Clause 61: The Pushback Blog

Because ideas have consequences

Archive for June 2017

Thank You for Protecting Me from Myself

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Two very helpful persons at the Brookings Institution, Jonathan Rauch and Benjamin Wittes, have written a paper calling for more professionalism and less populism in American public life. The title of the paper claims, “voting makes us stupid.” Really?

Of course, Donald Trump is a walking testament to the stupidity of voters. But their argument goes beyond this. Let’s examine the points in detail.

More Participation Will Not Be Beneficial

The authors go back to, of all people, the Founders as a source of the idea that the Constitution was set up to limit participation. This is true. The Founders feared mob rule almost as much as government tyranny.

Drawing upon ample historical experience, they worried that democracies were vulnerable to demagoguery and prone to instability. Although they insisted that republican government required direct public input, they also constrained and balanced that input.
— Rauch and Wittes

So can we look forward to a shift in the policy of the Brookings Institution to call for a reduction in open primaries and restoration of the selection of Senators to the states?

The People are Incompetent

This is always going to be a seductive idea to a think tank that considers itself a repository of public policy expertise, but leave that aside for now.

This argument actually goes back to Walter Lippmann. In Public Opinion (1922), Lippmann attacked “the doctrine of the omnicompetent citizen.” Lippmann called for a structure modeled on his idea of the British foreign service, where disinterested and independent experts provide policy options to elected officials.

However, there is no such thing as a disinterested expert. The regime Lippmann visualized quickly degenerates into a system where the experts exercise political control because they control the menu of options under discussion.

In practice, the British foreign service wasn’t that great a model. It really worked out like this:

[Bernard] was concerned that the FO [Foreign Office] produces only one considered view, with no options and no alternatives. In practice, this presents no problem. If pressed, the FO looks at the matter again, and comes up with the same view. If the Foreign Secretary demands options, the FO obliges him by presenting three options, two of which will be (on close examination) exactly the same. The third will, of course, be totally unacceptable, like bombing Warsaw or invading France.
Yes, Prime Minister

That is what is going to happen when unelected experts are in control of the policy menu. Even Lippmann had lost faith in experts by 1925, when he wrote The Phantom Public:

[Government] is also subject to the same corruption as public opinion. For when government attempts to impose the will of its officials, instead of intervening so as to steady adjustments by consent among the parties directly interested, it becomes heavy-handed, stupid, imperious, even predatory.

There is really no such doctrine justifying public participation in politics as based on an “omnicompetent citizen.” The authority of the people is not contingent on them passing some sort of civics test. The legitimacy of the government is derived from the consent of the governed. It is not derived from the consent of that subset of the governed that those governing consider qualified.

We have the right to grant or withhold consent, not because we are omnicompetent, but because we have skin in the game. We live with the consequences of government actions. It’s our blood and treasure on the line.

  • In 1953, an Anglo-American effort in Iran instigated the ouster of Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh. This was undertaken primarily because Mossadegh wanted to extract more concessions from the British. The participants in the American government believed that the British economy was unable to withstand these concessions. However, the end result included both the breakup of the British monopoly on Iranian oil trade and a price increase to show the Shah was not a puppet of the west. Thus, for all the broken china, this foolish misadventure did not even accomplish its original intention. Did the American people really want what was done in their name?
  • In 2016, the Obama administration committed the United States to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 18% under the Paris Agreement. This commitment was made by executive order, bypassing the Constitutional requirement for treaties to be ratified by the Senate. The commitment, which has been revoked by Donald Trump, would have necessarily increased energy costs for American citizens in order to comply with the targets. Why did we want this? The Obama administration knew we did not, which is why it evaded review by our representatives in the Senate.

The People are Irrational

Sure, they are. But the professionals are people, too. How are they not any less irrational than the public at large?

There is a reason that David Halberstam titled his history of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations in Vietnam The Best and the Brightest. The best and the brightest can also go wrong. And when they do, the move in greater unison than the public at large. They largely drink from the same wells of information and have similar outlooks. Groupthink is particularly prevalent among professionals.

The authors quoted Lee Drutman: “Informed, individualistic rationality is a chimera.” Actually, rationality in public life in general is overrated. One of the most rational politicians of the past hundred years was Neville Chamberlain. It is perfectly rational to want to avoid going to war to interfere “in a faraway country between people of whom we know nothing.” But history demonstrated it was a bad idea.

The madman is not the man who has lost his reason. The madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason.
— G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy

More Education Will Not Be Helpful

More than what? In 1918, the National Education Association completed Cardinal Principles of Secondary Education. This report called for seven objectives of secondary education, including Civic Education:

For such citizenship the following are essential: A many-sided interest in the welfare of the communities to which one belongs; loyalty to ideals of civic righteousness ; practical knowledge of social agencies and institutions; good judgment as to means and methods that will promote one social end without defeating others; and as putting all these into effect, habits of cordial cooperation in social undertakings.
Cardinal Principles of Secondary Education, p. 13.

Yet, here we are 99 years later. Every year students are reported to be in greater ignorance of civics, politics and economics than last. Rauch and Wittes cite a survey showing that most respondents cannot name the three branches of government, identify the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court or locate the entity with the power to declare war. Moreover, they cite the common belief that the government spends more on foreign aid than on Social Security or Medicare.

So how is this not an indictment of the existing education establishment? How has the education system delivered on the 1918 goals?

In Public Opinion, Lippmann famously wrote:

It is because they are compelled to act without a reliable picture of the world, that governments, schools, newspapers and churches make such small headway against the more obvious failings of democracy, against violent prejudice, apathy, preference for the curious trivial as against the dull important, and the hunger for sideshows and three legged calves. This is the primary defect of popular government, a defect inherent in its traditions, and all its other defects can, I believe, be traced to this one.

The education system has had a century to remedy the “preference for the curious trivial as against the dull important.” It has not done so, and we can only conclude that it does not want to. Better to keep people in their state of supposed ignorance, and then tell them to leave public policy to the professionals. This is a scam.

It is manifestly unfair to fail to educate people to be effective citizens and then tell them that they can’t participate in political life because they are living in civic ignorance.

The Return of Intermediaries

Rauch and Wittes make the case for intermediaries in public. Political intermediaries can be elected officials or representatives of political parties. What they call a substantive intermediary has specialist knowledge of a policy area, such as health care.

Political intermediaries are necessary. Here is one Rauch and Wittes omitted: states. The several states are a necessary counterweight to federal power. It is more than time to rediscover the role of states in our political process.

The specialist intermediary would be of value. No one without specialist knowledge is going to make sense of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act; I tried. It would be great to have intermediaries who could help the citizen navigate the issues.

The first logical candidate might be the media. Try spending a little less time on having two groups of mouthpieces talk over each other, and devote that time to providing information on how a segment of the economy works. If that seems scary, put on segments at 4 in the morning, when no one is watching anyway, and let us record them.

Want to discuss pricing of prescription drugs? Go through the history of the FDA and the decisions that were consciously made to make sure that new drugs were introduced in the US first. Follow the economic consequences of those decisions. Discuss the new drug application (NDA) process that generates enough paper to fill a semi-trailer. Visit (I am not going to give them free publicity by using their real domain name), where people seeking victim status can be gathered into a class to launch a lawsuit.

Corporatism hated intermediaries and sought to get rid of them at every opportunity, leaving the individual citizens alone with the all-knowing, almighty federal government. We need intermediaries that Brookings hasn’t even thought of.

However, we also need to be able to trust the intermediaries. We require that they are giving us all the information, not just a limited and purposeful set of options (two of which are identical and the third totally unacceptable). We need intermediaries to watch the intermediaries.

Yes, the world we live in requires tradeoffs and choices from among the unpalatable and the disastrous. The belief that ordinary people cannot understand these issues in a nuanced way is a piece of received wisdom. Populism is a rebellion against this, an assertion that legitimacy derives from the consent of the people, whether or not the people express themselves in a way pleasing to those who would wield power over them. Thank God the American people have the sand to push back on the professionals who would undermine them.

Did Donald Trump Obstruct Justice?

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We had a fun argument earlier this week on CNN between Jeffrey Toobin and Alan Dershowitz over whether or not Donald Trump obstructed justice by his conduct toward former FBI director James Comey. You can see it here (4:43).

Toobin claimed that Trump obstructed justice:

  • That the alleged request by Trump to Comey to lay off investigating former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn would have constituted obstruction of justice;
  • That Trump’s firing of Comey was obstruction of justice.

Dershowitz disagreed. He argued that Trump had the constitutional options to order Comey directly to cease investigating Flynn or even to grant Flynn an executive pardon. Dershowitz cited the example of Caspar Weinberger, who had served as Secretary of Defense for Ronald Reagan and who had been indicted by Independent Counsel Lawrence Walsh in 1992, accusing Weinberger of perjury and obstruction of justice during the Iran-Contra Affair. President George H. W. Bush pardoned Weinberger before these charges could be tried.

Dershowitz did not argue that Trump should get a free pass, just that his behavior was within his authority under the Constitution and did not constitute a crime. During the interview, Dershowitz said, “Impeachment is political. There is no judicial review of impeachment. You can impeach a president for jaywalking.”

I have to agree with Dershowitz, not just because of his reputation as a constitutional law scholar. Where does the FBI appear on the constitutional org chart? It is within the Justice Department, part of the Executive branch. The FBI is not an independent agency — does anybody really want it to be? (Anybody remember J. Edgar Hoover?)

As such, the FBI director serves at the pleasure of the president, who has the constitutional authority to dismiss the director for any reason, or no reason at all. This is not to say that there will be no political consequences for the president. Lyndon Johnson wanted to dismiss Hoover, but drew back from the political consequences [see Halberstam, The Best and the Brightest, p. 529]. Trump went ahead and fired Comey, and he can live with the political consequences of having done so.

Abuse of political power is a perfectly good reason to impeach a president. Congress also has less extreme options at its disposal, such as cutting funding for the president’s programs and either refusing or delaying consideration of the president’s legislative agenda.

Criminalizing political behavior you don’t like is a bad road to go down. It would represent another step toward being a banana republic with no bananas.

In this case, it is political spinelessness that causes people to seek some artificial objective standard — never mind that it is not applicable. If you don’t like the man’s politics, come out and say so. Seek political means to counteract them.

And if you’re in journalism, and you are concerned that you can’t object to someone’s politics and still appear unbiased, you’re absolutely right. You have to choose your course and live with the consequences no less than a politician has to.

Written by srojak

June 10, 2017 at 3:06 pm