Tag: New Republic

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.

This Month at Cato Unbound: Neoconservatism Unmasked

This month, Cato Unbound examines neoconservatism – perhaps the most puzzling of current ideologies. The lead essay is from Professor C. Bradley Thompson, author of Neoconservatism: An Obituary for an Idea.

So what is it? Some say there’s no there there – neoconservatism is a disposition or a mood, no more and no less, and it’s got little or no enduring philosophical content. Thompson, however, argues that neoconservatism is a coherent political philosophy, one blending Machiavellian pragmatism with Platonic idealism. Philosophers may apprehend eternal truths, but these truths aren’t fit for ordinary folk, and still less are they a good basis for politics. In these realms, we need national unity, national greatness, national strength – in a word, nationalism.

Is this an accurate portrayal? Some will certainly disagree, and we’ve invited three distinguished panelists to engage Thompson’s thesis – Patrick J. Deneen of Georgetown University, Damon Linker of The New Republic, and Douglas B. Rasmussen of St. John’s University. Be sure to come back throughout the month, or subscribe to our RSS feed to see the conversation as it develops.

How to Tell When ObamaCare Supporters Are Nervous

Supporters have gone to great lengths to make ObamaCare appear popular or to make repeal seem impossible.  But this op-ed by my friend Jonathan Cohn made my jaw drop.

First, Cohn notes that the Senate recently voted down two efforts to repeal one of ObamaCare’s more unpopular provisions: the “1099 reporting tax,” which will place an enormous burden on small businesses.  ”Neither provision,” Cohn obliquely reports, “got enough votes to pass.”  He concludes:

Critics of health care reform [sic] this week thought they would get their first win in the campaign to repeal the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. Instead they got a lesson in just how politically challenging a wholesale repeal might be.

If opponents can’t even repeal the unpopular parts of ObamaCare, how can they repeal the whole thing?

Cohn neglects to mention a few important details.  The reason neither amendment received “enough votes” is because, due to procedural considerations, each would have needed a 2/3 majority to pass – i.e., 67 votes.  The Republican amendment actually received 61 votes.  (The Democratic amendment received only 44 votes.)  Reading Cohn’s account, though, you might think – and Cohn might think, or just want you to think – that both failed because they lacked majority support.  In fact, the Republican amendment received a filibuster-proof majority.  Even though it included $19 billion of spending cuts.  And in a chamber with only 41 Republicans.  (Another six arrive next month.)  And the mere fact that Democrats offered an amendment to repeal part of ObamaCare is notable in itself.  Cohn’s spin aside, the skirmish over the 1099 reporting tax shows that Democrats are divided and ObamaCare supporters are on the run.

Second, Cohn writes, “advocates of repeal have one extra liability that the law’s architects did not – a lack of majority support even before the wrangling begins.”  As evidence, he cites a single Gallup  poll from July 2009 that found 50 percent of the public supported “comprehensive health care reform.”  Oy, where to begin.  First, by Cohn’s own single-poll standard, he is just flat wrong.  Advocates of repeal can point to the latest Rasmussen poll, which shows that 58 percent of adults support wholesale repeal.  (Polls have clocked support for repeal as high as 61 percent.)  Second, support for “comprehensive health care reform” is not the same thing as support for ObamaCare.  If Gallup were to ask Cato employees whether they support comprehensive health care reform, my guess is that at least 50 percent would answer yes.  (Presumably, Cohn would then write an oped titled, “Even Libertarians Support ObamaCare!”)  Advocates of repeal have something else going for them, too: 17 months of consistent public opposition to ObamaCare.

No one is saying that getting repeal through the Senate is likely in the next two years.  But the fact that supporters have to shade the truth like this suggests they are nervous.

Problems with 911

Michael Crowley, senior editor at The New Republic, recounts some nightmare episodes with the 911 Emergency Response System in the current issue of Reader’s Digest.  Here’s an excerpt:

If there’s one thing we think we can count on, it’s that a frantic call to 911 will bring a swift and effective response.  Government’s first priority, after all, is protecting its citizens.  But a spate of recent cases reveal shocking flaws in our national emergency response system–at a cost measured in lives.

One of those cases involved a young college student at the University of Wisconsin.  She dialed 911 and then hung up without saying anything.  Before the line was disconnected, however, there were screams and sounds of a struggle caught on tape.  The operator claims she could hear no noise–so she did not dispatch the police or try to call back.  Later that day, the college student, Brittany Zimmerman, was found beaten to death in her apartment.  An audio recording of some of the 911 nightmares can be found here.

Michael Crowley stresses the need for better trained operators and perhaps penalties for the people who tie up the lines with frivolous calls.  That’s all well and good, but more importantly, we must all acknowledge the limits of the 911 system and take responsibility for our own safety.  As the libertarian sheriff, Bill Masters, points out “If you rely on the government for protection, you are going to be at least disappointed and at worst injured or killed.”

For related Cato work, go here.

Update: New Jersey State Police are reviewing how a recent 911 call was handled. A Catholic priest called 911 as he came under criminal attack in his church.

The New Republic and Guilt by Association

I watched with interest the J Street debate between Matt Yglesias and The New Republic’s Jonathan Chait over the question “what it means to be pro-Israel.”  Matt’s a very efficient thinker, and Chait’s a particularly sharp debater.  I witnessed him slug it out at length in a debate with David Boaz a while back, not something I’d like to do.

Chait made a straightforward argument: to be pro-Israel, someone has to accept two premises.  First, one has to believe that historically, Israel is the more sympathetic party in the Middle East.  Second, one has to believe that the U.S. should not be even-handed in the Middle East, but rather should be on Israel’s side.

But what was most interesting about his argument was his accusation of guilt by association against J Street.  It was a problem, Chait argued, that J Street had been embraced by people who did not meet his definition of pro-Israel.  Chait rang the alarum that “The American Conservative magazine, which was founded by Pat Buchanan, …has been saying nice things about J Street.”  In addition, “the famous Walt and Mearsheimer have been saying extremely nice things about J Street — embracing J Street.”

This is a pretty straightforward guilt-by-association argument: The American Conservative doesn’t meet Chait’s definition of pro-Israel, therefore, for that magazine to praise J Street tarnishes its pro-Israel bona fides.  Same story with John Mearsheimer and Steve Walt.

First, the person at TAC who’s been praising J Street has a name: Scott McConnell.  Scott has a PhD in history from Columbia, and is the current editor-at-large (previously the editor) of the magazine.  I don’t know in great detail Scott’s views on Israel, but I think it’s fair to say that he thinks it’s very important for America, for Israel, and for the Palestinians to get a two-state solution set up, and sooner rather than later.  He also believes, I think, that in order for this to happen, Washington will have to put pressure on both Israel and the Palestinians to give up things they don’t want to give up.  The same view is held by Mearsheimer and Walt.  So the allegedly guilty parties’ view is certainly less zero-sum than Chait’s (would Chait characterize himself as “anti-Palestinian,” I wonder?), maybe even positive-sum.  But I don’t think that receiving praise from a person with such views on the matter necessarily should serve to taint J Street’s pro-Israel bona fides.

But beyond this, is guilt-by-association really something that Chait wants to engage in at all?  For instance, Chait’s boss at The New Republic, Martin Peretz, wrote last March that Mexican people suffer from “congenital corruption” and possess “near-tropical work habits.”  (The piece is no longer available on TNR‘swebsite, but the passage in question can be found here.)  Should we be asking what Chait’s views on Mexicans are, since he is a writer at TNR under Mr. Peretz?  When Peretz suggested two days ago that President Obama’s views on foreign policy are infused with an ideological narrative, and “Obama’s narrative is assumedly third world, maybe just by dint of his skin complexion,” should we be asking Chait to clarify his views on African-Americans?  Finally, although I’m no expert on Mr. Peretz’s views on Arab people, those who’ve paid closer attention make a good case that he has said some reasonably provocative things about them, as well.  Should Chait be brought in for questioning on these matters?

If people only wrote for magazines every word of which they agreed with, few people would write for magazines.  Even if people took the much more modest step of steering clear of writing for magazines that regularly publish offensive material like the above, consumers of magazines like The New Republic would suffer.  But the fact that Chait doesn’t feel the need to distance himself from Mr. Peretz’s various racial foibles ought to raise either questions about his views on Mexicans, blacks, and Arabs, or else questions about his standing to level charges of guilt by association.

Another Day, Another Tranche of Afghanistan Reading Material

Item: The Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy, a group of concerned scholars and authors who work on international security and U.S. foreign policy, have issued an open letter to President Obama warning him not to expand U.S. involvement in that country.  (Full disclosure: I was a signatory.)  The list of signatories includes many of the scholars who urged President Bush not to invade Iraq.  Politico was the first to run the story: see here.

Item: Via Michael Cohen, former CIA counterterrorism honcho Paul Pillar takes to the pages of the Washington Post to think through the concept of “safe havens” in Afghanistan.  His conclusion?

Among the many parallels being offered between Afghanistan and the Vietnam War, one of the most disturbing concerns inadequate examination of core assumptions. The Johnson administration was just as meticulous as the Obama administration is being in examining counterinsurgent strategies and the forces required to execute them. But most American discourse about Vietnam in the early and mid-1960s took for granted the key – and flawed – assumptions underlying the whole effort: that a loss of Vietnam would mean that other Asian countries would fall like dominoes to communism, and that a retreat from the commitment to Vietnam would gravely harm U.S. credibility.

The Obama administration and other participants in the debate about expanding the counterinsurgency effort in Afghanistan can still avoid comparable error. But this would require not merely invoking Sept. 11 and taking for granted that a haven in Afghanistan would mean the difference between repeating and not repeating that horror. It would instead mean presenting a convincing case about how such a haven would significantly increase the terrorist danger to the United States. That case has not yet been made.

Item: Michael Crowley offers a piece in the New Republic that strongly implies but doesn’t quite come out and say that President Obama should ignore the skeptics and the political risks and wade deeper into Afghanistan.  The piece swallows whole the conventional wisdom narrative on Iraq–that the Surge amounted not to a combination of defining down “victory” and appeasement of Sunni tribes but rather a borderline miracle whereby Gen. Petraeus loosed his wonder-working COIN doctrine on the maelstrom of violence in that country and produced a strategic victory.  Crowley then uses this narrative to frame the decision before President Obama.  Still, he writes

[I]f the definition of success isn’t clear to the Obama team, the definition of defeat may be. Bush argued unabashedly that Iraq had become “the central front in the war on terror” and that withdrawing before the country had stabilized would hand Al Qaeda not only a strategic but a moral victory. Current administration officials don’t publicly articulate the same rationale when discussing Afghanistan. But former CIA official Bruce Riedel, a regional expert who led the White House’s Afghanistan-Pakistan review earlier this year, cited it at the Brookings panel held in August. “The triumph of jihadism or the jihadism of Al Qaeda and the Taliban in driving NATO out of Afghanistan would resonate throughout the Islamic World. This would be a victory on par with the destruction of the Soviet Union in the 1990s,” Riedel said. “[T]he stakes are enormous.”

Obama may have one last thing in common with Bush: personal pride. Bush was determined to prevail in Iraq because he had invaded it. And, while Obama, of course, had nothing to do with the invasion of Afghanistan, he has long supported the campaign there–including during the presidential campaign as a foil for his opposition to the Iraq war. Speaking before a group of veterans last month, Obama called Afghanistan a “war of necessity”–a phrase which politically invests him deeper in the fight. “The president has boxed himself in,” says one person who has advised the administration on military strategy. “The worst possible place to be is that our justification for being in a war is that we’re in a war.”

Lots to chew on.

Who’s Blogging about Cato

Here’s a round-up of bloggers who are writing about Cato research and commentary:

  • QandO’s Michael Wade offered his own thoughts on the New York Times blogger who said Cato’s voice against bailouts has not met her “expectations of adequate noise.”
  • The Atlantic’s Clive Crook reviewed the new Cato book, The Beautiful Tree, which explains how private education efforts are empowering children in Third World nations.
  • Blogging on Tax Day, Jacob Grier cited Charlotte Twight’s essay in Cato Journal on the history of income tax withholding in the United States.
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