Archive for August, 2010

A principal tenet of libertarianism—perhaps even the first principle of libertarianism—is an injunction against initiating violence. Whatever else you do, you may not harm unwilling others. John Locke, John Stuart Mill, Herbert Spencer, Robert Nozick, and many others—I as wellhave all subscribed to some version of this principle as a starting point. 

Yet Adam Smith in The Theory of Moral Sentiments raises an interesting case that might suggest limited exceptions to the principle. Smith argues that resentment is the sentiment that underlies the proper condemnation of injustice: An injustice arouses resentment, and can properly lead one to take action against the injustice. At one point during his discussion of justified resentment, Smith writes:

Upon some occasions we are sensible that this passion [i.e., resentment], which is generally too strong, may likewise be too weak. We sometimes complain that a particular person shows too little spirit, and has too little sense of the injuries that have been done to him; and we are as ready to despise him for the defect, as to hate him for the excess of this passion. (TMS II.i.5.8)

Smith’s claim that people sometimes show “too little spirit” seems right to me. There are many occasions on which we might reasonably think that a person should have faced a challenge, should have confronted a bully, or should have risen to someone’s defense, and we judged the person negatively when he did not. Indeed, numerous sitcoms and movies have been built on this premise. One of my favorite classic movies, My Bodyguard, takes this lesson as its central theme, and we all cheer when the bullies are finally confronted. (Here is the climactic scene. I bet your heart swells too when Linderman finally takes on Mike and Clifford gives Moody what’s been long coming to him.)

This indicates the possible libertarian conundrum I have in mind: Sometimes people should confront bullies, and sometimes that requires, well, a punch in the nose. Proper resentment, in other words, can justify taking action against others. And this sometimes holds even when the “injustice” against which one is acting has not included physical violence. Sometimes just threats can justify a punch in the nose, and sometimes—under just the right circumstances—even mere words can.

President Andrew Jackson, for example, fought many duels to defend his wife’s honor. He had married Rachel before her prior marriage to an abusive man was finally complete, which meant that for a time their marriage was bigamous. Although the president and Rachel re-married after her divorce was completed, the fact that she was for a time technically married to two men was raised and used against President Jackson again and again. He would not stand for it when it was. If someone suggested that his wife was less than noble, he would ask the person to take it back—or meet him outside to settle the issue in the time-honored, gentlemanly way. President Jackson almost lost his life more than once defending his wife’s honor.

In these cases, President Jackson was acting in response only to words, not phyiscal violence or even the threat of physical violence. But wasn’t he right to do so? Wouldn’t we have judged him harshly had he not acted to defend his wife’s honor? This is a special case, but I think there might be a more general principle at work: Sometimes one should rise to defend another’s honor.

The news program “20/20” has been airing a series of “What Would You Do?” segments in which they stage scenarios with actors in front of unsuspecting random people to see what they would do. In one segment, they have a man publicly and loudly berating a woman (both are actors). The man does not assault her, but he gets in her face and shouts derogatory and demeaning things. What do passersby do? What should they do? Some act and some do not, but everyone seems to believe that one should do something. Exactly what one should do depends on a lot of factors, but I suggest that there are easily-imagined scenarios in which what a passerby should do is punch the man in the nose.

One more thought, this one even more speculative. In most places in America today, physical violence of any kind is frowned upon as indicative of an earlier, unenlightened, more barbaric age. Yet I wonder whether the fact that people know with a high degree of certainty that they will get no punch in the nose no matter what they say has not contributed to the general coarsening of manners. People today may say the vilest things with relative impunity, and so increasingly more of them do. If, by contrast, they knew they ran a real risk of the punch in the nose if they used coarse language or manners publicly, might that not act as a disincentive to do so—and a greater disincentive than the mere risk of having another use vile language aimed at oneself?

I am not suggesting, then, we should all begin punching one another in the nose. But I am suggesting that showing “too little spirit” can indeed be a vice, and moreover that there are times when a punch in the nose might be just what a situation calls for.


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In the past, I have been quite interested in “Operation Drain the Swamp.” A piece by Brody Mullins and John McKinnon in  today’s WSJ suggest that Speaker Pelosi has some additional work to do in the final months of her reign if she is going to bring the operation to a successful conclusion. According to the article, a half-dozen members of Congress are being investigated for the common practice of pocketing government funds provided to cover expenses when traveling overseas. Members receive a per diem that can run as high as $250 per day. However, the costs of travel are often covered by their hosts (foreign governments, ambassadors).

Lawmakers routinely keep the extra funds or spend it on gifts, shopping or to cover their spouses’ travel expenses, according to dozens of current and former lawmakers. …Leftover funds can add up to more than $1,000 a trip for longer visits to expensive regions.

Those currently under investigation include: G.K. Butterfield (D-NC), Joe Wilson (R-SC) Alcee Hastings (D-FL), Solomon Ortiz (D-TX), Robert Aderholt (R-AL), and former Representative Mark Souder (R-IN).

Of course, who can blame our representatives for pocketing a thousand here and a thousand there. It must seem trivial when you are used to throwing around billions of taxpayer dollars. Should any of this  come as a surprise? Read the following:

There is no system for lawmakers to return excess travel funds when they return to the U.S. and investigators may conclude that House rules for the use of per diem are unclear. One lawmaker, Sen. Richard Durbin (D., Ill.), said that he mails a personal check to the U.S. Treasury after each trip. Congress doesn’t keep any record of the amount of per diem that is returned to the government.

Elected officials design the institutions and rules by which they are governed. Anyone familiar with principal-agent problems should not be shocked and horrified by more evidence that individuals design institutions to further their own self-interest. Additional evidence? The WSJ piece ends with a reminder:  “Investigators won’t make the probe public until after the election due to a House rule that bars announcements of ethics investigations in the months before an election.”

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Happy Neocon Day

Given the great success of recent American foreign policy initiatives driven largely by the neoconservatives, the New York Times apparently decided it is “Neocon Day” today.  To celebrate, the Gray Lady published two op-eds on Iraq that sing the praises of our efforts there. 

In the first, David Brooks highlights how successful our nation-building project is going in Iraq.  I wonder if this column will be his “Mission Accomplished” banner should security in Iraq deteriorate, as is suggested by a recent increase in violence and the presence of many unresolved issues.  

With the carelessness of those who talk about natural disasters as good for the economy (displaying Bastiat’s broken windows fallacy), Brooks notes that “It’s hard to know what role the scattershot American development projects have played, but this year Iraq will have the 12th-fastest-growing economy in the world, and it is expected to grow at a 7 percent annual clip for the next several years.”  Hmmmm, blow the hell out of a country for years then pour tons of money into it and voila, a signal success for nation-building!  Moreover, we are told that “Violence is down 90 percent from pre-surge days.”  Talk about cherry-picking a statistic.  And as Celeste Ward of the RAND Corp and others have argued, the decline has had little to do with American efforts or the surge. 

But most egregiously, even if we accept Brooks at his word that things are starting to look bright all over, he fails to examine both sides of the ledger and factor in the cost in terms of our blood (over 4000 Americans killed and multiples of that wounded) and treasure (probably over $2 trillion dollars), not to mention the pain and suffering of millions of Iraqis (and a minimum of 100,000 civilian deaths).  With that accounting in mind, I’d want a lot more bang for the buck than we are seeing in Iraq even if I were a simple utilitarian (and I’m willing to concede that some gains for the living in Iraq have been made). 

In the second piece for Neocon Day, Paul Wolfowitz argues that we must continue our commitment to Iraq and model it on our efforts in South Korea following the Korean War.  Like with most bad analogies, Wolfowitz breezes over the very different situations (the threat of the Soviet Union just for starters) we faced in the 1950’s compared to today.  Moreover, despite the subsequent success in South Korea, a good realist then and now could have questioned whether the commitment was necessary for U.S. interests.  And last I checked, that is the point of our military and foreign policy institutions. 

These two pieces prove that bad ideas are not fated to death.  Neoconservatives should have been run out of town on a rail by now.  Instead, we have the New York Times giving them yet more precious real estate to spread their destructive views.

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Glenn Beck is an interesting and frustrating character for many libertarians. So often, his arguments appear to unfold in a reasonable fashion and then they turn into a flurry of chalk dust, conspiracy theories, religious imagery and tears.

Many commentators waited breathlessly for Beck’s “Restoring Honor” rally at the Lincoln Memorial this past weekend. While they assumed he would turn things into a vitriolic attack on Obama, what they witnessed has been described as something between a tent revival and a meeting of the Promise Keepers. The focus was less on public policy and Obama than on faith, hope, and charity. There is a fine piece on the rally by James Hohmann at Politico. Reason.tv has an interesting clip entitled “What We Saw at the Glenn Beck Rally in D.C.”

Initially, Beck was going to use the rally to launch what he refers to as The Plan, “specific policies, principles and, most importantly, action steps” to launch “a new national movement to restore our great country.”

In the end, Beck decided to postpone the release of the Plan. According to the Politico piece: “Without specifying why, Beck said Saturday that he came to the realization a political approach would be wrong for this occasion. He attributed part of his idea for what to do in lieu of that to a conversation he claimed he had with God.

“It was about four months ago that we were still kind of lost, and we didn’t know what we were going to do when we got here,” Beck said. “And I was down on my knees, and we were in the office. And I said ‘Lord, I think I’m one of your dumber children. Speak slowly!’ And the answer was, ‘You have all the pieces. Just put them together.’ The pieces are faith, hope and charity and looking for those things inside each of us.’”

Obviously, it is too early to critique the plan without release of the Plan.  Perhaps Beck will be content with calling his viewers to embrace spiritual renewal. His recent emphasis on the spiritual virtues (drawn from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians) could suggest that this is all he has in mind. As a Christian, I would have no difficulties in a call for spiritual renewal, although given Beck’s performances, I would also question whether he could deliver them without slipping into discussions of everything from the Bavarian Illuminati to the Bilderberg group.

But one wonders whether Beck has concluded that he is now the instrument of God’s will, preparing to lead his followers to construct the Kingdom of God on earth.  Plans to immanentize the eschaton usually involve a heavy role for the state, so one would expect that whatever is left of Beck’s libertarianism would likely be one of the first victims of the Plan.

One also wonders whether evangelicals, having learned some bitter lessons from their past flirtations with partisan politics, would be repelled or attracted by such an effort. I would guess the latter.

What is Beck up to? Should any of us care?

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There is a fine piece in this morning’s NYT by Peter Goodman (“What Can be Done to Cure the Ailing Economy”).

Let me entice you with three money quotes:

It increasingly seems as if the policy makers attending like physicians to the American economy are peering into their medical kits and coming up empty, their arsenal of pharmaceuticals largely exhausted and the few that remain deemed too experimental or laden with risky side effects. The patient — who started in critical care — was showing signs of improvement in the convalescent ward earlier this year, but has since deteriorated. The doctors cannot agree on a diagnosis, let alone administer an antidote with confidence. This is where the Great Recession has taken the world’s largest economy, to a Great Ambiguity over what lies ahead, and what can be done now.

From Peter Schiff

“The recession is the cure for the disease that affects the economy, but the politicians don’t have the stomach for it,” says Peter Schiff, president of Euro Pacific Capital, a Connecticut-based brokerage house. “They’re going to keep stimulating the economy until they kill it with an overdose. The hyper-inflation that results is going to be far worse than the cure.”

From Alan Blinder:

Six months ago, Alan Blinder, a former vice chairman of the Federal Reserve, and now an economist at Princeton, dismissed the idea that America’s political system would ever allow the country to sink into a Japan-style quagmire. “Now I’m looking at the political system turning itself into a paralyzed beast,” he says, adding that a lost decade now looms as “a much bigger risk.” Congress and the Obama administration have ruled out further stimulus spending. The Fed appears to be running out of powder. “Its really powerful ammunition has been expended,” Mr. Blinder says.

Goodman has written a piece worth reading. The big question remains: where do we go now?

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Clearly, the recession caused state revenues to fall short of projections, opening up budget deficits. However, some states dealt with more serious fiscal problems than others. California’s, New York’s, and Illinois’ woes have been in the news quite a bit lately.

A new paper by Matt Mitchell at the Mercatus Center finds that states with more less spending as a percentage of income, more growth in spending per capita in the two decades prior, less stringent balanced budget requirements, and less economic freedom have had bigger budget gaps. From the study:

Using Jason Sorens and William Ruger’s measure of economic freedom, I found that other factors being equal, the most-economically free states tended to have budget gaps that were 25 percentage points smaller than the least-free states.

One implication of this research, it seems to me, is that federal bailouts of highly indebted states encourage more spending and less economic freedom in the future.

(Disclosure: Work on the Ruger-Sorens Index of personal and economic freedom was funded by the Mercatus Center.)

UPDATE: corrected & clarified findings on government spending.

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Hail the lone juror!

Ever since the jury in former Illinois Governor Rob Blagojevich’s recent trial failed to reach a unanimous verdict in all but one count, I’ve been pondering whether our jury trial system in the U.S. makes sense.  There are different ways of looking at this.

1. My first response as a former resident of Chicago was “I wonder how he managed to buy off the juror.” Seriously, this is Illinois we are talking about.

2. Doesn’t this juror—revealed to be a 67-year-old former state employee—know that all Illinois Governors end up in jail?  They must have a special wing in the prison where they all go by now.

3. When Blagojevich left office, he had about the same approval rate as he did in the trial: 1/12.  The mystery continues to be not why his rating was so low, but that 1 in 12 people still thought he was going a good job.  What planet are these people living on?  Maybe the same planet as those who think the President is a Muslim or think that a U.S. government conspiracy was responsible for the twin towers falling (aside from the physics, when has any group of people in government demonstrated that level of competence—not to mention that level of evil).  No matter how nutso the idea is, 1 in 12 people in America will believe it.  Doesn’t this mean we should re-think this unanimous verdict thing?

4. But I’m also impressed by how easy it seems to get 12 people to convict someone who is innocent.  The Innocence Project has worked for the release of hundreds of convicted criminals who were later exonerated, often by DNA evidence.  Apparently even a unanimous standard is not sufficient protection of the innocent in all cases.  Wouldn’t lowering the standard to 11 or 10 votes just send more innocent people to jail?

5.  I wonder if the general persuadability of juries speaks to the idea that we give lawyers too much say in the jury selection process.   Of course we want both sides to eliminate the kooks and crazybirds (the 1 in 12 mentioned above), but what they seem to be shooting for is not wise people, well-schooled in the lessons of life, with good judgment and willing to make hard decisions.  It seems like we end up with people, by and large, who have few opinions, with little engagement in civic affairs and not highly educated.   In short anyone who might think for herself.   Limiting the lawyers’ ability to challenge jurors, for cause or otherwise, would lead to better juries, I think.

6.  Even though I think we had a miscarriage of justice in the Blago case—in the sense that he has been corrupt to the core since his early days in politics, and these charges are only the tip of the iceberg—I still like the image in my mind of the lone juror, standing up to everyone else and saying, “I have reasonable doubt.”  I like it that this is an ordinary person, not a judge or a government bureaucrat.  Just a citizen.

But in spite of bad outcomes—in fact, maybe because of them—I say, hail to the lone juror!   That one lone citizen can grind the system to a halt really is something worth preserving.  Given the many ways in which the government has whittled away our Constitutional protections over the years, I wouldn’t want to give this up as well.

[My one experience with jury duty was actually in Chicago many years ago.  I went downtown to the courthouse and waited for a few hours for my name to be called.  It never was.   Prior to the selection process, the trial judge gave this impassioned speech on the sanctity of trial by one’s peers.  I was genuinely moved.  It was one of the best Constitutional speeches I have ever heard.  I was ready to serve.  The judge gave this speech as an explanation of why he wasn’t going to let jurors off easily; their duty was just too important.  He then proceeded to let juror after juror off the hook for every lame excuse in the book.  Thus began my dissolution with the Chicago justice system.]

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