Month: May 2008

The Problem of Political Tribalism

Guest post by Postmodern Conservative.

Barrack Obama’s appeal to 90% of black American voters is an example of “political tribalism.” By this I don’t mean a slur on African ethnicity or any ethnicity in particular. The fact is that all sorts of people and races indulge in this sort of identitarian or group mentality. The Croats and Serbs of former Yugoslavia are an apt example. But whatever its manifestation, it is a problem that must be consistently combated. Any sort of balkanized politics is opposed to basic principles of western civic tradition, republican stability, and the rule of law.

For example, we saw political tribalism in the early ’60s in the way American Catholics, otherwise as a very conservative bunch, backed John F. Kennedy and later his brother Ted. Whole segments of the Church, bishops and priests included, bought into a political machine because they mistook a surface “identity” with their religious or cultural background (for example, working class Boston Irish) for real principles. In the end, the principles were lost and only the smarmy Kennedy mafia machinery remained. The modern faithlessness of Boston Catholics is now legendary. And while blacks have long had a reputation for religiosity and love of family, one can safely say that this has been totally imploded thanks to a similar sell out of morality for ideology. Both blacks and Catholics got sidetracked by what Lenin perhaps aptly called the “trade union” mentality in politics.

A rightist version of tribalism is evinced by John Derbyshire, a columnist for National Review, who has engendered controversy for his racialist views. Although married to an Asian women, he has made clear his dislike for blacks and likes cavorting with high-brow bigots like Jared Taylor. He admits he is a “racist,” albeit “a mild and tolerant one.” He is an ex-Christian turned New Ager who enjoys bashing proponents of Intelligent Design. He also is pro-choice and supports euthanasia. And I have run into a lot of right-wingers like Derbyshire who are hard-core on all the wrong issues, or on issues that are secondary to the more important social and ethical concerns of conservatism. In previous posts I’ve noted the problem of paleo-tribalists like Joseph Sobran and Samuel Francis.

What is particularly devious about modern tribal politics, whether of the class, ideological or ethnic variety, is that unlike the old barbarian clannishness, it makes a sham appeal to universal morality in denouncing oppression or discrimination. And many of those claims may in fact be true. But it then goes on to apply a totally subjective remedy which is no more than an expression of envy or hatred. It undermines any sense of equitable justice. It keeps the wheels of vengeance turning, and reduces human polity to a series of never-ending vendettas. This may be the way of savages (of the cultural or ideological variety) but it is totally out of keeping with our Greco-Roman notions of law and our Judeo-Christian moral heritage.

As Benjamin Franklin, himself an agnostic, once admitted: “If men are so wicked with religion, what would they be if without it.” The point is that if political ethics are not based on something transcendent then they have become just another form of vice.

Obama: It’s About the Future, or Hope, or Change… or Something

Guest post by Postmodern Conservative.

This YouTube video is not only a hilarious parody on Obama, it’s a nice send-up of campaign-speak in general. I’ve taken the liberty of transcribing the narration. It’s very quotable.

Man 1: I’m voting for Barrack Obama because I believe in the future.
Narrator: A vote for Obama is a vote for the future.
Man 2: Because the future is ahead of us, and the past has come before us, and the future is yet to come.
Narrator
: A vote for Obama is a vote for hope.
Woman 1: I believe Obama believes in hope, and hopes for a future filled with hope.
Narrator
: If you believe change can’t happen if you don’t do something, vote Obama.
Woman 2
: I believe that we, U.S. Americans, want change, and Obama will change things, and not leave us unchanged.
Narrator
: If you believe that the future is not now, and not in the past, vote Obama.
Woman 3
: The past is, like, history, and that is so, like, yesterday.
Narrator
: If you hope that there is a candidate that believes in hope, vote for Obama. If you believe that Obama believes in everything you believe in, vote for hope, vote for change, vote Obama.

Buckley: Mixed Signals, Mixed Legacy?

While Thomas is on a sabbatical from the blog, I will continue my occasional guest posts – Postmodern Conservative.

When William F. Buckley passed away in February, I found myself harboring mixed emotions. I probably wasn’t the only one. The man had quite a legacy, fostering a major movement that was an improvement on the conspiracy-obsessed and isolationist John Birch variety of right wing politics that had become a stereotype of conservative thinking in the mid-20th century. At the same time, I could not embrace Buckley as a hero. He believed in the legalization of marijuana and, more importantly, adopted the pose of an urbane sophisticate who winked at the seedier side of popular culture. What seemed to be his main gripe was not so much bad morals as a lack of panache. Thus he would write witty pieces for Penthouse magazine and his National Review rather infamously celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of Playboy in the 2003 article by Catherine Seipp (a fact which alienated social conservatives). Was this just fashionable posing? Even Buckley’s take on the issue was infuriatingly contrarian and ambiguous. There is something sanctimonious in that, like wanting to have your cake and eat it too.

I don’t think anyone believes conservatives must be puritans, but the obvious problem with Hugh Hefner’s Playboy is that it took a cultural sideline—eroticism and sexual irresponsibility—into the mainstream. The barrier was down and worse things would follow. It was not possible to keep things in little boxes, as the libertines (conservative or liberal) imagined. After all, Hefner and his lobby worked heavily to promote abortion and homosexuality. If nothing else, the whole STD dilemma that we are still grappling with is due in large part to the attitudes fostered by the Playboy lifestyle.

If it’s true that the conservative movement that came out of Buckley’s experience was an intellectual improvement, it was not necessarily a philosophical one. There is a difference. While it’s important to reach people through the common culture, it does not mean dumbing-down beliefs in favor of short-term ideological gains. It is this glib attitude that, rightly or wrongly, caused many people to split off from Buckleyite conservatism into the paleo-con movement.

As John Henry Newman put it: “Knowledge is one thing, virtue is another; good sense is not conscience, refinement is not humility….” Newman was as much an intellectual as Buckley, but he knew that in the end people are converted from error not because an argument is clever but because it is right. And one has to wonder how long Buckley’s influence will last. Will it be as defining as that of Malcolm Muggeridge, Russell Kirk, and Thomas Sowell? Time will tell.

The Insatiable State and Its Enablers

Who are the enablers of the insatiable state? They are many; among them are those who believe, contrary to experience, that the state must intervene in the operation of the economy in order to “save” it; those who futilely want the state to enact “social justice”; those who simply want to get “their fair share”, that is, what they can’t (or won’t) earn by openly and fairly by competing with other companies and individuals for business and jobs.

Many enablers operate from the premise that another little bit won’t “cost much” and will have observable benefits (for a particular interest group). Voters, the ultimate enablers, fall for that line and ignore or forget the slippery slope and the ratchet effect:

[O]nce a polity becomes accustomed to relying on the state for a particular thing that could be done better through private action, it becomes easier for that polity to ask the state to do other things that could be done better through private action….

[And a]s people become accustomed to a certain level of state action, they take that level as a given. Those who question it are labeled “radical thinkers” and “out of the mainstream.” The “mainstream” — having taken it for granted that the state should “do something” — argues mainly about how much more it should do and how it should do it, with cost as an afterthought.

Other enablers — namely, politicians, their hangers-on, and the more sophisticated beneficiaries of their largesse — have simpler and more cynical motives: to impose their will on others (power) and/or to profit from the exercise (theft).

The excuses of “compassion,” “fairness,” and “consumer protection” are rationalizations for power-lust and theft. The powerful can sustain their power — and thus feed their power-lust — only through (legalized) theft. Power-lust is raison d’être of the insatiable state; theft is its inevitable modus operandi.

Why Hillary Won’t Quit

Hillary won’t quit because she is infused with power-lust and an obdurate unwillingness to acknowledge (to herself) that she has any failings. She is like her husband in both respects.

Hillary, given her psychological inability to accept defeat in any form, is now grasping for the life-raft of racism. She believes that she is electable because she is white, whereas Barack Obama is unelectable because he is black. From that belief springs a further one: Enough superdelegates will perceive the “truth” of her belief before it is too late, and they will swing the nomination to her.

P.S. WSJ.com‘s James Taranto (“Best of the Web Today”) offers a similar analysis of Hillary’s “white strategy,” an analysis that I hadn’t read at the time of posting.

Are You Happy?

Justin Wolfers (Freakonomics blog) has completed a series of six posts about the economics of happiness (here, here, here, here, here, and here). The bottom line, according to Wolfers:

1) Rich people are happier than poor people.
2) Richer countries are happier than poorer countries.
3) As countries get richer, they tend to get happier.

All of which should come as no surprise to anyone, without the benefit of “happiness research.” Regarding which, I agree with Arnold Kling, who says:

My view is that happiness research implies Nothing. Zero. Zilch. Nada. I believe that you do not learn about economic behavior by watching what people say in response to a survey.

You learn about economic behavior by watching what people actually do.

And…you consult your “priors.” It is axiomatic that individuals prefer more to less; that is, more income yields more satisfaction because it affords access to goods and services of greater variety and higher quality. Moreover, income and the wealth that flows from it are valued for their own sake by most individuals. (That they might be valued because they enable philanthropic endeavors is a case in point.)

It is reasonable to conclude, therefore, that the “law” of diminishing marginal utility, which may apply to particular goods and services, does not generally apply to income or wealth in the aggregate. But, in any event, given that Wolfers’s first conclusion is self-evidently true, the second and third conclusions follow. And they follow logically, not from “happiness research.”

Burkean Conservatism at Volokh

There’s an excellent exchange on the subject of Burkean conservatism at The Volokh Conspiracy. Dale Carpenter, a Burkean, gets the best of it, in my view (e.g., this post).

P.S. Ilya Somin’s “final thoughts” add nothing to the mix, in that Carpenter’s “clarification” is only that, and not a concession. Moreover, Somin reveals himself as a Left-libertarian who simply wants life to be “fair” to everyone. Well, life just ain’t fair — get over it, Ilya.

Related posts:
Libertarian Conservative or Conservative Libertarian?” (29 Jul 2004)
Where Conservatism and (Sensible) Libertarianism Come Together” (14 Apr 2005)
Common Ground for Conservatives and Libertarians?” (04 Sep 2005)
Conservatism, Libertarianism, and ‘The Authoritarian Personality’ ” (01 Feb 2006)
The F Scale, Revisited” (27 Dec 2007)

A Human Person

The ludicrous and (it seems) increasingly popular assertion that plants have rights should not distract us from the more serious issue of fetal rights. (My position on the issue can be found among these links.) Maverick Philosopher explains how abortion may be opposed for non-religious reasons:

It is often assumed that opposition to abortion can be based only on religious premises. This assumption is plainly false. To show that it is is false, one need merely give an anti-abortion argument that does not invoke any religious tenet, for example:

1. Infanticide is morally wrong.
2. There is no morally relevant difference between abortion and infancticide.
Therefore
3. Abortion is morally wrong.

Whether one accepts this argument or not, it clearly invokes no religious premise. It is therefore manifestly incorrect to say or imply that all opposition to abortion must be religiously-based. Theists and atheists alike could make use of the above argument.

MP then quotes from a piece by Nat Hentoff, an atheist and Leftist. Hentoff writes, apropos Barack Obama and abortion, that

I admire much of Obama’s record, including what he wrote in “The Audacity of Hope” about the Founders’ “rejection of all forms of absolute authority, whether the king, the theocrat, the general, the oligarch, the dictator, the majority … George Washington declined the crown because of this impulse.”

But on abortion, Obama is an extremist. He has opposed the Supreme Court decision that finally upheld the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act against that form of infanticide. Most startlingly, for a professed humanist, Obama — in the Illinois Senate — also voted against the Born Alive Infant Protection Act….

Furthermore, as “National Right to Life News” (April issue) included in its account of Obama’s actual votes on abortion, he “voted to kill a bill that would have required an abortionist to notify at least one parent before performing an abortion on a minor girl from another state.”

These are conspiracies — and that’s the word — by pro-abortion extremists to transport a minor girl across state lines from where she lives, unbeknownst to her parents. This assumes that a minor fully understands the consequences of that irredeemable act. As I was researching this presidential candidate’s views on the unilateral “choice” that takes another’s life, I heard on the radio what Obama said during a Johnstown, Pa., town hall meeting on March 29 as he was discussing the continuing dangers of exposure to HIV/AIDS infections:

“When it comes specifically to HIV/AIDS, the most important prevention is education, which should include — which should include abstinence education and teaching children, you know, that sex is not something casual. But it should also include — it should also include other, you know, information about contraception because, look, I’ve got two daughters, 9 years old and 6 years old. I am going to teach them first of all about values and morals.

“But if they make a mistake,” Obama continued, “I don’t want them punished with a baby.”

Among my children and grandchildren are two daughters and three granddaughters; and when I hear anyone, including a presidential candidate, equate having a baby as punishment, I realize with particular force the impact that the millions of legal abortions in this country have had on respect for human life.

And that’s the crux of the issue: respect for human life.

Thus I turn to a Peter Lawler’s “A Human Person, Actually,” in which Lawler reviews Embryo: A Defense of Human Life, by Robert P. George and Christopher Tollefsen:

The embryo, George and Tollefsen argue, is a whole being, possessing the integrated capability to go through all the phases of human development. An embryo has what it takes to be a free, rational, deliberating, and choosing being; it is naturally fitted to develop into a being who can be an “uncaused cause,” a genuinely free agent. Some will object, of course, that the embryo is only potentially human. The more precise version of this objection is that the embryo is human—not a fish or a member of some other species—but not yet a person. A person, in this view, is conscious enough to be a free chooser right now. Rights don’t belong to members of our species but to persons, beings free enough from natural determination to be able to exercise their rights. How could someone have rights if he doesn’t even know that he has them?…

Is the embryo a “who”? It’s true enough that we usually don’t bond with embryos or grieve when they die. Doubtless, that’s partly because of our misperception of who or what an embryo is. But it’s also because we have no personal or loving contact with them. We tend to think of persons as beings with brains and hearts; an embryo has neither. But personal significance can’t be limited to those we happen to know and love ourselves; my powers of knowing and loving other persons are quite limited, and given to the distortions of prejudice. Whether an embryo is by nature a “who” can be determined only by philosophical reflection about what we really know.

The evidence that George and Tollefsen present suggests that there are only two non-arbitrary ways to consider when a “what” naturally becomes a “who.” Either the embryo is incapable of being anything but a “who”; from the moment he or she comes to be, he or she is a unique and particular being capable of exhibiting all the personal attributes associated with knowing, loving, and choosing. Or a human being doesn’t become a “who” until he or she actually acquires the gift of language and starts displaying distinctively personal qualities. Any point in between these two extremes—such as the point at which a fetus starts to look like a human animal or when the baby is removed from the mother’s womb—is perfectly arbitrary. From a purely rational or scientific view, the price of being unable to regard embryos as “whos” is being unable to regard newborn babies as “whos”….

As I say here,

abortion is of a piece with selective breeding and involuntary euthanasia, wherein the state fosters eugenic practices that aren’t far removed from those of the Third Reich. And when those practices become the norm, what and who will be next? Libertarians, of all people, should be alert to such possibilities. Instead of reflexively embracing “choice” they should be asking whether “choice” will end with fetuses.

Most libertarians, alas, mimic “liberals” and “progressives” on the issue of abortion. But there are no valid libertarian arguments for abortion, just wrong-headed ones.

What’s Next, Slavery?

Mark Perry discusses House Resolution 5800, introduced by Rep. Paul Kanjorski (D-PA), the “Consumer Reasonable Energy Price Protection Act of 2008,” which would:

  • Tax the oil industries’ “windfall profits.”
  • Set up a “Reasonable Profits Board” to determine when the oil companies’ profits are in excess, and then tax them on those windfall profits.
  • As oil and gas companies’ windfall profits increase, so would the tax rate for those companies.

…Kanjorski said “his legislation will encourage oil companies to lower prices to prevent them from receiving higher tax rates.”

A few Questions/Comments:

1. Oil companies don’t set oil and gas prices, global market forces do. The fact that oil and gas prices change daily demonstrate very clearly that oil companies are at the mercy of market forces of supply and demand.

2. If you tax something (oil), you get less of it. If you get less of something (oil), prices go up, not down.

3. How does Rep. Kanjorski know what “reasonable profits” are?….

Well, Rep. Kanjorski is a typical member of Congress, whose members’ economic views reflect their constituents’ economic illiteracy.

Those constituents, I am sure, would reject slavery out of hand. But they favor measures like Kanjorski’s because they want to buy a given amount of a good or service (gas, health care, etc.) at a lower price. But the only way to get the same amount of anything at a lower price is through greater productivity (which can’t be legislated) or by forcing people to produce more of it, that is, by making slaves of them.

(For more about economic illiteracy, follow these links. Relatedly, some links about irrational voters are here.)

Departmentalism, Revisited

I somewhat cavalierly dismiss departmentalism in “No Way Out?” (05 Dec 2004), where I address alternative ways to stop “The Erosion of the Constitutional Contract” (23 Mar 2004). William J. Watkins Jr. explains departmentalism by way of example:

Departmentalist theory is perhaps best examined in the context of President Jefferson’s approach to the Sedition Act. Upon entering office, Jefferson ordered the cessation of all federal sedition prosecutions and he pardoned those who had been convicted. In 1804, Jefferson received a letter from Abigail Adams criticizing his handling of the Sedition Act controversy. Mrs. Adams argued that because the judges had upheld the Sedition Act, President Jefferson had overstepped his constitutional bounds when terminating prosecutions and pardoning offenders.

In a polite response, Jefferson reminded Mrs. Adams that “nothing in the constitution has given [the judges] the right to decide for the executive, more than the Executive to decide for them.” Both branches, continued Jefferson, “are equally independent in the sphere assigned to them.” Jefferson recognized that the judges, “believing the law constitutional, had a right to pass a sentence of fine and imprisonment, because that power was placed in their hands by the constitution.” However, this did not bind him when performing his duties as chief executive. Because he believed the Sedition Act was unconstitutional, he “was bound to remit the execution of it.”

Departmentalism may be alive and well, at least with respect to John McCain’s status as a “natural born Citizen” under Article II, Section 1, of the Constitution of the United States. As Matthew J. Franck argues, it is not up to the Supreme Court to decide McCain’s citizenship status (as some would have it), it is up to the Electoral College and Congress. And that will be that.

Unsplit Infinitives

Eugene Volokh, a known grammatical relativist, scoffs at “to increase dramatically,” as if “to dramatically increase” would be better. But better in what way: clearer or less stuffy? The meaning of “to increase dramatically” is clear. The only reason to write “to dramatically increase” would be to avoid the appearance of stuffiness.

Seeming unstuffy (i.e., without standards) is neither a necessary nor sufficient reason to split an infinitive. The rule about unsplit infinitives, like most other grammatical rules, serves the valid and useful purpose of preventing English from sliding yet further down the slippery slope of incomprehensibility than it has slid already. If an unsplit infinitive makes a clause or sentence seem awkward, the clause or sentence should be rewritten to avoid the awkwardness. Better that than make an exception that leads to further exceptions — and thence to babel.

Related posts:
Missing the Point” (28 Mar 2008)
More Grammatical Anarchy” (31 Mar 2008)

Understanding Defense Think-Tanks

TomDispatch.com reproduces Chalmers Johnson’s review of Soldiers of Reason: The RAND Corporation and the Rise of the American Empire, by Alex Abella. Although Johnson is wrong about American “imperialism,” the causes of the Cold War, and the role of RAND (the prototypical defense think-tank) in fostering and prolonging the Cold War. But Johnson is right in his characterization of defense think-tanks and their denizens. For example:

[RAND’s] ideological bent was disguised in statistics and equations, which allegedly made its analyses “rational” and “scientific.” Abella writes:

“If a subject could not be measured, ranged, or classified, it was of little consequence in systems analysis, for it was not rational. Numbers were all — the human factor was a mere adjunct to the empirical.”

In my opinion, Abella here confuses numerical with empirical. Most RAND analyses were formal, deductive, and mathematical but rarely based on concrete research into actually functioning societies. RAND never devoted itself to the ethnographic and linguistic knowledge necessary to do truly empirical research on societies that its administrators and researchers, in any case, thought they already understood….

It is also important to note that RAND’s analytical errors were not just those of commission — excessive mathematical reductionism — but also of omission. As Abella notes, “In spite of the collective brilliance of RAND there would be one area of science that would forever elude it, one whose absence would time and again expose the organization to peril: the knowledge of the human psyche.”

Following the axioms of mathematical economics, RAND researchers tended to lump all human motives under what the Canadian political scientist C. B. Macpherson called “possessive individualism” and not to analyze them further. Therefore, they often misunderstood mass political movements, failing to appreciate the strength of organizations like the Vietcong and its resistance to the RAND-conceived Vietnam War strategy of “escalated” bombing of military and civilian targets.

What Johnson says of RAND is typical of defense think-tanks. They tend to recruit academically minded Ph.D.s, whose understanding of the real world is off-center to begin with, and which remains almost completely innocent of the actual practice of statecraft and warfare. (See this post for a small sample.)

In my experience (30 years’ worth), the output of a defense think tank is seven parts theoretical, mathematical, and speculative (i.e., bull—-) and one part empirical.