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Sunday, May 20, 2012

Why I harp so much on libertarianism

If anyone reads this blog regularly, they know I write a lot about libertarianism, and in most of those posts, I usually hasten to say that I am not a libertarian and explain why.  Why, then, do I write so much about it, spending precious time that I could devote to writing my dissertation?  I can think of at least two reasons.

First, I have a certain vision of how I'd like the world to be, a certain vision of what laws I'd like to see passed and of how people should treat each other and of how the state should influence how people treat each other.  This vision is not particularly coherent, nor is it all that unusual.  For example, I support gay marriage, I support universal health care provision, I support a robust social welfare system, I support an alert, but cautious role for the US in international relations (i.e., I don't like military intervention but am not fully convinced its always wrong), I support some forms of what I understand to be affirmative action, I support in principle a tax system in which the more affluent pay a greater share of their income, I support the end or sharp curtailment of the "war" on drugs, I'm coming around to supporting an open-borders immigration policy, and I support robust government coordination of the free market system (I'm purposefully avoiding the term "centralized planning" because that's not what I support).

But to be realized much (not all) of my vision would demand a certain intervention by the state, or something similar to a state.  And libertarianism provides the best critique of this vision.  And if I want to justify this vision, I find that overcoming, or at least addressing, this critique is essential.  In other words libertarianism, with its emphasis on individual "liberty" (variously and, in my opinion, often poorly defined), is a check on the authoritarian implications of my vision.

On some issues (the "war" on drugs, gay marriage), my vision is more or less compatible from the get-go with the received libertarian position (acknowledging that there is no one "received libertarian position").  On other issues--immigration policy, for example--I have been drawn more or less to the libertarian position, even if I strongly object to some of the arguments that are advanced in favor of that position.  (I really do think an "open-borders" policy is the most humane, and I support such a policy on the basis of what is humane, but I reject the frequent and sloganeering trope of "people just don't want to do the jobs immigrants do," which to my mind is mostly a way of rejecting out of hand many good-faith (if ultimately faulty) objections to open immigration.)

On still other issues, libertarian critiques have informed the way and degree to which I support certain policies.  In principle, I have no problem with compelling the more affluent to pay a higher income tax rate.  In practice, I realize one has to worry about the effects of a robust system of progressive taxation.  It's partly an issue of how much revenue is actually increased and how a tax structure may create or dismantle incentives to invest in the economy.  It's also partly an issue of fairness.  To the libertarian critique that income inequality is not necessarily so unfair that it demands government intervention, I am compelled to claim that the more affluent simply owe something to society in which they have benefited so much, which is a good assertion as far as it goes, but only if one already accepts the existence of an abstraction called "society" to which one can owe obligations.

Second, I'm already a strong believer in "individual liberty," even if I don't know what exactly I mean by "individual liberty" and even if I probably means something different from what libertarians mean by it.  Therefore my "vision" is largely congruent with what libertarians claim to want, even if I get to very different conclusions.  It is for that reason, for example, that I support measures for universal health care provision:  I believe that having a dependable and affordable access to health care helps make people "freer" because the cost of health care is thereby one less thing to worry about.  In practice, there are plenty of caveats and qualifications.  To wit a few:  most libertarians would like everybody to have access to affordable health care, too, even if they would have a different way of ensuring that access; there will always be a cost to any system of health care that can't simply be legislated away; the particular health care reform I support now (the ACA), may very well make things worse if it's implemented poorly and is not improved upon (assuming, of course, that the Supreme Court doesn't strike it down), and the shaky constitutional grounds on which it's predicated might very well serve as a bad precedent.

In other words, in some ways I am already a libertarian and in other ways, libertarianism offers the best critique and best check against my own policy preferences.  It is, in this sense, a sort of ideological conscience that reminds me I may not have yet found the true and only heaven.

Monday, May 7, 2012

First, do no not strut

In one of the less believable episodes of the "West Wing," a candidate for Secretary of Education is pretty much disqualified because she had been a publicity hound in her former post as a board of education director in some district.  In the name of "separation of church and state," she as director apparently had several teenagers arrested for forming a prayer group on school grounds.  Not only did she have them arrested, she made sure news cameras were on the scene to photograph her coming in to bust a prayer group.

Now, it's entirely believable that a school board director would forbid a prayer group at a public school because that's one plausible way of interpreting the injunction against the state recognizing or endorsing religion (assuming we leave aside that no school director, to my knowledge, actually forbids prayer itself).  It's much less believable that a school board director would have such students arrested.  It's even less believable to imagine that the director would be so proud of the accomplishment as to ensure the widest possible publicity.  Most school directors who I am aware of, if they didn't find some sort of compromise to permit the prayer group, would state that banning them was something required by the constitution and would probably add the words "it is regrettable that I have to take this step...."   As the chief of staff on the show, Leo McGeary tells the candidate, "these laws need to be enforced and it's good that they're enforced.  But we do not strut ever..."

Leo sums up my feelings pretty well about the disgusting internet commercial the Obama administration has put online about his decision to order the killing of Osama bin-Laden.  A version of it is here, if you want to see it.  The gist of it is that Obama is a man of courage who made the tough call to kill somebody.  As Bill Clinton says in the video, if the Navy SEALsin the mission had been killed or captured, it would have been really bad for Obama.  The commercial also takes something presumptive Republican candidate Mitt Romney supposedly said in 2007 or so that implied the US was spending too much effort trying to capture bin-Laden.  The commercial implies from this statement that Romney is weak and wouldn't have made the "courageous decision" to order the killing of someone.

Some criticism has been leveled at this commercial for Clinton's statement that if something had happened to the SEALs, things would have been bad for Obama without really pointing out that it would have been worse for the SEALs.  One might in fact make the same criticism of Obama's recent state of the union address, where he discusses  how "we"--he and his administration and the military--worked together to kill the terrorist.

That criticism is just.  I won't focus on it other than to say that the stakes for Obama were much lesser than those for the SEALs.  At worst, his ratings would have gone down in the polls, been seen as ineffective or even reckless (Clinton in fact hints at this, albeit unwittingly, when he suggests that Obama made the decision on imperfect intelligence about the compound in which Osama bin-Laden was hiding).  I suspect that even this outcome would not have been bad for Obama:  for all we know Obama and his predecessor ordered similar attacks in Afghanistan that failed and came up fruitless, and the resulting casualties attributed to some military operation.  Obviously, a similar operation in Pakistan borders was perhaps more (politically) gutsy.  But a failure, I hazard, would have been written off, if reported at all, as an "attempt to protect the Pakistani people from a suspected terrorist compound."

But I want to focus instead on the commercial's unabashed celebration--its rejoicing--of killing someone.  The same man whose image looking out into the future in a message of hope is now the man who has taken the brave action and with the military is making us safer in our war against Eurasia or Eastasia I forget which.  They are both essentially the same image, one benevolent and one triumphant, our hero-in-chief to whom we owe loyalty.  Or maybe we owe loyalty to the state, or maybe he is the state, I'm not sure it matters.  His opponent--assuming he actually made the statement attributed to him and assuming the statement isn't taken out of context--wasn't speaking about the proper allocation of limited resources, but is weak because he would not have ordered the killing.

Democrats, or at least the leadership of the party, respond to criticisms about the ad with what is essentially a tu quoque:  the Republicans would do it, too, and they have done it.  Apparently, if one person does something, it's bad.  If two or more do it, it's less bad.  If at least one of the two is from an opposing political party, it's good. 

It's not only tu quoque's, however.  Look at Senator Dick Durbin's statement on the ad [click here, his statement is at around the 10 minute mark]:  "Do you know how many elections Democrats have been on the defensive when it comes to national security?....whether we're tough enough to keep America safe?"  It seems to me the Democrats are still on the defensive:  if you have to respond to criticisms with "we've been on the defensive" for too long, then you're still on the defensive.

The era of the polite Democrats is over:  they can now give tit-for-tat what the Republicans give:  no more a victim of FOX news and Karl Rove:  they can start wars and order killings like the best of them.  Not that they didn't do so before, but never mind.

A few months ago--I don't have the link--Jason Kuznicki at the League of Ordinary Gentlemen criticized Obama's use of militaristic language in the state of the union.  He said that the language was "the very essence of fascism."  I thought that was laying it on a bit thick.  That's what I thought then.

Look, Obama had limited options.  If I were president, I might very well have ordered the killing or regretted not doing so.  That's what presidents do.  It was the best to be done in a series of bad things that had to be done to address a chain of events caused by the person who had to be killed.  I get it.

But I would hope that I could keep enough of my humanity to say that it's regrettable that it has come to this, to say that given the circumstances, there was nothing else to do but take this human life.