Topic: Political Philosophy

Making an International Deal: Iran Should Stop Persecuting Religious Minorities

Nuclear negotiations with Iran continue in Vienna.  Skeptics remain many:  everything depends on whether the ruling elite, and not just President Hassan Rouhani, is serious about reform.  Iran should demonstrate its commitment by respecting religious liberty.

The most celebrated case of persecution today is Saeed Abedini, an American citizen born in Iran and sentenced to eight years in prison last year for “undermining national security” by the Iranian government.

A Muslim convert to Christianity, his “crime” in Tehran’s view apparently was aiding house churches.  He went to Iran in 2012 to set up an orphanage, with the government’s approval.  Since then he was abused and tortured while held at two of Iran’s worst prisons. 

Unfortunately, Abedini represents far broader religious repression.  The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom has routinely labeled Tehran as a Country as Particular Concern.  The Commission’s 2013 report concluded:  “The government of Iran continues to engage in systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom, including prolonged detention, torture, and executions based primarily or entirely upon the religion of the accused.” 

Tehran’s brutal persecution has been getting worse.  The State Department reported that violations of religious liberty increased again 2012, as Tehran increasingly was “charging religious and ethnic minorities with moharebeh (enmity against God), ‘anti-Islamic propaganda,’ or vague national security crimes for their religious activities.” 

Currently the regime appears to be most concerned about conversions.  Christians traditionally were minorities, especially Armenians and Assyrians, who speak a different language.  However, HRWF reported that charges against those arrested last year included “conversion from Islam to Christianity, encouraging the conversion to Christianity of other Muslims, and propaganda against the regime by promoting Christianity as missionaries.” 

Iran is a theocratic state whose laws are to be based on “Islamic criteria.”  The constitution formally accords “full respect” to Christians, Jews, and Zoroastrians, who are allowed to worship “within the limits of the law.”  Proselytizing and converting are barred, however.  Moreover, according to the State Department, Jews are “regularly vilified” and the government “regularly arrests members of the Zoroastrian and Christian communities for practicing their religion.” 

Worse is the treatment of other groups, such as Baha’is and other Muslims, including Sufis, Sunnis, and non-conformist Shia.  All are considered to some degree to be apostates.  Explained State, “The government prohibits Baha’is from teaching and practicing their faith and subjects them to many forms of discrimination not faced by members of other religions groups.”  Sunnis face double jeopardy since many are ethnic minorities, such as Arabs and Kurds. 

Government hostility encourages private discrimination as well.  Said State:  “The government’s campaign against non-Shias created an atmosphere of impunity allowing other elements of society to harass religious minorities.” 

The U.S. government has little direct leverage, having already targeted Tehran with economic sanctions over its presumed nuclear ambitions.  However, Washington (and the Europeans) could indicate to Iran that a deal is more likely if it quiets Western skeptics.

In fact, public pressure works.  The UN’s Ahmed Shaheed reported last year that “At least a dozen lives were saved because of the intervention of international opinion.”  Encouraging Tehran to respect the freedom of conscience of its citizens might even more effectively come from the most fervent advocates of engagement, who are resisting proposals for new Western sanctions. 

As I conclude my latest article in American Spectator online:  “Tehran should release Rev. Abedini, pardon imprisoned Baha’is, allow Sufis and Sunnis to worship, and more.  ‘The international community is watching,’ observed Dwight Bashir, deputy director of USCIRF.  Iran should act accordingly.”

Ideas Have Consequences: The Neoconservatives

The New York Times has produced a useful video about the “super-predator” scare from the 1990s.  At that time, we were already waging a drug war, so we were advised to build more prisons–and so we did.  Then regrets.

You can watch the video here.

As it happens, we are also finding more scrutiny of neoconservative ideas at the movies. A new documentary film directed by Errol Morris looks at former Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld and the Iraq war.  Here is the film trailer:

For related Cato work, go here, here, and here.

Minimum Wage Solidarity Misplaced

Senate Democrats are anxious to bring the Minimum Wage Fairness Act (S. 1737) up for a vote to express their solidarity with “progressives.”  That solidarity, however, is misplaced. The bill is not a panacea for the prosperity of low-skilled workers; it is anti-free market and immoral—based on coercion not consent.

The bill would increase the federal minimum wage to $10.10 after two years, index it for inflation, and increase the minimum for tipped workers.  Those changes would substantially increase the cost of hiring low-skilled workers, lead to job losses and unemployment (especially in the longer run as businesses shift to labor-saving methods of production), and slow job growth.

Although there is virtually no chance this bill would pass, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev) wants it to come to the floor so he and his compatriots can express their support for low-income workers (and for unions and others who support the minimum wage increase) in an election year.  “Democrats are focused on the future,” says Reid, and “we were elected to improve people’s lives.” 

Paul Krugman’s Nostalgia for Teddy Roosevelt’s New Nationalism

Paul Krugman managed to discover “America’s Taxation Tradition” in an unlikely spot – a fiery old political speech by an unsuccessful presidential candidate who called for a “graduated inheritance tax on big fortunes.” Dripping with irony, Krugman asks “Who this left-winger? Theodore Roosevelt, in his famous 1910 New Nationalism Speech.”

Readers are supposed to assume that because Roosevelt had been a Republican, his New Nationalism speech could not possibly have been remotely left of center. Yet the phrase “new nationalism” and the advocacy of an inheritance tax were both borrowed from Herbert Croly’s highly influential 1909 manifesto of the Progressive Era, The Promise of American Life.

As Christopher Lasch noted, “Theodore Roosevelt read The Promise, found it highly flattering to himself, publicly praised it, and used it as an argument for his ‘new nationalism.’ Croly did not so much influence Roosevelt as read into his career an intellectual coherence which Roosevelt then adopted as his own view of things.” Croly, who later launched The New Republic magazine, supported Roosevelt in the 1912 Presidential race and Robert La Follette’s Progressive Party campaign in 1924, before becoming disenchanted and (as Lasch put it) “flirting with socialism.”

In his 1909 book, Croly said, “In economic warfare … it is the business of the state to see that its own friends are victorious. It holds … a hand in the game.” The state, said Croly, must look out for “the national interest,” and help those to win “who are most capable of using their winnings for the benefit of society.” To the properly cynical, that sounds like an open invitation to crony capitalism and corruption, if not kleptocracy.

In the New Nationalism speech Roosevelt said, “We should permit [a fortune] to be gained only so long as the gaining represents benefit to the community. This, I know, implies a policy of a far more active governmental interference with social and economic conditions in this country …  No man should receive a dollar unless that dollar has been fairly earned. Every dollar received should represent a dollar’s worth of service rendered — not gambling in stocks, but service rendered” (Roosevelt gambled-away his own inheritance on a ranching venture, not stocks).

Not quite socialist in 1909, Croly tolerated, “preservation of the institution of private property in some form, [but only with] the … radical transformation of its existing nature and influence.” Similarly, Roosevelt allowed that he would prefer to stop short of government ownership of business (socialism), if government control (fascism) would suffice. “I do not wish to see the nation forced into the ownership of the railways,” said Roosevelt, “if it can possibly be avoided.”

In short, the Roosevelt/Croly New Nationalism certainly did lean in a “leftist” (statist and collectivist) direction with respect to state supremacy over private property.

As afterword, here is something I wrote in a 1995 anthology revisiting Croly’s The Promise of American Life:

Herbert Croly’s quaint 1909 vision of the merits of increased centralization was founded on the notion that ‘American state governments have been corrupt and inefficient largely because they have been organized for the benefit of corrupt and inefficient men.’ The federal government, by contrast, was apparently organized for the benefit of saints and angels. Still, Croly’s idea of ‘big government’ in Washington looks like a bargain by today’s standards. He reasoned that a much stronger federal government could be financed out of a graduated inheritance tax: ‘The tax at its highest level,’ Croly wrote, ‘could be placed without danger of evasion at as much as 20 percent.’ Some recent estimates suggest that Croly may have been correct about how high the estate tax could be pushed without losing money. In any case, if a 20 percent inheritance tax were the only federal tax we had to worry about, as Croly proposed, the states would have little difficulty in raising money for the services that are still almost entirely a state or local responsibility, such as police protection, public schools, and roads. (The federal government, by contrast, is almost entirely involved in taking money from some people and giving it to others).

This Month’s Cato Unbound: The State, the Clan, and Individual Liberty

The great classical liberal sociologist Henry Sumner Maine theorized that societies progressed from status to contract: In a status-based society, one is born into a place in a hierarchy. That place may change, but typically it doesn’t change very much, and your place governs your rights and obligations. Societies of status are stable, rigid, and often deeply illiberal. They tend to be dominated by kinship groups, or clans, and those can be quite collectivist and hostile to individual liberty.

Contract-based societies are very different: In a contract-based society, individuals tend to be legally equal at birth. Family ties are affective and not quite so legally binding. Obligations tend to be voluntarily undertaken rather than assumed at birth. Societies of contract are flexible, may change rapidly, and will often act to protect individual liberty.

At Cato Unbound, this month’s lead essayist, legal historian Mark S. Weiner, argues that the state performs a sometimes unappreciated role in keeping away the status-based society: without a state that’s strong enough to break the power of the clans, then the clans will return, and individual liberty will suffer.

But how real is the danger? Do we really have the strong state to thank for our liberty? Economist Arnold Kling argues that other institutions, including the nuclear family and consensual transfers of property, make clannishness unappealing. The American Conservative’s editor, Daniel McCarthy, suggests that even liberal government is at times a very collectivist, and thus clannish, activity. Legal historian John Fabian Witt will weigh in on Monday, and we welcome your comments as well.

On Corrupting the Constitutional Order

Michael Gerson, former speechwriter to Bush the Younger and perennial libertarian antagonist, has denounced Rand Paul’s foreign policy views. That should surprise no one, but the manner in which he did so bears discussing.

Gerson’s bill of particulars is as follows:

The younger Paul has proposed defense cuts, criticized foreign aid, led opposition to U.S. involvement in Syria, raised the possibility of accepting and containing a nuclear Iran and railed against “possible targeted drone strikes against Americans on American soil.”

Each of these is its own argument, but what’s more interesting is how Gerson broadens the discussion in an attempt to paint the younger Paul in a conspiratorial light:

His libertarian foreign policy holds that America is less secure because it has been “too belligerent” and that decades of international engagement have both corrupted our constitutional order and corrupted other nations with our largess or militarism.

Reasonable people can disagree about the extent to which U.S. foreign policy has gone off the deep end in recent decades. Also, with due acknowledgment of the victims of U.S. “engagement” in places from Laos to Iraq, people could also disagree about the extent to which our militarism has “corrupted other nations.” But nobody with a lofty perch like Gerson’s should dispute the idea that international engagement has corrupted our constitutional order.

You could fill a library with the volumes that demonstrate how war and preparation for war—which is what Gerson means by “engagement”—have contributed to the growth of the state and the evolution of American political, economic and legal institutions. As that last link shows, influential American legal scholars are hailing Nazi jurist Carl Schmitt as “our hero” in providing the legal case for an unchecked presidency, with James Madison playing the republican bad guy.

And it is the height of irony that Gerson holds up for ridicule the idea that our foreign policy has corrupted our constitutional order the very same week that a U.S. Senator—who is a strong partisan of the CIA—gave a 40 minute speech lambasting the Agency for spying on the legislature in the context of the latter’s investigation of the CIA’s use of torture, or if you prefer, “enhanced interrogation techniques.”

Warrantless NSA spying on Americans, senior Executive Branch officials baldly lying to Congress about it with no consequences, the tortured legal reasoning that led to Guantanamo Bay, the American president claiming the power to assassinate a US citizen with no meaningful legal or legislative oversight on the grounds that he’s talked it over with his legal team, the internment of more than a hundred thousand American citizens for the crime of having had the wrong ancestors… One could go on.

The people who framed our constitution were the sort of people who opposed forming a standing army at a time when European empires were mucking around in the Western hemisphere. So whatever his disagreements with Rand Paul on foreign policy, Gerson could stand to consider—or better yet, do some reading—about how war and militarization have “corrupted our constitutional order.” It’s a bit of an open-and-shut case.

When Tolerance Becomes Intolerance

Individual liberty took another hit with Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer’s veto of legislation enhancing protection for people’s religious principles while doing business. Gov. Brewer suggests that if you hang out a shingle you should leave your deepest beliefs at home. 

The issue in Arizona was not a lack of tolerance by those in business. There is no dearth of firms across the state willing to serve gays.

Instead, the question was tolerance for those in business. Should you be expected to abandon your conscience the moment you step into the commercial world? 

Indeed, why would a gay couple insist that a Christian opposed to gay marriage photograph their wedding or prepare their cake? There’s no need to force those with unfashionable views to affirm what they reject. 

ObamaCare’s contraception mandate has a similar effect—and almost certainly received vigorous support on the left for precisely this reason.  As I pointed out in the American Spectator online:

the point was always state-mandated intolerance rather than health care. The objective was to force Catholics, mostly, and the few fundamentalist Protestants who hold similar theological views, to pay for what they oppose. In fact, there is no better way to humiliate those you dislike. It is pure and unadulterated intolerance, the ultimate Washington triumph: Make those you despise pay for what they despise.

Leaving people largely left alone to manage their own lives should be what a free society is all about. Of course, those who are on the receiving end of social disapproval understandably don’t like the result. But no one has a “right” to be served by any particular person. Forcing someone into servitude is infinitely worse than simply finding someone else to do the job. 

The right response is to change social attitudes. My friend Sheldon Richman at the Future of Freedom Foundation pointed to the use of “boycotts, publicity, and ostracism” to penalize those who refuse service. Such activism is why gay marriage has gone from a policy wish to dominant law in just a few years. 

Unfortunately, throughout history newly empowered minorities often learn the wrong lesson. Rather than create barriers to new state injustices, some people use law for their own advantage. Hence state persecution of the New Mexico wedding photographer who felt she could not promote gay ceremonies which she believed to be wrong.