Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Paulson Equals Hope

As Treasury Secretary, Hank will be my principal advisor on the broad range of domestic and international economic issues that affect the well-being of all Americans.

--George Bush

Mr. President, if confirmed, I look forward to working with you, your administration, and the Congress to help keep the American economy strong and competitive.

--Henry Paulson

Great news for America and for the world. The U.S. has its best Treasury Secretary since Robert Rubin stepped down in 1999. Rubin took over in early 1995, a low point in the Clinton administration. Paulson, who appears to have accepted the job after months of saying no, is probably aware of how much Rubin was able to accomplish during a tough time for his president, and knows that if one person can make a difference for the economy, it is a Goldman Sachs CEO.

Several commentators have noted that Paulson’s China experience (he has visited the country over 70 times in the past decade) is a special qualification that will particularly serve the U.S. well at a time when China has such significant and complex influence over America’s economic future. Paulson could almost instantly become the Bush administration's most important voice on China.

Paulson’s appointment says much about the rising influence of Bush Chief of Staff Josh Bolton, a Goldman Sachs alumnus. It’s possible that the key to Paulson’s influence over Bush and the U.S. in the next two-plus years will be his personal relationship with Bolton, once the junior, now in the more powerful position.

Sunday, May 28, 2006

The Virtue of Capitalism

CNBC commentator and host Larry Kudlow has done what I have yet to do—argued capitalism’s moral worth:

Capitalism in this country has been under assault ever since FDR's New Deal 1930s, a time when a number of alphabet agencies attempted to control America's industrial and farming sectors. The experiment soon proved a dismal failure, with unemployment running 20 to 25 percent up until WWII. It was only when Roosevelt started unleashing businesses to produce wartime goods that the economy ultimately resurrected.

Still, the American welfare state would grow. In the 1960s and 1970s, the murderer's row of economic morons -- LBJ, Nixon, Ford, and Carter -- in allegiance with their liberal Keynesian advisors, concocted a socialist policy mix that ultimately led to wealth-destroying big-government stagflation.

Providentially, Ronald Reagan changed all that in the 1980s. The Gipper slashed tax rates, deregulated industries, and rescued the dollar, unleashing the forces of entrepreneurial capitalism. As a result, for the first time since the post-Civil War period (but for the brief Coolidge-Mellon period in the 1920s), the American economic system became the envy of the world. Since the early 1980s, more than 46 million new jobs have been created, with inflation-adjusted GDP increasing $6.2 trillion, or 120 percent.

As deregulated stock markets democratized the American financial system, a great new investor class grew up. Roughly 20 million investors evolved into over 100 million share buyers, and they got rich in the process. Since 1982, according to the Federal Reserve, stock market wealth owned by family households appreciated by over $9 trillion, or nearly 900 percent. During this period, the Wilshire 5000 index appreciated nearly 800 percent.

This investor class has also become the nation's most powerful voting block. In recent elections, nearly two out of every three voters has been a stockowner. And yes, they are voting for capitalism -- meaning lower tax rates, limited government, and greater opportunities for entrepreneurship.

George W. Bush, a lineal descendant of Reagan, calls this the "ownership class”. . . and entrepreneurial activity goes hand in hand with the cultural characteristics of hard work, thrift, personal responsibility, and law-abiding behavior.

Indeed, ownership is a self-help virtue, and it is held in much higher cultural esteem than . . . government-dependant welfarism.

Bernanke's Job One: Fight Inflation

Gerard Baker, who writes for The Times, defends Ben Bernanke’s focus on fighting inflation. In the process, Baker also makes a case for how well the U.S. economy is doing:

The US Government’s deficit, while slightly high, is not massively out of line with international norms. Nor is the US public debt. Now I’ll grant you, that debt level, approaching $9 trillion, does sound like quite a lot. . . But the total value of US GDP is more than $12 trillion per year. Its debt-to-GDP ratio then is about 70 per cent, still low by comparison with, say, your average European country.

What matters more is the current account deficit. This is running at about $800 billion, or more than 7 per cent of GDP. It’s unlikely it can be sustained at that level for long, but reducing government borrowing is only a small part of the solution. Much more important, private savings need to increase, so that the US is not consuming more than it produces, and the dollar needs to fall to make US exports cheaper and its imports dearer.

And this, sure enough, is what is happening. With higher US interest rates, Americans are starting to save more. Meanwhile, the dollar is now down more than 6 per cent against other currencies since the start of the year. All cause for cautious optimism rather than financial despair.

. . . There is one genuine reason for concern — inflation. The conquest of inflation was the most important economic achievement of the past 30 years. In the US the rate of consumer price increases slowed from more than 12 per cent a year in the late 1970s to about 2 per cent for most of the past decade.

It's why Baker wants Bernanke to keep working on inflation.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Katrina: The Real Story

Lou Dolinar has an amazing story about what really happened at the Superdome during Katrina. Doliner’s story, certainly worth reading in its entirety,varies remarkably from that told in the media. Here are excerpts:

Remember the dozens, maybe hundreds, of rapes, murders, stabbings and deaths resulting from official neglect at the Superdome after Hurricane Katrina? The ones that never happened, as even the national media later admitted?

Sure, we all remember the original reporting, if not the back-pedaling.

Here's another one: Do you remember the dramatic TV footage of National Guard helicopters landing at the Superdome as soon as Katrina passed, dropping off tens of thousands saved from certain death? The corpsmen running with stretchers, in an echo of M*A*S*H, carrying the survivors to ambulances and the medical center? About how the operation, which also included the Coast Guard, regular military units, and local first responders, continued for more than a week?

Me neither. Except that it did happen, and got at best an occasional, parenthetical mention in the national media. The National Guard had its headquarters for Katrina, not just a few peacekeeping troops, in what the media portrayed as the pit of Hell. Hell was one of the safest places to be in New Orleans, smelly as it was. The situation was always under control, not surprisingly because the people in control were always there.

From the Dome, the Louisiana Guard's main command ran at least 2,500 troops who rode out the storm inside the city, a dozen emergency shelters, 200-plus boats, dozens of high-water vehicles, 150 helicopters, and a triage and medical center that handled up to 5,000 patients (and delivered 7 babies). The Guard command headquarters also coordinated efforts of the police, firefighters and scores of volunteers after the storm knocked out local radio, as well as other regular military and other state Guard units. . .

the national media imposed a near total blackout on the nerve center of what may have been the largest, most successful aerial search and rescue operation in history. . .

"TV of the Superdome was perplexing to most folks," [State Democratic Rep. Francis] Thompson said. "You had them playing the tapes of the same incidents over and over, it tends to bias your thinking some, you tend to think it's worse than it really is." Official estimates at this point suggest the Guard, working from the Dome, saved 17,000 by air and uncounted thousands more by boat. . .

Fifty thousand New Orleans residents were in danger of death from drowning, heatstroke, dehydration and disease. . . critical role the Superdome headquarters played. . .

when the Superdome was established as a shelter of last resort on the weekend before Katrina hit, the Louisiana National Guard sent several hundred soldiers there who were trained in policing and crowd control. They also, as rarely noted, stocked huge quantities of combat rations, also known as Meals Ready to Eat (MREs), and water, both of which were never in short supply. . .

late Monday, Louisiana National Guard HQ moved its high tech "unified command suite" and tents to the upper parking deck of the Superdome. . . satellite dishes for phone and Internet connections to the outside world, Wi-fi, plus radios . . . About fifty men and women, black and white, worked per shift, equipped with maps, laptops, phone and radios to coordinate the rescue operation. The rescuers called it the "eagles' nest".

The operation was impossible to hide or ignore . . . Tuesday morning: helicopters landing every minute; big ones, like the National Guard Chinooks, literally shaking the decking of the rooftop parking lot; little ones like the ubiquitous Coast Guard Dolphins; Black Hawks everywhere, many with their regular seats torn out so they could accommodate more passengers, standing. Private air ambulance services evacuating patients from flood-threatened hospitals. . . Overhead, helicopters stacked in a holding pattern. . .

This is at the Superdome, remember, supposedly Ground Zero for bad behavior and the scene of massive governmental incompetence. . .

Thousands of survivors came to the Dome by boat, thanks to police and firefighters and the rest of the rescue flotilla. Between the radios and first-hand reports from pilots and boat crews coming in, the comm center at the Dome had a good feel for what was going on in their city -- something the media utterly lacked.

. . . another big story at the Dome was the medical center. Like a Chinook helicopter landing on your roof, that sure was hard to miss. Fifteen doctors and a total of 65 medical personnel set up at the New Orleans Arena, within spitting distance of the Dome. It was primarily for survivors brought in by air and boat, but also for people in the Superdome with medical problems. There was never any shortage of medical care. . . Those in the worst shape were evacuated to the New Orleans airport and out of the region, those in good shape hydrated and sent to the Superdome. The success of the makeshift medical center was such that there were just six deaths at the entire Superdome complex: four of natural causes, one drug overdose, and one suicide during the week of supposedly rampant anarchy and death. . .

In all this time, [Maj. John T.] Dressler said, "We didn't see a single camera crew or reporter on the scene. Maybe someone was there with a cell phone or a digital camera but I didn't see anyone." This was in the headquarters area. Maj. Ed Bush, meanwhile, did start seeing reporters on Tuesday and Wednesday, but inside the Dome, most were interested in confirming the stacks of bodies in the freezers, interviews with rape victims, he said, and other mayhem that never happened. . .

Neither Maj. Bush nor Dressler saw TV until the end of the week. They were aghast. Apart from sporadic mentions, the most significant note taken of this gigantic operation was widespread reporting of the rumor that a sniper had fired on a helicopter. What were termed evacuations in some cases, rescue operations in others, were said to have been halted as a result. "I never knew how badly we were being killed in the media," Maj. Ed Bush says. . .

The majority of trapped survivors . . . weren't happy campers. Besides the smelly but safe Superdome, which was not a pleasant place, many had been dropped off on the nearest high ground, primarily Interstate overpasses, in the rush to clear rooftops and attics. There were genuine shortages of food and water at these locations, especially at the Convention Center, another drop-off point. They were stuck, as search and rescue and lifesaving continued. . .

The priorities were search, rescue and lifesaving, not the comfort level of survivors they rescued who they knew would survive somehow if they sorted out the sick from the healthy. It looked brutal on TV, but it was effective, giving a whole new meaning to that venerable military cliché "quick and dirty." . .

The rescuers . . . knew they saved a lot of lives, but feared how many thousands, or even ten of thousands, may have been left behind to fill the 25,000 body bags on hand. With Mayor Nagin predicting up to 10,000 dead, no one was in any mood to crow. . .

By [the following week], the view of Katrina as a massive governmental screw-up had been set in concrete, and it wasn't until Oct. 5 that the intense official search for bodies ended, with a toll of 972 in Louisiana, a number that has since crept slowly upward to about 1,300.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Iraq: Almost There

Iraq’s elected parliament approved the country’s new cabinet, a historic milestone toward building democracy in the Arab world. Cabinet installation follows the earlier agreement, nearly a month ago, on Nouri al-Maliki as prime minister. The mainstream media (MSM), which virtually ignored the earlier event, covered the cabinet announcement, while uniformly focusing on the problems that still face Iraq and pointing out, correctly, that al-Maliki has yet to name permanent interior and defense ministers, the key cabinet appointments.

The pattern in politics is first, try to ignore the opposition, and then, if that doesn’t work, attack. The MSM first tried to ignore the progress coming out of Iraq, and when that could no longer be avoided, it went on the attack. Here is an example from Chicago Tribune reporter Liz Sly:

Four governments have come and gone since the fall of Saddam Hussein, starting with the U.S. administration of Paul Bremer. Each one arrived with promises of a better future. Each left the country in a state of worse violence than the one before, with a more ragged infrastructure, more deeply entrenched corruption and fewer hours of electricity each day.

Sly’s “fact”, as opposed to her opinions about violence, infrastructure, and corruption, is the drop in electricity production as each new government came on board. Here, the true facts are readily available by checking the Brookings’ Iraq Index (p. 31) for Iraq’s daily hours of electricity in the month when each administration began:

Bremer (6/03): N/A
Al-Allawi (6/04): 10 hours
Al-Jaafari (5/05): 8 hours
Al-Maliki (4/06): 11 hours

Score another point for MSM opinion trumping the facts.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Values are for Everybody

George Will has written a column attacking the idea that “values voters” are conservatives who oppose abortion and gay marriage, and support crosses in public places. The term gains acceptance because both the right and the right's opponents are happy to link conservatives with "values."

Yet as Will notes:

Today's liberal agenda includes preservation, even expansion, of the welfare state in its current configuration in order to strengthen an egalitarian ethic of common provision. Liberals favor taxes and other measures to produce a more equal distribution of income. They may value equality indiscriminately, but they vote their values.

Why would liberals be willing to forego an association with “values”? Will doesn’t ask, but it’s worth considering.

I share Will’s view that everybody has values. Liberals view social conservatives' opposition to abortion and gay marriage, and their flaunting of their Christian faith, as throwbacks to an earlier era. To educated liberals, religion is a protective shield employed by those unable to accept the lessons of science, a rigid belief system that flies in the face of facts.

For the generation of liberals that lived through the 1960s—baby boomers who are now the dominant group in America—moving past religion was part of their life experience. They identify with scientific education, not ignorant religion; with tolerance, not rigidity. They don't want to be tied to any “values” straitjacket, because it seems too "religious".

But as Will suggests, it’s not whether you have values, it's what your values are.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Surprise: TIME's Favorite Governors are Democrats

TIME offers up another revealing exposure of its political bias, even worse than its attempt to identify best and worst senators.

This one (11.21.05) is on governors. TIME picks the five best and three worst. Since nearly three out of every five U.S. governors is a Republican, TIME’s best five—naturally—are three Democrats and two Republicans. The article’s coverage is even more biased: 68.4% of the picture/text is of Democrats, beginning with the first two governors mentioned. Of course, two of the three “worst” governors are Republicans, providing a net best-minus-worst margin of Democrats +2 (3-1=2), GOP 0 (2-2=0).

The only “worst” Democrat TIME identified is Kathleen Blanco. She’s hard to ignore even though TIME’s overwhelming coverage of the Katrina disaster mainly blamed the Bush administration.

Economic Sunshine: Can You See It?

Today, Karl Rove spoke to the American Enterprise Institute about the successful American economy (full text here):

The American economy has created more jobs than all the countries in the Euro zone and Japan combined, and our economy is growing today faster than that of any major industrialized nation in the world. . .It grew at an annual rate of 4.8 percent in the first quarter. It added more than 5.2 million jobs in the last two and a half years.

Employment is at near all-time high. Claims for unemployment insurance are at a five-year low. The unemployment rate is 4.7 percent; well below the average for each of the last three decades.

Core inflation remains low: just over 2.1 percent for the past 12 months. . . Real disposable income has risen almost 14 percent since President Bush took office. The Dow Jones industrial average is near its all-time high. And since the 2003 tax cuts have been passed, asset values, including homes and stocks, have grown by $13 trillion. . .

Under this president, federal spending as a percentage of the economy is lower than that under four of the last five presidents.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Socialism Lives

Brad Carson is a former Democratic congressman from Oklahoma. In the May 10 Real Clear Politics he said, “it is equality and social justice—the essential progressive values—that define what the common good really is”. Carson’s sentence lays out the difference between progressives and classic liberals. The Jeffersonian liberal wants “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness;” Isaiah Berlin’s “negative liberty.” The progressive, in the tradition of the French Revolution, seeks equality and justice even at the expense of “negative liberty.”

Socialism is the once-respectable, now somewhat discredited, term for a political system that used class warfare to secure economic equality and social justice. Today, one sees the old socialist left still alive in the fight against “Globalism,” corporate domination of the world economy. And in the Latin America of Bolivia’s Evo Morales, Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, and Cuba’s Fidel Castro, socialism is even more openly operating once again.

In his article “Why Isn't Socialism Dead?”, Lee Harris attempts to explain how socialism survives in the face of so much evidence that state-run economies don’t work. To do so, Harris goes back a century to the French socialist Georges Sorel, who indicated that socialism is a myth, a religion, not subject to scientific proof:

why did Sorel, trained as an engineer and knowledgeable about science, reject scientific socialism? The answer[:] Sorel suspected that socialism, in practice, simply might not ever really work. . .Sorel himself was skeptical. . . about the possibility of socialism as a viable economic system.

For example, in the introduction to Reflections on Violence, Sorel says that the French thinker Renan "was very surprised to discover that Socialists are beyond discouragement." He then quotes Renan's comment about the indefatigable perseverance of socialists: "After each abortive experiment they recommence their work: the solution is not yet found, but it will be. The idea that no solution exists never occurs to them, and in this lies their strength." (Italics mine.)

Sorel, for whom religion was important, drew a comparison between the Christian and the socialist revolutionary. The Christian's life is transformed because he accepts the myth that Christ will one day return and usher in the end of time; the revolutionary socialist's life is transformed because he accepts the myth that one day socialism will triumph, and justice for all will prevail. What mattered for Sorel, in both cases, is not the scientific truth or falsity of the myth believed in, but what believing in the myth does to the lives of those who have accepted it, and who refuse to be daunted by the repeated failure of their apocalyptic expectations.

The shrewd and realistic Florentine statesman and thinker, Guicciardini, once advised: "Never fight against religion...this concept has too much empire over the minds of men." And to the extent that socialism is a religion, then those who wish to fight it with mere reason and argument may well be in for a losing battle. Furthermore, as populism spreads, it is inevitable that the myth of socialism will gain in strength among the people who have the least cause to be happy with their place in the capitalist world-order, and who will naturally be overjoyed to put their faith in those who promise them a quick fix to their poverty and an end to their suffering.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Stop the Destruction: School Choice NOW!

Michael Strong, CEO of FLOW, has spent 15 years running innovative schools. He has a powerful message about “School Choice and Adolescence in America” (go here to read in full):

William Damon, Director of the Stanford Center on Adolescence, [has found] that many children thrive in the face of adversity, [displaying] "persistence, hardiness, achievement motivation, hopefulness, a sense of purpose, and more." Damon goes on to say that

"Research in the [positive youth] developmental tradition has taken seriously the role of moral and religious beliefs in shaping children's identities and perspectives on the future, and research has demonstrated a strong relationship between religious faith and at-risk children staying out of trouble." . .

[T]hat "moral and religious beliefs" are relevant to adolescent well-being, most parents knew . . .fifty years ago. . .

By the 1980s Brookings Institution researchers John Chubb and Terry Moe were coming to the conclusion that the decline in test scores despite doubling our expenditures in education was not an accident. . . the private sector was more efficient and innovative than the bureaucratic government-managed sector. Despite their liberal Brookings base, they broke ranks with the Democrats and advocated school vouchers in their 1990 book, Politics, Markets, and America's Schools. . .

Adolescence in America is largely a disaster. Bill McKibben, the environmentalist writer and advocate of natural living, is as vocal in his critique as any fundamentalist Christian: "If one had set out to create a culture purposefully damaging to children, you couldn't do much better than America at the end of the 20th century." Patricia Hersch, in a book titled A Tribe Apart: A Journey into the Heart of American Adolescence, states: "All parents feel an ominous sense - like distant rumbles of thunder moving closer and closer - that even their child could be caught in the deluge of adolescent dysfunction sweeping the nation." . .

Does anyone doubt that if parents had been given school vouchers in 1960 they would have gravitated towards schools that encouraged virtues and a sense of purpose? Both common sense and Damon's research suggest that generations of students educated in such schools would have been and can be far less likely to suffer the "health effects stemming from social causes" that have harmed adolescents over the last four decades.

Consider Latter Day Saints (Mormon) public health: Utah, where 70% of the population are Mormon, has the lowest, or near the lowest, rates of smoking, lung cancer, heart disease, alcohol consumption, abortions, out-of-wedlock births, work-days missed due to illness, and the lowest child poverty rate in the country. Utah ranks highest in the nation in number of AP tests taken, number of AP tests passed, scientists produced per capita, percentage of households with personal computers, and proportion of income given to charity. . . No public health initiative is remotely as effective as Mormon culture.

. . . if an education market were allowed to function freely, parental interest in their children's well-being would drive an ever-more sophisticated market in happiness and well-being. . . Adolescent well-being cannot be developed using a character education curriculum taught by faculty who are cultural relativists. The faculty must believe in something, they must themselves be united by a common moral vision, and the school's leader must be free to organize the school around the core moral purposes of that community.

It is possible to create safer, better, happier, healthier, schools, and many parents would send their children to such schools if they had the option. . . Parents, choosing among educational entrepreneurs, could solve the problem of adolescent health far more quickly and more effectively than can academics trying to guide public policy.

After the fall of communism, many people acknowledged . . . that governments cannot meet people's needs as effectively as markets can. . . Government cannot provide lives with purpose; only individual human beings, organized in communities with a common purpose, can provide young people what they need.

School choice is, of course, politically incorrect. [Still, it’s wrong to wait for academics] to acknowledge that government can't solve these problems, but that free people can. Competition is a discovery procedure, and we can discover right now how to solve the problem of adolescent health. Let us do it.

Saturday, May 06, 2006

Final Thoughts on "Two Liberties"

Isiah Berlin, “Two Concepts of Liberty” (1958):

Pluralism, with the measure of “negative” liberty that it entails, seems to me a truer and more humane ideal than the goals of those who seek in the great disciplined, authoritarian structures the ideal of “positive” self-mastery by classes, or peoples, or the whole of mankind.

Berlin wrote when the consensus pushed toward the middle, in a time of post-war horror over what totalitarian Fascism had accomplished, and of Cold War worry about the Soviet Union's lead in space and Communist China's unsettling “Great Leap Forward.” As a Jew who had escaped Stalinist Communism, Berlin had good reason to be wary of those who believed some humans knew better than others how to organize civilization.

This blog’s five-post discussion of Berlin’s philosophy began with a
current defense of his teachings. It’s necessary. Well-considered, intellectually-framed attacks are out of fashion when aimed at those who advocate technical, therapeutic, “social health” approaches to helping fellow humans free themselves from their baser impulses. And as Oxford's Cherniss notes, even Berlin (after all, a fan of the New Deal) wouldn’t defend negative freedom that meant government refusing--just because it interfered with someone’s liberty--to tax the rich to help the poor.

As a supporter of pluralism, Berlin didn’t find it necessary to be tied to the purity of his argument. Let each individual find his or her way, and let government strive to guarantee that freedom to everyone.

There is little evidence of such modesty in today's U.S. The broad elite that dominates Democrats, the media, entertainment and the arts, the government bureaucracies, academia, and the Third Sector is a large echo chamber quite sure it knows what’s best for the other 80%. And our confident elite has spawned a Republican counterforce equally sure of its contrasting worldview.

In this partisan, polarized atmosphere, it's worth noting that Friedman has just proposed creation of a third party, the American Renewal Party (New York Times, 5.4.06).

Friday, May 05, 2006

"Positive Liberty" Plagues Both Parties

Isaiah Berlin argued that “positive liberty” can lead to totalitarianism. The two previous posts, Meyer’s attack on religious people who believe there is “One Way,” and Gelernter’s preference for a “morality of duties” over a liberal Democrat “morality of rights which focuses not on your duty but on what is coming to you,” associate Bush’s effort in Iraq with “positive liberty.” But Meyer’s defense of “negative liberty” is hardly an endorsement of current Democratic thinking, which he rips into for its “know it all” flavor (CBSNews.com, 4.26.06):

My hunch is that Democrats will capture House and Senate seats but not the House or Senate. And if they do, the victory will be fleeting and they will do poorly in 2008.

That's a hunch, no more, and I admit it. But I felt it as a certainty when I read a column by The Washington Post's E.J. Dionne this week. Dionne was arguing with a fellow liberal who wrote what the Democrats need to do is destroy today's "radical individualism" and replace it with "a politics" of a "common good." That's fine, Dionne said, but we need to hear "more about self-interest, rightly understood."

That phrase made me cringe. It still does.

"Self-interest, rightly understood" is a fancy-pants way of saying, "I know what is in your interest better than you do." It is, in my view, a politically stupid and morally diseased position. Democrats, by temperament, are slightly more susceptible to it than Republicans.

I do not mean to condemn Dionne for a phrase. But I will. It reminded me of something written on the very first page of a book that lots of Democrats think is absolutely brilliant, What's the Matter with Kansas by Thomas Frank.

In the third paragraph of his book, Frank writes: "People getting their fundamental interests wrong is what American political life is all about." That, too, is a fancy-pants way of saying: "I know what is in your interest better than you do."

Frank spends the rest of his book explaining why the people of Kansas go against their obvious self-interest and vote for Republicans and not Democrats. His explanations are fascinating and interesting. His premise is intellectually totalitarian.

That may strike you as a rather extreme denunciation. It is, so I'll explain why, in my view, thinking that you know what is in other people's best interests is perhaps the worst political impulse that good people commonly have.

Actually, that is an easy task because it has already been done for the ages and to perfection by the British historian and essayist Isaiah Berlin.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Or is It "Positive Liberty"?

Isaiah Berlin’s seminal essay on “Two Concepts of Liberty” may or may not make the case for “negative liberty” (see previous posts). Perhaps without realizing it, David Gelernter’s commentary “No More Vietnams” (Weekly Standard, 5.8.06) implicitly argues for “positive liberty” in its defense of what Gelernter calls the “morality of duties”:

One of the central disputes of modern times [is] between a traditional "morality of duties" and a modern "morality of rights." Philosophers like to argue that these two worldviews are complementary. In fact they are contradictory. Each of these two worldviews yields an all-inclusive blueprint for society, with no room for further contributions.

Granted, it's convenient to speak of one's "duty" to help the poor and one's "right" of self-defense. No contradiction there. But think it over and you will see that, by laying out everyone's duties explicitly, you lay out everyone's rights implicitly; and vice versa. You have a right to self-defense--or, to put it differently, a duty to use no violence except (among other cases) in self-defense. Both formulas reach the same destination by different routes. By means of the "morality of duty," you shape society the way a sculptor carves stone; by the "morality of rights," you shape it the way a sculptor models clay. Two different, contradictory techniques.

The morality of duties originated in Judeo-Christianity, the morality of rights in Roman jurisprudence. The Hebrew tradition knows about rights--but only in the context of covenants, where two parties each acquire rights and responsibilities simultaneously. America's Founders and Framers spoke of rights, but might well have had this Judeo- Christian idea in mind.

But the modern preference for rights over duties has nothing to do with religion or covenants. And your choice between these two worldviews is important. Morality deals, after all, with how to conduct yourself--whereas a right ordinarily confers an advantageous position, to put it formally; having a right means that your will is favored over someone else's. It's therefore conceivable that the morality of duties is the one and only kind of morality; that a morality of rights is a contradiction in terms.

It's conceivable that a "morality of rights" actually rejects morality in favor of some other way to organize society--I'll call it "rights- liberalism." Rights-liberalism might be better than traditional Judeo-Christian morality, or worse, or neither, but in any case I believe it is not morality. In fact, proponents of rights-liberalism seem to believe (though they rarely say so point blank) that it is the next step beyond morality.

Even if you don't care about religion, you might still choose the morality of duty, with its focus on an individual's obligations, over rights-liberalism--which focuses not on your duty but on what is coming to you. Many Republicans and conservatives do prefer to discuss duties; many Democrats and liberals would rather talk about rights.

Is It "Negative Liberty" We Value Most?

CBSNews.com's Dick Meyer has more today (5.4.06) on the Isaiah Berlin "Two Concepts of Liberty" lecture Meyer calls one of 20th century’s “most influential essays” (see previous post, "Two Concepts of Liberty”).

Meyer is a strong proponent of “negative liberty,” and believes Berlin was as well:

"[P]ositive liberty" [is] the notion that liberty is empty unless it includes a positive capability to do something specific – e.g., work without exploitation, or, get an education, just to name two random examples.

Negative liberty is simpler; it is being free "from" things; it is being left alone, having a zone of individual liberty. . .

[Positive liberty means] believers in the great "ism's" of history. . .[that] there is One Way. Many deeply religious people believe there is One Way.

True advocates of the arguments and attitudes that give negative liberty an exalted position in the competition of political values believe there are Many Ways. They believe that the most human and most vital activity is picking Your Way, which entails lots of freedom to be left alone.

If you believe in Many Ways, you cannot believe in grandiose theories. You cannot believe there is a single system that explains it all.

That's because [people] constantly develop and cherish ultimate values and virtues that are simply not consistent with each other, and that is what liberty protects.

Often our values are not comparable or compatible. Liberty, in the classic example, collides with equality: if taxes are increased to help make poor people more equal, someone's liberty is being compromised. . .

Pluralism, tolerance and skepticism are the intellectual and attitudinal virtues that nourish an appreciation of Berlin's negative liberty deep enough to vanquish the need for . . . a Big Theory.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Iraq: Good News is No News

Here’s my latest highly abbreviated form of the Iraq Index, published and updated twice a week by Michael O'Hanlon of the Brookings Institution:

Americans Killed in Action, Iraq (monthly average)

2003: 32
2004: 59
2005: 56
2006: 45
April: 61

Americans Killed in Action, Vietnam (weekly average)

1965:* 30
1966: 97
1967: 177
1968: 263
• = First U.S. combat troops arrived in Vietnam, 5.3.65
Vietnam table compiled by Galen Fox using Defense Department sources.

Note please—the Vietnam KIAs are weekly, not monthly, averages.

Crude Oil Production (m. bbls./day)

Prewar: 2.50
Goal: 2.50
actual: 2.14 (4/06)

Electricity (megawatts)

Prewar: 3,958
Goal: 6,000
actual: 3,600 (4/06)

Iraq finally has a duly elected prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki. This is big news, even though al-Maliki has yet to name his cabinet. Certainly the failure to select a prime minister during the four previous months constituted bad news, and overlay all other bad news coming out of the country. With al-Maliki's taking office, Iraq can truly start to function as a democracy—big news and good news.

NBC failed to give al-Maliki a headline the night the story broke (April 21), and the following night made Parliament’s formal approval of al-Maliki only its fourth headline of four. Partly because al-Maliki received so little coverage, Bush sent Rice and Rumsfeld to Iraq April 26 to meet with him and highlight Iraq’s good news yet again. It didn’t work. NBC responded to the Rice-Rumsfeld visit with even less coverage: a 23-second item read by Brian Williams. The network provided no correspondent, no direct feed from Baghdad, certainly no headline.

Political progress in Iraq, however, did attract Zarquari's attention. As usual, he responded with increased violence against American forces. So it’s no surprise that the total number of American troops killed in action in April rose sharply to 61 from its March low of 25. Still, the monthly average for 2006 remains below the two previous years' monthly average.

Monday, May 01, 2006

"Two Concepts of Liberty"

CBSNews.com's Dick Meyer (4.26.06) noted that British historian and essayist Isaiah Berlin’s 1958 talk entitled "Two Concepts of Liberty" became “one of the most influential essays in political philosophy written in English in the 20th century.”

Meyer’s statement grabbed my attention. It drew me to Joshua Cherniss’ recent defense of Berlin’s thinking, which centered on the concepts of “negative” and “positive liberty” as developed in the famous 1958 Berlin essay (Oxonian Review of Books, Spring 2006):

Berlin’s championing of ‘negative’ liberty—liberty as freedom from interference—and critique of ‘positive’ freedom, which was central to many defences of welfare legislation, led many to perceive him as a proponent of classical liberalism or libertarianism. This, combined with his attacks on ‘scientism’—the application of the model of science to human problems—has made him seem to some indistinguishable from such conservative or classical-liberal thinkers as Hayek . . .

Despite the appearance of libertarianism, Berlin enthusiastically admired the New Deal, and less enthusiastically supported the British Welfare State. Given this, it is not surprising that he is distrusted or resented on the Right[, which] disregards two obvious facts: that opposition to Communism played at least as large a part in Berlin’s political thought as support for the Welfare State, and that Berlin was deeply worried by trends towards collectivism in Western society.

These opposed perceptions—of Berlin as mild-mannered libertarian, and as apologist for state intervention—reflect a more general tendency to misunderstand his position on liberty. Berlin described ‘negative’ freedom as closer to the ‘basic’ or ‘essential’ meaning of freedom: ‘the ability to choose as you wish to choose’ without being coerced or bullied. ‘Positive’ liberty, on the other hand, was prone to perversion. This was, first, because one variant of positive liberty identified liberty with fulfillment, and so with the attainment of goals other than, and possibly conflicting with, liberty. Another variant of positive liberty defined freedom as self-mastery.

This meant that the nature of freedom depended on conceptions of the self. If the self were identified, not with the actual wishes of individuals, but with what individuals ‘really’ desired—that is, what they should desire—or with entities other than individuals (such as races, classes, or nations), the idea of self-mastery became an alibi for coercion.

This has led many to see Berlin as a simple advocate of ‘negative’ liberty and opponent of ‘positive’ liberty. But his position was more complex. He acknowledged the dangers of negative liberty, whereby certain exercises of this liberty could lead to drastic deprivations and inequalities, making the enjoyment of liberty impossible. And he held that positive liberty was a genuine and valuable version of liberty, so long as it was identified with the autonomy of individuals rather than the achievement of goals that individuals ‘should’ desire.

Berlin also recognised what dogmatic adherents of laissez-faire ignore—that certain interventionist economic policies could be (and often were) justified on morally individualist, rather than collectivist, grounds. He was able to differentiate between moral individualism and economic individualism. He acknowledged the importance of values such as equality and social justice that could conflict with and, in some cases, should take precedent over, liberty.

Yet he was no uncritical proponent of the welfare state. He was deeply worried by a repressive conception of society and social service, which viewed political and moral problems in technical and therapeutic terms, aimed at promoting ‘social health’ through regulation and conditioning. This concern reflected his opposition to paternalism and elitism, which was at the centre of his thought.