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Archive for March, 2012

Constitutional debates swirling around the PPACA’s individual mandate have much to do with federalism. The core issue the Supreme Court is addressing is whether the federal government has essentially unlimited authority in economic policy, or whether they are yet some areas of economic policy-making (such as whether to compel commerce) exclusive to the states. As someone who believes that constitutions ought to be read according to – I don’t know – what their actual words say, I think the entire act is obviously unconstitutional. Article I, section 8 of the U.S. Constitution permits Congress to legislate in order to “regulate commerce…among the several states.” Thus, Congress has the authority to regulate interstate commerce. Not “anything that might be related somehow to interstate commerce,” plus “anything necessary and proper to any of those things.” Of course, no one on the Supreme Court, except perhaps Clarence Thomas on issues like this one, shares my judicial philosophy.

Putting the constitutional issues to one side, however, I want to address the desirability of the kind of federal system that classical liberals — and, perhaps, Justice Thomas — favor. We can summarize that federal system as follows:

  1. The primary regulatory authorities in the country are state and local governments.
  2. The economic role of the federal government is to ensure a common market: to prevent states from levying barriers to the free flow of goods, services, people, and capital, from tariffs to invidious regulations to local preferences in government procurement.
  3. The national court system protects basic human rights and civil liberties from infringement by federal, state, and local governments.
  4. State and local governments fund their activities almost exclusively out of their own resources. The federal government should not, in general, provide grants to state and local governments.
  5. State governments are politically autonomous, constitutionally sovereign, and independently elected. They may legislate freely within the bounds expressed above.
  6. State governments are permitted to form compacts to deal with externalities. For instance, states may choose to adopt uniform regulations on insurance so that companies can sell the same product in multiple states with a quicker approval process. Because states retain their sovereignty, they are free to enter and withdraw from such compacts at any time.

OK – so what are the arguments against this kind of system? (I go over some of the arguments and evidence in favor here.) One common objection to “states’ rights” is that state governments may violate the civil rights of some of their citizens. I share this concern, one reason I don’t think the term “states’ rights” is appropriate for my position; nevertheless, the concern is addressed with point 3 above. Another objection might be that problems like pollution and endangered species can cross state boundaries. Given a sufficiently small number of states, however, I do not see why they cannot contract with each other to solve their commons problems. What else?

There are two concerns about fiscal federalism that many progressives share that I take seriously: that inter-jurisdictional competition under federalism will undermine the welfare state, and that the system will lead to greater inequality among regions. The first concern (more…)

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How should we deal with the “uncompensated care” issue discussed in Tuesday’s Supreme Court oral argument on the Affordable Care Act?  One potential answer is a 2,700 page health care bill that imposes an individual mandate to buy health insurance or face stiff penalties.  

An alternative answer would be that these costs should be paid by the receiver of care or be the responsibility of individual hospitals and healthcare providers who treat those who show up to receive services but can’t or won’t pay.  Leaving aside the former, one could argue that the latter should have to internalize those costs if they are willing to treat the uninsured and those unable/unwilling to pay.  However, this really means that providers will charge higher costs for those who do pay and/or take a hit in the form of lower profits or reducing the costs of service (by lowering the quality of care and the pay/benefits of those who work at such institutions).   The “internalization of cost” answer is clearly not a great one.  

Yet those of us who would face a higher cost for going to providers who service uncompensated care patients could theoretically go to providers who do not and thus can offer less expensive care.  This would put market pressure on providers to stop servicing patients who won’t/can’t pay.  So now we’d have a lot less medical care for the “can’t/won’t pay” population (with some of these people making the trade-off to purchase insurance) – unless providers (such as non-profits) chose to provide care anyway and find a way to make it work in a market populated with both do-gooders and do-wellers.  Some individuals might even choose to pay more for care knowing that they would be subsidizing the charitable works of their do-gooder provider.  However, a lot of people would be far more price sensitive and abandon those providers – making it harder for those places to survive.  So I’m not sure this is a live option even in theory. 

More importantly, it isn’t an option in reality.  Indeed, such discussion is moot because Congress has essentially forced hospitals to provide uncompensated care - so one government intervention begets the rationale for another (the ACA)!

This brings us to the receiver of care and how providers ought to deal with those who can’t/won’t pay.  I would argue that part of the problem of uncompensated care could be handled by health care providers being more vigilant about collecting fees even if this means being a lot more stern (even “nasty”) with those who don’t/can’t pay.  For example, the hospital could be more serious at the point of service about discussing the social costs and immorality of not paying for services rendered.  Perhaps shame might push some people who probably could pay (but who don’t want to trade-off other goods in their lives) into the do pay category.  And there are a lot of folks out there who could pay if they were willing to allocate more resources to health care and less to other goods they enjoy.  Case in point: an acquaintance of mine in graduate school sought ER care and refused to pay.  He was neither truly poor nor unable to pay but simply took advantage of the system so as to avoid trading off other things in his life.  A pointed stare might have shamed him into taking his responsibilities more seriously.  Or…    

If moral suasion doesn’t work, it should be possible to garnish the future wages of uninsured patients or otherwise seek compensation for services rendered.  There is no free lunch in the world and this would serve to make those who receive care pay….eventually (and incentivize health insurance purchase before the need to seek care).  This won’t work for the homeless or those permanently out of work, but these people likely represent such a small part of the problem that it would be far less expensive to the rest of us to subsidize them through higher insurance premiums than to do so through the tax system as ObamaCare does. If there are some legal barriers to such efforts as wage garnishing, these should be eased. 

Wouldn’t such moves and others like them incentivize people to purchase health insurance without coercion or at least make them face the need to pay the costs of their decision?  And isn’t that what we ultimately want? 

Of course, the healthcare system would work a heck of a lot better if we actually had a relatively free market in which hospitals and other health care providers could compete freely on the basis of price and quality of service, advertise this, compete across state lines, and so forth — thus also making insurance less expensive. 

I’d rather try a freer market approach or the one we have with real teeth for failure to pay than successive attempts to rationalize a system with massive government intervention.  And yes, I do realize that there will be people who truly cannot provide for themselves and who are not simply making bad decisions or externalizing the costs of their choices re: trade-offs.  For these people, charity and even government assistance will probably be necessary.  But there is way too much moral hazard and disincentivizing proper behavior in this realm.

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Those of you who followed Grover’s link and read the transcript (or even better, heard the audio) of yesterday’s Supreme Court hearing may find the following quote entertaining (h/t Politico). The Source: White House Counsel Kathryn Ruemmler.

“Mr. Verrilli is an extraordinarily talented advocate who possesses a sharp mind, keen judgment, and unquestionable integrity. He ably and skillfully represented the United States before the Supreme Court yesterday, and we have every confidence that he will continue to do so.”

I know that this is a little outside of Ms Ruemmler’s portfolio, but I wonder if she could recommend a solar panel company that I might invest in? I’ve heard good things about this company named Solyndra.

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Audio of Day 2 of oral arguments in the ObamaCare case here

And I’m not the only one saying that the SG was having some trouble today.  Jeffrey Toobin - no libertarian or conservative – boldly stated that:  “This was a train wreck for the Obama administration.”

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The long war is hemorrhaging support among the public. As the NYT reports, a new NYT/CBS poll provides some rather striking evidence:

The survey found that more than two-thirds of those polled — 69 percent — thought that the United States should not be at war in Afghanistan. Just four months ago, 53 percent said that Americans should no longer be fighting in the conflict, more than a decade old.

Even National Review seems to be souring on the war, if a post from today’s Corner is any indication. As Michael Walsh observes:

This is not a Good War….It’s time to wrap up this decade-long farce, time for both civilian leaders and military brass to take a long, hard look at the demoralizing mess we’ve made in Afghanistan, and to ask how America can avoid such mistakes in the future.

Walsh goes on to derive several lessons (all of which were apparent to many of us long ago and were reinforced by our time in Iraq) and concludes:

There was nothing wrong with going into Afghanistan in the first place. The Taliban was sheltering Osama bin Laden, and it was there that the 9/11 plot was hatched. The U.S. was right to mount a punitive expedition and remove the Islamic radicals from power — a mission that was quickly accomplished, thanks to a daring, special-ops-led military strategy that quickly routed the fundamentalists.

And that should have been that. We should have declared mission accomplished, pulled out, and left the Afghans to their own devices. It never should have morphed — under both George W. Bush and Barack Obama — into a fruitless exercise in tea-brewing. Some backwaters will always be backwaters, and deservedly so.

I almost feel as if I just read a quote from a decade-old issue of the American Conservative or, for that matter, a Ron Paul speech circa 2002.

Returning to the poll results above, one might dismiss them as a short-term reaction to the recent events in Afghanistan. Or one might, following Michael E. O’Hanlon, (the Brookings Institution) and attribute the low levels of support to the ignorance of citizens. In his words (from the above cited NYT article):

“I honestly believe if more people understood that there is a strategy and intended sequence of events with an end in sight, they would be tolerant…The overall image of this war is of U.S. troops mired in quicksand and getting blown up and arbitrarily waiting until 2014 to come home. Of course you’d be against it.”

Perhaps. But it may also be the case that after more than a decade of war and nation-building, citizens have finally had enough.

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1.  We can now call it ObamaCare without sounding partisan or oppositional.

2.  A New York Times profile of “The Most Interesting Legal Scholar in the World.”

3.  Along the theme of liberal preparation of the information battlespace should ObamaCare lose in the courts.

4.  Public opinion shouldn’t matter a bit when it comes to the constitutionality of the law, but fyi, ObamaCare still unpopular.

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According to Nicholas Capaldi’s expansive biography of John Stuart Mill, the great British philosopher argued that “All lasting political reform is not accomplished directly, through partisan activity, but indirectly, through the reform of culture.” 

As someone who thinks political culture is an underrated variable (the possible result of Weber’s problematic “Protestant Ethic” argument), I find Mill’s claim compelling.  However, there are also key choice moments that deeply change the future as certain paths are followed or not and that themselves help structure the future nature of our political culture.  Like the New Deal, won’t ObamaCare change the nature of state-society relations in ways that will affect our institutions and our culture?  Isn’t that why its passage and likely ratification by the Supreme Court is so potentially dangerous?

And yet perhaps ObamaCare or something like it is the inevitable consequence of deeper changes in our political culture along the lines suggested by James Buchanan in his wonderful piece “Afraid to be Free.”

If Mill is right, places like TFAS and the Institute for Humane Studies are incredibly important since they attempt to educate the youth about a certain set of important ideas that contribute to a political culture supportive of liberal democracy.

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And so it begins

What to read today as the Supreme Court begins to hear the ObamaCare challenge:

1.   It is a tax except when it isn’t? 

2.  Robert Samuelson on the impact of ObamaCare on health outcomes:  “The ACA’s fate will dramatically affect government and the health care system; the impact on Americans’ health will be far more modest.”

3.  Ilya Somin against ObamaCare at CNN.

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My take is that the Ryan House budget simply allows business as usual in Washington to continue and does not go far enough to deal with our debt and deficit problems.  Under this plan, the government will still run a very substantial deficit that is only marginally smaller than Obama’s preferred budget.  Moreover, even if one assumes it is movement in the right direction, it doesn’t move things very far in that direction as compensation for all of the flak Republicans will have to take (and are already taking) for it.  If your plan is going to get described so negatively and with such hyperbole, you might as well propose something big as your starting point for negotiations.  To paraphrase the warning Mel Gibson’s character in the Patriot gives to his son, “aim small, miss big.” 

I’m with Marc here; the Republican position on budgetary policy is “An echo not a choice.”

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As we know, crisis is the mother of state expansion.  Once the authority of the state is expanded under the cover of crisis, it never returns to the previous levels post crisis.  A few weeks ago, I posted on Attorney General Holder’s defense of targeted killings of US citizens abroad.

Today’s installment: the administration is seeking to limit restrictions on the use of retention of data collected about US citizens even when collected for non-security purposes. AG Holder signed new guidelines for the National Counterterroism Center. As Charlie Savage (NYT) explains:

The guidelines will lengthen to five years — from 180 days — the amount of time the center can retain private information about Americans when there is no suspicion that they are tied to terrorism, intelligence officials said. The guidelines are also expected to result in the center making more copies of entire databases and “data mining them” using complex algorithms to search for patterns that could indicate a threat.

What data are we speaking of? This is an important question, particularly given the efforts of the government in recent years to leverage private data sources.

The new rules are silent about the use of commercial data — like credit card and travel records — that may have been acquired by other agencies. In 2009, Wired Magazine obtained a list of databases acquired by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, one of the agencies that shares information with the center. It included nearly 200 million records transferred from private data brokers like ChoicePoint, 55,000 entries on customers of Wyndham hotels, and numerous other travel and commercial records.

Even though the administration failed to make draft guidelines available in advance, it nonetheless eased concerns of potential critics by noting (1) that it could already get this data, albeit in a more cumbersome fashion; and (2) there will be safeguards against abuse, including internal audits.

Feeling assured?

This reminds one of the Holder defense of the targeted killing of US citizens abroad. Ah yes, we could arrest and try US citizens and guarantee due process, but how cumbersome (particularly when the targets are in foreign countries that might not be fully cooperative). And in any event, Holder told us, there were internal safeguards that amounted to due process, even if it did not include the courts.

If all of this reminds you of the Bush-era Total Information Awareness program that was under development by John Poindexter, it should (for a refresher on this program in historical conext, see the Gene Healy  2003 piece at Cato, and the Savage article cited above).

At the time, the Bush administration made the same basic case for Total Information Awareness as the Obama administration is making now. Poindexter  assured critics that the TIA program would “break down the stovepipes” that separate various data bases, both public and private. There were also assurances that the program would respect the constitutional expectations of citizens.

No one bought the argument in 2003, particularly the press that seemed intent on shining light on the Bush administration’s efforts to infringe on civil liberties.

One wonders: will the press will play a comparable role today?

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Should we take anything serious that the author of this piece on the ObamaCare court decision writes after its opening two lines?  Here they are:

Conventional political wisdom holds that the U.S. Supreme Court, scheduled to hear a challenge to President Barack Obama’s healthcare law beginning on Monday, is likely to strike it down on partisan lines. The court’s Republican appointees enjoy a 5-4 majority.

This is remarkable given that the conventional wisdom for a long-time, held even by ObamaCare’s opponents, is that a court victory for the administration is the most likely result of the legal process set in motion by the passage of the controversial law and its individual mandate. 

It makes me wonder if the commentariat - after long-holding that the legal challenge was going nowhere due to its jurisprudential baselessness (see Nancy Pelosi and Linda Greenhouse, for example) - is preparing the intellectual and political information battlespace for a court loss.  In particular, are they trying to build the narrative that a decision against ObamaCare would have to be the result of pure politics since serious people across the board agree that the law is constitutional?  Naturally, this ignores a lot of smart voices out there who have made the case against the law (including all of the great work done by the “Most Interesting Legal Scholar in the World“). 

Of course, the piece’s author is right that there may be 2 (or more) “conservative” votes out there supporting the law’s constitutionality.  So we could get a 6-3 or even 7-2 vote.  But that would just be repeating what we’ve heard as the conventional wisdom since the process began!

If I could get one wish politically (domestic) for 2012, it would be that this abomination be struck down by the Supreme Court.  I’d even prefer this to adding President Obama to the unemployment rolls.  I engage in no hyperbole when I say that the logic of the individual mandate is far more dangerous to our future than anything that Obama the Sequel could reasonably do ahead (especially given that Republicans won’t lose the House in 2012 or 2014).

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The Ryan Budget

There has been much coverage of the Ryan budget plan (details here), most of it is quite predictable. Robert Reich (Christian Science Monitor) tells us that it is an expression of  “pure social Darwinism. Reward the rich and cut off the help to anyone who needs it.” Paul Krugman (New York Times), always cautious about issuing ad hominem attacks, devotes most of his discussion to Ryan, who he describes as a “clown,” a “flim-flam man,” a “charlatan” and a “fraud.”  Of course, he also notes that the budget is “a plan to savage the poor while giving big tax breaks to the rich.” Heather Boushey (Center for American Progress) describes it as “austerity on steroids.”

Of course, all of this is sound and fury, signifying nothing. The Ryan plan will never survive the budgetary process (not that there is anything resembling a budgetary process in the Senate). With respect to the overall fiscal impact, Nick Gillespie (Reason) lays out the stark differences:

The Ryan plan says that we will spend $3.6 trillion this year while bringing in $2.4 trillion in FY2012. In contrast, President Obama’s budget says that we will shell out $3.8 trillion in FY2012 and bring in $2.5 trillion.

Certainly, there are some interesting components–most notably, taxes and Medicare–that demand careful scrutiny. But it is difficult to make the case that a budget plan that calls for a $1.2 trillion deficit is a plan for austerity, not to mention “austerity on steroids.”

Gillespie continues:

Ryan’s plan is weak tea. Here we are, years into a governmental deficit situation that shows no sign of ending. How is it that Ryan and the Republican leadership cannot even dream of balancing a budget over 10 years’ time? All of the discussion of reforming entitlements and the tax code and everything else is really great and necessary – I mean that sincerely – but when you cannot envision a way of reducing government spending after a decade-plus of an unrestrained spending binge, then you are not serious about cutting government. If Milton Friedman was right that spending is the proper measure of the government’s size and scope in everybody’s life, then the establishment GOP is signaling what we knew all along: They are simply an echo of the Democratic Party.

There was a day when the GOP could make the claim of offering “a choice, not an echo.” Unsurprisingly, the GOP learned that offering a choice was often counterproductive. With respect to fiscal responsibility, those days seem to be a thing of the past.

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The New Hampshire House, dominated 3-to-1 by Republicans, has just voted by an approximately 2-to-1 majority to kill a bill that would have repealed same-sex marriage and reinstate civil unions. Along with passage of marijuana decriminalization (by a single vote), this vote helps to demonstrate the increasingly libertarian, live-and-let-live character of the New Hampshire GOP.(*)

Meanwhile, the NH Senate just passed a bill to give businesses tax credits for funding private and out-of-district public school scholarships.

(*) I am of two minds on same-sex marriage. I support it on a personal level, as I do not see any good reason for government or anyone else to discriminate against same-sex couples. At the same time, I recognize that some people have deeply held religious objections to same-sex unions and object to having their tax dollars pay for government endorsement of these unions. For that reason, I favor getting government out of marriage licensing altogether.

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When George Bush presided over the passage of the Patriot Act, Americans were treated to a number of assertions about the necessity of preparedness. Such an act, in time of emergency we were told, was essential to protect against hostiles ever vigilant in the prosecution of mayhem, and history was to be our guide.

Conservative pundits and personalities the media over subsequently touched only lightly, if ever, on issues of liberty, constitutionality, and limited government. The great body of the conservative chorus sings of the lessons of history. Among the most sacrosanct are those supposedly drawn from World War II.

Early invocations against the global manifestation of evil saw in every third world despot an aspiring Hitler. A world thus filled with enemies required the mobilization of forces both domestic and international. As a result, America got a massive act of thousands of pages the implications of which no one really understood and which has been continuously amended and renewed.

Lo and behold how surprised the Right was when the Administration of another political party assumed the helm and began to avail itself of these newly concentrated powers and simply raised the question of right-wing extremism.  The problem, though, was not with the act itself apparently, but only with its application. How sad. And perhaps even worse, is the degree to which derision and denigration are regularly heaped on those who dare raise questions of constitutionality or principle.

Now the current chief executive has signed yet another renewal of a policy that long preceded the Patriot Act, but which concentrated power every bit as much: The National Defense Resources Preparedness order—originally signed in 1950. In times of emergency, this order affirms the authority to seize all necessary resources within the nation. At least when this order was originally put forward, people had not yet considered the possibility of extending the definition of emergency so far as we do today.

In light of the War on Terror, a conflict without foreseeable end and for which there can be no clear demarcation of boundaries, this policy has about it all the characteristics, not of emergency, but of normal operating procedure. And is the Right protesting? No. Where is the conservative commentariat?  The frog rests comfortably in its pot …

I suspect one reason for such complacency is the mantra: “The Lessons of World War II.”

Fearful that we will be ”once more” caught off guard, we assert anything defense related as entirely reasonable. After all, is not the great exception to limited government, defense? Is not security the necessary, if not the fundamental duty, of government? But if you are worried that we might have gone too far, remember World War II! Remember Neville Chamberlain! Never ever give them an inch.

But there are other lessons too.

In my last post I suggested that we may have extended ourselves a bit too much onto the world stage. Surely one lesson of World War II worthy of consideration, is not to engage in multiple fronts at a time! Well, you might say, that applies only to the bad guys. America is different. We fought the badies on multiple fronts then, and we can do so now. But unless you want to assert that we can spend with abandon on both domestic and foreign programs without end, that seems naive in the extreme—not to say unhistorical

But if that doesn’t convince you, another lesson might be to constrain what we call an emergency. Let us not forget the great weakness of the Weimar Constitution: Article 48 was the section that allowed the president of the German government to suspend all fundamental rights in time of danger. I suggest people look it up and compare the wording of our emergency measures with the words of this provision.

Oh, but you say, this is America—nasty things can’t happen here. We are different. OK, but then, is this an historical argument, or the assertion of divine favor? I would suggest we, as Americans, are who we are because of the protections we once defended in law. If we aren’t defending them anymore, do we remain the same people?

Indeed, let us think deeply on the lessons of World War II, but then let us also ask, are we paying attention to the right ones?

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Here is a convenient, occasionally updated source on liberty-related legislation that has been enacted into law in New Hampshire this session. There have been a number of changes since the Republican sweep in 2010, some of them despite vetoes from the populist Democratic governor. Most of these changes are minor, but the cumulative effect of the spending and tax cuts, in particular, will be significant.

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David Corn’s soon-to-be released new book Showdown examines the pivot to address deficits in the summer of 2010-11. Many Democrats were bewildered that the administration would move on to the GOP’s turf and begin addressing the problem of deficits and debt (one might pause for a moment and ask whether there is any empirical evidence to suggest that the GOP—or either of the major parties—can make a claim to being the party of fiscal responsibility).  After all, there were many on the left that were making a powerful argument that the stimulus was insufficient and now was not the time to move to anything remotely resembling austerity (one might pause again and ask how reducing the pace of expansion can be cast as austerity, but again, I digress).

The answer, as revealed in some excerpts in Greg Sargent’s Plum Line (WaPo) was strictly poll driven:

Plouffe was concerned that voter unease about the deficit could become unease about the president. … voters needed to know — or feel — that the president could manage the nation’s finances. The budget was a test of government competence — that is, Obama’s competence.

And on a meeting of February 2011:

With Sperling sitting in on the presentation, Garin reinforced the White House view that Democrats had to up their game on deficit reduction. His firm had conducted extensive polling and focus groups. He told the senators that voters saw jobs as the most pressing priority. This might seem to support those Democrats who believed Obama had gone too far overboard on the deficit-reduction cruise. But when asked what the president and Congress should do to boost job creation, most voters said reduce the deficit and the debt. They had imbibed the GOP message; the problem with the economy was governmental red ink.

What I find particularly disturbing—even if unsurprising—is the following:

  1. We have an extraordinarily devastating problem: the slow pace of recovery and job creation.
  2. Those with a seat at the table understand the problem in Keynesian terms. They have a clear understanding of causality grounded in Keynesianism and a set of clear policy prescriptions that are drawn from theory.
  3. They nonetheless cast aside these policy prescriptions because—drum roll—voters embrace a faulty understanding of the economy and assume that deficits lead to unemployment.  They will not buy anything the Democrats have to say about the recovery if they do not believe that the administration is committed to deficit reduction.

Note: I am not concerned here with whether Keynesianism provides the best guidance to economic policymaking. Rather, it is the willingness of elected officials to embrace policies that they believe will be counterproductive simply because it sells before focus groups.

As Edmund Burke noted when arguing that representatives should be trustees rather than mere delegates: “Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.” One would only wish that elected officials of both parties would spend less time with focus groups and more time with Burke, at least when thinking about representation.

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Political libertarians are a motley lot in terms of their moral philosophies. There are three dominant strands – utilitarians like Milton Friedman, deontologists like Robert Nozick, and teleologists like Ayn Rand – but I’ve also met egoists, postmodernists, and Rawls-style egalitarian consequentialists. In debates over moral foundations, Randians often ally themselves with the deontologists in support of “natural rights” (a bit of a misnomer, as deontologists prefer not to locate the source of rights in “nature” but in reason).

Critical Review editor Jeffrey Friedman, a utilitarian, used to say that rights libertarians are more dogmatic than utilitarians on questions of social science. He was extremely skeptical of the line of argument, commonly found in Rothbard, that libertarian policy X is justified on the grounds of both liberty and utility. What are the chances that the world just happens to line up in such a way that perfect justice and liberty also maximize social welfare in every instance? He calls himself a “post-libertarian” in part because he believes that the empirical evidence is unsettled as to the frontiers of the proper (i.e., utility-maximizing) roles of government. And he believes that it is a mark in favor of utilitarianism as a moral philosophy that rights libertarians are extremely reluctant to admit that any of their policy conclusions might not maximize social welfare.

Now, I would make several points in response. First, (more…)

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WordPress has a neat new feature that reports aggregate views by country (no big brother here as it doesn’t report any more detailed information as far as I know). 

Not surprising that most of our readers are in the US (or at least have US IP addresses).  However, I was a bit surprised to see that the Philippines ranked 4th (well-behind the US, Britain, and Canada) since the inception of this new aggregator.  I wonder if this ranking will survive the relatively small sample of days for which these stats were collected.  Thanks to all of our readers in the Philippines (or those using IP addresses from the Philippines!).

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From James Bartholomew comparing Singapore to Britain:

Its GDP per capita has overtaken that of Britain according to the World Bank, the IMF and the CIA World Factbook, each of which has a different way of measuring. Yet still it grows. Last year it was up another 5 per cent. Meanwhile Britain desperately tries to avoid a double-dip recession. The contrast is stark.

And here is a newspaper headline that you won’t see in Britain any time soon. Every country is suffering from dreadful economic conditions, right? Here’s the headline: ‘Jobless rate falls to 14-year low’. It was in the Straits Times earlier this month. The latest fall in unemployment brings the proportion out of a job down to 2 per cent. Meanwhile the average salary of Singaporeans has risen by 6 per cent in the past year.

Keynesians — in the corrupted sense of ‘those who believe in yet more deficit financing whenever there is an economic problem’ — may well assume that the government has splurged to achieve this remarkable result. Not at all. Here is another headline from the Straits Times: ‘Government surplus “to exceed forecast”.’

The entire interesting article from which this quotation comes is here

Singapore’s economic performance and level of economic freedom are laudable – and as the article notes, something from which we could certainly learn a thing or ten.  However, Singapore raises two big questions for classical liberals:

1.  Could the Singapore model work outside of the city-state context?

2.  Will the Singapore model in terms of economic freedom survive liberalization in terms of individual and civil rights?  Perhaps a good test case would be to expand individual rights outside of the economic realm before expanding civil rights.  This probably sounds bass-ackwards to most in the West today.

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Consider the following argument:

Jill: You have to watch the NCAA tournament with me.

Jack: Not interested. Go watch it yourself.

Jill: Why is it that you you think you can deny me the right to watch the tournament? You must hate me!

Obviously, this is silly.  But when we make the argument real and about something far more serious, somehow it is socially permissible to engage in the identical tortured logic:

“You must provide contraception coverage to all your employees.” 

“My employees are certainly welcome to use contraception, but I’m morally opposed to funding it.” 

“How dare you try to impose your views on others and deny women the right to use contraception.  You hate women.” 

Huh?

No one in the country was talking about contraception before the Administration announced their plans to force employers to provide contraceptive coverage, regardless of their religious or ethical beliefs.  Yet add in a Presidential candidate who actually believes what his church teaches, a crass joke by one of his supporters, and an idiot radio jock making derogatory comments, and all of the sudden we have a new media story: the “War on Women.”

Maureen Dowd, for instance, claims that “Republican men” are trying to “wrestle American women back into chastity belts.”  So now, Republicans not only want to deny the right to contraception, but want to deny women sex all together.

And Hillary Clinton gets into the act by saying that “extremists” (by which she apparently means people who don’t agree with her) “…want to control women. They want to control how we dress. They want to control how we act. They even want to control the decisions we make about our own health and bodies.”

This War on Women nonsense would be the stuff of an over-the-top SNL skit, were it not so pervasive.  When supposedly respectable people say the same thing over and over again, it starts to seep into the consciousness of the marginally-informed and becomes a truism that people believe, regardless of how ridiculous it is.

Does liberty stand a chance when faced with this rhetorical assault?  It makes me despair.

This is a larger issue than just contraception and insurance.  Even though there are federal protections for health care providers regarding freedom of conscience in health care provision, these protections are continuously under attack.  The Desert News published today an excellent and even-handed account of the abortion establishment’s attempt to deny freedom of conscience to nurses, physicians and even pharmacists who are morally opposed to participating in abortions.  Were it not for the vigilance of groups like the Alliance Defense Fund who have waged legal battles to protect the religious liberty of conscientious objectors, the freedom of conscience would be losing even more ground.

It has been close to two months since the Obama Administration started us down this road.  During that time, they have skillfully turned the national story line from one where the Administration attacks religious liberty to one where the GOP is waging war on women.  Man, it’s too bad they can’t pull the same type of stunt in the foreign policy arena.  If they could, Karzai would be begging our forgiveness for his country’s protection of terrorists rather than trying to kick us out.  No such luck, I guess.

And in those same two months, about 100,000 female fetuses (also known as baby girls) have been killed in America.

Talk about your war on women!

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ADA and Swimming Pools

As many of you may know – especially those travelling for spring break this week – the Federal government’s new Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) rule mandating lifts for existing hotel swimming pools was supposed to go into effect today.  Fortunately, the compliance deadline has been extended.  The bad news is that the rule exists at all.  Indeed, it may already be impacting Americans with and without disabilities.  In particular, as one might expect, some hotels are thinking about shutting down their pools rather than pay the relatively high cost of complying with the rule (according to the article linked to above, that figure is between $3,000 and $6,000).        

I’ve been in two different hotels during the last couple of days and one of them had closed its pool due to “circumstances beyond the control of the hotel.”  The other, when I asked its life guard about the issue, had no clue what I was talking about.  Unfortunately, it was late so I wasn’t able to find anyone who might know something about the rule.

I did catch the tail end of a CNN interview today on the matter with Nick Gillespie of Reason (I’d link to it but haven’t seen the interview on the web yet).  He was very good, though Nick (wisely perhaps) eluded a question about the more philosophical issue of whether such laws for the disabled should exist and turned it into a nice point about the unintended consequences of our good intentions.

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As Ron Paul’s campaign quietly recedes into oblivion, I am astounded by how little direct engagement has been made with his ideas by the leading voices on the Right. The vast majority of conservative commentators have chosen the short-term strategy of derision and ad hominem. He has been scorned as a conspiracy nut, a “truther,” or “the fringe.” However effective that approach may have been in the near term, it has revealed a flaw in the present conservative mindset—a flaw which I suspect gnaws away at the psyche of our leading pundits.

Paul’s views on foreign policy are entirely consistent with his conservative understanding of American constitutional government and the ideas of individual liberty and free enterprise. His views are so consistent in fact, that taking them on directly requires a great deal of energy and consideration. More particularly, it is very, very hard to assert that the military-industrial complex is not itself a problem every bit as serious in its implications for liberty as the welfare state.

What has made Paul so troubling is that he has very carefully and logically pointed out that the economic principles which American conservatives supposedly affirm, apply as much to military bureaucracy and administration as they do to any of the interventions of which the left is so very fond. If there is to be a serious effort to reduce not only the nation’s debt, but also the individual’s dependence on government, it will surely need to engage not only domestic social spending, but America’s military-industrial commitments. That is not happening on the right of the political spectrum in anywhere near the degree that is necessary. Indeed, just the opposite is happening.

The more the threat of fiscal ruin confronts us, the more all things military are being wrapped in the flag and shielded from any serious analysis based on core conservative principles. That will have far-reaching implications not only for our fiscal and political well-being, but our culture.

Increasingly conservatives appear to be willing to pay deeper homage to values of martial valor and discipline, and a near limitless demand for personal sacrifice than to those of personal independence and liberty. The rhetorical appeal of these martial virtues is only too apparent when contrasted with an effete Left for which nothing seems too tawdry to subsidize.

But let us not kid ourselves. If the martial virtues ultimately replace the virtues of individual independence and personal responsibility, rather than merely supplementing them, we will no longer have liberty or limited constitutional government. Spartan predominance was not a good long-run outcome for Greece as a whole.

There is a good case to be made for a strong effective military force. There is a good case to be made for constrained but direct engagement with enemies abroad. But to make that case consistent with freedom, the argument must be grounded on the core traditional commitments of our constitutionally limited republic under law. We cannot simply harp on and on about foreign and domestic terrorists. Those who profess to be conservatives cannot blithely continue to ignore the questions of extended and extensive military engagements and the consequences which follow from them for expenditure and economic dependence (not to mention the Constitution) which Paul has raised.

Unfortunately, fear now drives the engines of both parties, whether it be the fear of economic uncertainty or the fear of hostile enemies everywhere, and this is why the short-term strategy to deal with Paul has been so effective. If we continue down this path, though, as many of our military leaders must certainly realize, that victory will ultimately prove Pyrrhic, even if it were to somehow win the White House.

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Political scientists are an odd bunch. They get excited by the establishment of political authority and by its dissolution, by good governance and bad. Every political scientist undoubtedly has a list of things that he or she would find fascinating.  It looks like this year I may be able to check off another item.

Collapse of the Soviet Union (1991)

Death of an entitlement (1996)

Presidential impeachment (1998)

Balanced federal budget (1999)

Presidential election decided by the Supreme Court (2000)

Presidential selection by House of Representatives

Brokered convention (2012?)

Constitutional convention

Rediscovery of 10th Amendment

 

I’ll note that Newt was involved in several of the crossed out items (1996, 1998, and 1999). Given his seeming insistence to stay in the GOP nomination contest, it looks like he will be involved in another.

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James Fallows has an interesting piece entitled “Obama, Explained” in the new Atlantic. I strongly recommend the article. It is insightful, relatively evenhanded, and illustrated with some excerpts from interviews with a broad array of sources.

An important question frames his analysis:

This is the central mystery of his performance as a candidate and a president. Has Obama in office been anything like the chess master he seemed in the campaign, whose placid veneer masked an ability to think 10 moves ahead, at which point his adversaries would belatedly recognize that they had lost long ago? Or has he been revealed as just a pawn—a guy who got lucky as a campaigner but is now pushed around by political opponents who outwit him and economic trends that overwhelm him?

Fallows examines in some detail several standard complaints, including Obama’s inexperience, his personal coldness, and complacency about the talent of those he appoints. Overall, there seems to be a good deal of substance to these complaints. He finds Obama’s greatest strength in foreign policy.  In the end, of course, the question of whether Obama is remembered as a chess master or a pawn will depend on what happens in 2012.

As Fallows concludes:

 If Barack Obama loses this fall, he will forever seem a disappointment: a symbolically important but accidental figure who raised hopes he could not fulfill and met difficulties he did not know how to surmount. He meant to show the unity of America but only underscored its division. As a candidate, he symbolized transformation; in office, he applied incrementalism and demonstrated the limits of change. His most important achievement, helping forestall a second Great Depression, will be taken for granted or discounted in the dismay about the economic problems he did not solve. His main legislative accomplishment, the health-care bill, may well be overturned; his effect on America’s international standing will pass; his talk about bridging the partisan divide will seem one more sign of his fatal naïveté. If he is reelected, he will have a chance to solidify what he has accomplished and, more important, build on what he has learned. All of this is additional motivation, as if he needed any, for him to drive for reelection; none of it makes him any more palatable to those who oppose him and his goals.

 

 

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Here is an example of a libgressive policy recommendation that aims at securing heaven on earth with no regard for the constraints of the market,  the rational behavior of sub-state actors, and individual freedom:

We need a food equity law in this country, forcing large grocery chains to open stores in low-income areas. As part of this law, we need food regulators checking the produce and comparing it store to store, with large fines if stores in rich areas have significantly better access to fresh food and significantly better quality and freshness of the fruits and vegetables.

Healthy food is a right and should not be solely left to the profit motive.

Note what Prof. Loomis wants the state  to do to corporations with its coercive power – not nudging, but stomping them until they do what he wants them to do, and then stomping them some more if the leafy greens aren’t the color of the grass at Fenway Park.  So much for freedom!   

What is especially sad is that Prof. Loomis doesn’t seem to appreciate that the state itself (via zoning and other regulations) is frequently responsible for keeping large box grocery stores out of low-income neighborhoods.  And rather than Prof. Munger’s large corporate overlords working to entrench their power and profits against the public interest, it is often a baptist and bootlegger coalition of neighborhood activists and small (rent-seeking) businesses that stop the Wal-Marts of the world from doing what Loomis desires.  I don’t deny the capture model of politics – but it isn’t always the large corporations that win.  A bit too much Marx within Munger’s model, perhaps?  Very old school (and pre-Stiglerian?).

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Duke University political scientist Mike Munger recently made the following claim over at his fun blog KPC:

1. The left needs to admit that the state=coercion, which can metastasize into violence, and does so metastasize.

2. Libertarians need to admit that Karl Marx was right about concentrated corporate power. It’s every bit as dangerous, and in fact in most important ways it’s no different from, the worst aspects of the state. So, ipso facto, concentrated corporate power=coercion (see above about metastasis).

Baloney! 

Sure, it is easy for someone – left, right, or center – to agree that the state = coercion.  Heck, anyone who has read Max Weber (“Arguably the foremost social theorist of the twentieth century” according to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy), taken a PoliSci 101 course, or been on the wrong side of the IRS or local law enforcement can understand that the “state is a human community that (successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory.”*  In other words, it is, as Weber understood, an institution of violence and domination.  Therefore it doesn’t “metastasize into violence” – it is the embodiment of purposeful violence by definition.

I don’t think the (educated) left disagrees with this definition as much as it thinks that a state can use this violence justly to achieve certain ends.  Of course, ideally state force would only occur via a process that is roughly democratic (though this is not necessarily the case as witnessed by the left’s approval of using courts to achieve social justice regardless of the views of the demos and a lot of recent EU history in which elites move forward with plans despite a vast democratic deficit).  And I for one have a hard time disagreeing with them that state violence can be justified for certain just ends (we just disagree on those ends) given that I’m not an anarchist.  Moreover, I don’t have a problem with the process being insulated in part from the people since I too fear the dangers of democratic rule (or at least of too much democracy).

However, the most problematic part of Munger’s claim is the second part.  I’m certainly willing to admit as a libertarian that concentrated corporate power can be dangerous.  However, I hardly think logic or history can support his argument that “It’s every bit as dangerous, and in fact in most important ways it’s no different from, the worst aspects of the state.”  Really? 

One doesn’t even need to use a sort of reductio ad Hitlerum to conclude that states have killed, maimed, robbed, and otherwise violated the human rights of far more individuals than large corporations (especially when one factors in only intentional rather than accidental harms like the Bhopal disaster**).  Moreover, corporations in even a constrained market are likely to face competition that keeps their size and power limited.  And if they could grow in size, scope, and power to rival small states, one would imagine the hand of monopoly grants by a larger state behind it!  But large states wouldn’t allow their own power to be rivaled by such corporations.  As Bruce Bueno de Mesquita points out in “The Dictator’s Handbook,” companies like Yukos were decimated by the state when they and their bosses got too rich and powerful.      

So the real danger from corporations is when they are tied to state power a la corporatism.  Absent this tie, corporations have very limited power and certainly far from the coercive power Munger claims.  Without the state initiating force on their behalf, concentrated corporate power isn’t “coercion” by any common definition of that term.  Coercion is the use or threat of unwanted physical violence by one person or legal entity against another. Can any other definition actually be honestly sustained, especially for use within a libertarian framework? 

Concentrated corporate power may lead to unjust use of power – that’s something we can actually debate – but it is an abuse of the English language to say it is “coercion.” 

* Max Weber, “Politics as a Vocation.”

** If Wikipedia is to be believed, the state was also involved in that tragedy to some extent given the Indian government owned almost half the company!

HT: Jason Sorens

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An interesting and irksome article in the Chronicle of Higher Education (sorry, the original is gated) caught my eye this week.  Phillip Sullivan (a pseudonym) writes about the ethical conflict he faced when, after formally accepting a tenure-track job offer from what he thought was his dream school, he got an even dreamier offer from another university.

The irksomeness is twofold: first, there is a little bit of nose-rubbing to all the thousands of degree-laden folks who can’t find a single tenure-track job, not to mention two.  Most readers of the Chronicle probably wished they had such a difficult ethical dilemma to untangle.

But, petty jealousies aside, the truly irksome part of the article was that it gave no guidance whatsoever on how to deal with the dilemma in an ethical way.  He ultimately rejects the original suitor and concludes that:

  • “Ethics on the academic job market seems to mean different things to different people at different times.”  True enough, though this just speaks to the obvious fact that ethical behavior is challenging; if it weren’t, no one would study it!
  • “…the ethical decision is situation-dependent.”  Possibly, tell me more.
  • “The right choice is the best one for you.”  Say what?!

Is not the root of ethical decision-making, regardless of one’s ethical framework, the idea that our behavior affects other people and other people matter?  Sullivan imposed real consequences on real people.   I’m only an amateur, but I cannot pin down the ethical theory that says the right choice is simply the one that is best for me.  To my mind, that is just a way of saying, “I don’t care what the ethical demands are; I’m doing what I want.”

Sullivan was clearly troubled by having to back out of his original commitment, and he went into great detail about how upset the people giving the first offer were at his backing out, especially after they had “built the Fall schedule around him.”  He was “very sorry,” he kept repeating.  Is that enough?

I am not sure Sullivan’s behavior was unethical.  I think of the case in Sense and Sensibility where Edward is fully committed to entering into a marriage with Lucy that he does not want, thereby abandoning Elanor, the woman he loves, just because he had entered into a secret engagement years before.  In the world of Jane Austen, this was a credit to his character, but I’m not so sure.  Certainly entering into a loveless marriage just to keep one’s word is an ethically problematic (to say the least) behavior.  Perhaps Sullivan’s situation is comparable.

Sullivan might have at least explored other options.  Perhaps he could have kept his commitment for a year, allowing the small college that was depending on him to cover their classes.  This loveless marriage would be painful, yet temporary.  I am not close enough to the case to know what might have been possible.

But I am sure that ethical behavior usually requires some pain, some discomfort, some personal sacrifice.  Otherwise it is just pure self-interest.  In the end, an ethical analysis might have concluded that he was justified in his decision.  But why?  And how might others in similar situations resolve their dilemmas?  Instead, we just get vague arguments about how people are different and ethics are contextually dependent.  What a cop out.

So, do what you want to.  Just don’t try to tell us that you care about ethics.

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This post is about three books I’ve polished off recently, all quite different from one another:

  • Timothy Besley & Torsten Persson, Pillars of Prosperity: The Political Economy of Development Clusters – nothing to do with industrial districts or network externalities; this is a (mostly) theoretical exploration of the reasons why rulers might choose to invest in fiscal and legal capacity, generating a strong state and good conditions for economic development
  • Ralph Raico, Great Wars and Great Leaders: A Libertarian Critique – an excoriation of wartime leaders beloved by those whom Rothbard called “court intellectuals”
  • Mark Pennington (our very own!), Robust Political Economy – a defense of classical liberalism as being more institutionally robust to imperfections in markets & governments than various alternatives

Besley & Persson‘s work is a dense slog, if you read the math. Its contribution should be seen as mostly theoretical, rather than empirical – although there are some simple empirics along the lines of demonstrating cross-national correlations. The central aim is to try to understand why GDP per capita tends to correlate positively with other things like tax take as a share of GDP, income tax and VAT take as a share of total tax take, years in external war, and executive constraints, and negatively with things like expropriation risk and years in civil war. The basic story is that there are three types of societies: common-good societies in which political leaders focus on providing collective goods to the entire population, long-run redistributive societies in which political leaders invest in fiscal capacity because they expect to be in power for a long time and want to redistribute funds to their favored constituencies, and kleptocratic societies in which political leaders steal as much as they can in a short period of time. In common-good societies, expected tenure in office is irrelevant to investments in fiscal and legal capacity: leaders invest whether or not they expect to stay in power, because they are interested in doing good things for their citizens. In long-run redistributive societies, leaders also invest in fiscal and legal capacity in order to grow the pie and their take from it. In kleptocratic societies, leaders’ pillaging keeps the economy in an underdeveloped state. Ethnic diversity is bad (in a sense) because it makes societies more redistributive (more internal rivalries), but this is not necessarily a critical failure so long as leader tenures remain long. External war is good (in a sense) because it brings people together and helps create a common-good society.

The book advances some new arguments, and the theoretical framework alone is impressive. However, I have at least two fundamental concerns as well. First, I question how many societies really fall into the “common good” category. In the strict economic sense, there are hardly true collective goods for an entire political society. National defense, for instance, is a collective bad for pacifists. The fact that external war correlates with tax take does not imply to me that war is good for bringing people together and fostering development, but that war is the health of the state, sharpening the competitive blade that pares away “inefficiencies” in governments’ extractive capacity. Second, the modeling of fiscal and legal capacity as simply being a matter of leaders’ past decisions to “invest” is so simple as to be a gross distortion. There’s no politics here, no grappling with influential prior arguments from North, Weingast, and others that leaders must be forced to limit their own power, because it is impossible for them to make credible commitments to private property rights on their own initiative.

Raico‘s book isn’t for the faint of heart or for someone looking for an impartial academic account of “great” historical figures like Woodrow Wilson, Winston Churchill, and Harry Truman. On the other hand, it is blood-pumping red meat to the contrarian libertarian, as Raico moves from exposing the bizarre authoritarian fantasies of Wilson and his cronies to calling Truman out as a war criminal and mass murderer of innocent men, women, and children in the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. (I’ve addressed in slightly more depth Raico’s criticisms of Churchill in these virtual pages.) Raico stands firmly in the Rothbardian tradition of focusing critical revisionism on the actions of one’s own government and its allies. I wouldn’t assign this work on its own to students; I would include alternative perspectives. Nevertheless, (more…)

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Attorney General Eric Holder gave a speech yesterday at Northwestern Law School on the administration’s policy regarding the targeted killing (not assassination) of US citizens abroad.  Full remarks can be found here. Here are a few interesting excerpts.

The difference between targeted killings and assassination:

 Some have called such operations “assassinations.” They are not, and the use of that loaded term is misplaced. Assassinations are unlawful killings. Here, for the reasons I have given, the U.S. government’s use of lethal force in self defense against a leader of al Qaeda or an associated force who presents an imminent threat of violent attack would not be unlawful — and therefore would not violate the Executive Order banning assassination or criminal statutes.

The power of the executive:

 Some have argued that the President is required to get permission from a federal court before taking action against a United States citizen who is a senior operational leader of al Qaeda or associated forces. This is simply not accurate. “Due process” and “judicial process” are not one and the same, particularly when it comes to national security. The Constitution guarantees due process, not judicial process.

The boundless reach of the powers described:

 Our legal authority is not limited to the battlefields in Afghanistan. Indeed, neither Congress nor our federal courts has limited the geographic scope of our ability to use force to the current conflict in Afghanistan. We are at war with a stateless enemy, prone to shifting operations from country to country. Over the last three years alone, al Qaeda and its associates have directed several attacks – fortunately, unsuccessful – against us from countries other than Afghanistan. Our government has both a responsibility and a right to protect this nation and its people from such threats.

This does not mean that we can use military force whenever or wherever we want. International legal principles, including respect for another nation’s sovereignty, constrain our ability to act unilaterally. But the use of force in foreign territory would be consistent with these international legal principles if conducted, for example, with the consent of the nation involved – or after a determination that the nation is unable or unwilling to deal effectively with a threat to the United States.

I guess the bottom line is that the US can act with the consent of the nation in question, unless it does not consent, in which case it can act nonetheless.

Anyone who found the killing of Anwar al-Awlaki a source of concern should find Holder’s remarks interesting. It is largely devoted to a discussion of guiding principles. As Holder notes:

Any decision to use lethal force against a United States citizen – even one intent on murdering Americans and who has become an operational leader of al-Qaeda in a foreign land – is among the gravest that government leaders can face. The American people can be – and deserve to be – assured that actions taken in their defense are consistent with their values and their laws. So, although I cannot discuss or confirm any particular program or operation, I believe it is important to explain these legal principles publicly.

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I agreed with the first half of Jessica Flanigan’s essay on “A Feminist Libertarian Dilemma,” but then nearly choked on my invisible coffee when I read this:

Bleeding heart libertarianism doesn’t rule out public policies that help women with families succeed in the workforce, like affordable public childcare, subsidized family leave, elder care, or a universal basic income.

So how exactly does bleeding-heart libertarianism differ from mushy-pated, Swedish-style social democracy?

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I’m trying to find the right analogy to describe how I feel about the Koch/Cato kerfuffle.  Is it like how you feel when your mother and your wife are fighting?  Or your wife and your kids?  Or your two kids or best friends?  Your parents divorcing (my parents have been married for 100 years or somewhere close to that, so I’m not sure about this one)?  Something else altogether?

Is it enough to say that I have great respect and admiration for both organizations and their staffs, and what they’ve both done for a free society in my lifetime?  I’m sure I’ll have a more certain opinion as I learn more (and I do have an opinion forming rather than being completely on the fence), but right now I’m mostly sad to see these great organizations at war (though some wars are necessary).

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A Touch of Pragmatism?

George Will (today’s Washington Post) has apparently concluded that a Romney or Santorum presidency is unlikely. Fear not: the field of candidates for 2016 is deep and impressive. In the interim, he makes an argument for pragmatism:

conservatives this year should have as their primary goal making sure Republicans wield all the gavels in Congress in 2013.

While a lack of a supermajority in the Senate and Obama’s veto pen will prevent conservative legislation from passing, a GOP majority in each chamber could limit the damages:

Beginning next January, 51 or more Republican senators, served by the canny Mitch McConnell’s legislative talents, could put sand in the gears of an overbearing and overreaching executive branch. This could restore something resembling the rule of law, as distinct from government by fiats issuing from unaccountable administrative agencies exercising excessive discretion.

Perhaps.  But one would have to go back to the 1990s to discover a GOP that would act as Will hopes and serve as a genuine barrier to the expansion of executive power and state power more generally. The track record since 2001 has not been very encouraging (think No Child Left Behind, the Patriot Act, the Medicare Modernization Act, preemptive war, and the embrace of seemingly endless deficits).

A question to ponder: Is it too early for conservatives to abandon all hope for the 2012 presidential election?

A second question: Is there any reason to believe that a GOP victory would produce results that were altogether different from what occurred the last time it held unified control?

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After-birth abortion

Consider the following claim:

…‘after-birth abortion’ (killing a newborn) should be permissible in all the cases where abortion is, including cases where the newborn is not disabled.

One might guess that such a claim would be made by pro-life activists trying to ridicule or parody the philosophical logic of abortionists.  But this claim is made by philosophers writing last week in the Journal of Medical Ethics.  Is this a satirical piece, along the lines of A Modest Proposal?  We might hope so, but it is not.

The grounding of this claim is, according to the authors, Alberto Giubilini and Francesca Minerva, that “the moral status of an infant is equivalent to that of a fetus, that is, neither can be considered a ‘person’ in a morally relevant sense.”  The authors also claim (and this foundation goes back to work by Peter Singer and others, so there is nothing new here, which is the argument used by the JME editors in response to the firestorm of angry protests), that not only are not all humans persons, but not all persons are humans.  Non-human animals can be persons as long as they are “capable of attributing to [their] own existence some (at least) basic value such that being deprived of this existence represents a loss to her.”

Infants are “potential persons,” but have no right to live because “however weak the interests of actual people [those wanting to kill the infant] can be, they will always trump the alleged interest of potential people to become actual ones, because this latter interest amounts to zero.”

The funny part (funny, in a sad, pathetic, horrific sort of way) is that the authors describe their own arguments with language that would be considered uncivil and inflammatory were pro-life activists to use it.  Herein lies the challenge: how can you “flame” people who have so successfully flamed themselves?

The view of personhood espoused here strikes me as extremely jaundiced—the ability to attribute value to one’s own life is neither necessary or sufficient for such a determination, I would say—but, of course, I’m not a philosopher with access to their higher reasoning powers. To me, all living humans, past, present or future, are persons (though not all persons have, in all cases, the same rights).  Such a view may be philosophically naïve, but at least it doesn’t lead to a conclusion that it is immoral to kill a chimp, but not immoral to kill a healthy human baby.

Isn’t there some point where even completely immoral and/or godless people, no matter how intelligent, stop making such claims because they can’t say them with a straight face?  Apparently not.

I am sure that most abortion rights advocates would reject the claims of Giubilini and Minerva.  Yet, can they?  Amidst all the nonsense is a very compelling claim: a human baby just after birth is morally equivalent—as well as physiologically equivalent—to a baby just before birth.  The only thing that really changes is the baby’s address.  It has moved from the mother’s uterus to somewhere near by.

This change of address is not non-trivial as far as the mother is concerned, of course.  We all have (limited) rights over our bodies, what goes on inside of them and what others can legally do to them.  For this reason, making tough calls when, for instance, the life of the baby and the life of the mother are in conflict is certainly a moral challenge and a legal challenge.

But not much has changed for the baby.  Her lungs are now full of air rather than fluid, but she is just as dependent, just as cognizant of her reality, just as human, just as much a person as the moment before she was born.

One can reject out of hand the ghoulish reasoning that leads philosophers to morally ridiculous claims, but the abortion rights activists are very much in the same bed with these folks, whether they like it or not.

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Those of us who were old enough to drive in the 1970s recall the rising gas prices and the seemingly endless lines at the gas stations (a result of various rationing schemes, including limits on purchases and/or the days one could purchase gas). There is little question that the gas prices had important implications for President Carter’s re-election bid (although the results were, in many ways, overdetermined). Now that prices are on their way back up (and are at the inflation adjusted equivalent of the late Carter presidency, the question is whether $4-$5-$6 a gallon gas will sour the electorate on President Obama. See, for example, Bob King and Darren Goode’s “President Obama’s Carter Trap” (Politico) and the coverage in today’s NYT.

Meanwhile, the administration will use rising gas prices to justify another effort to revoke oil industry tax breaks. Ben Geman (the Hill) reports that the President will devote his speech at Nashau Community College to the topic.  According to White House official:

“In Nashua, the President will . . . reiterate his call to repeal the unwarranted $4 billion in annual subsides handed out to oil and gas companies, and will urge Congress to take a vote on the repeal in the coming weeks”

And

“We plan to show that when [gasoline] is approaching $4 per gallon, oil companies don’t need the extra help from taxpayer subsidies…As a matter of fairness, Republicans should not be continuing to defend this loophole.”

Obviously, there is nothing in these comments (or in so many others) to suggest that the White House or the GOP have a deep understanding of energy markets or are above spinning gas prices to extract political gains.  But even if the odds of success in repealing the tax subsidies are close to zero, one might nonetheless wish the President well. In a perfect world, we would scrap these subsidies and all other subsidies delivered through the tax system as part of our ham-handed, transfer-seeker-driven, national industrial policy.

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