Reviewing That Review

As David Boaz amply documents below, there are many irritating features to David Leonhardt’s NYT book review of Brian Doherty’s Radicals for Capitalism.  One that particularly stood out for me, however, was Leonhardt’s insinuation that libertarianism is partially to blame for the unfolding disaster in Iraq.  In a paragraph intended to catalogue libertarianism’s current political difficulties, Leonhardt writes that Bush’s “free-market approach to rebuilding Iraq has proven disastrous.”  Now, if there is a properly “free-market” approach to bombing, invading, and occupying countries that don’t threaten us, I’m unaware of it. 

Perhaps Leonhardt is referring to Paul Bremer’s 2003 refusal to reopen state-run factories.  But the line suggests a broader attempt to hang the biggest foreign policy disaster in 30 years around libertarians’ necks.  Nice try.  The Iraq mess is the product of an ideological joint venture between neoconservatives and liberal hawks.  Libertarians, in the main, opposed it.  The American Prospect’s Matt Yglesias–who’s no libertarian–understands this far better than Leonhardt.  As Yglesias put it a while back:   

the notion that anything even remotely resembling libertarianism could underwrite an effort to conscript huge quantities of resources from the American public and deploy them in an attempt to wholly remake the social and political order in a foreign country is too absurd to merit a rebuttal. This is an argument properly directed at egalitarian liberals, and we have reason to be asked to produce some specific arguments about why the dim prospects for succeeding at this were ex ante knowable (such arguments can, I think, be fairly easily produced) and/or why, given the opportunity costs, nation-building in Iraq was not a wise place to deploy the resources in question (this argument, I think, can be produced very easily). As long as the conversation is supposed to be proceeding on the shared basis of libertarianism, however, one hardly needs to say anything. It’s coercion, it’s planning, it’s every non-libertarian thing under the sun.

And as long as we’re passing out blame for the Iraq War, don’t forget that Leonhardt’s employer, the Grey Lady herself, deserves a large chunk.

“A Responsible Strategy”

Martin Peretz, editor in chief of the New Republic, says that we should ” help[] the desperate but numerous Iranian opposition and the multiple ethnicities who live under this fanatic regime” by bombing their country.  Well, not quite.

He links to an op-ed by Lt. Gen. Thomas McInerney in the Wall Street Journal, in which McInerney advocates pursuing a series of diplomatic objectives that are almost certain to fail (e.g., getting Arab countries to enforce a binding gasoline embargo on Iran) backed up by threats of “a campaign aimed at demonstrating to the Iranian regime that with 48 hours we could hit its nuclear development facilities, command and control facilities, integrated air defenses, Air Force and Navy units and the Shahab-3 missiles using over 2,500 aim points.”

This sort of rhetorical sleight of hand is becoming common among Washington’s more hawkish analysts.  The trick is to say “of course I’m not in favor of bombing Iran!  Why are you attacking a straw man?!?  Rather, I’m in favor of pressing a series of unworkable diplomatic objectives backed up by the threat of bombing Iran.”  It’s not difficult to see where this all leads.  (You can see why I think starting a war with Iran is a terrible idea here.)

Peretz attempts to defuse the endorsement of the McInerney Plan by damning McInerney with faint praise: “McInerney is no Curtis LeMay, not by a long shot.”  Thank goodness, LeMay was indeed an aberration, but I’d submit that LTG McInerney is the closest thing to a LeMay that we have today.  I recall this passage from the Atlantic Monthly’s wargame on North Korea, in which Jessica Mathews, chief of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, was in the role of DNI, and McInerney in the role of chairman of the JCS.  Mathews was quibbling with the implications of the military option:

Director of National Intelligence Mathews disagreed that Seoul could be shielded: “My understanding is that we cannot protect Seoul, at least for the first twenty-four hours of a war, and maybe for the first forty-eight.” McInerney disputed this, and Mathews asked him to explain.

McInerney: “There’s a difference between ‘protecting’ Seoul and [limiting] the amount of damage Seoul may take.”

Mathews: “There are a hundred thousand Americans in Seoul, not to mention ten million South Koreans.”

McInerney: “A lot of people are going to die, Jessica. But you still prevail.”

Mathews: “I just think we’ve got to be really careful. We’ve got to protect Seoul. If your daughter were living in Seoul, I don’t think you would feel the U.S. military could protect her in those first twenty-four hours.”

McInerney: “No, I do. I believe that we have the capability—whether from pre-emption or response—to minimize the casualties in Seoul.”

Mathews: “ ‘Minimize’ to roughly what level? A hundred thousand? Two hundred thousand?”

McInerney: “I think a hundred thousand or less.”

McCain Surges On

From this morning’s Washington Post:

After a heavily guarded walk through a newly fortified Baghdad market, Sen. John McCain declared that the American public was not getting “a full picture” of the progress unfolding in Iraq.

McCain…cited a drop in murders, the creation of a constellation of joint U.S.-Iraqi military outposts and a rise in intelligence tips as signs of the progress.

“These and other indications are reason for cautious optimism,” McCain said.

[…]

His comments came on a day when the military reported that six American soldiers had been killed by roadside bombs southwest of Baghdad.

More evidence, if any was needed, that John McCain is at least as disconnected from reality as our current president.

Federal Judge Orders Forest Service to Spend Millions on Nothing

Back in the 1980s, the Forest Service spent well over a billion dollars writing forest plans for each of the 100 or so national forests. Naturally, the Sierra Club and other environmental groups took many of these plans to court. After winning many of those challenges, they were stunned when the Supreme Court ruled in 1998 that the plans made no decisions. With no decisions, they did not constitute an “action,” so the court said no one had the standing to appeal them.

Unfortunately, no one bothered to tell Congress that the plans it had required in 1976 did nothing but spend money, so Congress still requires the agency to revise the plans every ten to fifteen years. But last year, the Bush Administration decided to dispense with about half the paperwork involved in such revisions by not requiring the forests to write separate environmental impact statements for each plan.

Though the plans do nothing, the Sierra Club and other environmental groups took this decision to court. Last week, a federal judge in California ruled that, even though the plans themselves were not an “action,” the rules for how the plans were written are an action. So the judge tossed the rules on the ground that the Forest Service had not written an environmental impact statement for them.

So we can expect the Forest Service to continue to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on paper plans that make no decisions and take no actions. Although I consider myself more of an environmentalist than a “timber beast,” I am inclined to agree with a representative of the timber industry who says this is “bureaucracy for bureaucracy’s sake.”

Full disclosure: In the 1980s and 1990s, I helped the Sierra Club and other environmental groups challenge forest plans – for what it is worth, the only challenges that were successful were ones that I was involved in. The main lesson I learned was that planning was a waste of time – the Forest Service changed tremendously between 1980 and 2000, but most of those changes were in spite of planning, not because of it.

Welfare for the Wealthy (an Ongoing Series)

An earlier post noted the hot political trend of convincing the upper middle class and the wealthy that they are financially vulnerable and in need of government assistance.

From loan subsidies for McMansions to blue-blood public works, from the doling out of market power and financial support to businessmen, to the offering of government money and tax breaks to (usually well-to-do) people who consume in a government-approved manner, politicians of Red stripes and Blue are all about helping the down-and-out in the (gated) community.

Such welfare-for-the-wealthy is the subtext of Sunday’s NYT story about the Children’s Health Insurance Program. CHIP was once intended to help children in families that are low-income but that do not qualify for Medicaid; now Congress is pushing for the state-operated/federally supported program to use its money to cover families up to four times the poverty level (e.g., a family of four earning $82,600 a year) — that is, nearly all families in the second-highest income quintile, aka the upper middle class.

The NYT article includes a provocative figure about the effects of CHIP. When the program was first implemented, the percentage of families with income between the poverty level and 200% of the poverty level (i.e., the families whom the program was intended to help) with uninsured children began to decline, falling from 20% in 1998 to about 12% by 2002. However, the percentage of those lower-income families with privately insured children also began to fall over that time, from about 55% to about 45%. Since 2002, the percentage of uninsured children in that income range has roughly plateaued while the percentage of children with private insurance has continued to fall, to about 35 percent by 2006. This suggests (though, by itself, does not prove) that, by 2002, CHIP had gone about as far as it could go in reducing the percentage of uninsured children in poor families; since then, CHIP has simply displaced private insurance — a dubious policy goal.

Given that, it’s no wonder politicians want to mission-creep CHIP into wealthier income brackets. But one must wonder what the next welfare-for-the-wealthy program will be. Perhaps a chicken in every pot and a Lexus in every garage?

Hillary Didn’t Invent Community

In an article on a pleasant suburban community near Washington, Roxanne Sweeney says,  “It’s like ‘Leave It to Beaver,’” praising the neighborhood’s friendliness and strong community ties. Later, reporter Rebecca Kahlenberg writes,

Recently, a group of River Falls mothers used the e-mail group to coordinate food preparation for Roxanne Sweeney when she wasn’t feeling well following treatment for colon cancer.

“I can’t even count how many meals were brought to me,” Sweeney said. “I hate this line because I’m not a Democrat, but this is really an it-takes-a-village sort of place.”

No, Ms. Sweeney! Friendship and community were not invented by Hillary Clinton. As the reference to “Leave It to Beaver” suggests, such ties go back long before Senator Clinton put her name on the book “It Takes a Village.” And long before “Leave It to Beaver.” Family, parish, and village are natural connections that predate not just Clinton but government and even formal social organization. They are the first building blocks of civil society. Clinton’s contribution to the topic is to confuse the natural ties of love and neighborliness with the artificial and imposed order of a vast and distant federal government.

As I wrote in a recent article and in Libertarianism: A Primer, Hillary calls for a national consensus and a common vision of what the government should do for families. But there can be no such common consensus in a pluralistic society. People don’t agree about all the values involved in rearing children, helping others, worshiping God, and forming associations. That’s why a successful society leaves such choices to individuals. Even in the little community of River Falls, it isn’t a formal community organization that came to Roxanne Sweeney’s aid. It was her friends.

At so many points in our lives, it takes friends, it takes a village, but it doesn’t take the federal government.