Month: April 2017

Presidents and Economic Growth

There’s an old and recurring claim that Democrat presidents produce greater economic growth than Republican ones. I addressed and debunked such a claim nine years ago, saying this (in part):

Given the long, downward trend in the real rate of GDP growth, it is statistical nonsense to pin the growth rate in any given year to a particular year of a particular president’s term. It is evident that GDP growth has been influenced mainly by the cumulative, anti-growth effects of government regulation. And GDP growth, in any given year, has been an almost-random variation on a downward theme.

How random? This random:

Derived from Bureau of Economic Analysis, “Current dollar and ‘real’ GDP,” as of April 28, 2017.

The one-year lag (which is usual in such analyses) allows for the delayed effects (if any) of a president’s economic policies. The usual suspects are claiming, laughably, that the tepid growth rate in the first calendar quarter of 2017 is somehow Trump’s fault.

Anyway, here’s the real story:

This is an updated version of a graph in “The Rahn Curve Revisited.,” from which the following equation is taken:

Yg = 0.0275 – 0.347F + 0.0769A – 0.000327R – 0.135P , where

Yg = real rate of GDP growth in a 10-year span (annualized)

F = fraction of GDP spent by governments at all levels during the preceding 10 years

A = the constant-dollar value of private nonresidential assets (business assets) as a fraction of GDP, averaged over the preceding 10 years

R = average number of Federal Register pages, in thousands, for the preceding 10-year period

P = growth in the CPI-U during the preceding 10 years (annualized).

Random, short-run fluctuations in GDP growth have almost nothing to do with the policies of a particular president (see the first graph). But there’s nothing random about the steady growth of government spending, the steadier growth of the regulatory burden, and the combined investment-killing and inflationary effects of both (see the second graph).

The long-run trend in GDP growth reflects the cumulative effects of policies carried out by the “deep state” — the apparatus that churns on with little change in direction from president to president: the special interests represented in the many committees of Congress, the Social Security Administration (which also encompasses Medicare and Medicaid), and the entire alphabet soup of federal regulatory agencies. Most of those entities became committed, long ago, to the growth of government spending and regulation. It will take more than a slogan to drain the swamp.

John H. Arnold characterizes war as “long periods of boredom punctuated by short moments of excitement.” I would say that the economy of the United States has been on a long slide into stagnation punctuated by brief periods of misplaced optimism.

A True Scientist Speaks

I am reading, with great delight, Old Physics for New: A Worldview Alternative to Einstein’s Relativity Theory, by Thomas E. Phipps Jr. (1925-2016). Dr. Phipps was a physicist who happened to have been a member of a World War II operations research unit that evolved into the think-tank where I worked for 30 years.

Phipps challenged the basic tenets of Einstein’s special theory of relativity (STR) in Old Physics for New, an earlier book (Heretical Verities: Mathematical Themes in Physical Description), and many of his scholarly articles. I have drawn on Old Physics for New in two of my posts about STR (this and this), and will do so in future posts on the subject. But aside from STR, about which Phipps is refreshingly skeptical, I admire his honesty and clear-minded view of science.

Regarding Phipps’s honesty, I turn to his preface to the second edition of Old Physics for New:

[I]n the first edition I wrongly claimed awareness of two “crucial” experiments that would decide between Einstein’s special relativity theory and my proposed alternative. These two were (1) an accurate assessment of stellar aberration and (2) a measurement of light speed in orbit. Only the first of these is valid. The other was an error on my part, which I am obligated and privileged to correct here. [pp. xi-xii]

Phipps’s clear-minded view of science is evident throughout the book. In the preface, he scores a direct hit on the pseudo-scientific faddism:

The attitude of the traditional scientist toward lies and errors has always been that it is his job to tell the truth and to eradicate mistakes. Lately, scientists, with climate science in the van, have begun openly to espouse an opposite view, a different paradigm, which marches under the black banner of “post-normal science.”

According to this new perception, before the scientist goes into his laboratory it is his duty, for the sake of mankind, to study the worldwide political situation and to decide what errors need promulgating and what lies need telling. Then he goes into his laboratory, interrogates his computer, fiddles his theory, fabricates or massages his data, etc., and produces the results required to support those predetermined lies and errors. Finally he emerges into the light of publicity and writes reports acceptable to like-minded bureaucrats in such government agencies as the National Science Foundation, offers interviews to reporters working for like-minded bosses in the media, testifies before Congress, etc., all in such a way as to suppress traditional science and ultimately to make it impossible….

In this way post-normal science wages pre-emptive war on what Thomas Kuhn famously called “normal science,” because the latter fails to promote with adequate zeal those political and social goals that the post-normal scientist happens to recognize as deserving promotion…. Post-normal behavior seamlessly blends the implacable arrogance of the up-to-date terrorist with the technique of The Big Lie, pioneered by Hitler and Goebbels…. [pp. xii-xiii]

I regret deeply that I never met or corresponded with Dr. Phipps.

Nature, Nurture, and Leniency

I recently came across an article by Brian Boutwell, “Why Parenting May not Matter and Why Most Social Science Research Is Probably Wrong” (Quillette, December 1, 2015). Boutwell is an associate professor of criminology and criminal justice at Saint Louis University. Here’s some of what he has to say about nature, nurture, and behavior:

Despite how it feels, your mother and father (or whoever raised you) likely imprinted almost nothing on your personality that has persisted into adulthood…. I do have evidence, though, and by the time we’ve strolled through the menagerie of reasons to doubt parenting effects, I think another point will also become evident: the problems with parenting research are just a symptom of a larger malady plaguing the social and health sciences. A malady that needs to be dealt with….

[L]et’s start with a study published recently in the prestigious journal Nature Genetics.1 Tinca Polderman and colleagues just completed the Herculean task of reviewing nearly all twin studies published by behavior geneticists over the past 50 years….

Genetic factors were consistently relevant, differentiating humans on a range of health and psychological outcomes (in technical parlance, human differences are heritable). The environment, not surprisingly, was also clearly and convincingly implicated….

[B]ehavioral geneticists make a finer grain distinction than most about the environment, subdividing it into shared and non-shared components. Not much is really complicated about this. The shared environment makes children raised together similar to each other. The term encompasses the typical parenting effects that we normally envision when we think about environmental variables. Non-shared influences capture the unique experiences of siblings raised in the same home; they make siblings different from one another….

Based on the results of classical twin studies, it just doesn’t appear that parenting—whether mom and dad are permissive or not, read to their kid or not, or whatever else—impacts development as much as we might like to think. Regarding the cross-validation that I mentioned, studies examining identical twins separated at birth and reared apart have repeatedly revealed (in shocking ways) the same thing: these individuals are remarkably similar when in fact they should be utterly different (they have completely different environments, but the same genes).3 Alternatively, non-biologically related adopted children (who have no genetic commonalities) raised together are utterly dissimilar to each other—despite in many cases having decades of exposure to the same parents and home environments.

One logical explanation for this is a lack of parenting influence for psychological development. Judith Rich Harris made this point forcefully in her book The Nurture Assumption…. As Harris notes, parents are not to blame for their children’s neuroses (beyond the genes they contribute to the manufacturing of that child), nor can they take much credit for their successful psychological adjustment. To put a finer point on what Harris argued, children do not transport the effects of parenting (whatever they might be) outside the home. The socialization of children certainly matters (remember, neither personality nor temperament is 100 percent heritable), but it is not the parents who are the primary “socializers”, that honor goes to the child’s peer group….

Is it possible that parents really do shape children in deep and meaningful ways? Sure it is…. The trouble is that most research on parenting will not help you in the slightest because it doesn’t control for genetic factors….

Natural selection has wired into us a sense of attachment for our offspring. There is no need to graft on beliefs about “the power of parenting” in order to justify our instinct that being a good parent is important. Consider this: what if parenting really doesn’t matter? Then what? The evidence for pervasive parenting effects, after all, looks like a foundation of sand likely to slide out from under us at any second. If your moral constitution requires that you exert god-like control over your kid’s psychological development in order to treat them with the dignity afforded any other human being, then perhaps it is time to recalibrate your moral compass…. If you want happy children, and you desire a relationship with them that lasts beyond when they’re old enough to fly the nest, then be good to your kids. Just know that it probably will have little effect on the person they will grow into.

Color me unconvinced. There’s a lot of hand-waving in Boutwell’s piece, but little in the way of crucial facts, such as:

  • How is behavior quantified?
  • Does the quantification account for all aspects of behavior (unlikely), or only those aspects that are routinely quantified (e.g., criminal convictions)?
  • Is it meaningful to say that about 50 percent of behavior is genetically determined, 45 percent is peer-driven, and 0-5 percent is due to “parenting” (as Judith Rich Harris does)? Which 50 percent, 45 percent, and 0-5 percent? And how does one add various types of behavior?
  • How does one determine (outside an unrealistic experiment) the extent to which “children do not transport the effects of parenting (whatever they might be) outside the home”?

The measurement of behavior can’t possibly be as rigorous and comprehensive as the measurement of intelligence. And even those researchers who are willing to countenance and estimate the heritability of intelligence give varying estimates of its magnitude, ranging from 50 to 80 percent.

I wonder if Boutwell, Harris, et al. would like to live in a world in which parents quit teaching their children to obey the law; refrain from lying, stealing, and hurting others; honor their obligations; respect old people; treat babies with care; and work for a living (“money doesn’t grow on trees”).

Unfortunately, the world in which we live — even in the United States — seems more and more to resemble the kind of world in which parents have failed in their duty to inculcate in their children the values of honesty, respect, and hard work. This is from a post at Dyspepsia Generation, “The Spoiled Children of Capitalism“ (no longer online):

The rot set after World War II. The Taylorist techniques of industrial production put in place to win the war generated, after it was won, an explosion of prosperity that provided every literate American the opportunity for a good-paying job and entry into the middle class. Young couples who had grown up during the Depression, suddenly flush (compared to their parents), were determined that their kids would never know the similar hardships.

As a result, the Baby Boomers turned into a bunch of spoiled slackers, no longer turned out to earn a living at 16, no longer satisfied with just a high school education, and ready to sell their votes to a political class who had access to a cornucopia of tax dollars and no doubt at all about how they wanted to spend it. And, sadly, they passed their principles, if one may use the term so loosely, down the generations to the point where young people today are scarcely worth using for fertilizer.

In 1919, or 1929, or especially 1939, the adolescents of 1969 would have had neither the leisure nor the money to create the Woodstock Nation. But mommy and daddy shelled out because they didn’t want their little darlings to be caught short, and consequently their little darlings became the worthless whiners who voted for people like Bill Clinton and Barack Obama [and who were people like Bill Clinton and Barack Obama: ED.], with results as you see them. Now that history is catching up to them, a third generation of losers can think of nothing better to do than camp out on Wall Street in hopes that the Cargo will suddenly begin to arrive again.

Good luck with that.

I subscribe to the view that the rot set in after World War II. That rot, in the form of slackerism, is more prevalent now than it ever was. It is not for nothing that Gen Y is also known as the Boomerang Generation.

Nor is it unsurprising that campuses have become hotbeds of petulant and violent behavior. And it’s not just students, but also faculty and administrators — many of whom are boomers. Where were these people before the 1960s, when the boomers came of age? Do you suppose that their sudden emergence was the result of a massive genetic mutation that swept across the nation in the late 1940s? I doubt it very much.

Their sudden emergence was due to the failure of too many members of the so-called Greatest Generation to inculcate in their children the values of honesty, respect, and hard work. How does one do that? By being clear about expectations and by setting limits on behavior — limits that are enforced swiftly, unequivocally, and sometimes with the palm of a hand. When children learn that they can “get away” with dishonesty, disrespect, and sloth, guess what? They become dishonest, disrespectful, and slothful. They give vent to their disrespect through whining, tantrum-like behavior, and even violence.

The leniency that’s being shown toward campus jerks — students, faculty, and administrators — is especially disgusting to this pre-boomer. University presidents need to grow backbones. Campus and municipal police should be out in force, maintaining order and arresting whoever fails to provide a “safe space” for a speaker who might offend their delicate sensibilities. Disruptive and violent behavior should be met with expulsions, firings, and criminal charges.

“My genes made me do it” is neither a valid explanation nor an acceptable excuse.

Related reading: There is a page on Judith Rich Harris’s website with a long list of links to reviews, broadcast commentary, and other discussions of The Nurture Assumption. It is to Harris’s credit that she links to negative as well as positive views of her work.

Rescuing Conservatism

In a reply to a comment about “Psychological Insights into Leftism,” I said this about an article to which the commenter linked:

[T]he writer’s obvious bias is that change is good, which is really rather a stupid thing to believe. It all depends on what the change is and what effects it will have. Second, conservatives aren’t for stability for its own sake, but because — like good scientists — they believe that the null hypothesis (the status quo) holds true until they see strong evidence to the contrary. That is, they actually rely on evidence, not emotion — and it’s unthinking emotion that often fuels leftists. The global warming scare is a perfect example of this.

Which leads me to Chris Mooney, the Discover staffer who commissioned the piece. Mooney is the author of such books as The Republican War on Science and The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science — And Reality. There’s a whole lot of psychological projection going on there. Most anti-scientific activity these days is on the left. In addition to the over-hyped and poorly understood subject of AGW (rife with pseudo-scientific charlatanism), there’s IQ (which leftists like to disparage while claiming at the same time to be more intelligent than conservatives), the Keynesian multiplier (a mathematical con game), guns and crime (how are those strict gun-control laws working out for Chicago?), biological differences between men and women (quite real and wide-ranging), the effect of the minimum wage on unemployment (leftists like to cite the one study out of dozens that shows little or no effect), and on and on.

Later in the comment thread, I added this:

A big part of the problem here (and in general) is definitional. Leftists are statists who seek control of others in order to advance a certain agenda. But there are also right-statists, whose agenda is generally the opposite of the left-statists’ agenda. Right-statists are often wrongly called conservatives. They are not conservatives, who prefer to rely on the institutions of civil society, not the state. But the mislabeling allows leftists to get away with calling conservatives anti-scientific and emotional, when they’re really talking about their kindred spirits: right-statists.

Larry Thornberry highlights the problem of faux-conservatism in “If You Like Your Problem, You Can Keep Your Problem” (The Spectacle Blog, April 24, 2017):

The latest Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll showing Donald Trump with a falling job approval rating — 54 percent disapprove to 40 percent approve — has gotten wide print and broadcast coverage. But most of the coverage has been on how Trump’s numbers have been trending, down from February, and how he compares with previous presidents as this point in his presidency, not so very well.

Digging down to some other non-Trump-related numbers in the poll, conservatives, or anyone else who wishes to “make America great again,” will find even worse news. The poll found that 57 percent of respondents, including 28 percent of Republicans, say that government should be doing more to solve problems and help people. MORE!

I suspect that the percentage of Republicans who say “more” would be a lot higher when push comes to shove (e.g., avoiding cuts in Social Security and Medicare benefits, preserving pork-barrel spending that they perceive as beneficial to themselves). It’s also noteworthy that the percentage of all respondents who say that government should do more is the highest for 26 such polls, which date back to 1995.

Here’s a case in point, a not-unusual one I think: My late father-in-law had many admirable qualities. He was a career Air Force officer who flew combat missions in World War II and the Korean War. He was a faithful and considerate husband, a good father to his children (though not around as much as a civilian father would have been), a steadfast friend, a good neighbor, and a fount of jokes and song lyrics. He was thrifty (and thus left his widow with ample funds to see her through her old age), and he kept his yard and garden in good trim.

But after my father-in-law’s second retirement (from the job he took when he retired from the Air Force), he became increasingly outspoken about politics. He adopted the conservative mantle and identified himself as a Republican, like many an ex-Democrat Southerner. He grumbled about big government (reasonably enough), but would defend “his” Social Security benefits; denigrated toll roads (as if roads should be “free”); distrusted market outcomes, often stating that the price of something was “too high,” as if he knew what it should be; claimed repeatedly that he should receive free VA hospital care (though his income and wealth disqualified him); railed against illegal immigration while paying illegal immigrants to clean his house; and listened faithfully to Rush Limbaugh and Bill O’Reilly (a mirror image of the equally rude and blustering Chris Matthews), parroting whatever lines they were peddling at the moment, without critically evaluating their offerings.

Aside from “ordinary people” like my late father-in-law, there are “conservative” bloviators like Limbaugh, O’Reilly (whose downfall I don’t lament), and Michael Savage. If they’re truly conservative, they hide it well. Their demeanor belies their claims to conservatism.

Which is to say that true conservatism is really an unusual state of mind in America. In order to prevent the election of more leftists than are already in office, true conservatives must rely on the influence of bloviators like Limbaugh, O’Reilly, and Savage, and on the votes of faux conservatives like my late father-in-law. Further, the true conservative must often hold his nose and vote for the lesser of two evils — who, more often than not, will be a mediocrity, hypocrite, or poseur.

What, then, is true conservatism? It is first and foremost a disposition. That disposition leads to an attitude toward governance. I’ve written about this many times, but what I’ve written bears repetition. So here goes.

A key aspect of the conservative disposition, as I said earlier, is skepticism about change, but not steadfast opposition to it. At the heart of skepticism about change is respect for tradition, which, as Edward Feser explains in “Hayek and Tradition,” is

nothing other than the distillation of centuries of human experience…. Far from being opposed to reason, reason is inseparable from tradition, and blind without it. The so-called enlightened mind thrusts tradition aside, hoping to find something more solid on which to make its stand, but there is nothing else, no alternative to the hard earth of human experience, and the enlightened thinker soon finds himself in mid-air…. But then, was it ever truly a love of reason that was in the driver’s seat in the first place? Or was it, rather, a hatred of tradition? Might the latter have been the cause of the former, rather than, as the enlightened pose would have it, the other way around?)

Michael Oakeshott delves more deeply in “On Being Conservative” (Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays), from which I have quoted at length in this post and this one.  Follow the links (or buy Oakeshott’s book) if you want to read more than these suggestive passages:

[The conservative] does not suppose that the office of government is to do nothing…. [T]he office he attributes to government is to resolve some of the collisions which this variety of beliefs and activities generates; to preserve peace, not by placing an interdict upon choice and upon the diversity that springs from the exercise of preference, not by imposing substantive uniformity, but by enforcing general rules of procedure upon all subjects alike.

Government, then, as the conservative in this matter understands it, does not begin with a vision of another, different and better world, but with the observation of the self-government practised even by men of passion in the conduct of their enterprises; it begins in the informal adjustments of interests to one another which are designed to release those who are apt to collide from the mutual frustration of a collision. Sometimes these adjustments are no more than agreements between two parties to keep out of each other’s way; sometimes they are of wider application and more durable character, such as the International Rules for for the prevention of collisions at sea. In short, the intimations of government are to be found in ritual, not in religion or philososphy; in the enjoyment of orderly and peaceable behaviour, not in the search for truth or perfection….

To govern, then, as the conservative understands it, is to provide a vinculum juris for those manners of conduct which, in the circumstances, are least likely to result in a frustrating collision of interests; to provide redress and means of compensation for those who suffer from others behaving in a contrary manners; sometimes to provide punishment for those who pursue their own interests regardless of the rules; and, of course, to provide a sufficient force to maintain the authority of an arbiter of this kind. Thus, governing is recognized as a specific and limited activity; not the management of an enterprise, but the rule of those engaged in a great diversity of self-chosen enterprises. It is not concerned with concrete persons, but with activities; and with activities only in respect of their propensity to collide with one another. It is not concerned with moral right and wrong, it is not designed to make men good or even better; it is not indispensable on account of ‘the natural depravity of mankind’ but merely because of their current disposition to be extravagant; its business is to keep its subjects at peace with one another in the activities in which they have chosen to seek their happiness. And if there is any general idea entailed in this view, it is, perhaps, that a government which does not sustain the loyalty of its subjects is worthless; and that while one which (in the old puritan phrase) ‘commands the truth’ is incapable of doing so (because some of its subjects will believe its ‘truth’ to be in error), one which is indifferent to ‘truth’ and ‘error’ alike, and merely pursues peace, presents no obstacle to the necessary loyalty.

… [A]s the conservative understands it, modification of the rules should always reflect, and never impose, a change in the activities and beliefs of those who are subject to them, and should never on any occasion be so great as to destroy the ensemble…. [H]e will be suspicious of proposals for change in excess of what the situation calls for, of rulers who demand extra-ordinary powers in order to make great changes and whose utterances are tied to generalities like ‘the public good’ or social justice’, and of Saviours of Society who buckle on armour and seek dragons to slay; he will think it proper to consider the occasion of the innovation with care; in short, he will be disposed to regard politics as an activity in which a valuable set of tools is renovated from time to time and kept in trim rather than as an opportunity for perpetual re-equipment….

… The man of this [conservative] disposition understands it to be the business of a government not to inflame passion and give it new objects to feed upon, but to inject into the activities of already too passionate men an ingredient of moderation; to restrain, to deflate, to pacify and to reconcile; not to stoke the fires of desire, but to damp them down….

Political conservatism is, then, not at all unintelligible in a people disposed to be adventurous and enterprising, a people in love with change and apt to rationalise their affections in terms of ‘progress’…. Indeed, a disposition to be conservative in respect of government would seem to be pre-eminently appropriate to men who have something to do and something to think about on their own account, who have a skill to practise or an intellectual fortune to make, to people whose passions do not need to be inflamed, whose desires do not need to be provoked and whose dreams of a better world need no prompting. Such people know the value of a rule which imposes orderliness without directing enterprise, a rule which concentrates duty so that room is left for delight.

The essential ingredient in conservative governance is the preservation and reinforcement of the beneficial norms that are cultivated in the voluntary institutions of civil society: family, religion, club, community (where it is close-knit), and commerce. When those institutions are allowed to flourish, much of the work of government is done without the imposition of taxes and regulations, including the enforcement of moral codes and the care of those who unable to care for themselves.

In the conservative view, government would then be limited to making and enforcing the few rules that are required to adjudicate what Oakeshott calls “collisions.” And there are always foreign and domestic predators who are beyond the effective reach of voluntary social institutions and must be dealt with by a superior force.

By thus limiting government to the roles of referee and defender of last resort, civil society is allowed to flourish, both economically and socially. Social conservatism is analogous to the market liberalism of libertarian economics. The price signals that help to organize economic production have their counterpart in the “market” for social behavior (which really encompasses economic behavior). Behavior which is seen to advance a group’s well-being is encouraged; behavior which is seen to degrade a group’s well-being is discouraged.

Civil society is, in the main, self-policing — or it was before the Greatest Generation failed its children and the busy-bodies began seriously to destroy its bonds and usurp its tutelary, disciplinary, and charitable functions.

Related posts:
Liberty and Society
The Eclipse of “Old America”
Genetic Kinship and Society
Liberty as a Social Construct: Moral Relativism?
Defending Liberty against (Pseudo) Libertarians
Fighting Modernity
Defining Liberty
Conservatism as Right-Minarchism
Getting It Almost Right
The Social Animal and the “Social Contract”
The Pseudo-Libertarian Temperament
Parsing Political Philosophy (II)
How Libertarians Ought to Think about the Constitution
Getting Liberty Wrong
Romanticizing the State
Governmental Perversity
Libertarianism and the State
“Liberalism” and Personal Responsibility
My View of Libertarianism
No Wonder Liberty Is Disappearing
The Principles of Actionable Harm
More About Social Norms and Liberty
The War on Conservatism
Friedman on Anarchy and Conservatism
Old America, New America, and Anarchy
The Authoritarianism of Modern Liberalism, and the Conservative Antidote
Society, Polarization, and Dissent
Another Look at Political Labels
Individualism, Society, and Liberty
Utilitarianism vs. Liberty (II)
Consistent Conservatism
Economically Liberal, Socially Conservative
Why Conservatives Shouldn’t Compromise
Liberal Nostrums
The Harm Principle Revisited: Mill Conflates Society and State
Liberty and Social Norms Re-examined

Advice to Live By: Know Thyself

A good example off Hillary Clinton’s mind at work is given in this post about a new book by Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes, Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton’s Doomed Campaign. Clinton is quoted as saying to an aide, “I know I engender bad reactions from people.” That’s a roundabout way of saying “I irritate people.” But Clinton, unsurprisingly, tries to water down her self-criticism because it’s too hard for her to confront her own defects.

She’s far from alone in that respect. Self-delusion is a common trait, especially among politicians, who seem to be especially allergic to truth. But self-delusion is a counterproductive trait. It’s an essential ingredient in failure because it sets a person on an unsustainable course. Failure occurs at many levels, including the highest levels of American politics.

Hillary wouldn’t have made it to dogcatcher if she hadn’t married Bill and leveraged her position to carpetbag her way into the Senate. Look what happened to her in 2008 against a rival (Obama) who was more skilled at presenting himself to the public (though obviously a narcissist to those who weren’t beguiled by his rhetoric or smitten with the feel-good notion of electing America’s first semi-black president).

How did Hillary get the nomination in 2016? By being married to Bill and lining up her party’s big-wigs to support her as the “inevitable” candidate and, most important, a female one. (I expect that in 2020 there will be a big push in the Democrat Party to nominate an openly homosexual candidate for vice president, if not for president.)

Despite Clinton’s high-level backing — coupled with her (obviously contrived) leftward lurch and the political correctness of her gender —  her march to the Democrat nomination was almost halted again by a sincere-sounding leftist.

I believe that she lost the general election because of her tone-deafness, which makes her uncannily able to irritate other people. Knowing that the presidency is won in the electoral college, not in the national popular vote, and knowing that the outcome in States with large blocs of blue-collar voters could swing the election to Trump — but secure in her self-delusional arrogance — she referred to Trump supporters as “deplorables.”

Talk about engendering bad reactions. And she didn’t have to do it; she was safely ahead in the polls at that point. She had nothing to gain — the effete elite were safely locked up — and a lot to lose. But she couldn’t help herself because she gave too little thought to her effect on others.

Know thyself. Very old advice that remains good advice.

How to Pay for Streets and Highways

Tolls. Yes, everyone hates them. That’s an overstatement, of course. I love toll roads, as do a lot of people who either enjoy the less-stressful experience of driving on them or just want to get somewhere faster than they otherwise could.

Tolls are the way to go, because: Users — and only users — should pay for roads, in accordance with the frequency with which they use them and the amount of wear and tear to which they subject them. Sure, there are some taxes that are supposed to pay for streets and highways, but they don’t cover the full cost cost of construction and maintenance, and they’re often diverted to other uses.

It’s a simple matter to issue everyone a registration sticker that includes a toll tag. Big rigs get one kind of tag (which charges at the highest rate), and so on down to motorcycles and bicycles. Yes, that means you, the traffic-clogging bicyclist. From now on you’ll have to pay for the privilege of mixing with motor vehicles or cavorting in your own little-used lane, It’s a privilege that contributes to congestion by reducing the space available for motor-vehicle lanes and flow-enhancing features (e.g., turning lanes).

With mandatory toll tags, there would be no more mail-in payments, which means no more deadbeats. Everyone who wants to use a public highway would have to register a valid payment method: credit card, debit card, or direct debit to a checking account. No checking account? Too bad. Take the bus. If you don’t have a checking account, you probably can’t afford auto insurance. So you’re driving without it, and driving up other people’s insurance rates.

What about all the tag readers that would be required? I forgot to mention that registration stickers would have GPS trackers embedded in them.

Problem solved, except for the matter of “privacy,” that all-purpose excuse for the subversion of social norms. But “privacy” worshipers might be persuaded to go along, given these considerations:

  • “Unnecessary” trips would be discouraged, thus reducing the use of fossil fuels.
  • Businesses, as buyers of goods shipped over highways, would pay their “fair share.” (The cost of tolls would be passed on to customers, of course, but that wouldn’t negate the feel-good effect for anti-business crowd.)
  • “Sprawl” would be discouraged.
  • “Buy local” would be encouraged.
  • Internet retail would grow even faster than it has been growing (a negation of the preceding point, but the “buy local” crowd wouldn’t notice), which would further reduce the use of fossil fuels.

I suspect that the net effect of all this would be next to zero, but it would please me no end if users (and only users) paid for roads, and if bicyclists were forced to pay for the privilege of adding to traffic congestion — and for their smugness.

Psychological Insights into Leftism

This is from Sean Last’s “Liberalism and Low Self-Esteem” (Truth Is Justice, March 10, 2016):

[S]tudies show that liberals have low self esteem and that causing low self esteem causes people to be more liberal. Research also shows that liberals have unrealistically negative views of the morals of conservatives and unrealistically positive views of the morals of liberals. And polling shows that liberals are far more likely to break social ties with people over politics. They are moral crusaders. The fact that liberals want everyone to know that they are liberal, that they seem to purposefully pick offensive views, their debate style, and the fact that being morally superior normally feels pretty good, suggests to me that the moral crusading and the low self esteem are connected. Liberals are liberal so that they can say that society sucks, so that they can say that they are better than everyone else, so that they can feel a little less shitty about themselves.

That’s the final paragraph of Last’s post. He supplies ample evidence for his conclusions.

I was led to Last’s post by John Ray’s “Liberalism and Low Self-Esteem” (Dissecting Leftism, April 17, 2017). Ray’s introductory notes include these observations:

I actually think that the needy egos have hopped onto a train that had already been got rolling by others:  The haters.  As the huge demonstrations against Trump show, Leftists are huge haters.  And their hate is primarily directed at the society in which they live.  They want to destroy it, in the delusion that they can create a better society.  So anybody who wants to make America great is anathema to them.

A better society can indeed be created.  From the industrial revolution on, society has become richer and kinder and more capable of improving human lives.  But none of that was done by Leftist policies of expropriation and destruction.  It was done by the steady accumulation of human wisdom and ingenuity that a capitalist society enabled and produced.  Other societies did well only insofar as they copied capitalist societies.

So the hatred that Leftists have for the society in which they live is at best impatient and at worst blind….

[T]he most obvious source for a personality that is full of hate from birth onwards is psychopathy….  I go into details here

To summarize briefly, Psychopaths love only themselves and hate anyone who does not take them at their own high valuation of themselves and have no real morality or ethics whatsoever.  They are masters of “faking good” — of saying things that they think will make them look and sound good regardless of any truth in it.  They lie at the drop of a hat.  So they are very shallow thinkers.  Only the here and now exists to them.  I think that is a pretty good description of most prominent Leftists. Getting principles or even consistency out of a Leftist is a mug’s game.  They will say one thing one day and something else the next day.  He/she will say anything that makes him/her look good on the given occasion. Obama’s 180 degree turn on homosexual marriage is a good example of that.  Or Bill Clinton’s claim that Hillary was named after Sir Edmund, the Everest hero.

So that is where the needful ego guy comes in.  He is not necessarily fully psychopathic but he shares the psychopath’s need for praise and ego boosting. He jumps onto the psychopathic train being run by prominent Leftists.  I set out here the reasons why  the Clintons, Barack Obama and John Kerry are clear cases of psychopathy.

All of this rings true to me. The staunch leftists of my acquaintance are hate-filled beings for whom “doing good” means using the the state to fulfill their power-lust.

Related posts:
The Left’s Agenda
The Left and Its Delusions
Utilitarianism and Psychopathy
The Spoiled Children of Capitalism
Politics, Sophistry, and the Academy
Subsidizing the Enemies of Liberty
Are You in the Bubble?
The Culture War
The Criminality and Psychopathy of Statism
Ruminations on the Left in America
Academic Ignorance
The Euphemism Conquers All
Defending the Offensive
A Dose of Reality
God-Like Minds
The Pathological Urge to Regulate
Non-Judgmentalism as Leftist Condescension
An Addendum to (Asymmetrical) Ideological Warfare
Khizr Khan’s Muddled Logic
Retrospective Virtue-Signalling
The Left and Violence
Four Kinds of “Liberals”
Leftist Condescension
Beating Religion with the Wrong End of the Stick

Another Thought about Prices

Prices are invaluable signals to buyers and sellers. When government acts to abolish prices (in effect) by commanding them (as in the minimum wage and edicts against “price gouging”), or when it interferes with the signals through regulation (as in whether certain products and services may be imported), it robs buyers and sellers of options, and thus diminishes their well-being.

But prices aren’t everything. This is from “A Man for No Seasons“:

[T]oo many economists justify free markets on utilitarian grounds, that is, because free markets produce more (i.e., are more efficient) than regulated markets. This happens to be true, but free markets can and should be justified mainly because they are free, that is, because they allow individuals to pursue otherwise lawful aims through voluntary, mutually beneficial exchanges of products and services. Liberty is a principle, a deep value; economic efficiency is merely a byproduct of adherence to that value.

In fact, prices only reflect marginal valuations of things. Both Joe and I might be willing to part with $2 for a gallon of gasoline, but that coincidence says nothing about the utility that Joe and I gain (separately) from the use of the gasoline. In sum, prices aren’t a guide to the well-being of an individual person, let alone millions of disparate persons whose values are incommensurable. (This is one reason why GDP doesn’t mean much.)

Here’s a good case in point. In an area that’s growing rapidly, real-estate prices tend to rise rapidly. That’s a boon to home owners, right? Not necessarily. It’s not a boon to homeowners who strongly prefer to stay where they are. It usually means that the cost of staying where they are rises: higher property taxes, more noise and traffic, more crime, etc. Even taking into account the higher prices that they (or their heirs) will one day realize when their homes are sold, many (perhaps most) of them will feel worse off — and will be worse off, materially.

No one promised them a rose garden, did they? Of course not. And I would be the last person to suggest that they be “made whole,” which would require burdening other persons with higher taxes.

My point is that prices are an uncertain and often misleading guide to the well-being of persons who aren’t involved in the transactions that are represented by prices. And prices provide only a glimpse of the fleeting and idiosyncratic valuations placed on those transactions by those who engage in them.

You Can’t Go Home Again

You can’t go back home to your family, back home to your childhood … back home to a young man’s dreams of glory and of fame … back home to places in the country, back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting but which are changing all the time – back home to the escapes of Time and Memory.

— Thomas Wolfe, You Can’t Go Home Again

*      *      *

I have just begun to read a re-issue of Making It, Norman Podhoretz‘s memoir that stirred up the literati of New York City. According to Jennifer Schuessler (“Norman Podhoretz: Making Enemies,” Publisher’s Weekly, January 25, 1999), Podhoretz’s

frank 1967 account of the lust for success that propelled him from an impoverished childhood in Brooklyn to the salons of Manhattan, … scandalized the literary establishment that once hailed him as something of a golden boy. His agent wouldn’t represent it. His publisher refused to publish it. And just about everybody hated it. In 1972, Podhoretz’s first high-profile personal squabble, with Random House’s Jason Epstein, went public when the New York Times Magazine published an article called “Why Norman and Jason Aren’t Talking.” By 1979, when Podhoretz published Breaking Ranks, a memoir of his conversion from radicalism to militant conservatism, it seemed just about everybody wasn’t talking to Norman.

Next month, Podhoretz will add another chapter to his personal war chronicle with the publication of Ex-Friends: Falling Out with Allen Ginsberg, Lionel and Diana Trilling, Lillian Hellman, Hannah Arendt, and Norman Mailer. In this short, sharp, unabashedly name-dropping book, Podhoretz revisits the old battles over communism and the counterculture, not to mention his bad reviews. But for all his talk of continued struggle against the “regnant leftist culture that pollutes the spiritual and cultural air we all breathe,” the book is a frankly nostalgic, even affectionate look back at the lost world of “the Family,” the endlessly quarreling but close-knit group of left-leaning intellectuals that gathered in the 1940s and ’50s around such magazines as the Partisan Review and Commentary.

Given this bit of background, you shouldn’t be surprised that it was Podhoretz who said that a conservative is a liberal who has been mugged by reality. Nor should you be surprised that Podhoretz wrote this about Barack Obama (which I quote in “Presidential Treason“):

His foreign policy, far from a dismal failure, is a brilliant success as measured by what he intended all along to accomplish….

… As a left-wing radical, Mr. Obama believed that the United States had almost always been a retrograde and destructive force in world affairs. Accordingly, the fundamental transformation he wished to achieve here was to reduce the country’s power and influence. And just as he had to fend off the still-toxic socialist label at home, so he had to take care not to be stuck with the equally toxic “isolationist” label abroad.

This he did by camouflaging his retreats from the responsibilities bred by foreign entanglements as a new form of “engagement.” At the same time, he relied on the war-weariness of the American people and the rise of isolationist sentiment (which, to be sure, dared not speak its name) on the left and right to get away with drastic cuts in the defense budget, with exiting entirely from Iraq and Afghanistan, and with “leading from behind” or using drones instead of troops whenever he was politically forced into military action.

The consequent erosion of American power was going very nicely when the unfortunately named Arab Spring presented the president with several juicy opportunities to speed up the process. First in Egypt, his incoherent moves resulted in a complete loss of American influence, and now, thanks to his handling of the Syrian crisis, he is bringing about a greater diminution of American power than he probably envisaged even in his wildest radical dreams.

For this fulfillment of his dearest political wishes, Mr. Obama is evidently willing to pay the price of a sullied reputation. In that sense, he is by his own lights sacrificing himself for what he imagines is the good of the nation of which he is the president, and also to the benefit of the world, of which he loves proclaiming himself a citizen….

No doubt he will either deny that anything has gone wrong, or failing that, he will resort to his favorite tactic of blaming others—Congress or the Republicans or Rush Limbaugh. But what is also almost certain is that he will refuse to change course and do the things that will be necessary to restore U.S. power and influence.

And so we can only pray that the hole he will go on digging will not be too deep for his successor to pull us out, as Ronald Reagan managed to do when he followed a president into the White House whom Mr. Obama so uncannily resembles. [“Obama’s Successful Foreign Failure,” The Wall Street Journal, September 8, 2013]

Though I admire Podhoretz’s willingness to follow reality to its destination in conservatism — because I made the same journey myself — I am drawn to his memoir by another similarity between us. In the Introduction to the re-issue, Terry Teachout writes:

Making It is never more memorable than when it describes its author’s belated discovery of “the brutal bargain” to which he was introduced by “Mrs. K.,” a Brooklyn schoolteacher who took him in hand and showed him that the precocious but rough-edged son of working-class Jews from Galicia could aspire to greater things— so long as he turned his back on the ghettoized life of his émigré parents and donned the genteel manners of her own class. Not until much later did he realize that the bargain she offered him went even deeper than that:

She was saying that because I was a talented boy, a better class of people stood ready to admit me into their ranks. But only on one condition: I had to signify by my general deportment that I acknowledged them as superior to the class of people among whom I happened to have been born. . . . what I did not understand, not in the least then and not for a long time afterward, was that in matters having to do with “art” and “culture” (the “life of the mind,” as I learned to call it at Columbia), I was being offered the very same brutal bargain and accepting it with the wildest enthusiasm.

So he did, and he never seriously doubted that he had done the only thing possible by making himself over into an alumnus of Columbia and Cambridge and a member of the educated, art-loving upper middle class. At the same time, though, he never forgot what he had lost by doing so, having acquired in the process “a distaste for the surroundings in which I was bred, and ultimately (God forgive me) even for many of the people I loved.”

It’s not an unfamiliar story. But it’s a story that always brings a pang to my heart because it reminds me too much of my own attitudes and behavior as I “climbed the ladder” from the 1960s to the 1990s. Much as I regret the growing gap between me and my past, I have learned from experience that I can’t go back, and don’t want to go back.

What happened to me is probably what happened to Norman Podhoretz and tens of millions of other Americans. We didn’t abandon our past; we became what was written in our genes.

This mini-memoir is meant to illustrate that thesis. It is aimed at those readers who can’t relate to a prominent New Yorker, but who might see themselves in a native of flyover country.

My “ghetto” wasn’t a Jewish enclave like Podhoretz’s Brownsville, but an adjacent pair of small cities in the eastern flatlands of Michigan, both of them predominantly white and working-class. They are not suburbs of Detroit — as we used to say emphatically — nor of any other largish city. We were geographically and culturally isolated from the worst and best that “real” cities have to offer in the way of food, entertainment, and ethnic variety.

My parents’ roots, and thus my cultural inheritance, were in small cities, towns and villages in Michigan and Ontario. Life for my parents, as for their forbears, revolved around making a living, “getting ahead” by owning progressively nicer (but never luxurious) homes and cars, socializing with friends over card games, and keeping their houses and yards neat and clean.

All quite unexceptional, or so it seemed to me as I was growing up. It only began to seem exceptional when I became the first scion of the the family tree to “go away to college,” as we used to say. (“Going away” as opposed to attending a local junior college, as did my father’s younger half-brother about eight years before I matriculated.)

Soon after my arrival on the campus of a large university, whose faculty and students hailed from around the world, I began to grasp the banality of my upbringing in comparison to the cultural richness and sordid reality of the wider world. It was a richness and reality of which my home-town contemporaries and I knew little because we were raised in the days of Ozzie and Harriet — before the Beatles, Woodstock, bearded men with pony-tails, shacking up as a social norm, widespread drug use, and the vivid depiction of sex in all of its natural and unnatural variety.

My upbringing, like that of my home-town contemporaries was almost apolitical. If we overheard our parents talking about politics, we overheard a combination of views that today seems unlikely: suspicion of government; skepticism about unions (my father had to join one in order to work), disdain for “fat cats”; sympathy for “the little guy”; and staunch patriotism. There was nothing about civil rights and state-enforced segregation, which were seen (mistakenly) as peculiarly Southern issues. Their own racism was seldom in evidence because blacks generally “knew their place” in our white-dominated communities.

And then, as a student at a cosmopolitan Midwestern university (that isn’t an oxymoron), I began to learn — in and out of class. The out-of-class lessons came through conversations with students whose backgrounds differed greatly from mine, including two who had been displaced persons in the wake of World War II. My first-year roommate was a mild-mannered Iranian doctoral student whose friends (some of them less mild-mannered) spoke openly about the fear in which Iranians lived because of SAVAK‘s oppressive practices. In my final year as an undergraduate I befriended some married graduate students, one of whom (an American) had spent several years in Libya as a geologist for an American oil company and had returned to the States with an Italian wife.

One of the off-campus theaters specialized in foreign films, which I had never before seen, and which exposed me to people, places, attitudes, and ideas that were intellectually foreign to me, but which I viewed avidly and with acceptance. My musical education was advanced by a friendship with a music major, through whom I met other music majors and learned much about classical music and, of all things, Gilbert and Sullivan. One of the music majors was a tenor who had to learn The Mikado, and did so by playing a recording of it over and over. I became hooked, and to this day can recite large chunks of the libretto. I used to sing them, but my singing days are over.

Through my classes — and often through unassigned reading — I learned how to speak and read French (fluently, those many years ago), and ingested various-sized doses of philosophy, history (ancient and modern), sociology, accounting (the third of four majors), and several other things that escape me at the moment.

Through economics (my fourth and final major), I learned (but didn’t then question), the contradictory tenets of microeconomics (how markets work to allocate resources and satisfy wants efficiently) and macroeconomics (then dominated by the idea of government’s indispensable role in the economic order). But I was drawn in by the elegance of economic theory, and mistook its spurious precision for deep understanding. Though I have since rejected macroeconomic orthodoxy (e.g., see this).

My collegiate “enlightenment” was mild, by today’s standards, but revelatory to a small-city boy. And I was among the still relatively small fraction of high-school graduates who went away to college. So my exposure to a variety of people, cultures, and ideas immediately set me apart — apart not only from my parents and the members of their generation, but also apart from most of the members of my own generation.

What set me apart more than anything was my loss of faith. In my second year I went from ostentatiously devout Catholicism to steadfast agnosticism in a span of weeks. I can’t reconstruct the transition at a remove of almost 60 years, but I suspect that it involved a mixture of delayed adolescent rebellion, a reckoning (based on things I had learned) that the roots of religion lay in superstition, and a genetic predisposition toward skepticism (my father was raised Protestant but scorned religion in his mild way). At any rate, when I walked out of church in the middle of Mass one Sunday morning, I felt as if I had relieved myself of a heavy burden and freed my mind for the pursuit of knowledge.

The odd thing is that, to this day, I retain feelings of loyalty to the Church of my youth — the Church of the Latin Mass (weekly on Sunday morning, not afternoon or evening), strict abstinence from meat on Friday, confession on Saturday, fasting from midnight on Sunday (if one were in a state of grace and fit for Holy Communion), and the sharp-tongued sisters with sharp-edged rulers who taught Catechism on Saturday mornings (parochial school wasn’t in my parents’ budget). I have therefore been appalled, successively, by Vatican Council II, most of the popes of the past 50 years, the various ways in which being a Catholic has become easier, and (especially) the egregious left-wing babbling of Francis. And yet I remain an agnostic who only in recent years has acknowledged the logical necessity of a Creator, but probably not the kind of Creator who is at the center of formal religion. Atheism — especially of the strident variety — is merely religion turned upside down; a belief in something that is beyond proof; I scorn it.

To complete this aside, I must address the canard peddled by strident atheists and left-wingers (there’s a lot of overlap) about the evil done in the name of religion, I say this: Religion doesn’t make fanatics, it attracts them (in relatively small numbers), though some Islamic sects seem to be bent on attracting and cultivating fanaticism. Far more fanatical and attractive to fanatics are the “religions” of communism, socialism (including Hitler’s version), and progressivism (witness the snowflakes and oppressors who now dominate the academy). I doubt that the number of murders committed in the name of religion amounts to one-tenth of the number of murders committed by three notable anti-religionists: Hitler (yes, Hitler), Stalin, and Mao. I also believe — with empirical justification — that religion is a bulwark of liberty; whereas, the cult of libertarianism — usually practiced by agnostics and atheists — is not (e.g., this post and the others linked to therein).

It’s time to return to the chronological thread of my narrative. I have outlined my graduate-school and work experiences in “About.” The main thing to note here is what I learned during the early mid-life crisis which took me away from the D.C. rat race for about three years, as owner-operator of a (very) small publishing company in a rural part of New York State.

In sum, I learned to work hard. Before my business venture I had coasted along using my intelligence but not a lot of energy, but nevertheless earning praise and good raises. I was seldom engaged it what I was doing: the work seemed superficial and unconnected to anything real to me. That changed when I became a business owner. I had to meet a weekly deadline or lose advertisers (and my source of income), master several new skills involved in publishing a weekly “throwaway” (as the free Pennysaver was sometimes called), and work six days a week with only two brief respites in three years. Something clicked, and when I gave up the publishing business and returned to the D.C. area, I kept on working hard — as if my livelihood depended on it.

And it did. Much as I had loved being my own boss, I wanted to live and retire more comfortably than I could on the meager income that flowed uncertainly from the Pennysaver. Incentives matter. So in the 18 years after my return to the D.C. area I not only kept working hard and with fierce concentration, but I developed (or discovered) a ruthless streak that propelled me into the upper echelon of the think-tank.

And in my three years away from the D.C. area I also learned, for the first time, that I couldn’t go home again.

I was attracted to the publishing business because of its location in a somewhat picturesque village. The village was large enough to sport a movie theater, two super markets, and a variety of commercial establishments, including restaurants, shoe stores, clothing stores, jewelers, a Rite-Aid drug store, and even a J.J. Newberry dime store. It also had many large, well-kept homes All in all, it appealed to me because, replete with a “real” main street, it reminded me of the first small city in which I grew up.

But after working and associating with highly educated professionals, and after experiencing the vast variety of restaurants, museums, parks, and entertainment of the D.C. area, I found the village and its natives dull. Not only dull, but also distant. They were humorless and closed to outsiders. It came to me that the small cities in which I had grown up were the same way. My memories of them were distorted because they were memories of a pre-college boy who had yet to experience life in the big city. They were memories of a boy whose life centered on his parents and a beloved grandmother (who lived in a small village of similarly golden memory).

You can’t go home again, metaphorically, if you’ve gone away and lived a different life. You can’t because you are a different person than you were when you were growing up. This lesson was reinforced at the 30-year reunion of my high-school graduating class, which occurred several years after my business venture and a few years after I had risen into the upper echelon of the think-tank.

There I was, with my wife and sister (who graduated from the same high school eight years after I did), happily anticipating an evening of laughter and shared memories. We were seated at a table with two fellows who had been good friends of mine (and their wives, whom I didn’t know). It was deadly boring; the silences yawned; we had nothing to say to each other. One of the old friends, who had been on the wagon, was so unnerved by the forced bonhomie of the occasion that he fell off the wagon. Attempts at mingling after dinner were awkward. My wife and sister readily agreed to abandon the event. We drove several miles to an elegant, river-front hotel where we had a few drinks on the deck. Thus the evening ended on a cheery note, despite the cool, damp drizzle. (A not untypical August evening in Michigan.)

I continued to return to Michigan for another 27 years, making what might be my final trip for the funeral of my mother, who lived to the age of 99. But I went just to see my parents and siblings, and then only out of duty.

The golden memories of my youth remain with me, but I long ago gave up the idea of reliving the past that is interred in those memories.

Beating Religion with the Wrong End of the Stick

A leftist personage emits a Quotation of the Day, which I receive second-hand from a centrist personage. Here is today’s QOTD:

An interesting coincidence of events, suggesting a certain theme….

Caedite eos. Novit enim Dominus qui sunt eius.

– Arnaud Amalric (d. 1225) (at the siege of Béziers in 1209 during
the Albigensian Crusade, when asked which of the townspeople to spare)

(Kill them all. For the Lord knoweth them that are His.)

A fanatic is a man that does what he thinks the Lord would do if He knew the facts of the case.

– Finley Peter Dunne (1837-1936) (Mr. Dooley’s Opinions, “Casual Observations”)

The most dangerous madmen are those created by religion, and … people whose aim is to disrupt society always know how to make good use of them on occasion.

– Denis Diderot (1713-1794) (Conversations with a Christian Lady)

Throughout human history, the apostles of purity, those who have claimed to possess a total explanation, have wrought havoc among mere mixed-up human beings.

– Salman Rushdie (b. 1948) (“In Good Faith,”
Independent on Sunday, London, 4 February 1990)

Is uniformity [of religious opinion] attainable? Millions of innocent men, women, and children, since the introduction of Christianity, have been burnt, tortured, fined, and imprisoned; yet we have not advanced one inch toward uniformity. What has been the effect of coercion? To make one half the world fools, and the other half hypocrites.

– Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) (Notes on the State of Virginia, Query 17)

Subject opinion to coercion: whom will you make your inquisitors? Fallible men; men governed by bad passions, by private as well as public reasons.

– Ibid.

(Yes, today is the 274th anniversary of the birth of Thomas Jefferson, 3rd president of these United States and a fervent believer in liberty of conscience and the separation of church and state – which is why he is often excoriated in right-wing religious circles today. But – mirabile dictu – it is also the 498th anniversary of the birth of Catherine de’ Medici (1519-1589), daughter of Lorenzo (but not “the Great”) de’ Medici, who became the queen of France’s King Henry III and with him planned the St. Bartholomew’s Night Massacre (1572), in which thousands of French Protestants were slaughtered in their beds. The event was timed to coincide with the wedding of the (Huguenot) Henry of Navarre, who (perhaps not surprisingly) converted to Catholicism (“Paris is worth a mass.”) and was crowned Henry IV in 1589. But wait! There’s more! On this date in 1598, Henry promulgated the Toleration Edict of Nantes, which protected freedom of belief in France, ended the Wars of Religion, and gave Protestants some measure of government influence – at least until Louis XIV revoked it in 1685, which forced thousands of Protestants to flee the country. One is reminded irresistibly of the comment of Lucretius (ca. 94-55 B.C.) in De Rerum Natura:

Tantum religio potuit suadere malorum.

(So much wrong could religion induce.)

True then; true today. Aren’t historical connections fascinating?)

The author of QOTD grasps the wrong end of the stick, as he often does. Religion doesn’t make fanatics, it attracts them (but far from exclusively). Just as the “religions” of communism, socialism (including Hitler’s version), and progressivism do (and with much greater frequency).

I doubt that the number of murders committed in the name of religion amounts to one-tenth of the number of murders committed by three notable anti-religionists: Hitler (yes, Hitler), Stalin, and Mao.

Leftist Condescension

Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times laments readers’ reactions to what he calls his “periodic assertions that Trump voters are human, too.” He laments those reactions because they’re of a piece with Hillary Clinton’s characterization of Trump supporters as “a basket of deplorables.” And Kristof wonders how progressives will ever reclaim the White House, Congress, a majority of governorships, and a majority of State legislatures — and thereby advance the Progressive cause (more regulation, more government spending, higher taxes) — if they insist on demonizing a large chunk of the electorate.

One of Kristof’s themes, which is echoed in letters to the editor about his columns, is that Trump supporters vote against self-interest. As evidence, in the usual manner of the media, Kristof cites the unhappiness of a handful of selected Trump voters about Trump’s plans to cut particular programs from which they benefit. As If the testimony of a small number of carefully selected interviewees proves anything other than media bias.

The idea that “low class” people who vote Republican are somehow voting against their self-interest has been around for a while. It stems from the idea that a main purpose of government is to provide handouts to the “less privileged.” If the left’s black and Hispanic “pets” reliably vote Democrat because so many of them want government handouts, why don’t “low class” whites do the same thing?

Thomas Frank spells it out in What’s the Matter with Kansas?,

which explores the rise of populist anti-elitist conservatism in the United States, centering on the experience of Kansas….

According to the book, the political discourse of recent decades has dramatically shifted from social and economic equality to the use of “explosive” cultural issues, such as abortion and gay marriage, which are used to redirect anger toward “liberal elites.”

Against this backdrop, Frank describes the rise of political conservatism in the social and political landscape of Kansas, which he says espouses economic policies that do not benefit the majority of people in the state….

Frank says that the conservative coalition is the dominant coalition in American politics. There are two sides to this coalition, according to the author: Economic conservatives want business tax cuts and deregulation, while social conservatives focus on culture. Frank says that since the coalition formed in the late 1960s, the coalition has been “fantastically rewarding” for the economic conservatives. The policies of the Republicans in power have been exclusively economic, but the coalition has caused the social conservatives to be worse off economically, due to these pro-corporate policies.

If the conservative coalition is the dominant coalition, it comes as a great surprise to me. But Frank’s book was published in 2004, when the GOP controlled the White House and (narrowly) the Senate and House of Representatives. Frank may be excused for not having foreseen the setback in Iraq, the financial crisis, the Great Recession, and the resulting election and re-election of the great black hope.

Anyway, there are three answers to Frank’s thesis:

  1. There is a lot of overlap between “social” and “economic” conservatives, which means that the supposed clash of values is far less dramatic than Frank paints it.
  2. Those “social” conservatives who aren’t also “economic” conservatives obviously place so much weight on social issues that they are unswayed by the (purported) harm to their economic interests.
  3. Many social conservatives understand — viscerally, at least — that their economic interests aren’t served by a regime of handouts and preferences, but by a regime that is “pro-business” and therefore pro-economic growth and pro-job creation.

Regarding the third point, see Stephen Moore’s “Government Makes the Poor Poorer” (The American Spectator, April 10, 2017), where Moore says, for example:

Trade barriers raise prices and “act as a regressive tax” on Americans, [Don] Boudreaux explains. They also stunt the very innovation process that makes goods and services widely available to people at affordable prices to begin with. Think about who the consumers are that shop for those everyday low prices at Wal-Mart. It’s not Hillary Clinton.

Minimum wage clearly fits into this category as well. In every other industry, Boudreaux notes, when something is more expensive, we buy less of it.

Thus depriving the least-skilled an opportunity to step on the bottom rung of the ladder of economic opportunity.

Moore continues:

Marlo Lewis of the Competitive Enterprise Institute points out that the fuel economy standards promoted by the leftist environmentalists add thousands of dollars to the cost of a new car. He estimates that these “green” policies could mean that 5 million fewer Americans each year can’t afford a new car….

Another green policy that hurts the poor is the anti-fracking crusade of the environmentalists. In my book with Kathleen Hartnett White, Fueling Freedom, we point out that the lower cost of electricity due to cheap shale natural gas has benefited low income households to the tune of well over $4 billion a year….

Social Security is the greatest swindle of the poor ever. A new study by Peter Ferrara for the Committee to Unleash Prosperity shows that the average poor person who works 40 hours a week during his or her working life would retire with a larger monthly benefit and would have $1 million or more in an estate that could be left to a spouse or children at death if they could simply put their payroll tax dollars into a personal 401k retirement account and tap into the power of compound interest….

Occupational licensing laws — in trades like moving companies, realtors, hair dressers, limousine services, beauticians, physical therapy and on and on — ‎stunt small business start-ups, destroy jobs, and raise prices for lower income consumers….

… Professor Boudreaux shows evidence that … licensing requirements reduce service quality by shrinking competition in the industry….

These examples merely scratch the surface of scores of governmental polices that are regressive.

Indeed they do. In “The Rahn Curve Revisited” I document the significant debilitating effects of government spending and regulation on economic growth.

But there’s a fourth and deeper point, which I make in “The Left and ‘We the People’“:

[I]t never ceases to amaze the left that so many of “the people” turn their backs on a leftist (Democrat) candidate in favor of the (perceived) Republican rightist. Why is that? One reason, which became apparent in the recent presidential election, is that a lot of “the people” don’t believe that the left is their “voice” or that it rules on their behalf.

A lot of “the people” believe, correctly, that the left despises “the people” and is bent on dictating to them. Further, a lot of “the people” also believe, correctly, that the left’s dictatorial methods are not really designed with “the people” in mind. Rather, they are intended to favor certain groups of people — those deemed “victims” by the left — and to advance pet schemes (e.g., urban rail, “green” energy, carbon-emissions reductions, Obamacare) despite the fact that they are unnecessary, inefficient, and economically destructive.

It comes as a great shock to left that so many of “the people” see the left for what it is: doctrinaire, unfair, and dictatorial. Why, they ask, would “the people” vote against their own interest by rejecting Democrats and electing Republicans? The answer is that a lot of “the people” are smart enough to see that the left does not represent them and does not act in their interest.

Some city slickers never learn from experience because they’re too fastidious to acquire it by venturing from “the bubble.”

Related posts:
The Left’s Agenda
The Left and Its Delusions
The Spoiled Children of Capitalism
Politics, Sophistry, and the Academy
Subsidizing the Enemies of Liberty
Are You in the Bubble?
The Culture War
Ruminations on the Left in America
Academic Ignorance
A Dose of Reality
Bubbling Along
God-Like Minds
Non-Judgmentalism as Leftist Condescension
An Addendum to (Asymmetrical) Ideological Warfare
Brandeis’s Ignorance
Economically Liberal, Socially Conservative
How America Has Changed
Civil War?
H.L. Mencken’s Final Legacy
The Problem with Political Correctness
The “H” Word, the Left, and Donald Trump
Prosperity Isn’t Everything
Retrospective Virtue-Signalling
“They Deserve to Die”?
Mencken’s Pearl of Wisdom
The Left and Violence
Four Kinds of “Liberals”

Natural Law and Natural Rights Revisited

An esteemed correspondent took exception to my statement in “Natural Law, Natural Rights, and the Real World” that I “don’t accept the broad outlines of natural law and natural rights,” which I had summarized thus:

Natural law is about morality, that is, right and wrong. Natural rights are about the duties and obligations that human beings owe to each other. Believers in natural law claim to start with the nature of human beings, then derive from that nature the “laws” of morality. Believers in natural rights claim to start with the nature of human beings, then derive from that nature the inalienable “rights” of human beings.

A natural law would be something like this: It is in the nature of human beings to seek life and to avoid death. A natural right would be something like this: Given that it is natural for human beings to seek life and avoid death, every human being has the right to life.

The correspondent later sent me a copy of Hadley Arkes’s essay “A Natural Law Manifesto” (Claremont Review of Books, Fall 2011, pp. 43-49). There’s an online version of the essay (with a slightly different opening sentence) at the website of The James Wilson Institute on Natural Rights and the American Founding, which I’ll quote from in the course of this post.

I don’t lightly dismiss natural law and natural rights. Many proponents of those concepts are on the side of liberty and against statism, which makes me their natural ally. As I say in “Natural Law, Natural Rights, and the Real World,” my problem with the concepts is their malleability. It is too easy to claim to know specifically what is and isn’t in accordance with natural law and natural rights, and it is too easy to issue vague generalizations about rights — generalizations that collapse easily under the weight of specification.

Consider the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which rights are declared to be inalienable (i.e., natural). (The Declaration’s 30 articles comprise 48 such rights.) Quotations from the Declaration are followed by my comments in italics:

No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation. What is arbitrary? One person’s “arbitrary” will be another person’s “lawful,” and there will be endless quibbles about where to draw lines.

1) Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state.
(2) Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country. Everyone, even including criminals and terrorists? And if “everyone” is qualified by criteria of criminality, there will be endless quibbles about those criteria.

Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance. But what if the practice of a religion includes the commission of terrorist acts?

Everyone, as a member of society, has the right to social security and is entitled to realization, through national effort and international co-operation and in accordance with the organization and resources of each State, of the economic, social and cultural rights indispensable for his dignity and the free development of his personality. The qualification about the “organization and resources of each State” speak volumes about the relative nature of entitlements. But left unsaid is the nature of the “right” by which some are taxed to provide “social security” for others. Is there no natural right to the full enjoyment of the fruits of one’s own labors? I would think that there would be such a natural right, if there were any natural rights.

Everyone who works has the right to just and favourable remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity, and supplemented, if necessary, by other means of social protection. See the preceding comment.

Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control. Ditto.

It goes on an on like that. And the UN’s litany of “rights” is surely one that millions or even billions of people would claim to be “natural rights” which inhere in them as human beings. Certainly in the United States almost every Democrat, most independents, and a large fraction of Republicans would agree that such rights are “natural” or God-given or just plain obvious. And many of them would put up a good argument for their position.

If the Declaration of Human Rights seems too easy a target, consider abortion. Arkes and I are in agreement about the wrongness of abortion. He says this in his essay:

[T]he differences in jural perspective that I’m marking off here may have their most profound effect as they reach the most central question that the law may ever reach: who counts as a human person—who counts as the kind of being whose injuries matter? It was the question raised as President Bill Clinton vetoed the bill on partial birth abortion and expressed the deepest concern for the health of the woman denied that procedure. Of that other being present in the surgery, the one whose head was being punctured and the contents sucked out—the assault on the health of that being made no impression on Clinton. The harms didn’t register because the sufferer of the harms did not count in this picture.

But in raising questions of this kind, a jurisprudence with our [natural law] perspective would pose the question insistently: what is the ground of principle on which the law may remove a whole class of human beings from the circle of rights-bearing beings who may be subject to the protections of the law?

The “ground of reason,” though I hesitate to call it that, is the libertarian doctrine of self-ownership (which is tautologous). The child in the womb is dependent on the mother for its life. It is therefore up to the mother to decide whether the “demands” of the child in the womb should take precedence over other aspects of her life, including the remote possibility that bearing a child will kill her.

My objection to abortion is both empathic and prudential. Empathically, I can’t countenance what amounts to the brutal murder of an innocent human being for what is, in almost every case, a matter of convenience. Prudentially, abortion is a step down a slippery slope that leads to involuntary euthanasia. It puts the state on the wrong side of its only legitimate function, which is to protect the lives, liberty, and property of the citizenry.

In any event, Arkes’s essay is as much an attack on jurisprudence that scorns natural law as it is an explanation and defense of natural law. In that vein, Arkes says this:

I come then today, perhaps in the style of Edmund Burke, to make An Appeal from the Old Jurisprudence to the New: from the old jurisprudence, which relied on natural law as a matter of course, to a new conservative jurisprudence that has not only been resistant to natural law, but scorns it. At one level, some of the conservative jurists insist that their concern is merely prudential: Justice Antonin Scalia will say that he esteems the notion of natural law but the problem is there is no agreement on the content of natural law. Far better, he argues, that we simply concentrate on the text of the Constitution, or where the text is silent, on the way in which the text was “originally understood” by the men who framed and ratified it.

Justice Scalia’s key point — there is no agreement on the content of natural law — is underscored by two letters to the editor of the Claremont Review of Books, and Arkes’s reply to those letters (all found here). The writers take issue with Arkes’s pronouncements about the certainty of natural law. The crux of Arkes’s long and argumentative reply is that there are truths that may not be known to all people, but the truths nevertheless exist.

That attitude has two possible bases. The first is that Arkes is setting himself up as a member of the cognoscenti who knows what natural law is and is therefore qualified to reveal it to the ignorant. The second possibility, and the one that Arkes seems to prefer, is that reasonable people will ferret out the natural law. For example, here is a comment and reply about the 14th Amendment:

Max Hocutt: Arkes’s discussion of the 14th Amendment raises a very difficult question: its contemporaries believed mix-raced marriage to be contrary to nature. On the basis of what definition of nature is Arkes confident they were mistaken?

Arkes: It is quite arguable in this vein that the framers of the 14th Amendment did not understand the implications of their own principles when they insisted that nothing in that amendment would be at odds with the laws that barred marriage across racial lines. On the other hand, Mr. Hocutt may want to argue that there was no inconsistency, that there may be some kind of argument in prudence, or perhaps even a racial principle, that could make it justified to bar marriage across racial lines. Well, it is quite possible to have that argument. And the only way of having the “argument”— the only thing that makes it an argument—is that there are standards of reason to which we can appeal to judge the soundness, the truth of falsity, of these reasons.

Clearly, Arkes believes that the “standards of reason” will result in a declaration that the 14th Amendment allows interracial marriage, even if the amendment’s framers didn’t intend that outcome. But Arkes concedes that there is an argument to be had. And that is why Justice Scalia (and I, and many others) say that there is no agreement on the content of natural law, and therefore no agreement as to the rights that ought to be considered “natural” because they flow from natural law.

For example, there is eloquent disagreement with Arkes’s views in Timothy Sandefur’s review of Arkes’s Constitutional Illusions and Anchoring Truths. Notably, Sandefur is also a proponent of natural rights, and I have sparred with him on the subject.

Endless arguments about natural law and natural rights will lead nowhere because even reasonable people will disagree about human nature and the rights that inhere in human beings, if any. In “Evolution, Human Nature, and ‘Natural Rights’,” I explain at length why human beings do not have inherent (i.e., inalienable or “natural”) rights, at least not in the way that Arkes would have it. In the end, I take my stand on negative rights and the Golden Rule:

The following observations set the stage for my explanation:

1. “Natural rights” inhere in a particular way; that is, according to Randy Barnett, they “do not proscribe how rights-holders ought to act towards others. Rather they describe how others ought to act towards rights-holders.” In other words, the thing (for want of a better word) that arises from my nature is not a set of negative rights that I own; rather, it is an inclination or imperative to treat others as if they have negative rights. To put it crudely, I am wired to leave others alone as long as they leave me alone; others are wired to leave me alone as long as I leave them alone.

2. The idea of being inclined or compelled to “act toward” is more plausible than idea that “natural rights” inhere in their holders. It is so because “act toward” suggests that we learn that it is a good thing (for us) to leave others alone, and not that we (each of us) has a soul or psyche on which is indelibly inscribed a right to be left alone.

3. That leads to the question of how one learns to leave others alone as he is left alone by them. Is it by virtue of evolution or by virtue of socialization? And if the learning is evolutionary, why does it seem not to be universal; that is, why it is so routinely ignored?

4. The painful truth that vast numbers of human beings — past and present — have not acted and do not act as if there are “natural rights” suggests that the notion of “natural rights” is of little practical consequence. It may sometimes serve as a rallying point for political action, but with mixed results. Consider, for example, the contrast between the American Revolution, with its Declaration of Independence, and the French Revolution, with its Déclaration des droits de l’Homme et du Citoyen.

5. Even if humans are wired to leave others alone as they are left alone, it is evident that they are not wired exclusively in that way.

And now, for my natural (but not biologically deterministic) explanation. It comes from my post, “The Golden Rule and the State“:

I call the Golden Rule a natural law because it’s neither a logical construct … nor a state-imposed one. Its long history and widespread observance (if only vestigial) suggest that it embodies an understanding that arises from the similar experiences of human beings across time and place. The resulting behavioral convention, the ethic of reciprocity, arises from observations about the effects of one’s behavior on that of others and mutual agreement (tacit or otherwise) to reciprocate preferred behavior, in the service of self-interest and empathy. That is to say, the convention is a consequence of the observed and anticipated benefits of adhering to it.

The Golden Rule implies the acceptance of negative rights as a way of ensuring peaceful (and presumably fruitful) human coexistence. But, as I point out, there is a “positive” side to the Golden rule:

[It] can be expanded into two, complementary sub-rules:

  • Do no harm to others, lest they do harm to you.
  • Be kind and charitable to others, and they will be kind and charitable to you.

The first sub-rule — the negative one — is compatible with the idea of negative rights, but it doesn’t demand them. The second sub-rule — the positive one — doesn’t yield positive rights because it’s a counsel to kindness and charity, not a command….

An ardent individualist — particularly an anarcho-capitalist — might insist that social comity can be based on the negative sub-rule… I doubt it. There’s but a short psychological distance from mean-spiritedness — failing to be kind and charitable — to sociopathy, a preference for harmful acts…. [K]indness and charity are indispensable to the development of mutual trust among people who live in close proximity, without the protective cover of an external agency (e.g., the state). Without mutual trust, mutual restraint becomes problematic and co-existence becomes a matter of “getting the other guy before he gets you” — a convention that I hereby dub the Radioactive Rule.

The Golden Rule is beneficial even where the state affords “protective cover,” because the state cannot be everywhere all the time. The institutions of civil society are essential to harmonious and productive coexistence. Where those institutions are strong, the state’s role (at least with respect to internal order) becomes less important. Conversely, where the state is especially intrusive, it usurps and displaces the institutions of civil society, leading to the breakdown of the Golden Rule, that is, to a kind of vestigial observance that, in the main, extends only to persons joined by social connections.

In sum, the Golden Rule represents a social compromise that reconciles the various natural imperatives of human behavior (envy, combativeness, meddlesomeness, etc.). Even though human beings have truly natural proclivities, those proclivities do not dictate the existence of “natural rights.” They certainly do not dictate “natural rights” that are solely the negative rights of libertarian doctrine. To the extent that negative rights prevail, it is as part and parcel of the “bargain” that is embedded in the Golden Rule; that is, they are honored not because of their innateness in humans but because of their beneficial consequences.


Among those of us who agree about the proper scope of rights, should the provenance of those rights matter? I think not. The assertion that there are “natural rights” (“inalienable rights”) makes for resounding rhetoric, but (a) it is often misused in the service of positive rights and (b) it makes no practical difference in a world where power routinely accrues to those who make the something-for-nothing promises of positive rights.

The real challenge for the proponents of negative rights — of liberty, in other words — is to overthrow the regulatory-welfare state’s “soft despotism” and nullify its vast array of positive rights. Libertarians, classical liberals, and libertarian-minded conservatives ought to unite around that effort, rather than divide on the provenance of negative rights.

Given the broad range of disagreement about the meaning of the Constitution and the content of natural law, neither will necessarily lead to judicial outcomes of which both Arkes and I approve. What really matters is whether or not judges are conservative in the sense that they are committed to the peaceful, voluntary evolution and exercise of social and economic relationships. Conservative judges of that stripe will more reliably use the words of the Constitution to protect and preserve the voluntary institutions of civil society and the salutary traditions that emerge from them. It is, after all, the Constitution that judges are sworn to support and defend, not amorphous conceptions of natural law and natural rights. As I say in “How Libertarians Ought to Think about the Constitution,” the document “may be a legal fiction, but … it’s a useful fiction when its promises of liberty can be redeemed.”

Arkes’s complaints about Justice Scalia and other strict constitutionalists exemplifies the adage that “perfect is the enemy of good.” The real alternative to Scalia and others similarly inclined isn’t a lineup of judges committed to Arkes’s particular view of natural law and natural rights. The real alternative to Scalia and others similarly inclined is a Court packed with the likes of Douglas, Warren, Brennan, Blackmun, Stevens, Kennedy, Souter, Breyer, Ginsburg, Sotomayor, and Kagan — to name (in chrononlogical order) only the worst in a long list of egregious appointments to the Supreme Court since the New Deal.

I prefer the good — reliably conservative justices like Scalia, Thomas, and Alito — to the impossible perfection sought by Hadley Arkes.

Related posts:
The Real Constitution: I
Negative Rights
Negative Rights, Social Norms, and the Constitution
Rights, Liberty, the Golden Rule, and the Legitimate State
The Real Constitution and Civil Disobedience
“Natural Rights” and Consequentialism
Positivism, “Natural Rights,” and Libertarianism
What Are “Natural Rights”?
The Golden Rule and the State
Evolution, Human Nature, and “Natural Rights”
The Golden Rule as Beneficial Learning
Human Nature, Liberty, and Rationalism
Libertarianism and Morality
Libertarianism and Morality: A Footnote
Merit Goods, Positive Rights, and Cosmic Justice
More about Merit Goods
Liberty, Negative Rights, and Bleeding Hearts
Liberty as a Social Construct: Moral Relativism?
The Futile Search for “Natural Rights”
How Libertarians Ought to Think about the Constitution
More About Social Norms and Liberty
Liberty and Social Norms Re-examined
Natural Law, Natural Rights, and the Real World

Privatizing Marriage: Alabama Takes a Step in the Right Direction

I posted “Marriage: Privatize It and Revitalize It” on July 14, 2015, in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Justice Anthony Kennedy’s decision in Obergefell v. Hodges. I said that

I used to oppose the privatization of marriage because I believed, naively, that it would be protected by government. By “marriage” I mean the ages-old institution through which heterosexual couples conjoined their lives — an institution that arose without benefit of government, and which government has subverted.

I now believe privatization to be a good idea because a majority of the Supreme Court has made a mockery of marriage with its ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges. As a private institution, marriage would be accorded more respect than it will be accorded as a definitional whim of five justices….

How can government exit the marriage business? Rather easily, I believe. Each State still has the power to regulate marriage within its borders. A State could simply repeal its extant constitutional provisions and marriage laws and replace them with a fairly simple statute; for example … :

Marriage in this State is a private contractual arrangement between two mentally competent, adult persons whose consanguinity is of the 5th degree or greater, and who are not currently in a marriage.

This State shall not dictate the terms and conditions of marriage contracts, but each marriage contract must specify:

  • conditions (if any) for separation and divorce
  • provisions for financial support, the division of property, and the custody of children in the event of separation or divorce
  • obligations of the parties with respect to any children from a previous marriage
  • provisions for private counseling, and the arbitration of disputes arising under the marriage contract.  (If the parties are still in dispute after private proceedings, either or both of them may initiate a civil action, but there will be no special courts devoted to marital disputes and related matters.)

Every marriage contract shall be witnessed by two mentally competent adults.

The signing of a marriage contract, in the sole discretion of the parties thereto, may be preceded, accompanied, or followed by a ceremony and/or celebration, which shall be held in a private home, other private location, or place of religious worship. In accordance with the First and Fifth Amendments to the United States Constitution, neither this State nor the government of the United States may require any person, organization, or religious institution to perform or host a marriage ceremony and/or celebration.

No marriage ceremony or celebration shall be held in or on property owned, leased, or otherwise controlled by this State or any political subdivision or entity of this State.

No official of this State or of any political subdivision or entity of this State, acting in his or her official capacity, shall witness a marriage contract or perform or host a marriage ceremony or celebration.

In accordance with the First, Ninth, and Tenth Amendments to the United States Constitution, neither this State nor the government of the United States may require a person to witness a marriage contract against his or her will. It shall be the responsibility of the parties to a contract to obtain willing witnesses.

The legislature of Alabama seems poised to enact the privatization of marriage in that State, according to this report. The privatization bill (SB20) has been approved by the Senate of Alabama and has been referred to the Committee on the Judiciary of the Alabama House of Representatives. The bill, as it stands now, would

abolish the requirement that a marriage license be issued by the judge of probate and replace existing state statutory marriage law; to provide that a marriage would be entered into by two parties; to provide that the judge of probate would record each marriage presented to the probate court for recording and would forward the document to the Office of Vital Statistics; to provide for the content of a properly formed marriage…

Two persons desiring to unite in marriage may do so by submitting the affidavits, forms, and data specified in Section 30-1-5 and Section 2 of the act amending this section for recording with the office of the judge of probate. The recording of the affidavits, forms, and data establishes legal recognition of the marriage as of the date the affidavits and forms were properly signed by the two parties so long as such documentation was provided to the probate office within 30 days of the signatures of the parties. Each marriage filed with the probate office shall be filed and registered with the Office of Vital Statistics….

On the effective date of this act and thereafter, the only requirement for a marriage in this state shall be for parties who are otherwise legally authorized to be married to enter into a marriage as provided herein….

A civil and independent or religious ceremony of marriage, celebration of marriage, solemnization of marriage, or any other officiation, or administration of the vows of marriage may be conducted or engaged in by the parties by an officiant or other presiding person to be selected by the persons entering into the marriage. The state shall have no requirement for any such ceremony or proceeding which, if performed or not performed, will have no legal effect upon the validity of the marriage….

All requirements to obtain a marriage license by the State of Alabama are hereby abolished and repealed. The requirement of a ceremony of marriage to solemnize the marriage is abolished.

There’s language about the conditions that enable or prohibit parties to enter into a marriage contract (e.g., minimum age, degree of relationship). And State law regarding “divorce, spousal support, child custody, or child support” still stands. But the thrust of the bill is to take the State of Alabama out of the business of authorizing and approving marriages.

The bill doesn’t specifically forbid coerced participation in homosexual “marriages.” There will undoubtedly be law suits aimed at coercing such participation (e.g., requiring private wedding chapels to perform same-sex “marriages”).

Those suits will land in the U.S. Supreme Court. I hope that Justice Kennedy vanishes from the Court before that day (see this), and that the day of his disappearance comes long before January 20, 2021.

Related posts:
Same-Sex Marriage
“Equal Protection” and Homosexual Marriage
Perry v. Schwarzenegger, Due Process, and Equal Protection
Rationalism, Social Norms, and Same-Sex “Marriage”
The Myth That Same-Sex “Marriage” Causes No Harm
Getting “Equal Protection” Right
Posner the Fatuous
The Writing on the Wall
The Beginning of the End of Liberty in America
Marriage: Privatize It and Revitalize It
Equal Protection in Principle and Practice

Supreme Court Lines of Succession, Updated


The updated page takes account of the confirmation of Neil Gorsuch to succeed Antonin Scalia. I have also updated a graph that shows the extent to which each justice has disagreed with other justices; it now covers October Term 2005 – October Term 2016. And there’s a new graph which shows the extent to which each justice has defected from his or her wing of the Court, by term. It shows, unsurprisingly, that in recent terms Anthony Kennedy has disagreed with the conservative (Alito, Roberts, Scalia, and Thomas) more frequently than he has diagreed with the “liberals” (Breyer, Ginsburg, Kagan, and Sotomayor). The graph also underscores Roberts’s recent weakness.

LBJ’s Dereliction of Duty


I mentioned H.R. McMaster‘s Dereliction of Duty: Johnson, McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff in “Presidents and War.” Having finished reading the book, I must say that McMaster was derelict in his duty to give a full and honest account of the role of the service chiefs in the early stages of the Vietnam War.

The book’s focus is on the political-military machinations of November 1963 to July 1965. Most of the book is taken up with a detailed (almost monotonous) chronological narrative. It reads like a parody of Groundhog Day: Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara was fixated on “graduated pressure,” as were Secretary of State Dean Rusk and Ambassador (to South Vietnam) Maxwell Taylor; the service chiefs and General William Westmoreland (Commander, U.S. Military Assistance Command, Vietnam) kept asking for more, but without a clear strategy; McNamara kept President Lyndon Johnson (LBJ) in the dark about those requests; when the chiefs met with LBJ, he played the pity card and persuaded them that he was in a tough spot, so they went along without vocal dissent. General Earle Wheeler, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, played along with McNamara and LBJ. Lather, rinse, and repeat ad nauseum.

In the narrative and subsequent analysis, LBJ and McNamara come across as the real heavies, which is what I thought of them at the time. (Regarding McNamara, see “The McNamara Legacy: A Personal Perspective.”) McMaster indicts the service chiefs for not agreeing on a unified approach to the war, and then for failing to object (with one voice) to LBJ”s temporizing approach, which McNamara abetted by pushing “graduated pressure.” LBJ’s aim was to prevent Congress and the public from seeing how deeply the U.S. was getting committed (though far from adequately), so that LBJ could (a) win the election in 1964 and (b) keep the focus on his Great Society program in 1965. The only quasi-hero of the story is General Wallace Greene, Commandant of the Marine Corps, who finally voices his dissent from the go-along attitude of the chiefs. He does it en famille and then in a meeting with LBJ. But he is ignored.

Though McMaster goes into great detail about people and events, there’s nothing really new (to me), except for the revelation that the chiefs were supine — at least through July 1965. LBJ’s deviousness and focus on the election and his domestic programs is unsurprising. McNamara’s arrogance and rejection of the chiefs’ views is unsurprising. Service parochialism is unsurprising. The lack of a commitment by LBJ and McNamara to winning the war and devising a requisite strategy are unsurprising.

But there was something at the back of my mind when I was reading Dereliction of Duty which told me that the chiefs weren’t as negligent as McMaster paints them. It has since come to the front of my mind. McMaster’s narrative ends in July 1965, and he bases his conclusions on events up until then. However, there was a showdown between the chiefs and LBJ in November 1965. As recounted by Lt. Gen. Charles Cooper, USMC (Ret.), who was a junior officer at the time (and present at the showdown), “the chiefs did their duty.”

Here’s  a portion of Cooper’s story, which is drawn from his memoir, Cheers and Tears: A Marine’s Story of Combat in Peace and War (2002):

It was a beautiful fall day in November of 1965; early in the Vietnam War-too beautiful a day to be what many of us, anticipating it, had been calling “the day of reckoning.” We didn’t know how accurate that label would be….

The Vietnam War was in its first year, and its uncertain direction troubled Admiral McDonald and the other service chiefs. They’d had a number of disagreements with Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara about strategy, and had finally requested a private meeting with the Commander in Chief — a perfectly legitimate procedure. Now, after many delays, the Joint Chiefs were finally to have that meeting. They hoped it would determine whether the US military would continue its seemingly directionless buildup to fight a protracted ground war, or take bold measures that would bring the war to an early and victorious end. The bold measures they would propose were to apply massive air power to the head of the enemy, Hanoi, and to close North Vietnam’s harbors by mining them….

Despite the lack of a clear-cut intelligence estimate, Admiral McDonald and the other Joint Chiefs did what they were paid to do and reached a conclusion. They decided unanimously that the risk of the Chinese or Soviets reacting to massive US measures taken in North Vietnam was acceptably low, but only if we acted without delay. Unfortunately, the Secretary of Defense and his coterie of civilian “whiz kids” did not agree with the Joint Chiefs, and McNamara and his people were the ones who were actually steering military strategy. In the view of the Joint Chiefs, the United States was piling on forces in Vietnam without understanding the consequences. In the view of McNamara and his civilian team, we were doing the right thing. This was the fundamental dispute that had caused the Chiefs to request the seldom-used private audience with the Commander in Chief in order to present their military recommendations directly to him. McNamara had finally granted their request….

The chiefs’ appointment with the President was for two o’clock, and Admiral McDonald and I arrived about 20 minutes early. The chiefs were ushered into a fairly large room across the hall from the Oval Office. I propped the map board on the arms of a fancy chair where all could view it, left two of the grease pencils in the tray attached to the bottom of the board, and stepped out into the corridor. One of the chiefs shut the door, and they conferred in private until someone on the White House staff interrupted them about fifteen minutes later. As they came out, I retrieved the map, and then joined them in the corridor outside the President’s office.

Precisely at two o’clock President Johnson emerged from the Oval Office and greeted the chiefs. He was all charm. He was also big: at three or more inches over six feet tall and something on the order of 250 pounds, he was bigger than any of the chiefs. He personally ushered them into his office, all the while delivering gracious and solicitous comments with a Texas accent far more pronounced than the one that came through when he spoke on television. Holding the map board as the chiefs entered, I peered between them, trying to find the easel. There was none. The President looked at me, grasped the situation at once, and invited me in, adding, “You can stand right over here.” I had become an easel-one with eyes and ears….

The essence of General Wheeler’s presentation was that we had come to an early moment of truth in our ever-increasing Vietnam involvement. We had to start using our principal strengths-air and naval power-to punish the North Vietnamese, or we would risk becoming involved in another protracted Asian ground war with no prospects of a satisfactory solution. Speaking for the chiefs, General Wheeler offered a bold course of action that would avoid protracted land warfare. He proposed that we isolate the major port of Haiphong through naval mining, blockade the rest of the North Vietnamese coastline, and simultaneously start bombing Hanoi with B-52’s.

General Wheeler then asked Admiral McDonald to describe how the Navy and Air Force would combine forces to mine the waters off Haiphong and establish a naval blockade. When Admiral McDonald finished, General McConnell added that speed of execution would be essential, and that we would have to make the North Vietnamese believe that we would increase the level of punishment if they did not sue for peace.

Normally, time dims our memories — but it hasn’t dimmed this one. My memory of Lyndon Johnson on that day remains crystal clear. While General Wheeler, Admiral McDonald, and General McConnell spoke, he seemed to be listening closely, communicating only with an occasional nod. When General McConnell finished, General Wheeler asked the President if he had any questions. Johnson waited a moment or so, then turned to Generals Johnson and Greene, who had remained silent during the briefing, and asked, “Do you fully support these ideas?” He followed with the thought that it was they who were providing the ground troops, in effect acknowledging that the Army and the Marines were the services that had most to gain or lose as a result of this discussion. Both generals indicated their agreement with the proposal. Seemingly deep in thought, President Johnson turned his back on them for a minute or so, then suddenly discarding the calm, patient demeanor he had maintained throughout the meeting, whirled to face them and exploded.

I almost dropped the map. He screamed obscenities, he cursed them personally, he ridiculed them for coming to his office with their “military advice.” Noting that it was he who was carrying the weight of the free world on his shoulders, he called them filthy names-shitheads, dumb shits, pompous assholes-and used “the F-word” as an adjective more freely than a Marine in boot camp would use it. He then accused them of trying to pass the buck for World War III to him. It was unnerving, degrading.

After the tantrum, he resumed the calm, relaxed manner he had displayed earlier and again folded his arms. It was as though he had punished them, cowed them, and would now control them. Using soft-spoken profanities, he said something to the effect that they all knew now that he did not care about their military advice. After disparaging their abilities, he added that he did expect their help.

He suggested that each one of them change places with him and assume that five incompetents had just made these “military recommendations.” He told them that he was going to let them go through what he had to go through when idiots gave him stupid advice, adding that he had the whole damn world to worry about, and it was time to “see what kind of guts you have.” He paused, as if to let it sink in. The silence was like a palpable solid, the tension like that in a drumhead. After thirty or forty seconds of this, he turned to General Wheeler and demanded that Wheeler say what he would do if he were the President of the United States.

General Wheeler took a deep breath before answering. He was not an easy man to shake: his calm response set the tone for the others. He had known coming in, as had the others that Lyndon Johnson was an exceptionally strong personality and a venal and vindictive man as well. He had known that the stakes were high, and now realized that McNamara had prepared Johnson carefully for this meeting, which had been a charade.

Looking President Johnson squarely in the eye, General Wheeler told him that he understood the tremendous pressure and sense of responsibility Johnson felt. He added that probably no other President in history had had to make a decision of this importance, and further cushioned his remarks by saying that no matter how much about the presidency he did understand, there were many things about it that only one human being could ever understand. General Wheeler closed his remarks by saying something very close to this: “You, Mr. President, are that one human being. I cannot take your place, think your thoughts, know all you know, and tell you what I would do if I were you. I can’t do it, Mr. President. No man can honestly do it. Respectfully, sir, it is your decision and yours alone.”

Apparently unmoved, Johnson asked each of the other Chiefs the same question. One at a time, they supported General Wheeler and his rationale. By now, my arms felt as though they were about to break. The map seemed to weigh a ton, but the end appeared to be near. General Greene was the last to speak.

When General Greene finished, President Johnson, who was nothing if not a skilled actor, looked sad for a moment, then suddenly erupted again, yelling and cursing, again using language that even a Marine seldom hears. He told them he was disgusted with their naive approach, and that he was not going to let some military idiots talk him into World War III. He ended the conference by shouting “Get the hell out of my office!”

The Joint Chiefs of Staff had done their duty. They knew that the nation was making a strategic military error, and despite the rebuffs of their civilian masters in the Pentagon, they had insisted on presenting the problem as they saw it to the highest authority and recommending solutions. They had done so, and they had been rebuffed. That authority had not only rejected their solutions, but had also insulted and demeaned them. [“The Day It Became the Longest War,” History News Network, January 20, 2007]

Emphasis added, with gusto.

This story, which I first read only a few years ago, underlines LBJ’s character as I had observed it since the 1950s, when he ran the U.S. Senate. America would be in a far better place today had LBJ succumbed to his first heart attack in 1955. With the possible exception of Franklin D. Roosevelt, LBJ did more damage to this country than any president, between his failure of leadership as commander-in-chief and his economically and socially debilitating Great Society.

It’s a pity that General Curtis LeMay (Chief of Staff of the Air Force until the end of 1964) and General Greene overlapped on the JCS for only one year (1964). Greene hadn’t yet worked himself up to stating openly his view of what it would take to win. As a team — if they could have been harnessed — they might have moved the JCS toward confronting McNamara and LBJ sooner. Confronted sooner, McNamara and LBJ might have opted to cut and run before committing the U.S. any more deeply to the bankrupt strategy of “graduated pressure.” By late 1965, however, cutting and running had become an unpalatable option for pseudo-macho LBJ, who would urge American soldiers to “nail that coonskin to the wall” but wouldn’t give them the wherewithal to accomplish the mission. In that respect, LBJ proved himself a typical “liberal,” full of rhetoric and willfully ignorant of reality.

P.S. A relevant recollection:

Sometime in 1965, when I was a young analyst at a defense think-tank, I was working with an officer at Headquarters, Marine Corps, on the issue of troop levels. I plotted a simple relationship between the number of Marines in-country and estimates of the number of Viet Cong killed in action. You would have thought that I had invented sliced bread. The Marine officer arranged for me to present my analysis to General Greene, who arranged for me to present it to Secretary of the Navy Paul Nitze, in an effort to buttress the case for a larger infusion or Marine combat units. I don’t know the effect of my analysis, if any. And, frankly, I was embarrassed to be presenting such a simple-minded analysis to the Secretary of the Navy.

ADDENDUM 04/13/17

No discussion of LBJ’s failure of leadership should pass without mentioning the accusation leveled by General “Pete” Piotrowski USAF (Ret.) in Basic Airman to General: The Secret War & Other Conflicts: Lessons in Leadership & Life. The following passage (from pp. 246-247) is quoted by Don Jewell in “Flying without GPS One Dark, Stormy Night” (GPS World, March 11, 2015):

Nearly twenty years later, [ed. after the Vietnam War ended] I saw former Secretary of State Dean Rusk being interviewed by Peter Arnett on a CBS [ed. CBC] documentary called “The Ten Thousand Day War.” Mr. Arnett asked, “It has been rumored that the United States provided the North Vietnamese government the names of the targets that would be bombed the following day. Is there any truth to that allegation?”

To my astonishment and absolute disgust, the former Secretary responded, “Yes. We didn’t want to harm the North Vietnamese people, so we passed the targets to the Swiss embassy in Washington with instructions to pass them to the NVN government through their embassy in Hanoi.” As I watched in horror, Secretary Rusk went on to say, “All we wanted to do is demonstrate to the North Vietnamese leadership that we could strike targets at will, but we didn’t want to kill innocent people. By giving the North Vietnamese advanced warning of the targets to be attacked, we thought they would tell the workers to stay home.”

No wonder all the targets were so heavily defended day after day! The NVN obviously moved as many guns as they could overnight to better defend each target they knew was going to be attacked.  Clearly, many brave American Air Force and Navy fliers died or spent years in NVN prison camps as a direct result of being intentionally betrayed by Secretary Rusk and Secretary McNamara, and perhaps, President Johnson himself. I cannot think of a more duplicitous and treacherous act of American government officials.  Dean Rusk served as Secretary of State from January 21, 1961, through to January 20, 1969, under President John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson.  Perhaps Senator John McCain, POW for five years and presidential candidate in 2008, was one of the many victims of this utter stupidity and flawed policy flowing from President Lyndon B. Johnson. Mr. Peter Arnett opined that this would be a treasonous act by anyone else.”

Senator J. William Fulbright alludes to the warnings in episode 6 of a 13-part CBC documentary, Vietnam: The Ten Thousand Day War. The segment starts around 1:10. Later, around 4:45, there’s a general discussion about targeting. Rusk is on-camera briefly, talking about the routing of attack aircraft. It has been alleged that his original admission about revealing targeting information to the North Vietnamese was excised. It’s a credible allegation, inasmuch as Rusk’s comment doesn’t make sense.

The Intransitivity of Political Philosphy

Rachel Lu, in an excellent post at The Public Discourse (“How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Libertarian Atheists,” April 5, 2017), writes:

Undergraduates like communism and libertarianism for the same reasons they like utilitarianism and the categorical imperative. These theories are expansive in their reach, claiming to explain every aspect of the universe from the Milky Way to marriage….

Economy notwithstanding, I see low buy-in theories as a poor value. Like cheap appliances, they look neat in the packaging. Once you start trying to use them, it becomes clear that they’re riddled with bugs. When a political or moral view is grounded in just a few conceptually simple premises, the fleshed-out picture never turns out to be either satisfying or plausible….

My few abortive efforts to read Ayn Rand never got very far. Compared to the ancients and medievals, she seemed utterly plebeian, stomping all over subtle realities in clunky too-large boots. That just sealed my conviction that libertarians were simplistic dunderheads who couldn’t handle the complexity of real life….

… When I first ventured into the political sphere, it quickly became evident that libertarians were far more numerous there. They were a genuinely diverse lot, not fitting all my stereotypes. Some offered astute and fairly subtle social critiques. Some combined Hayekian political ideas with more robust moral views, making for a more interesting blend of influences than I had seen in the academy. I lightened up a little on libertarians….

Have I now repented of my grim assessment of libertarianism? Not entirely. I do still think that most libertarians (serious devotees of Rand, for instance) are metaphysically impoverished to some extent….

In the introduction to God and Man at Yale, William F. Buckley expresses gratitude for the help of Albert J. Nock, whom he describes as “a fine essayist whose thought turned on a single spit: all the reasons why one should be distrustful of state activity, round, and round, and round again.”

This is a wonderful description of a type I know well. Libertarians do indeed obsess over the negative ramifications of government interference. It can become exasperating, and at one time it seemed to me like a serious limitation. If your life’s overwhelming obsession is getting Uncle Sam off your back, you may find yourself thin on ideas for what to do with that cherished liberty.

Still, when a mind relentlessly works on a particular set of questions, it may unearth some useful things. Many libertarians (Milton Friedman, for instance) are genuinely brilliant at working through the potential negative ramifications of government involvement in human life….

There is certainly more to human life than repelling the advances of aggressive government. Still, in modern times, the growth of Leviathan does in fact pose a very significant threat to human thriving.

So far, so good. Lu has nailed the kind of simplistic libertarianism of which I long ago became intolerant, to the point that I have rejected the libertarian label.

Lu turns to Trump:

[T]he “Trumpian skeptic” room just kept getting emptier, and emptier, and still emptier. In the end, there was only one group of fellow travelers who reliably proved impervious to the Trumpian allure. They were my old friends, the libertarian atheists….

Obviously, I am generalizing; I still know a great many anti-Trump religious conservatives. I also do not wish to imply that all people who supported Trump, even in a limited way, should be seen as sellouts or opportunists. I understand why some reluctantly voted for Trump, despite grave concerns about his character. Nonetheless, it did really seem that a great many people whom I once viewed as “like-minded” (religious conservatives and intellectuals of a broadly Aristotelian bent) were, in a sense, seduced by Trump. It was excruciating to watch. Most people started tentatively with a “lesser evils” argument, but soon their justifications and even mannerisms made clear that they had given him, not just their votes, but also an alarming measure of loyalty, trust, and even love. Of course, many people had very legitimate concerns about the judiciary, the left’s cultural aggression, and so forth. None of that can fully explain the enthusiasm, which drew people into a complicity that went far beyond what pragmatic concerns alone could justify. The traditionalists felt the tug of Trump’s cultural nostalgia. Also, of course, they hated the political left.

And there you have it: Traditional conservatives oppose simplistic libertarianism; simplistic libertarians oppose Trump (to put it mildly); therefore, traditional conservatives should oppose Trump. But not all of them do. Why not? Because real life isn’t reducible to logic. Logic, in this case, is trumped (pun intended) by hatred for the political left, which seems (with a great deal of justification) to pose a far greater threat to liberty and prosperity than Trumpism (whatever that is).

FDR and Fascism: More Data

Almost ten years ago I wrote “FDR and Fascism.” I wouldn’t change a word of it. But I would add to the list of FDR’s sins the several cited by David Beito in “FDR’s War Against the Press” (, April 5, 2017):

Convinced that the media were out to get him, Roosevelt warned in 1938 that “our newspapers cannot be edited in the interests of the general public….”

Roosevelt’s relationship with radio was warmer. The key distinction was that broadcasters operated in an entirely different political context: Thanks to federal rules and administrators, they had to tread much more lightly than newspapers did. At its inception in 1934, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) reduced the license renewal period for stations from three years to only six months….

It did not take long for broadcasters to get the message. NBC, for example, announced that it was limiting broadcasts “contrary to the policies of the United States government.” CBS Vice President Henry A. Bellows said that “no broadcast would be permitted over the Columbia Broadcasting System that in any way was critical of any policy of the Administration.” He elaborated “that the Columbia system was at the disposal of President Roosevelt and his administration and they would permit no broadcast that did not have his approval.” Local station owners and network executives alike took it for granted, as Editor and Publisher observed, that each station had “to dance to Government tunes because it is under Government license.”…

Roosevelt’s intimidation efforts reached their apogee in the hands of the Special Senate Committee on Lobbying. The president indirectly recruited Sen. Hugo L. Black (D–Ala.), a zealous and effective New Deal loyalist, as chair. The committee’s original mission was to probe the opposition campaign to the “death sentence” in the Public Utility Holding Company Bill, a provision that would have allowed, under certain circumstances, the dissolution of utility holding companies…. Smelling blood, Black expanded the investigation into a general probe of anti–New Deal voices, including journalists.

The Treasury granted Black access to tax returns dating back to 1925 of such critics as David Lawrence of the United States News. Then he moved to obtain his targets’ private telegrams, demanding that telegraph companies let the committee search copies of all incoming and outgoing telegrams for the first nine months of 1935. When Western Union refused on privacy grounds, the FCC, at Black’s urging, ordered it to comply.

Over a nearly three-month period at the end of 1935, FCC and Black Committee staffers searched great stacks of telegrams in Western Union’s D.C. office. Operating with virtually no restriction, they read the communications of sundry lobbyists, newspaper publishers, and conservative political activists as well as every member of Congress. Writing to Black, one investigator stated that they had gone through “35,000 to 50,000 per day.” Various newspapers and members of Congress later estimated that staffers had examined some five million telegrams over the course of the investigation….

The committee used the information it found as a basis for more than 1,000 new subpoenas. One of these was for all incoming and outgoing telegrams, not just those sent through Washington, D.C., of W.H. Cowles’ anti–New Deal newspaper chain in the Northwest….

The committee’s most powerful champion was Roosevelt himself, although he carefully avoided tipping his hand in public. He referred specifically to the Black Committee at a May 1936 meeting, according to former FDR advisor Raymond D. Moley. In the midst of a “nightmarish conversation [that] went on and on in circles for some two hours,” Moley bluntly asked Roosevelt about the lack of “moral indignation” when Black’s committee had “ruthlessly invaded the privacy of citizens.” Moley opined that he would rather let the guilty “go free than to establish the principle of dragnet investigations.” Roosevelt responded with a long discourse on how Black’s actions had “ample precedent.” Moley inferred that Roosevelt believed “the end justified the means.”…

In 1937, the president overplayed his hand by pushing a plan to appoint additional justices to the U.S. Supreme Court. The hard pushback, most visibly by Democrats, threw him off balance. A leader in the opposition was the Committee for Constitutional Government (CCG), led by publisher Frank Gannett, formed only days after Roosevelt announced his plan. The CCG pioneered direct mail methods and had an impressive list of supporters, including the progressive reformer and civil libertarian Amos Pinchot, the novelist Booth Tarkington, and the Rev. Norman Vincent Peale. The group soon expanded its agenda to oppose the New Deal as a whole.

Alarmed New Dealers resumed the investigations of the Senate Special Committee on Lobbying to target those who opposed “objectives of the administration.” By this time Black had joined the Supreme Court, so now Sen. Minton was chair. Minton was an even more zealous defender of Roosevelt’s agenda than Black had been. According to credible accounts, Roosevelt had first offered him the Supreme Court job that later went to Black but Minton demurred, wanting to stay in the Senate.

[Minton’s] methods were … extremely heavy-handed. Committee staffers arrived en masse at the CCG’s office, where they began copying financial records, membership lists, and other files. After watching this for some time, Edward H. Rumely, the CCG’s energetic secretary, ordered them out, charging an illegal “fishing expedition.” Meanwhile, the Department of the Treasury gave Minton access to Rumely’s income tax returns. The defiant secretary refused to hand over donor or member lists on the grounds that the demand violated privacy and constitutional rights. The Justice Department contemplated a prosecution but ultimately decided that it might backfire by making Rumely a martyr.

Minton struck back by proposing a “libel bill” imposing a prison sentence of up to two years for publishing newspapers or magazine articles “known to be false.” (Many years later, a confidante of Minton said that someone else, possibly from the administration, had asked him to do it.)….

… Asked at a press conference to take a stand on Minton’s bill, [Roosevelt] punted, joking that he did not think the federal government had sufficient funds to build enough new prisons to make room for everyone who could be convicted under such a law. Before moving on to the next question, he quipped for the benefit of the reporters present: “You boys asked for it, you know.”

The article is meant as a warning against Trump’s supposedly fascistic character. I believe that Trump has been misread, though not without reason. He is an expert at making noise and issuing threats, but his bluster seems to be a negotiating stance and a strategem for deflecting criticism. (It worked in the case of the “wiretapping” accusation; the Obama administration is now on the defensive, as it should be.)

As far as I can tell, Trump has thus far refrained from seizing power in the manner of FDR. He is even obeying unconstitutional court orders regarding his visa restrictions, whereas I would ignore them.

If I see evidence that Trump is actually a fascist like FDR, I won’t hesitate to say so.

Institutional Bias

Arnold Kling:

On the question of whether Federal workers are overpaid relative to private sector workers, [Justin Fox] writes,

The Federal Salary Council, a government advisory body composed of labor experts and government-employee representatives, regularly finds that federal employees make about a third less than people doing similar work in the private sector. The conservative American Enterprise Institute and Heritage Foundation, on the other hand, have estimated that federal employees make 14 percent and 22 percent more, respectively, than comparable private-sector workers….

… Could you have predicted ahead of time which organization’s “research” would find a result favorable to Federal workers and which organization would find unfavorable results? Of course you could. So how do you sustain the belief that normative economics and positive economics are distinct from one another, that economic research cleanly separates facts from values?

I saw institutional bias at work many times in my career as an analyst at a tax-funded think-tank. My first experience with it came in the first project to which I was assigned. The issue at hand was a hot one on those days: whether the defense budget should be altered to increase the size of the Air Force’s land-based tactical air (tacair)  forces while reducing the size of Navy’s carrier-based counterpart. The Air Force’s think-tank had issued a report favorable to land-based tacair (surprise!), so the Navy turned to its think-tank (where I worked). Our report favored carrier-based tacair (surprise!).

How could two supposedly objective institutions study the same issue and come to opposite conclusions? Analytical fraud abetted by overt bias? No, that would be too obvious to the “neutral” referees in the Office of the Secretary of Defense. (Why “neutral”? Read this.)

Subtle bias is easily introduced when the issue is complex, as the tacair issue was. Where would tacair forces be required? What payloads would fighters and bombers carry? How easy would it be to set up land bases? How vulnerable would they be to an enemy’s land and air forces? How vulnerable would carriers be to enemy submarines and long-range bombers? How close to shore could carriers approach? How much would new aircraft, bases, and carriers cost to buy and maintain? What kinds of logistical support would they need, and how much would it cost? And on and on.

Hundreds, if not thousands, of assumptions underlay the results of the studies. Analysts at the Air Force’s think-tank chose those assumptions that favored the Air Force; analysts at the Navy’s think-tank chose those assumptions that favored the Navy.

Why? Not because analysts’ jobs were at stake; they weren’t. Not because the Air Force and Navy directed the outcomes of the studies; they didn’t. They didn’t have to because “objective” analysts are human beings who want “their side” to win. When you work for an institution you tend to identify with it; its success becomes your success, and its failure becomes your failure.

The same was true of the “neutral” analysts in the Office of the Secretary of Defense. They knew which way Mr. McNamara leaned on any issue, and they found themselves drawn to the assumptions that would justify his biases.

And so it goes. Bias is a rampant and ineradicable aspect of human striving. It’s ever-present in the political arena The current state of affairs in Washington, D.C., is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg.

The prevalence and influence of bias in matters that affect hundreds of millions of Americans is yet another good reason to limit the power of government.

Four Kinds of “Liberals”

These aren’t mutually exclusive categories:

Controllers – Just do it our way because (a) we have “science/social justice” on our side; (b) because we want it that way even if the “science” is phony and “social justice” is nothing but a slogan; and (c) we have the power to make you do it our way, and we love to use power.

Risk-avoiders — Somebody somewhere was harmed by something, or might be harmed by something, so we’re going to enforce some rules in the vain hope of preventing more harm, and we don’t care (or even think) about the cost of those rules in foregone economic growth, employment, personal liberty, or self-reliance (i.e., learning from experience).

Misguided libertarians — Liberty is okay, as long as it doesn’t have consequences of which we disapprove, such as any kind of discrimination, (relative) poverty, or the merest hint that an innocent person has been imprisoned — in fact, “too many” people (of the wrong color) are in prison (even though the crime rate is much lower as a result). And liberty means the absence of violence except in the final (probably futile) throes of self-defense (if then) because everyone is a sane and reasonable as we are.

Free riders – Hey, if government is giving away “free” stuff or granting privileges to certain groups, I’m all for more government (I just don’t want to pay for it).

Not-So-Random Thoughts (XX)

An occasional survey of web material that’s related to subjects about which I’ve posted. Links to the other posts in this series may be found at “Favorite Posts,” just below the list of topics.

In “The Capitalist Paradox Meets the Interest-Group Paradox,” I quote from Frédéric Bastiat’s “What Is Seen and What Is Not Seen“:

[A] law produces not only one effect, but a series of effects. Of these effects, the first alone is immediate; it appears simultaneously with its cause; it is seen. The other effects emerge only subsequently; they are not seen; we are fortunate if we foresee them.

This might also be called the law of unintended consequences. It explains why so much “liberal” legislation is passed: the benefits are focused a particular group and obvious (if overestimated); the costs are borne by taxpayers in general, many of whom fail to see that the sum of “liberal” legislation is a huge tax bill.

Ross Douthat understands:

[A] new paper, just released through the National Bureau of Economic Research, that tries to look at the Affordable Care Act in full. Its authors find, as you would expect, a substantial increase in insurance coverage across the country. What they don’t find is a clear relationship between that expansion and, again, public health. The paper shows no change in unhealthy behaviors (in terms of obesity, drinking and smoking) under
Obamacare, and no statistically significant improvement in self-reported health since the law went into effect….

[T]he health and mortality data [are] still important information for policy makers, because [they] indicate[] that subsidies for health insurance are not a uniquely death-defying and therefore sacrosanct form of social spending. Instead, they’re more like other forms of redistribution, with costs and benefits that have to be weighed against one another, and against other ways to design a safety net. Subsidies for employer-provided coverage crowd out wages, Medicaid coverage creates benefit cliffs and work disincentives…. [“Is Obamacare a Lifesaver?The New York Times, March 29, 2017]

So does Roy Spencer:

In a theoretical sense, we can always work to make the environment “cleaner”, that is, reduce human pollution. So, any attempts to reduce the EPA’s efforts will be viewed by some as just cozying up to big, polluting corporate interests. As I heard one EPA official state at a conference years ago, “We can’t stop making the environment ever cleaner”.

The question no one is asking, though, is “But at what cost?

It was relatively inexpensive to design and install scrubbers on smokestacks at coal-fired power plants to greatly reduce sulfur emissions. The cost was easily absorbed, and electricty rates were not increased that much.

The same is not true of carbon dioxide emissions. Efforts to remove CO2 from combustion byproducts have been extremely difficult, expensive, and with little hope of large-scale success.

There is a saying: don’t let perfect be the enemy of good enough.

In the case of reducing CO2 emissions to fight global warming, I could discuss the science which says it’s not the huge problem it’s portrayed to be — how warming is only progressing at half the rate forecast by those computerized climate models which are guiding our energy policy; how there have been no obvious long-term changes in severe weather; and how nature actually enjoys the extra CO2, with satellites now showing a “global greening” phenomenon with its contribution to increases in agricultural yields.

But it’s the economics which should kill the Clean Power Plan and the alleged Social “Cost” of Carbon. Not the science.

There is no reasonable pathway by which we can meet more than about 20% of global energy demand with renewable energy…the rest must come mostly from fossil fuels. Yes, renewable energy sources are increasing each year, usually because rate payers or taxpayers are forced to subsidize them by the government or by public service commissions. But global energy demand is rising much faster than renewable energy sources can supply. So, for decades to come, we are stuck with fossil fuels as our main energy source.

The fact is, the more we impose high-priced energy on the masses, the more it will hurt the poor. And poverty is arguably the biggest threat to human health and welfare on the planet. [“Trump’s Rollback of EPA Overreach: What No One Is Talking About,” Roy Spencer, Ph.D.[blog], March 29, 2017]

*     *     *

I mentioned the Benedict Option in “Independence Day 2016: The Way Ahead,” quoting Bruce Frohnen in tacit agreement:

[Rod] Dreher has been writing a good deal, of late, about what he calls the Benedict Option, by which he means a tactical withdrawal by people of faith from the mainstream culture into religious communities where they will seek to nurture and strengthen the faithful for reemergence and reengagement at a later date….

The problem with this view is that it underestimates the hostility of the new, non-Christian society [e.g., this and this]….

Leaders of this [new, non-Christian] society will not leave Christians alone if we simply surrender the public square to them. And they will deny they are persecuting anyone for simply applying the law to revoke tax exemptions, force the hiring of nonbelievers, and even jail those who fail to abide by laws they consider eminently reasonable, fair, and just.

Exactly. John Horvat II makes the same point:

For [Dreher], the only response that still remains is to form intentional communities amid the neo-barbarians to “provide an unintentional political witness to secular culture,” which will overwhelm the barbarian by the “sheer humanity of Christian compassion, and the image of human dignity it honors.” He believes that setting up parallel structures inside society will serve to protect and preserve Christian communities under the new neo-barbarian dispensation. We are told we should work with the political establishment to “secure and expand the space within which we can be ourselves and our own institutions” inside an umbrella of religious liberty.

However, barbarians don’t like parallel structures; they don’t like structures at all. They don’t co-exist well with anyone. They don’t keep their agreements or respect religious liberty. They are not impressed by the holy lives of the monks whose monastery they are plundering. You can trust barbarians to always be barbarians. [“Is the Benedict Option the Answer to Neo-Barbarianism?Crisis Magazine, March 29, 2017]

As I say in “The Authoritarianism of Modern Liberalism, and the Conservative Antidote,”

Modern liberalism attracts persons who wish to exert control over others. The stated reasons for exerting control amount to “because I know better” or “because it’s good for you (the person being controlled)” or “because ‘social justice’ demands it.”

Leftists will not countenance a political arrangement that allows anyone to escape the state’s grasp — unless, of course, the state is controlled by the “wrong” party, In which case, leftists (or many of them) would like to exercise their own version of the Benedict Option. See “Polarization and De Facto Partition.”

*     *     *

Theodore Dalrymple understands the difference between terrorism and accidents:

Statistically speaking, I am much more at risk of being killed when I get into my car than when I walk in the streets of the capital cities that I visit. Yet this fact, no matter how often I repeat it, does not reassure me much; the truth is that one terrorist attack affects a society more deeply than a thousand road accidents….

Statistics tell me that I am still safe from it, as are all my fellow citizens, individually considered. But it is precisely the object of terrorism to create fear, dismay, and reaction out of all proportion to its volume and frequency, to change everyone’s way of thinking and behavior. Little by little, it is succeeding. [“How Serious Is the Terrorist Threat?City Journal, March 26, 2017]

Which reminds me of several things I’ve written, beginning with this entry from “Not-So-Random Thoughts (VI)“:

Cato’s loony libertarians (on matters of defense) once again trot out Herr Doktor Professor John Mueller. He writes:

We have calculated that, for the 12-year period from 1999 through 2010 (which includes 9/11, of course), there was one chance in 22 million that an airplane flight would be hijacked or otherwise attacked by terrorists. (“Serial Innumeracy on Homeland Security,” Cato@Liberty, July 24, 2012)

Mueller’s “calculation” consists of an recitation of known terrorist attacks pre-Benghazi and speculation about the status of Al-Qaeda. Note to Mueller: It is the unknown unknowns that kill you. I refer Herr Doktor Professor to “Riots, Culture, and the Final Showdown” and “Mission Not Accomplished.”

See also my posts “Getting It All Wrong about the Risk of Terrorism” and “A Skewed Perspective on Terrorism.”

*     *     *

This is from my post, “A Reflection on the Greatest Generation“:

The Greatest tried to compensate for their own privations by giving their children what they, the parents, had never had in the way of material possessions and “fun”. And that is where the Greatest Generation failed its children — especially the Baby Boomers — in large degree. A large proportion of Boomers grew up believing that they should have whatever they want, when they want it, with no strings attached. Thus many of them divorced, drank, and used drugs almost wantonly….

The Greatest Generation — having grown up believing that FDR was a secular messiah, and having learned comradeship in World War II — also bequeathed us governmental self-indulgence in the form of the welfare-regulatory state. Meddling in others’ affairs seems to be a predilection of the Greatest Generation, a predilection that the Millenials may be shrugging off.

We owe the Greatest Generation a great debt for its service during World War II. We also owe the Greatest Generation a reprimand for the way it raised its children and kowtowed to government. Respect forbids me from delivering the reprimand, but I record it here, for the benefit of anyone who has unduly romanticized the Greatest Generation.

There’s more in “The Spoiled Children of Capitalism“:

This is from Tim [of Angle’s] “The Spoiled Children of Capitalism“:

The rot set after World War II. The Taylorist techniques of industrial production put in place to win the war generated, after it was won, an explosion of prosperity that provided every literate American the opportunity for a good-paying job and entry into the middle class. Young couples who had grown up during the Depression, suddenly flush (compared to their parents), were determined that their kids would never know the similar hardships.

As a result, the Baby Boomers turned into a bunch of spoiled slackers, no longer turned out to earn a living at 16, no longer satisfied with just a high school education, and ready to sell their votes to a political class who had access to a cornucopia of tax dollars and no doubt at all about how they wanted to spend it….

I have long shared Tim’s assessment of the Boomer generation. Among the corroborating data are my sister and my wife’s sister and brother — Boomers all….

Low conscientiousness was the bane of those Boomers who, in the 1960s and 1970s, chose to “drop out” and “do drugs.”…

Now comes this:

According to writer and venture capitalist Bruce Gibney, baby boomers are a “generation of sociopaths.”

In his new book, he argues that their “reckless self-indulgence” is in fact what set the example for millennials.

Gibney describes boomers as “acting without empathy, prudence, or respect for facts – acting, in other words, as sociopaths.”

And he’s not the first person to suggest this.

Back in 1976, journalist Tom Wolfe dubbed the young adults then coming of age the “Me Generation” in the New York Times, which is a term now widely used to describe millennials.

But the baby boomers grew up in a very different climate to today’s young adults.

When the generation born after World War Two were starting to make their way in the world, it was a time of economic prosperity.

“For the first half of the boomers particularly, they came of age in a time of fairly effortless prosperity, and they were conditioned to think that everything gets better each year without any real effort,” Gibney explained to The Huffington Post.

“So they really just assume that things are going to work out, no matter what. That’s unhelpful conditioning.

“You have 25 years where everything just seems to be getting better, so you tend not to try as hard, and you have much greater expectations about what society can do for you, and what it owes you.”…

Gibney puts forward the argument that boomers – specifically white, middle-class ones – tend to have genuine sociopathic traits.

He backs up his argument with mental health data which appears to show that this generation have more anti-social characteristics than others – lack of empathy, disregard for others, egotism and impulsivity, for example. [Rachel Hosie, “Baby Boomers Are a Generation of Sociopaths,” Independent, March 23, 2017]

That’s what I said.