Topic: Political Philosophy

In Education, Democracy Is the Threat

When people hear “democracy,” they tend to get warm, fuzzy feelings. As the Century Foundation’s Richard Kahlenberg writes in an article that, among other things, portrays private school choice as a threat to democracy, “public education…was also meant to instill a love of liberal democracy: a respect for the separation of powers, for a free press and free religious exercise, and for the rights of political minorities.” The fundamental, ironic problem is that both democracy and democratically controlled public schooling are inherently at odds with the individual rights, and even separation of powers, that Kahlenberg says democracy and public schools are supposed to protect.

Let’s be clear what “democracy” means: the people collectively, rather than a single ruler or small group of rulers, make decisions for the group. We typically think of this as being done by voting, with the majority getting its way.

Certainly, it is preferable for all people to have a say in decisions that will be imposed on them than to have a dictator impose things unilaterally. But there is nothing about letting all people have a vote on imposition that protects freedom. Indeed, in a pure democracy, as long as the majority decides something, no individual rights are protected at all. The will of the majority is all that matters.

We’ve seen basic rights and equality under the law perpetually and unavoidably violated by democratically controlled public schooling. It cannot be otherwise: At its core, a single system of government schools—be it a district, state, or federal system—can never serve all, diverse people equally. It must make decisions about whose values, histories, and culture will and will not be taught, as well as what students can wear, what they can say, and what they can do, in order to function.

Public schooling since the days of Horace Mann has found it impossible to uphold religious freedom and equality. Mann himself was constantly assailed by people who felt that by trying to make public schools essentially lowest-common-denominator Protestant institutions, he was throwing out religion or making the schools de facto Unitarian (his denomination). Mann, in response, promised that the Protestant Bible would always be used in public schools. Indeed, Protestantism was often thought essential to being a good American, including supportive of democracy, which meant that if the public schools were to serve their civic purpose they could not treat religious minorities equally, especially Roman Catholics, who were suspected of taking their political orders from the Pope in Rome.

Today, after more than a century of even deadly conflict over religion, the public schools are no longer de facto Protestant, but instead may legally have no connection that could appear to be advancing religion, right down, often, to speeches by individual students at events such as graduation ceremonies or athletic contests. This inherently renders religious people second-class citizens—any values are fair game in public schools except for theirs—while also curbing basic expression rights.

Of course, the inherent inequality of public schooling is not restricted to religion. In a public school a teacher, committee, school board, or other government actor must decide what aspects of history will be taught or literature read. This requires that government elevate some peoples’ speech and perspectives, while deeming others’ essentially unworthy. As a result, we have perpetual battles that tear at the social fabric over which books—The Bluest Eye, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian—should or should not be read in class or over whose history should be taught, and the losers are rendered unequal under the law.

Greek Anarchists Provide Services the State Doesn’t

In the New York Times, Niki Kitsantonis writes, “It may seem paradoxical, but Greece’s anarchists are organizing like never before.”

No. Anarchists – the sensible ones, at least – are not against organization. They are against rule – against ruling and against being ruled. Merriam-Webster explains the derivation of the word: “Medieval Latin anarchia, from Greek, from anarchos having no ruler, from an- + archos ruler.” True, as the dictionary editors note, “anarchy” and “anarchism” are sometimes used to mean something like “absence or denial of any authority or established order” or simply “absence of order.” But rational political theorists and even activists don’t advocate pure disorder; they advocate the absence of rule, which they define as the absence of government

So what is it that these Greek anarchists are organizing for? Well, in fact, the focus of the article is on how anarchists are supplying the services that the Greek state is not providing:

Seven years of austerity policies and a more recent refugee crisis have left the government with fewer and fewer resources, offering citizens less and less. Many have lost faith. Some who never had faith in the first place are taking matters into their own hands, to the chagrin of the authorities….

Whatever the means, since 2008 scores of “self-managing social centers” have mushroomed across Greece, financed by private donations and the proceeds from regularly scheduled concerts, exhibitions and on-site bars, most of which are open to the public. There are now around 250 nationwide.

Some activists have focused on food and medicine handouts as poverty has deepened and public services have collapsed.

In recent months, anarchists and leftist groups have trained special energy on housing refugees who flooded into Greece in 2015 and who have been bottled up in the country since the European Union and Balkan nations tightened their borders. Some 3,000 of these refugees now live in 15 abandoned buildings that have been taken over by anarchists in the capital.

One part of Athens seems to have been a self-governing, but not state-governed, territory for some time. Some sources say Exarchia has existed since as early as 1870. The name presumably comes from “ex-,” out of, away from, and of course “archos,” ruler.

Methods of Presidential Defenestration

How do you solve a problem like the Donald? In a much-discussed column that ran Tuesday, Ross Douthat offered “The 25th Amendment Solution for Removing Trump.” Our 45th president has, by now, Douthat argues, demonstrated a breathtaking lack of the minimum requirements for the position he holds: including “managerial competence, a decent attention span… [and] a measure of restraint and self-control.” But given that his offenses thus far smack less of “high crimes [than] simple omni-incompetence,” removal under the 25th Amendment, on the grounds that Trump is “unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office,” is constitutionally “more appropriate” than impeachment, Douthat writes.

As a libertarian, I’m a sucker for crazy, longshot ideas, so of course I enjoyed the column. But Douthat’s argument rests on an unexamined assumption: that the impeachment power is categorically unavailable in cases of “omni-incompetence.” I don’t think that’s right. As I argue in a forthcoming piece for Reason magazine, this is the rare congressional power that’s actually broader than Congress believes it to be. (I’m sure Nick Gillespie’s going to love it.) 

The view that you can’t impeach a president for gross incompetence is widely shared, and some of the legislative history behind Article II, section 4, supports it. According to Madison’s notes on the Constitutional Convention, when George Mason moved to add “or maladministration” to the list of impeachable offenses, Madison objected that “so vague a term will be equivalent to a tenure during pleasure of the Senate.” Mason then substituted “high Crimes and Misdemeanors,” and that’s what we ended up with.

But that text does not preclude all cases of “maladministration.” As the Nixon-era House Judiciary Committee report on “Constitutional Grounds for Presidential Impeachment” noted, “at the time of the Constitutional Convention, the phrase ‘high Crimes and Misdemeanors’ had been in use for over 400 years” in British impeachments,” and extended to negligent discharge of duties, “procuring offices for persons unfit and unworthy of them,” and other transgressions falling short of grave criminality. Early American commentators, like Justice Joseph Story, understood the phrase to include offenses “growing out of personal misconduct, or gross neglect, or usurpation, or habitual disregard of the public interests, in the discharge of the duties of political office.” 

Liberty Chronicles, a New Podcast from Libertarianism.org

There was–perhaps still is–a Cuban aphorism that “Sugar is made with blood.” Few other people were better situated to actually comment on what went into producing sugar (consumed all the way from England to India) than those whose labor created it. None knew more intimately than the slave just how much human misery was squeezed into every cup. Sugar and tobacco were the New World’s primary cash crops because their stimulating and addictive chemistries gave European aristocrats incredible amounts of wealth and power. Factory workers dumped sugar into their tea to up calorie counts and make it through the day while corporatists and slave masters reaped a harvest of stimulated profits. The slave’s blood fed the production of cane, and cane fed the new generations of drudge workers. Sugar, in many regards, was made with blood, and history is much the same. But to find out just how sanguine our cup is, we have to be willing to ask disturbing questions. To enjoy tales about the good times and the pleasant things, the heroes and victories, we have to be direct and honest about our past.

Libertarianism.org’s newest podcast, Liberty Chronicles, will present listeners with a humane history of Liberty and Power, neither romanticizing the present nor failing to bluntly analyze the past. The saga of human history is incredibly painful and, often, not terribly inspirational. In many ways, it is a long train of cautionary tales each of which has failed to adequately instruct successive generations. Despite the constant stream of evidence that prosperity requires peaceful cooperation, we consistently fail to improve ourselves. We ignore our true histories–the painful catalog of who exercised violence against whom–to tell myths that temporarily bandage any serious wounds.

To understand more fully who did what to whom and why, we have to be willing to jettison our preconceived notions about the world we know and love. We have to stop trying to justify history and begin really listening to its record. We have to break from the nationalistic, hopeful narratives of an ever-improving synthesis and recognize that the past offers us no nice, neat little lessons or predetermined end-points. Having done these ideological exercises, we can commit ourselves to exploring the past from the perspectives of those actual human beings who created and lived it. With a bit of practice, we can start training ourselves to practice empathy and sympathy by straining to understand people so radically different from ourselves.

Liberty Chronicles combines libertarian methodology with a variety of historical theories and perspectives. We will help listeners eschew academic gatekeepers and propagandizers, taking up Carl Becker’s famous invitation that “Everyman” become “His Own Historian.” We begin today with a discussion of H.L. Mencken’s history of the bathtub and over the next several weeks we will broaden our ideological toolkit to prepare for investigations of our own. Having covered history from above, history from below, Marxism vs. Classical Liberalism, methodological individualism, and conspiracy theory, we will move to the Early Modern period and the development of Liberty and Power in colonial America. From there and then, the battle between those seeking liberty and those seeking power has remained an open contest. Subscribe on your favorite podcatcher, add us on Facebook and Twitter, send us your questions, share the news far and wide all across the land! The history of libertarianism and its war on power is more relevant and necessary now than perhaps ever before.

The Napoleon Complex and Trump’s First 100 Days

The “first 100 days” was a dictatorial metaphor from the start. It entered the presidential lexicon in 1933, when journalists likened FDR’s legislative onslaught to Napoleon Bonaparte’s 1815 breakout from Elba and subsequent three-month rampage, ending at Waterloo.  

Thankfully, President Trump’s first 100 days haven’t been nearly so dramatic. It’s as if Napoleon, instead of marching to Paris and then to war, just sat around his Tuscan villa, hand in his waistcoat, ranting about his enemies.

Of the umpteen items in Trump’s “100-day action plan,” unveiled last fall in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, he’s barely moved on most, reversed himself on others, and been stymied by Congress and the courts on the few where he’s made a serious push. The candidate who proclaimed “I alone can fix it” is learning that, on the home front at least, our political system remains resistant to one-man rule. 

It’s reassuring to learn that our system of separated powers still has some life left in it, at least when it comes to domestic affairs. The danger is that, with his agenda stalled on the home front, Trump may overcompensate abroad. Perversely, it’s in the exercise of military force—the area where presidents can do the most damage—that checks and balances are weakest.

No administration has accomplished more in the first 90 days” the president insisted recently—a claim that ranks with prior Trumpian whoppers like “largest audience ever to witness an inauguration” and “biggest electoral college win since Ronald Reagan.” Trump was closer to the mark a few days later, when he called the 100-Days metric a “ridiculous standard.”

However, the blustery press release the White House put out Tuesday, “100 Days of Historic Accomplishments,” embraces the skewed premise that presidential success should be measured by sheer volume. “President Trump has accomplished more in his first 100 days than any other president since Franklin Roosevelt,” it blares, because he’s “signed 30 executive orders” and “A SLEW OF LEGISLATION”! 

But of course Trump’s 100-day record can’t measure up to FDR’s 15 major bills passed in the panicked atmosphere of the Great Depression. Nor has he pulled off anything as mammoth as Obama’s $787 billion stimulus package, signed less than a month after his inauguration, during the worst financial crisis since the Depression. But so what? In the modern era, most presidents can’t manage a legislative blitzkrieg absent a national emergency. As political scientist David R. Jones notes, 

President George W. Bush’s first term produced an impressive six landmark acts, but four were prompted largely by a single dramatic event, the terrorist attacks of 9/11: the Authorization for Use of Military Force against the terrorists, the USA Patriot Act, the Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Iraq Resolution of 2002 and the Homeland Security Act of 2002, which established the federal department.

Are we supposed to be disappointed that Trump hasn’t (yet) enjoyed the proverbial “good crisis” you never want to waste? 

Benjamin Barber, RIP

The noted political theorist Benjamin Barber died yesterday. He was 77.

Ben wrote many books among the best known of which might be Jihad vs. McWorld: Terrorism’s Challenge to Democracy, published first in 1996, when it became a bestseller. It had a renewed life after September 11th. His latest and last book, Cool Cities: Urban Sovereignty and the Fix for Global Warming, appeared one week ago.  He was a critic of libertarianism specifically and (classical) liberalism more generally, perhaps most starkly in his 2008 book Consumed: How Markets Corrupt Children, Infantilize Adults, and Swallow Citizens Whole and earlier in his major academic work, Strong Democracy: Participatory Politics for a New Age (1984). I have nothing to say now about his critique save that libertarians should attend to it.  He was a learned friend of democracy who thought the adjective in “liberal democracy” tended to undermine the noun.

Ben Barber interacted with Cato several times over the years. He debated Tyler Cowen at Cato in 2003. My colleague Brink Lindsey reviewed Consumed. Tom G. Palmer found Ben’s economic views open to question. Other colleagues at various times noted Barber’s books and opinions.

I knew Ben well some years ago, and my remarks here draw on those memories. I remember a man who was both a liberal and democrat. In my experience his liberalism served his commitment to democratic discussion: he welcomed both Nozickians and neo-Marxists to his seminars. He gave them and the rest of us an argument but never pushed dissent to the margins. He encouraged his graduate students to go their own way,  and I did, all the way to the Cato Institute which might have been annoying for another man but not for Ben. He joked about my change of mind but never expressed the slightest disapproval. I was not the only one. Over the years his students included people who became participatory democrats, feminists, the hard-to-pigeonhole, as well as libertarians and libertarian leaners. Of course, if you encourage people to go their own way, you will end up with a menagerie of former students rather than disciplined disciples. But Barber did more than tolerate differences. He encouraged his students to engage thinkers well outside conventional opinion like the libertarian-conservative philosopher Michael Oakeshott among others.

Libertarians benefitted from Ben’s criticisms while others will miss the democratic spirit of his writings. Those who knew him will miss most of all a man who evinced the liberal virtues of openness and engagement, virtues now needed more than ever.

A Response to Scott Alexander

Scott Alexander (SA) has provided advice to the free speech movement in general and to a student group at Harvard University in particular. If you want more people, especially on the liberal left or within the social justice movement, to support free speech, he says, then you should not invite speakers just because they are controversial.

SA picks AEI scholar and social scientist Charles Murray as an example. In March, protesting students at Middlebury College shut down Murray when he was invited to speak and debate a local professor. SA defends Murray’s right to speak, but says that if a college invites him or any other controversial speaker it should be because they are interested in his ideas, not because they want ”to invite a generic offensive person and he fits the bill.”

Does SA really believe that the motives behind an invitation to a controversial speaker make any difference to people who believe that he or she shouldn’t be allowed to speak at a given college? I doubt it. To them, the speaker (in this case Charles Murray) is the problem, it’s not whether the organizers had a sincere interest in Murray’s ideas or just were looking for ”the ugliest and most hateable person” they could find.

Allison Stanger, the professor at Middlebury who was supposed to debate Murray, has deep disagreements with Murray and planned to take his arguments apart as best as she could. It didn’t matter to the students. They didn’t want to have Murray in person at the college.

And by the way, there is no such thing as ”a generic offensive person.” The sense of offense and insult is always in the eye of the beholder, it’s not something one can measure in any objective way. What is offensive to SA, may sound like sweet poetry to someone else. (Recall the U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Marshall Harlan II’s remark that “one man’s vulgarity is another’s lyric.”) Even within the same religious or ethnic or political community, there may be different perceptions of what is offensive to the group and its members. This remark may seem banal. But we should keep in mind its truth at a time of grievance fundamentalism when people play the offense card to silence voices whose opinions they don’t like. This truth is especially important for the academic world whose business is knowledge production.

SA has criticized the Open Campus Initiative on Harvard University for wanting to raise awareness of free speech by inviting controversial speakers. It later turned out that the student group’s intention was to promote ”ideological diversity for the student body where it is believed to be lacking,” not just to pick the most controversial speakers. They also said that later on that they would invite speakers from the left.

There are several problems with SA’s reasoning. Let me deal with a few.

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