Archives: July, 2011

This Week in Government Failure

Over at Downsizing the Federal Government, we focused on the following issues this past week:

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Cleveland vs. Greenberg on Isolationism (so-called)

Props to Grover Cleveland at Pileus for his short but perceptive take on David Greenberg’s op-ed in yesterday’s New York Times. Cleveland places the piece in the “Not Worth a Read” category and asks:

Hasn’t this kind of simplistic “history” and inaccurate categorization of today’s critics of liberal internationalism/neoconservatism been written about a million times already?  And aren’t these types of pieces really just rhetorical bullying to prevent a serious discussion of American foreign policy?

Answer: Yes, and yes. And Cleveland is hardly the first to make this observation. (e.g. here, here, and here)
 
As with other writers who have crawled out of the woodwork recently to write about isolationism (so-called), Greenberg is sure that it’s bad, both for the country and for the Republican Party.
 
I agree with that statement. But I disagree with Greenberg’s characterization of the discussion taking place within the Republican Party (and the country) about the purpose of U.S. military power to be in any way comparable with the debate over ratification of the League of Nations Charter in 1919 or overwhelming public opposition to joining the war in Europe 1940 and 1941. Greenberg says that today’s isolationism “rejects America’s leadership role in the world.” I sense, instead, a skepticism toward the costs and benefits of American global hegemony, and a welcome (and to be expected) desire to shed some of these burdens.

To be clear, a sharp turn inward would be bad for the country. Global engagement has made the United States into the envy of the world. And yet, there is an ugly form of hostility toward outsiders that runs throughout U.S. history. Today, it manifests itself in the xenophobia, nativism, and outright bigotry that maintains that the United States can remain strong only by deporting 12 million undocumented immigrants and building a 20-foot high wall along the Mexican border. Isolationism is also manifested in protectionism, a false belief that American manufacturers and American workers can disconnect from the global marketplace, and that producers and consumers alike would both be better off if we were all confined to the domestic U.S. market.
 

But it is neither accurate to say that most Americans are isolationists nor that a different foreign policy, one more focused on self-defense and exhibiting restraint abroad, reflects isolationism. Rather, Americans crave a different foreign policy than that practiced by both Republicans and Democrats over the past two decades. They hunger for alternatives that would allow the United States to remain engaged in the world, but at less cost, and with other countries doing their fair share. In this context, it is hardly surprising that some Republicans (and some Democrats, too) are cautiously testing the waters of acceptable discourse. If they find that middle ground, between reflexive war-making and head-in-the-sand pacifism, they might strike political paydirt.
 
As to Greenberg’s claim that the GOP is mere moments away from being captured by the ghost of Robert Taft, I share Justin Logan’s skepticism. Still, I am bemused by the terror that the specter of so-called isolationism is currently striking in the hearts of interventionists of both the liberal and neoconservative variety. Given that so many of them were (and are) cheerleaders for the reckless war in Iraq, the unnecessary and doomed-to-fail armed social work being tried in Afghanistan, and the foolish and unconstitutional war/non-war in Libya, I might take grim solace in the fact that they are finally getting their just desserts.
 
I might, except that the backlash against these and other misadventures might eventually push the country toward genuine isolationism, with all of its ugly connotations.
 
Here’s hoping that we can find that sensible center, of a United States that remains deeply engaged with the world, but that has dropped all pretensions to managing it.

Zero Cheers for the Chinese Communist Party

The Chinese Communist Party celebrates its 90th birthday today. Pardon me if I do not attend the party.

It is undeniably true, as the authorities in Beijing are trumpeting, that the Chinese Mainland under one-party communist rule has enjoyed spectacular economic success during the past 30 years. China’s rapid growth was unleashed by the reforms of the late communist leader Deng Xiaoping that began in the late 1970s, but those reforms—private ownership of business, farms and housing, market pricing, foreign investment, and trade liberalization, among others—were hardly an extension of the Communist Party’s agenda. In fact, those reforms were a direct repudiation of everything the Chinese Communist Party and its co-founder Mao Tse-tung believed and practiced before and after the communist takeover of 1949.

Under Mao, tens of millions of Chinese starved in the Great Leap Forward of 1958-60. Millions suffered cruelly at the hands of the Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution of 1966-76. During the first 30 years of communist rule, the Chinese people enjoyed neither economic nor political and civil freedom. Even amid rising economic prosperity today, China’s one-party state continues to imprison, torture, and kill people who practice their faith or question the party. That is not much of a record to celebrate.

The Chinese people do not need communist rule to prosper. We can see that plainly enough 112 miles across the Taiwan Strait. Under the rule of the Nationalist Party, the 23 million people of Taiwan made the transition from military rule to a lively, multiparty democracy with freedom of speech, assembly, and religion. Behind liberal economic reforms dating back to the 1960s, the Taiwanese people have achieved a per capita gross domestic product (at purchasing power parity) that is four and a half times greater than on the mainland—$35,700 vs. $7,600.

It does not take much imagination to envision what Mainland China would be like today if it had followed the path of Taiwan rather than that of the 90-year-old Chinese Communist Party.

“Cory Maye Will Soon Be Free”

…that’s what former Cato policy analyst, Reason senior editor and now Huffington Post reporter Radley Balko reports:

I’m in Monticello, Mississippi, this morning, where Circuit Court Judge Prentiss Harrell has just signed a plea agreement between Cory Maye and the state. Maye has plead guilty to a reduced charged of manslaughter, and has been resentenced to 10 years in prison, time he has already served. He’ll be sent to Rankin County for processing. He should be released and home with his family in a matter of days.

Cory Maye’s is a story about a paramilitary-style drug raid gone grotesquely wrong, a cautionary tale about the human costs of the War on Drugs, and a lesson in how a dedicated investigative reporter can throw a wrench in the ever-grinding wheels of injustice. If you’re unfamiliar with the case, and Radley’s role in it, watch the terrific Reason.tv video, “Mississippi Drug War Blues” below, and read this blogpost I wrote a couple of years ago, when Radley’s work first started drawing attention to the case: “The Cato Policy Analyst Who (May Have) Saved a Man’s Life.” We can remove the “may have” now.

And here’s Radley’s update at the Huffington Post.

South Dakota: Second State to Ignore NCLB Requirements

South Dakota joined Idaho this week in declaring that it will not raise its student proficiency targets next year as required by the NCLB. Under the law, states have been required to bring increasing percentages of their students up to the “proficient” level on their own tests. By 2014, NCLB demands that all students be deemed proficient by their respective state departments of education.

The belief driving NCLB was that, if we we raise government standards for what students are supposed to know and be able to do, they will learn more. They haven’t, according to the best, nationally representative indicator of academic outcomes: the NAEP Long Term Trends tests. By the end of high school, overall student achievement is no better today than it was 40 years ago. In science, it’s slightly worse.

The reason NCLB failed is that its core belief was and is wrong: external, government-mandated standards are not the driving force of progress. It is the freedom and incentives of competitive marketplaces that drive up performance and productivity. I’ve already made this case in the context of the national education standards movement, and the same arguments and evidence apply to NCLB.

The testing component of NCLB was never more than a thermometer—and a broken, unreliable thermometer at that; allowing states to play games with test difficulty and the definition of “proficiency” in order to massage their results.

Thermometers don’t cure people. They are at best a diagnostic tool.

If we want to see the same kind of progress, productivity growth, and innovation in education that we’ve come to expect in every other field, we have one choice and one choice only: adopt the same freedoms and incentives in education that have driven progress in other fields. Either we allow education to benefit from the free enterprise system or we should get used to disappointment.

Bacon with a Soupçon of Hypocrisy

NPR’s Morning Edition today ran a surprisingly sympathetic report on “libertarian summer camp“ — the Porcupine Freedom Festival, held every year in New Hampshire.

How did it go? There was a lot of bacon, apparently. And a good time was had by all — many of whom, I gather, are a shade or two more radical than I am. It sounded like a fun, slightly zany, and not completely unworkable experiment in living, right down to the alternative currencies in gold and silver. Correspondent Robert Smith seems to have set out looking for “nasty, brutish, and short,” and what he found was just… different.

The main complaints?

First:

“There are no guarantees in a free market,” which is nothing if not obviously false. Businesses offer guarantees all the time and completely of their own volition, always seeking the elusive customer. There may be no sure thing in a free market, but the regulated market can’t deliver that either. Businesses are bound to keep their guarantees by the fear of losing customers. Bureaucrats are bound to keep their guarantees by… by… well, not too much, really.

And second:

[A]s George is making the omelets I spot something. His eggs come in big racks approved by the USDA. And the propane he’s using to cook the omelet — didn’t someone have to pay gas taxes on that?

“Unfortunately, it’s impossible to live completely state free,” George says.

What happens to be the case in our world is not necessarily the case in all possible worlds, and what we have now is very likely not the case in the best of all possible worlds. But for some reason mainstream journalists seem to conclude that it is, at least when faced with libertarian alternatives. “Why can’t you live by your principles in this unlibertarian world?” too often collapses into “No one could ever live by your principles in any possible world.”

This seems a hasty conclusion to me, to say the least, and one for which it’s strange to see libertarians singled out. No one asks the advocates of single-payer health care to do without private health care until their preferred system is enacted. No one asks the opponents of free immigration to abstain from all products and services ever touched by undocumented workers (though I admit, it would be a hoot if they tried).

Maybe it’s the influence of Atlas Shrugged, which does seem to argue for this type of ideological purity. But Atlas Shrugged was a fiction of a very particular type – idealized, deliberately made stark and simple, even — gasp! — unrealistic, the better to set out some hard-to-grasp principles. On a societal level those principles may very well be correct, or something a lot like them, even if I can’t live by them all alone while everyone else does not.

Still — not too bad, NPR. Not too bad at all.

Virginians Want to Bring the Boys Home

A strong majority of voters in Virginia, a state that is home to the Pentagon, Naval Station Norfolk (the world’s largest naval base), U.S. Joint Forces Command, and the fourth highest percentage of veterans of any state, want American troops out of Afghanistan and Libya.

According to a Quinnipiac University poll, 55 percent of Virginians polled think the United States “should not be involved in Afghanistan now,” and 60 percent oppose involvement in Libya.

According to the poll, fewer Virginians support those wars than any of the other people or topics the poll asked about. Only 38 percent now support the Afghan war, and 31 percent support the Libyan military involvement, compared to 42 percent who don’t want to repeal the 2010 health care law, 43 percent who would vote to re-elect President Obama, 48 percent who approve of Obama’s job performance, 42 percent who would vote for George Allen for senator, and 43 percent who would vote for Tim Kaine.

All those candidates should probably take note of the poll’s results on both health care and foreign wars.

Quinnipiac surveyed 1,434 registered voters and claims a margin of error of 2.6 percentage points. The poll apparently did not ask about the war in Iraq.