Topic: Political Philosophy

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 He exposes what he views as an outdated top-down, para-military-type model of disaster relief that proved woefully ineffective on an island knocked flat by the Category 4 hurricane.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. 

Socialist Experiments

In the summer of 1982, after the Cato Institute’s week-long seminar at Dartmouth, I drove to Boston with one of the other attendees. Touring the city, we encountered a protest rally on Boston Common. I don’t remember just what the rally was about – probably the “nuclear freeze” or a general protest against nuclear weapons, which was a strong movement then. As we watched, a young woman approached and handed us flyers calling for socialism. “Like in Russia and China?” I asked her. Unwilling to defend those disastrous results, she responded “We’re more interested in the experiments currently going on in Zimbabwe and Nicaragua.” I knew very little about those “experiments” and had nothing much to say.

Paramilitary members in Monimbo, Nicaragua

Now, though, 36 years later, we know a great deal about those experiments in socialism. The photograph at right appears on the front page of Friday’s Washington Post with the caption “Paramilitary members stand guard on July 17 at a dismantled barricade after police and pro-government forces stormed the Monimbo neighborhood of Masaya, Nicaragua, which had become a center of resistance.”

I was reminded of something very candid that the socialist economist Robert Heilbroner wrote: that socialism depends on central planning and a collective moral commitment and thus on command and obedience to the plan. And that means that “The rights of individuals to their Millian liberties [are] directly opposed to the basic social commitment to a deliberately embraced collective moral goal… Under socialism, every dissenting voice raises a threat similar to that raised under a democracy by those who preach antidemocracy.” Democratic liberties like free speech and free press are an inherent threat to the planners’ control.

And of course Zimbabwe suffered for some 37 years under the increasingly authoritarian rule of Robert Mugabe, which may or may not have changed with Mugabe’s replacement by his vice president. 

Consider not just democracy but standard of living. In the 36 years since I had that conversation, Nicaragua has been under the rule of socialist Daniel Ortega for about half that time, and Zimbabwe under Mugabe for the entire period. Nicaragua’s GDP per capita is the lowest in Central America – far below market-liberal Costa Rica and 50 percent below war-torn Honduras. Zimbabwe is even poorer. These aren’t just numbers. They indicate how people live. They tell us that in 2018, in a world growing rapidly richer, where poverty is plummeting, people in these countries remain desperately in need of businesses, jobs, food, and medicine. 

I wonder if my socialist interlocutor from 1982 is still interested in the socialist experiments in Nicaragua and Zimbabwe. 

Footnote: Kristian Niemetz of IEA wrote about how socialist “experiments” always become embarrassing after a few years. Except for “very short-lived experiments, such as the Paris Commune…. Those are the Jim Morrisons of socialism. They ended before they could turn into embarrassments.”

Fighting Words and Free Speech

On a Saturday afternoon in Rochester, New Hampshire, Jehovah’s Witness Walter Chaplinsky addressed the City Marshal as “a God damned racketeer” and “a damned Fascist.” He was convicted of violating a state law that prohibited offensive words in public. The United States Supreme Court upheld the conviction and identified certain categories of speech that could be constitutionally restricted, including a class of speech called “fighting words.”

Writing for the Court, Justice Frank Murphy stated that “fighting words” are “no essential part of any exposition of ideas, and are of such slight social value as a step to truth that any benefit that may be derived by them is clearly outweighed by the social interest in order and morality.” In Hate: Why We Should Resist It with Free Speech, Not Censorship, Strossen explains the ‘fighting words’ doctrine that grew from Chaplinsky:

“Fighting words” constitute a type of punishable incitement: when speakers intentionally incite imminent violence against themselves (in contrast with third parties), which is likely to happen immediately. In the fighting words situation the speaker hurls insulting language directly at another person, intending to instigate that person’s imminent violent reaction against the speaker himself/herself, and that violence is likely to occur immediately (64).

The government could, consistent with the First Amendment, punish such speech.

With Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire (1942), the Court’s “fighting words” jurisprudence began. Since Chaplinsky, the Court has overturned every fighting words conviction that has been brought before it.

Why I Think Conservatives Have the Alfie Evans Case All Wrong

Conservatives are railing against dual decisions by the British government to prevent Alfie Evans’ parents from transporting him to Italy for further treatment, and to order Alfie’s doctors to withdrawal life support from Alfie, which they did, and which soon led to Alfie’s death. Conservatives are claiming this is what you get under socialized medicine: heartless government will override parental rights to pull the plug on your children. My thoughts on Alfie’s case are still tentative, but I think that’s a total misreading. The tragic case of Alfie Evans had almost nothing to do with socialized medicine. 

As hostile as libertarians are to government, even we believe government can legitimately order the withdrawal of life support, and prohibit parents from moving a child to obtain further treatment, when that treatment would fruitlessly prolong a child’s suffering – i.e., when further treatment would be akin to torture. In such cases, the government intervenes to protect the child’s rights. (British law frames the decision in terms of the “best interests” of the child, but it seems to me that language clouds the issue and thereby unnecessarily inflames passions.) 

There is no objectively right place to draw the line between cases in which the government should and should not intervene. But I don’t know anyone who thinks it never should. If anyone does make that argument, they’re just wrong. 

There is plenty of room to argue about whether British law and courts drew the line in the right place here. It did not appear Alfie was suffering, but doctors could not completely rule it out. They all agreed that further treatment was futile, though. Is it torture to provide futile treatment to a kid who likely can’t feel pain?

The only way socialized medicine might have something to do with Alfie’s case is that decades of socialized medicine might have shaped the values and attitudes of the elites who make the ultimate decision about where to draw that line. It is not crazy to think that the incentives the British National Health Service creates to provide less care, and the stiff-upper-lip attitudes that lead Britons to tolerate queues and other forms of explicit and implicit government rationing all for the Greater Good, might influence where the elites draw that line. But if the influence of the NHS leads British elites to be more likely to pull the plug on Alfie, that is not obviously or objectively wrong. 

Nor is it the only way socialized medicine might influence where elites draw the line. The U.S. Medicare program is a system of socialized medicine that imposes no constraints on medical spending or consumption. Decades of experience with it and similar socialized-medicine programs have created a pervasive belief among U.S. physicians and policymakers that more medicine is always better. (Spolier alert: it’s not.) So if U.S. conservatives want to make the argument that decades of socialized medicine have made Britain’s elites too willing to pull the plug on Alfie, they must also confront the possibility that decades of socialized medicine have made them too willing to tolerate the torture of children like Alfie.

I don’t know what the right answer was in Alfie’s case. I do know Alfie’s case is not an illustration of the failures of socialized medicine.

I also know that advocates of socialized medicine have exactly zero right to complain about the ignorance of some opponents of socialized medicine, because socialized medicine also socializes the cost of ignorance.

And I know one more thing: there’s a hug and a pint waiting for Alfie’s parents, Tom and Kate, in Washington, D.C.

Was Frederick Douglass a Libertarian?

Nicholas Buccola—one of the nation’s leading scholars of Frederick Douglass—has a piece in the New York Times blog “The Stone” in which he challenges my classification of Frederick Douglass as a libertarian. Now, as I argued on Ricochet recently, there’s a point at which any such effort at classification is rather silly: it’s more important to understand the substance of what Douglass stood for than to label it. Also, any effort to classify the man as “libertarian” or “conservative” or “progressive” or whatever will depend on us defining these terms—and such definitions are complex and contentious. Another complication is the fact that there are disagreements within these groups. Randy Barnett for example, pointed out in 2007 that libertarians don’t always agree on the practical application even of the principles that they share, even on major controversies. And then there’s the fact that many of those who call themselves libertarians actually aren’t.

On the other hand, the beginning of wisdom is calling things by their right names. And classifying—well, it’s just what scholars do. So how should we label Douglass?

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