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.