chechens, there's a "truther" element here motivated by fear and suspicion of Vladimir Putin to at least take seriously the possibility that all such attacks are "false flag" or "inside jobs" perpetrated to justify further expansions of Putin's power. In American governing circles, there's also a stubborn neocon reluctance to concede Russia any sphere of influence it its "near abroad." Given that bias, some Americans may respond to Russian complaints about terrorism, and Russian warnings about terrorists, with a "blame Russia first" attitude. Russians are bad guys, from this perspective, and they reap what they sow. So maybe the Americans thought that the Russians were concerned only with Tamerlan Tsarnaev as a potential threat to Russia, not to the U.S. Russophobia is consistent and nonpartisan in modern America, generations of anti-communist propaganda only building on an older perception of Russia as a dysfunctional authoritarian culture that could only be a force for bad in the wider world. How seriously does the U.S. government take Russian warnings about terrorism? It seems like some appropriate steps were taken on the warnings about Tsarnaev, but if you believe that enough wasn't done, on the retroactive assumption that you had to be able to tell he would pull off a terrorist bombing, why not look into all the possible reasons why enough wasn't done? Did our attitude toward Russia color our attitude toward Chechens and our apparently incorrect assessment of Tamerlan Tsarnaev? I don't have that strong a hunch, but if our new attention to Chechnya inspires some reconsideration of Russia's role in the region and in our own geopolitical imagination the inquiries to come may yet prove worthwhile.

24 April 2013

Apologies to Paul Kevin Curtis

The man accused last week of sending ricin-laden envelopes to the President, a U.S. Senator from Mississippi and others is apparently a crackpot but not, as far as we know for now, a terrorist. All charges have been dropped against Paul Kevin Curtis, the Elvis impersonator supposedly obsessed over an alleged organ-harvesting conspiracy. It now seems that Curtis's authentic mania made him a perfect target for a frame. Without naming names this time, investigators now believe that another man used Curtis's characteristic sign-off line, "I am KC and I approve this message," to send police in Curtis's direction. Since I used Curtis's arrest as an occasion to speculate about the viability of profiling conspiracy theorists as potential terrorists, I feel obliged to post this follow-up as a clarification. Alas, the indications of a frame-up in this case will probably only make more Americans more paranoid. I'm sure many people besides their parents feel that the Tsarnaev brothers, their adventures of last Thursday and Friday notwithstanding, have been framed for the Boston Marathon bombing, and everyone who wants to believe that other otherwise obviously guilty suspects were framed by shadowy forces will point to the Mississippi case as justification for their knee-jerk assumptions. Nice work, government!

23 April 2013

Do we have a right to safety?

Michael Grunwald has stirred up a hornet's nest of commentary with his opinion post for Time's website. Entitled "Tread on Me," it's clearly meant as a dig at the "Don't Tread on Me" mentality that permeates the nation -- across the political spectrum, as Grunwald sees it -- and turns every step taken for the sake of public or national security into a controversy. Some liberals will certainly sneer at Grunwald's moment of slightly absurd moral equivalence when he claims that "The civil liberties purists of the ACLU are just as extreme as the gun purists of the NRA, or the anti-regulatory purists in business groups like the Club for Growth." This remark was inspired by some concern expressed over whether the Boston Marathon bombing defendant has been read his Miranda rights, and by squeamishness over anti-terror security measures in general. Grunwald believes that there are "slippery slopers on both ends of the political spectrum" and that both are trumped by an overriding right to safety. He subtitles his article "The Case for Freedom From Terrorist Bombings, School Shootings and Exploding Factories" -- he presumes that some lack of regulation is to blame for the Waco fertilizer explosion last week  -- and argues that this asserted freedom is fundamental in a civilized society. While liberals may resent the comments already cited, Grunwald will more likely irk the right by declaring himself an unrepentant "statist."

Those of us who support aggressive government action to protect the public ought to acknowledge that it does, at the margins, limit individual rights—the rights of gun owners, the rights of business owners, the rights of the accused. Go ahead, quote the Ben Franklin line about those who would sacrifice some liberty for security deserving neither. But what about the rights of 8-year-old Martin Richard, blown away after watching his dad finish the marathon? Who safeguarded the liberty of 6-year-old Charlotte Bacon, gunned down in her classroom in her new pink dress? What about Perry Calvin and Morris Bridges and the other victims of the West Texas explosion? Nobody read them their rights.

Predictably, most of the hostile commentary below the article comes from the libertarian right. Some of this is simply paranoid, like the comment that Grunwald favors not merely a police state but a "jail state." Many people simply can't deal with the idea that they are being controlled somehow by regulations, even those created for their own protection. Others -- and this isn't strictly an attitude of the right -- resent the implicit refusal by government to presume them innocent in any enhancement of surveillance. It's not that they have something to hide; they don't trust government, or some group that might gain control of it, not to criminalize their conduct arbitrarily at some point. The most alarming commentary, however, comes from those who take their fight to the heart of Grunwald's argument.

I had thought that people on the right, whether conservatives or libertarians, would have a specific idea of what a right to life means. Against anyone who presumes a right to be kept alive (e.g. through unlimited access to medicine), the right, I presume, would assert only a right not to be murdered. In some cases, I appear to be mistaken -- we don't even have that. One participant in the Time comment thread, identifying himself as "TerryConklin," informs an adversary that "you don't have a right to not be shot at a movie theater. just as you don't have a right not to be hit by a motorist or squashed by a meteorite." Generally speaking, he adds in a later comment, "the Constitution doesn't grant a right not to be harmed." All government provides, he explains, is a procedure for redress. You have "a right to have the shooter [or bomber, etc.] caught and prosecuted for his offense" after the fact. You have no right to safety in any preventive sense if the measures necessary to guarantee it infringe on the more clearly enumerated freedoms in the Constitution. More likely, by this reasoning, the existence of those other rights -- not just gun ownership but immunities from illegal searches and seizures and so forth -- makes any assertion of a right to safety an impossibility if not an absurdity or a demagogic lie. This is the world some Americans live in, no doubt convinced that each individual is the only effective guarantor of his own safety, so long as he's armed against all contingencies. The nearest we come to security in this NRA utopia is the universal deterrent inferred from universal armament -- like that's ever worked. There's a pretense to realism behind this viewpoint in the assumption that you can never prevent all violence, but there's also a dystopian defeatism in the assumption that there's no point to trying. If people really do think this way it's no surprise that they wonder what the point of government is.

22 April 2013

What is 'political knowledge?'

A recent op-ed by political scientist Cass R. Sunstein draws fresh attention to a survey that sounds familiar to me. Sunstein's subject is the seemingly paradoxical effect "political knowledge" has on people's willingness to believe what they read or here. In the example cited by Sunstein, one group of subjects read an article reporting Sarah Palin's claim that the Affordable Care Act (aka "Obamacare") would create "death panels" who would determine whether old people were worth keeping alive. Another group read the same article with an added paragraph stating that "non-partisan healthcare experts" had determined that Palin was wrong. The object of the test was to find out how many readers in the second group accepted that extra information. As Sunstein reports, readers who view Palin favorably (the survey was conducted back in 2009) and "had a lot of political knowledge" were less likely to accept the amended article's conclusion than those who still favored Palin, yet lacked that "knowledge." To be clear, this "knowledge" was not a matter of assertion but an objective label based on subjects' answers to a number of factual questions about how government works. The survey seemed to show that the more you knew about how government works, the more entrenched your political biases are.

Sunstein believes that interpreting these findings will "tell us a lot about current political controversies." Here's his own interpretation:

The first [explanation] is that if you know a lot about politics, you are more likely to be emotionally invested in what you believe. Efforts to undermine or dislodge those beliefs might well upset you and therefore backfire. The second explanation is that if you have a lot of political knowledge, you are more likely to think you know what is really true, and it will be pretty hard for people to convince you otherwise.

The implication that the less you know, the more open you are to persuasion may not be comforting to everyone.  It could simply mean that the ignorant may be more easily persuaded about anything. What we want, of course, is a golden mean, a public not so easily persuaded yet not as defensive against persuasion as partisans are today. That said, the report leaves me wondering about the worth of the "political knowledge" identified in the survey. The one example Sunstein gives is the number of terms a president may serve. The questions and answers from the survey may show that some subjects know how government works, but they don't necessarily tell us about how they think the world works. That is, they may not touch on beliefs about human nature or ideological opinions on what is right and wrong in politics. I suspect that people will choose to trust Sarah Palin or President Obama or unidentified "non-partisan experts" based on how they think the world works, or should work, rather than the nuts and bolts of the Constitution. The same people will trust or distrust the ACA based on presumptions, favorable or unfavorable, about the motives of its authors and supporters -- whether they mean to help people or simply want to control them. Civics 101 knowledge is too objective to serve as any relevant determinant of political bias. The authors of the survey may have expected or hoped to find that stubborn bias was based on some kind of stupidity, but they may have mistaken the kind of stupidity in play and definitely used the wrong measurements to capture it. Let them put together a survey that solicits people's beliefs about human nature, their assumptions about power, etc., and they might get less confusing correlations and a better measure of both what people actually know and what they think they know. 

19 April 2013

Endgame in Watertown

The situation remains volatile but as I write authorities in Massachusetts believe that one of the Boston Marathon bombers is dead, shot down during a firefight in Watertown last night, while his brother and alleged accomplice is either on the run or holed up somewhere in a locked-down metropolis. The suspects identified by cameras at the bombing scene are immigrants from the Caucusus region, which Russians know as the presumed source of much of the terrorism directed at their own country. From what we're hearing this morning, the answer to whether the bombers were Islamists or domestic creeps is "a little bit of both." The suspect's uncle, for one, has been quite vocal about them being maladjusted losers, though we should wait for less intimate or impassioned observations before drawing our own conclusions. Whatever their religious motivations, their alleged acts seem hard to tag as "international terrorism." Intelligence sources claim to have heard none of the typical "chatter" leading up to Monday's incident, though each reader will salt such remarks to taste. Whether the bombing had a foreign impetus or not, it may indicate -- again depending on the motivation -- that Islamic or Islamist terrorists have gotten over that obsession with "spectacular" terrorism on the September 2001 scale that may have prevented them from waging a smaller-scaled yet more effective campaign. Media coverage notwithstanding, the Marathon bombing was small-time in term of fatalities -- but media coverage is presumably part of the point, part of the goal for terrorists. It's always seemed possible that many attacks with few casualties, rather than few attacks with huge casualties, would terrorize greater numbers over a wider area. The effectiveness of any attack, in such a case, would depend on the duration of an overall campaign. If the suspects are guilty, they may have planned a more extensive campaign. That would explain why they didn't pull the sort of suicide stunt we identify with Muslim terrorism. On the other hand, the fact that whoever did the Marathon bombing wasn't interested in dying that day may be the best proof that the perpetrators were Americanized if not American. If the accused brothers are the bombers, they clearly underestimated the reach of American surveillance if they thought they could long get away with their scheme. Regardless of whether "Big Brother" is watching us, in the 21st century there are eyes everywhere, our smartphones and store security cameras forming a decentralized panopticon that can be recruited by or volunteered for government service. It proved hard to plant a bomb during a public event on the scale of the Boston Marathon without being noticed, even if only in retrospect. Suicide bombing may have been more realistic, given the real prospects of getting away -- though the suspects in this case might at least have tried to get out of Massachusetts between Monday and the publication yesterday of their pictures. One of them has died fighting and the other may yet do so, but for once it's probably fair to describe their alleged crime as cowardly. There's a lot of cowardly killing going on in the world, of course, and they may have imagined themselves avenging some of it, but that doesn't make these guys profiles in courage, whatever the remaining fugitive does now.

18 April 2013

'A thorn in their corrupt anals'

Unlike whoever left behind those pressure-cooker bombs at the Boston Marathon, the author of the ricin-laced letters to President Obama, a Republican U.S. Senator and other officials barely tried to hide himself. He's now under arrest while investigators reveal details from his letters. The suspect appears to be in the grip of a singular conspiracy mania, having convinced himself of a vast racket in black-market body parts that had been covered up by an indifferent government. His statements indicate that he finally felt it necessary to kill people -- wishful thinking, so far -- to call attention to the conspiracy and his own role as "a thorn in their corrupt anals" despite unceasing persecution.

The nation is currently embroiled in a debate over the best method to prevent insane people from killing others. One side puts a priority on making it more difficult to acquire guns, while the other demands more attention to mental-health issues. The latter group believes that society should focus on keeping the insane from endangering others rather than on regulating gun ownership. Indulge them for a moment. When shall we determine that someone's mental state is dangerous? Can they be treated or dealt with before they reach the "kill, kill, kill" stage? If so, can we determine that a susceptibility to conspiracy theory is a warning sign? As one, a multitude of conspiracy theorists cry "No!" But they are interested parties in the case, and we want more objectivity. We need the greatest objectivity lest we look like the Soviet Union, where Bolsheviks threw obviously non-violent dissidents into insane asylums out of cynical cruelty or ideological malpractice. Conspiracy theory transcends left-right boundaries -- the ricin suspect was nonpartisan in his choice of targets -- so no attempt to treat it as a mental illness should look like an attempt to repress the right or the left. Nor are we out to say that conservatism in any form, or even a general mistrust of the state or politics, is insane, much less threateningly so. Others may want to study that subject further, but let's make this easy for the people who say that someone's mental state, and not the weapons he can own, is the real danger to the public. Would these people be willing to recognize, should the evidence justify such a finding, that a susceptibility to conspiracy theory is a significant potential precursor to violence? In the United States of America, is it possible to say that a person's "political" beliefs are insane to a degree that requires treatment or at least observation before any further evidence of violent potential emerges? Or does our liberal heritage compel us to affirm that a person may believe anything until he acts violently on his belief? If we can't ban guns, pressure cookers or castor plants, mustn't we become more proactive on the mental front, even if doing so alarms many of us and raises specters of "thoughtcrime?" If the government has decided -- for this election cycle, at least -- that the right to keep and bear arms is the highest freedom -- doesn't that mean a lower priority for freedom of thought? If that's the game the NRA wants to play, consider this a modest proposal for playing it.

17 April 2013

Burying Thatcher

Many American observers are aghast at the more mean-spirited reactions from Great Britain to the death of Margaret Thatcher. Indeed, there weren't so many overt expressions of hatred here in the U.S. when Ronald Reagan died -- nothing equivalent to the sudden hit status in Britain this week for the song, "Ding Dong, the Witch is Dead." That would suggest that the hatred for Thatcher says more about British culture than it does about ideology, or else that there is, after all, a very narrow spectrum of acceptable political expression in the U.S. In any event, the American columnist Cal Thomas is among those outraged by the posthumous scorn the Iron Lady has suffered at home. "If you think U.S. politics has become too corrosive, consider the British variety," he writes, "Call it patty cake vs. cage fighting." This may mean only that Thomas doesn't read many blogs, but despite acknowledging a greater civility in American partisanship he goes on to blame the disrespect shown Thatcher on ideological or sociological phenomena that should also exist in the U.S.

Why such visceral reactions to a woman who served her country for 11 years as prime minister? For many, government is a drug to which they have become addicted. They need the drug to function. Margaret Thatcher tried to break that addiction and get her people to support themselves. Anyone who suggests it is possible even desirable to break the government “habit” becomes the target of the “addicts” and their enabling politicians, both in life and now in death.

Thomas may be misreading the source of British anger. I suspect a lot of it comes not from welfare constituencies but from the remnants of organized labor whose enemy the Iron Lady was. But I suppose Britons might also get angry at anyone who suggests that reliance on government for survival is morally equivalent to drug addiction. My point, however, is that Thomas routinely uses this rhetoric to describe American "addicts" to Democratic liberalism, which should leave him hard pressed to explain the phenomenon he'd already noted: the relative mildness of American partisanship. Where in the U.S. is the rage we should expect, yet Thomas apparently fails to see? Were Britons more addicted to the dole than Americans? Are they still? Or are Britons more open or uninhibited in their hatreds? It is the land of football hooligans, after all....

*   *   *

On a tangental note, one of the dumbest American commentaries on Thatcher I've seen appears in the current New Yorker. The problem isn't what Hendrik Hertzberg says about Thatcher, but his attempt to blame her rise to power and the hatred expressed toward her in life and death on a lack of Bipolarchy in Britain.

Under Mrs. Thatcher, the Conservative Party did indeed win three successive elections, each of which yielded a parliamentary landslide. But she never truly won “the backing of the British people.” Her share of the popular vote—never more than forty-four per cent—was lower than the loser’s tally in five of the last seven American Presidential elections. Yet because the United Kingdom crams three major parties into a system suited for two—“first past the post,” winner-take-all in every constituency—and because two of those three parties were left of center, Mrs. Thatcher’s Tories were able to amass huge parliamentary majorities. And since a British Prime Minister’s power is largely unfettered, she rarely failed to get her uncompromising way even though most of her fellow-citizens were never in sympathy with her policies. No doubt this was a source of the uniquely venomous quality of the bitterness that she provoked in life and the ugly gloating that, in some quarters, welcomed her death.

Maybe they all should be hating some forgotten British Nader instead.

*   *   *

Finally, here's some actual reporting from Britain on Thatcher's funeral. 

16 April 2013

Venezuela: 'time for a tough hand'

The stage is set for a violent showdown tomorrow in Venezuela. Interim president Maduro is not allowing a recount of the weekend's close election vote and has forbidden demonstrations in favor of a recount, citing violence and fatalities at protests yesterday and predictably accusing the opposition of plotting a coup d'etat. "It's time for a tough hand," Maduro said, according to a Reuters translation. This will only confirm Maduro as an authoritarian bully in the mold of his predecessor, the late Hugo Chavez, in the eyes of those inclined to see both men that way regardless of the evidence. That attitude seems to prevail in the U.S., or at least in official circles, regardless of the party in power here. The Obama administration so far refuses, for what it's worth, to recognize the Venezuelan election results, favoring a recount. Maybe Democrats can't help empathizing with any call for a recount in a disputed election. Many liberals in the U.S. will say that the Venezuelan opposition has as much right to demand a recount as Al Gore and the Democrats did after the 2000 presidential election, recalling that Gore only conceded defeat after the Supreme Court had issued an opinion. But while we recall the aftermath of the 2000 vote as a kind of crisis, we should also remember that the Democrats made their protests with a civility absent from the streets of Caracas. For whatever reason the stakes seem higher in Venezuela -- no one in November 2000 feared that George W. Bush was driving for dictatorship. But in the wake of Chavez we have a crisis of confidence in Venezuelan democracy. The opposition takes for granted that the government prevails by cheating, while the government regards the opposition as treacherous. It's the sort of situation where liberals often can't help giving the opposition the benefit of the doubt, but in Venezuela's case it seems fair to ask whether the opposition owes anyone else that same benefit. I'm not sure whether Governor Capriles, the opposition leader, could be called a right-winger by U.S. standards, but many opponents of the Chavez-Maduro regime share a characteristically right-wing assumption that no election of a leftist or poor-people's party is truly legitimate. Leftists are assumed first to "bribe" voters by various means, then to accumulate and abuse power toward an eventual goal of dictatorship. Even in the absence of actual dictatorship, as in Venezuela, elections are presumed by many to be rigged so long as the Chavez party wins. To an extent this attitude is the partisanship you might find anywhere on Earth. But in Venezuela and other countries where "left" parties win elections frequently a danger exists of a critical mass of bad faith in elections and democracy resulting in the sort of coup Maduro automatically assumes to be in the works. The alternative isn't for anyone to give Maduro a free pass; the election seems close enough to justify a recount on objective grounds. But electoral democracy requires opposition parties at some point -- in this case, ideally, after an objective recount -- to concede the legitimacy of defeat and the right of the winners to govern. If the Venezuelan opposition can't do that, than whatever happens afterward can't be blamed entirely on the government. It may be tyranny when the government won't let the opposition win, but when the opposition won't let the government win, the word you're looking for is chaos.

15 April 2013

A new Boston massacre?

The latest reports list two people killed and 22 injured by explosions near the finish line of the Boston Marathon this afternoon. The timing of the blasts was curious, since the elite runners had already finished racing some time earlier. The crowds at the line were presumably smaller than they would have been earlier in the race. Investigators haven't absolutely ruled out an accident, but they've also detonated a "suspicious package" within the last half-hour, more than an hour after the original blasts.

Speculation about terrorism is unavoidable. Two points are worth noting. First, today is Patriot's Day in Massachusetts, and this is the week of bloody anniversaries -- Waco; Oklahoma City; Columbine -- that has had people on alert for domestic terrorists and amoklaufers in the past. The timing should compel investigators to consider a domestic source, should the explosions prove to have been deliberate bombings. On the other hand, the Marathon creates a potentially attractive target for at least one foreign militant group. This year's winners were an Ethiopian man and a Kenyan woman, and those countries have dominated distance running in recent times. Both countries have also intervened militarily in Somalia against the al-Shabab Islamist force. Had the blasts occurred as the winners crossed the lines, it might be easier to deduce that the African runners had been targeted by Islamist Somalis or their sympathizers. That may still have been the case, even if the timing was off. It all depends on who wanted to kill whom -- if it wasn't an accident after all. What it is for certain is a damn shame.

Election Law: the party of the poor always cheats

As long as there have been elections, and long before there was a "left," solid citizens have been haunted by the specter of the demagogue. This snake in the grass grabs for power by making promises to the poor, wherever they can vote. The promises fall into two categories: those he can't fulfill at all, and those that can only be fulfilled by shaking down the wealthy. In worse cases, the demagogue gets into power not with mere promises but by blatantly bribing the rabble. His goal throughout history is to reduce people who might otherwise be virtuous, productive citizens to a state of dependence that can only be sustained, to the rabble's comfort, by keeping the demagogue in power -- until he can do without elections entirely. In history, it's probably the exception rather than the rule when the party of the poor is conceded victory without accusations of fraud, bribery or other offenses against the purity of the franchise. The news today from Venezuela, then, is really an old, old story. Chavismo has a new lease on life, though barely, after Hugo Chavez's handpicked successor eked out a narrow victory in a special election to take the late president's place. The margin seems narrow enough to justify calls for a recount -- that's standard operating procedure in modern republics. But the opposition in Venezuela can't be content with demanding a recount. They, and their sympathizers abroad, have to make the usual accusations of fraud, intimidation, sabotage, etc. The Wall Street Journal goes so far as to accuse Cuban agents of rigging the election for President-elect Maduro in order to maintain their supply of cheap oil from Venezuela. I don't bring this up just to dismiss or mock the claim. I've read too much history to believe that no one cheats in partisan elections. The Chavez party is no more entitled to a presumption of absolute (as opposed to statutory) innocence than the Democratic party in the U.S. We have no more reason to presume that parties of the poor are pure than the opposition has reason to presume them corrupt. The higher the stakes involved in an election, the more likely any party is to see what it can get away with. The most important point to remember in that observation is "any party." The opponents of the parties of the poor are always quick to accuse them of cheating, but why should we assume that bourgeois or plutocratic parties are more pure and law-abiding? The same calculations of stakes, risks and benefits apply to those who would keep the parties of the poor out of power -- though for most of history, admittedly, the easier way to keep the poor out of power was not to have elections at all. That's not an option in most places anymore, but the same imperative endures wherever there are parties of the poor and people who dread those parties having power. No one may be without sin in politics, but fear of the poor may be the original sin. 

12 April 2013

'Perverse Incentives' for Republicans?

It was deemed a minor victory for gun-control when Republican senators failed to block debate, for once, on the latest legislation. For this, says Republican sympathizer John Podhoretz, Republicans have themselves for blame. That's not because Republican senators failed to vote in the necessary numbers to block the debate, but because, in Podhoretz's view, a few Republicans went too far in their extremism and provoked a backlash from the President and the public. Podhoretz points the finger at Sens. Cruz of Texas and Lee of Utah, who had openly vowed to block any gun-control legislation from the Senate floor -- even measures simply requiring tougher background checks on gun purchases. Podhoretz recognizes that background checks are a popular idea -- it splits the difference between the NRA's emphasis on mental health and Democrats' desire to keep guns out of the hands of the mentally unhealthy. He thinks it stupid of the two senators to oppose such measures, whether Podhoretz himself thinks them useful or not. He accuses Cruz and Lee of "snatching defeat from the jaws of victory" at a moment when Democrats had pretty much given up on meaningful legislation. What's really interesting is how Podhoretz accounts for this debacle.

Twice over, Podhoretz blames Republican excesses on "perverse incentives." He describes Cruz and Lee as "senators with ideological blinders and perverse incentives." He closes by noting that their antics "point out the perverse incentives enjoyed by far too many politicians on the Right today." What exactly does he mean by "perverse incentives?" He tries to sum it up by writing that people like Cruz and Lee are "celebrated for being unreasonable." This smacks of euphemism, or a concealment of a fact that dare not speak its name -- or whose name Podhoretz dares not speak. Are we to suppose that Cruz and Lee behave as they do simply because they want to hear themselves praised? I think not, and I don't think that's what Podhoretz means. But his Republican loyalties force a certain reticence on him. It wouldn't do -- especially not in the pages of the New York Post -- for a Republican columnist to criticize fellow Republicans for taking positions against their party's best interest because it brings them money. No other credible meaning can be inferred from the "perverse incentives" Podhoretz rails against. These clowns heat up the rhetoric and donations increase. But what else can Podhoretz expect from the unconstrained campaign-finance regime that Republicans prefer? As a Republican -- or a Republican who isn't John McCain -- what remedy can he propose without risking an inquisition from the fire-eaters and their sponsors? If Republicans have a special knack for "snatching defeat from the jaws of victory," and if this habit has the party on "the path to a permanent minority," is there anything they can do to reverse the trend? It would seem not -- and that might be reason enough to give up the fight for campaign-finance reform for the moment. The 2012 presidential election already seemed to prove that the money power couldn't drive a (presumably) hated candidate from office. In the future, if the money power further undermines party discipline by encouraging extremism, the irony might be delicious. By soliciting donations so eagerly, Republicans may, like the proverbial capitalist, sell the rope that hangs them -- only not to the customers one might have expected.

11 April 2013

Free Markets and Impatient People: Rand Paul's history of Republican decline

Herbert Hoover was convinced that he had licked the Great Depression before the 1932 election. He believed that he lost that election to Franklin Roosevelt because many ordinary Americans had not seen the benefits of his policies yet. Such were the nature of his policies that ordinary working Americans could not have felt the benefits, he assumed, until after the election. Hoover's focus was on finance, on making conditions better for investments in hiring and so forth. For him, the Depression had to be solved at the level of finance. Until the financial situation was more secure, Hoover had little to offer ordinary Americans but an appeal to patience. That appeal to patience is a consistent element in Republican thought. It explains Republicans' resistance to "demand-side" measures, including spending to employ people on public-works projects. From the Republican perspective, these are short-term solutions that often prove counterproductive for long-term economic health. Hoover was convinced that FDR's deficit spending only extended and exacerbated the Depression -- a view still popular today in Republican circles. The preferred appeal to patience is obviously a tougher sell than a promise to create jobs by commanding the construction of dams, bridges, etc. I'm not really sure how many Republicans even invoke patience as a virtue that people should show in tough times. Rand Paul may count as one of them. Reports of his speech delivered yesterday at Howard University usually quote him asking the rhetorical question: how did the Republicans, the erstwhile "Party of Lincoln," lose the black vote so completely during the 20th century? Fewer reports quote his answer. While most superficial observers might cite the Republican adoption of a "Southern strategy" of pandering to angry white men in the 1960s, the senator believes that the turnaround started well before that.

I think what happened during the Great Depression was that African Americans understood that Republicans championed citizenship and voting rights but they became impatient for economic emancipation.African Americans languished below white Americans in every measure of economic success and the Depression was especially harsh for those at the lowest rung of poverty.The Democrats promised equalizing outcomes through unlimited federal assistance while Republicans offered something that seemed less tangible-the promise of equalizing opportunity through free markets.

My recent reading about Hoover made the word "impatient" virtually glow in the middle of the page. If Sen. Paul's answer proves unsatisfactory to blacks, that may be because it's really a more general statement than an account of their own particular circumstances. The Republican lament from 1932 forward could well be that all (or most) Americans grew too impatient with the free market thanks to generations of Democratic promises of accelerated recovery through government action. Paul recognizes that these promises aren't entirely insubstantial. "The Democrat promise is tangible and puts food on the table," he admitted, "but too often doesn’t lead to jobs or meaningful success." So what does a Republican say if someone argues that patience doesn't put food on the table? If the free market works more efficiently than any other economic system, why must its apologists appeal so often, explicitly or implicitly, to patience during hard times? The answer is probably because the free market is like democracy in Churchill's characterization: the worst system except for all the others. The champions of the free market are idealists but not utopians; they'll never promise that free markets will abolish adversity. Rather, they seem to believe that a certain attitude toward adversity, including that precious patience, is necessary if free markets are to provide those benefits actually within their power. Free markets are not command economies, and "I must live" or "Everyone must live" is a command that takes on an especially impatient tone in tough times. Yet it is as implicit an element in our political discourse as the conservative (or libertarian) appeal to patience. Historical conservatives can point to a time -- this was still true about a century ago -- when many people actually did seem to prefer patient endurance of adversity to the shame of asking for help from the government. They look with perplexity (if not contempt) when a Howard student told Paul yesterday that, yes, he did want the government to help him. If people have grown more impatient with the economy over the last century, it may be because they value their own lives more. Wouldn't it be a paradox if Americans repudiated Republicanism at key points in modern history because they, the people, had become more selfish in some sense of the word? But it was more likely a loss of some faith in markets, or the people who make them, that alone could make the patience Republicans plead for seem like a reasonable option. Rand Paul believes that the evidence proves faith in government misplaced, but that alone doesn't prove faith in markets justified. He may also believe that patience in adversity is a moral imperative regardless of where you place your faith. If so, he might have spent his time at Howard better explaining the morality that requires patience of the poor during hard times. It might not have won over any more students, but it might have given us a better sense of what makes the Kentuckian tick.

10 April 2013

Amoklauf News: with and without a gun

In Serbia a war veteran snaps. Guns are readily available there, the news says, and he had his own. Thirteen people in his village are dead. In Texas a college kid had a knife fetish. He can be the poster boy for all those who say that taking guns away won't stop "evil" from expressing itself violently. But while two of the fourteen victims of his rampage are still in a bad way in the hospital -- and we wish them the best -- as I write none of them are dead. The Serbian shot himself, though he still survives for the moment -- the usual end to the classic amoklauf. The Texan was brought down, and taken alive, not by guns, concealed or otherwise, but by someone (or some people) tackling him. An easier proposition than if he'd been packing, yes, but we've had gun-toting amoklaufers taken down the same way, while reloading -- which is why people want limits on magazine capacity determined by public-safety rather than self-defense imperatives. In any event, the Texas story doesn't prove that no guns always equals no killing -- people elsewhere have done more damage with more formidable bladed weapons -- but it should have been self-evident before this that someone with a blade is more easily subdued than someone with a gun. In America, of course, most people have made their minds up so unalterably that no new data will make a difference. I just wonder what kind of debate over gun violence Serbia will have now.

09 April 2013

The McConnell Tape: let's change the subject

The idea that Hollywood glamor could counter the entrenched incumbency of Senator McConnell of Kentucky never seemed very plausible, so it ought to be a matter for relief that the actress Ashley Judd has decided not to run against the Minority Leader. Nevertheless, McConnell and his staff took Judd seriously enough to do some preliminary strategizing in the event of her candidacy. David Corn of Mother Jones magazine is shocked -- shocked! -- to learn that the McConnell team considered using some ad hominem tactics against Judd. How he learned this has become a bigger story than what he learned. Writer and publisher clearly hope for a repeat of their takedown of Mitt Romney via a clandestine recording. Again, they've received a recording from an anonymous source, but this time McConnell is crying foul. There are two ways that the recording can exist. One way is for one of McConnell's own aides to be a spy, whether for concealed ideological reasons or simply for money. The other way is for the Senator's office to be bugged -- and that would be against the law. McConnell has turned to the FBI to investigate the possibility, and he's definitely within his rights to do so. The recorded discussion has no "smoking gun" of the sort that might tempt us to weigh ends against means in favor of Mother Jones. None of this qualifies as whistle-blowing. To be shocked or angered by it is pure naivete. The most it will do, on its own, is give MSNBC talking points for a night. Expect the stunning revelation that Mitch McConnell is insensitive and intolerant, as if the network's audience might be surprised by that news. Expect also, perhaps, that McConnell's recourse to the FBI will be interpreted as an attack on investigative journalism or free speech itself. The real question is whether Corn's source, if he has one, outs himself or is thrown under the bus by Corn to draw attention away from his own ethics. It's possible that some freelance operative bugged McConnell's office on spec, so to speak, and that Mother Jones acquired the recording without having conspired in illegal wiretapping. But until the facts emerge, let's note with the appropriate irony the judgmental tone of Corn's article as he takes McConnell to task for planning personal attacks on a potential opponent after implicitly promising a more principled campaign. Corn may have preferred a campaign of ideas, but his own contribution to the 2014 campaign boils down to calling McConnell a meanie. Nice work.

08 April 2013

Herbert Hoover: from liberal to conservative

For a while after leaving the White House, Herbert Hoover resented being called a "conservative." To him, the word was a smear. He preferred to think of himself as a "historical liberal." He considered the qualifier necessary because he believed that Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal had corrupted the meaning of "liberalism." In Hoover's view, the New Deal was "the negation of all that the word means except in its minor dictionary connotation of giving away other people's money." He was reluctant to leave FDR with the "liberal" label. "There are acts and policies of the New Deal," he told the journalist William Allen White, "that are neither reactionary, conservative, liberal or radical. They are just crazy." In 1939 Hoover denounced the use of political labels at a college commencement speech. "We use these terms politically mostly for slogans and oratory," he said, "They are used for eulogy and defamation. if you do not like somebody you consign him to the complexion most hated by your listener. These terms are used as refuges from ignorance or intellectual dishonesty. They are set up as pigeon-holes for men and groups to imply they are righteous, stingy, public-spirited, opposed to public interest, or generally sinful. They are dumdum words to assassinate men and then to plant bitter onions on their graves." He urged the graduates not to bother with such words as "liberal," "conservative," "radical" or "reactionary." In the summation of Hoover's biographer, Gary Dean Best, "Where defense of [liberty] required them to be liberal or conservative or reactionary or radical, they should not hesitate to be whatever was required."

During the FDR presidency, Hoover's was a voice of embattled pragmatism, convinced that Roosevelt's measures were not working and could not work. Ideas like deficit spending to stimulate demand simply made no sense to him. As a beaten rival of Roosevelt, he never shook the suspicion, widespread when FDR first took office, that he might become a dictator as some Americans had hoped. Hoover opposed American intervention in World War II before Pearl Harbor in part because he feared, as did some observers on the left, that Roosevelt would use war as a means and excuse to consolidate more power in his own hands. Hoover was driven more by personal antipathy toward Roosevelt than by ideology as we recognize it today. Until the war, Hoover always seemed aware that there were dangerous elements to his right as well as to his left. When he warned fellow Republicans against allying with conservative "Jeffersonian" Democrats, the implication was that those allies would drag Republicanism in a more reactionary direction. He worried about Wall Street's influence over the party. He was not a laissez-faire capitalist if laissez-faire meant no government intervention in the economy at all. He believed that government's role was rightly limited, but he also believed that its role extended to redistributing wealth through taxation. In Best's words, Hoover believed that "Taxing powers should be utilized by the government to ensure that no group received either too much or too little of the abundance produced." If Democrats today accuse Republicans of wanting to take the country back to Hoover's time, they do a disservice to Hoover.

By 1945, however, Hoover had accepted the "conservative" label and saw it as a rallying point. Even then, he remained almost apologetic about the word.

The American people need and have a right to organized expression of conservative thought. Being a conservative is not a sin. It is not 'fascism' or 'reaction.' It means today the conservation of representative government, of intellectual freedom and of economic freedom within the limits of what does not harm fellow men. It means the conservation of natural resources, of national health, education and employment. A conservative is not allergic to new ideas. He wants to try them slowly without destroying what is good.

Even then, when the old man's attitudes had hardened after a dozen years of FDR in power, his more aggressively stated conservatism was still a far cry from what usually goes under that name today, his idea of "harm" probably more expansive, his concern for conservation probably too intrusive by 21st century ideological standards. Hoover saw the country on a slippery slope to totalitarianism. A decade earlier, he was at least as likely to warn against the New Deal turning into fascism as he was to warn about it turning into communism. He saw little difference between two bad options, both embodying a dark tendency toward that "regimentation" he saw as a mortal threat to the "individual initiative" upon which all progress depends. To the end -- he lived to be 90 and saw the followers of Barry Goldwater take over his party -- Hoover struggled to maintain the distinction between the regulation that was government's proper work and the regimentation that took government past its proper bounds. Today's Republicans hardly seem to notice a difference. Reading Best's account of Hoover inspires me to learn more about the Republican party's evolution -- or devolution. Best himself adopts Hoover's viewpoint so uncritically that it's hard to tell whether you're getting an objective account of Hoover's rivals in both parties, the Great Depression, or even the man himself. But even a sympathetic account based as Best's is on the words Hoover wrote and spoke exposes a reader to ideas that don't fit the current partisan paradigms. In recent times we've seen Herbert Hoover denounced as one of those sinister Progressives by the likes of Glenn Beck and idolized as a great American individualist by his great-granddaughter. The truth is not so readily labeled, as Hoover himself would probably appreciate.

No Such Thing As Society: Margaret Thatcher's epitaph

In retrospect, Margaret Thatcher, who died of a stroke this morning, seems more like an ideologue than her Cold War ally Ronald Reagan. To her is credited a defining slogan of the movement and era that brought both Thatcher and Reagan to power. For many, the phrase, "there is no such thing as society" will remain her most infamous utterance, and perhaps a fitting epitaph. I've cited it damningly in the past, but today I was curious to learn more about the context of the sentence. She said it in 1987, during an interview with Woman's Own magazine. What she actually said has been a matter of editorial license. The magazine reported her as saying:

[Y]ou know, there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look to themselves first. It's our duty to look after ourselves and then, also to look after our neighbour. People have got the entitlements too much in mind, without the obligations, because there is no such thing as an entitlement unless someone has first met an obligation.

The Margaret Thatcher Foundation doesn't consider this most familiar version of the quote a misrepresentation, but its website does note that the Woman's Own editor moved an important line from one paragraph to another for the published interview. In the Thatcher Foundation transcription, we see that the magazine editor made the Prime Minister's comments more terse by cutting and combining two separate comments. First:

I think we have gone through a period when too many children and people have been given to understand “I have a problem, it is the Government's job to cope with it!” or “I have a problem, I will go and get a grant to cope with it!” “I am homeless, the Government must house me!” and so they are casting their problems on society and who is society? There is no such thing! There are individual men and women and there are families and no government can do anything except through people and people look to themselves first. It is our duty to look after ourselves and then also to help look after our neighbour and life is a reciprocal business and people have got the entitlements too much in mind without the obligations, because there is no such thing as an entitlement unless someone has first met an obligation and it is, I think, one of the tragedies in which many of the benefits we give, which were meant to reassure people that if they were sick or ill there was a safety net and there was help, that many of the benefits which were meant to help people who were unfortunate—“It is all right. We joined together and we have these insurance schemes to look after it”. That was the objective, but somehow there are some people who have been manipulating the system and so some of those help and benefits that were meant to say to people: “All right, if you cannot get a job, you shall have a basic standard of living!” but when people come and say: “But what is the point of working? I can get as much on the dole!” You say: “Look” It is not from the dole. It is your neighbour who is supplying it and if you can earn your own living then really you have a duty to do it and you will feel very much better!” 


There is no such thing as society. There is living tapestry of men and women and people and the beauty of that tapestry and the quality of our lives will depend upon how much each of us is prepared to take responsibility for ourselves and each of us prepared to turn round and help by our own efforts those who are unfortunate. 

After the interview was first published, the Thatcher government went to the trouble of issuing a clarification:

All too often the ills of this country are passed off as those of society. Similarly, when action is required, society is called upon to act. But society as such does not exist except as a concept. Society is made up of people. It is people who have duties and beliefs and resolve. It is people who get things done. [Thatcher] prefers to think in terms of the acts of individuals and families as the real sinews of society rather than of society as an abstract concept. Her approach to society reflects her fundamental belief in personal responsibility and choice. To leave things to ‘society’ is to run away from the real decisions, practical responsibility and effective action.

This really is a clarification, since it points to a distinction which can be inferred from the interview between "society," which Thatcher dismissed as an "abstract concept," and "community," which she didn't.

You have got to have rules by which to live. If you live totally isolated and alone like Diogenes in the tub, maybe it does not mind (sic) but the moment you live in a community, you have got to have some rules by which to live. You have got to say: “These are the rules and we have to live by them!” Of course they will be broken from time to time, but that is quite different from there not being any rules. I mean, you could not begin to play any of the games—this is how I want mostly to explain this to children—how could you play a game unless there were certain rules to it? Our life is more important than the game. There are certain rules by which to live, and I think they want them and I think they want objective rules as they get older.

Thatcher, then, was not saying that there's no such thing as community or collective life. If not, what's the difference between the reality of "community" and the concept of "society" that so irked her? On the evidence before us, "community" consists of rules, while "society" is a presumption of mutual or collective responsibility for the well being of each individual that Thatcher found unjustified. In other words, communities can make rules for living, but "everyone must live" or "everyone must be cared for" aren't automatically among those rules and, if adopted, may be detrimental to the community. Like many modern conservatives, Thatcher believed that individual initiative was the indispensable and irreplaceable engine of human progress, and that habits of dependency upon the state, even when instilled with the best of intentions, inevitably sapped that initiative and undermined progress. Better, then, that community cultivate individual initiative by debunking the myth of society, which for our purposes means that membership in a society makes the survival of each member the responsibility of all. There was no such thing as "society" for Thatcher because she didn't believe that the world owes us a living. For someone to suggest that the people in a community could resolve to work together for the benefit of everyone does not mean the same thing, but that distinction is often lost on people like Thatcher, who tend to see collective or "social" thinking as an evasion of personal responsibility or a license for freeloading. There's more to her legacy than this, of course, but since most of her legacy is Britain's problem, this is what's relevant for the rest of us as we see Thatcher off.

05 April 2013

Does NYC need a Republican party?

The arrest of a Democratic state senator for allegedly trying to bribe his way onto the Republican primary ballot for the New York City mayoral election has exposed the Grand Old Party's hollowness in the financial capital of the world. As Errol Louis notes in an op-ed for the Daily News, Michael Bloomberg, a "RINO" if there ever was one, needed only 48,000 votes in the metropolis to win the Republican mayoral nomination back in 2001. After winning power, he eventually saw no more need to bother with the Republican label. It apparently requires so much less effort to win a major-party line that people like the disgraced senator are willing to play dirty to get on the ballot. Louis worries that the situation endangers the two-party system on which healthy, responsible government depends. His solution is to revitalize the Republican party. So long as the NYC GOP is little more than a shell, he argues, it creates a power vacuum for " rats, roaches, thieves and delinquents" to exploit. For New York to become a one-party city isn't an option for Louis; abuses of power would become inevitable. Obviously, the Democratic party should not rule unchallenged. Credible challengers should always be welcomed, but Louis shows a limited imagination when he assumes that opposition to Democrats must take a Republican form. He urges Ed Cox, the state GOP leader, to begin an intensive recruiting campaign to triple party membership in the Big Apple. This won't require Republicans to tailor their message to a populace that would seem to have repudiated Republicanism in its more familiar form. Louis believes that there are plenty of people in New York who "believe in the GOP message" but haven't been invited to participate or contribute before. He seems to believe that there's a natural or automatic constituency for Republicanism anywhere in America.

There are plenty such people, not only billionaires. Shop owners tired of taxes and regulations, parents sick of failing schools and concerned about public safety and constantly rising taxes and fees. Even on social issues like abortion and same-sex marriage, New York can only be better off with a healthy debate over policies and philosophies.

Louis's last point is the most dubious one, since the healthiness of the debates we hear on those "social issues" elsewhere is open to question. Overall, he seems to believe in an essential bipolarchy opposing advocates of an ever-expanding government against those always pushing back. His implicit argument is that any real opposition to Democrats must take an anti-"big government" form. This caricatures both the Democrats and the nature of American politics.

A big part of our problem nationwide is a tendency to reduce all questionable policies and programs to a generic "big government" essence, and to assume that to change or end any problematic policy you must oppose the entirety of "big government." Bipolarchy encourages such either/or thinking and blinds both sides to the particular merits or flaws of any given program. Just as Republicans tend to oppose everything that smacks of "big government," Democrats offer a blanket defense of the entire system on the assumption that any brick removed from the edifice will let the laissez-faire barbarians in to run amok. Wouldn't New York City be better off if an opposition party raised concerns about failing schools or public safety without automatically railing against every tax or regulation? Or if an opposition party did argue for a systematic review of taxes and regulations but took the liberal (or libertarian) side on social issues? The reflexive assumption that 21st century Republicanism is an essential and necessary element in American politics is a dangerous one, not because Republicanism itself is dangerous but because the assumption indicates a catastrophic conceptual bankruptcy. To believe that political debate in the U.S. must always take Republican-vs-Democrat or "big government"-vs-"limited government" form is to believe that Oceania has always been at war with Eurasia. Whoever believes it has been brainwashed, not necessarily by a malevolent power but by an unregulated rush of messages and attitudes that threatens to drown out all alternative voices and ideas. There's still time for New York to take another path, and there may be no better time to do it than now.

04 April 2013

Anonymous vs. North Korea: Playing with fire?

Depending on where you live, I suppose, most people dream of tweaking the noses of the powerful and pompous. The idea of embarrassing a tyrant appeals to many. It was probably inevitable, then, that the alleged hacking collective known as "Anonymous" has turned its attention to the kingdom of North Korea, where the Kim dynasty has made a mockery even of Leninism and the latest Leader is apparently trying to consolidate his power by putting the country on a war footing. According to reports, Anonymous, or its South Korean branch, has attacked an official North Korean news site and stolen passwords from the country's university system while calling for Kim Jong Un to step down and a freely elected government to take his place. All this activity may give us an indication of how easily provoked, how paranoid and how dangerous North Korea really is at this moment. The government there claims that all its recent belligerent measures are responses to provocations from South Korea and the U.S. If the Kim regime is as paranoid as most people assume, won't they assume that the Anonymous antics are yet another imperialist provocation? If they're as irrational as many people assume, what's to stop them from treating these pranks as acts of war? This seems like the wrong time for stunts like these, though Anonymous has never been known for diplomacy. But if North Korea doesn't overreact -- and I'm unaware of any reaction from state media so far -- it might prove that the Kimocracy isn't as absolutely unreasonable as many observers believe. If the North does overreact -- if these pranks can be seen in retrospect as having pushed the country any closer to foolhardy aggression -- it'll be worth noting that none of these brave "hacktivists" will likely have suffered the immediate consequences. If all of this now looks like a blow for freedom of speech, we might remember later that talk if often cheap.

03 April 2013

Strivers and Skivers: 'makers' and 'takers' translated into English

A horrific crime story from Britain, in which a father managed to kill six children while trying to frame a former lover for arson, has (dare I say) inflamed if not reignited a debate similar to the one often heard in the U.S. over the demoralizing effects of dependency on government. Britain's "liberal" news media has reacted angrily to a Tory newspaper's description of the perpetrator as a "vile product" of the British welfare state and typical of the "evil born of welfare dependency." For one columnist, this attitude amounts to bigotry against the poor and is consistent with a partisan propaganda campaign echoing American disputes, with "strivers" and "skivers" taking the places, respectively, of "makers" and "takers" in U.S. rhetoric. "It is a marked feature of the last three years that people claiming benefits have been represented in a particular way," Zoe Williams writes, " as worthless, immoral, grasping and, fundamentally, different to the rest of us." The nation's churches apparently tell a different story, joining forces to refute reactionary myths about poverty, particularly  the cumulative assumption that the poor are lazy addicts who strive only to cheat the system.

So much for American exceptionalism, at least on this particular point. The attitudes decried by Williams and the churches are inevitable in any country dedicated to capitalism and free enterprise. Just as Leninists are compelled to blame their policy failures on counterrevolutionary sabotage, capitalist ideologues are compelled to blame any poverty in societies that should be the most prosperous on individual failings. If the premise of "free enterprise" is that anyone can succeed, those who don't succeed must be losers in every sense of the word. Even if you were laid off, I suppose, the fact that you had a job subject to layoffs proves you were a loser -- you come up short, never the system. It's the attitude we should expect wherever "liberty" has priority over life. The U.S.? Check. The U.K.? Check. Where else?

Are some people simply incompetent? Certainly. Should we all be more capable of adapting to adversity, no matter what the source? Sure. Should we also work together to perfect a society capable of minimizing adversity and facilitating adaptation? Why not? We all want a world without "skivers," but who gets to say who is and isn't pulling his own weight? It depends on what your responsibilities are, or what you think they are, and the self-styled "strivers" or "makers" in the U.K. and U.S. don't have the last word on that subject.

Postscript: here's a comment from a less outrageous British conservative -- a biographer of Pat Buchanan, no less --  who rejects the idea that the arsonist was a "product" of the welfare state but argues that the system lacks disincentives to discourage his type of behavior. The columnist is under the impression that the left is disinclined to denounce the arsonist for the scum he is, on the assumption that the left always blames society first, but if anything the furor over this case has made the British left more insistent on the point of personal responsibility, if only to refute the claim that the arsonist was the product of an ideal, if not an actually existing system, they still favor.

02 April 2013

Bipartisan corruption in New York

If the charges stick, this is really sick. A Democratic state senator has been arrested, along with a Republican city councilman from New York City and several other politicians, for their alleged roles in a scheme to bribe Republican party officials into allowing the Democrat onto the primary ballot for the New York City mayoral nomination. Malcolm Smith has schemed with Republicans in the past, most recently as part of a power-sharing bid in the senate. You can see his line of thinking, since the GOP line in New York City was a shortcut to power for Michael Bloomberg, who in many ways, most notoriously his "nanny state" measures regulating food sales, has been the antithesis of the Republican stereotype. Republicanism in the metropolis lacks the kind of rabid ideological base that enforces orthodoxy elsewhere, and while the city should be glad to go without that kind of agitation a lack of ideological integrity leads to corruption in the biggest cities just as it does in smaller communities like my own, where the major parties play dirty to secure control of third-party lines in the absence of any truly dedicated constituencies for those parties on the local level. The solution need not be to import Tea Partiers to New York City to discourage stunts like the one alleged. The conspirators would have taken the steps alleged because they deemed them necessary to securing a favorable spot on the ballot. The remedy is to make it easier for all serious candidates -- serious in purpose if not probability -- to be treated equally during campaigns, and to eliminate the favoritism that relegates most candidates for any office to second-class status at best. Once upon a time, all it took to be recognized as a candidate for office was to stage some mass meetings so people could say they wanted you. The current system makes it easier for a few and harder for most of us. It'll be easy to damn both the individuals implicated in this plot and their parties if prosecutors prove the charges, but the system makes all of it possible -- the bipolarchy created the system -- and nothing short of systematic change, rather than more ideological purity all around, will make it impossible.

Religion in New York's Capital District: bottom or top ten?

Today's Troy Record headlines a Gallup poll that lists New York State's Capital District -- the area encompassing Troy, Albany and Schenectady -- as one of the ten least religious communities in the United States. To be specific, my home region is the ninth least religious community in the country as measured by regularity of attendance at religious services. Burlington VT is the least religious of all, while Provo UT occupies the other extreme. Only 26% of Capital District people consider themselves "very religious" by Gallup's not-very-strict standard, which requires respondents to admit attending services "every week or almost every week" while deeming religion "an important part of their daily life."

Asked for first impressions, local religious figures see geography as a decisive factor. Gallup seems to bear this out, since only one of the bottom-12 communities, the college town of Madison WI, falls in the Midwest and none are in the South. The Northeast and Northwest are not "very religious" if Gallup is an accurate indicator, while only one community of the top ten is not in Utah or the South. A local Jewish leader notes that "northerners tend to be spiritual as opposed to religious," by which she means they're less inclined to "use rituals in search for the divine." By comparison, this former Texas resident notes that "you wear your religion" in parts of the Lone Star State. A Protestant minister who came up from South Carolina recalls that down south “It was taboo to do anything else but go to church on Sunday. And, on Saturday, you were getting ready for church on Sunday.” In Troy, he finds parents more likely to take their kids to sports events on Sundays.

The Capital District appears to confirm some of the expectations of the "nones," the non-religious or simply non-affiliated people mentioned in yesterday's post. We're represented by a Democrat in the House of Representatives and his district went nearly 60-40 for President Obama last November. I wouldn't be surprised if all of the least-religious communities voted similarly. I must report, however, that the Capital District tends to refute most expectations you might have of cultural sophistication or an overall progressive attitude following from a low volume of religion. Those things are less a matter of what you don't do and more about what you actually do, or make. If the choice on Sunday is between church and sports, as the minister says, I suppose that tells you something. You might still expect religion to decline as part of an overall enlightenment, but the mere lack of religion doesn't prove that enlightenment is here.