President Obama

On April 16, 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote the following from the Birmingham, Alabama city jail.

Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, “Wait.” But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six year old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five year old son who is asking: “Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?”; when you take a cross county drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading “white” and “colored”; when your first name becomes “nigger,” your middle name becomes “boy” (however old you are) and your last name becomes “John,” and your wife and mother are never given the respected title “Mrs.”; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodiness”–then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair.

Today, Barack Hussein Obama II will take the Oath of Office. Just 46 years ago, the most prominent black man in America was jailed for seeking simple justice. In the space of merely two generations, the most prominent black man in America becomes the 44th President of the United States.

When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. — “I Have a Dream

Today’s inauguration represents the culmination of tremendous change and is a testament to the hope and dedication of all the millions and millions of Americans who have ever fought for equality, justice, and liberty. This moment is deservedly historical and Americans are right to be proud, but it is not the culmination of our struggle.

I hope to see more victories like this one. I hope to see the fight against intolerance, ignorance, and injustice continue apace. The first woman President. The first Native-American President. The first Jewish President. The first homosexual President. The first President to embrace sane economic policy.

We will wake tomorrow and today’s problems will persist. Our economy is stagnating, our debt is rising, growth is slowing, discrimination still exists, intolerance and ignorance remain, and we remain the target of barbarous thugs. The struggle continues.

Liberty is not seperable; it cannot be parsed into races, sexes, or categories. We cannot slice our freedom in two, extending “personal” liberty while trampling “economic” liberty. We cannot secure our borders by violating the rights of citizens, and we cannot pursue happiness if we are shackled by rising deficits and growing debt.

The struggle for the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness is a struggle against ignorance, prejudice and corruption. The extent to which we cherish reason, respect individual rights, and punish graft and theft, is the extent to which we succeed.

Here’s hoping for more victories.


Now, THAT’S Politics

Coin Toss Decides Goodridge, Minn. Mayor’s Race

A coin toss has determined the winner of the mayor’s race in the tiny northwestern Minnesota town of Goodridge.

Incumbent Bob Homme and former Mayor Dave Brown each got 22 votes. Instead of finding the ballots and recounting the 44 votes, they agreed to decide the winner with a coin toss.

It already was a strange race in Goodridge — population 98 — with no one filing to run for mayor. Brown and Homme were both write-ins.

How great is that? No candidate and the two write-in guys tied. I love it.

Voter apathy

Ilya Somin has a great post up at Volokh.

Voters tend to overvalue the importance of new information that supports their preexisting views or makes their preferred party look good; and they tend to discount any information that cuts the other way.

This intuition is confirmed by studies showing that people tend to use new information to reinforce their preexisting views on political issues, while discounting evidence that runs counter to them . . . Although some scholars view such bias as potentially irrational behavior . . . , it is perfectly rational if the goal is not to get at the “truth” of a given issue in order to be a better voter, but to enjoy the psychic benefits of being a political “fan.”

How do we get out of the dangerous box in which public policy is determined in elections where most voters are either rationally ignorant about even basic political information or highly biased in their evaluation of what they do know? There is no easy answer to that question. In the article linked above and in some of my other scholarship (e.g. – here), I suggest that we consider making fewer decisions through the political system and more through free markets and civil society – where people have much stronger incentives to both seek out information and evaluate it at least somewhat rationally.

It’s a great article because and I agree with it.

Constraining Leviathan

There’s an excellent article up at Cato Unbound by Anthony De Jasay. The theme, “Is Limited Government Possible?” touches on the inherent problems of attempting to limit the growth of government when every incentive exists for government to grow. De Jasay is European and his analysis seems to reflect a greater familiarity with parliamentary democracy than with presidential democracy (more on that in a bit), but his central point is perfectly sound.

Essentially, De Jasay argues that the structural limits we would like to enforce upon government are no more than speed limits. Constitutional and other structural limitations rely upon the government for their enforcement and are therefore undermined by their ultimate lack of enforcement. De Jasay likens these limits to a lady’s chastity belt. If the lady has the key, then the belt only delays the inevitable.

He says,

…self-imposed rules attempting to limit the scope of collective choices, such as constitutions, are not strong and though they may be observed if they are innocuous and only forbid government to do what it is not strongly interested in doing, they could hardly be expected to restrain government from doing what it is anxious to do or must do to preserve its tenure of power. The general absence from constitutions of restrictions of taxation lends some verisimilitude to this conclusion, though it would still have to be regarded as tentative.

The US Constitution, for example, prohibited an income tax, until it didn’t. It restrained federal spending and federal intrusion into matters unrelated to interstate commerce, until it didn’t. And famously, the Constitution was silent on the sale of alcohol, until it banned it, until it didn’t.

So what does limit the growth of government? De Jasay argues that there are only a few things: The susceptibility of the electorate to panic (The idea that things sometimes get so bad that everybody gets scared and votes for Thatcher or Reagan); Widely held beliefs (Here Jasay offers the universal, pre-Keynsian belief in the evil of deficits); and Campaign financing.

In the United States, it is still largely individuals and not parties that get elected. Party discipline is loose compared to Europe and candidates raise their campaign expenditure to a large extent by personal effort for their personal purposes. To the extent that campaign donations are sought from higher income donors, a candidate’s program must be more “conservative” and less redistributive than if donations came from all income groups in proportion to their income. If elected, a legislator has both a debt of honor to pay to his high-income donors and must establish a record that will help him gather donations on future occasions if there are any such.

Jasay argues that publicly financed campaigns result in more redistributive polices than privately financed campaigns because publicly financed campaigns tend to decrease the responsibility that a political coalition bears for its policies. It’s an interesting position, and certainly points up the problems inherent in publicly financed campaigns (unless of course, we imagine politics should be devoid of responsibility).

Is there nothing we can do to limit the growth of Leviathan? What about checks and balances? The “separation of powers?” De Jasay is not enthused,

One of the dangerously misleading phrases in this context that has penetrated political thought is the “separation of powers.” It is dangerous because it tacitly suggests that such separation can resolve the paradoxical feature of every constitution which the king enforces against himself (or a government against the mandate of its own majority). Montesquieu uses words that do not illuminate the distinction between separate functions of a government and separate repositories of power under separate control that may act independently of one another or even against each other. The latter kind of separation of what ultimately boils down to armed formations and firepower is difficult to conceive of within a single government. It is fairly obvious that Montesquieu did not mean it, and if we mean it when we use the phrase, it is that we do not really think of what the words could mean. The result is a blind belief that the separation of functions among legislature, executive, and judiciary contains within itself a solution to the constitutional paradox of real, though perhaps not logico-legal, self-reference.

This all seems a little bleak. I’m reminded of a particularly depressing conversation I once had with Robert Higgs (author of Crisis and Leviathan) in which Dr. Higgs despaired of the chances for real reform. Unfortunately, I think both Higgs’s and De Jasay’s arguments are compelling. But I’m an optimist, so I’ll keep plowing on, doing what little I can to try and increase the prospects for liberty.

I also think that De Jasay’s continental focus colors his arguments. In a parliamentary democracy, a government is literally “built” with a coalition of different parties, and aside from the entrenched bureaucracy, the ruling coalition oversees all aspects of the government (legislative and executive with the power of judicial appointment or oversight). The coalition is in complete power and is answerable only to its members and constituents. It is only limited by the degree to which it must appease competing interests within its own coalition.

In a presidential system, however, it is possible that different coalitions may control different parts of the government at the same time. (Just as Republicans control the executive branch while Democrats control the legislature.) In practice this can lead to a substantial reduction in the growth of government. Not actual reduction, mind you, just a reduction in the rate of growth. Bi-partisanism is too easy and too common.

And of course, the founders envisioned an even stronger difference: the Senate and the House were intended to represent fundamentally different interests. But that distinction has been lost for some time. Again, the constitution limited government until it didn’t.

Ultimately I think De Jasay underestimates the potential of structural limitations to slow the growth of government. I think growth may be slowed in relation to the extent that government can be divided against itself. Any successful democratic society must learn to balance interests and if those different interests can be set against each other, then we can hope for at least a kind of detente. (Perhaps akin to the adversarial system we have in law?)

We must recognize and acknowledge that the establishment of government is an inherently precarious business; eternal vigilance is the price of freedom. Erecting institutional and structural checks that serve to balance competing interests may not be a panacea, but it should make radical change more difficult.

The challenge is to devise structural limits that put those interests that are least likely to join together at odds with each other. For example, a wealth qualification that would divide eligible voters; the wealthy vote for Senate, the less wealthy for the House, no one may vote for candidates in both houses in the same election. Those limits, of course, may well appear undemocratic (and decidedly materialistic!), but it may be that pure democracy is not the ultimate goal or good. A stable, healthy republic may serve its citizens better than unfettered democracy (That may sound incendiary at first, but really it’s just common sense. Unfettered democracy allows for the will of the majority to trample the rights of the minority; the central purpose and aim of a constitutional republic is to restrict the power of the majority.)

Of course, there are many difficulties inherent in any attempt to set vested interests against each other, not least of which is the possibility that it may not be possible to divide an electorate into stable interest groups. Class conflicts may not actually exist in such substantial force as to qualify as an effective distinction and it should go without saying that demarcating interests along inessential lines–such as race or sex–is deplorable. Furthermore, it may not be possible to effectively prevent cross-interest collusion–even if such stable and competing interests could be identified. After all, the incentives for coalition building would remain as strong as they are now.

Ultimately, the problem lies in the fact that power creates its own incentives. The greatest restriction on the abuse of power is an informed and principled electorate. Or in other words, ideas matter. Politicians may act to maximize their own influence and power over time, but if such activities were more scorned than applauded, the risk of a politician over-reaching would lessen. (Witness the recent reaction to earmarking.) Public opinion and popular sentiment can and does change. Witness the abolition of slavery and the extension of suffrage to women.

In any event, this analysis only serves to underscore the inadequacy of the current candidates for President. Both Hillary and Obama endorse policies that would further erode what little restrictions currently serve to keep the growth of government in check. And so does McCain.

More Gradualism

Timothy Sandefur has another post up on gradualism, commenting on my response. Sandefur clarifies his point as a criticism of the impulse of some libertarians to invest Hayek’s view of spontaneous order with too much weight. He says,

“[The point of the post] is to point out what I think is a terrible habit among some libertarians and conservatives of abusing the concept of spontaneous order or social evolution, in ways that render the concept trivial, or that just totally ignore the actual ingredients of successful social reform.”

I wasn’t so much critiquing that point as attempting to clarify my understanding of Burke’s challenge to the French Revolution–and emphasizing that grand projects to forcibly remake the whole of society are usually doomed to failure. My point isn’t that constructivist rationalism is any worse than spontaneous order (or vice-versa), only that the institutions of society are abandoned at great peril. Partly it’s a difference between the Enlightenment and the Romantic period. If the American Revolution can be seen as a sort of culmination of Enlightenment thought, the French Revolution is the culmination of Romanticism. Where the enlightenment stressed reason and political liberty, the romantics emphasized emotion over reason and were consequently more concerned with material well-being and egalitarianism than with political liberty. The result was the very romantic notion that both social structures and human nature are mere plastic to be reformed at will by benevolent governors. The problem wasn’t that the French revolution elevated “constructivist rationalism” over “spontaneous order” it was that it destroyed any semblance of spontaneous order and submitted the general will to the constructivist rationalism of a few. It didn’t attempt to make men free, it wanted to make men better–and that’s always a dangerous prospect.

The French Revolution wasn’t bad because it was sudden, it was bad because it didn’t make anybody free. Sandefur says,

“the point is that it is dishonest for Burkeans/Hayekians to use it as an example of the alleged inevitable failure of constructivist rationalism, without also keeping in mind that if nothing had been done—if “gradualism” had been the word of the day—the result would have been more and more death, more and more poverty, more and more oppression.”

But all it resulted in was “more and more death, more and more poverty, more and more oppression.” It was the mere substitution of one tyranny for another. It wasn’t a failure of constructivist rationalism for having been planned, it was a failure of constructivist rationalism because it substituted the command of the tyrant for judgment of the individual. In contrast, the American Revolution, the American Civil War, and the Civil Rights movement represent projects that resulted in greater liberty–they were planned, they were organized, but their goal was to allow the kind of decentralized liberty that gives rise to spontaneous order.

I take Hayek and Burke to imply that social reform must be conducted with deep concern over the freedom of the individual to make his own decisions. Neither Hayek nor Burke suggest that we abandon conscious decision making or forsake deliberate efforts to reform society, rather they remind us that we cannot substitute our own desires and prejudices for the people we purport to set free. In this sense, the indictment against constructivist rationalism is the indictment of the tyrant.

A quick aside: Sandefur quotes my comment about the civil rights movement: “the civil rights movement, while violent, was conducted entirely within the constraints and confines of the law [which is definitely not true, but let’s put that to one side].” Just to clarify, I should not have said “entirely within the constraints and confines of the law.” Sandefur is correct in pointing out the absurdity of that claim. If I could amend my claim, I would say that the movement was conducted largely within the constraints and confines of the law. The movement was at heart a movement of reform, not revolution, it sought a change in the law not a complete destruction of the law.

Sandefur and Gradualism

Timothy Sandefur has an interesting piece up on the “Romance of Gradualism.” His thesis is essentially that while knowledge problems may make central planning more difficult, they do not, by themselves, invalidate the efficacy of central planning initiatives. Or more precisely, his point is that sudden radical, engineered change can accomplish a great deal despite the knowledge problems inherent in central planning.

As evidence of the success of radical change, he contrasts the American Civil War with Jim Crow and Reconstruction, and again with the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. The Civil War and The Civil Rights Movement, he argues, were engineered changes, brought about through sudden and violent means. They stand in contrast to the failed gradualism of the intervening period. To further illustrate the danger of gradualism, he contrasts the traditional Burkean view of the French Revolution against a quote from A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. Twain’s a great writer, and the quote deserves copying:

There were two “Reigns of Terror,” if we would but remember it and consider it; the one wrought murder in hot passion, the other in heartless cold blood; the one lasted mere months, the other had lasted a thousand years; the one inflicted death upon ten thousand persons, the other upon a hundred millions; but our shudders are all for the “horrors” of the minor Terror, the momentary Terror, so to speak; whereas, what is the horror of swift death by the axe, compared with lifelong death from hunger, cold, insult, cruelty, and heart-break? What is swift death by lightning compared with death by slow fire at the stake? A city cemetery could contain the coffins filled by that brief Terror which we have all been so diligently taught to shiver at and mourn over; but all France could hardly contain the coffins filled by that older and real Terror—that unspeakably bitter and awful Terror which none of us has been taught to see in its vastness or pity as it deserves.

The Burkean view has it that the French Revolution was a failure because it attempted to remake the entire fabric of society and ignored the accumulated wisdom of the ages. Rather than impose radical and sweeping change, it is better to approach the problem of social change gradually — by working within existing systems, especially the law. Twain’s point makes a different point. The Reign of Terror may have been bad, but it put to death the horror of the previous evil. While the cost of revolution may have been high, it was not as high as the price paid through centuries of oppression and failed attempts at gradual change. Or at least, that’s where Sandefur is going.

The problem is that you can’t really compare the insidious horror of the relatively brief Reign of Terror to centuries of Royal oppression. Had the Reign of Terror lasted as long, the cost would have far exceeded what had come before. But even that is really beside the point. The French Revolution wasn’t a failure simply because of Robespierre’s short and brutal rule. Had France endured that and then emerged free and whole and vibrant, the point–and the comparison to the American Civil War–might be valid. But the Reign of Terror gave birth to Napoleon, not freedom. The French Revolution failed utterly–not because of a madman and a few months of horror–but because it failed entirely to achieve the least of its ambitions. The French Revolution guillotined a king and crowned an emperor.

As for the American examples, the civil rights movement, while violent, was conducted entirely within the constraints and confines of the law. That, I think, makes it a “gradual” movement by the definition of the Burkeans. Rather than throw aside the corpus of the law as the French Revolution did, the movement worked within the law. The Civil War was a tad more…. disruptive. Although I think one could make an argument for the fact that the Civil War was a legal response to a radical and “revolutionary” rebellion and, in a sense, was still conducted within the confines of the law. (Burke’s point about the French revolution applies to the manner in which the revolutionaries abandoned the entire body of society–in a manner decidedly different than the American revolutionaries who went to great pains to preserve existing civic institutions and the English Common Law–including the entire body of precedent.)

The Day After

So, after Super Tuesday, Obama and Clinton remain effectively tied. No surprise there. It does look like the Democratic Convention should be interesting.

McCain has taken a decisive lead in the Republican race, and we’ll now see whether or not the anti-McCain forces can leverage enough votes for Romney in the coming contests to force a brokered convention. There has been a ton of anti-McCain vitriol pouring out of all corners of the Republican party, including this piece by Robert Bidinotto.

I sympathize with Robert’s position — McCain is not a positive choice for the country. But I don’t fear for the soul of the Republican party. A party that seriously entertains presidential bids from both Mike Huckabee and John McCain is not a party worth supporting.

Robert is right that McCain represents a progressive vision at odds with the individualism that both he and I support. But individualism has never been the unifying vision of the Republican party. The Reagan coalition included the “small-government” American conservative bloc, but that was only one part of the coalition. The other pillars of the coalition, the evangelicals and the socially conservative progressives, are inherently inimical to liberty.

The Republican party has sold its soul for votes. That’s done. It’s over. Any serious commitment that the Republican party had to Federalism and Individualism has long since expired. After three terms of Bushes, the failure of the Contract with America, and the viability of the Huckabee and McCain campaigns, we should have the grace to pull the shroud and put away the defibrillator.

As for the Democrats, well…. they’ve been on a downward spiral since Thomas Jefferson. They opposed the abolition of slavery and the adoption of F.D.R.’s New Deal sundered the last vestigial connections they had with the ideas and ideals of their founders (not to mention the Constitution). Far from taking principled positions on individual liberty, personal choice, and economic responsibility, the Democratic party now represents the worst kind of statism and populism.

Much has been made lately of the latent fascism in the American left (universal health care, the Americorps, progressive taxation, etc… etc…). But much attention should also be paid to the fascist ideology that underlies many of McCain and Huckabee’s favorite projects. The point is simple and it should be plain: both parties now represent the ascendancy of populist fascism in modern America.

We need a new party. (To put it mildly.)

I know I have been promising some thoughts on a platform, and I’ll get to that, I promise. Tomorrow or the next day at the latest.

Bill Quick has also set up a site, The American Conservative Party, to address some of these issues, and has invited people to help him. Check it out!