Topic: Political Philosophy

American Patriotism = Choosing Liberty

I’ve always thought of long-time Cato ally Tim Sandefur as one of the most thoughtful libertarians in the blogosphere. This holiday weekend he did not disappoint, offering a stinging rebuke to Matt Yglesias’s blather about how America is “awesome” but would have been “even awesomer had English and American political leaders … been farsighted enough to find compromises that would have held the empire together.”

Sandefur correctly points out that the British, while now our closest friends (along with Canada, the part of British North America that did not join in revolt), in the 1770s left the colonists with no choice:

Abject submission is what you get when you try to “compromise” with those who would destroy your liberty and reduce you under absolute despotism.

He then goes on to excoriate Yglesias for elsewhere saying of the difference between liberal and conservative patriotism that “liberals do a better job of recognizing that much as we may love America there’s something arbitrary about it – we’re just so happen to be Americans whereas other people are Canadians or Mexicans or French or Russian or what have you.” Sandefur points out that these other nationalities “are based on ethnicity and chance, while American nationality is based on choice and the assent to certain basic principles that make up our nation.”

That’s exactly right: America is anything but ethnic (or other) happenstance, but instead stands for government by the principled consent of the governed, and the Founding generation’s choice of liberty over continued subjugation. Consequently, America’s patriotism (qua nationalism) is civic rather than ethnic:

What July 4th is about is to remind us that all those who stand up for freedom and refuse to “compromise” their rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, are brothers and sisters and at heart Americans; that all who today try to move their countries toward a fuller recognition and implementation of these principles are working hand in hand with our founders; that American nationhood is the first ever founded on anything but an arbitrary ethnic or historical basis, but on the basis of certain shared principles, principles that can be grasped by “a candid world,” and that give hope to all men for all future time.

As they say, read the whole thing.

You could argue, of course, that other new world (or immigrant) countries like Canada and Australia (or Argentina) are also not based on ethnicity, but there, quite obviously, there is no “national idea” – focusing on liberty or otherwise. Canada is constantly having national conversations on “what it means to be Canadian,” which typically fails to produce any answers beyond “well, we’re not Americans” (at least for those outside of Quebec, which has never been fully assimilated into the Canadian “nation”). And of course, many other countries that are or were based on an idea (Communism, etc.) lack the consent of the governed. Having been born in then-Soviet Russia and raised in Canada, I have all too much experience with countries lacking either a civic basis or popular legitimacy.

For what I think of the American Idea, scroll/click through this.

State-Worship, McCain Style

Here’s a snip from John McCain’s Parade magazine essay on patriotism:

Patriotism is deeper than its symbolic expressions, than sentiments about place and kinship that move us to hold our hands over our hearts during the national anthem. It is putting the country first, before party or personal ambition, before anything. (emphasis mine)

Before anything? I always thought the Buckley clan had some insights on prioritization of duties.

Not a Last Resort, but a “Never” Resort

An article at Doublethink Online quotes me as saying the following regarding Medicare reform:

Cannon asserts that: “For Medicare, we have to realize we simply cannot provide unlimited amounts of free healthcare to every senior. We only have two options: bring more money in or cut benefits. If we simply increase taxes, they would eventually reach 40 percent of GDP. We shouldn’t arbitrarily cut back, either. We are better off finding an amount of money that we can spend per senior on healthcare, and allow them to choose their own options according to the spending guidelines…Politically, you may need to raise taxes, but it should be a last resort.”

Hmm.  Doesn’t.  Sound.  Like.  Me.  The first (positive) part of that sentence certainly could be true.  But the second (normative) part legitimizes something I think is categorically illegitimate.  I consider tax increases not a last resort, but a “never” resort. 

I can hear Josh Patashnik now…

Our Collectivist Candidates, Past and Present

I’ve just been reading Bill Kauffman’s fine book Ain’t My America: The Long, Noble History of Anti-War Conservatism and Middle-American Anti-Imperialism (see him talk about it here), and I ran across this quotation from Bill Clinton in 1997:

It’s hard when you’re not threatened by a foreign enemy to whip people up to a fever pitch of common, intense, sustained, disciplined endeavor.

Indeed it is. Outside of wartime it is difficult, even impossible, to rally millions of free citizens around a common aim. When you’re not threatened by war or occupation, people have their own endeavors, their own purposes, their own “pursuits of industry and improvement,” as Jefferson put it, to worry about. That’s why collectivists and statists are always trying to gin up war fever in metaphorical wars like the War on Poverty, the War on Drugs, and the Energy Crisis.

And as I wrote recently in the Wall Street Journal, this martial spirit remains a temptation to our current candidates. Barack Obama told Wesleyan graduates that “our individual salvation depends on collective salvation.” John McCain calls on us to serve “a national purpose that is greater than our individual interests,” preferably by doing calisthenics in uniform in front of city hall. Politicians like that, as Michelle Obama, “will never allow you to go back to your lives as usual.”

Shall. Not. Be. Infringed.

To echo Tim Lynch’s previous post …

Bob Levy, Alan Gura, Dick Heller, and the other original plaintiffs in District of Columbia v. Heller are to be commended for securing a landmark Supreme Court ruling affirming that the Second Amendment protects the right of law abiding individuals to keep and bear arms.  It’s silly and sad that we needed such a ruling, and we should not forget the uncertainty and the threats to liberty that were made possible by so much constitutional revisionism over the past 40 years.

Levy and Gura deserve special recognition for their foresight and courage in pursuing this ruling despite considerable resistance.  That resistance came from a lot of people, with a lot of knowledge about the Second Amendment and the Supreme Court, a lot of influence, and a lot at stake in the outcome.  They argued this cause shouldn’t be pursued now, and they said it should be pursued by someone else.  Levy and Gura, as it were, stuck to their guns.  They have been vindicated, and we owe them big.

Praise is also due many such as Sanford Levinson, Robert J. Cottrol, and Stephen Halbrook, whose honest, careful scholarship ultimately defeated a very appealing myth.

Indeed, a good week for the Bill of Rights.

TV Is Great

Books? Newspapers? Who needs ‘em!

Take a look at this clip from the Colbert Report, which lampoons the overwrought reaction several politicians had to the recent Boumediene decision. (Tim Lynch wrote about it here, here, and here.) Fear-mongerers are increasingly looking like buffoons, thanks in part to the native common sense of comedy writers. And thus Colbert introduces Neal Katyal for a quick primer on the U.S. Constitution and the genius of its design.

Comedy Central doesn’t meet your standard? Not effete enough? TV has something for you too.

Here (in RealAudio and MP3 format) is a segment from Friday’s Newshour with Jim Lehrer on PBS in which something unique and exciting happens: A victim of the flooding in the midwest exhibits personal responsibility and does not ask for government help. Here’s the key couple of sentences:

Narrator Elizabeth Brackett: Despite the devastation, [flood victim Barb] Boyer, like many who farm in these floodplains, says she does not expect much government help.

Barb Boyer: We’ve always lived our life that we’re responsible for our own choices, our own destiny. And we chose not to carry the flood insurance. That was our responsibility. There’s a lot of people that - of course, we are going to need help, but do I expect it? No. We’ll start over. That’s all I know right now.

It’s stirring and inspiring to see people in dire straits who haven’t abandoned their values, the values that make this country great.

And it’s all brought to you by TV!

Seasteading and Dynamic Geography

Over at Ars Technica, I have an in-depth discussion of seasteading, an effort by a group of Silicon Valley libertarians to develop technology for living on the open oceans in a cost-effective manner. They argue that government is an industry with excessive barriers to entry, and they aim to change that by creating a turnkey solution for starting your own community.

History is littered with utopian projects, libertarian and otherwise, that fell far short of their lofty goals. At first glance, the Seasteading Institute looks like just another utopian scheme. But there are at least two reasons to think this one might accomplish more than its predecessors. First, recognizing that it would take many decades to develop a self-sufficient ocean metropolis, Friedman and his partners have chosen to focus largely on short-term engineering challenges. They want to build cheap, durable sea platforms that anyone can purchase. Second, they’ve raised half a million dollars from Peter Thiel, the libertarian entrepreneur who co-founded PayPal and is now a major investor in Facebook. Thiel’s backing will allow them to move beyond the extensive background work they’ve already done and begin the expensive task of actually designing and building their first prototype, which they hope to splash down in San Francisco Bay in the next few years.

Will this ultimately lead to the creation of libertarian metropolises in the open ocean? There are certainly lots of reasons to be skeptical. But there are also plenty of examples of technological change undermining existing hierarchies of authority. The invention of the printing press helped to undermine the authority of the Catholic church by democratizing access to knowledge. And in the 1960s, “pirate radio” ships, operating in international waters, helped to undermine many European states’ monopoly on radio broadcasting by beaming the latest pop tunes to eager European listeners. In this month’s Cato unbound, we’re talking about the ways that technological change is challenging traditional copyright law. Swedish copyright activist Rasmus Fleischer kicks things off arguing that advances in Internet connectivity and portable digital storage will make it effectively impossible for the authorities to control the dissemination of copyrighted works. My reaction to his essay will be up tomorrow.

Hence, policy changes are frequently the result of technological progress. Hierarchical institutions often exert control through the exploitation of technological limitations. The Catholic Church exploited the high costs of reproducing the written word; today’s copyright industries are built on the formerly-high costs of reproducing copyrighted works. By the same token, today’s governments owe much of their authority to the high costs of changing jurisdictions. The technology of seasteading may change that by allowing “dynamic geography,” a situation in which any part of society is free to exit and take their homes and businesses with them. It may take many decades for this vision to be realized, if it can be realized at all. But it’s fun to see someone at least giving it a shot.