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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.

Personal Loyalty in Government

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CBS News estimates that about one-fifth of the country is solidly behind President Trump. Of this subset of the population, they report that 55% “believe government and law enforcement officials should take an oath of loyalty to the Constitution and president,” as opposed to pledging loyalty to the Constitution alone. Given an adult population of 209 million, by my reckoning, that would be 23 million adult Americans holding this belief. I find this deeply disturbing.

There are about 4,000 politically appointed positions in the administration. Those in the executive branch serve at the pleasure of the president.  Although he can dismiss them at any time, there can be political consequences for doing so. Managing a federal department is not the same as managing a family business. The removal of a highly respected senior staffer can demoralize those who had been working for her, unless there are reasons the survivors can respect and these reasons are communicated well.

A requirement of personal loyalty to an individual President would take the political appointees in the direction of a Führerprinzip, in that it would communicate that the will of the executive takes priority over the appointee’s concepts of right and wrong. Furthermore, the door swings both ways; an executive politically hostile to your interests as a citizen could also demand such loyalty from political appointees.

Attention, 23 million Americans: rethink this idea immediately. It would represent a significant further step to make politics “a civil war by other means,” and we are far along on that path already. The Constitution was designed to prevent a majority from running roughshod over a minority. It deserves the highest loyalty of those who serve in government.

Written by srojak

May 23, 2017 at 5:10 am

Conserve Exactly What?

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I wanted to write something about what Conservatism is and where it is going before the Election Day, so that I was not perceived as being wise after the event. Evidently I was not alone in thinking this way, because I have seen three major thought pieces in the last month:

For context, the reader may also want to refer to these links:

All quotes are from the above.


The Continetti article is a good place to start, both because it launched the discussion and because the author attempts a historical review of conservatism. He identifies four waves of conservatism:

  1. The Old Right initially organized against the original progressivism of Teddy Roosevelt and Wilson, and were always marginalized.
  2. The 1950-s era wave of William Buckley, James Burnham and Russell Kirk (among others), who were, in Continetti’s words, “elitist, pessimistic, grimly witty and academic” — and still politically marginal.
  3. The 1970’s New Right, full of political fire and brimstone, who took credit for bringing Ronald Reagan to power (more on that later).
  4. The religious right, whose fire and brimstone is not confined to politics.

Here is the first major problem that I have with Continetti’s analysis. Are the religious right really conservative? Well, it depends on how you define Conservatism, doesn’t it?

The relentless quest for votes.

The relentless quest for votes.

Back in the high summer of collectivism, between 1930 and 1963, Conservatism was not really a vote-winning political brand, so it was easier to keep the definition clear. I don’t believe that you ever would have seen a yard sign claiming a candidate was a Texas Conservative before 1963. Now, because of the perceived success of the New Right, conservatism is a label that can win votes, so we see dilution. As a result, we are not really sure what conservatism is anymore.

The Old Right did organize in opposition to Progressivism — not in reaction to it, as progressives would have you believe, but in principled opposition to its expansive tendencies. They did not accept the claim that human society could be perfected along rational lines. They rejected the expansiveness of Progressivism. If you’re not clear on what I mean by expansiveness, consider the slogan, “Yes, we can,” which is the ultimate expression of expansiveness. That opposition to expansiveness is the real unifying principle of Conservatism. Not, “No, we can’t,” but, “Should we?”

People on the religious right, who want to bring about the New Jerusalem, who want to achieve the Kingdom of God on Earth, are themselves expansive. I don’t want to disparage their beliefs, just to point out that there is nothing “conservative” about them. Conservatives can make common cause with them — or anyone else — but do not mistake the religious right for Conservatives.

So, having established that Continetti really doesn’t have a good working definition of Conservatism, it is hardly surprising that he is willing to grant conservative credentials to Donald Trump. If the religious right can be accommodated, can’t the populists?

Continetti concludes:

 The triumph of populism has left conservatism marooned, confused, uncertain, depressed, anxious, searching for a tradition, for a program, for viability. We might have to return to the beginning to understand where we have ended up. We might have to reject adversarianism [sic], to accept the welfare state as an objective fact, to rehabilitate Burnham’s vision of a conservative-tinged Establishment capable of permeating the managerial society and gradually directing it in a prudential, reflective, virtuous manner respectful of both freedom and tradition. This is the challenge of the moment. This is the crisis of the conservative intellectual. What makes that crisis acute is the knowledge that he and his predecessors may have helped to bring it on themselves.

I am not sure if Continetti meant adversarianism as a portmanteau of adversarial + Arianism = heresy, especially given his use of other religious terms (e.g., chiliastic).

More to the point, isn’t accepting the progressive vision of corporatism and the welfare state as an objective fact what Republicans have more or less been doing, with infrequent lapses, since Richard Nixon? Is this not just another go-along-to-get-along tactic that has fueled frustration with the Republican establishment?


Michael Gerson is an evangelical and a neo-conservative. He was George W. Bush’s chief speechwriter from 2001 to 2006. This makes him a somewhat suspect advisor for conservatives, but let’s see what he has to say.

The main point of Gerson’s article is that:

Bush represented a fundamentally different option (still embraced, in more modern form, by many Republican governors). His appeal included the aggressive promotion of economic growth, expressed in support for broad tax cuts. A commitment to compassionate and creative social policy, demonstrated by No Child Left Behind and his support for faith-based social services. A belief in ethnic and religious inclusion, shown by his proposal for comprehensive immigration reform and by his defense of American Muslims after the 9/11 attacks. An internationalist foreign policy, which included not only the war against terrorism but also the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief. And a tolerant version of traditionalism, based on moral aspiration rather than judgment. (It is an approach I helped frame while working for candidate and then President Bush.)

Given how post-ideological Bush the man appears to have been, I can understand why Gerson might want to defend the merits of the Bush Administration. The ideas of the Administration might well have been more properly the ideas of key advisors, including Gerson.

A fundamental problem with neocons was their “internationalist foreign policy,” prominently featuring a misguided belief in nation-building. To summarize concisely, neocons originated as disillusioned leftists, such as Irving Kristol and Norman Podhoretz, who were alienated by the attitudes of the 1970s Left toward Israel, the Soviet Union and the exercise of power by the United States. All that would be understandable, but the neocons kept their expansive Wilsonian approach to foreign policy.

Nevertheless, Gerson has a point when he says:

But here is the reality: There is no reconstitution of conservative influence or the appeal of the Republican Party without incorporating some updated version of compassionate conservatism. And conservatives need to get over their aversion to the only approach that has brought them presidential victory since 1988.

But what we need to do is pick through the agenda Gerson outlines and understand what is worth having and why. David Frum illustrated the problem on the ground:

Owners of capital assets, employers of low-skill laborers, and highly compensated professionals tend to benefit economically from the arrival of immigrants. They are better positioned to enjoy the attractive cultural and social results of migration (more-interesting food!) and to protect themselves against the burdensome impacts (surges in non-English-proficient pupils in public schools). A pro-immigration policy shift was one more assertion of class interest in a party program already brimful of them.

How do we get ethnic and religious inclusion while ensuring that the costs of these policies do not land on the people who are least able to bear them? How do we turn education reform into a meaningful program that prepares Americans for the realities of the 21st century, rather than an empty slogan that affects nothing in the real world?


Ben Domenech wrote directly in response to Continetti, and also has some rejoinders for Gerson:

From Reagan through George W. Bush, conservatives largely agreed on the traditional three-legged stool of the fusionist GOP: national defense, limited government, family values. All of that blew up in the aftermath of the Bush years. Conservative intellectuals perceive what’s happening now as a crisis because the political universe has changed so dramatically thanks to Iraq, the Wall Street meltdown, and the lackluster growth that’s followed. But a good part of that crisis mentality could be due to the fact that they still haven’t come to grips with how much the Bush presidency damaged perceptions of conservatism, even among Republicans, and made the old frame of fusionism impossible.

But that fusion was always weak and strained. As explained earlier, there was common cause with the religious right on national defense, limited government and family values, but the religious right had an expansive approach to family values that was not compatible with conservatism or with Gerson’s “moral aspiration rather than judgment.” Meanwhile, there are also the libertarians, who do not buy into the conventional understanding of “family values” at all. Libertarians want more autonomy than the religious right is prepared to grant. Libertarians also want nothing to do with an internationalist foreign policy.

The Republican party from 2008 to 2015 was an uneasy coalition of libertarians, the religious right and Chamber-of-Commerce types. Then Donald Trump came along.

Ask yourself why so many of Trump’s voters, even the middle class ones, are willing to listen when he says even something as big as a presidential election can be rigged against them. All this is happening because American society is in collapse, and no one trusts institutions or one another. It is due to the failure of government institutions, largely stood up by the progressive left, to live up to their promises of offering real economic security and education and the promise of a better life. It is due to the failure of corporate institutions, who have warped America’s capitalist system to benefit themselves at the expense of others. It is due to the failure of cultural institutions, like the church and community organizations, to help the people make sense of an anxious age.

All this is true, but doesn’t tell us how to go forward. And many conservatives have been more than willing to prostitute themselves, by being pro-business rather than pro-market, to green-light the efforts of corporate executives to “warp America’s capitalist system to benefit themselves at the expense of others” by fobbing risk off on others while keeping the reward for themselves. Libertarians have been especially susceptible on this issue.

So, while the institutional problems Domenech cites are very real, institutions are composed of people, who in turn are animated by ideas. Conservatism needs to do the soul-searching, to examine its ideas.


Francis Buckley looked at thought leadership on both sides of the political spectrum and found a lot to dislike.

We had thought the Great Chain of Being washed away by the rise of science, by 18th-century philosophes such as Voltaire, by Jefferson and the Founders. But we were wrong. As long as there are elites, there will be people who think they deserve their place atop the greasy pole, that resistance is futile, that the underclass must learn where they naturally belong. And that’s what many of our left- and right-wing elites have come to believe.

Buckley’s criticism of the left is beyond the scope of this essay. His criticism of the right begins with a review of the criticisms made of the Trumpkins.

For George Will, they were “invertebrates.” For Charles Murray and Kevin Williamson, the story is one of white working-class vice, of drug use, divorce, and unwed births. If the underclass wasn’t working, that was its fault. After looking at one town, National Review’s Williamson wrote, “the truth about these dysfunctional, downscale communities is that they deserve to die. Economically, they are negative assets. Morally, they are indefensible. … Donald Trump’s speeches make them feel good. So does OxyContin.”

I find that Williamson has a point when he says:

If you spend time in hardscrabble, white upstate New York, or eastern Kentucky, or my own native West Texas, and you take an honest look at the welfare dependency, the drug and alcohol addiction, the family anarchy — which is to say, the whelping of human children with all the respect and wisdom of a stray dog — you will come to an awful realization. It wasn’t Beijing. It wasn’t even Washington, as bad as Washington can be. It wasn’t immigrants from Mexico, excessive and problematic as our current immigration levels are. It wasn’t any of that.

If they are victims of anything, they are victims of a progressive education system that said it was OK to dissipate your disposable time on leisure and hitch yourself to the consumption-debt-repayment treadmill. People in the credentialed white-collar middle class who think they don’t have to confront the same problem have another think coming. At the same time, why should the white working class be exempt from the self-examination they would dish out to others: how long are you going to keep on being a victim? At what point do you stop being a victim of your upbringing, your culture and your education and assume moral responsibility for your own continued participation in it?

Charleroi, PA is 21 miles south of Pittsburgh. The town has experienced intense economic distress as a result of the decline in manufacturing in southwest Pennsylvania, The people there want to have their way of life protected in the face of these changes. OK, but if we are going to do that, would we do that for the people who live in the Core City neighborhood of Detroit? If not, where is the justice in that? Would that be racism? It is sure going to look racist to the people in Detroit. The Economist called it, “compassion for us; conservatism for them,” and rightly so.

I have my own take on this. I would have liked to continue to live in northern New Jersey, where I grew up, but I couldn’t afford it. So I had to make choices, and I did so — I moved. Staying is also a choice. You takes your choice, and you pays the price.

There is one more consideration, and it comes from David Wong:

If you don’t live in one of these small towns, you can’t understand the hopelessness. The vast majority of possible careers involve moving to the city, and around every city is now a hundred-foot wall called “Cost of Living.” Let’s say you’re a smart kid making $8 an hour at Walgreen’s and aspire to greater things. Fine, get ready to move yourself and your new baby into a 700-square-foot apartment for $1,200 a month, and to then pay double what you’re paying now for utilities, groceries, and babysitters. 

So it is a complex and messy issue with two parallel dimensions:

  • The ethical dimension, at the individual level, where I am more inclined to side with Williamson;
  • The political dimension, at the community level, where I am more receptive to Buckley. At the community level, there are also public policy issues. Do you want whole communities being abandoned because of economic dislocation? Where do they go?

Even though the specific issue here is more complex and muddy than Buckley probably has in mind, and even though I don’t think it fair to pick on Williamson, his main point is still valid:

Williamson reminds one of the unfeeling strain in contemporary conservatism. It’s something we’ve seen in Mitt Romney, Ted Cruz, Randians, and not a few libertarians. What Romney and Cruz communicated was a perfect fidelity to right-wing principles and an indifference to people.

As they sales proverb goes, “I don’t care how much you know until I know how much you care.” Politics is a people business. Ideas animate people, but the ideas come second to people.

In the interest of not making a long story even longer, I am going to skip forward to Buckley’s conclusion:

My atheist friends who themselves adhere to the highest codes of duty and honor might nevertheless want to consider how often they’ve observed antique republican virtue on display on college campuses or on television. What they’ve seen instead, for the most part, is the detritus of a culture that has lost its religious anchoring and with it any semblance of a moral culture.

They have dispensed with God and for their sophistication ask to be accepted by the intellectuals of the left as fellow members of a privileged elite in our Great Chain of Being. But in abandoning the religious tradition of the West, in their contempt for the invertebrates, the OxyContin sniffers, the takers, they reveal the icicle lodged in the conservative heart.

Before Conservatives can overcome any left-wing bias in the media or any other true-but-incidental issue in being heard, we have to overcome this. The vast majority of the electorate sees “the icicle lodged in the conservative heart,” and wants no part of it.

Is There Anything to Conserve?

What does the term Conservative even mean here in the US anymore? In Britain, at least, they are rigorous about their labels: Liberals were almost completely displaced by the Labor Party by 1924. Here, we are more sloppy with our words, and we pay a price for that.

After eighty-some years of Progressive government (it depends on what you count Herbert Hoover as), there is precious little left to conserve. Meanwhile, we have to come to terms with urbanization, specialization, autonomy and deep pluralism.

We need an ideology that really cares about people, not just one that does a bad job of trying to appear like it cares. We need to put all the productive people first, not just those who can be donors. Sheldon Adelson spent $150 million in 2012 and whiffed completely. His money did not help Romney defeat Obama, and he went 0-for-5 in congressional races. It’s still one person, one vote.

We need to be clear on the difference between pro-market and pro-business policies. We need to remind everyone constantly that a moral foundation of capitalism is that the people who bear the greatest risks have the greatest upsides. There will always be people who want to ditch the risk and keep the reward; it is bad public policy to let them do it.

That means that people who choose to earn a wage or a salary have chosen a lower-risk, lower-reward life. It is unethical to leave them exposed when trade policies change so that others can reap all the rewards in terms of profit and lower-cost consumer goods.

The majority of adults with whom I have spoken do not want those who genuinely cannot take care of themselves pushed to the wall. We need to lead the conversation on what “deserving” means. We are going to have to rebut the schoolmarms who want to take the side of whomever cries first.

We are going to have to face up to intellectual bullies who tell us, “Everyone knows John Rawls said …” We are going to have to push back more and take pushback better. We are going to have to control the language battlefield, or we will always be on ground of someone else’s choosing.

We need to stop the appalling waste of human lives that progressivism encourages. We have a drug problem in this country because we have the demand for drugs. We have a population insulated from risk living lives devoid of meaning, having no higher purpose than consumption and leisure, so they make problems for themselves. Did you ever see those videos on YouTube where they say that, by some year in the near future, India or China will have more honor students than we have students? We can’t afford our current levels of wasting people’s lives in such a world.

We can’t afford to tell people, “We’re not interested in what you can contribute because you have the wrong plumbing.” Or the wrong skin color. We can’t afford to have people who hate to go to work because they expect to be groped or humiliated or ridiculed for being who they are. Actually, we make people hate to go to work for a whole lot of reasons, but that is another essay for another day.

We need to humanize the costs of progressive policies. On Wednesday, the election will be over, but the problems will not. Progressives make more promises to more people, with continually less ability to make good on those promises. A regime based on redistribution will only lead to more intense and ugly fighting over a shrinking pie. A focus on production and the people who make it possible is the only way forward.

Written by srojak

November 6, 2016 at 8:02 pm

Declarations of Dependence

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In August 2011, speaking in Andover, MA, Elizabeth Warren made these comments:

I hear all this, you know, ‘Well, this is class warfare, this is whatever.’ No. There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own — nobody. You built a factory out there? Good for you. But I want to be clear. You moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for. You hired workers the rest of us paid to educate. You were safe in your factory because of police-forces and fire-forces that the rest of us paid for. You didn’t have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory — and hire someone to protect against this — because of the work the rest of us did. Now look, you built a factory and it turned into something terrific, or a great idea. God bless — keep a big hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is, you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.

As if building on this idea, President Barack Obama made these comments in a campaign speech in Roanoke, VA on July 13, 2012:

There are a lot of wealthy, successful Americans who agree with me — because they want to give something back.  They know they didn’t — look, if you’ve been successful, you didn’t get there on your own.  You didn’t get there on your own.  I’m always struck by people who think, well, it must be because I was just so smart.  There are a lot of smart people out there.  It must be because I worked harder than everybody else.  Let me tell you something — there are a whole bunch of hardworking people out there.

If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help.  There was a great teacher somewhere in your life.  Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive.  Somebody invested in roads and bridges.  If you’ve got a business — you didn’t build that.  Somebody else made that happen.  The Internet didn’t get invented on its own.  Government research created the Internet so that all the companies could make money off the Internet.

The point is, is that when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together.  There are some things, just like fighting fires, we don’t do on our own.  I mean, imagine if everybody had their own fire service.  That would be a hard way to organize fighting fires.
So we say to ourselves, ever since the founding of this country, you know what, there are some things we do better together. That’s how we funded the GI Bill. That’s how we created the middle class. That’s how we built the Golden Gate Bridge or the Hoover Dam. That’s how we invented the Internet. That’s how we sent a man to the moon. We rise or fall together as one nation and as one people, and that’s the reason I’m running for President — because I still believe in that idea. You’re not on your own, we’re in this together.

Some defenders of this idea claimed at the time that Obama’s remarks were being taken out of context. For this reason, I have included all the paragraphs that included when making such a claim.

Peggy Noonan wrote a very effective parody of this less than a month later:

From a friend watching the Olympics: “How about that Michael Phelps? But let’s remember he didn’t win all those medals, someone else did. After all, he and I swam in public pools, built by state employees using tax dollars. He got training from the USOC, and ate food grown by the Department of Agriculture. He should play fair and share his medals with people like me, who can barely keep my head above water, let alone swim.” The note was merry and ironic. And as the games progress, we’ll be hearing a lot more of this kind of thing, because President Obama’s comment—”You didn’t build that”—is the political gift that keeps on giving.
— “The Life of the Party”,

So — obvious truths or outrageous philosophical claims?

The Philosophy of Dependence

There is a philosophical pedigree for the ideas that Warren and Obama are promoting. Their statements call the question on fundamental ideas of:

  • Deserved reward: in a society in which the co-operation of others is necessary to get any meaningful results, what share of the results can any one person really deserve?
  • Moral responsibility: to what extent are you responsible for your actions? To what extent is the community?

The subject touches on moral agency, free will and self-reliance. This is not a new topic of discussion. Friedrich Nietzsche wrote:

The desire for “freedom of will” in the superlative, metaphysical sense, such as still holds sway, unfortunately, in the minds of the half-educated, the desire to bear the entire and ultimate responsibility for one’s actions oneself, and to absolve God, the world, ancestors, chance, and society therefrom, involves nothing less than to be precisely this causa sui, and, with more than Munchausen daring, to pull oneself up into existence by the hair, out of the slough of nothingness.
— Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, Chapter I

Informed by thinkers such as Nietzsche, communitarians have for a long time criticized the individualistic definition of the self. They have maintained that people are not, in the words of Charles Taylor, “self-sufficient outside of society,” and that the self is formed independent of social relations. From this, it would seem to follow that Taylor believes both that Nietzsche was correct in his criticism of individual moral responsibility, and that it is difficult for an individual to claim to deserve any distinct reward for contributing to a group effort, even if that contribution was to plan, organize and direct.

However, this is by no means a settled issue. Robert Nozick described humans as self-owners: in full control of their talents, abilities and labor and the fruits of their application of these. He also takes the position that human beings are ends in themselves. From this, it follows that a person is able to grant or withhold her participation in a group effort, is morally responsible for her decision and is entitled to rewards that she deserves for the contribution she provides.

As Andrew Cline explained, the positions of Warren and Obama are an inversion of all this. Instead of government deriving legitimacy from the consent of the governed, it is We the People who must ask the government what we deserve for our efforts:

In Obama’s formulation, government is not a tool for the people’s use, but the very foundation upon which all of American prosperity is built. Government is not dependent upon the people; the people are dependent upon the government.

The system “allowed you to thrive.” That is fundamentally non-Jeffersonian. You succeeded because a greater power — the state — bestowed its favor upon you. The setup, the whole reason for the argument, is Obama’s contention that your wealth is not your creation, but an allowance from the state:

“You didn’t build that” was the clincher that would justify the demand to “give something back.” Not “give,” but “give… back.” The distinction is critical. Your wealth, he clearly and unmistakably asserts, is not your creation, it was given — allowed — by the state. And now the state wants some of it back. Refuse and you are denying the state its rightful claim to the wealth it “helped” you to create.
— “What ‘You Didn’t Build That’ Really Means — and Why Romney Can’t Explain It”, The Atlantic (

A full treatment of the philosophy behind these remarks would be a book-length effort. If you are interested, I direct you to the following supplementary materials, which you can read without charge on the Internet:

  1. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
    1. Autonomy
    2. Desert
    3. Moral Luck
    4. Nozick, Robert
    5. Responsibility
  2. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
    1. Communitarianism
    2. Desert
    3. Feminist Perspectives on the Self
    4. Free Will
    5. Incompatibilist (Nondeterministic) Theories of Free Will

I caution the reader that philosophy has trends, fads and fashions no less than any other subject of human study. These and the related materials are useful, but not the definitive last word.

How Stuff Gets Done

No one disputes that most of the interesting problems in the world require solutions designed and implemented by groups of people. Innovation, by definition, requires participation.

What are the appropriate rewards for various dissimilar contributions to group success? We can get some insights from everyday life at work.

A committee is a group that keeps minutes and loses hours.
— Milton Berle

Just putting a group of people together does not cause results to magically emerge. Many executives and managers have learned this the hard way. Someone has to stand up and risk being wrong, to take responsibility and overcome the indolence and inertia of others and guide the group forward.

Popular ideas link expectation of reward to hard work, but to hear people talk, everyone works hard. You can find a thousand people who are willing to work hard and still not one person who is willing to risk being wrong.

Victory has a hundred fathers, but defeat is an orphan.
— Usually attributed to President John F. Kennedy, but he got it from Tacitus, c. 98 AD.

After the results are in, if success is obtained, everyone standing downwind has a claim to deserve a share. However, if the effort fails, everyone who did not publicly take a position leading the effort will run and hide.

If the world worked any other way, we would not need salespeople. People looking for a solution would charge out into the marketplace, armed with perfect information, and select the best product without any guidance from anyone else. But in fact we do need salespeople to promote our product, establish mindshare and explain benefits. Salespeople also get prospects off dead center and lead them to make decisions to buy sooner rather than later.

Collectivism and Its Discontents

When these remarks were made, particularly those by the President, there was a lot of pushback. I am grateful that the country was paying attention. I hadn’t expected as much of a reaction over what is essentially a philosophical issue. I think that many people whose views align with those of Warren and Obama hadn’t expected it, either, and were scrambling for a response.

The “out of context” defense is disingenuous, and also lame. If the point of the remarks had been only that no man is an island, we already knew that. No one ever asserted that anyone ever did get rich “on his own,” without the participation of others or without the legal and physical infrastructure of society. The question is what to focus on: the person taking initiative or the group being led, the innovation or the ground that has already been paved by others. The point was, as Cline articulated, a radical reorientation of the relationship between governing and governed. That has always been the point of planners and collectivists. It was explained by Lester Thurow back in 1971.

Warren claims the existence of an “underlying social contract.” Yes, I believe there was a social contract in existence — in the forties and fifties. It unraveled because everyone decided to “improve” it in their own way, including the Federal government, after which there was no longer a societal consensus. The government does not have the prerogative to unilaterally redefine the rights and obligations of the polity. In its wisdom, our government helped abrogate the social contract. This is a major cause of the support for Donald Trump this year: people who feel that rewards in society are being directed to the undeserving. The correctness of this view is out of scope of this discussion; the relevant fact is that the view exists.

Although the viewpoint of Warren and Obama is not a perspective I share, I believe that the discussion that arises from these remarks is necessary. There are so many different concepts of who the deserving people are that we need to have a conversation about them, taking the subject on directly and coming to some sort of conclusion. We can’t just muddle through anymore; we need to face the conflict and work out what kind of society we want to have.

Will the Real FDR Please Stand Up?

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The Bernie Sanders campaign is seeking to make the Senator’s self-described socialism palatable by drawing parallels to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, pointing out that FDR’s enemies called him a socialist in his day.

Essential continuity of thought.

Essential continuity of thought.

There is some merit to this positioning, but what is there to learn about FDR and his policies? The memory of FDR that is kept alive in our high school history classes is a very incomplete picture of the man.

The key to understanding FDR is his own self-description:

You know I am a juggler, and I never let my right hand know what my left hand does … and furthermore I am perfectly willing to mislead and tell untruths if it will help win the war.
— FDR to Henry Morgenthau, 1942. Quoted in Fleming, The New Dealers’ War.

It was known at the time that Roosevelt was not only willing to put duplicity in service of a national war effort, but any other cause that would further his ends.

If [Roosevelt] became convinced tomorrow that coming out for cannibalism would get him the votes he needs so sorely, he would begin fattening a missionary in the White House yard come Wednesday.
— H. L. Mencken, 1936.

Roosevelt left no political testament that states his principles, but even if he had, we would be wise to treat it with skepticism. His book Looking Forward — a play, for those in the know, on the utopian science fiction novel Looking Backward — was essentially a repackage of previous speeches and articles he had written. The principles to which he committed himself in action can be briefly enumerated:

  1. Power;
  2. More power.

Bernie Sanders is much more ideological, whereas Roosevelt was totally pragmatic. Sanders has been a socialist through fair weather and foul. I have full confidence that Sanders’ positions in the campaign are those that he believes fully.

Roosevelt was much more willing to shift his positions and tack with prevailing winds. The most notorious example of this was his behavior in 1940-41, when he sensed the strong isolationist current in America but knew he could not allow Britain to fail. He promised the country to not become involved in foreign wars, while at the same time calling for every act he could get Congress to pass to aid Britain, China and, after June 1941, the Soviet Union. His embargo of oil to Japan pushed the Japanese into a corner where they had to either initiate war or back down.

Roosevelt had no animosity toward business, banks or Wall Street provided they would do what he wanted them to do. His practical course of action is properly understood as corporatism: a private-public partnership of Big Business, Big Labor, Big Government, Big Education and Big Media. While all the sloganeers of the 1930s talked about “the little guy”, the only way the little guy had any chance was to become a member of something big.

In 1935, the Supreme Court handed down the Schechter decision that invalidated the National Recovery Administration. FDR launched a vendetta against the Supreme Court that has altered juridical history from then to now. No court has ever challenged broad delegation from Congress to the executive branch since.

The 2016 candidate who best matches the principles displayed in the actions of FDR is Donald Trump. It is undoubtedly true that FDR would have considered Trump vulgar, but much of public life has changed in eighty years.

Written by srojak

February 15, 2016 at 10:59 am

In Defense of Humanism

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I find it odd that Protestant Evangelicals have such a negative view of humanism.

Rick Warren is the founder of Saddleback Church in California and an author of several books, most notably The Purpose Driven Life. In this sermon, Warren discusses various philosophical viewpoints. I agree with him wholeheartedly when he says, “Ideas have consequences.” But he goes on, at about 32:00 in the audio, to equate humanism to the belief that:

I am my own god; I am the center of the universe.

One could make the argument that secular humanists believe this, but there are other kinds of humanism.

Gerald Robinson and Bob Sjogren have a non-denominational ministry called UnveilinGLORY. They have published a book, Cat & Dog Theology, based on an insightful observation:

A dog says, “You pet me, you feed me, you shelter me, you love me, you must be God.” A cat says, “You pet me, you feed me, you shelter me, you love me, I must be God.”

I think it is rather intuitively obvious which animal has it backwards. However, they maintain that humanism is a “cat” way of looking at life:

Humanism is defined as a system of though or actions concerned with the interests or ideals of people. Translating that definition into simpler terms, we might assert that humanism proclaims that the reason for all existence is humanity’s happiness. It’s all about us and making certain we are happy.
Cat & Dog Theology, p. 152.

They might assert that, but they would be wrong. What they’ve got hold of there is hedonism.

Humanism is the belief that human life on this earth has intrinsic value. Life is not just something to be endured to get to heaven.

No Humanism, No Protestants

Dante Alighieri completed The Divine Comedy in 1320, prior to the introduction of Renaissance ideas. Dante identified corruption and worldliness in the Roman Catholic church, finding several former popes in the eighth circle of hell for corruption. He called out the temporal political activity of the Papacy:

O’er Rome, the world’s great healer, used to shine
Two suns ; and by their several light were shown
Two ways diverse — the Worldly and Divine.

One has the other quenched ; since now in one
Are twinned the Sword and Crozier, needs must be,
That ills arise from such false union,

The two, thus join’d, from mutual fear are free.
— “Purgatorio”, Canto XVI

However, Dante would never have dreamt of a reform movement that would secede from the Roman church. Yes, the church was corrupt, but so what? The popes and bishops will answer for their behavior in the afterlife. This earth is only a way station we pass through, a vale of tears. Put up with it; it’s only three score years and ten, if that.

There was no place for Martin Luther in this worldview. In order for the Reformation to occur, people had to belief that life on earth has intrinsic value. People had to believe that the form and context of their spiritual lives on earth matter to rebel against the worldly power of church authority and risk a gruesome and agonizing death.

I am not saying that Martin Luther was a humanist; this would be a stretch. Luther believed that people were incapable of redeeming themselves without the give of God’s grace. I am saying that Luther would not have had his followers without Renaissance humanism. Without humanism, his 1520 treatises To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation and On the Freedom of a Christian would have made no sense to his readers because spiritual life on earth would not matter. A belief in the intrinsic value of life on earth was a necessary prerequisite to the Reformation.

Without humanism, Rick Warren would at most be a Roman Catholic Monseigneur in charge of a parish wherever the bishops sent him. He would not have had the opportunity to build his megachurches in southern California.

No Humanism, No Freedom

Robinson and Sjogren wrote of the sacrifices made by some of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. Some lived on the run for years. Many were ruined financially. These men were patriots and put “our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor” at risk for what they believed.

But if you repudiate humanism, what is the morality of the American Revolution? So the king is a tyrant — welcome to the real world. Thus it ever has been. You’re going to start a war and bring about death, disease and suffering to your own people as well as the British soldiers who are doing their duty — for what? Absent humanism, this is just something we have to endure, as our forbears have for time out of mind. Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and render unto God what is God’s.

Only a belief in humanism gives morality to the idea of fighting a war against tyranny and for self-determination. Only a belief in humanism makes it matter what faith you practice on earth, even it is not the faith of the ruler. Only humanism allows us to say:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

I could understand a Roman Catholic theologian attacking humanism. That would at least present some degree of intellectual consistency. But there is a biting-the-hand quality about Protestants who deride humanism.

Written by srojak

February 1, 2016 at 5:26 pm

The Special Interests

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It’s a presidential election year, so we brace ourselves for all kinds of railing against “special interests.” But how would we know what is and what is not a special interest?

The short answer is that every interest is special. In their 1962 book The Calculus of Consent, Buchanan and Tullock rejected an organic theory of the state:

Only some organic conception of society can postulate the emergence of a mystical general will that is derived independently of the decision-making process in which the political choices made by the separate individuals are controlling. Thus, many versions of idealist democracy are, at base, but variants on the organic conception. The grail-like search for some “public interest” apart from, and independent of, the separate interests of the individual participants in social choice is a familiar activity to be found among both the theorists and the practitioners of modern democracy.
— p. 12

Buchanan and Tullock showed how effective majorities are formed from coalitions of minorities, each of whom has special interests. Those who oppose these coalitions also have special interests. The idea of a public interest that exists apart from the interest of specific individuals is a species of the Rousseauvian general will.

Most attempts to examine the role of pressure groups have bogged down in their efforts to define the “public interest.” If this cannot, in fact, be defined, it becomes impossible to determine, even conceptually, the extent to which the activity of special-interest groups either advances or retards progress toward the “general welfare.” Analysis becomes impossible without a well-defined criterion.
— p. 284.

Collectives cannot speak for themselves. Even when voting, the members of a large collective can only practically choose from among the menu of options offered to them: candidates Goldsmith, Jones, or Mercadante; for or against the question as worded.

The idea of the public interest presupposes, and indeed requires, priests of political science who can divine the ineffable interest of the public, as distinct from the special interests of any individual or subgroup. Such a priesthood could never be ideologically neutral; the priests would always have their own agendas. We must be suspicious of those who claim to have access to the mysteries and set themselves up as such priests.

Every interest is special, including yours.

Written by srojak

January 21, 2016 at 12:30 pm