Archives: 05/2010

Obama’s National Security Strategy: Long on Rhetoric, Short on Change

The key theme that the Obama administration wants us to take away from the National Security Strategy (PDF) is “burden sharing.” The United States, the document explains, can no longer afford to be the world’s sole policeman. We need capable and willing partners to preserve global peace and prosperity.

These are valid concerns. Unfortunately, the Obama administration lacks a vision for addressing them.

Real change can only come from a fundamental reorientation of our current approach. We need a new grand strategy predicated on restraint both at home and abroad. Instead, for all the talk of new directions, the Obama administration has given us more of the same.

In geopolitics, as in life, actions speak louder than words. So long as the United States spends nearly as much on its military as the rest of the world combined, and so long as it deploys its military in ways that discourage other countries from defending themselves, Americans will continue to shoulder the burdens of policing the planet.

In a cover letter accompanying the NSS, President Obama explains “The burdens of a young century cannot fall on American shoulders alone.” But they most certainly will, so long as the United States maintains a massive military oriented more towards defending others than to defending Americans.

There are common security challenges, to be sure, and many other nations in Europe and East Asia should share an interest in addressing them. They lack the capacity to do so, however, because they have diverted resources away from defense and into social welfare programs. The capabilities gap between the United States and the rest of the world will only grow wider as other countries continue to reduce force structure, cut military procurement, and short-change defense-related R&D, while the U.S. military budget climbs higher and higher.

But other countries also lack the will to play a larger global role. US policies for the past few decades have impeded such activity, and it is naive in the extreme to think that the latest round of exhortations will make a difference.

Goodbye to Locally Processed Meats?

The Atlantic has posted (h/t Future of Capitalism) an article by Virginia artisanal meat provider Joe Cloud sounding the alarm about how as regulation intensifies, only producers with the scale and sophistication to deal with it will be left standing:

Although species go extinct on Earth on a regular basis, every so often there is a major event that comes along and wipes out 40 or 50 percent of them. The same thing happens in the small business world. A few businesses fold every year due to retirement, poor management, and changes in the market, and that is quite normal. But then every so often a catastrophe comes along and causes a wholesale wipeout.

For small meat businesses in America, catastrophic events result from changes high up in the regulatory food chain that make it very difficult for small plants to adapt. The most recent extinction event occurred at the turn of the millennium, when small and very small USDA-inspected slaughter and processing plants were required to adopt the costly Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) food safety plan. It has been estimated that 20 percent of existing small plants, and perhaps more, went out of business at that time. Now, proposed changes to HACCP for small and very small USDA-inspected plants threaten to take down many of the ones that remain, making healthy, local meats a rare commodity.

I’ve been following this particular controversy for a while, and perhaps its most depressing aspect is how very typical the pattern is. In 2008, following demands that it do something about much-publicized Chinese toy recalls, Congress passed the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act, which devastated many hundreds of smaller manufacturers, importers and retailers of children’s clothing and playthings while leaving relatively unscathed Mattel, Hasbro, and the biggest discount retailers (all of which had in fact supported passage of the law). More recently, major food and agribusiness firms have signed on to support a major new round of federal food safety regulation despite warnings that it could pose big compliance challenges for many local bakers, fruit-baggers, and other small providers whether or not their products pose any notable risks.

I generally share many of the views of the “locavore” movement regarding the value of distinctive local food cultures and the importance to kids and cooks of getting a more direct sense where food comes from. Trouble is, some of us who imagine ourselves friendly to locavore thinking reflexively support whatever regulatory proposals are billed as most stringent and thus most protective. By the time we realize the choices we have lost, it can be too late.

President Obama’s Poor Understanding of Voluntary Exchange

As explained in an excellent letter to the editor of The Washington Post:

Capitalism’s friends never had to cede moral ground to its enemies, but they will have to replace the current power structure to make room for a revival. President Obama summarized his understanding of free enterprise in his 2009 commencement speech at Arizona State University: “ruthless competition pursued only on your own behalf…”

That markets are built on voluntary transactions – mutual exchange for mutual benefit – is an alien concept in the academic environment that produced Mr. Obama and many of his staffers. That one accumulates wealth in a free market by providing value to willing buyers – the exact opposite of acting “only on your own behalf” – is another idea unlikely to penetrate the zero-sum mentality that dominates this administration.

The author is one Michael Smith of Cynthiana, Kentucky, a gifted and prolific letter-to-the-editor-writer.

Teachers Suspended for Class about Constitution

This can’t be happening.  Teachers suspended from their posts for showing students a film about the Constitution!  I can understand the initial parental inquiry–if a student did say “I was taught how to hide drugs.”  There are such films on the market and those would certainly not be appropriate for school.  But instead of gathering the facts, the school authorities seem to have made a terrible and unjust decision to suspend these teachers.  The Busted film is about constitutional law and police encounters–showing people that they can lawfully stand up to the police and decline to approve a search of their home and belongings, and decline to answer police questions.  Hopefully, the ACLU or FIRE will come to the defense of these teachers and get them reinstated fast.

Flex Your Rights, which produced the Busted film, recently released an even better film called 10 Rules for Dealing with Police.  Cato hosted the premiere screening here in DC.

Libertarianism Hits the Big Time

Michael Crowley, late of the New Republic and now with Time magazine, writes thoughtfully about Ron Paul, Rand Paul, and libertarianism. Crowley notes that Rand Paul, “more politically flexible than his father,” has plenty of unlibertarian positions. But both of them are tapping into a real strain in contemporary politics:

But he, like his father, also knows well that a genuine libertarian impulse is astir in America…. polls show an uptick in both social permissiveness and skepticism of government intervention….[Ron Paul] has already waited a long time — and it appears the country is moving his way.

This is a current trend, but it’s also deeply rooted in the American political culture. As David Kirby and I wrote in “The Libertarian Vote”:

It’s no surprise that many Americans hold libertarian attitudes since America is, after all, a country fundamentally shaped by libertarian values and attitudes. In their book It Didn’t Happen Here: Why Socialism Failed in the United States, Seymour Martin Lipset and Gary Marx write, “The American ideology, stemming from the [American] Revolution, can be subsumed in five words: antistatism, laissez-faire, individualism, populism, and egalitarianism.”… Richard Hofstadter wrote: “The fierceness of the political struggles in American history has often been misleading; for the range of vision embraced by the primary contestants in the major parties has always been bounded by the horizons of property and enterprise. However much at odds on specific issues, the major political traditions have shared a belief in the rights of property, the philosophy of economic individualism, the values of competition; they have accepted the economic virtues of capitalist culture.”… McClosky and Zaller sum up a key theme of the American ethos in classic libertarian language: “The principle here is that every person is free to act as he pleases, so long as his exercise of freedom does not violate the equal rights of others.”…

Some people recognize but bemoan our libertarian ethos. Professors Cass Sunstein and Stephen Holmes complain that libertarian ideas are “astonishingly widespread in American culture.”

Much political change in America occurs within those guiding principles. Even our radicals, Lipset and Marks note, have tended to be libertarian rather than collectivist. America is a “country of classical liberalism, antistatism, libertarianism, and loose class structure,” which helps to explain the failure of class-conscious politics in the United States. McClosky and Zaller argue that many of the changes of the 1960s involved “efforts to extend certain values of the traditionalethos to new groups and new contexts”—such as equal rights for women, blacks, and gays; anti-war and free speech protests; and the “do your own thing” ethosof the so-called counterculture, which may in fact have had more in common with the individualist American culture than was recognized at the time.

In a broadly libertarian country most voters and movements have agreed on the fundamentals of classical liberalism or libertarianism: free speech, religious freedom, equality before the law, private property, free markets, limited government, and individual rights. The broad acceptance of those values means that American liberals and conservatives are fighting within a libertarian consensus. We sometimes forget just how libertarian the American political culture is.

And of course American politics and policy deviate a great deal from those fundamental principles, which leaves libertarians feeling frustrated, even angry, and seeming extreme or radical to journalists and others. But as Conor Friedersdorf just wrote in Time’s longtime rival, Newsweek, the media have a bias toward the status quo and establishment politicians, even when current policies and the proposals of elected officials are at least as extreme as libertarian ideas:

If returning to the gold standard is unthinkable, is it not just as extreme that President Obama claims an unchecked power to assassinate, without due process, any American living abroad whom he designates as an enemy combatant? Or that Joe Lieberman wants to strip Americans of their citizenship not when they are convicted of terrorist activities, but upon their being accused and designated as enemy combatants? In domestic politics, policy experts scoff at ethanol subsidies, the home-mortgage-interest tax deduction, and rent control, but the mainstream politicians who advocate those policies are treated as perfectly serious people.

And Fareed Zakaria, the editor of Newsweek International, made the point a dozen years ago in a review of Charles Murray’s book What It Means to Be a Libertarian (in the Public Interest, not online)

The reason that libertarians seem extreme and odd is not that they are a furious minority, angry at a world that seems to have passed them by, but rather the opposite. They are heirs to a tradition that has changed the world. Consider what classical liberalism stood for in the beginning of the nineteenth century. It was against the power of the church and for the power of the market; it was against the privileges of kings and aristocracies and for dignity of the middle class; it was against a society dominated by status and land and in favor of one based on markets and merit; it was opposed to religion and custom and in favor of science and secularism; it was for national self-determination and against empires; it was for freedom of speech and against censorship; it was for free trade and against mercantilism. Above all, it was for the rights of the individual and against the power of the church and the state….

The reason that libertarianism seems narrow and naive is that having won 80 percent of the struggles it has fought over the last two centuries, it is now forced to define itself wholly in terms of the last 20 percent. Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice if you were in Prussia in the 1850s, but in America in the 1960s? Libertarianism has become extreme because the world has left it no recourse.

Now, I don’t feel furious, angry, or extreme. I think that libertarianism is the philosophy of the American revolution, the basic ideology of America, and indeed the foundation of Western civilization. The concept of personal and economic freedom – giving people more power to pursue happiness in their own way by restricting the size, scope, and power of government – is not extreme. Nor is it reactionary. In fact, it is the direction in which civilization has been heading, with many digressions and blind alleys, since the liberal revolution of the 17th century. I am a progressive. I believe that the simple, timeless principles of the American Revolution – individual liberty, limited government, and free markets – are even more powerful and more important in the world of instant communication, global markets, and unprecedented access to information than Jefferson or Madison could have imagined.  Libertarianism is not just a framework for utopia, it is the indispensable framework for the future.

Thoughts on the NSS

National Security Strategies are domestic political documents that serve two main purposes: they allow administrations to wax philosophic about America’s place in history and they provide an opportunity to mention the various foreign-policy interest groups to let them know you care.  This NSS does a good job of fulfilling these rhetorical and domestic political demands of the document.  (The lead drafter of President Obama’s NSS is a speechwriter with a background in fiction and poetry, not a strategist.)

If the NSS were read as an actual strategy document, it would be terribly unimpressive.  It offers a variety of unsubstantiated theories about international politics (the idea that U.S. security depends on “strengthening human dignity” abroad and “speaking to the hopes” of foreign nations), as well as murky statements about the purposes of U.S. foreign policy (the international order we seek to create “will support our own interests, but it is also an end we seek in its own right.”)

Those less interested in rhetoric and domestic politics—foreign leaders, for example—will look to America’s defense budget as the real indicator of American strategy.  There they will see that Barack Obama’s United States is every bit as capacious as George Bush’s, and potentially just as dangerous.  Washington needs to realize that foreign leaders make judgments based more on American capabilities than on these sorts of literary exercises.

Remember, the FCC Is Our National Censor

Amid charge and countercharge about who is shilling for whom in the debate over Internet regulation, Peter Suderman has the right focus in a short piece on Reason’s Hit & Run blog. The Federal Communications Commission’s Chairman is claiming that he only wants to regulate the Internet’s infrastructure, but one of his colleagues, Commissioner Michael Copps, is non-denying that he wants to censor the Internet.

There may be exceptions, but it’s usually pretty safe to assume that anytime a politician or bureaucrat dodges a question while calling for “a national discussion about” the proposal at hand, what he or she really means is, “I want to indicate that I support this idea without actually going on record as supporting it.”

The FCC does censorship. It’s unfortunate to see willful disregard of this by the folks wanting to install the FCC as the Internet’s regulator.