Topic: Political Philosophy

Three Problems with Taxpayer Financing of Election Campaigns

The new Democratic majority in the House of Representatives has introduced H.R. 1, a bill with two public financing components: one a pilot program for vouchers, and the other a conventional if generous subsidy program for small donations. I focus here on the latter. 

Public financing schemes have often focused on encouraging small donors in part to allegedly counter the influence of “Big Money.” The financing of campaigns by taxpayers fits easily into a number of dichotomies that structure our public discourse: small/large, vulnerable/powerful, poor/rich, left/right, and of course, friend/enemy. The realities are less exciting and persuasive than the rhetoric. 

It is an odd time to be pushing government spending on congressional candidates. Federal deficits are now approaching a trillion dollars annually. Small donor fundraising is much easier and much more successful than in the past. ActBlue, a “fundraising technology for the left [seeking] to democratize power and help small-dollar donors make their voices heard in a real way,” had a record election in 2018. It funneled over $1.6 billion to Democratic candidates.     

In that respect, this bill is entirely predictable in a highly partisan time. The government subsidy is six times the sum raised by small donations. A new majority is thus proposing a $9.6 billion (yes, billion) subsidy for its congressional candidates in the 2020 election. All things being equal, that would be a massive advantage for the party in that election. 

But things need not be equal. Such a huge subsidy would encourage the GOP to find small donors. Maybe “ActRed” would ready for 2020 and enjoy equal success. That’s not likely but let’s assume it is for purposes of argument.  

Where would the billions needed to finance this program come from? The funding  would involve new taxes or borrowing since it is new spending. So either current or future taxpayers would finance the program.  

Here’s one problem: the government would be using its power of coercion to force people to support candidates and parties they do not support (indeed, to support people they don’t want their children to marry). This coercion would happen more to Republicans than Democrats at first, but Republicans might get better at claiming the subsidies over time. We would end up with the government coercing everyone without regard to partisan commitments.  

Advocates of taxpayer financing also might think the scheme takes the side of “the people” (small donors) against the elite (current donors). ActBlue reports they had 4.9 million unique donors in 2018. That’s a large absolute number. But it constitutes about 3 percent of eligible voters in the United States. These ActBlue contributors are not average Americans. ActBlue donors are also a small portion of liberals in America. In 2016, about 26 percent of the nation identified as liberal or about 47 million people. Hence ActBlue got money from just over 10 percent of liberals. By any measure, ActBlue donors are a political elite. No doubt they are a political elite that believes their policy views represent what’s good for the nation and the average American. But they are not average Americans.  

Finally, this bill asks taxpayers to provide the parties with large sums for their campaigns. But ActBlue showed that the small donor elite can be mobilized, and Republicans have every incentive to match ActBlue’s success. Given that private political entities are doing well with small donors, why should the taxpayer be forced to support candidates and parties they do not want to support? Don’t taxpayers have better uses for $20 billion? 

Can Pluralism Work Online?

The Wall Street Journal reports that Facebook has consulted with conservative individuals and groups about its content moderation. Recently I suggested that social media managers would be inclined to give stakeholders a voice (though not a veto) on content moderation policies. Some on the left were well ahead in this game, proposing that the tech companies essentially turn over content moderation of “hate speech” to them. Giving voice to the right represents a kind of rebalancing of the play of political forces. 

argued earlier that looking to stakeholders had a flaw. These groups would be highly organized representatives of their members but not of most users of a platform. The infamous “special interests” of regular politics would thus come to dominate social media content moderation which in turn would have trouble generating legitimacy with users and the larger world outside of the internet.  

But another possibility exists which might be called “pluralism.” Both left and right are organized and thus are stakeholders. Social media managers recognize and seek advice from both sides about content moderation. But the managers retain the right of deciding the “content” part of content moderation. The groups are not happy, but we settle into a stable equilibrium that over time becomes a de facto speech regime for social media.  

A successful pluralism is possible. A lot will depend on the managers rapidly developing the political skills necessary to the task. They may be honing such skills. Facebook’s efforts with conservatives are far from hiring the usual suspects to get out of a jam. Twitter apparently followed conservative advice and verified a pro-gun Parkland survivor, an issue of considerable importance to conservative web pundits, given the extent of institutional support for the March for Our Lives movement. Note I am not saying the Right will win out but rather the companies may be able to manage a balanced system of oversight.  

But there will be challenges for this model.  

Spending decisions by Congress are often seen as a case of pluralist bargaining. Better organized or more skillful groups get more from the appropriations process; those who lose out can be placated with “side payments” to make legislation possible. Overall you get spending bills that no one completely likes, but everyone can live with until the next appropriations cycle. (I know that libertarians reject this sort of pluralism, but I not discussing what should be but rather what is as a way of understanding private content moderation). 

Here’s the challenge. The groups trying to affect social media content moderation are not bargaining over money. The left believes much of the rhetoric of the right has no place on any platform. The right notes that most social media employees lean left and wonder if their effort to cleanse the platforms begins with Alex Jones and ends with Charles Murray (i.e. everyone on the right). The right is thus tempted to call in a fourth player in the pluralist game of content moderation: the federal government. Managing pluralist competition and bargaining is a lot harder in a time of culture wars, as Facebook and Google have discovered.  

Transparency will not help matters. The Journal article mentioned earlier states: 

For users frustrated by the lack of clarity around how these companies make decisions, the added voices have made matters even murkier. Meetings between companies and their unofficial advisers are rarely publicized, and some outside groups and individuals have to sign nondisclosure agreements. 

Murkiness has its value! In this case, it allows candid discussions between the tech companies and various representatives of the left and the right. Those conversations might build trust between the companies and the groups from the left and the right and maybe even, among the groups. The left might stop thinking democracy is threatened online, and the right might conclude they are not eventually going to be pushed off the platforms. We might end up with rules for online speech that no one completely likes and yet are better than all realistic alternatives.  

Now imagine that everything about private content moderation is made public. For some, allowing speech on a platform will become compromising with “hate.” (Even if a group’s leaders don’t actually believe that, they would be required to say it for political reasons). Suppressing harassment or threats will frighten others and foster calls for government intervention to protect speech online. Our culture wars will endlessly inform the politics of content moderation. That outcome is unlikely to be the best we can hope for in an era when most speech will be online. 

 

Imperial Rites

Writing in National Review, Charles C.W. Cooke decries the pharaonic spectacle of the modern presidential funeral. “Whether he was a great man or a poor one, George H. W. Bush was a public employee.” In order to honor his passing, Cooke asks, do we really need to shut down the stock market, postal service, and much of the nation’s capital for a national day of mourning? The whole business marks “another step toward the fetishization of an executive branch whose role is supposed to be more bureaucratic than spiritual.” I’m glad he said it first, but he’s absolutely right.

Our first president, ever conscious of the precedents he could set, didn’t want an elaborate state funeral. “It is my express desire that my Corpse may be Interred in a private manner, without parade, or funeral Oration,” Washington declared in his will. 

You’ve got to respect that—but, of course, we didn’t. Instead, “there was a massive public funeral at Mount Vernon,” Brady Carlson recounts in his 2016 book Dead Presidents, with a parade organized by Washington’s Masonic lodge, including “musicians, clergy, troops, and a riderless horse, a military tradition reportedly dating back to the age of Genghis Khan”—along with funeral orations by four ministers, topped off with “three general discharges of infantry, the cavalry, and eleven pieces of artillery, which lined the banks of the Potomac.”

The passing of the ninth U.S. president, William Henry Harrison, the first to die in office, set more precedents still. The interminable inaugural address that supposedly killed him featured Whiggish professions of deference to the legislature and the people–the president as a modest “accountable agent, not the principal; the servant, not the master.” Yet, according to the White House Historical Association, ‘the 30-day ceremonials surrounding the death of Harrison were modeled after royal funerals.” “There were bells, cannons, and funeral dirges,” Carlson writes, the White House was draped in black as “the late president and his casket rode in a black and white carriage pulled by six white horses, escorted by a pallbearer for each of the country’s twenty-six states and held up on a raised dais so the ten thousand people who turned up could see.” 

We fought a revolution to rid ourselves of kings, but, ironically enough, in the mother country, the sendoff for a former head of government tends to be decidedly less regal. The last British Prime Minister to get a state funeral was Winston Churchill. The pomp surrounding Margaret Thatcher’s 2013 funeral blurred the lines, a development the Telegraph’s Peter Oborne condemned as a “constitutional innovation… foolish and wrong”: 

Our constitution is defined by a rigorous separation between the head of state (the monarch) and the head of government (the prime minister). This marks us out from other countries, such as the United States of America, where the head of state and chief executive are merged in one person. As Anthony Sampson wrote in the Anatomy of Britain, the advantage of the British system is that “the head of state could represent the nation with all its traditional pomp and splendour, while the head of government appeared in a more workaday role”

Still, the funerals of other recent prime ministers have tended to respect that distinction, typically featuring no more pageantry than might be accorded any prominent private citizen.  

In America, by contrast, presidents are legally entitled to state funerals, whose details are meticulously prescribed in the 133-page Army Pamphlet 1-1. “Regulations say up to four thousand military and civilian support personnel can take part in state funeral services …. And typically the sitting president announces government offices will close for the day of the funeral.” 

The president described in the Federalist was to have “no particle of spiritual jurisdiction.” Yet there’s an unsettling, quasi-mystical orientation toward government at work in much of the ritual. While lying in state in the Capitol Rotunda, the president’s body is placed atop the Lincoln Catafalque: the funeral bier constructed for our 16th president–one of the holy relics of the American civil religion. Above him hangs the cathedral-like ceiling, which features the fresco “The Apotheosis of Washington,” painted by Constantino Brumidi in 1865. It depicts the first president “sitting amongst the heavens in an exalted manner, or in literal terms, ascending and becoming a god.” I generally find the so-called “New Atheists” insufferable, but we could use a little of their militant impiety when it comes to our presidential cult.  

George H.W. Bush’s funeral arrangements have been comparatively modest as these things go. So were Gerald Ford’s back in 2007. The man who proclaimed himself “a Ford, not a Lincoln” and toasted his own English muffins was praised once again for his humility because he skipped the horse-drawn processional. Instead, his 587-page funeral plan included a motorcade tour of Alexandria with stops at the World War II and Lincoln memorials and a military “missing man” flyover by 21 F-15E Strike Eagles at the burial in Grand Rapids.

The modern presidency, Cooke observes, smacks more of Caesar than of Coolidge. Here, as elsewhere, we could profit from Silent Cal’s example. “Coolidge’s will,” Carlson notes, “was just twenty-three words long, and his funeral ceremony lasted a mere five minutes.” In death, as in life, he was not a nuisance. 

Will Malay Muslims Accept Equality Before Law?

There is a heated debate in Malaysia these days on whether the country should affirm the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, or ICERD. Adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1969, the internal convention calls for eliminating all legal structures that favor one group over another. 

Malaysia is among a handful of countries that have neither signed nor ratified the treaty. One major reason is that many within the country’s ethnoreligious majority, the Muslim Malays, do not want to lose the privileges they have over the non-Muslim minorities such as the Chinese or Hindus. The Islamists also feel alarmed that accepting legal equality will lead to more freedom of religion, freedom of expression, or the intermarriage of Muslims and non-Muslims. 

Free Malaysia Today, a popular newssite with liberal tendencies, asked me what I think. I encouraged Malaysians to accept ICERD, and gave a reference that even the Islamists could not easily reject: The Ottoman Empire, the very seat of the Islamic Caliphate. Here is how Free Malaysia Today reported my take:

Mustafa Akyol, an award-winning author on contemporary Muslim issues, said Muslim groups who oppose the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, or ICERD, should study the policies of past Islamic powers including the Ottoman caliphate with regards to equality.

“I would recommend that all those in Malaysia who oppose the ICERD on Islamic grounds read the Ottoman Constitution of 1876. It reads:

‘All subjects of the empire are called Ottomans, without distinction whatever faith they profess… [And] All Ottomans are equal in the eyes of the law. They have the same rights, and owe the same duties towards their country, without prejudice to religion.’”

The full story is available here: ”The Caliphate had ICERD, too

Are the Carolinas Ready for Hurricane Florence?

As Hurricane Florence spins toward the Carolina coast, the nation’s attention will be on the disaster readiness and response of governments and the affected communities. Have lessons been learned since the deeply flawed government response to Hurricane Katrina back in 2005?

I examined FEMA and the Katrina response in this study, discussing both the government failures and the impressive private-sector relief efforts.

Last year, Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, again exposing all sorts of government failures. Well-known chef José Andrés has a new book on the Maria response. He had an eye-opening experience on the island volunteering on relief efforts with his World Central Kitchen.

The Washington Post’s review of the book says that Andrés saw the flaws of top-down bureaucratic relief efforts and embraces more of a spontaneous order view of effective disaster relief:

With We Fed an Island, chef-and-restaurateur-turned-relief worker José Andrés doesn’t just tell the story about how he and a fleet of volunteers cooked millions of meals for the Americans left adrift on Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria. He exposes what he views as an outdated top-down, para-military-type model of disaster relief that proved woefully ineffective on an island knocked flat by the Category 4 hurricane.

… ‘My original plan was to cook maybe ten thousand meals a day for five days, and then return home,’ Andrés writes. Instead, Andrés and the thousands of volunteers who composed Chefs for Puerto Rico remained for months, preparing and delivering more than 3 million meals to every part of the island. They didn’t wait for permission from FEMA.

… These grass-roots culinary efforts didn’t always sit well with administration officials or with executives at hidebound charities, in part because Andrés was no diplomat. He trolled Trump on Twitter over the situation on Puerto Rico. He badgered FEMA for large contracts to ramp up production to feed even more hungry citizens. He infamously told Time magazine that the “American government has failed” in Puerto Rico. A chef used to fast-moving kitchens, Andrés had zero patience for slow-footed bureaucracy, especially in a time of crisis.

… After dealing with so much red tape and mismanagement (remember the disastrous $156 million contract that FEMA awarded to a small, inexperienced company to prepare 30 million hot meals?), Andrés wants the government and nonprofit groups to rethink the way they handle food after a large-scale natural disaster. He wants them to drop the authoritarian, top-down style and embrace the chaos inherent in crisis. Work with available local resources, whether residents or idle restaurants and schools. Give people the authority and the means to help themselves. Stimulate the local economy.

‘What we did was embrace complexity every single second,’ Andrés writes. ‘Not planning, not meeting, just improvising. The old school wants you to plan, but we needed to feed the people.’

Andrés and World Central Kitchen have embraced complexity. 

Hail to the chef!

 

 

Google’s Problem and Ours

Content moderation remains in the news following President Trump’s accusation that Google manipulated its searches to harm conservatives. Yesterday Congress held two hearings on content moderation, one mostly about foreign influence and the other mostly about political bias. The Justice Department also announced Attorney General Sessions will meet soon with state attorneys general “to discuss a growing concern that these companies may be hurting competition and intentionally stifling the free exchange of ideas on their platforms.” 

None of this is welcome news. The First Amendment sharply limits government power over speech. It does not limit private governance of speech. The Cato Institute is free to select speakers and topics for our “platform.” The tech companies have that right also even if they are politically biased. Government officials should also support a culture of free speech. Government officials bullying private companies contravenes a culture of free speech. Needless to say, having the Justice Department investigate those companies looks a lot like a threat to the companies’ freedom. 

So much for law and theory. Here I want to offer some Madisonian thoughts on these issues. No one can doubt James Madison’s liberalism. But he wanted limited government in fact as well as in theory. Madison thought about politics to realize liberal ideals. We should too. 

Let’s begin with the question of bias. The evidence for bias against conservatives is anecdotal and episodic. The tech companies deny any political bias, and their incentives raise doubts about partisan censorship. Why take the chance you might drive away millions of customers and invite the wrath of Congress and the executive branch on your business? Are the leaders of these companies really such political fanatics that they would run such risks? 

Yet these questions miss an important point. The problem of content moderation bias is not really a question of truth or falsity. It is rather a difficult political problem with roots in both passion and reason. 

Now, as in the past, politicians have powerful reasons to foster fear and anger among voters. People who are afraid and angry are more likely to vote for a party or a person who promises to remedy an injustice or protect the innocent. And fear and anger are always about someone threatening vital values. For a Republican president, a perfect “someone” might be tech companies who seem to be filled with Progressives and in control of the most important public forums in the nation. 

But the content moderation puzzle is not just about the passions. The fears of the right (and to a lesser degree, the left) are reasonable. To see this, consider the following alternative world. Imagine the staff of the Heritage Foundation has gained potential control over much of the online news people see and what they might say to others about politics. Imagine also that after a while Progressives start to complain that the Heritage folks are removing their content or manipulating new feeds. The leaders of Heritage deny the charges. Would you believe them? 

Logically it is true that this “appearance of bias” is not the same as bias, and bias may be a vice but cannot be a crime for private managers. But politically that may not matter much, and politics may yet determine the fate of free speech in the online era. 

Companies like Google have to somehow foster legitimacy for their moderation of content, moderation that cannot be avoided if they are to maximize shareholder value. They have to convince most people that they have a right to govern their platforms even when their decisions seem wrong. 

Perhaps recognizing that some have reasonable as well as unreasonable doubts about their legitimacy would be a positive step forward. And people who harbor those reasonable doubts should keep in mind the malign incentives of politicians who benefit from fostering fear and anger against big companies. 

If the tech companies fail to gain legitimacy, we all will have a problem worse than bias. Politicians might act, theory and law notwithstanding. The First Amendment might well stop them. But we all would be better off with numerous, legitimate private governors of speech on the internet. Google’s problem is ours.

Results from the 2018 Libertarianism vs. Conservatism Post-Debate Survey

As part of a yearly summer tradition, the Heritage Foundation and Cato Institute co-host a debate in which interns at both think tanks debate whether conservatism or libertarianism is a better ideology. Following this year’s debate, the Cato Institute conducted a post-debate survey of attendees to ask who they thought won the debate and what they believe about a variety of public policy and philosophical issues. The post-debate survey offers a unique opportunity to examine how young leaders in the conservative and libertarian movements approach deep philosophical questions that may be inaccessible to a general audience.

2018 Intern Debate Survey

Despite agreement on domestic economic issues and free trade, the survey finds striking differences between conservative and libertarian  attitudes about Donald Trump, immigration, transgender pronouns, government’s response to opioid addiction, police, defense spending and national security, domestic surveillance, and religion. The survey also went further than just asking about policy and used Jordan Peterson’s 12 principles for a 21st century conservatism to examine the underlying philosophical differences between libertarian and conservative millennials. 

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