Monday, May 28, 2012

Was Buying the Slaves a Feasible Alternative

The topic is a bit dated, but it is germane to a conversation into which I have inserted myself.*  Back in 2007, Congressman Ron Paul stated his belief "that Abraham Lincoln should never have started the civil war, instead ending slavery by having the federal government purchase all of the slaves and set them free."  As evidence in favor of the potential efficacy of such a policy, he cites the example of the British government buying and liberating slaves in the British Empire.  Unfortunately for Paul, the numbers don't add up.  The British government spent £20 million to free 40,000 slaves, or £500 per slave.  At the time of the Civil War, there were approximately 4 million slaves in the United States.  If the United States sought to compensate slave owners at the same price as the British, it would have cost the federal government $9,699,321.047 at a time when GDP was only $4,345,000,000.  In other words, if the United States had pursued this policy, it would have taken more than two years of devoting the entire economic output of the United States at the time to pay for it.  If the United States were to pay market value for the slaves, the cost would still run to about $6.5 billion.  Simply put, the money wasn't there.

There were also key differences between Britain and the United States which would have rendered such a solution politically untenable.  Though legal in the British Empire, slavery was already illegal in Britain, proper.  Because the colonies did not have direct representation in Parliament, this meant there was a much smaller faction within Parliament with an inherent interest in preserving slavery.  This stands in stark contrast to the American situation, where half of the states were slave states, and the other half were free states.  As a result, the South had the capability to block any legislative attempt at abolition.

Of course, all of this is irrelevant, because Lincoln never had any opportunity to pursue this policy as president. Seven of the eleven Confederate states seceded before he was inaugurated, and the South started the Civil War by attacking Fort Sumter while Lincoln was still looking to bring the Confederate States back into the Union peacefully.  And this is why Paul goes from being off-base to being odious when he says, "No, [Lincoln] shouldn't have gone to war.  He did this just to enhance and get rid of the original intent of the republic."  In Paul's telling, Lincoln must have fought a war he didn't he start to preserve the Union he had sworn to defend in order to overthrow the same Constitutional order because he failed to embrace an abolition policy he never had a chance to enact, never mind to implement, which had no chance of either passing Congress and would not have worked anyway.

*And to a topic which I inserted into the conversation.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The Death of Fusionism?

My cousin Mark has posted a link to an article by Nikolai Wenzel arguing that conservatism is inherently hostile to liberty and that it is therefore necessarily incompatible with libertarianism.  As someone who has grown up with and been formed politically and philosophically by the alliance of conservatives and libertarians, I find the argument baffling.  Almost equally baffling is his understanding of conservatism or lack thereof, is what he describes as conservatism- "a philosophy that asserts a particular knowledge of human nature, specifically the individual's place in society, and the importance of virtue- and seeks to impose that vision through government"-which sums up any political philosophy, libertarianism included.

While Wenzel is correct that there are many different strains of conservatism, that does not mean that there are no underlying principles that undergird conservative thought.  Before getting to Wenzel's critique, some exposition of what conservatism is is necessary  In the introduction to his seminal book, The Conservative Mind, Russel Kirk laid out six tenets that are common to most threads of conservative thought.  They are as follows:
1.  Belief in a transcendent order, or body of natural law, which rules society as well as conscience.  Political problems, at bottom, are religious and moral problems.  A narrow rationality, what Coleridge called the Understanding, cannot of itself satisfy human needs.  "Every Tory is a realist," says Keith Feiling:  "he knows that there are great forces in heaven and earth that man's philosophy cannot plumb or fathom."  True politics is the art of apprehending and applying the Justice which ought to prevail in a community of souls.
2.  Affection for the proliferating variety and mystery of the human experience, as opposed to the narrowing uniformity, egalitarianism, and utilitarian aims of most radical systems; conservatives resist what Robert Graves called "Logicalism" in society.  This prejudice has been called "the conservatism of enjoyment"- a sense that life is worth living, according to Walter Bagehot "the proper source of an animated conservatism."
3.  Conviction that civilized society requires orders and classes, as against the notion of a "classless society."  With reason, conservatives have often been called "the party of order."  If natural distinctions are effaced among men, oligarchs fill the vacuum.  Ultimate equality in the judgment of God, and before the courts of law, are acknowledged by conservatives; but equality of condition, they think, means equality in servitude and boredom.
4.  Persuasion that freedom and property are closely linked:  separate private property from private possession, and Leviathan becomes master of all.  Economic levelling, they maintain, is not economic progress.
5.  Faith in prescription and and distrust of "sophisters, calculators, and economists" who would reconstruct society upon abstract designs.  Custom, convention, and old prescription are checks both upon man's anarchic impulse and upon the innovator's lust for power.
6.  Recognition that change may not be salutary reform:  hasty innovation may be a devouring conflagration, rather than a torch of progress.  Society must alter, for prudent change is the means of social preservation; but a statesman must take Providence into his calculations, and a statesman's chief virtue, according to Plato and Burke, is Prudence.
Of these six tenets, two, three, and four are compatible with a libertarian philosophy, and tenets five and six can coexist with libertarian thought in societies where there is a tradition of ordered liberty.  Tenet one is orthogonal to libertarian thinking.  None are necessarily hostile to a libertarian philosophy.  However, conservatism presents are deeper understanding of human nature and human relationships than does Wenzel's libertarianism.

After failing to define conservatism in any useful sense, Wenzel gets off to a bad start in his critique of conservatism by saying that "Conservatism is preoccupied with aggregates such as "community," "moral ecology," "society," or "the nation"; what is more, conservatism is willing to sacrifice individual rights on a communitarian altar."  This is a moderately outrageous statement, particularly given that Wenzel has not yet and never does define either liberty or declare what constitutes an individual right.  But why, according to Wenzel, is this supposed preoccupation of conservatism a problem?  According to Wenzel, "The groups to which individuals adhere- families, clubs, churches, 'society,' or 'country'- do not really exist or enjoy agency."  This is because "individuals (and only individuals) act."  On one level, this is so true as to be a truism (you'll get no endorsement of Rousseau's general will from me), but on another level it is preposterous.  His definition of agency is completely arbitrary.  I could just as easily say that I am not writing this post because it is really a series of different organ systems, organs, tissues, cells, and, ultimately, genes interacting with one another and the surrounding environment to produce this effect, and that I therefore do not exist or enjoy agency except as an abstraction.  Groups do not fail to enjoy agency just because the action of a group is dependent upon the actions of individuals within the group.  Rather, the agency of the individuals within the group gives the group the ability to exercise that agency.

But it gets more interesting still because the agency able to be exercised by an individual depends upon the agency of groups.  The ability of an individual to exercise agency at all is dependent upon, first of all, the agency of his parents.  The agency of the parents is affected by the community in which the parents live, whose agency is affected by surrounding societal groups, the nation, and surrounding nations.  Wenzel does acknowledge the importance of associations, but he throws up his hands when considering the problem of solving disputes within the group:  "But what constitutes a 'community'?  Fifty-one percent of its members?  Fifty-one percent of its voters?  Perhaps a two-thirds-super-majority or a unanimity of voters?  Or all members?  Or, perhaps, the small percentage that manages to capture the political process or the right commission?"  The conservative response is that there is no single answer.  Each group exists in different circumstances, and each group should find a way to resolve conflicts that most effectively secures what it understands to be the good, learning from its mistakes over time and adapting to new conditions.  This can be a messy process:  We call it politics.

Wenzel goes on to assert that "neglect of methodological individualism leads to a violation of rights, as the acting individual loses status as an end."  This is nonsense on stilts.  Whether a philosophy of methodological individualism, as defined by Wenzel, is nurtured or neglected has nothing to do with whether individual rights are violated.  Indeed, under a Nietzschean view of the world, methodological individualism encourages the violation of individual rights as it is only individuals who stand in the way of obtaining or keeping power.  Belief in the natural rights of man listed in the Declaration of Independence and a system of negative liberties are surer safeguards of individual rights than belief in methodological individualism.

Still, Wenzel is right to be concerned that "aggregates offer a convenient excuse to impose private ends through public means."  Strangely, he turns his fire on conservatives here, as though conservatives haven't been opposed to things like welfare, Medicare, Obamacare, cap and trade, affirmative action, the ethanol mandate, and excessive government regulation, to name a few.  But be that as it may, where Wenzel starts to fall here is that he assumes too clear a line between what is private and what is public and also fails to recognize that there are differing degrees of public, never mind that what may appear to be a purely private matter may have consequences to others severe enough to justify public action.  Given recent research that has come to light, pornography may be such an issue, but Wenzel would have us proscribe such discussions in the public arena because "conservatism wants more government to fix social ills."  This is really where Wenzel's argument goes off the rails.

From here on out, the conservatism Wenzel describes is nothing like conservatism as it actually is, and the libertarianism he advocates bears a striking resemblance to the conservatism he claims to be rejecting.  He argues, "conservatism rests on a claim of privileged access to truth, whether through revelation or some sort of 'practical reason' to derive rules of personal and interpersonal conduct- which really seems to boil down to a reverse engineering to justify personal preferences."  On the other hand, libertarianism trusts institutions that help generate and transmit knowledge, as we recognize our limitations and eschew our limited reason in favor of reason nestled in tradition."  That sounds an awful lot like the fifth tenet to me.

Where the difference between Wenzel, who admits "there are plainly benefits to conservative values," and the social conservatives lies is in their understanding of what they're doing.  To the social conservative, social conservatism is about defending those traditions and institutions that have allowed American society to flourish.  In order to accomplish this, they act on the governmental level to undo the damage done by the state.  Wenzel would rather have the civil society deal with social ills.  The problem is that the state has undermined the institutions that have allowed civil society to flourish.  It has assumed the role of father as things like welfare and abortion on demand have given men the excuse to leave the women they impregnate on their own to deal with the consequences.  It has taken over much of the role performed by churches and charities.  Allowing no-fault divorce has undermined the institution of the family by turning the marital relationship from a relationship of love and self-sacrifice into one of self-satisfaction and so undermined the very civil society Wenzel would like to see promote virtuous living.  The goal of social conservatives is first to prevent the state doing further damage to the institutions that make civil society possible and, if possible, repair some of the damage already done.  Their fear is that if the state continues to undermine the family, churches and the like, Leviathan will be master of all as liberty dies because people look to the state first for their security.  Liberty is an essential right, but it does not exist in a vacuum.  Our tradition of liberty rests on a whole host of institutions and associations that must be preserved if liberty is to survive.

Friday, March 02, 2012

Re: Ron Paul's Electability

My cousin, Mark, has posted this item concerning the electability of Congressman Ron Paul.  He believes him to be the most electable candidate in the Republican field despite the fact that Paul has won neither a caucus nor a primary.  Unfortunately for him, his case is little more than wishful thinking.

"Ron Paul has the most energized base of any candidate." 

Perhaps.  But it has only gotten him 11% of the popular vote thus far.  Paul's base may be energized, giving him a relatively high floor, but he has shown no ability to use this floor to raise his ceiling.

"He is attracting young people disatisfied [sic] with the disaster that is Obama."

The young consistently have the lowest turnout rate in the country, while the ones who are most likely to vote are senior citizens.  It is difficult to see how he can bring in enough new young voters to offset the elderly voters who will vote against him because he thinks Medicare is unconstitutional.  How many votes will he lose when it becomes widely known that he believes "Just think of what happened after 9/11. Immediately before there was any assessment there was glee in the administration because now we can invade Iraq."  How many people will dismiss him as a crank when they find out that he said 
There’s been a coup, have you heard? It’s the CIA coup. The CIA runs everything, they run the military. They’re the ones who are over there lobbing missiles and bombs on countries. … And of course the CIA is every bit as secretive as the Federal Reserve. … And yet think of the harm they have done since they were established [after] World War II. They are a government unto themselves. They’re in businesses, in drug businesses, they take out dictators … We need to take out the CIA.
Will Ron Paul really be able to attract new voters with this story being played and replayed for six months when his best defense is that he didn't write those horrible things, he just allowed his name to be attached to them and made millions of dollars off of them?  Once these things and more are given constant attention, what will it matter that Paul currently leads Obama by two points in the daily tracking poll?

"Finally, even with the Republican Party and the Media misrepresenting his policy positions on a daily basis he is still gaining ground.  He [sic] message of  individual liberty, limited government, sound money, and a pro-American foreign policy is resonating with an ever growing number of Americans."

Paul has largely bounced between 6 and  15 percent in the polls.  He currently sits at just over 11 percent in the Real Clear Politics average.  His numbers may tick up slightly when either Gingrich or Santorum drops out (most likely Gingrich), but most of the supporters of the one will switch to the other as the last viable non-Romney candidate.  He has won all of eight* delegates, less than one percent of the total required to win the nomination.  The environment for him has been relatively positive, as the vast majority of the negative advertising has been directed at Romney, Gingrich, and Santorum.  Were Paul to become a serious obstacle to any of the other candidates, it would suddenly become much more difficult for him to avoid the sort of negative attention that sank Gingrich in Florida and hampered Santorum in Arizona and Michgan (where he only came close to winning because of crossover support from Democrats interested in keeping things going).

As for his (the?) message, describing it as one of individual liberty, limited government, sound money, and pro-American foreign policy is to say that Paul's message is thoroughly consistent with Republican principles and could also be applied to the messages of the other Republican candidates.**

When it's all said and done, Ron Paul has some good things to say (and some not-so-good), but he's been in the fever swamps too long to be a viable presidential candidate.

*If you don't count the non-binding caucuses.

**I'm leaving aside the details of the individual candidates' messages.  My point is merely that their campaigns portray their policy proposals as being consistent with these ideals.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Great Moments in Political Misdirection

I'm not inclined to take Ahmadinejad's public predictions about U.S. foreign policy too seriously, but if the United States does end up launching attacks on (presumably) Iran and Syria and does so in cooperation with Israel, it would have to represent the biggest, most successful attempt at foreign policy misdirection in United States history.  It's no secret that President Obama has been openly and ham-fistedly disdainful of Prime Minister Netanyahu and that he has been scrambling to show that he regards Israel as a good friend and ally of the United States and not as merely an obstacle to American interests in the Middle East.  Again, I highly doubt Ahmadinejad's prediction will prove correct, but if it does, my estimation of President Obama's shrewdness and political ability will go through the roof.

Still, a question remains.  Why is Ahmadinejad making this prediction when there is no overt sign the United States will take action?  There is certainly the prospect of an Israeli surprise attack, and the Iranian government regards Israel as the Little Satan to the American Great Satan.  So, by this logic, if Israel attacks Iran, it is doing so as an agent of the United States.  As a point of fact, this line of logic doesn't hold (at most, the United States would be neutral on the subject, not hindering it as it went forward), but it is how the Iranian government views the U.S.-Isreali relationship (Walt and Mearsheimer(sp?), call your office).

Another possible reason for Ahmadinejad to make this prediction (and the one which seems most likely to me) is that Ahmadinejad is calling President Obama's bluff, effectively daring him to attack.  The article ends with Ahmadinejad saying "The logic that they can persuade us to negotiate through sanctions is just a failure."  He is declaring that not only will Iran not buckle under newly imposed sanctions, but that the United States knows this and is preparing to take military action as a result.  If the attack does happen, the prediction costs Ahmadinejad nothing.  If it doesn't happen, it allows him to declare that President Obama blinked and that he lacks the strength of will to prevent Iran achieving its nuclear objectives.

Of course, all of this is predicated on Ahmadinejad being believable in his assertions, so the effect will probably be negligible.  Those who are inclined to believe him (i.e. his supporters) will believe him and be encouraged if the attack doesn't come.  Those who are inclined to disbelieve him (i.e. just about everyone else) will be inclined to ignore him, and if an attack doesn't come, it will only mean that Ahmadinejad was engaging in more of his usual bluster.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Invitation to Fraud

How will the government contain costs and limit fraud when anyone with some basic computer equipment can make his own Medicare card?

Money quote:
You want to know what a Medicare identification card is like? It is a little larger than the standard size for credit cards and driver’s licenses. (Of course. Couldn’t have the federal government make a card that will fit in a stack with all the other cards you use.) It has no magnetic strip. It is plain vanilla text and fonts—no security features whatsoever. It could be counterfeited by a sixth-grader with a scanner. It is made out of flimsy paper that would barely qualify for a really cheap business card.
Hat-tip: The Corner

How Does This Help?

Jonah Goldberg explains how the federal government has responded to the economic crisis by flushing money down the toilet.

Recall the White House mantra of “never let a crisis go to waste.” Though the economic implosion had specific causes stemming from the financial and housing markets and how they were regulated, President Obama insisted that the items on his campaign wish list — overhauling health care, imposing carbon cap-and-trade, and reforming education — would be the real solutions to the crisis.
“The fact is, our economy did not fall into decline overnight,” Obama told Congress in February. And only by “investing” in policies formulated years before “toxic asset” became household words could America get out of the crisis.

As a result, we’re now stuck with some of the most absurdly counterproductive legislation imaginable. The national debt is growing faster than the GDP. According to the Congressional Budget Office, within ten years Uncle Sam’s publicly held debt will double to 82 percent of GDP. The CBO predicts that by 2038, our debt will be 200 percent of GDP. Debt siphons off growth for the simple reason that dollars go to paying it off rather than investing in something productive.

Meanwhile, thanks to ongoing trade deficits and relentless borrowing, America’s financial status is deteriorating rapidly. The Commerce Department reported Friday that the value of foreign assets owned by Americans is $19.89 trillion, while the value of American assets owned by foreigners is $23.36 trillion. In other words, we are a “net debtor” to the tune of $3.47 trillion. That represents a 62 percent increase over 2007. Foreigners, most significantly China, own nearly 50 percent of our government’s public debt.

So while the Obama administration frets over the largely phony idea that we are dangerously dependent on foreign oil (Canada sends us about as much oil as the entire Persian Gulf region, and Mexico not much less), we are increasingly threatened by dependence on foreign bondholders who could wreak havoc on the dollar and our interest rates far more easily than OPEC could cut off our oil.

And what are we doing in response? For starters, the House passed carbon cap-and-trade legislation that essentially adds an onerous and inefficient energy tax on everyone, outsources jobs to carbon-profligate India and China, and raises tariffs in an attempt to stem the inevitable bleeding of jobs and manufacturing (the last time we raised tariffs in the midst of a bad recession, we got the Depression). Rather than have America invest in new oil and gas jobs (among the highest-paying of any industry), House Speaker Nancy Pelosi insists that one-time gigs weatherizing Granny’s attic and replacing light bulbs are preferable.
Funny how the "solutions" to our economic crisis were just the policies Obama campaigned on long before our financial system began to implode.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

The Satirists Predicament

You think you've written the perfect reductio ad absurdum, and lo, it turns out to be not that absurd after all.


A gathering of 20 Nobel Prize winners, calling itself the St James's Palace Nobel Laureate Symposium, has released a memorandum stating that 'Global climate change represents a threat of similar proportions' to that of thermonuclear armageddon at the height of the Cold War.

The qualitative difference between the two threats is perhaps nowhere better expressed, however inadvertently, than by the convener of the symposium himself, Professor Hans Joachim Schellnhuber. Where once we had 'the Cold War notion of mutually-assured destruction,' he told the Times, 'Today we have mutually-assured increases in greenhouse gases.'

OK. But while debates around climate change are still qualified by the words 'might', 'could' and 'predicted', it's probably fair to say that the average person in the street may view the comparison of carbon emissions with things that can vapourise a major city in seconds as unhelpfully alarmist and perhaps just a little bit silly.

Hat Tip: The Corner

Rhetoric vs. Reality

This is a must-read on the disconnect between Obama's rhetoric and his national security policies.  The difference between Obama and Bush so far?  Bush's rhetoric lined up with what he actually did.

So, How's That Stimulus Working?

Not so well, according to John Lott, at least by the standard of the pre-stimulus predictions
How did the predictions stack up? While the unemployment rate was at 8.1 percent in February, it had risen to 8.9 percent by April. By May 11, Christine Romer was calling 9.5 percent unemployment by the end of the year “pretty realistic.” Business economists and forecasters surveyed by The Wall Street Journal had increased their estimates to 9.7 percent. Thus, what Romer was predicting would be the worst-case
scenario if the stimulus was not quickly enacted is occurring with the stimulus plan in place.

Economists have consistently been expecting the economy to begin showing positive growth in the second half of this year. But the stimulus appears to have dampened the recovery that economists were expecting.

Take the expected growth in the third quarter (from July to September) this year. In January, the forecasters surveyed by the Wall Street Journal were expecting GDP during that period to rise by 1.2 percent at an annual rate. By May, the expected growth had been cut in half to 0.6 percent. The pattern is similar for both the second and fourth quarters this year. Paul Evans, the editor of the Journal of Money, Credit, and Banking and an economics professor at Ohio State University, agrees with this and tells FOX News: “Most likely the economic recovery would have been more rapid at this point without [the stimulus package].”


Other forecasts have shown a similar pattern. By the end of last week, the U.S. manufacturing output is now expected to plummet by 12 percent this year. In February, the drop was expected to be 8 percent. The decline in the housing market failed to slow down after the stimulus package. The mortgage delinquency and foreclosure rates in the U.S. just experienced their biggest quarterly increases since records started in 1972. Both numbers are also at their highest recorded levels. The S&P/Case-Shiller U.S. National Home Price Index posted a 19.1% drop from a year earlier, the biggest single quarterly decline for the reading’s 21-year history. In January, forecasters expected about 770,000 new homes being built this year. By May, only 580,000 new homes were expected for 2009.

Over the same four months, economists have also become more pessimistic about housing starts next year: The number of expected new housing starts for next year declined from 980,000 to 820,000. Again, what recovery was originally expected later this year and next year has actually declined after the stimulus.

Now, correlation does not imply causality. In this case, the fact that things are worse than expected even before the stimulus was passed, does not prove the stimulus isn't working, but while things could have been worse than this without the stimulus, this is an extremely weak argument in its defense. After all, I could say with at least equal plausibility that eliminating the capital gains tax; cutting personal and corporate income taxes; lifting restrictions on energy exploration; oil refinery and nuclear power plant construction; and promoting a strong dollar would have an even greater positive impact on the economy.

Of course, defenders of the stimulus might also cite the fact that very little of the stimulus money has actually been spent, but that quickly becomes an argument in favor of tax cuts and deregulation. After all, in order for the government to put money into the economy, it has to take it out of the economy first- whether through taxes, the sale of bonds, or devaluing the money already in the economy by printing more of it- and then it has to, you know, spend it. On the other hand, cutting taxes allows money that is already in the economy to be spent, and deregulation and opens up new areas for investment or allows businesses to operate more efficiently by reducing the cost of doing business.

I guess you could stick to the whole "jobs saved or created" mantra, with the emphasis on saved, but as Jim Geraghty points out, it "can't be declared horsepuckey until national employment falls below 9.67 million jobs."