29 March 2018

Begging the (census) question.

The Trump administration wants to revive the practice of asking participants in the U.S. Census whether they're citizens of the country. Democrats are predictably alarmed, seeing the proposal as a nativist Republican plot to entrap undocumented immigrants and reduce the congressional representation of states presumed "blue," yet also certainly including ruby-"red" Texas, with large immigrant populations. At first glance, it may look like Democrats are once again picking the wrong fight. Shouldn't the Census count only citizens?  Not necessarily, according to the Constitution. To determine the apportionment of Representatives in Congress, the founding charter originally required the Census to count "free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years," while slaves (i.e. "all other Persons") would count as only three-fifths of free persons and "Indians not taxed" weren't counted at all. The Fourteenth Amendment abrogated the three-fifths clause and provides that a state's congressional delegation can be reduced if the state denies the vote to male citizens 21 and older for reasons other than rebellion or "other crime." In the relevant clause of the original text the word "citizen" is not used. The word appears in the Fourteenth Amendment only in the context of voting rights. A state can have its representation reduced by denying voting rights to people the Constitution declares eligible, but the basis of representation is "the whole number of persons," not the number of citizens. Asking whether people are citizens thus appears irrelevant to the apportionment of congressional seats. What Democrats, mainly, seem to fear is that their states will lose seats because immigrants will evade the Census rather than identify themselves as non-citizens, even though the proposed yes-or-no citizenship question would not distinguish between illegal immigrants and those on the legal path to naturalization. In other words, irrational fear may cost Democrats congressional seats, while states with large immigrant populations may lose out on government funds allocated according to population. Yet it's the Democrats who are stoking the irrational fear for short-term gain, portraying the proposal as another Republican assault on democracy itself in order to scare more people into voting Democratic this year. If they want to win elections over the next decade, however, cooler heads ought to prevail.

28 March 2018

Taking school safety 'seriously'

In the March 28 Albany Times Union letter writer Stephen Dansereau argues that high school students "need to view themselves in a more humble and selfless context.' This appears to be a critique of both school shooters and protesters against school shootings, and if anything Dansereau is more critical toward the latter. 'If someone can't be trusted to own a gun until age 21, perhaps they lack the maturity to vote before them as well," he writes before closing with this whopper: "If school safety and ado,essential development were to be taken seriously, there would be a crucifix in every classroom, and the daily pledge of allegiance would be followed by the Our Father." You know, because Abrahamic monotheism has been so effective at supressing violence throughout history and men like Dansereau, so obviously looking for every solution to school violence except gun control, so clearly uphold the turn-the-other-cheek tradition. To be fair, we could all use a little more humility in all our social interactions, but in my experience the Christian "I'm saved and you're going to Hell" attitude hasn't been what I'd call humble. It's more often as arrogantly contemptuous as Dansereau's letter, which can be condensed effectively down to "Shut up and pray."

27 March 2018

Jealous lovers of their country

Marc A. Thiessen is a "rock-ribbed conservative" who supports President Trump on many issues but rejects the popular Trumpian argument that his opponents don't love this country. In a column last week Thiessen chided the failed Republican candidate in the recent Pennsylvania special election for saying that "many of these on the left ... have a hatred for our country," not to mention a hatred for God. Thiessen's own mother is a liberal Democrat, you see, and he knows that she hates neither country nor, presumably, God. Thiessen sees that sort of slanderous rhetoric  -- he cites another cknservative who called progressives "stupid and evil" -- as morally equivalent to the widespread Democratic libel that conservative Republicans must be bigots of some sort. Thiessen's admirable thought for that particular day was that people like him and his mother may disagree about politics, "but we both love America and want to make this country great." The thought is admirable but wishfully simplistic.

Just about everyone in the country except for the few "revolutionary anti-imperialists" and some radicalized Muslims will tell you that they love America -- but what do they mean when they say that? This country encompasses conflicting notions of what this nation is that are so divergent that one view may seem not merely wrong but treacherous from another perspective. We can identify at least three widely-held and possibly irreconcilable definitions of the American nation. There's the view identified with neoconservatives and some liberals that the U.S. is a "propositional" nation defined by the ideals expressed in the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. Then there are at least two rival forms of populism whose first loyalty is to "the people." One that could be called "progressive populism" is concerned about the well being of people here and now, without imposing tests of loyalty or identity beyond demanding fidelity to progressive populism. The other populism, the one that disturbs liberals, could be called "cultural" or "traditionalist" populism. It defines "the people" by their fidelity to traditions, sacred or secular and does not embrace or welcome everyone as they are unconditionally, as progressive populists increasingly demand. One populism is cruelly exclusive by the other's standard, while the progressive, to the traditionalist, is treacherously inclusive. And in the meantime the neos don't quite care whether any of the populists lives or dies, so long as their ideals endure.

There just isn't the consensus on what the country is, on what or who it stands for, for anyone to be deeply assured by the anodyne notion that everyone loves America. Nor does consensus seem possible just now, the rival populists hoping rather to shout each other down, or beat each other into submission. The problem may be that when one side questions whether the other loves America, it's really one person asking desperately whether anyone loves him as he is, as he defines himself. There may not be enough of that sort of love to go around -- but maybe we'll be lucky and have an economic boom that makes that sort of love less urgently necessary.

'The second-most dangerous American'

To those who see the President's hiring of John Bolton as his next national security adviser as an abandonment of Donald Trump's anti-interventionist convictions, George Will answers with a millennial's punchy emphasis, "Trump. Has. No. Convictions." Will is a conservative critic of the neocons with whom Bolton, George W. Bush's sometime UN ambassador, is identified. He describes the 2003 invasion of Iraq, which Bolton still defends despite Trump's own criticism, as the worst foreign-policy blunder in American history. Having Trump's ear will make Bolton the second-most dangerous man in America, by Will's estimate, if not more dangerous than Trump himself because of his intellect and fanaticism. But will he persuade Trump to betray such foreign-policy principles as he possesses? That question begs another: what are Bolton's actual principles?

I started to wonder how much of a neocon Bolton has been, but it didn't take long to realize that there are two kinds of neoconservative, one of which is more likely congenial to Trump than the other. Our stereotype of the neocon derives from Dubya-era propaganda identifying his wars with an agenda of democracy promotion, the premise being that capitalist democracies with civil societies and the rule of law are the surest guarantors of global peace, while dictatorships are an inherent threat to global order. The archetypal neocon believed (or at least argued) that the secure spread of free-market democracy around the world depended on American hegemony. A less idealized definition of neoconservatism is offered by British professor Natasha Ezrow on the Common Dreams website. She describes neoconservatism as "a political tendency that believes that the U.S. should pursue and defend primacy or unlimited power." In other words, stripped of propagandistic justifications, many neocons see American hegemony as an end unto itself. It wouldn't be hard for President Trump to agree with that, nor should it be hard for him to square that view with his own mix of anti-interventionism and belligerent rhetoric.

Unlike many alarmists, I don't think Bolton is going to persuade Trump to bomb or invade anybody. It's said that the President admires Bolton's tough talk on TV, and it's probably talk more than anything else that Trump wants from him. My guess is that Trump wants to conduct a good cop-bad cop foreign policy, seeking good relations as a rule so long as they're to the nation's advantage and hoping to intimidate others into more advantageous relationships. More specifically, he probably hopes to intimidate foreign leaders into seeking negotiations in which Trump's own vaunted deal-making skills and his readiness, distasteful to many domestic observers, to schmooze with the world's other tough guys can come into play. The most likely reason for all the upheaval in Trump's foreign-policy team is that he wants to be the only good cop. People like Tillerson and McMaster may have taken it upon themselves to play good cop to the President's bad cop too often for Trump's taste. Trump may claim for himself the prerogative to play both roles, but he probably wants all his minions to play bad cop exclusively unless he says otherwise, if only so he can claim credit for whatever deals ultimately are made. If Bolton lives up to his bulldog reputation in a role that may consist largely of TV appearances, he'll suit this theoretical Trumpian agenda to a tee. It's sure to be ugly, but that doesn't mean it can't work.

24 March 2018

Think 3 Video News: "Marching for our lives"

Across the country today, marches and rallies have taken place inspired by the recent student walkout protesting gun violence. Reporters in Albany NY estimate that about 5,000 people took part in the festivities at the state capital. For a student-inspired event, the Albany rally had an all-too familiar look and sound to it. While a fair share of students were given a chance to talk to the crowd, a lot of that crowd was well beyond school age. Marches and rallies like these simply appeal to an older generation, while students might well find social-media organization more interesting if not more effective. Arriving at West Capitol Park, I heard the stereotype sounds of folk singing that made the occasion sound far older than an initiative for 21st century high school students. Take a listen:

To be fair, a number of students got to speak, some with endearing spontaneity, some seeming to get lost in their notes. Here's one of the more articulate speakers explaining that not only Americans had a stake in school safety.

And here's the climax of another speech; as you can see, some people in the crowd really got into it.

Still, it was demoralizing to have politicians come in and make this an electioneering event. I'd rather not have the next generation of voters take it for granted that the Democratic party is their vehicle for salvation, no matter how much they may fell that the Republican party is their natural enemy. If the whole point of these rallies, as I understand it, was to express dissatisfaction with politics as usual, having the usual politicians around seemed to defeat the purpose. They also encourage cynics and reactionaries alike to complain that party politicians are only manipulating young people. An extra level of criticism kicks in when the cynics and especially the reactionaries, hating Democrats in some special way, say that those pols don't really care whether students live or die. Come on, people; they're liberals -- they don't want anyone to die and they really don't want anyone to be killed. That's why they condemn both gun violence and the NRA narrative of the need for the good guy with a gun. There's more to that position than a "statist" agenda and an itch to control people, and those who for whatever reason want to change these kids' minds -- and those of all the older folk at the rally -- can't act as if "Freedom!" much less "Molon labe!" is going to end the debate. They're going to have to explain to these children of hedonist civilization why sometimes people have to be killed. Good luck with that.

21 March 2018

'Do Not Congratulate'

This country is in a sad state when we need Donald Trump to teach lessons in diplomacy, but I have to take his side in the latest controversy over his relations with Russia. The President has been criticized for offering congratulations, against some high-level advice, to President Putin on his recent reelection, the feeling among neocons in particular being that the result was most likely rigged in the authoritarian incumbent's favor. Speaking for myself as a private citizen, I don't doubt that Putin used machine tactics in getting out the vote, and I don't doubt that his opponents didn't get as fair a shake from the Russian media as a major party candidate would get here. At the same time I don't doubt that Putin was the choice of most Russian voters, whose preferences in leadership most likely differ significantly from our own. The main point, regardless of one's view of the Russian electoral process, is that heads of state or government should not go out of their way to insult their peers around the world. Trump may not be consistent about this when it comes to North Korea, but he is almost certainly correct when he tweets that "Getting along with Russia (and others) is a good thing, not a bad thing." It would be a bad thing only if Trump explicitly endorsed Putin's style of governance as a model for his own, or if getting along meant consigning Russia's neighbors to a far worse fate than is likely in store for them.

What Trump gets, and what neocons and many liberals can't stand to hear, is that the United States' national interest is not essentially ideological, and that it's not the President's job to promote an ideological agenda abroad. If our interests conflict with Russia's or China's or Iran's, it won't be because any of these countries are dictatorships, or because their cultures are so alien to ours. In foreign policy the alternative to ideology isn't "blood and soil" but a materialist calculation of national interests, as illustrated by Trump's focus on trade. Again, Trump can be maddeningly inconsistent about this, since there's nothing material to our unconditional support for Israel unless counting votes for future elections counts as materialism. But if he sees no reason to pick fights with Russia solely on the basis of how Putin runs his own country, he seems more reasonable than many of the supposed grown-ups in the proverbial room. What he understands about diplomacy, if only in this case but still ironically enough, is that the diplomat should not just say whatever pops into his head. His job is not to speak his mind or "speak truth to power," but to further his nation's interests. Whether Trump's approach to Putin actually does that remains to be seen, but to assume that it's not worth trying will only ensure that our relations stay in their current dismal state. That might be in some people's interests, but not necessarily in ours.

20 March 2018

European vs. American conservatism

The difference between Andrew Breitbart and Steve Bannon, Jonah Goldberg claims, is the difference between American and European styles of conservatism. While Bannon, Breitbart's heir for a time, recently told a French crowd to "Let them call you racists," Breitbart himself, according to Goldberg,  resented the "racist" libel and always sought to disprove it. Bannon represents a "blood and soil" sort of conservatism that Goldberg deems un-American. Citing libertarian prophet Friedrich Hayek, the columnist argues that the U.S. was founded on classical liberal principles largely antithetical to the authoritarian traditionalism that was contemporary conservatism. American conservatism as espoused by the Republican party since the 1960s is a continuation of the classical-liberal tradition of limited government and laissez-faire commerce, while "alt-right" conservatism of Bannon's sort is a degenerate departure poisoned by the pathologies (Goldberg calls it "swill") of 20th century Europe.

  From Goldberg's perspective, principle is all on the "American" side. From a different perspective, we see two different approaches to tradition. Goldberg notes that American conservatism "has always been deeply traditionalist, sometimes too much so," but the traditionalism of the "American" school, or at least its professional politicians and pundits, has been essentially utilitarian. That is, it promotes traditions as means to more highly valued ends like limited government and a productive workforce. By comparison, for "European" conservatives traditions are ends unto themselves, essential to their constituents' self-esteem and a sense of belonging that makes their existence meaningful and noble. Tradition, even in the minimal form of language and dress, is indispensible to the "European" mindset but always potentially expendable to the "American," should it get in the way of free enterprise or encourage intrusive government.

That two such mentalities exist and oppose each other seems obvious enough. Whether "American" and "European" are accurate labels for them is less obvious. My suspicion is that many if not most constituents of "American" conservatism have been and remain more "European" in their hearts -- in a traditionalist rather than a purely bigoted sense -- than their political representatives and partisan ideologues care to admit, but their "European" mindset rarely contradicted  their "American" leadership until a series of circumstances coalesced into an existential threat to their sense of self and worth that their leaders didn't take as seriously as they did. How long those circumstances will continue to threaten American conservatism remains unclear, but it is clear now that the "American" tradition cherished by Jonah Goldberg and many other Republicans faces an unprecedented challenge that may show exactly how deep that tradition has taken root in American soil.

19 March 2018

Liberty and Death

Early reporting on the President's anti-drug speech predictably focused on his suggestion of capital punishment for some drug dealers, as if this was something characteristically exceptional from Donald Trump. Some reporters, and not a few other Americans, probably see this as an authoritarian proposal comparable to what's done in Singapore or the Philippines, though no one has yet insinuated that Trump will encourage the sort of extrajudicial killing currently practiced in the latter country. Trump himself describes it as getting "tough" on dealers, but "tough" and "authoritarian" are increasingly synonymous for some observers.

Without analyzing the possible effect of the death penalty on drug traffic, we can recognize that it's a step most liberals would rather not take. At heart, their belief is that no one deserves to be killed. That belief also explains their abhorrence of the "good guy with a gun" paradigm of self-defense. It distinguishes 21st century liberals not only from their "conservative" opponents but also from the global "left" tradition with which conservatives often try to associate them. American liberals largely reject the "general will" idea that civil liberty depends on everyone putting their lives in the hands of the state. For all that they're accused of desiring an omnipotent state, they're often reluctant to grant the state this particular power. That may only mean that they want a state that's so omnipotent that it doesn't have to kill people, because it will have eliminated any material or even spiritual reason for anyone to commit crime.

For liberals the state's purpose is to preserve life, but what is to be done when people don't do their fair share toward this end, or actively oppose it? Liberals can only go so far because going further contradicts their sense of purpose; they'd judge themselves hypocrites if they killed people in order to perpetuate life. Whether this inhibition betrays the limits of a "human rights" approach to progress is still unclear. For what it's worth, the conservative "natural rights" ideology, often more resistant to state power for reasons of its own, doesn't seem to share the liberal abhorrence of capital punishment, perhaps because it's usually coupled with a "personal responsibility" mentality that recognizes suffering as just deserts and a belief that the source of natural rights has also mandated death for a range of offenses. To the liberal, all that means that the other side doesn't value human life the way it should, but could that mean that the liberal values human life too much? The liberal may imagine valuing something so much more than his own life that he'd sacrifice his life for it, but is it possible -- could it be necessary -- for him to value something, and not just the life of a loved one, so much that he could sacrifice someone else's life for it? I don't have an answer for myself, but the certainty I once had that there was no point to such a question, no need to ask it, is not what it used to be.

14 March 2018

A snapshot referendum on Trump

If the Democratic candidate's very narrow victory in yesterday's special congressional election in Pennsylvania holds up after all the absentee ballots are counted, then to the extent that any vote for a House seat this year is a referendum on the President, Donald Trump may have only himself to blame for the verdict. With the margin so close -- less than 1,000 votes -- you have a right to wonder whether Trump's removal of Secretary of State Tillerson yesterday morning influenced any last-minute deciders. While I've seen some Trump apologists defend the seemingly constant White House upheaval as simply the sort of decisive management Trump was elected to practice, how many more people saw it as one proof too many, for that particular day, of presidential instability and a dangerously erratic foreign policy? By no means do I claim that Tillerson's dismissal was a "jump the shark" moment that seals Trump's fate for 2020 or the GOP majority's fate this November. People's attention spans are too short and too much can happen over the next months or years to make any such claim a safe one. All I'm suggesting is that if Trump sacked Tillerson today, or last weekend, or at any time when it wouldn't be the top news story as Pennsylvanians went to the polls, he might have one less opponent in Congress this spring. If I'm right about this, however, this election really should worry Republicans, since it appears to show that Donald Trump lacks that attribute his admirers would most likely ascribe to him: common sense.

13 March 2018

Moral Hazard

Here's an analysis of Anglo-American conservatism from an explicitly hedonist perspective, from William Davies in the current London Review of Books:

Since the 1960s, conservatism has been defined partly by a greater willingness to inflict harm, especially in the English-speaking world. The logic is that the augmentation of the postwar welfare state by the moral pluralism of the 196ps produced an acute problem of 'moral hazard', whereby benign policies ended up being taken for granted and abused. Once people believe things can be had for free and take pleasure in abundance, there is a risk of idleness and hedonism....As the theory behind had it, government services shrink everybody's incentives to produce, compete and invest. They reduce the motivation for businesses to deliver services, and ordinary people's desire to work. Toughness, even pain, performs an important function in pushing people to come up with solutions.

Davies writes in an attempt to deduce the motives of Tories who support the "Brexit" despite forecasts of disastrous consequences for the British economy. He speculates that they hope to motivate Britons into greater self-denying productivity through the austerity that the Brexit may impose. He bases his suspicion on a belief that "The productiveness of pain is a central conservative belief, whose expression might be economic, but whose logic is deeply moralistic." According to this logic, "Only pain forces people to adapt or innovate."

A conservative might agree with the gist of Davies' analysis but not the terms, since they certainly don't define themselves by a desire, principled or otherwise, to inflict harm or pain. They are more likely to believe that pain and adversity are constants in life and history to which people must accustom themselves in order to adapt more readily. In their analysis, if I understand them correctly, the real danger of a hedonist welfare state is that it leaves dependents unprepared to adapt constructively to adversity. Davies may not see himself as a hedonist, but his analysis is ideologically hedonist in its attribution of pain, in these cases at least, to the will of selfish or dogmatic men. The pain he describes is something preventable through political action,in keeping with the hedonist faith that pain, if not all adversity, can eventually be minimized or abolished that way. Beyond that, he clearly questions both the need and the right's right to impose "painful" tests of character on citizens. Anyone's motives can be questioned, of course, and to question hedonist premises is not to affirm conservative premises. But whatever the motives of conservatives, however selfish and domineering they may be, we might still question whether the last fifty years have prepared us to deal adequately with adversities that appear increasingly inevitable instead of finding people to blame for them, as both left and right too often prefer to do.

12 March 2018

Selective denunciation

Somehow Louis Farrakhan got back into the news, though it probably was inevitable that whites tired of the presumption of their bigotry would use a black bigot to score rhetorical points. The point this time is that an organizer of last year's women's marches protesting the Trump inauguration was seen at a recent Founder's Day event at which Farrakhan went on about the Jews again. Pressured to condemn Farrakhan, Tamiya Mallory affirmed her own opposition to antisemitism but refused to dissociate herself from Farrakhan or the Nation of Islam, citing the good works they do in the black community and the need to build as large and diverse a coalition as necessary against Trump. That won't do, of course,for the "double standards" crowd for whom Farrakhan's idiocies evenly balance out the whole history of American negrophobia. Nor, I suspect, does it satisfy many liberals whose calculations of moral equivalence are more sophisticated yet still find all manifestations of hate equally unacceptable. It's easy to condemn Farrakhan and the Nation's quasi-Islam for the crackpottery it has always been, but I can't help wondering whether those liberals demanding that black activists purge themselves of any antipathy toward other groups of people are the same liberals warning the anti-Trump opposition not to challenge the presumed prejudices of white people so aggressively, lest they refuse to vote Democrat due to hurt feelings. I'd really like to know whether the people who don't want the opposition talking so much about racism, sexism, homophobia, nativism, etc., also think that for the sake of the big tent we shouldn't blow a gasket over black anti-semitism. Which would be more consistent? To ignore all prejudices and resentments in the interest of class solidarity or ideological priority, or to always follow the path that offends whites the least? How many will say the former but mean the latter? Speaking for myself, I'd love to go on about the revanchist stupidity of the NOI mythos, but I  consider the prejudices and supremacist fantasies of every other demographic group fair game as well, so if I'm told not to talk about the bigotries of the racial plurality but to have at the Jew-hating black man, I wouldn't necessarily blame anyone who thinks that isn't a fair game.

07 March 2018

"An election is not about self-expression"

Food for thought fom a fall 2017 exchange between New Yorker editor David Remick and Mark Lilla,a liberal academic recently controversial for his critique of identity politics:

Remnick: Unless I misread your book, you seem to say that, in the interest of winning -- and politics is about power, ultimately --  the Democratic side ought to think about abandoning certain issues, certain kinds of rhetoric, in order to win. But abandoning certain things like full-throated opposition to bathroom bills will mean that certain people -- transgender people, some of the most vulnerable people in our society -- will get hurt. How does a party go about sacrificing people on the altar of the general good?

Lilla: Well, my main point is this, and I want to get this across: we cannot do anything for these groups we care about if we do not hold power. It is just talk. Therefore, our rhetoric in campaigning must be focused on winning, so then we can help these people. An election is not about self-expression. It's not a time to display everything we believe about everything. It's a contest. And once you hold power, then you can do the things you want to do.

05 March 2018

Democratic protectionism

President Trump has abandoned current Republican orthodoxy in favor of GOP traditionalism in his protectionist trade policy. He does so with the support of a fair number of Democrats, in a deviation from their own ancient tradition.  For most of U.S. history the Democracy was a free-trade party on the zero-sum assumption that tariffs burdened all Americans for the benefit of only a few. Their position reflected the interests of their early constituents: southern planters who imported finished goods and feared that tariffs would harm their personal balance of trade, and coastal workers who handled imported goods and feared that tariffs would reduce their workloads and finally put them out of work. The party's position didn't really change until the 1960s, when its Rust Belt base began to feel threatened by imports from  Europe and Japan. The change was never complete, however, and was vigorously resisted by neoliberals who saw trade agreements rather than tariffs as the key to full employment. Despite the neoliberals' dominance since the 1990s, a populist streak -- in this context a belief that American consumers, or at least the U.S. government, owe solidarity to American workers -- has persisted with a vehemence that resists even a Democrat's instinctive antipathy toward Donald Trump.  If this doesn't seem as drastic a reversal as the Republican shift from protectionism to free trade, that's probably because the Democrats' old free-trade position never was as ideological as the Republicans' current position. In the old days, Democrats didn't oppose protectionism because they thought the Market knew best, but because they thought tariffs unfair to most Americans. Protectionist Democrats today believe that globalization is unfair to most Americans, and they assume that Republican free traders care more for the sacred Market than they do for their fellow citizens. Democrats still have a profoundly different notion of the national interest from Donald Trump's, but just as they can concede that a broken clock is right twice a day, some of them see that on trade their notions and his intersect. Whether that will inspire any further search for common ground remains to be seen.

01 March 2018

Man of steel

For much of American history, Republicans were the protectionist party of high tariffs while Democrats, representing those whose businesses and jobs depended on imports, espoused free trade. In 2018 it looks like Republicans will take the lead in opposing tariffs on imported aluminum and steel proposed by a Republican president. While Senator Rubio was howlingly wrong some time back when  he said that the GOP had always been a free trade party, he was true to recent trends in the party. Republicans represent salesmen rather than producers these day, and the salesmen complain that the tariffs will make many products more expensive and difficult to sell. That is just about the gravest sin imaginable to the Republicans' consumerist ideology, according to which consumer choice trumps (pun intended) every other concern. Accordingly, many observers scoff at the national-security justification for the tariffs offered by the Trump administration, arguing that defense industries' dependence on imported steel should be no cause for concern in a world crisis, since we get most of our steel from friendly nations. This blithe dismissal seems to overlook the possibility of hostile nations interdicting trade, for one thing, but in any event, to the extent that there already has been a trade war of sorts over steel, the free traders appear satisfied that America has lost and that revanchism is futile. Among the more libertarian critics a fatalistic attitude prevails according to which Americans should concentrate on making and exporting the stuff we don't need government action to help sell, regardless of whether there might be an objective national benefit to self-sufficiency in any field of production. The predictable cost-benefit analyses that see tariffs benefiting few while burdening many more simply don't allow for considerations of national interest, failing to acknowledge that a nation and the Market are two different things. While no one should take it for granted that the Trump tariffs will benefit the nation -- they probably won't accomplish much without simultaneous government support for increased domestic production --  too many people are reacting to them as if the debate was over before it even began, because tariffs are always bad.  Because trade policy has for so long been determined by ideology, it's hard to know where to find an objective opinion. You probably won't find one in the op-ed columns or from businesspeople with too intimate a stake in the game, but I wonder what Lin-Manuel Miranda thinks....

The insult of leadership

The announcement from China that the Communist government intends to abolish term limits from the nation's highest offices inevitably provoked warnings that current top man Xi Jinping was now determined to rule for life. That "Xi Jinping" thought was to be incorporated into the Chinese constitution provoked warnings against a Mao-style personality cult. Chinese media went on the defensive, taking their usual line that western liberal values do not provide a universal basis for condemning the latest refinements of the "people's democratic dictatorship," and that it bordered on bigotry to describe modern China as a tyranny. Their contention that western democracies, increasingly mired in factionalism, didn't necessarily serve the common good as well as the Chinese system might strike closer to home were it circulated more widely here. Nevertheless, to say that some cultures are better served by dictatorship than liberal democracy will always be a hard sell in the U.S. especially. How can culture make it okay for a leader to forbid you from  saying he's wrong? While the Chinese may deny that that's how their dictatorship works, they might more honestly question the apparently unconditional prerogative westerners claim to denounce their leaders whenever they disagree. A Chinese might ask whether the dissident really has the common good in mind, but in the west that suspicion falls on the leader instead.

Liberalism has no place for philosopher kings. It cannot accept the possibility of anyone having such a perfectly objective, disinterested idea of the common good that no one would have good reason to challenge him. Because modern liberalism accepts the premise of multiple goods that aren't necessarily compatible, it distrusts any pretense to objectivity that appears to disqualify other options. Liberalism as it exists now is an ad hominem political philosophy that assumes that every possible leader will be "in it for himself" to enough of a degree to disqualify any claim he might make to indisputable objectivity. The leader or would-be leader may be out to enrich himself, or he may have a lust for power that is an end unto itself for him. That's how we think of people like Mao Zedong and that's why we worry about Xi Jinping -- or Donald Trump.

To be fair to the Chinese, I don't know whether they actually claim that Xi or the Communist Party possess the sort of unimpeachable objectivity that liberalism denies. Xi himself is probably too concerned with battling endemic corruption within the party to believe that even of himself, and the Chinese seem to prefer to argue that since all political systems, including liberal democracy, are vulnerable to abuse of power, communism's concentration and monopolization of power is in itself not tyrannical. Nevertheless, China makes a greater appeal to faith in leadership than the west does, despite the acknowledged cautionary tales of Mao's later years. That may be because they're more honest about the necessity of wielding power than western liberals who still hope that civil society can get on without it. The Chinese most likely think it wiser to accept the risk of abuse of power than to run the risk of making government powerless. Much of the west isn't ready to agree with that yet, still convinced that tyranny is worse than anarchy. If that changes in this century, it won't be because of any Chinese or generic "authoritarian" example. It will more likely be because of the negative examples in our own experience.