Tag: Progressives

Blame It On the Constitution

The New York Times treats us today to an op-ed by Prof. Sanford Levinson entitled “Our Imbecilic Constitution,” with the remedy recommended for such imbecility taking us well beyond reforming the document’s amendment provisions. The problem, you see, is that our government has become “dysfunctional” owing to “gridlock.” Like all good Progressives, Levinson is a government man: he sees problems for which no less than the federal government is the ready solution, but that’s unlikely under the strictures our “imbecilic” Constitution imposes on it.

Not surprisingly, therefore, he starts with a complaint about federalism: in the Senate, small states have power equal to that of large ones, which in turn implicates the Electoral College. The remedy for the problems Levinson believes can be traced to those checks on power is to unleash popular will through a more direct democracy. Thus he lauds Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, Progressives who “seriously questioned the adequacy of the Constitution.”

Theodore Roosevelt would have allowed Congress to override Supreme Court decisions invalidating federal laws, while Woodrow Wilson basically supported a parliamentary system and, as president, tried to act more as a prime minister than as an agent of Congress. The next few years saw the enactment of amendments establishing the legitimacy of the federal income tax, direct election of senators, Prohibition and women’s right to vote.

Never mind the merits of those accomplishments, Levinson next offers various state constitutions as models for what might be, starting with New York’s, its fifth such document. One hopes the Knickbockers get it right before too many more years pass, because if dysfunction be the touchstone of failure, the Empire State has come close to it.

Then again, Levinson offers this idea for fixing congressional gridlock:

We could permit each newly elected president to appoint 50 members of the House and 10 members of the Senate, all to serve four-year terms until the next presidential election. Presidents would be judged on actual programs, instead of hollow rhetoric.

“Programs:” We need to get things done. Isn’t that what government is for?

To be sure, there are problems today that cry out for solutions, yet most are not inherent in the human condition but rather are the result of government “programs.” After all, it’s entitlements, individual and corporate, that have given us our massive deficits and debt, to take only the largest and most conspicuous examples. That is the one thing that Levinson does not seem to appreciate.

As compared to the rest of the world, our Constitution has stood the test of time fairly well. The problems we now have did not arise from abiding by its limitations but just the opposite. The Progressives ignored those limits. It’s that behavior, on which the New Deal and the Great Society doubled down, that has brought us to this impasse, with the country immersed today in the politics of a zero-sum game. We don’t need a new Constitution. We need to return to the one we have.

Robert Nozick and the Value of Liberty

Stephen Metcalf’s prolix takedown of Robert Nozick demands response, not because Metcalf has advanced a novel and Rawls-esque so-interesting-and-powerful-it-must-be-addressed argument, but because he precisely has not. Nozick is, justifiably, a hero of libertarianism (and liberty), and his terrific book, Anarchy, State, and Utopia, as well as libertarianism in general, deserve better than Metcalf’s excoriation.

My colleague Jason Kuznicki started things off admirably. At the risk of beating what ought to be a dead horse, I’d like to add a word or two of my own. I’ll avoid what Jason’s already covered.

Let’s start with Metcalf’s very odd characterization of Nozick’s view of liberty as the primary value. He writes, “Nozick is arguing that liberty is the sole value, and to put forward any other value is to submit individuals to coercion.” Metcalf adds that, according to Nozick and modern libertarians, “Every other value, meanwhile, represents someone else’s deranged will-to-power.”

This claim evinces a common confusion about libertarianism, one that continues throughout the remainder of Metcalf’s article: libertarians don’t believe that liberty is the primary value, we believe that liberty is the primary political value. Like so many critics of libertarianism, Metcalf does not understand the scope of the libertarian argument.

I value liberty, yes, but I also value my health, my daughter’s happiness, and films staring William Powell and Myrna Loy. In fact, libertarians, progressives, and even Robert Nozick value quite a lot of things. The libertarian argument is simply that a state that attempts to directly maximize any value besides liberty—by, say, coercively taxing in order to pay for more Thin Man films—violates individual rights. What’s more, if the state does remain limited to protecting only liberty, we’ll get more health, happiness, and great movies.

According to Nozick and most other libertarians, it is for the protection of liberty that we organize a state—and a state that violates its citizens’ liberty (beyond, arguably, certain “night watchman” duties) commits a moral wrong. Metcalf gets that much right. But this is not because liberty is the only value. Rather, it is because liberty is the only value the state should concern itself with. All the other values—of which there are a great many, not all shared equally by all individuals—are the exclusive concern of civil society.

Nozick argues that it’s wrong for all of us to look in moral horror at Wilt Chamberlain’s earnings, band together into a government, and send in armed tax collectors because we think Wilt’s money could be more valuably used somewhere other than Wilt’s pockets. Nozick’s parable is about the morality of politics while saying nothing about what Wilt ought to voluntarily do with his money. He might choose to spend it all on caviar and rare basketball cards, in which case the rest of us might even be justified in looking down our noses at such “wasteful” behavior. But Wilt might also give a portion of his money to fund homeless shelters, free medical clinics, and scholarships for poor children (as many people in his position in fact do). Or he might use it to launch a new business, employing many of his fellow citizens at decent wages to teach his basketball skills to willing consumers.

Liberty is not the only value. It is the only value within the scope of politics. Liberty is also the value that allows all the other actually-held values to flourish.

Which brings me to this odd bit of Metcalf’s reasoning: “Even in 1975,” he writes, “it took a pretty narrow view of history to think all capital is human capital, and that philosophy professors, even the especially bright ones, would thrive in the free market.” Doesn’t Nozick recognize, he asks, that the very university system he took advantage of to pay his bills while writing his defense of free markets was made possible only by massive government transfer payments? Without a hugely interventionist state, Nozick wouldn’t even be able to pay his rent with his philosophy knowledge, let alone revitalize an intellectual movement.

In effect, Metcalf is saying that Nozick is dumb to support markets because markets wouldn’t support Nozick. If liberty is the only value (of the state), then the talent of philosophy wouldn’t be sufficiently valued (by the market) to allow a fellow like Robert Nozick to do philosophy.

And Metcalf may be right. But if he is, it’s unclear why we shouldn’t also extend his argument to all other talents. A great many mystery novelists, for instance, would love to have academic appointments while they pen new adventures for their detectives. But instead they have to compete in the free market, hoping an audience will value their work enough to pay for it. Last I checked, even in this unforgiving environment, there are a great many mystery novels on shelves.

The fact of the matter is that not all talents are valued, which is why Nozick chose a basketball player to build his case around instead of, say, a teenager who can name every Pokémon from memory. If we are going to create a world in which everything valuable (to Metcalf) is given financial support, we need to organize it such that people are not free to choose their own values. The beauty of the free market is not that it specifically supports basketball playing or philosophy writing, but that it rewards those who have talents that are actually and voluntarily valued by the rest of us. Arriving at an array of values this way seems a good deal better than the alternative, at least. For if we aren’t to leave “value” to the market, we have to leave it to someone. Which means substituting that person’s (or committee’s) particular, uniform conception of value for the variegated bramble that is a free society.

The beauty of liberty is that it allows each of us to pursue our own ends and strive for whatever we value. The curse of liberty is that our striving takes place among a great many fellow strivers, many of who are headed in directions we find elitist or prole, dangerous or dull, distasteful or uninspired. The difference between Nozick’s vision and Metcalf’s is that Nozick embraces that wonderful chaos, provided it happens within a framework of respected rights. Metcalf would strike down choice and replace it with state-endorsed value. He would force all of us or none of us to watch Wilt play, placing the decision to be a spectator or an abstainer not with free individuals but with Stephen Metcalf.

End ED — From the Left!

It’s no secret that expelling the U.S. Department of Education is something that a lot of libertarians, and conservatives who haven’t lost their way, would love to do. What’s not nearly so well known is that there are also people on the left who dislike ED. Now, they don’t dislike it because it and the programs it administers clearly exist in contravention of the Constitution, or because its massive dollar-redistribution programs have done no discernable good. They dislike it because, especially since the advent of No Child Left Behind, it strong-arms schools into doing things left-wing educators often disagree with or resent, like pushing phonics over whole language, or imposing standardized testing. Many also truly believe in local control of schools, though often with power consolidated in the hands of teachers.

Case in point is a guest blog post over at the webpage of the Washington Post’s Valerie Strauss. The entry is by George Wood, principal of Federal Hocking High School in Ohio and executive director of the Forum for Education and Democracy. He writes:

Everybody dislikes bureaucracies, but for different reasons. The “right” complains they are unresponsive, full of “feather-bedders,” and a waste of taxpayer money. The “left” complains they are unresponsive, full of people who are too busy pushing paper to see the real work, and too intrusive into local, democratic decision-making. Maybe we should unite all this new energy for making government more responsive and efficient around the idea of eliminating a bureaucracy that was probably a bad idea in the first place.

Remember that the Department of Education was a payoff by President Jimmy Carter to teacher unions for their support. Before that, education was part of the Department of Health, Education and Welfare.

That’s where I propose returning it. Here are several reasons why:

First, the current structure of the national Department of Education gives it inordinate control over local schools. The federal government provides only about 8% of education funding. But through through NCLB, Race to the Top, and innovation grants, they are driving about 100% of the agenda. Clearly this is a case of a tail wagging a very big dog.

Second, by separating education from health and welfare, we have separated departments that should be working very closely together. We all know, even if some folks are loath to admit it, that in order for a child to take full advantage of educational opportunities he or she needs to come to school healthy, with a full stomach, and from a safe place to live.

But the federal initiatives around education seldom take such a holistic approach; instead, competing departments engage in bureaucratic turf wars that, while fun within the Beltway, are tragic for children in our neighborhoods.

Third, whenever you create a large bureaucracy, it will find something to do, even if that something is less than helpful. After years of an “activist” DOE, we do not see student achievement improving or school innovation taking hold widely. We have lived through Reading First, What Works, and an alphabet soup of changing programs with little to show for it.

In fact, DOE has often been one of the more ideological departments, engaging in the battles such as phonics vs. whole language. Who needs it?

Who needs it, indeed!

As I have touched upon repeatedly since last week’s election, now is the time to launch a serious offensive against the U.S. Department of Education. I have largely concluded that because of the wave of generally conservative and libertarian legislators heading toward Washington, as well as the powerful tea-party spirit powering the tide. But this is a battle I have always thought could be fought with a temporary alliance of the libertarian right and educators of the progressive left who truly despise top-down, one-size-fits-all, dictates from Washington. There are big sticking points, of course — for instance, many progressives love federal money “for the poor” — but this morning, I have a little greater hope that an alliance can be forged.

Monday Links

  • Harvard economist Jeffrey Miron: “Economists find weak or contradictory evidence that higher government spending spurs the economy. Substantial research, however, does find that tax cuts stimulate the economy and that fiscal adjustments—attempts to reduce deficits by raising taxes or lowering expenditure—work better when they focus on tax cuts.”

Neocons, Progressives, and the Impulse to Bully

Bart Hinkle makes some interesting observations in the Richmond Times-Dispatch about the unfortunate similarities between neoconservatives and progressives. Progressives, he says (and of course they’re not really for progress, so they might better be called left-liberals), spent the Bush years criticizing “bullying,” “heavy-handed meddling,” and even “neoconservative theories of social engineering.” They preferred “soft power.”

Yet turn the subject to domestic policy, and what happens? Progressives eagerly embrace the use of coercive hard power to achieve their aims. Force industry to adopt a cumbersome cap-and-trade policy to reduce carbon emissions? Check. Force the country to adopt a health care “public option”? Check. Threaten people with fines and even prison to impose an individual mandate? Check.

So much for the concern about “social engineering” and well-intentioned but “heavy-handed meddling.” When it comes to domestic policy, progressives are just as eager as neocons are to embrace “expansive dreams” and “gargantuan plans.” Just as hopelessly romantic about what the threat of force can achieve. And just as arrogant about the rightness of wielding it.

After some more critical analysis of the inconsistency of the left, Hinkle concludes:

Of course, everything that has just been said about progressives could be turned with equal validity against conservatives of the talk-radio right – many of whom think Americans should push the rest of the world around, but leave one another the heck alone.

If only there were an alternative to heavy-handed liberals and heavy-handed conservatives…

How Did the FCC Come to Acquire This Power?

Jeff Eisenach and Adam Thierer have a great essay in The American honoring the 50th anniversary of Ronald Coase’s article “The Federal Communications Commission.” It’s timely given the FCC’s proposal to establish public utility-style regulation of the Internet under the banner “net neutrality,” and it’s a good general warning to Neo-Progressives who “see market failure as the source of most problems, and government as the centerpiece of most solutions.”

More Fear-Mongering Claptrap from Max Boot

Max Boot, fellow for National Security Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and perhaps one of America’s most radical neo-imperialists, eight years ago this month likened the Afghan mission to British colonial rule:

Afghanistan and other troubled lands today cry out for the sort of enlightened foreign administration once provided by self-confident Englishmen in jodhpurs and pith helmets…This was supposed to be ‘for the good of the natives,’ a phrase that once made progressives snort in derision, but may be taken more seriously after the left’s conversion (or, rather, reversion) in the 1990s to the cause of ‘humanitarian’ interventions. [emphasis mine]

Just yesterday, this “stay-the-course” proponent said President Obama should fight on in Afghanistan and properly resource the counterinsurgency mission. Sadly, Boot’s arguments are so faulty and disjointed that it is difficult to decide where to begin first. Here I go…

Boot believes that the coalition should properly resource the war effort. What does that even mean? What Boot neglects to tell his readers is that our current policy requires more troops than we could ever send. The metric for successful counterinsurgency missions suggested by the U.S. Army and Marine Corps would require 200,000 counterinsurgents in southern Afghanistan alone, and upwards of 650,000 in the country as a whole, for upwards of 12 to 14 years—not including the last eight. The time and resources required for assisting Afghanistan would not be accomplished within costs acceptable to American and NATO publics.

Another critical point that Boot fails to disclose is how recklessly ambitious the current mission is. The cost in blood and treasure that we would have to incur—coming on top of what we have already paid—far outweighs any possible benefits, even accepting the most optimistic estimates for the likelihood of success. The United States does not have the patience, cultural knowledge, or legitimacy to transform what is a deeply divided, poverty stricken, tribal-based society into a self-sufficient, non-corrupt, and stable electoral democracy. And even if Americans did commit several hundred thousand troops and decades of armed nation-building, success would hardly be guaranteed, especially in a country notoriously suspicious of outsiders and largely devoid of central authority. Western powers could invest hundreds of thousands of troops and twice or three times the materiel and money and still not create a functioning state. Even in the unlikely event that we forged a stable Afghanistan, al Qaeda might simply reposition its presence into other regions of the world.

Of course, America could narrow its objectives in Afghanistan to degrading al Qaeda’s capabilities. But Boot pooh-poohs this alternative, arguing, “Vice President Joe Biden favors a smaller-scale strategy that would employ high-tech weapons and special forces to kill terrorists from afar. But such a strategy has rarely, if ever, succeeded.” Boot’s example of where such a strategy has not succeeded? “It has been employed by Israel against Hamas and Hezbollah. The result: Hamas controls Gaza, and Hezbollah controls southern Lebanon. It has been employed by the U.S. in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The result: The Taliban controls western Pakistan and large swaths of eastern and southern Afghanistan.”

Equating the United States vis-à-vis al Qaeda to Israel vis-à-vis Hezbollah is a stretch. For one, the two political and security situations are wildly dissimilar. Afghanistan presents a liberation insurgency that includes indigenous groups attempting to expel a foreign occupier, while Hezbollah is a national insurgency of indigenous groups attempting to control the government of Lebanon. Moreover, one could make the argument that Hezbollah presents a pressing existential threat to Israel, whereas al Qaeda presents nothing in the way of an existential threat to the United States.

In addition, the strategy that Boot casually dismisses, that of targeting key militant conspirators, had a far-reaching effect in Iraq, and, according to authoritative sources, was quite possibly the biggest factor in reducing violence there. These operations were highly classified direct action activities, dubbed “collaborative warfare,” which combined intelligence intercepts with precision strikes to eliminate key insurgent leaders of the Shia and Sunni insurgency. Bob Woodward accounts these techniques in his book The War Within: A Secret White House History 2006-2008.

Overall, I couldn’t disagree with Boot more. Instead of increasing troops, America should scale back its military presence. Rather than trying to protect Afghan villages from the Taliban, the United States should concentrate on al Qaeda cells in Pakistan through surgical tactic such as special forces operations, intelligence sharing, and Predator missile attacks when necessary. Whether al Qaeda coalesces in Sudan, in Yemen, or in Miami, Florida, our policy should not be to redesign a people’s way of life or tinker with the importance of their communal identity. Yet that is what Boot wants us to do in Afghanistan.

Sadly, people like Boot have lost sight of a crucial question: not about whether a state-building mission in Afghanistan is achievable, but whether it constitutes a vital U.S. national security interest. Central Asia holds little intrinsic strategic value to the United States, and America’s security will not necessarily be endangered even if an oppressive political faction takes over portions of Afghan territory. Given Afghanistan’s numerous challenges, and the fact that a protracted guerrilla war will weaken Western powers militarily and economically, the fundamental objective should be to get out of Afghanistan.