Topic: Political Philosophy

Switching Sides?

Orin Kerr at the Volokh Conspiracy (via the New York Times) cynically predicts some reversals of position by both Democrats and Republicans in the coming months:

1) Republicans Must Now Oppose Executive Power; Democrats Must Be In Favor Of It. In the last few years, Republicans have been the defenders of executive power: A muscular executive has been needed to fight the war on terror. On the other hand, Democrats have opposed a strong executive on the ground that it threatens the rule of law. Please note that these arguments must now switch. Republicans must now talk of the dangers of executive power; Democrats must now speak of how a strong and agile executive branch is necessary to a modern democracy.

2) Republicans Must Now Oppose Judicial Confirmations; Democrats Must Be In Favor. In the last few years, Republicans wanted an up-or-down vote on judicial nominees; one of their leading blogs on the judicial confirmations was ConfirmThem.com. On the other hand, Democrats focused on the importance of carefully evaluating judicial candidates. Please note that these arguments must now switch, too. Republicans should now visit RejectThem.com (still an available domain name, btw — won’t be for long!), and Democrats should emphasize the need for a quick up or down vote.

3) Republicans Must Now Favor Legislative Oversight; Democrats Must Now Oppose It. You get the point by now. Yup, everyone has to switch sides on this one, too. If we all stick to the script, in 6 months the old arguments of the Bush era will be long forgotten. (Oh, and extra credit to those who charge the other side with hypocrisy for changing sides without noting that they have changed sides, too.)

Well, he might be right. And we may also see Republicans once again waxing eloquent about how the filibuster protects minority rights and Democrats railing against its obstructionism. But I’ll note that here at the Cato Institute we try to be nonpartisan. I think we always favor due consideration of judicial nominations, followed by confirmation of those who properly understand the Constitution and its limits on power. We’ve criticized President Clinton’s abuse of executive power and President Bush’s — and the general problem. We’ve called for congressional oversight when Republicans were in the White House and when Democrats were.

We hope that the new president and the 111th Congress will restore civil liberties and checks and balances. If they don’t, Cato scholars will point that out.

Pay No Attention to the Man behind the Curtain

I’m sorry, but this just makes me ill. In a post he actually titled “The Magic Ballot,” Arjun Appadurai writes:

The word is MAGIC. On the night of November 4, it felt as if something magical had happened, and perhaps there were others, like me, who used that word. But it is not the biggest word in current public use and I wish it were more fully available to us now.

We’ve chosen someone to work for us. We’ve hired him. For a job. We did it through the (yes, rather nifty) process of democracy. And… That. Is. All. Barack Obama is an employee. He’s not a magician. We can fire him later if we like, and he’s not going to retaliate by turning us all into toads or shooting lighting bolts out of his eyes.

I know that many believe that priests can perform miracles, at least of certain kinds, but Obama isn’t a priest. Tuesday night did not and could not make him one. It’s superstitious, impious, or both, to think that something as common as a democratic election could endow anyone with magical powers.

I regret that we are forced to catch the special aura of this election without a deep and serious space for the idea of magic, magic as it used to be. It would help us fill this rhetorical void. It would let us name the un-nameable and it would let us enjoy our means even without certainty about our ends. It would let us enjoy this week without dragging it immediately into boring predictions about what Nancy Pelosi will do, about how many huge headaches Obama will face, about how heavy the coming storm will be, and how fragile our collective sources. We have hardly crowned Obama and we have promptly begun to mourn for him, as if he is has already been vanquished by his foes.

Crowned??? Sir, this is a Lockean republic, not a New-Age theocracy.

But wait, it gets worse:

Magic, anthropologists have always known, is about what people throughout the world do when faced with uncertainty, catastrophic damage, injustice, illness, suffering or harm, while ritual (also magical in its logic) is performed to forestall or prevent these very things. Magic is not about deficient logic, childish mental mistakes, clever priestly illusions or other mistaken technologies. It is the universal feeling that what we see and feel exceeds our knowledge, our understanding and our control. Can we deny that the infusion of 700 billion dollars into our banks is a magical act designed to make our banks rain credit again? Has it worked yet? Are we discarding our belief in banks and credit as a result? Magic is a method for deploying modest technical means to address outsize ethical challenges. Human beings have always done this and always will. We might as well have a grown-up word for this set of practices.

If we really just spent $700 billion on magic, then I want my money back. There’s probably a decent First Amendment challenge in there somewhere, wouldn’t you think?

Some of us, when faced with “uncertainty, catastrophic damage, injustice, illness, suffering or harm” do not resort to magic. We turn to reason, hard work, rectitude, compassion, courage, and thrift. We also note that the government so often tends to interfere with all of these things.

But I guess we don’t have to bother with any of that anymore: The Great Barack is going to save us — magically — from all kinds of disasters!

So the election of Barack [sic]… is also magical in a much more serious way. It has been performed and produced by voting citizens at a moment when America and the world face risks of an enormous order. We have named these risks frequently in the media and the public sphere in the last few weeks: risks of total financial meltdown, of global warm-up, of war without end and terror without faces and sources. And our existing tools for risk management have failed miserably. Should we be surprised that the American electorate has rediscovered magic without knowing it?

Surprised? If you’re right, we should be very, very worried. And no, my objection is neither partisan nor personal. If McCain had won, I’d have made a post mocking the near-religious qualities his followers had invested in him, too.

Whither Fusionism?

One of the victims of the Bush presidency, along with limited government and the Republican Party, has been “fusionism,” the idea that conservatives and libertarians ought to come together to oppose the forces of socialism (and The Left generally).  Indeed, this Tuesday’s election probably saw the highest-ever percentage of libertarians – depending on how you count them – vote for the Democratic presidential candidate (at least in the modern era, with the possible exception of the Nixon years).  This despite that Democratic candidate being commonly seen as the most statist major-party candidate in history.

Cato adjunct scholar Ilya Somin who blogs at the Volokh Conspiracy and in his day job is a law professor at George Mason (currently visiting at Penn) – Ilya being a popular name among libertarian legal community – today puts up a smart post on the state of the erstwhile libertarian-conservative.  Here’s a snippet:

Obviously, a lot depends on what conservatives decide to do. If they choose the pro-limited government position advocated by Representative Jeff Flake and some other younger House Republicans, there will be lots of room for cooperation with libertarians. I am happy to see that Flake has denounced “the ill-fitting and unworkable big-government conservatism that defined the Bush administration.” Conservatives could, however, adopt the combination of economic populism and social conservatism advocated by Mike Huckabee and others. It is even possible that the latter path will be more politically advantageous, at least in the short term. 

Indeed, if conservatives choose some version of the Huckabee-Palin route, fusionism is dead – and so, might I add presumptuously, is the Republican Party.  That just ain’t where the majority of the nation is, or where it’s heading (though, as Ilya says, that direction may be politically advantageous in certain parts of the country under certain circumstances).

But this type of discussion may be beside the point; libertarian-conservative (in the sense of socially conservative, economically squishy) fusionism may have run its course, a relic of the Cold War.  The new fusionism may well be fiscally conservative and socially tolerant (not necessarily liberal, just not wanting government to do anything about the way people live their private lives), including folks who might call themselves conservative cosmopolitans, crunchy cons, South Park conservatives, or indeed libertarians.  Or they might eschew labels altogether but are sick of the rot coming from (or to) Washington.  In other words: Purple America,

Cato Today

Op-Ed: “Will the GOP Learn from This?” by Michael Tanner in the Orange County Register

As it emerges from the electoral rubble, the Republican Party must decide what it actually believes in before beginning rebuilding its battered fortune.

Michael Tanner on the election landslide

Republicans now have two more years in the wilderness to decide whether or not they actually stand for limited government and individual liberty. One wonders, whether they will hear the message.

Article: “Advice to President-elect Obama,” by Will Wilkinson in Marketplace

Here’s my advice: First, you’ve got to get spending under control….Second, drop the xenophobic claptrap….Third, get real on the ‘new energy economy.’

Op-Ed: “Is It Constitutional?” by Richard Rahn in the Washington Times

Which section of the U.S. Constitution gives the federal government the power to bail out banks? If you don’t know, it could be because no constitutional authority exists for such an action. It is all too common for both Congress and the executive branch to ignore that the Constitution limits what they can and cannot do.

Op-Ed: “US Urged to Overhaul Nuclear Arsenal,” by David Isenberg in the Asia Times

The handling of US nuclear weapons and policy were recently center-stage due to two different events. First was the release on October 24 of a report billed as a nuclear weapons roadmap for the future by the US Air Force. Titled “Reinvigorating the Air Force Nuclear Enterprise”, it called for the establishment of a global strike command and a headquarters for air force staff to handle nuclear assets.

Anti-Socialism = Racism ??

At Salon.com, Michael Lind asks and answers, “Is Barack Obama a socialist?  If he is, then so is John McCain.“ I have to agree.  McCain so often plays the class warrior that his “desperate use of the socialist smear is particularly shameless.” I might add that McCain is giving anti-socialism a bad name by associating it with hypocrisy, anger, piety, trigger-happiness, etc.

But I can’t go as far as Lind, who doesn’t really seem interested in the answer to his own question. Indeed, it appears Lind’s purpose is to teach McCain the true meaning of shameless. Lind writes:

McCain and Palin claim that Obama’s proposed healthcare system is socialist. It is nothing of the sort. It is a variant of the employer-friendly, insurance-friendly “play-or-pay” scheme discussed in the 1990s. Employers will be given the choice of providing tax-favored health insurance to their employees or being taxed to support a public insurance system. Over time the latter might expand, but for the foreseeable future our dysfunctional private insurance system will survive.

I’m sorry, but the fact that Obama would preserve private health insurance says absolutely nothing about whether his health-care plan is socialist. (If your jaw just hit the space bar, you probably need to read my paper, “Does Barack Obama Support Socialized Medicine?”) The Church of Universal Coverage loves pointing to the presence of “private” health care because it distracts attention from what they’re really doing.

Lind further attempts to innoculate Obama from the charge of socialism by associating the candidate with that great anti-socialist Friedrich Hayek. Lind describes Hayek’s Road to Serfdom as “the bible of free-market libertarians,” and refers to the part where Hayek writes:

Nor is there any reason why the state should not assist the individuals in providing for those common hazards of life against which, because of their uncertainty, few individuals can make adequate provision. Where, as in the case of sickness…neither the desire to avoid such calamities nor the efforts to overcome their consequences are, as a rule, weakened by the provision of assistance — where, in short, we deal with genuinely insurable risks — the case for the state’s helping to organize a comprehensive system of social insurance is very strong. There are many points of detail where those wishing to preserve the competitive system and those wishing to supercede [sic] it by something different will disagree on the details of such schemes; and it is possible under the name of social insurance to introduce measures which tend to make competition more or less ineffective. But there is no incompatibility in principle between the state’s providing greater security in this way and the preservation of individual freedom.

When Hayek wrote that in 1943, the world had little experience with health insurance at all, much less with market provision of health insurance. Today, we have lots of experience with the former and enough experience with the latter to know that markets “can make adequate provision” of health insurance for more than just a “few individuals.” In 1943, Hayek and his contemporaries also knew little about how health insurance affects the incidence of health “losses.” Today, we have lots of evidence to show that moral hazard is real and — as Hayek would predict — governments have only the bluntest of tools for dealing with it. Finally, universal-coverage schemes have come to consume such considerable shares of workers’ earnings, as well as other aspects of individual self-determination, that it is implausible to suggest that socialized medicine is compatible with individual freedom.

In short, Hayek was wrong here. (So much for the whole “bible” thing.) Even if Hayek were right, that wouldn’t make Obama’s health plan any less reliant on centralized planning — i.e., any less socialist.

“Another champion of healthcare socialism,” writes Lind, ”was the late Milton Friedman, [who] proposed that major costs be paid for by mandatory catastrophic healthcare coverage run by the federal government.” Lind cites Friedman’s support of a Negative Income Tax as further evidence of Friedman’s socialist tendencies. 

Unlike Lind’s claims about Hayek, this is just silly. Friedman offered those ideas as second-best alternatives to prominent proposals that were far more socialist — some of which had already been enacted (socialized medicine for the elderly, the expanding welfare state) and some of which merely seemed inevitable (socialized medicine for all). Anyone looking for Friedman’s true preferences need only consult Free To Choose (which he coauthored with his wife Rose):

In our opinion, there is no case whatsoever for socialized medicine. On the contrary, government already plays too large a role in medical care. Any further expansion of its role would be very much against the interests of patients, physicians, and health care personnel.

Since Obama would vastly expand the federal government’s role in health care, I think we can guess where the Friedmans stand.

Lastly, Lind gets nasty:

McCain’s last-minute clarion call is really a racial “dog whistle.” The McCain campaign may appear to be debating public philosophy, when in fact it is making a disguised appeal to white racism. If that is the case, then “redistributionist” and “socialist” may be intended to be understood by white swing voters as code words that function the way that “welfare queen” did for the Reagan campaign. A “socialist” or “redistributionist” is a politician who taxes white people like Joe the Plumber and gives money to … you know who.

Does Lind mean to suggest that voicing opposition to “socialist” policies, “redistribution,” and “spreading the wealth around” is necessarily racist? If not, then is there any way an anti-socialist could say such things without Lind suspecting him of racism? Or of race-baiting?

And what’s with this eagerness to impute evil motives to those who disagree with you? That’s so … McCain-esque.

No Socialists Here

Is Barack Obama a socialist? That’s the question Cato adjunct scholar Don Boudreaux asks in one of the last paper editions of the Christian Science Monitor. Not really, he concludes. But

Anyone who speaks glibly of “spreading the wealth around” sees wealth not as resulting chiefly from individual effort, initiative, and risk-taking, but from great social forces beyond any private producer’s control….This “socialism-lite,” however, is as specious as is classic socialism. And its insidious nature makes it even more dangerous. Across Europe, this “mild” form of socialism acts as a parasitic ideology that has slowly drained entrepreneurial energy – and freedoms – from its free-market host.

So why does he say that Obama is not a socialist? Well, after all,

“Socialism” originally meant government ownership of the major means of production and finance, such as land, coal mines, steel mills, automobile factories, and banks.

And no American politician would favor that, right? Oh, right.