Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Burned...

Via Radley Balko:

Of course, you’re still expected to entrust your property to the people who waste resources staging useless, theatrical water shows for the TV cameras. Forget about taking steps to fight an approaching wildfire yourself. You’ll likely be arrested. Want to hire a private firm to provide extra fire protection? That may soon be illegal too, thanks to the Naomi Kleins of the world, who’ve deemed private fire protection “disaster apartheid.”

How the term "disaster apartheid"came from the mouth of the stunningly ignorant Ms. Klein is worth mentioning. Via Reason:

Then the Los Angeles Times and Bloomberg News revealed the shocking news that the American International Group (AIG), an insurance company, had been adding a very modest supplement to the firefighting effort—six trucks—on behalf of its clients. For premiums averaging a hefty $19,000 a year, AIG policyholders in the fire-vulnerable “wildland-urban interface” have their homes assessed for vulnerability, kitted with sprinkler systems, and doused with fire retardant. When wildfires rage within three miles of a covered house, AIG-contracted teams come out to lay down a fresh perimeter of retardant and check the roof and nearby brush for stray embers (the cause of most housing tract losses during an inferno). According to Bloomberg, AIG firefighters saved at least six houses, including one lucky enough to be next door to an AIG client.

In other words, an owner of private property who wants to protect his property from a disaster demands a service that can be provided by someone to provide additional fire protection via a private entity whose interests are far more aligned with the customer then the local public entity. Both sides are incentivized. The homeowner is interested in protecting his or her home and for AIG, the use of a service, assumably, lowers the probability of a payout of a loss claim.

Two parties to a mutually beneficial transaction? Check. No violation of the rights of either party? Check. It sure sounds simple enough to me.

Klein's histrionics do not surprise me. The fact that the possibility of a private service provider donig better than our supposedly dependable and infallible government, be it fire protection services, security services or education, greatly offends the Left, especially those of Naomi Klein's or Rick Pearlstein's ilk.

Nor am I surprised at Pearlstein's complete ignorance toward the concept of privatization. Then again, I do not have faith the egalitarians of Klein's or Pearlstein's sort will ever get their arms around the concept. It's far better to invoke strawmen to whip up the masses.

Reminder for Hayek Fans

Prof. Steven Horwitz will be doing a chat tonight at 7PM at Art of the Possible regarding the ways in which Hayek's vision supports a libertarian worldview more than a conservative one and the ways in which Hayek supported particular roles for the state that other libertarians and conservatives do not. My initial post on this is here.

"A Tale...Full of Sound and Fury, Signifying Nothing"

With President Bush's signature today, the mortgage "bailout" has become law. I don't have time to offer my own complete analysis of the bill right now, but our good friend Kip, Esq. has the best and most useful take on it that I've seen so far in terms of describing it more or less layperson's terms. Kip looks at each of the bill's provisions, and finds that - not surprisingly - the bill achieves approximately nothing in the way of solving the alleged mortgage crisis. To the extent it does anything, it actually incentivizes more of the very behavior that created the problems in the first place (i.e., it encourages home-buying from the riskiest borrowers).

Of course, it does raise the debt ceiling ever-higher (inflation is awesome!) and contains its share of non-germane rent-seeking.

Ultimately, I'd say the bill is proof that the ugliest word in the English language is "bi-partisan." If libertarians can't be an important part of the political establishment of either party, the best we can hope for is that Republicans be good where they're supposed to be good (taxes and spending) and Democrats be good where they're supposed to be good (civil liberties and personal freedoms). But when the two of them get together to do something that is overwhelmingly "bi-partisan," especially the last 8 years or so, the result is just about always really, really bad (think PATRIOT Act). The question regarding why things like this pass is a question I don't have time to answer right now.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

The Politics of Whining

Jackson at AOTP pointed me to this post from "The Great" Tyler Cowen regarding Cowen's theory of political coalitions. Cowen notes the ways in which certain elements of each "side" (most obviously, politicians) changes its arguments tend to result in extremely inconsistent arguments even within the same issue (a critical element of what I would call "pu-pu platter partisanship."). He suggests that this indicates that the two "sides" are less concerned with specific principles than they are about preventing certain (non-coalition member) groups from rising in relative status:

Take the so-called "right wing." I believe that some people on the right do not like those they perceive as "whiners." They do not want these whiners to rise in relative status. That means they must argue against the whining and also they must argue against the presuppositions behind the whining.

Take the so-called "left wing." Some of these people favor a kind of meritocracy. They feel it is unfair that money so determines access in capitalist society and they do not want the monied class to rise in relative status, certainly not above the status of the smart people and the virtuous people. It is important to fight for the principle that the desires of this monied class have a relatively low priority in the social ranking. Egalitarianism is the rhetoric of the day, and readjusting the status of other Americans to the status of this monied class often receives more attention than elevating the very poorest in the world to a higher absolute level.



This excerpt doesn't really do the whole post justice, but I don't want to quote the entire thing. I think to a large extent Cowen is on to something here. Certainly, his theory goes a long way to explaining "pu-pu platter partisanship" (i.e., the holding of beliefs that apparently lack any discernible philosophical principle).

Where I think he goes (slightly) wrong is in articulating the ultimate goal of these group members as being to prevent certain groups from rising in status. Instead, I think the crux of the matter is simply that there is nothing that can hold a coalition together more than a perception of an imminent threat. An atmosphere in which the values or way of life of particular coalition members are "under attack" is an atmosphere in which those coalition members have great cause to fight back against those threats, especially by voting against the coalition that contains the source of those threats.

Importantly, if you have a perception that your way of life is under threat from the members of one coalition ("Party A"), then suddenly your primary goal in political life is to prevent "Party A" from gaining or holding on to power. The result of this, importantly, is that the voter/coalition member will become a dedicated voter of "Party B," as long as "Party B" is the coalition most capable of stopping "Party A." What matters, then, is not so much whether you agree with "Party B," but rather whether "Party B" is big enough to stop "Party A." It is a magnificent deterrent to voting for third parties; it is also a magnificent way of insulating the leadership of "Party B" from criticism by coalition members - it ceases to be particularly important that the leadership of "Party B" agree with its constituents, but is instead only important that the leadership of "Party B" is not "Party A."

In other words, if you feel threatened by "Group X" within "Party A," then you will support "Party B" so long as "Party B" claims to be against "Group X" and to want to restrict "Group X." You suddenly care less about keeping "Party B" honest and holding them to the fire when they deviate from principle than you care about supporting "Party B" because of your fear of what will happen if "Party A" maintains or obtains power. So you don't recognize or, at least, care enough to leave "Party B" when "Party B" does something that either actively hurts you or at least actively prevents you from achieving your policy goals.

The theory Cowen advances strikes me as being one in which politics for certain people is primarily a function of disdain for particular groups or a belief in which those groups are essentially beneath the coalition members of "Party B." I would instead characterize the issue as being one in which politics for these individuals is primarily a function of fear of, rather than disdain for, particular groups. This may only be a difference in semantics, as the effects of both characterizations are similar. But I think it's a noteworthy difference nonetheless.

Monday, July 28, 2008

All your stomachs are belong to us.

California's legislature banned trans fats in California restaurants. Gov. Schwarzenegger signed the bill. I have the libertarian animosity to this rights-violating action. What customers want doesn't matter, apparently. What restaurants want doesn't matter, apparently. That the two parties have managed to voluntarily co-exist until now doesn't matter, apparently.

This is paternalism at its ugliest. Customers are either the victim of malevolent businesses or too stupid to know better. Restaurants are that malevolent business. No other possibility exists there. They know trans fats are awful, AWFUL!, yet force them on customers anyway. Just evil.

That narrative is ridiculous. Customers are free to choose. As a vegan, personally, I'm well aware of how easy it is to not only ask about ingredients at any restaurant, but to also request substitutions. Restaurants, aka businesses, are interested in serving my needs to make money, not invested in shoving evil non-food down my throat whether I like it or not. This is just a lesson that any choice of narrative that relies on malevolent intent should be questioned often and diligently.

For contrast, Erik Marcus has a different opinion:

One parting thought: this was a campaign that no reasonable person could argue against. Thousands and thousands of lives will be saved, and the cost to industry is absolutely trivial. And yet the bastards behind the restaurant industry did everything possible to oppose this initiative.

I generally agree with Mr. Marcus' views, even where I often disagree on political solutions, but this is wrong. I suppose it's not for me to judge whether or not I'm a reasonable person, although I think I am. Mr. Marcus clearly disagrees. But I've explained briefly how a reasonable person can argue against a trans fat ban. And if it's not clear, I am arguing against a ban, not in favor of trans fats. The latter can be unhealthy without justifying the former.

I must also quibble with Mr. Marcus' projections. I do not necessarily disagree that "thousands and thousands" of lives will be saved. I doubt it, but I don't have evidence either way. For such a bold claim that is the basis for a denial of rights, I expect more than an expectation that I take it on faith. Show me the numbers, which will be only estimates. And once the ban is in effect, how long do we have to wait to see the change in life expectancy? How will we measure it? And if (when?) the projected benefits fail to appear, can we undo the ban?

The same applies to the assertion that the cost to industry is "absolutely trivial". I doubt that seriously, especially with all of the corresponding regulations already in place. (i.e. mandatory calorie/nutritional disclosure) There will be costs. What is the threshold for triviality? What about smaller businesses who don't have the buying power and monetary resources that larges businesses have? Is it a new maxim that a business may be large only when it makes it possible for the business to comply with new regulation?

These are reasonable questions that should be easy to answer if they're not based on misinformation and wishful thinking.

----------

From Ban Trans Fats, I found several interesting links. First, the push for voluntary compliance seems to have a few converts:

After we launched the trans fat campaign by filing the Oreo case in 2003, we started reporting on restaurants and other eateries that had switched to trans fat-free oil. Now in 2007 it is impossible to keep with all of the tens or hundreds of thousands of restaurants making the switch. We will continue to report when major chains make the switch.

You will notice lower down this page some small and even single restaurant operations are mentioned. These were "early adopters." We are keeping them on this page because they took the lead before the big companies made their moves.

Second, Bans Trans Fats offers a link called What Not to Eat, where it lists six rules for determining what not to eat.

In sixty seconds with The Google, I found enough information to make responsible choices. But I might not make those responsible choices for myself. Therefore, a ban. Don't worry, though. The original lawsuit was not about adults. It says so right there on the website, with underlining and an acknowledgment that adults can make their own intelligent choices. Think nothing of this text from the Ban Trans Fats site:

Nope, nothing to see there, folks. It's for the children only.

**UPDATE (by Mark)** John Schwenkler points out that trans fat bans aren't the attacks on corporate America that many like to think, but are instead a means for large corporate interests to insulate themselves from competition from smaller businesses that are less capable of adjusting to new regulatory requirements.

Monday, July 21, 2008

PSA: Hayek and Liberaltarianism

Just a quick PSA for those interested in a firmer understanding of the work of F.A. Hayek and it's implications for a liberal-libertarian coalition. Professor Steven Horwitz of St. Lawrence University will be the invited guest for a chat session at AOTP on Wednesday, July 30 at 7:00 PM EDT.

An excellent book review written by Professor Horwitz last year on the implications of Hayek for modern liberalism is here.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

The Stool Has No Legs

Writing at AOTP, FreeDem discusses the apparently curious electoral map that may be in the works for this fall, in which Obama could do far better than recent Dems in traditionally Republican areas like the Southeast and Mountain West, and far worse in traditionally Democratic areas like the Northeast.

To which I replied:

To me the most interesting thing about all this is the combination of Obama’s relative weakness in the Northeast and relative strength in the Mountain West. I’m not sure that Obama’s relative strength in the Southeast (outside of Virginia, which is a special case) will hold up in the end. But the numbers on the Northeast and Mountain West suggest that the coalitions are definitely shifting as the Republicans become officially the “anti-terruh” party rather than the party of the fabled “three-legged stool.” The Mountain West has tended to be Republican over the years mostly because of the libertarian-ishness of that region combined with the comparative strength of the
libertarian-conservative coalition. Obama’s strength in the Mountain West largely confirms what I’ve been saying for about a year now: the Republican-libertarian coalition is officially dead.

That said, there’s been a lot of talk that Obama’s support has decreased a bit the last couple of weeks. I haven’t seen much state-level polling in that period, but my suspicion is that the area where that support has dropped off the most is in the Mountain West states. If true, that would exemplify how and why Obama’s FISA vote was - contrary to conventional wisdom - bad politics that actually hurt him with more “independents” than it helped him with.

McCain’s strength in the Northeast (presumably not including Vermont and - maybe - New Hampshire) is largely attributable to the importance of the “anti-terrorism” issue in this area. This isn’t to say that the Northeast is necessarily a hotbed of support for the Iraq War, just that in recent years it has been far more willing to trade liberty for security (actually, that’s a pretty longstanding trend that largely predates 9/11- it’s safe to say that you’ll be hard-pressed to find two less libertarian states than NJ and NY).



The bottom line is that it's a tremendous mistake to think of the political map as being simply a divide between monolithic "red" states and "blue" states. That kind of thinking ignores the political reality that coalitions are ever-shifting, and just because the political map might look a particular way in one or two given elections there is no reason to believe that it will continue to look that way in future elections.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Good Intentions and the Path to Hell

Will Wilkinson, as is often the case, nearly made me fall out of my chair with this post. Money quote:

But simply dismissing the other team’s claims to moral conviction is way too convenient. It turns out that the Democratic party is also run by very, very wealthy people and interests. It also strikes me as lazy to assume that because the GOP isn’t beholden to various interest groups that claim to represent the working classes in the way the Democrats are, then the people with real power in the Republican party ipso facto have no sincere moral interest in the welfare of the working class. Yes, politics is a game of interests and coalitions. But coalitions often form around moral values. And people, even politicians, are moral beings and generally conceive of their interests in moralized terms.


This about hits it out of the park. I've said before that political coalitions tend to form around one or two umbrella BIG issues.* In the Republican Party right now, the BIG issue is quite clearly "national security" broadly defined. On the Dem side, though, the unifying issue is much more difficult to define. Probably the closest thing to a unifying issue is health care, but that is simply too specific an issue under which to form a broad coalition. Perhaps the party of the "little guy"? Not likely - as Wilkinson points out, the "little guy" is no more likely to be a Democrat than a Republican. On the whole, it's more likely that the Dem coalition is really now a coalition primarily united by several frequently overlapping, but far from mutually inclusive, sets of moral values: for instance, civil liberties (including civil rights), a less-aggressive foreign policy, and environmentalism.

I'd argue that the fact that coalition members on the Dem side do not all prioritize these moral values the same way gives rise to a party whose politicians are much more likely to lack discipline and unity as the politicians try to be all things to all coalition members. I'd also argue that the Dems have largely lacked a truly unifying umbrella issue since at least the end of the Cold War, maybe longer; the end of the Cold War had a similar effect on the Republican coalition, but the Contract for America cobbled it together again for a few years until 9/11 made national security THE unifying moral value for Republicans.

In any event, the nature of political coalitions is that they result in some very inconsistent policy-making (aka "pu-pu platter partisanship") while coalition members wind up honestly believing that the coalition's preferred policies are all completely consistent with, even necessary to, furthering the coalition's core moral values.


*These aren't issues upon which virtually every coalition member agrees, but rather are fundamental moral imperatives that serve to rally people into the coalition.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Four Legs Good, Two Legs Bad

There is an assumption in both conservative and libertarian circles that anything that the private sector is inherently better at doing things than the government. And on many things, this philosophy is, I think, correct (it is also something that liberals/Progressives agree with more than they get credit).

But where it gets tricky is when you get to the concept of "privatization" of various things. Libertarians and conservatives hear the root word "private" and they reflexively think that it is better than "public." But "privatization" is different from "free market," and in many cases "privatization" can mean the worst of all worlds.

For instance, if by privatization, you mean the contracting out of various government services and needs, you are often just asking for trouble. Why? Because this is a setup for the epitome of "crony capitalism." Sometimes, to be sure, this kind of "privatization" is a necessity in instances where the government is seeking to obtain products or services that it simply has no ability to provide on its own. Frequently, however, where the government is contracting out a product or service it already provides or can easily provide, this kind of "privatization" at best has the effect of doing no more than adding an extra layer of bureaucracy. At worst, though, it is an invitation for corruption and a particularly convenient means of avoiding government accountability. Far from allowing market forces to take over, this kind of privatization creates a market that would not otherwise exist, in which firms seek to please only one customer: the government. And contrary to popular belief, "the government" is not synonymous with "the people," but is rather more frequently synonymous with "elected and/or appointed government officials." What privatization does in this context is to make the purpose of the service provider to please the government official who awarded them the contract - not to offer "the people" with the best possible services at the lowest possible price. Oftimes, pleasing the responsible government official means nothing more than shielding the official from responsibility for the implementation of that official's policy preferences.

The other type of "privatization" that libertarians and market conservatives should fear is anything that suggests a public-private "partnership." Such partnerships all too often take the form of placing the risk of loss on the taxpayer while placing the benefits of profit on the private ownership side of the equation. To say the least, this creates frequently undesirable market distortions best exemplified by Amtrak, and, now, the collapse of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

The bottom line is that "privatization" only works if it actually allows genuine, basic market principles to play out. Where "privatization" simply means that the government will seek to make purchases in a market that would not exist at all without the government intervention, it is a virtual guarantee that the "privatization" will result in no more and no less than something resembling the much-maligned and ever-expanding military-industrial complex. Where "privatization" means a "partnership" under which government agrees to back what would otherwise be a purely private entity, the government is both granting that company an unnatural market advantage and virtually begging that company to engage in really, really bad business practices. Finally, I would add that the manner in which government has incentivized employer-based health insurance is another example of a "public-private" partnership gone terribly wrong.

This isn't to say that "privatization" is always bad - far from it, and I remain a firm believer that market forces are the far superior manner of economic policy. Indeed, where "privatization" literally means the selling off of a government asset to the highest bidder, no strings attached, I would rarely disagree with it. But when it creates a situation where the entire raison d'etre of a firm is to serve the government or where the government has immunized the firm from market realities, the effects of privatization can often be worse than the disease.

The fact is that as between public ownership of an asset and the fictional "privatization" of that asset, I think public ownership is superior (again, if the choice is between public ownership and actual private ownership in a free market, then the free market wins hands down). At least where a service is entirely provided by the public sector, you know who to blame (and how to blame them) when things go wrong. In a representative democracy, this can be a non-trivial power. But when that service is provided by the private sector on behalf of the public sector, the question of who to blame and how becomes much more muddled....and frequently I suspect that's the point.

So as far as libertarian blind spots go, the belief in the private sector is often the "four legs good, two legs bad" of large segments of the libertarian movement.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

About that Freedom of the Press...

Libertarians know well that oftimes all that is necessary to restrict an essential freedom is the mere threat of force. So, for instance, to restrict political protests it is necessary only to arbitrarily arrest a handful of people in order to chill the willingness of others to protest - even if you release those you arrest without ever charging them with a crime.

Chris Hedges (Colgate '79) wrote an outstanding piece in the Friday LA Times that explains how the FISA bill passed this week, with its legalization of much of the President's warrantless wiretapping program, could have precisely that effect on the freedom of the press. To be sure, there are many things about which I disagree with Hedges in other contexts; but there should be no doubt that the man is a true journalist who is willing to place himself in harm's way in order to understand his subjects. Hedges writes:

" I contacted someone who was on the ship at the time of the alleged incident and who reportedly had photos. His first question was whether my phone and e-mails were being monitored. What could I say? How could I know? I offered to travel to see him but, frightened of retribution, he refused. I do not know if the man's story is true. I only know that the fear of surveillance made it impossible for me to determine its veracity. Under this law, all those who hold information that could embarrass and expose the lies of those in power will have similar fears. Confidentiality, and the understanding that as a reporter I will honor this confidentiality, permits a free press to function. Take it away and a free press withers and dies."


It is entirely possible - perhaps even likely - that Hedges is being a bit too apocolyptic about the effects of this bill. And in some contexts I disagree that confidentiality is necessary to a free press (I am largely opposed to reporter shield laws). But the thrust of his argument strikes me as deeply important, especially at a time when the "press," such as it exists for most Americans, has reached an almost unimaginable level of vacuity. There are relatively few quality journalists of note left who are capable of reaching a wide swathe of people; the FISA bill, to the extent it permits warrantless eavesdropping on the conversations of journalists, could well terminate a substantial portion of quality investigative foreign affairs journalism. Perhaps the bill is not the end of the world as we know it; but it certainly represents an infringement on civil liberties for a lot more than just "terrists."

Big H/T: Kathy at CFLF, whose work in recent weeks has consoled me over my grief at my friend Kyle's semi-retirement.

The Utilitarianism of Torture Chic

Responding to Matthew Yglesias' snippet on conservative torture fashion, Daniel Koffler at AOTP finds his outrage lacking:

"I say, let’s maximize the total utility of the world by making sure everyone who would “rather be waterboarding” has her preference realized. Indeed, if an appropriate form of utilitarianism is correct, one might have an obligation to
see to it that those who would “rather be waterboarding” get waterboarded."


As they say, read the whole thing (it's not very long).

...While I'm here I may as well throw out yet another plug for Art of the Possible, which is as interesting and unique a blog as they come (without being, you know, bizarre).

Also, John Schwenkler has some typically astute notes on this.

As for me, I agree with John that this view of waterboarding as being a criterion for modern-day conservatism must be fought vociferously by the dissident elements of conservatism. But I would add one thing - although this ideology of the political Right that views support for waterboarding as a litmus test is considered to be "conservative," the reality is that it is really just an example of how coalitions can distort the views of coalition members. Frankly, almost any truly conservative (in the Burkean sense) ideology - whether it be the conservatism of doubt of an Andrew Sullivan, the more traditional conservatism of a William F. Buckley or a Russell Kirk, etc. - would be disturbed by the concept of waterboarding as not only defensible but actually a badge of honor.

Instead, the idealization of waterboarding is merely a symbol of how "conservatism" has become viewed as simply a synonym for "agreeing with the Republican base," much as "liberalism" is viewed as synonymous with "agreeing with the Democratic base." In reality, however, actual conservatives were never more than one element of the Republican coalition, albeit the dominant element in the post-Goldwater era. The problem is that conservatives alone were not enough to win an election, and so the Republican party needed to seek out other groups who had relatively little philosophical connection with Buckley-style conservatism. To accommodate these groups, who took up the moniker of "______ conservatives," the Republican Party had to take up their issues, which were of perhaps lesser importance to the more philosophical conservatives.

Unfortunately, most people today - including most self-styled conservatives - view conservatism as an ideology that simply means "the dominant views of the random mish-mosh of groups supporting the Republican Party." This isn't conservatism - it's just pu-pu platter partisanship masquerading as conservatism. Moreover, it is perhaps exhibit A1 of how partisanship can have more impact on interest groups than interest groups have on the party (my fifth rule).

To be sure, there are a number of young, talented true conservatives (or not really Burkean "_______ conservatives") who are seeking to reclaim their philosophy from the jaws of political coalition pragmatism. But they will first have to develop and create support for those philosophies independent from the confines of either political party, especially the Republican Party. Given the synonymity of "conservative" with "Republican," I also suspect that they will have to come up with a new label for themselves to have much hope of success.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Liberals won't leave us alone. (Conservatives won't leave us alone.)

Mark mentioned a few days ago, as he has many times, that he believes a left/libertarian alliance is coming. I think he's right, to an extent. It's coming, but I don't share his optimism about it, nor do I suspect it will last particularly long. For many of the qualifications he suggested, the Left is just a different form of the Right. Political gain matters more than any principle could ever matter, not that I think the far Left recognizes the rights libertarians understand. Any party with animosity to property rights - or an unprincipled willingness to bow to the blathering of constituents with animosity to property rights - isn't bound to keep a sizeable number of libertarians in the fold for very long.

Mark's proposition is worth pursuing in more detail, so I'm sure it'll be a theme for me, as well, as we get closer to the election. Here, I'm only going to explore a narrow piece of this question. A recent post by science fiction author John Scalzi on Bob Barr exposes my position a bit because I disagree with Mr. Scalzi's analysis. Or, rather, I think it's incomplete.

When Barr announced he would seek the LP nomination, Mr. Scalzi wrote about how Barr might affect McCain in the election. This is a worthy question, of course. I just don't think it's the entire equation, so I wrote a response raising the question of how Barr would change the vote for Sen. Obama. I stand by my assertion that it would matter. You can see my theory in action here with Mark's writing on the left/libertarian alliance.

I would never vote for Sen. McCain. (There was an unfortunate time when I bought the lies.) Sen. Obama should have no problem getting my vote. I've voted Democrat for president in every election since I turned 18. (Clinton, Clinton, Gore, and Kerry) I didn't consider myself a libertarian for the first three because I didn't realize I am a libertarian. My positions haven't changed, only my awareness of how they fit into the world and who among politicians supports them. I cared more about social issues than economic issues because I didn't have money to care about. The denial of equal rights for gays, for example, was clear to me in 1992. I'm not gay, but if another's rights could be denied, so could mine. That was always clear. I just didn't connect economics to property rights.

With the power of the Internets, more libertarians can now identify as libertarian and better understand how hostile liberals and conservatives are to much of what we care about. Any alliance going forward will fail to have the strength to stand as the conservative/libertarian alliance stood. They will have to change to meet us closer to where we are.

So, Barr versus McCain and Obama. Mr. Scalzi wrote a few days ago about how he donated his $6.10 stimulus check to the Barr campaign:

So what do you do with a stupid, frivolous amount of stimulus money? Well, you spend it on something stupid and frivolous, of course!

Bob Barr has about as much chance of being president as I have in getting a tomato plant to spontaneously erupt out of my forehead, but he does have a teeniest bit of a chance of peeling off just enough disgruntled GOPers to be a pain in John McCain’s ass come the general election, which at this point works for me as an ersatz protest vote and the GOP economic stewardship of the country (note that this statement will undoubtedly cause some delusional conservative/Republican to opine in the comments that it will be Obama whom Barr will peel voters off of, not McCain. Dear delusional conservative/Republican commenter: Just because you’re apparently huffing acetone from the inside of a paper bag doesn’t mean the rest of us are). That said, I don’t actually want to spend real money on Bob Barr; I don’t want anyone to get the idea he’s actually my guy, presidentially speaking. I mean, really. Speaking of huffing acetone. For what I want to do here, six dollars and ten cents is almost exactly the right amount to send the dude.

I am neither delusional nor conservative, yet I've made the argument that some votes for Barr will come from Obama's projected voters. I don't think I implied the numbers would be the same, which would make me delusional¹. They won't be because it is probably true that a majority of Barr's support from non-Libertarian Party members this year will be from conservatives/Republicans. But. There are libertarians who've pondered a vote for Sen. Obama because they would never vote for Sen. McCain and the current Republicans need to go. Now we may also consider a vote for Bob Barr. I am, in fact, considering it. And those numbers might be meaningful. If Democrats wish to prosper with libertarians, they'll consider it.

Ah, but I already said there's no way I would vote for Obama. Indeed. So what? I'm discussing the mindset of potential Barr voters in the context of a left/libertarian alliance. I think Obama is the lesser of two evils in this election, if barely. If I hadn't become so cynical skeptical, I'd follow my history and cast a vote for him. Yet, here I am considering a vote for Bob Barr. Yes, former Republican Bob Barr. That does not automatically mean I'm arriving from the right. There are many roads to Hell. This might be the scenic route worth taking.

I doubt I'll vote for Barr because I don't think he's genuine. However, since he will not win the presidency, a vote for him may be useful as a signal to both parties that libertarians exist. Which is what Mark is saying at the core of his argument, I think. Republicans have clearly abandoned the libertarian vote. Some progressives have made overtures about an alliance. Generally this has been "join us and you'll see how wonderful redistribution really is". Obviously we're not quite at an equitable alliance yet. A vote for Barr might signal that, while we're ready to mingle, we're not conceding our principles just to be in the new popular crowd.

The Democratic embrace of President Bush's unconstitutional warrantless wiretapping suggests they don't care about what libertarians care about.

¹ Not that I'm arrogant enough to imagine that Mr. Scalzi noticed my original entry, nevermind the possibility that this could be directed at me.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Proof in the Pudding

One final post for the day on centrism in light of today's Rasmussen polling data. The data show that over the last month and a half, Obama's "move to the center" has worked, at least insofar as it has resulted in significantly fewer people perceiving him as a "liberal" and more people perceiving him as a "moderate." But the data also helps to disprove the notion that "moving to the center" inherently increases a candidate's potential support. Comparing the change in the perception of Obama's "centrism" with Rasmussen's daily election tracking poll, you will see that Obama's lead over McCain has barely budged since Hillary Clinton dropped out of the Dem race on June 7- the entire time. Except for a few days in mid-June, Obama's lead (without leaners) has consistently been between 5 and 7 points and his overall (without leaners) support has held steady between 45 and 48 percent. If you include leaners, the analysis remains exactly the same.

Although I have no idea how much change there has been in the composition of Obama's 45-48 percent in that period, what is clear is that the increased perception of him as a "centrist" and the decreased perception of him as a "liberal" have done nothing to increase the overall size of his supporting coalition. And that is precisely the point of my previous posts decrying the utility of "centrism."

(Via memeorandum)

UPDATE: Chris Bowers at Open Left noticed the same thing.

The Center Will Not Hold

Perhaps not surprisingly, the topic of Obama's sudden "centrism" and its political value is getting some more attention today at memeorandum, at least regarding this Bob Herbert column. Herbert, more than most pundits, seems to understand that "moving to the center" is not necessarily a wise political move, writing, with respect to Obama that:

He seems to believe that his shifts and twists and clever panders — as opposed to bold, principled leadership on important matters — will entice large numbers of independent and conservative voters to climb off the fence and run into his yard.
Maybe. But that’s a very dangerous game for a man who first turned voters on by presenting himself as someone who was different, who wouldn’t engage in the terminal emptiness of politics as usual.


As much as my analysis in my essay this morning (I'd call it a must-read essay, but that would be too egotistical) applies as general political theory, it is probably particularly true of Obama, whose primary campaign and political style showed great promise as a vehicle for forging a new, more ideologically coherent coalition. I suspect that the result of Obama's "move to the center" will only be to more or less retain the existing coalition of the Dem Party by giving wavering coalition members (whose priority issues have perhaps faded in relevance to the Dem Party) a reason to remain in the coalition. In the process, though, it will also probably temper the enthusiasm that so many independents had for him. He'll still win in all likelihood, but if he does it will be a result of McCain's failure to generate enthusiasm from the established elements of the Republican coalition and the strong Dem fundamentals this year, much as the last several Presidential campaigns have largely been won by minimizing turnout from the opposing party's coalition base. That is something that no one, left, right, centrist, or otherwise, should be particularly happy about.

The Myth of the Moderate - Why the "Political Center" Is Meaningless

There has been much discussion of late regarding Obama's long-awaited "move to the center," (essentially his break from his party's so-called "base") as well as to a lesser extent McCain's tilt right on various other issues. Most notably of course has been Andrew Sullivan's praise of Obama's position shifts.

The implication is that this is smart politics by Obama because in so doing, he is seeking to increase his appeal amongst so-called "moderate" or "centrist" voters who are allegedly unaffiliated with either party, or are at least more independent-minded than more ideological voters. The problem is that this argument, which is so often taken for granted in the press and by many people who should know better, has very little basis in reality. At its base, this conventional wisdom assumes a one-dimensional politics in which we are all just varying degrees of liberal and conservative and/or Democrat and Republican. Under this view, American politics consists of exactly three factions, with a couple of radical extremists on the fringes: center-left Democrats, center-right Republicans, and moderate independents. By "moving to the center" a politician in theory succeeds in getting more votes by expanding the portion of the spectrum willing to vote for him, or at least unwilling to vote for the other guy.

But this ignores political reality: independents and "moderates" or "centrists" are two very different things. For instance, libertarians and populist Lou Dobbs supporters would both be smack dab in the middle of any linear conception of politics - these days, both are about equally likely to support the Dems as they are the Republicans on any given issue, and neither could be remotely consider "moderate." But the views of libertarians and populists are almost completely opposite to each other. This is equally true of many - probably even most - of the other groups in the so-called "center." By "moving to the center," a politician isn't necessarily winning over the support of many of those groups, and may even wind up hurting his standing with a majority of those groups.

When pressed, I suspect many of the advocates of this conventional wisdom would concede that a linear conception of politics is worthless (except as a measure of a politician's level of partisanship - but that is a different issue entirely), and would instead turn to something akin to the Political Compass or the Nolan Chart. To be sure, this two-dimensional view of the political spectrum is much more useful - but it still has plenty of limitations since it fails to account for views on international relations, provides only a minimal measurement of intensity of political beliefs, and tell us nothing about a person or group's actual positions on specific issues - ie, someone who opposes gay rights but favors gun rights can score precisely the same on the Authoritarian/Libertarian axis as someone who favors gay rights but opposes gun rights. Despite these limitations, the two-dimensional view is enough of an improvement that it can provide a better understanding of the political spectrum - but only if you understand these limitations. The problem is that too many of even those who prefer the two-dimensional view of the political spectrum fail to understand these limitations.

The result is that the two-dimensional Political Compass is used to justify a view that is only minimally different from the linear view of the spectrum. In essence, the Political Compass (and related grids) is used to conceptualize the political parties as falling in either the top right quadrant (Republicans) or the bottom left quadrant (Democrats) of the American political spectrum (which itself falls primarily within the upper right quadrant of the global political spectrum). Under this conception, "moving to the center" is still logical because it positions a politician closest on the political spectrum to the maximum number of people. Unfortunately, there are some major problems with this view:

1. It assumes that people in the same area of the grid have similar views on any given issue, and that the "center" specifically is essentially monolithic - but as I noted above, this is simply not the case. Therefore, by "moving to the center" on a given issue, a politician might - and often does - wind up alienating many of the very voters he is trying to reach (some of whom may have been in his camp already on the strength of the politician's original stand on the issue). Think of the so-called "Obamacans," many of whom support Obama because of their anger at the GOP on civil liberties issues, and who would certainly fall close to the center of the average Political Compass - by abandoning those positions, Obama may be sacrificing this group's support just as he seeks to gain it since it may effectively remove the issue as a primary motivation to support Obama.

2. It assumes that the Democrats fall squarely in the bottom left quadrant and the Republicans in the top right quadrant, and mainstream independents in a separate block in the center for the parties to fight over. Put another way - it makes the assumption that political parties have coherent ideologies when, as I have said repeatedly, they are really just coalitions of various interest groups. In fact, the rank and file of these interest groups (as opposed to their leadership, which often consists primarily of party hacks whose views are on average indistinguishable from the group's preferred political party's leadership) tend to have views that deviate wildly from the party's established norms - they just tend to vote for that party because it happens to be better for them on their most important issue(s). If the membership's most important issue(s) change, then their support of a given coalition/political party may change as well.

3. It assumes that all issues are created equally for all voters/interest groups, and does not account for the relative weight that a voter/interest group will give to an issue. This is particularly important because "moving to the center" usually involves making one's views appear less "extreme" and more "moderate." The problem is that people with "moderate" views on an issue are extremely unlikely to vote on that issue. So "moving to the center" accomplishes little to nothing in terms of gaining votes. It may, however, drive down turnout as it forces voters to feel like they have little choice in the election.

This isn't to say that flip-flopping or moderating one's position on an issue is always a bad idea - just that it is frequently not a particularly good idea. In Obama's case, his capitulation on FISA, and his shift rightward on Iraq have significantly reduced two of the main reasons he was getting a tremendous amount of support from traditionally Republican-voting libertarians; to be sure, I expect he will still do better than McCain amongst libertarians, but I also expect that his moves on these issues will drive down libertarian turnout and/or force more libertarians to Bob Barr. So by "moving to the center," Obama may have actually hurt his position with a good number of independents - which is precisely the opposite of the conventional wisdom that arises out of the one and two-dimensional understanding of the political spectrum.

The bottom line, as I have written and suggested many times before, is that the Dem and Republican party establishments don't fit neatly into any ideological divide because ultimately they only represent the top priority issues of their constituent interest group/coalition members at any given time, often under the umbrella of one or two primary priority issues about which most or all coalition members are highly motivated. But when push comes to shove, the rank and file members of any given interest group are individuals whose loyalty to a political party only goes so far as that party can represent their top priority issue(s). Although we consider these groups to be either "conservative" or "liberal" based on whether they are most commonly associated with Democrats or Republicans, the fact is that this is a tremendous oversimplification- many political beliefs of so-called "neo-conservatives" are both economically "liberal" (as that word is used today) and deeply unconservative to the extent they wish to pursue an activist foreign policy; similarly the social policy views of many union members and "blue collar" workers are often quite at odds with Dem Party orthodoxy. In reality, true philosophical "conservatives" and "liberals" are difficult to find; instead, these words usually represent nothing more than the existing conventional wisdom of a given political coalition's rank-and-file.

Similarly, political "moderates," "centrists," and "independents" are not a monolithic group. While many may well vote for a candidate they think is a maverick from their party's orthodoxy, the fact is that this group of voters does not have their own platform - the individuals within this oft-cited block of voters simply do not have a unifying issue on which you can say a politician's "move to the center" is necessarily likely to bring many of these voters into the politician's fold. The only real difference between "independents" and partisan voters is that independents don't belong to a group that is firmly entrenched in one of the major party's coalitions. Put another way - independents are largely people whose primary issues of concern are poorly represented by both parties, and so they are forced to vote on issues of lesser importance to them. As such, the way to capture the "center" (if we define independents as the "center") is for a politician to hit on the issue or issues that are most important to these groups. Rarely will an attempt to blur the distinctions between a politician and his opponent accomplish this - if the independent really preferred the opponent's position to begin with, then that independent is either already voting on the basis of that issue (in which case he has no incentive to vote for the flip-flopping candidate, whose position is by definition simply weaker than the opponent's position), or has already decided that the issue is not important enough to form the basis for his/her vote (in which case flip-flopping accomplishes nothing).

All of which is an extremely long way of saying that the so-called "political center" is a myth, at least in the sense of being a group worth pandering to. Indeed, I would even argue that pandering to the "political center" - by both parties - has major potential long-term consequences that result in the country as a whole moving in a less centrist, and more statist direction. But alas that is a story for another time.

(NOTE: I made an extremely minor edit in the first paragraph to soften the tone).

(UPDATE: Thank you to the folks at RealClearPolitics for featuring this post on this morning's "Best of the Blogs," as well as on their Cross Tabs blog.)

Monday, July 7, 2008

Bringing Back an Oldie But Goodie

This is a repost of something I wrote back when I started to focus my writing more on my specialty area of coalitions, interest groups, and corruption. Since I didn't have the readership then that this blog has now, and because it is directly relevant to a lot of what I've been writing about in terms of the shifting coalitions of the Left and Right (and also to a post I'm hoping to make in the next day or two), this seems like a good time to repost my rules of interest group politics and corruption, which explain a lot of where I'm coming from. The original post is here. It is my opinion that you cannot understand why political parties and coalitions act the way they do without understanding these rules.

The Laws of Interest Group Politics and Political Corruption

1. There are no such things as "special" and "public" interest groups: anyone seeking a particular outcome in a particular government action is an interest group, pure and simple.

2. Interest groups, even self-described "public" interest groups, seek nothing more or less than the advancement or protection of their leaders' and members' preferred outcomes.

3. Political parties are merely vehicles for the election of interest groups who have chosen to unite under a single coalition. They have no independent ideology of their own; only the collective ideologies of coalition members.

4. The fewer political parties there are relative to the size of the overall population, the more varied the interest groups that make up each political party, and the less coherent the political party's ideology.

5. The larger a political party and the less coherent its ideology, the more the political party affects the ideology of its constituent interest groups and the less the constituent interest groups affect the party's ideology.

6. Politicians, both elected and unelected, cannot remain in power long if they lose the support of a sufficient number of their core interest groups.

7. A politician cannot implement his preferred policies if he is not in power; thus, remaining in power or obtaining power is the primary goal of any rational politician.

8. Corruption cannot exist without government by definition. The more government you have, the more powerful government is, and the more government controls access to scarce resources, the more corrupt the government will be.

9. Most anti-corruption reforms either legitimize corruption or make it worse by driving it underground. In some cases, anti-corruption reforms backfire by creating a never-ending political campaign, increasing the number of favors a politician must grant in order to remain competitive.

10. There is an inverse correlation between corruption and freedom.

11. All politics are interest group politics.

UPDATE: In the comments, Kip points out that my original number 10, "The smaller a relevant population, the less significant corruption will be," is a bit problematic. As I replied there, I did a poor job re-reading my original post. Looking at the original point 10 again, it was very poorly worded, and did an exceptionally poor job of getting its point across. Looking back at it, the point it was trying to get across requires far more nuance than I gave it, so it is a poor candidate for these rules. As a result, I have taken number 10 out. Of course, if I think of a more appropriate way of getting at that point, I will add it back to the list.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Ivan Drago, Civics Teacher

I tried reading The Corner for a short period of time, last year I think. I couldn't take the absurdity, so I now let others do the heavy lifting for me. This time, via Andrew Sullivan, Kathryn Jean Lopez offers a prime example of what I can only hope is an attempt at witty sarcasm. I fear it's self-parody.

A totally crazy Saturday-morning thought: Wouldn't George W. Bush make an awesome high-school government teacher? Wouldn't it be something if his post-presidential life would up being that kind of post-service service? How's that for a model? Who needs Harvard visiting chairs and high-end lectures? How about Crawford High? (Or wherever?) Reach out and touch the young before they are jaded, or break them of the cynicism pop culture and possibly their parents have passed down to them. Whatever you think of President Bush, he's a likable guy in love with his country with some history and experience to share.

Forget the insane part, if you can. Rather, consider what this says about her understanding of conservatism as it should be practiced in America today. Family matters most, it's the building block of society, etc. We don't want (liberal) propaganda from our educators replacing teaching in the home. Oh, wait, except where teaching in the home strays from what family should teach, as defined by... Kathryn Jean Lopez. Then it's good to have Right knowledge pushed on our children by someone more knowing. If we can farm out that work to George W. Bush, it's a win-win all around.

Post Script: By now the title should be obvious, but if our teachers must break our children, I guess we'll need a cage match between George W. Bush and Rocky Balboa to find out who is best qualified to be Civics-Teacher-in-Chief. Since they're both superheroes, they'll, of course, duel to a tie. That leaves Drago with the chutzpah to take charge.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Rise of the Liberaltarians

I'm not going to rehash all of my arguments about why a liberal-libertarian coalition is inevitable (DISCLAIMER: for purposes of this argument, the word "libertarian" is relatively broadly defined based on the definitions used in David Boaz's 2006 report on the libertarian vote), but this latest poll from Montana suggests that such a coalition is further along than I ever expected (I have argued that the Dem Party is not quite ready to accomodate libertarians).

To summarize: Montana is currently leaning to Obama over McCain by five points. That a Republican Presidential candidate is trailing in Montana (a state Bush won by 20 points in 2004) is a particularly strong indication of how alienated libertarian-ish voters now feel from the Republican Party. As Dave Weigel writes at Hit & Run:

This is a state that elected a Democratic senator in 2006 who told voters "I want to repeal the PATRIOT Act." This is a state whose governor gave Homeland Security Michael Chertoff a rhetorical kick in the teeth when he opted out of REAL ID. This is, finally, a state whose Republicans gave Ron Paul a quarter of their primary and caucus votes, and where the balance of power in the state House is held by the Constitution Party.


I think it's safe to say that Montana voters have stronger libertarian leanings than just about any other state.

It may be that Montana's libertarian-ish voters are more Dem-friendly because they have a relatively libertarian Dem governor who is extremely popular. But I frankly don't know enough about Gov. Schweitzer to say that he's more libertarian than the average Dem - I just know that he's really popular.

More at memeorandum.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Questioning Smears

This James Kirchick piece has attracted a fair amount of attention the last day or two. In it, he essentially argues that despite conventional wisdom on the Left, Obama has been complicit in far more "smears" than John McCain. The piece is, to put it bluntly, silly. Frankly, any debate over who "smears" who more is beyond trivial, and is a particularly strong example of how dumbed-down politics are (I won't say "how dumbed-down politics have become" - they've always been pretty dumbed-down, though the internet provides for my dispersal of this trivial sniping). Of course, Kirchick is no stranger to the art of smearing politicians himself, having authored the piece that brought Ron Paul down (not to be read as an endorsement of the actions Kirchick documented in that piece; just pointing out that Kirchick is no stranger to making personal takedowns of politicians, however justified or unjustified).

In any event, I just want to express my wholehearted agreement with every word in this James Joyner post. Money quote:

Do I think there’s a concerted effort on the part of Democrats to call into question the degree to which John McCain’s military service makes him more qualified than Barack Obama to step in as commander-in-chief? Of course. Are some of the attacks over-the-top? Yup. Have they reached the worst levels of the Swift Boat attacks against John Kerry in 2004? Not yet.

Is there a smear campaign to undermine public confidence in Barack Obama’s patriotism and that of his wife? To say that he’s a Muslim and might be terrorist-friendly? Yup. Were they promulgated by Republicans? No, by Hillary Clinton supporters, actually. Will Republicans pick up the ball? Probably.



In other words: both sides, quit yer bitchin' - you're both pretty devious.

I think I agree with Mark, Jeff and Kip...

It may (or may not) have been more appropriate to insert my own thoughts on Mark's comments on John's post at the bottom of Mark's post, but I thought I'd put them up here since I'd rather not be poking around the work of others, even if the idea is well-intentioned. Mark, please feel free to move it anywhere you wish if you disagree.


John is right. Both the Left and the Right do take morally authoritarian positions on certain issues that matter to them, whether it be sexual activity or freedom of contract and seek to resolve matters through regulation or outright prohibition. I have never suggested otherwise. To be fair, I know John's comment to this effect was geared towards the discussion toward a libertarian alliance with the Left. If anything, it is a useful reminder. Another useful reminder is David Bernstein's recent op-ed, written in light of the Heller decision comparing liberal and conservative views of individual rights.


Mark is right. I say this because differences between libertarians and liberals (or conservatives in the days of fusionism) on state regulation of "virtue" is not enough to disqualify the possibility of an alliance. Substantial differences in opinion between traditional conservatives and libertarians (or perhaps classical liberals) did not keep Frank Meyer from attempting to seek common ground between traditionalists and libertarians. A strong enough issue or set of issues could be the impetus for an alliance today. As with fusionism, any liberal-libertarian will have its critics. This will be neither new nor surprising.

Kip is right. While I have not completely worked through the possibility of a left-libertarian alliance, I am skeptical because:

1) the notion of limiting the power and reach of government is still important to us and goes beyond issues involving surveillance or national security. This was, I think, the fundamental reason why the right-libertarian alliance has been severely undermined, if not fatally; and,

2) if David Bernstein's article is any indication on the differences between conservatives and liberals on individual rights, it is almost obvious who holds the upper hand and it is not the Left. I take no pleasure in this assessment. If we assume "civil liberties" as some subset of individual rights and people wish to run with it, so be it. If lefties start to take matters like economic liberty (freedom of contract) and private property rights more seriously, then I would be more enthusiastic than I am protecting a limited basket of rights one political persuasion believes is worthy of protecting above all else.

This is not to say that my mind would not change with further analysis, the passage of time or changing circumstances, but my quick take on the idea raises many questions. Mark has written more about this and I should probably take some time reading those arguments before I go any further.

(Ed. Note: Time of post edited by Mark to reflect actual posting time)

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

I'm ready for this election to be over.

I take John Cole's view on Wesley Clark's statement regarding the relevancy of being shot down and tortured to an individual's ability to faithfully execute the office of President of the United States and preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States. In short, General Clark is correct on the specific statement. That makes all the ranting border on the hysterical. Predictable, perhaps, but still strange.

The worst example I've encountered, which is a key distinction here because I've actively avoided the outrage machine, comes from Andrew Sullivan in response to a reader's dissent. Mr. Sullivan writes (my emphasis added):

Strictly speaking, it is irrelevant for the presidency if someone was shot down and tortured. It doesn't make anyone a better potential president. But there are plenty of ways to put this and to frame this without descending to a default position that seems to devalue McCain's service. Clark is a dreadful politician and his off-the-cuff response, while technically true, is terrible politics and about the last debate Democrats need or should want to have. It has dominated a news cycle in ways that help McCain not Obama and drowned out Obama's patriotism speech. The only silver lining is that the small chance that Clark might be an Obama veep is now zero.
General Clark is correct in his statement. Mr. Sullivan is correct in acknowledging that General Clark's statement is "technically true" and terrible politics. I'm not here to refute the latter point because the rest of Gen. Clark's interview with Bob Schieffer was classic shill. So what? The question is whether we're really interested in an election that puts good politics ahead of the truth? Our unwillingness to deal with the truth because it's politically unpalatable is why we're in so many of the national messes we're in. I'm not interested in enabling that further by pretending like this matters. It's bad enough that we all have to play the game.

But what about the politics of this? The media has engaged itself in the long-standing narrative that Sen. McCain is a Hero™, so we can't question him. Why? One need not question his heroism, patriotism, or sacrifice to get at the present reality. His history is a facet of his application for the office of President. Because his experience is (thankfully) rare does not give him a free pass. If getting shot down and tortured contributes something to the merit of his qualification, let him explain why. But do not treat it as a given. There is a viable thread that his experience gives him unique, applicable experience. There is also a viable thread that it's not a requirement for the job. If one wants to be feisty, maybe his experience is even a knock on his fitness to be president because of how he processes it.

----------

Semi-related, today Mr. Sullivan posts this general defense of Sen. Obama.
But Obama's post-primary pivot to neutralize all the usual GOP attacks - and reintroduce himself to Middle America - has been more than usually pronounced. He can live with FISA telecom immunity; he's flexible on troop withdrawal from Iraq; he's happy with executing child rapists; he doesn't need public financing; he'll out-patriot the Right; he's touting his support for welfare reform; he'll expand Bush's faith-based programs; and he's okay with the Supreme Court's view of the Second Amendment. Oh, and he'll reduce taxes on the middle class, while hiking them for the rich or successful or whatever you'll let me call them.
...
It's been clear for a long time: A man who beat the Clintons is as ruthless as they are. Just smarter, and less susceptible to losing his grip on the core principles he still believes in.
I don't question that Sen. Obama is an effective politician. This is why I think he'll be more ineffective in office than some want to believe. Being a gifted politician means getting what you want, but it also means making enemies. Hopefully he'll make enough in the Congress.

But I'm not able to decipher a coherent, consistent set of core principles in Sen. Obama's growing spectrum of public declarations. The telecoms broke the law. He won't advocate repealing campaign finance regulations. Faith-based programs miss the point of the First Amendment, among other problems. Adjusting the mix of financial "winners" and "losers" - a rejection of the idea that merit should mean something - ignores property rights and equal treatment under the law in favor of his idea of more equal outcomes. Narrow that down in a way that each set of facts can be filtered through through the same idea and I'll retract my criticism that he is not acting from core principles. Until then, let's not confuse winning with correct. Manipulating the message is great marketing, but it's hardly proof of a statesman.

Can Liberals "Leave Us Alone"?

John Schwenkler cautions that despite the concerns ECL and I have raised about social conservatives being part of a "Leave Us Alone Coalition," similar concerns can be raised on social issues about many/most mainstream liberals.

Before responding to John's thoughtful post, I want to say two important things: first, my various posts regarding my prediction of, and optimism about, a left/libertarian alliance are written on my behalf alone - I honestly don't know the extent to which ECL or any of my new co-authors agree or disagree with those sentiments. Second, I want to promote John's blog, Upturned Earth, of which I was unaware until just yesterday, but which is easily one of the most thoughtful conservative/libertarianish blogs around.

Turning back to John's critique, he observes:


"There is a whole host of issues near and dear to the hearts of many religious conservatives and other traditionalist types - from homeschooling and gun ownership to sex education, vouchers for parochial schools, and the freedom not to violate one’s own convictions in dealing with same-sex unions - where liberals and secularists decidedly are not willing to take up the same sorts of “tolerant” stances that they demand (with sadly little success) in response to their own choices."




He then goes on to argue that any left-libertarian coalition will need to account for this in order to be successful, and that in the process it may wind up, ironically, bringing social conservatives into the fold. I want to make a few points in response:

1. Although I firmly believe that a left-libertarian coalition of some sort is inevitable, I do not believe such a coalition will be permanent any more than the right-libertarian coalition is or was permanent. Political coalitions are constantly shifting; so the question isn't whether a coalition will be permanent or even particularly long-lasting, but rather whether it can exist in the foreseeable future.

2. The areas John identifies are most definitely areas where liberals are inclined to interfere with peoples' lives in a way that is quite unlibertarian. However, I don't think they are large enough issues to prevent some form of left-libertarian coalition, which would be primarily centered on civil liberties and foreign policy much as the Republican coalition that included libertarians was centered on anti-Communism (and, after the fall of Communism, on the Contract with America, which by its nature could only be a temporary unifier). In the Republican coalition, libertarians sacrificed quite a few values on secondary and tertiary issues in order to protect their then-primary issue of fighting socialism and central planning (broadly defined). As such, they were more willing to go along with foreign adventurism and social conservatism. Now that anti-Communism and the Contract with America no longer serve as very good umbrellas for protecting most libertarians' primary issues, those formerly secondary and tertiary issues (such as civil liberties and foreign policy) have moved or are moving to the forefront for many libertarians. Just as libertarians sacrificed some secondary and tertiary values to advance their then-primary values within the Republican coalition, they would inevitably sacrifice some secondary and tertiary values to advance their currently-primary values in the context of a liberal coalition. It may be that the issues John mentions would eventually destroy a left-libertarian coalition - but only if and when civil liberties and foreign policy ceased to be the unifying issue behind which libertarians and liberals could unite.

3. Despite point 2, above, I think the issues John mentions are issues on which Dems and liberals have been getting significantly better over time or which are likely to be non-issues in the long run.

On guns, the Heller ruling largely ends any fears that there would ever be a nationwide gun ban; moreover, the reaction amongst younger liberals to the Heller ruling was surprisingly calm, and as far as I could tell the majority of younger liberals were either ambivalent about the ruling or in many cases even supportive of it (older, dyed-in-the-wool liberal newspaper columnists were a different story).

On homeschooling and vouchers, I would point to David Friedman's support of Obama in part because he believes Obama is more sympathetic to those issues than previous liberals have been; I would also point to the debate I had this past winter with Kyle from Comments from Left Field, which shows that liberals are more flexible on the issue than perhaps they get credit for (this is not to say that they do or will soon support parochial vouchers, just that there is more flexibility on the issue than is widely perceived).

Sex education is not really a national issue. Moreover, once we accept that some sort of publicly mandated curriculum is going to exist no matter what we do, the exact strictures of that curriculum are not really a libertarian issue, though they may certainly be an issue for conservatives (for instance, most libertarians I know of think that abstinence education as an alternative to traditional sex ed is an awful idea).

Finally, on the issue of compelling government officials to preside over same-sex marriage or civil unions, I don't think the libertarian position is at all clear. To be sure, public officials do not give up their religion when they join the government. However, longstanding law (which no one has sought to overturn, and which is partly the result of liberal anti-discrimination laws) makes clear that government employees are entitled to "reasonable accommodation" of their religious beliefs. So, if someone else is available to perform a ceremony to which a government official is religiously opposed, the government official cannot be forced to perform the ceremony. However - and this is important - a government official's duty is to the law as it exists. If the official is so religiously opposed to the ceremony as to be unable to perform it, then he has no right to hold that position with the government if the result of his doing so is that a gay couple is unable to obtain their civil union. In refusing to perform the legal ceremony, the official - who, again, represents the government in his official capacity - is placing his religious viewpoint above the law, and is thereby violating basic church-state principles. Put another way - a government official, acting in an official, non-discretionary capacity, may not act in a way that favors his religious views over another's. But this is not an infringement of the government official's liberty, either: the official is still free to believe as he wishes; he is just not free to use his capacity as a government official to impose those beliefs to the detriment of others. Finally, I would add that a government official's presiding over a civil union cannot, in and of itself, violate that government official's religion, as civil unions and civil marriage are not religious institutions, but are rather legal contractual relationships.

4. There are still issues where liberals take a clear position in favor of government intrusiveness, and ultimately these issues may be areas that cause a split in any liberal-libertarian coalition. But these areas are not areas that are primary issues for most libertarians right now. The examples that come to mind first right now are the the War on Fat and smoking bans.