Archives: 03/2011

Patrick Henry and Mohammed Nabbous

On this day in 1775, Patrick Henry delivered his famous “Liberty or Death!” speech at St. John’s Church in Richmond, Virginia. Fortunately, Henry got the liberty he sought and lived another quarter-century to enjoy the republican government he helped to create. But last night, NPR reported on Mohammed Nabbous, a man who made a similar stand in Libya and almost immediately lost his life in the struggle for liberty.

Henry told his fellow Virginians:

If we wish to be free – if we mean to preserve inviolate those inestimable privileges for which we have been so long contending – if we mean not basely to abandon the noble struggle in which we have been so long engaged, and which we have pledged ourselves never to abandon until the glorious object of our contest shall be obtained, we must fight! I repeat it, sir, we must fight! An appeal to arms and to the God of Hosts is all that is left us!…

Our brethren are already in the field! Why stand we here idle? What is it that gentlemen wish? What would they have? Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty, or give me death!

Mo Nabbous used modern technology to reach more listeners. NPR’s Andy Carvin called him “the face of Libyan citizen journalism” who started a one-man Internet broadcast, Libya Al-hurra or Free Libya:

The media was so tightly controlled by the Gadhafi regime. And then all of a sudden, as Benghazi was trying to free itself, you started hearing voices coming over the Internet. And one of those first voices to come out was Mo, Mohammed Nabbous.

And he was a fairly tech savvy guy, had worked in the tech industry before. And so he managed to rig together a live stream, using freely available tools and a satellite Internet access. And suddenly, he became their local equivalent of Radio Free Europe or Voice of America, where he was trying to get the world to hear their point of view of what was going on.

And then, only weeks after starting his broadcasts, at the age of 28, Nabbous was killed – on the air, as he broadcast from a firefight in Benghazi. Interviewer Melissa Block recalled that he had been known to say, in words that echo Patrick Henry,

I’m not afraid to die. I’m afraid to lose the battle.

Freedom is won by people like Patrick Henry and Mohammed Nabbous. We should remember both of them today, and take inspiration from their example.

Walter Williams, Freedom Fighter

I’ve been fortunate to know Walter Williams ever since I began my Ph.D. studies at George Mason University in the mid-1980s. He is a very good economist, but his real value is as a public intellectual.

He also has a remarkable personal story, which he tells in his new autobiography, Up from the Projects. I’ve read the book and urge you to do the same. It’s very interesting and, like his columns, crisply written.

To get a flavor for Walter’s strong principles and blunt opinions, watch this video from Reason TV. I won’t spoil things, but the last couple of minutes are quite sobering.

I suppose a personal story might be appropriate at this point. My ex also was at George Mason University, and she was Walter’s research assistant. Walter would give multiple-choice tests to students taking his entry-level classes and she was responsible for grading them by sending them through a machine that would “click” for every wrong answer. For almost every student, it sounded like a machine gun was going off. Suffice to say, Walter’s classes were not easy.

So while I’m glad to say he’s my friend, I’m also happy I never took one of his classes.

Libya, Limited Government, and Imperfect Duties

Glenn Greenwald observes that we’re hearing a familiar false dilemma from advocates of intervention in Libya—the same one that was trotted out so frequently in the run-up to the war in Iraq: Either you support American military action, or you must be indifferent to the suffering of civilians under Qadaffi. Bracket for a moment the obvious empirical questions about the general efficacy of bombs as reliable means of alleviating suffering. What I find striking is the background assumption that whether the United States military has a role to play here is taken to be a simple function of how much we care about other people’s suffering. One obvious answer is that caring or not caring simply doesn’t come into it: That the function of the U.S. military is to protect the vital interests of the United States, and that it is for this specific purpose that billions of tax dollars are extracted from American citizens, and for which young men and women have volunteered to risk their lives. It is not a general-purpose pool of resources to be drawn on for promoting desirable outcomes around the world.

A parallel argument is quite familiar on the domestic front, however. Pick any morally unattractive outcome or situation, and you will find someone ready to argue that if the federal government plausibly could do something to remedy it, then anyone who denies the federal government should act must simply be indifferent to the problem. My sense is that many more people tend to find this sort of argument convincing in domestic affairs precisely because we seem to have effectively abandoned the conception of the federal government as an entity with clear and defined powers and purposes. We debate whether a particular program will be effective or worth the cost, but over the course of the 20th century, the notion that such debates should be limited to enumerated government functions largely fell out of fashion. Most people—or at least most public intellectuals and policy advocates—now seem to think of Congress as a kind of all-purpose problem solving committee. And I can’t help but suspect that the two are linked. Duties and obligations may be specific, but morality is universal: Other things equal, the suffering of a person in Lebanon counts just as much as that of a person in Lebanon, Pennsylvania. Once we abandon the idea of a limited government with defined powers—justified by reference to a narrow set of functions specified in advance—and instead see it as imbued with a general mandate to do good, it’s much harder for a moral cosmopolitan to resist making the scope of that mandate global, at least in principle.

An analogy with private ethics seems instructive. Most people would probably agree that the well-off have some obligation—as a matter of personal morality, if not “social justice”—to use some portion of their wealth to help the less fortunate. But with respect to humanity in general, we generally treat this as an “imperfect duty,” to use Kant’s phrase. That is, someone might well say: “You really are so rich that you ought to be giving a larger percentage of your income to charity.” But as we scarcely expect anyone to contribute to every worthy cause, any dispute here would properly be about what is an adequate total amount to give, and what general priorities that giving should follow. Someone who gives far less than they could easily afford might be charged with “not caring enough about the badly-off” in general, but it would be bizarre to charge someone with indifference to the plight of Steve in Albuquerque if their (otherwise adequate, by whatever standard you accept) charitable giving did not include an earmark to help poor Steve with his medical bills. Steve’s friends and relatives might owe him a specific duty of assistance, but for everyone else, the only legitimate question is whether they’re doing as much as ethics requires on the whole. With that in mind, The New Republic’s Jonathan Chait seems to me to be rather missing the point in this blog post:

Why intervene in Libya and not elsewhere is a question that needs to be asked. But it’s not a question that needs to be asked to determine the wisdom of intervening in Libya. Should we also spend more money to prevent malaria? Yes, we should. But I see zero reason to believe that not intervening in Libya would lead to an increase in in American assistance to prevent malaria.

Why not intervene in Burma or Yemen or elsewhere? I would say the answer is prudential: for various political, geographic, and military reasons, the United States has the chance to prevent slaughter in Libya at reasonable cost, and does not have the chance to do so in Burma.

But suppose there’s no answer whatsoever. Does it matter? If it were the 1990s, and the Clinton administration were contemplating an expansion of children’s health insurance, would it be important to determine exactly why we’re covering uninsured children but not uninsured adults? No. The question is whether this particular policy intervention is likely to succeed or fail.

Chait is surely right that our failure to intervene in other cases, or to prevent global suffering by other means, doesn’t exactly prove anything about this case. Perhaps those other cases are different, for either practical or moral reasons, or perhaps we simply fail to act in many cases where we ought to. But he’s surely wrong—and I think tellingly wrong—to reject the implicit demand for a general principle to govern those interventions, whether military or otherwise.

Stipulate, purely for the sake of argument, that Americans do have some collective obligation to prevent suffering elsewhere in the world, and that this obligation is properly met, at least in part, via government. (Perhaps because governments are uniquely able to remedy certain kinds of suffering—such as those requiring the mobilization of a military.) Given that we have finite resources, surely the worst possible way to go about this is by making a series of ad hoc judgments about particular cases—the “how much do I care about Steve?” method. The refusal to consider whatever global duty we might have holistically is precisely what leads to irrational allocations—like spending billions to protect civilians and rebel troops in Libya when many more lives would be saved (again, let’s suppose for the sake of argument) by far less costly malaria eradication efforts. Unless there’s an argument that we have some specific or special obligation to people in Libya—and I certainly haven’t seen it—then any claim about our obligation to intervene in this case is, necessarily, just a specific application of some broader principle about our obligation to alleviate global suffering generally. The suggestion that we ought to evaluate this case in a vacuum, then, starts to seem awfully strange, because if we are ever going to intervene for strictly humanitarian reasons (rather than to protect vital security interests), then the standard for when to do so has to be, in part, a function of the aggregate demands whatever standard we pick would place on our limited resources.

Reading between the lines slightly, here’s what I suspect is behind Chait’s rejection of a more holistic approach. (I hate putting words in people’s mouths, and encourage people to read the full post and judge for themselves, but I don’t think I’m stretching very far here.) Politically, we seem to be rather perversely amenable to pursuing putative humanitarian goals when this entails dropping bombs at massive cost—at least in cases that trigger our collective attention for whatever reason—than we are to more prosaic (and less lethal) interventions, even when these save more lives at lower cost. Chait infers—perhaps correctly—that Americans would reject any general, cost/benefit sensitive principle of intervention that could possibly justify action in this instance. Since Chait thinks Americans aren’t sufficiently willing to risk lives and money on behalf of foreigners as a general matter, but will occasionally go along with an insanely expensive intervention in particular stirring cases, he’d rather not have to generalize explicitly, because the ad hoc approach gets us closer to the level of assistance he thinks is morally required than any politically viable neutral rule.

Those of us who cherish the principle of limited government sometimes conflate it with our specific conception of what the limits should be—we have in mind a particular set of functions that government is uniquely qualified to take on, for one reason or another. But implicit in these last few paragraphs, I think, is a distinct and more abstract argument rooted in a particular ideal of democratic deliberation—one that is in theory equally compatible with any number of different views about the proper role and functions of government. We all know that individuals often make quite different choices on a case-by-case basis than when they formulate general rules of action based on a longer view. We routinely make meta-choices designed to prevent ourselves from making micro-choices not conducive to our interests in the aggregate: We throw out the smokes and the sweets in the cupboard, and even install software that keeps us from surfing the Internet when we’re trying to get work done. Faced with a Twinkie or a hilarious YouTube clip, we may predict that we will often make choices that, when they’re all added up, conflict with our other long-term goals. Marketers, by contrast, often try to induce us to make snap decisions or impulse purchases when, in a cool hour of deliberation, we’d conclude their product isn’t the best use of our money.

Following a diet or a budget is one form of choice; so is the impulse buy or the fast food snack. The meta-choice about which kind of choice to make depends on a judgement about which best comports with one’s ideal of rational autonomy given the facts of human psychology. A marketer who hopes to trigger an impulse buy can legitimately say he’s giving consumers what they choose, but there’s a clear sense in which someone acting in accordance with a general rule, formulated with a view to long-term tradeoffs, often chooses in a more deliberative and fully autonomous fashion than someone who does what seems most appealing in each case unfettered by such rules.

Something analogous, I want to suggest, can be said about democratic deliberation. A polity can establish broad and general principles specifying the conditions under which government may or should act, or it can vote on individual policies and programs on a case-by-case basis (with many gradations in between, of course). Both are clearly in some sense “democratic”; the proper balance between them will depend in part on one’s theory about how democratic deliberation confers legitimacy, just as the weight an individual gives to different types of “choices” will turn on a view about the nature of rational autonomy. Limited government is sometimes painted as constraint on democracy—an obstacle to what a majority might favor at a particular time. But political elites, like marketers, understand how the frame and scope of a choice may radically affect what the very same person or polity would choose—and claims by either that only one counts as true “choice” or “democracy” ought to be viewed with due skepticism.

Return to Debt Mountain

Last year I noted that the White House Office of Management and Budget homepage featured a call from the president to “invest in our people without leaving them a mountain of debt.” Yet, the Congressional Budget Office’s analysis of his then-current budget proposal showed that publicly held debt as a share of GDP would rise like the steep slope of a mountain under his policies.

The president’s latest budget proposal was released in February, and according to the CBO’s preliminary analysis, Obama would once again leave “our people” with a mountain of debt:

Given that the quote is clearly embarrassing, one would think that the White House would have taken it down by now. But it’s still there.

Max Boot Is Worried about Libya

Now he tells us.

Max Boot, among the loudest proponents of military action against Muammar Qaddafi, reports in today’s NY Times that he “can’t stop worrying about everything that could go wrong.”

Recognizing that Libya is so bitterly divided that it might not be appropriate to call it a country, Boot is suddenly concerned that “a long, seething history of rivalries among 140 tribes and clans,” could erupt into full scale civil war. Even if Boot gets his wish, and Qaddafi is ousted, he frets that “the tribes could fight one another for the spoils of Libya’s oil industry; as in Iraq, some could form alliances with Al Qaeda.”

Boot concedes that Libya “has had an active Islamist movement that has sent many fighters to Iraq,” and warns that “the collapse of Colonel Qaddafi’s police state would mean greater freedom for all Libyans, including jihadists who could try to instigate an insurgency as they did in Iraq.”

So, lots of things could go wrong. But Max Boot isn’t rethinking his earlier support for military operations against Qaddafi. Instead, he wants us to widen the war.

I have commented before on Max Boot’s expansive view of the appropriate uses of U.S. military power. Justin Logan has documented his horrible track record in predicting the future. I’ve lamented why anyone with such a checkered history (excepting his support for war, any war, which is remarkably consistent) would continue to be afforded so exalted a station in America’s mainstream media.

But this latest op-ed might take the cake for its combination of faux concern and seemingly prudent policy recommendations.

We are now told that a campaign from the air and sea is not enough. Boot informs us that we must ally with his preferred Libyan opposition group, the National Transitional Council, that we must put special operations forces on the ground to train the Libyan opposition, and that we must work to install a peacekeeping force to prevent the worst-case scenario from unfolding. These steps would require the amending of the UN Security Council resolution authorizing the use of force, which explicitly precluded a “foreign occupation force of any form on any part of Libyan territory.” No matter. We must do all of these additional things, Boot says, or else things could go horribly wrong.

Of course, we wouldn’t be required to contemplate any of these things if Barack Obama had refused to intervene. Much as I might like to pin the blame for this mess on Max Boot and his friends at The Weekly Standard and the Foreign Policy Initiative, the President of the United States could have ignored the calls for war. He could have listened to those who advised against launching yet another military campaign, including his Secretary of Defense, National Security Adviser, and senior military officers. Instead, the president’s seemingly sensible instincts to avoid foreign military entanglements have once again given way to the urgent pleas from the liberal interventionists in his own administration, especially Hillary Clinton, Samantha Power, and Susan Rice (aka the Valkyries).

I can bemoan the fact that President Obama chose to commit U.S. prestige, spend American treasure, and risk the lives of American military personnel, on a dubious and unnecessary mission, but such hand-wringing serves no purpose.

So let me just say that I share Ben Friedman’s concerns about the obvious mismatch between stated ends, and UN Security Council Resolution 1973 allowable means. I agree that restrictive rules of engagement could prolong a civil war, and expose U.S. military personnel to needless risk. I hope that this operation is concluded swiftly, and that U.S. taxpayers will not be on the hook to pay for a long-term military operation that, we were once told, would be “no problem.” Most of all I pray that our brave U.S. military personnel in harm’s way will safely return to their ships and bases…and to their families here at home.

Are Republicans Winning the Budget Battle but Losing the Budget War?

Among advocates of limited government, there is growing unease about the fiscal fight in Washington.

This is not because anything bad has happened. Indeed, Democrats thus far have been acquiescing – at least on a temporary basis – to conservative demands for $61 billion of spending cuts over the rest of the current fiscal year. This is remarkable after 10 years of endlessly expanding government.

Here’s what Jennifer Rubin wrote at her Right Turn blog.

A senior Senate adviser wisecracked, “A month ago, they said they couldn’t possibly cut a dime. Then they said the $4 billion [in] cuts in the first CR were a non-starter. Now they’re bragging about cutting spending?” It is a remarkable turn of events and another sign that Reid was bested in this round of budget battling. Twice now he capitulated to House Republicans.

This analysis is right, and it is very similar to what I wrote back on March 2 regarding the first short-term agreement.

So why, then, am I worried?

I’m nervous because the fiscal fight is evolving in a bad direction. In that March 2 post, I warned that “Republicans should be very careful about having their energy dissipated by a series of diversionary battles over short-run spending bills.”

That prediction, unfortunately, seems to have been rather accurate. Democrats have reluctantly agreed to some spending cuts, but their decisions perhaps could be characterized as a rope-a-dope strategy - tactical retreats designed to regain control over the field of battle and win the ultimate fiscal war.

The elephant in the living room, of course, is the threat of a government shutdown. Republicans seem terrified that they will get blamed if there is a stalemate and this leads to a shutdown of the non-essential parts of the government. And they are terrified of this outcome even if they have approved a budget and the stalemate exists solely because Harry Reid has blocked their budget in the Senate and/or Barack Obama has vetoed their budget.

I’ve already explained, in an article for National Review Online, why GOPers should not allow themselves to be blackmailed on this basis. The 1995 shutdown was a big policy success. Republicans did not get everything they wanted, to be sure, but the final result was real fiscal restraint - a four-year period where government spending grew by an average of less than 3 percent.

Moreover, the shutdown was hardly a political setback. Democrats on Capitol Hill were defecting to the GOP side during the fight, and the political people in the Clinton Administration were genuinely concerned that they might not be able to sustain the President’s veto. Some GOP political operatives thought, after the fight was over, that they lost because Clinton polled better than Gingrich, but this certainly didn’t keep Republicans from comfortably holding the House in 1996 and actually picking up seats in the Senate.

So what happens now? Republicans basically have two choices of how to proceed. Both options have some risk, but one approach almost surely leads to failure.

  1. Draw a line in the sand and pass a strong budget with cuts and meaningful reforms, even if it means the Democrats block the spending bill and cause a shutdown.
  2. Upsides - This approach is more likely to lead to an outcome that reduces the burden of government spending. Moreover, it surely would trigger more activism from libertarians, conservatives, and other supporters of limited government. A victory based on this approach (or even a draw) creates momentum for both the FY2012 budget resolution battle and the debt limit fight.

    Downsides - The left, including the establishment press, will portray the GOP negatively. More specifically, they will claim Republicans are “shutting down the government” because of supposedly extraneous issues like abortion (i.e., the funding controversy over Planned Parenthood), the environment (the debate over the “rider” provision to curtail the EPA’s power grab), or healthcare (defunding Obamacare).

  3. Do everything possible to avoid a shutdown, even if it means higher spending and no reform.
  4. Upsides - There is no risk of being blamed for a shutdown.

    Downsides - This French-army approach basically means that Republicans give up on fiscal policy for the next 21 months. Surrendering to avoid a shutdown means the burden of spending is higher. It means no program reforms or eliminations. Because of this precedent, it is highly unlikely that the GOP could attach meaningful fiscal conditions to the debt limit. Similarly, the loss of momentum would carry over to the budget resolution, undermining chances for fiscal reform in the 2012 fiscal year budget. Last but not least, the “base” would be very disappointed as activists from the Tea Party and elsewhere begin to conclude that fighting against big government is a fool’s errand.

Even in the most ideal scenario, using the line-in-the-sand strategy, fiscal conservatives in the House will not get everything they want. The real issue is which side has the upper hand in the negotiations.

The fight-rather-than-surrender approach gives the GOP leverage. They almost surely won’t get $61 billion of cuts, but they’ll be much closer to that number than with the French-army approach. They won’t succeed with all the “riders,” but they’ll make progress - perhaps temporarily setting aside the Obamacare issue in exchange for clipping the EPA’s wings, or gutting Planned Parenthood but letting NPR off the hook.

Politicians inevitably are worried about the political consequences of any strategy. That’s harder to judge, but they can protect themselves by not making it seem as if they welcome a partial shutdown. I explained in the National Review article that there are several lesson that fiscal conservatives can learn from 1995 that can help them prevail in 2011.

First and foremost, Republicans should keep passing bills to reopen the entire government. They should stress that they want the government open and explain that it is only closed because of Harry Reid’s obstinate support for big government and/or Barack Obama’s use of his veto pen on behalf of special interests. …Keep passing bills to reopen the parts of the government that voters actually care about, such as VA hospitals, the Social Security Administration, and national parks. …Remember that a government shutdown generally puts more financial pressure on the Left. If there is a lengthy showdown, Democratic constituencies begin to squeal. …In 1995, Republicans had to deal with a very hostile press corps. There was no Fox News, no Internet as we know it today, and no cadre of talk-radio hosts to augment Rush Limbaugh. So while it is true that CBS, NBC, ABC, CNN, the New York Times, and the Washington Post will regurgitate Democratic talking points, many voters will have access to conservative news sources, something that was not the case in 1995.

Tuesday Links