Conservatives and the Presidency

But for the intriguing–and unsettling–revelation that President Bush’s nickname for his attorney general is “Fredo,” there’s not much new in the Washington Post’s recent four-part series on vice president Dick Cheney.  But the series does serve to remind us of how consistently Cheney has pushed for three decades to expand the powers of the presidency.  That in turn is a good jumping-off point for examining how inconsistent post-Watergate conservatives’ affinity for powerful executives is with conservatism, properly understood. 

Almost to a man, the postwar conservatives who coalesced around William F. Buckley’s National Review associated presidential power with liberal activism and viewed Congress as the “conservative” branch.  In 1960 NR senior editor Willmoore Kendall, who had been one of Buckley’s professors at Yale, published an influential article called “The Two Majorities,” which made that case.  In 1967, Russell Kirk and coauthor James McClellan praised the late Robert A. Taft, “Mr. Conservative,” for insisting that war had to be a last resort, threatening as it did to “make the American President a virtual dictator, diminish the constitutional powers of Congress, contract civil liberties, injure the habitual self-reliance and self-government of the American people, distort the economy, sink the federal government in debt, [and] break in upon private and public morality.” 

Even so ardent a Cold Warrior as NR’s James Burnham recognized that “by the intent of the Founding Fathers and the letter and tradition of the Constitution, the bulk of the sovereign war power was assigned to Congress.”  Burnham doubted that congressional control of the war power could be maintained, given the demands of modern war.  But he wrote a book defending Congress’s centrality to the American constitutional system and warning that erosion of congressional power and the rise of activist presidents risked bringing about “plebiscitary despotism for the United States in place of constitutional government, and thus the end of political liberty.”

The politician who represented the culmination of postwar conservatives’ hopes for political success, Senator Barry Goldwater, could sound as extremist in opposition to presidential power as he did on other matters involving “the defense of liberty.” In his 1964 campaign manifesto “My Case for the Republican Party,” Goldwater wrote:

We hear praise of a power-wielding, arm-twisting President who “gets his program through Congress” by knowing the use of power. Throughout the course of history, there have been many other such wielders of power. There have even been dictators who regularly held plebiscites, in which their dictatorships were approved by an Ivory-soap-like percentage of the electorate. But their countries were not free, nor can any country remain free under such despotic power. Some of the current worship of powerful executives may come from those who admire strength and accomplishment of any sort. Others hail the display of Presidential strength … simply because they approve of the result reached by the use of power. This is nothing less than the totalitarian philosophy that the end justifies the means…. If ever there was a philosophy of government totally at war with that of the Founding Fathers, it is this one.

Of course, Goldwater’s distrust of presidential power fit uneasily with his embrace of a hyper-aggressive posture in the struggle against the Soviet Union. Rollback of communist gains demanded presidential activism abroad, and those demands began to weaken conservative opposition to powerful presidents.

In an article for Presidential Studies Quarterly examining congressional voting patterns on executive power, political scientist J. Richard Piper found that “what erosion occurred in conservative support for a congressionally-centered federal system [from 1937-68] occurred most frequently on foreign policy matters and among interventionist anti-Communists.” Even so, post-war, pre-Watergate conservatives in Congress “were more likely to favor curbing presidential powers than were moderates or liberals.”

During the Nixon administration, all that began to change.  The 1970s brought increasing tension over foreign policy and, perhaps more importantly, the emergence of what political analyst Kevin Phillips called “The Emerging Republican Majority” in the electoral college. Right-wing ressentiment over Nixon’s downfall helped drive the shift; as conservative M. Stanton Evans quipped, “I didn’t like Nixon until Watergate.”

By the ‘70s, prominent conservatives had begun to see the executive as the conservative branch, and set to work developing a conservative case for the Imperial Presidency. In November 1974, National Review featured a cover story by Jeffrey Hart, “The Presidency: Shifting Conservative Perspectives?” Hart began by noting the “settled and received view” among American conservatives, who “have been all but unanimously opposed to a strong and activist presidency.” Foreshadowing the conservative embrace of Unitary Executive Theory in the 1980s, Hart noted the growth of the administrative state and the corresponding need for a powerful president who could hold the bureaucracy in check. Even more important, according to Hart, was the emergence of a “fourth branch of government” in the form of an activist, left-leaning press. Only a centrist or conservative president willing to use the bully pulpit could check the liberal media in the fight for American public opinion.

In Congress as well, conservatives demonstrated a growing affinity for a strong presidency. As Piper noted, of “37 major roll call [votes] concerning presidential powers of greatest long-term significance [from 1968-86] conservatives took the most pro-presidential power position… often (as on the item veto, impoundment, and war powers) contradicting conservative positions of the past.”

By the Reagan era, prominent right-wingers were calling for a repeal of the 22nd Amendment, and conservative conventional wisdom held that the real threat to separation of powers lay not in an Imperial Presidency, but in an Imperial Congress.   And during the Clinton administration, then-Speaker Newt Gingrich and Rep. Henry Hyde (R.-Ill.) led an unsuccessful effort to repeal the War Powers Act, with Gingrich urging House Republicans to “increase the power of President Clinton…. I want to strengthen the current Democratic president because he’s the president of the United States.”  The bulk of the Republican delegation supported the bill, which failed to pass the House because of Democratic opposition and 44 Republican defections.   

That conservatives were willing to strengthen the powers of the presidency even when the office was occupied by their political enemy shows principle of a sort, but it’s unclear why it’s a conservative principle.  Far more than liberals, conservatives recognize the imperfectability of human nature, and, taking man for what he is, have generally supported restraints on the concentration of power.   Russell Kirk was no libertarian, but on this point, he and most of the postwar conservative movement stood with Jefferson: “In questions of power, then, let no more be heard of confidence in man, but bind him down from mischief by the chains of the constitution.”  As Kirk put it:

The conservative endeavors to so limit and balance political power that anarchy or tyranny may not arise. In every age, nevertheless, men and women are tempted to overthrow the limitations upon power, for the sake of some fancied temporary advantage. It is characteristic of the radical that he thinks of power as a force for good—so long as the power falls into his hands….

Knowing human nature for a mixture of good and evil, the conservative does not put his trust in mere benevolence. Constitutional restrictions, political checks and balances, adequate enforcement of the laws, the old intricate web of restraints upon will and appetite—these the conservative approves as instruments of freedom and order.   

Do conservatives still hold to that wisdom?  Evidence that they do is difficult to discern.  They spent much of the ’90s trying to convince the country that the nation’s highest office had been seized by a terribly unscrupulous, venal man, a man who would stop at nothing to retain power.  And they’ve spent much of the current decade trying to tear down checks on that office’s power, all the while with another Clinton warming up in the on-deck circle. 

True, one of the leading conservative think tanks in D.C. still offers a Russell Kirk lecture.  In 2006, the speaker was the legal academy’s most prominent advocate of presidential war and unbridled executive power, John C. Yoo

You’ve come a long way, baby. 

Secrecy is Unsafe

The latest issue of Foreign Policy includes a commendable piece by Jacob Shapiro, “Strictly Confidential” (summarized; full article behind paywall).

Shapiro makes an intelligent case that opening government improves security. “When government officials curb access to information,” he writes, “they cut themselves off from the brain power and analytical skills of a huge community of scientists, engineers, and security experts who are often far better at identifying threats, weaknesses, and solutions than any government agency.” Shapiro provides a couple of examples where openness has improved security systems.

“Putting information behind lock and key does not make targets safe from attack. It leaves security analysts unable to find solutions to other weaknesses in the future. It also leaves government and industry less motivated to find safeguards of their own.”

Good stuff.

Here’s One Embargo SiCKO Won’t Violate

USA Today initially reported that Michael Moore will be screening his new film SiCKO at a Tehran film festival in October.  Alas, one of Moore’s producers responded with an even-tempered denial (which was dutifully reported by USA Today).

That’s a shame. 

With the help of a beautiful and intelligent attorney, I uncovered a Treasury Department guide to U.S. sanctions against Iran.  Officially speaking:

The receipt or transmission of postal, telegraphic, telephonic or other personal communications, which does not involve the transfer of anything of value, between the United States and Iran is authorized.

I’d say that gives SiCKO the green light.

You Are Entitled to Your Own Opinions…

..but not your own facts, as the saying goes. Michael Rubin of the American Enterprise Institute argued earlier this week in USA Today that the United States should pump more money into Iran in an effort to bring about the overthrow of the Iranian regime. According to Rubin, “those denouncing U.S. funding are not the imprisoned student and labor activists, but reformists loyal to theocracy, and gullible pundits.” Presumably that’s me in the role of gullible pundit, but let’s have a look at these “reformists loyal to theocracy” who constitute the only Iranian opponents to U.S. attempts to bring about regime change in Iran.

This from an article by Negar Azimi in the New York Times Magazine:

It is particularly telling, perhaps, that some of the most outspoken critics of the Iranian government have been among the most outspoken critics of the democracy fund. Activists from the journalist Emadeddin Baghi to the Nobel laureate Shirin Ebadi to the former political prisoner Akbar Ganji have all said thanks but no thanks. Ganji has refused three personal invitations to meet with Bush. A member of a U.S.-based institution that has received State Department financing and who works with Iranians told me that the Iranians had expressly asked not to have their cause mentioned in presidential speeches. ”The propaganda campaign surrounding the launch of this campaign has meant that many of our partners are simply too afraid to work with us anymore,” she told me on condition of anonymity. ”It’s had a chilling effect.”

This from an article in Time by Scott Macleod:

Several mainstream Iranian reformers tell TIME that from the start they transmitted their opposition to the democracy program indirectly but clearly to American officials via the back-channel talks. Besides warning that it could trigger a crackdown, they argued that Iran’s reform movement had strong popular support and did not want or require foreign help. Outside backing has been an unusually sensitive issue in Iranian politics ever since a CIA-backed coup d’etat in 1953 installed the former Shah. Instead, many of them argue, Iran’s democracy movement would be better served if the U.S. lifted sanctions and improved relations with Tehran, which would enable trade and cultural links to be expanded. “There is no serious individual inside or outside Iran who is going to take this money,” an Iranian reformer told TIME. “Anyone having the slightest knowledge of the domestic political situation in Iran would never have created this program.”

Note how Rubin has moved the goalpost such that genuinely Iranian voices of political reform with constituencies inside Iran have now been written out of the acceptable-to-the-US opposition to the Iranian government. Shirin Ebadi, the Nobel laureate who has most recently been working to spring imprisoned Wilson Center scholar Haleh Esfandiari from Evin prison, has become “loyal to theocracy.” And the only folks left are Michael Rubin-approved dissidents who want the U.S. government to become more deeply enmeshed with the opposition to the regime, with only one plausible outcome: poisoning the domestic political legitimacy of the opposition and getting the U.S. government more invested in regime change.

Maybe we need an Iranian Ahmed Chalabi.

Toward Open Wireless Networks

One of the hottest issues in tech policy this year is the regulation of wireless networks. The transition to digital television is almost complete, and the FCC is planning to conduct an auction next year to determine who will get to use the old analog television spectrum once the television stations are done using it. Some scholars have argued that the FCC should impose a variety of regulations on the winner of that auction to promote competition in the market for wireless services.

I’m skeptical of this argument, but I do think the critics are right about one thing: in the long run, open networks (like the Internet) do tend to be more innovative than closed ones (like AOL). This is true for much the same reason that free markets are superior to central planning; open networks facilitate decentralized decision-making and low barriers to entry for entrepreneurs. The people who founded Netscape, Google, eBay, Yahoo, and dozens of other successful Internet businesses didn’t have to ask anyone’s permission to do so.

Right now, the wireless networks are not as open as many people in the technology industry would like. Someone wanting to create a new cell phone or a new wireless application or service has to go through a long and cumbersome negotiation process with each wireless carrier. There are good reasons to think this is slowing down the pace of innovation in the wireless market. However, the big debate is over what to do about this. Some people think the FCC should step in and mandate open access to wireless networks. For reasons I laid out in TechKnowledge last month, I think that’s a bad idea. My view is that the wireless industry is still in its infancy, and that market forces will drive carriers to gradually open their networks over time.

Last week, we saw two examples of how this might happen. First, Ed Felten, a computer science professor at Princeton, had a great post pointing out one way the iPhone could shake up the wireless marketplace:

An open system would provide more benefit overall, but most of that benefit would accrue to consumers. The carriers would rather get a big share of a small pie, than a small share of a big pie. In most markets, competition keeps this kind of thing from happening, by forcing producers to account for consumer preferences. You would expect competition to have forced the mobile networks open by now, whether the carriers liked it or not. But this hasn’t happened yet. The carriers have managed to keep control by locking customers in to long contracts and erecting barriers to the entry of new devices and applications. The system seemed to be stuck in an unstable equilibrium. All we needed was some kind of shock, to get the ball rolling downhill.

Only a company with marketing muscle, design mojo, and a world-historic Reality Distortion Field could provide the needed bump. Apple decided to try, in the hope of selling zillions of the new, more capable devices. The real significance of the iPhone, whether it succeeds or fails in the market, is that it will trigger the transition to more open networks. Once people see that a pretty good phone can be a pretty good mobile computer, they won’t settle for less anymore; and mobile networks will be pried open.

One of the issues that critics of the wireless carriers often cite is the fact that American carriers have refused to support cell phones with built-in WiFi connections, which could save consumers money by allowing them to save money on their calling plans by making free calls over the Internet. Critics charge that carriers refuse to allow that because they want to force you to make every call over their network, allowing them to soak you with per-minute usage fees. Today David Pogue has an article in the New York Times describing a new offering from T-Mobile that allows consumers to do just that: when the phone detects an Internet connection nearby, it will automatically route calls via the WiFi network, and the customer isn’t charged for the call. As Pogue points out, this is a direct result of T-Mobile’s desire to get a leg up on the competition:

Have T-Mobile’s accountants gone quietly mad? Why would they give away the farm like this?

Because T-Mobile benefits, too. Let’s face it: T-Mobile’s cellular network is not on par with, say, Verizon’s. But improving its network means spending millions of dollars on new cell towers. It’s far less expensive just to hand out free home routers.

Furthermore, every call you make via Wi-Fi is one less call clogging T-Mobile’s cellular network, further reducing the company’s need to spend on network upgrades.

T-Mobile has the smallest market share of the four national wireless carriers, so they have the least to lose and the most to gain from a shake-up of the market. As a result, they’ve proven most willing to take risks in order to gain market share. If this service proves to be a hit, as I suspect it will, it will force the larger carriers to follow suit or risk losing market share.

That’s how competition works–it steadily forces companies to offer more consumer-friendly products and services whether they like to or not. It’s frustratingly slow for people who are used to the rough-and-tumble of the promiscuously open Internet. But it’s moving in the right direction, and given the FCC’s poor track record when it comes to protecting consumers, I think it would be a mistake for Congress or federal regulators to try to “fix” it.

Does Cost-Sharing for Rx Reduce Health?

Unknown, say Dana Goldman, Geoffrey Joyce, and Yuhui Zheng of the RAND Corporation. 

In this week’s Journal of the American Medical Association, the team presents a meta-analysis of “132 articles examining the associations between prescription drug plan cost-containment measures, including co-payments, tiering, or coinsurance[;] pharmacy benefit caps or monthly prescription limits[;] formulary restrictions[;] and reference pricing[;] and salient outcomes, including pharmacy utilization and spending, medical care utilization and spending, and health outcomes.”

Here are their principal findings and conclusions, from the abstract:

Increased cost sharing is associated with lower rates of drug treatment, worse adherence among existing users, and more frequent discontinuation of therapy. For each 10% increase in cost sharing, prescription drug spending decreases by 2% to 6%, depending on class of drug and condition of the patient. The reduction in use associated with a benefit cap, which limits either the coverage amount or the number of covered prescriptions, is consistent with other cost-sharing features. For some chronic conditions, higher cost sharing is associated with increased use of medical services, at least for patients with congestive heart failure, lipid disorders, diabetes, and schizophrenia. While low-income groups may be more sensitive to increased cost sharing, there is little evidence to support this contention.

That last sentence was certainly interesting. But here comes the kicker.

While increased cost sharing is highly correlated with reductions in pharmacy use, the long-term consequences of benefit changes on health are still uncertain.

That echoes points I’ve made previously in this blog:

  • The mere fact that cost-sharing causes people to reduce their consumption of prescription drugs (or other medical care) does not mean that their health suffers. 
  • Even if cost-sharing does cause some people’s health to suffer, that does not mean that the overall health effects of cost-sharing are harmful. 

Indeed, as Goldman et al. conclude that these studies leave open the question of long-term health effects, the best evidence on this point remains the RAND Health Insurance Experiment, which showed that the overall health effects of cost-sharing are nil.

But as Tom Firey has argued in this blog, even if it could be shown that cost-sharing does reduce overall health outcomes, that is not a public policy problem.  It means that people prefer to spend their money on things other than medical care.  That is their right.  We might try to persuade them to spend their money differently.  But we are not justified in taking their money away from them to spend it according to our preferences – or more likely, those of the health care industry – rather than their preferences.  Whose life is it, anyway?