October 28, 2010 9:52AM

Bootleggers & Baptists, Sugary Soda Edition

Here’s a poor, unsuccessful letter that impressed the relevant New York Times reporters, but not their editorial overlords:

It may seem counter‐​intuitive that bleeding‐​heart anti‐​hunger groups and “Big Food and Big Beverage” would ally to oppose Mayor Bloomberg’s request to prevent New Yorkers from using food stamps to purchase sugary sodas [“Unlikely Allies in Food Stamp Debate,” October 16]. Yet the “bootleggers and Baptists” theory of regulation explains that this “strange bedfellows” phenomenon is actually the norm, rather than the exception.


Most laws have two types of supporters: the true believers and those who benefit financially. Baptists don’t want you drinking on the Lord ’s Day, for example, while bootleggers profit from the above‐​market prices that Blue Laws enable them to charge on Sundays. Consequently, both groups support politicians who support Blue Laws.


Baptists‐​and‐​bootleggers coalitions underlie almost all government activities. Defense spending: (neo)conservatives and defense contractors. President Obama’s new health care law: the political left and the health care and insurance industries. Ethanol subsidies: environmentalists and agribusiness. Education: egalitarians and teachers’ unions. The list goes on.


It’s easier to illustrate the theory (and sexier) when the bootleggers are non‐​believers who cynically manipulate government solely for their own gain. Yet one can be both a Baptist and a bootlegger. The Coca‐​Cola Company may sincerely believe that society benefits when the government subsidizes sugary sodas for poor people. Even so, a bootlegger‐​cum‐​Baptist can still rip off taxpayers.

This morning, NPR reported on another bootleggers‐​and‐​Baptists coalition: anti‐​immigration zealots and the prison industry.

October 21, 2010 12:56PM

British Military Cuts, Conservatives, and Neocons

Yesterday, Prime Minister David Cameron announced Britain’s biggest defense cuts since World War II. The cuts affect the British military across the board.


The Army will shed 7,000 troops; the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force will each lose 5,000 personnel; the total workforce in the Ministry of Defence, including civilians, will contract by 42,000. The Navy’s destroyer fleet will shrink from 23 to 19. Two aircraft carriers — already under construction — will be completed, but one of the two will be either mothballed or sold within a few years. Whether the one remaining flattop in the British fleet will actually deploy with an operational fixed‐​wing aircraft is an open question. They’ve decided to jettison their Harriers; a technological marvel when it was first introduced, it has a limited range and a poor safety record. In its place, the Brits still intend to purchase Joint Strike Fighters, but not the short take‐​off and vertical landing (STOVL) version.


And right on cue, Max Boot argues in today’s Wall Street Journal, following the Heritage Foundation’s James Carafano’s example, that fiscal conservatives should not use these cuts as an example of how to reign in deficits. According to Boot and Carafano, military spending is off‐​limits. Period.


But as I note at The Skeptics, most Americans do not buy into this argument:

In Boot’s telling, Cameron’s decision inevitably places a heavier burden on the shoulders of American taxpayers and American troops.


But why should Americans perform a function for other governments that they are obligated by tradition, law and reason to perform for themselves? Defense is, as Boot notes, “one of the core responsibilities of government.” I would go one better: defense is one of the only legitimate responsibilities for government. So why does Max Boot think that Americans should simply resign themselves to take on this burden, doing for others what they should do for themselves?


I suspect that he fears that most Americans are not comfortable with the role that he and his neoconservative allies have preached for nearly two decades, hence his preemptive shot across the bow of the incoming congressional class that will have been elected on a platform of reducing the burden of government. True, the public is easily swayed, and not inclined to vote on foreign policy matters, in general, but as I noted here on Monday, it seems unlikely that the same Tea Partiers who want the U.S. government to do less in the United States are anxious to do more everywhere else. And, indeed, such sentiments are not confined to conservatives and constitutionalists who are keenly aware of government’s inherent limitations. Recent surveys by the Chicago Council of on Global Affairs (.pdf) and the Pew Research Center (here) definitively demonstrate that the public writ large is anxious to shed the role of global policeman.

Click here to read the entire post.

October 6, 2010 3:19PM

Actually We Aren’t Running the World

Bloggers have already noted the most glaring problems with Arthur Brooks, Edwin Feulner and Bill Kristol’s Monday Wall Street Journal op-ed, “Peace Doesn't Keep Itself,” which worries that conservatives are figuring out that trying to run the world is not conservative.

The op-ed pretends that the fact that defense spending isn’t the largest cause of the deficit means it isn’t a cause of the deficit. It obscures the fact that we spend more on defense than we did in the Cold War by counting the defense budget as a portion of the economy without noting the latter has grown faster than the former.

So I can limit myself to less obvious angles. The first is that neoconservatives like Kristol are for increasing the defense budget no matter what. For them the military is basically an expression of national awesomeness (to use an academic term). Enemies and other details, like what we spend already, come up mainly in the justification phase.

In 2000, when U.S. defense spending was nearly $180 billion lower than today—excluding the wars and adjusting for inflation—Bill Kristol and Robert Kagan wanted to increase defense spending by $60 to $100 billion a year. After September 11, they called for a “large” and “substantial” increase. Having got that and then some, Kristol, at least, wants even more. The neoconservative appetite for military spending is insatiable because their militarism is.

Second, I want to pick on one point the op-ed makes because it is both wrong and widely believed: “Global prosperity requires commerce and trade, and this requires peace. But the peace does not keep itself.”

Read the rest of this post »
September 20, 2010 11:54AM

Brooks: Let the Bad Times Roll

I hope you missed David Brooks’ New York Times column recently extolling the virtues of excruciating pain. The op‐​ed, entitled, “A Case for Mental Courage,” is Brooks at his depressing, neocon worst. He starts out by describing in way too much detail the agony Fanny Burney, a early 19th century novelist, experienced when she had a mastectomy without anesthesia. “I then felt the Knife rackling against the breastbone…” and so on. Thanks for sharing, David, but, really, why? Well, because it turns out that heroism is to be found “in the ability to face unpleasant thoughts.” Hmmm. The underlying major problem that afflicts our nation, says Brooks, is that capitalism has undermined the idea that people are “inherently sinful.” Our culture “places less emphasis on the need to struggle against one’s own mental feebleness.”


It also turns out that America is too “geared toward pleasuring consumers, not putting them on some arduous character building regime.” In the good old days, Brooks intones, “this meant conquering mental laziness with arduous and sometimes numbingly boring lessons. It meant conquering frivolity by sitting through earnest sermons and speeches. It meant conquering self‐​approval by staring straight at what was painful.” Sign me up, David, you neocons look like a fun bunch. How is it that Mencken defined a Puritan? Someone who lives in constant fear that someone, somewhere is having a good time?


And therein lies the disconnect between most neoconservatives and America. Thomas Jefferson (someone who always liked to have a good time, if you get my drift) put it right there in the Declaration: We are going to be a nation that recognizes the unalienable right to “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.” Mastectomies sans anesthesia would not seem to fall into the category of the pursuit of happiness.


We should celebrate the fact that the pursuit of happiness is primarily an individualistic pursuit — something that rubs against the grain of neoconservatism. Some years back, Brooks wrote, “ultimately American purpose can find its voice only in Washington…individual ambition and willpower are channeled into the cause of national greatness. And by making the nation great, individuals are able to join their narrow concerns to a larger national project.” That philosophy, of course, was tried a couple of times in the 20th century and found a bit wanting. Especially if you count the tens of millions of human beings who died because of it. On the other hand, they did suffer.

May 18, 2010 8:24PM

Neocons Finish Out of the Money in Kentucky Race

Rand Paul’s landslide victory in the Kentucky Republican primary is being hailed as a big win for the Tea Party movement, a slap in the face to the Republican establishment, and maybe even as a harbinger of the rise of libertarian Republicanism. (Only 19 percent of Kentucky Republicans say they’re libertarians, but that’s got to be more than before the Rand Paul campaign.) It’s also a big loss for Washington neoconservatives, who warned in dire terms about the horrors of a Paul victory.


Back in March, Jonathan Martin reported in Politico:

Recognizing the threat, a well‐​connected former aide to Vice President Dick Cheney convened a conference call last week between Grayson and a group of leading national security conservatives to sound the alarm about Paul.


“On foreign policy, [global war on terror], Gitmo, Afghanistan, Rand Paul is NOT one of us,” Cesar Conda wrote in an e‑mail to figures such as Liz Cheney, William Kristol, Robert Kagan, Dan Senor and Marc Thiessen.


With an attached memo on Paul’s noninterventionist positions, Conda concluded: “It is our hope that you can help us get the word out about Rand Paul’s troubling and dangerous views on foreign policy.” 


In an interview, Conda noted that Paul once advocated for closing down the detention center at Guantanamo Bay and sending some suspected terrorists to the front lines in Afghanistan. 


“This guy could become our Republican senator from Kentucky?” he exclaimed. “It’s very alarming.”

A week later, Dick Cheney himself issued his first endorsement of the campaign season to Secretary of State Trey Grayson, hardly the most promising Republican candidate of 2010. Obviously, Cheney was urging Kentuckians not to vote for Rand Paul.


David Frum kept up the pressure on his website and in national magazines, where he tossed around words like “extremist,” “conspiracy monger,” and “his father’s more notorious positions.” (That column also included the most amazing confession of political error I’ve ever seen: “many of my friends fell (briefly) victim to Lyndon Larouche’s mad ideology, which exploited those good themes to bad ends.” Say what? I never knew anyone who fell for Lyndon Larouche; I never even heard of any actual person who followed him; but David Frum had “many friends” who became followers of the nuttiest guy ever to run for president? That’s some band of friends.)


The big‐​government Republican establishment rallied to Grayson’s side against the previously unknown opthalmologist from Bowling Green. Late in the campaign, Grayson ran ads featuring endorsements from Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, Cheney, Rick Santorum, and Rudy Giuliani. That’s more raw tonnage of Republican heavyweights than you’d see on a national convention stage.


And after all that Kentucky Republicans gave a 25‐​point victory to a first‐​time candidate who opposed bailouts, deficits, Obamacare, and the war in Iraq. That’s a sharp poke in the eye to the neocons who tried so hard to block him. They don’t want a prominent Republican who opposes this war and the next one, who will appeal to American weariness with war and big government. They don’t want other elected Republicans — many of whom, according to some members of Congress, now regret the Iraq war — to start publicly backing away from perpetual interventionism.


There were plenty of winners tonight. But the big losers were the neoconservatives, who failed to persuade the Republican voters of Kentucky that wars and bailouts are essential for national progress.

December 29, 2009 11:23AM

Neocons, Progressives, and the Impulse to Bully

Bart Hinkle makes some interesting observations in the Richmond Times‐​Dispatch about the unfortunate similarities between neoconservatives and progressives. Progressives, he says (and of course they’re not really for progress, so they might better be called left‐​liberals), spent the Bush years criticizing “bullying,” “heavy‐​handed meddling,” and even “neoconservative theories of social engineering.” They preferred “soft power.”

Yet turn the subject to domestic policy, and what happens? Progressives eagerly embrace the use of coercive hard power to achieve their aims. Force industry to adopt a cumbersome cap‐​and‐​trade policy to reduce carbon emissions? Check. Force the country to adopt a health care “public option”? Check. Threaten people with fines and even prison to impose an individual mandate? Check.


So much for the concern about “social engineering” and well‐​intentioned but “heavy‐​handed meddling.” When it comes to domestic policy, progressives are just as eager as neocons are to embrace “expansive dreams” and “gargantuan plans.” Just as hopelessly romantic about what the threat of force can achieve. And just as arrogant about the rightness of wielding it.

After some more critical analysis of the inconsistency of the left, Hinkle concludes:

Of course, everything that has just been said about progressives could be turned with equal validity against conservatives of the talk‐​radio right — many of whom think Americans should push the rest of the world around, but leave one another the heck alone.

If only there were an alternative to heavy‐​handed liberals and heavy‐​handed conservatives…