Topic: Political Philosophy

Bush’s Failure: More than Incompetence

Writing on opinionjournal.com, Joseph Bottum offers a conservative case against President Bush—sort of.  But in doing so, he actually reveals the larger problem with much of the conservative movement these days.

Bottum argues that the problem with the Bush administration is not the lack of a conservative ideology, but a lack of competence.  Bush has tried to do the right thing, but messed up the execution.  It’s hard to argue with any critique of the Bush administration’s competence.  Yet look at the list of “good things” that Bottum says the Bush administration has tried to do: reform education, fix Social Security, restore religion to the public square, assert American greatness, appoint good judges.  Bush has generally appointed good judges (the Harriet Miers fiasco aside).  But the other items on Bottum’s list, except for Social Security reform, are all hallmarks of big government conservatism. 

As I point out in my new book, Leviathan on the Right: How Big-Government Conservatism Brought down the Republican Revolution, conservatives once opposed things like a federal takeover of education or giving tax dollars to private charity.  Now a new brand of conservatism has no problem with big government as long as it can be used to achieve conservative ends.  Just look at some of what President Bush has done:

  • Enacted the largest new entitlement program since the creation of Medicare and Medicaid, an unfunded Medicare prescription drug benefit that could add as much as $11.2 trillion to the program’s unfunded liabilities;
  • Dramatically increased federal control over local schools while increasing federal education spending by nearly 61 percent;
  • Signed a campaign finance bill that greatly restricts freedom of speech, despite saying he believed it was unconstitutional;
  • Authorized warrantless wiretapping and given vast new powers to law enforcement;
  • Federalized airport security and created a new cabinet-level Department of Homeland Security;
  • Added roughly 7,000 pages of new federal regulations, bringing the cost of federal regulations to the economy to more than $1.1 trillion;
  • Enacted a $1.5 billion program to promote marriage;
  • Proposed a $1.7 billion initiative to develop a hydrogen-powered car;
  • Abandoned traditional conservative support for free trade by imposing tariffs and other import restrictions on steel and lumber;
  • Expanded President Clinton’s national service program;
  • Increased farm subsidies;
  • Launched an array of new regulations on corporate governance and accounting; and
  • Generally done more to centralize government power in the executive branch than any administration since Richard Nixon.

Yet, Bottum offers no criticism of this agenda.  Instead he is upset that Bush “fumbled” the faith-based initiative. What Bottum and others need to understand is that the biggest failure of the Bush administration (and its allies in Congress), is not incompetence but an abandonment of conservatives’ traditional belief in limited government.

Were You Surprised that DC’s Gun Ban Was Declared Unconstitutional?

Last week, a federal appeals court overturned the District of Columbia’s gun ban on the grounds that the Second Amendment protects an individual’s right to keep a functional firearm in her home.

Some were shocked by the court’s interpretation of the Second Amendment.  After all, we’ve heard for years that the prefatory clause of that amendment, “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State,” limits the operative clause, “the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed,” to instances where arms are used in connection with service in the militia.

Those who follow Second Amendment scholarship, however, were not surprised by the court’s reasoning.  For years, scholars have examined the text, history, and context of the Second Amendment.  Those scholars built up a large body of evidence demonstrating that the “collective right” interpretation of the Second Amendment doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.

That effort arguably began with Prof. Sanford Levinson’s 1989 Yale Law Journal article, “The Embarrassing Second Amendment,” where he wrote:

For too long, most members of the legal academy have treated the Second Amendment as the equivalent of an embarrassing relative, whose mention brings a quick change of subject to other, more respectable, family members. That will no longer do. It is time for the Second Amendment to enter full scale into the consciousness of the legal academy.

Elsewhere, my colleague Tim Lynch links to reviews of several works that followed.  One of the more interesting contributions to this line of scholarship is an article by Prof. Robert J. Cottrol titled, “A Liberal Democrat’s Lament: Gun Control Is Racist, Sexist, and Classist.”  That article begins with a forceful quotation from Democratic icon Hubert Humphrey in support of “the right of the citizen to keep and bear arms.”  Cottrol concludes:

[T]he ultimate civil right is the right to defend one’s own life, that without that right all other rights are meaningless, and that without the means of self-defense the right to self-defense is but an empty promise.

Our serious thinkers have been absent from this debate for too long. The Second Amendment is simply too important to leave to the gun nuts.

The majority opinion in Parker v. District of Columbia is evidence that serious scholars heeded that call, a good summary of the debate over the Second Amendment, and a lesson about how honest, careful scholarship can defeat a very appealing myth. 

Hats off to those scholars, the litigants, and their counsel.

New at Cato Unbound: Brian Doherty on the Past and Prospects of Libertarianism

The release of Reason senior editor Brian Doherty’s Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement — the first comprehensive history of its kind — provides a fitting occasion for libertarian reflection. How did libertarians get to where they are today? Where are they going? How should they proceed? Drawing on his book, Doherty kicks off the new issue of Cato Unbound with a lead essay reflecting on the miracle that libertarians are politically and culturally relevant at all, while promoting a continued laissez faire attitude to libertarian strategy.

To showcase the high art of libertarian in-fighting, we’ve gathered a panel of libertarian luminaries including: Cato Unbound’s own Brink Lindsey, author of the controversial “Liberaltarians” essay in the New Republic; George Mason’s most famous blogger-polymath, New York Times Economic Scene columnist Tyler Cowen; Cato’s globe-trotting ambassador for liberty Tom G. Palmer, who was writing libertarian political theory as a zygote; and Atlantic columnist, former Reason editor in chief, and author of The Substance of Style, Virginia Postrel. Stay tuned over the next two weeks as our very special conversation on the future of libertarianism unfolds.

Health Authoritarians Afraid That People Won’t Do as They’re Told

The Wall Street Journal reports: 

The big drinks makers now plan to disclose the caffeine content on the product label.

The new information will allow consumers to compare the caffeine content of various soft drinks and comes as beverage companies are introducing new supercharged drinks….

While health groups laud the move toward more labeling, some worry the caffeine disclosure might be used to encourage more caffeine consumption. “It’s conceivable that some people will choose higher caffeine soft drinks,” says Michael F. Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, who has lobbied for caffeine labeling by soda companies.

Yes, there’s always some possibility that when you give people more information, they’ll still make their own choices. Some people consider that the nature of a free society. Others consider it a good reason to impose more and more restrictions, until people do as they’re told. No doubt we’ll soon find out which category includes Mr. Jacobson.

Inquiring Minds Want to Know

The Hill reports on a senator’s curiosity about 527 groups:

“I promised a group of people that we would do some hearings on it,” said Feinstein. “We’ll take a look at the 527, what it is today and where it appears to be going. I’d like to know exactly what 527s are doing. My exposure to them is necessarily limited, as it is for most members. It’s when you have a 527 weighing in against you that you want to know where this money is coming from.” (emphasis added)

Not that Senator Feinstein would do anything to harm the people weighing in against her. She is just curious, eager to learn. 

Sunstein, Hayek, and Wikipedia

University of Chicago law professor Cass Sunstein may not be among libertarians’ favorite thinkers, but Sunstein is, in his own way, a strong advocate of individual liberty and free markets.

Hayek fans will enjoy Sunstein’s op-ed in today’s Washington Post, in which he describes how individuals are using computer-age technology to aggregate information. A snippet:

Developing one of the most important ideas of the 20th century, Nobel Prize-winning economist Friedrich Hayek attacked socialist planning on the grounds that no planner could possibly obtain the “dispersed bits” of information held by individual members of society. Hayek insisted that the knowledge of individuals, taken as a whole, is far greater than that of any commission or board, however diligent and expert. The magic of the system of prices and of economic markets is that they incorporate a great deal of diffuse knowledge.

Wikipedia’s entries are not exactly prices, but they do aggregate the widely dispersed information of countless volunteer writers and editors. In this respect, Wikipedia is merely one of many experiments in aggregating knowledge and creativity that have been made possible by new technologies.

Sunstein’s op-ed goes on to discuss intriguing experiments with events futures, which should delight Cato friend Robin Hanson:

But wikis are merely one way to assemble dispersed knowledge. The number of prediction markets has also climbed over the past decade. These markets aggregate information by inviting people to “bet” on future events — the outcome of elections, changes in gross domestic product, the likelihood of a natural disaster or an outbreak of avian flu.

The Economist or The Statist?

A blogger at The Economist has been furiously scratching his head in response to my earlier posts on evolution, trying to understand how an evolutionist such as myself could oppose government mandated instruction in this (and every other) field. I’d like to offer some answers, and at least one factual correction.

First, the correction. The anonymous Economist blogger writes: “We live in a democracy, and most people want their children to be taught scientific truth, or more properly, scientific method.”

In some areas, like elementary physics, that’s undoubtedly true. And I’d be delighted if it were true across the board. It is not. As the polling data I have previously cited demonstrate, either a plurality or an outright majority of Americans (depending on the poll) believe human beings were created by God, in their current form. Most of the rest believe we evolved under God’s guidance. Furthermore, a strong majority of Americans would like to see, at the very least, creationism taught alongside evolution (many probably do not want evolution taught at all – but that option wasn’t offered in the poll question). These beliefs and preferences are not consistent with the teaching of evolutionary theory as understood by the overwhelming majority of biologists.

So the first of my earlier points remains: instruction in a purely naturalistic view of evolution is NOT desired by the majority of the American public, and because the majority has considerable influence over school policy, the teaching of evolution has been hobbled and sidelined in many public schools for generations.

Next, The Economist blogger devises an imaginative but mistaken explanation for my position:

The only way I can make sense of Mr. Coulson’s position is as a form of surrender to fundamentalist Christians: “I don’t agree with you, but I don’t want to upset you, so here’s a compromise whereby I contort my views to support your position.”

The Economist confuses respect for liberty with “surrender.” Recognizing the right of our fellow citizens to disagree with us is a pillar of free societies. That is the insight behind Voltaire’s famous line: ”I may not agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” To anyone who grasps the importance of that principle, no ideological “contortions” are necessary to defend the right of families to make their own educational decisions.

It is troubling that so much of today’s intellectual elite seems to have forgotten the crucial role of individual liberty.

There is also a gross contradiction between the lip service given to the limits of scientific knowledge and the desire to see such knowledge established like a state religion.

While the blogger catches himself in the quote above, moderating the term “scientific truth” with “or more properly, scientific method,” he slips later on, rhetorically asking: “Should the teaching of the truth not be compulsory in education?” [emphasis added]

Here he leaves “the truth” unmodified. We KNOW what the truth is, he seems to say, why SHOULDN’T we force everyone to listen to the Good Word?

But anyone serious about science understands that scientific knowledge is provisional. Induction, on which science rests, is incapable of identifying Truth with a capital ‘T’. Science is by far the best tool we have for making sense of the world, but it isn’t a Truth machine. The rational thing to do is to treat what we learn through science as useful working assumptions – as the best approximation to Truth that we can find. Science, well practiced, is humble.

Statist rationalists are not. They want to compel everyone to be taught the methods and provisional conclusions of science, and that is precisely the opposite of what scientist and philosopher Jacob Bronowski so wisely encouraged us to do. Bronowski exhorted us to imbue politics with the empiricism – and more importantly, the humility – of science. He felt that by keeping in mind the imperfection of all human knowledge we could avoid the absolutism and totalitarianism that brought so much death and suffering in the mid-20th century.

But instead of moderating governments by injecting them with the circumspection of science, rationalist statists seek to inject the absolutism and compulsion of government mandates into the teaching of science.

Before continuing down that unsavory road, I hope that The Economist will pause to consider how a free market in education could advance quality science instruction, show greater respect for the limits of scientific knowledge, and comport better with the founding principles of the United States.

And if they’d like someone to do that, or to debate Dawkins on the merits of compulsory instruction in evolution, I’ll be happy to help. There are areas in which the state must demand conformity, such as adherence to a body of basic laws, but uniformity in the teaching of human origins serves no such essential role in the perpetuation of a free society. On the contrary, granting the state the power to decide and proselytize the “Truth” is a danger to free societies.