Towards A Good Samaritan World

Friday, December 17, 2004


I won't be posting for the next three weeks. I'm going out to see my parents in California, then on a honeymoon in Hawaii. I might throw in a few comments if people want to start discussions based on my current posts.

COME BACK AND VISIT ON JANUARY 10TH/11TH. I'll post something then!


Timothy Garten Ash's op-edvein in the NYT this morning brims over with the ironies of EU triumphalism. Ash has an admirable vision, yet he is disturbingly blind to a lot of things. He presents EU expansion almost as an answer to the war in Iraq:

[C]ountries that wish to join the European Union are prepared to make profound changes to their economic, social, legal and political systems in order to qualify. Indeed, in the run-up to accession, the union has intervened extensively in the affairs of candidate states, but it has done so with the consent of their democratically elected governments. This is regime change, European-style.

The history of the European Union can be told as a story of the expansion of freedom: from the original six postwar democracies in western Europe; to 12 member states, including three former dictatorships in southern Europe; to 25, including many of the former Communist states of central and eastern Europe; and now on to the Balkans, Turkey and, one day, Ukraine.

Yes, EU expansion is admirable in its way. Indeed, it is the only moral justification for the EU's existence. Without expansion, the EU would be nothing but the most egregious example of rich-country clubbishness. There is a certain racism inherent in the concept of the European Union, as if the white peoples of Europe, having lost their empires and dwindling in numbers, wanted to consolidate their strength against the rising black, brown and yellow races elsewhere. The most egregious EU policy (and it consumes, I think, almost half the EU budget) is the Common Agricultural Policy. Worse even than US farm subsidies, the CAP channels heaps of money to European farmers, boosting agricultural prices at home and shutting out goods from the rest of the world. If there were no EU, Britain, the Netherlands and other countries with small farm sectors would probably buy a lot of agricultural imports from developing countries, which would be a great opportunity for growth. Instead, they are forced to buy from the French. The EU is protectionist in other ways. Internally, the EU is notorious for its democratic deficit. Economic growth is chronically sluggish. The EU is inherently divisive of the broader West, being by definition distinct from America. All these critiques would coalesce into a damning indictment of the EU, were it not for expansion.

But expansion, offering formerly oppressed nations a chance to join "Europe whole and free" is a cause idealistic enough to compensate for the EU's other sins.

But expansion as a foreign policy tool comes at a price. As Victor Davis Hanson notes:

Turkey's proposed entry into the EU has become some weird sort of Swiftian satire on the crazy relationship between Europe and Islam. Ponder the contradictions of it all. Privately most Europeans realize that opening its borders without restraint to Turkey's millions will alter the nature of the EU, both by welcoming in a radically different citizenry, largely outside the borders of Europe, whose population will make it the largest and poorest country in the Union — and the most antithetical to Western liberalism. Yet Europe is also trapped in its own utopian race/class/gender rhetoric. It cannot openly question the wisdom of making the "other" coequal to itself, since one does not by any abstract standard judge, much less censure, customs, religions, or values...

[W]ith a Germany and France reeling from unassimilated Muslim populations, a rising Islamic-inspired and globally embarrassing anti-Semitism, and economic stagnation, it is foolhardy to create 70 million Turkish Europeans by fiat. Welcoming in Turkey will make the EU so diverse, large, and unwieldy as to make it — to paraphrase Voltaire — neither European nor a Union...

Europe preached a postmodern gospel of multiculturalism and the end of oppressive Western values, and now it is time to put its money (and security) where its mouth is — or suffer the usual hypocrisy that all limousine liberals face.

Since Turkey's entry would probably not be approved by referenda in all of the EU's countries, Turkish entry into the EU will probably be another case of democratic deficit, a problem Europeans complain about but which is an inherent part of their project. Both in Europe as a whole and in most European member-states, the kind of electoral legitimation that Bush and the GOP just received-- by which, in the face of a hostile press and a super-mobilized opposition, a governing party wins a clear popular majority-- is unheard-of in Europe. Ash inadvertently exposes the odd nature of European freedom with this observation:

It is also significant that the European Union's offer has been made to a Turkish government headed by a devout Muslim, Prime Minister Recip Tayyip Erdogan, who was jailed just five years ago for publicly reciting a poem containing the lines, "The mosques are our barracks, the domes our helmets, the minarets our bayonets, and the faithful are our warriors." Mr. Erdogan is now doing everything in his power to meet what Turks call "European standards."

Significant, to be sure. First, how can a person be jailed for reciting a poem? To Americans, this is outlandish. It would be unconstitutional beyond any doubt, and the fact that it would is why Americans consider themselves free. We can say whatever we want. Europe does not have freedom of speech in the same sense that America does. But second (and this is part of why we value freedom of speech in the first place): if people get jailed for expressing certain views, they will naturally stop expressing them, but they will probably still hold the same belief. People begin to say what they really mean behind closed doors. In public, they are ironic. On the surface, the system seems to enjoy people's confidence; underneath, it is being eaten away: that's what's happened in Ukraine!

Deepening the irony still further, Ash remarks that:

Robert Kagan describes the difference between America and Europe as the difference between power and weakness - American power, that is, and European weakness. This description is sustainable only if power is measured in terms of military strength. In the way that some American conservatives talk about the European Union, I hear an echo of Stalin's famous question about the Vatican's power: how many divisions does the pope have? But the pope defeated Stalin in the end.

So the EU is the pope? That speaks volumes about Europe's moral pretensions, but it is strange, considering that the pope's esteemed biographer, Rocco Buttiglione, was recently driven off the European Commission by the European parliament because he was a devout Catholic who believed that women should obey their husbands and that homosexuality was a sin. He believed this privately, and had no intention of applying it to the public sphere.

If this precedent holds, it means that orthodox Catholics are not allowed to hold high office in the European Union. Presumably that applies a fortiori to Muslims, who hold the same views but generally more strongly. Seeing that, it is hardly surprising that Europeans are unable to assimilate their own Muslim immigrants. And given post-Christian Europe's low birthrates, and Muslims' high birthrates, Europe will become increasingly Muslim in the future.

Something's gotta give. What a strange figure Ash is, blinded by his own idealism to the tensions that render his dreams problematic.

Wednesday, December 15, 2004


Western journalists like to see Ukraine's orange revolution as a democracy issue; Russians, as an East vs. West issue. It's both. But a desire for moral, clean government is certainly part of it. My guess is there are a lot of Ukrainian swing voters who wouldn't mind staying in their historic home in Russia's sphere of influence if Putin wouldn't be so evil about how he tries to keep them in. If Russia will resort to murder, who is safe? The EU may be a growth-strangling, increasingly repressive bureaucracy; the European populace may be fraught with racism, in demographic decline (so are Russia and Ukraine, of course) and with troubling tendencies to censorship; France has shown a nasty ungenerous streak towards new entrants; Europeans themselves are increasingly hostile towards the United Europe project; but at least Brussels doesn't poison its political opponents, as far as we know.

Russians can be kind and generous personally. But they are too cynical about public affairs. Why aren't they upset that Yuschenko was probably poisoned, that the elections seem to have been stolen, or that Yanukovych had a criminal record? Russians think this is normal. They thought the US invaded Iraq for oil. They think "promoting democracy" is just a mask for the will-to-power. It's not. America is an idealistic country. Recognizing that is essential to understanding America.

If there is any justice, and if the Russians have any sense, the orange revolution will be the beginning of the end for Putin. Russians have got to understand that cynicism (which Putin, the old KGB man, symbolizes) is a false worldview and will ruin them. They must purge themselves of it. Europe and America are idealistic powers. Ideals are an essential foreign policy tool, as is democratic practice at home, with its legitimizing aura and its force of attraction. In a competitive world, Russians can't afford to do without them. "Who lost Ukraine?" Let the catcalls begin.

Ever wonder why conservatives and conservationists are at opposite ends of the political spectrum? Mark Steyn heightens the contradictions...

try and rouse the progressive mind to a "Save the Italians" campaign and you'll get nowhere. Luigi isn't as important as algae, even though he, too, is a victim of profound environmental changes: globally warmed by Euro-welfare, he no longer feels the need to breed.


I wrote this e-mail to Andrew Sullivan this morning in response to a letter he posted from Michael Kinsley supposedly proving that Social Security reform will not work:

Michael Kinsley seems to think that in order for privatization to work, it needs to generate “higher returns for retirees than current arrangements.” It’s as if Kinsley thinks that “current arrangements” were sustainable.

Under current arrangements, the level of benefit growth rises with wage growth. If wages rise by 4%, benefits rise by 4%. Wage growth is typically faster than the inflation rate. So the real value of Social Security benefits rises with time. Meanwhile, demographic changes are underway, such that the ratio of Social Security beneficiaries to workers paying the payroll tax steadily increases. Right now, payroll tax receipts are larger than Social Security benefits, so we can pay all the benefits while still having money left over for the “trust fund.” After 2018 (according to projections) this will be reversed: we will have to pay more benefits than we collect in taxes. The government will have to raise taxes or cut spending in order to pay off the trust fund’s “bonds.” By 2042, the bonds will run out, and the trust fund will be bankrupt. The SSA will still continue to pay a portion of the scheduled benefits, perhaps 70-75%, and the ratio will continue to decline thereafter.

Now, there is something a bit silly about any projection that purports to forecast forty years into the future. Politics is too changeable. We know now that Social Security is not a “third rail.” Bush has campaigned on reform twice and won. Four decades’ worth of politicians will have the chance to change Social Security before this bankruptcy date. And will the generation that retires in 2040 take their sudden benefit cuts standing still? Surely there would be an electoral revolt if the government let that actually happen.

The bottom line is that Congress can take away your benefits at any time. Social Security is called an “entitlement” but that is exactly what it is not, according to the 1960 Supreme Court case Flemming vs. Nestor, in which Nestor was deprived of his Social Security benefits for past membership in the Communist Party—and the Supreme Court upheld this. Social Security is just a transfer, revocable at will by the government. Private accounts would be property rights—a true “entitlement,” the “ultimate lockbox.”

Kinsley is right about one thing: claims that Social Security privatization will generate higher returns for retirees are partly bogus. Higher returns from the stock market will be offset by taxes to pay benefits to current retirees. The economic benefits from privatization flow mainly from a higher national savings rate. But that depends on Congress. If we wanted to balance the budget and shift from a pay-as-you-go to a fully-funded retirement system, we would have to create private accounts, because with the government out of the borrowing business, it would have nowhere to put younger workers’ savings except by acquiring private assets, which is inconsistent with the free-market system. That scenario would be excellent for economic growth. But given the current big deficits, it’s academic.

And privatization alone will not solve the problem of Social Security’s long-run insolvency. To do that we’ll need to raise the retirement age (perhaps by indexing it to longevity) or cut the benefit growth rate by indexing it to the CPI rather than wage growth or introduce means-testing of Social Security benefits. (I say: all three!)

What privatization will do is take political risk out of people’s retirement plans. Since “current arrangements” are unsustainable, young people have no idea what they will be retiring on, and even people in their 50s are nervous. Political risk is unknowable and people have only one choice. Private accounts would substitute political risk with market risk. And market risk allows people to make choices, according to their own level of risk-aversion. (Probably most people would invest private retirement accounts the way IRAs are currently invested, with a portfolio mainly of stocks in youth, shifting into bonds as they near retirement.) With political risk removed, people could have what the current system can never give them: (lower-case) social security.

But why should Andrew Sullivan publish me when he can link to Arnold Kling? Since Arnold has covered this territory before, he emphasizes an angle that he begun a week ago: Social Security reform should really be favored by the left:

[U]sing debt rather than payroll taxes to fund current beneficiaries would have one important real effect. It would shift the overall tax burden away from payroll taxes and toward general revenues, which means primarily income taxes. Thus, the transition toward privatization would make the funding of Social Security more progressive, meaning that relatively more burden falls on the rich and relatively less falls on the poor. In that regard, it is somewhat surprising that the Left opposes privatization and the Right supports it...

One effect could be to shift the composition of portfolio holdings so that Americans invest more in stocks and less in bonds. If stocks are under-valued, as they have been historically, this would improve the allocation of capital in the United States. To believe that this will happen, you have to believe that U.S. capital markets are inefficient today, and that their efficiency will be improved by steering more people toward ownership of stocks. Greater efficiency would increase economic growth, which, as Kinsley points out, is a way for privatization to improve the outlook for the future. Conservative economists are inclined to view markets as efficient, so that privatization would not cause such a portfolio shift. Therefore, this is another argument for privatization that is more likely to be supported by the Left (for example, Berkeley economist Brad DeLong) than by the Right.

Bush the Leftie. Money to fight AIDS in Africa. An education bill to help minority kids in failing schools. A push for civil rights for illegal immigrants. Meanwhile, the Democrats are the party of the cultural elite and middle-class entitlements.

I also posted a new article about political risk and Social Security on my website.

Iran. A hard nut to crack. TNR ridicules neocons for not being able to agree on a solution, but of course they have no solution either.

One problem is that

[T]he democrats may be just as determined in their pursuit of the bomb as the mullahs. Aside from the MEK, which has been frequently compared to a cult, very few of the regime's opponents have openly criticized the nuclear program. "You have a failure of the opposition to engage the nuclear question," bemoans Hoover's Milani. In fact, even longtime opponents of the regime have defended Tehran's atomic ambitions. Ardeshir Zahedi, who served as a foreign minister under the Shah, argued earlier this year in The Wall Street Journal that there's nothing inherently wrong with an Iranian bomb: "A peaceful Iran with no ambitions to export an ideology or seek regional hegemony would be no more threatening than Britain, which also has a nuclear arsenal." And some longtime advocates of republican government in Iran have gone so far as to applaud the mullahs for protecting the country's sovereign right to develop a nuclear program.

And why shouldn't they? Our anti-proliferation stance is built on a double standard. These five powers (maybe seven or eight) have the right to build nuclear weapons, the rest of you don't. Naturally a lot of the have-nots don't find the argument convincing.

Tuesday, December 14, 2004


Mark Helprin's reminder about the rise of China is useful, but Helprin seems to assume that China will inevitably be hostile. He argues that

[I]n the longer term, China is bent upon and will achieve gross military and economic parity with the United States.

and that

When China was great, it sent out military expeditions by land and sea into a large part of what was for it the known world, and despite robotic protestations to the contrary it will do so again.

so he agonizes that

This and a persistent blindness in regard to China's probable trajectory are wounds gratuitously self-inflicted, for no country, ever, has had both the mass and income at the margin that the United States has now, but rather than anticipate, meet, and discourage China's military development, as it easily could, the U.S. has chosen to ignore it.

Helprin seems to feel that it is self-evident that Americans should want more power for us, less for them. I disagree. Whether more Chinese military power is good or not depends on what China will do with that military power once they have it. Probably they'll want to re-order the world somewhat. Newly emerging great powers usually do. I think the present world order is far from perfect (too much poverty is one problem, largely a result of restrictions on migration) so I'm open to the possibility that a Chinese superpower might change it for the better.

Helprin sees it as ominous that:

[China] has already begun what it itself might at one time have called imperial expansion, driven not by ideology but the need for markets and raw materials. Major crude oil importation, begun only recently, is already one-quarter the volume of U.S. crude imports, leading China to compete for petroleum not only in the Middle East but in South America and at least six countries in Africa.

It is great that China is consuming increasing amounts of raw materials. Commodity prices, broadly speaking, have been falling for decades now, which has been devastating for many developing countries that rely on commodity exports. By buying up not only oil but aluminum, tobacco, cotton, steel, etc., China will spread the wealth of its spectacular growth.

Because of the rising threat of China, Helprin hints throughout the essay that it's a big mistake that we've been distracted by the venture in Iraq. First he writes:

what passed for unipolarity is emphatically over [in part] because the strategy of the moment has allowed a small force of primitive insurgents in Iraq to occupy a large proportion of American military energy...

It's true, of course, that we have less slack in our military capacities than we did a few years ago. We're less able to defend Taiwan or South Korea, if need be, or to intervene in Sudan. That argument will apply against any military venture. But China hasn't invaded Taiwan, and over the next few years our Iraq presence will presumably wind down. When it does (unless stop-loss creates recruitment problems down the road) our military will be strengthened by the operation because of the experience we have acquired. Helprin realizes this but thinks that

America's vision has been knocked out of focus by its ideals, and when China does develop the powerful expeditionary forces that it will need to protect its far- flung interests, the U.S. will probably have successfully completed transforming its military into a force designed mainly to fight terrorism and insurgencies.

I don't think we're under-investing in our dazzling air superiority. But we're also acquiring capacities for counter-insurgency and urban warfare that we lacked in the 1990s, which crippled us strategically in Yugoslavia and against the rising threat of al-Qaeda. In a hypothetical global struggle with China, urban warfare and counter-insurgency are likely to be an important element, so it's to our advantage that we are acquiring those skills. But hopefully the US and China will never be hostile anyway.

I see China as potentially a benign successor-hegemon to the US, as the US was for Britain. Our task for now (and the transformation of the Muslim world is part of that task) is to prepare the world by infusing it with the best of our ideals while we are dominant, while grooming the Chinese to infuse it with the best of theirs.

Monday, December 13, 2004


Hamilton's Pamphlets has a post about blogger burnout: "Darwin Comes to Blogging."

The volume and frequency of blogging will rise and fall based on many things. In the months leading up to the Presidential election the blog world was on fire. Everyone was posting several times a day and reading multiple blogs, chasing threads and posting comments. Since the election things have toned way down. As we approach the Christmas Holidays, I would expect more and more people will be spending time Christmas shopping, visiting relatives, and spending time with their families and thus a lull in blogging.

Is blogging a "tulip bulb craze" or just a passing fad? I think not. There are several blogs that have been around for years and as software and hosting services become easier and less expensive to use, I think more, not less, will blog. Sure, Blog was the #1 looked up word this year and may indicate a short term peak in popularity, which logically will be followed by a sharp decline. However, I predict long term sustained growth (sounds like I'm selling a mutual fund or something...weird).

While my prediction would be that the number of blogs may peak soon in the US (there are over 6.5 million, it seems) I agree that the blog phenomenon is here to stay. I expect bloggers will increase in importance even if their numbers do not continue growing. And on the world, as opposed to the US, stage, they have many mountains to climb still. My hope is that a coalition of citizen-bloggers and journo-lobbyists will displace what Robert Kaplan calls "the media clerisy."

I think blogging could-- must!-- give rise to new forms of community. I often feel that people who read my blog know more about me than long-time friends, because they know what I believe in, and I'd like to meet some of them face-to-face. But since the fuel of the blogosphere is not money, it will have to be idealism.

New article on my website: "About That Trade Deficit: The United States and the Hard Currency Services Export Industry." More piling on The Economist.

I posted a little essay on America's "aristocracy" (professors/writers/musicians-- nothing to do with money) on a previous post, in response to a comment by TheJew.


If any foreign-policy guru is entitled to be considered the prophet of the Bush Revolution in Foreign Affairs, it is Robert Kaplan. In the course of extensive world travels in the 1990s, he wrote many poignant portrayals of the developing world that went against the grain of the optimism of the times. He has the unique ability to write think-pieces that are at the same time intimate and immediate reporting.

I heard a rumor once that Kaplan was one of the first scholars that Bush consulted with in 2001.

My impression, though, is that he failed to reap the harvest of fame he deserved over the past four years. He seems to have been rather quiet. His book "Warrior Politics" got poor reviews

Now he's back with a brilliant essay: "The Media and Medievalism." Read the whole thing about five times.

The essay is many things: a searing critique of the mainstream media and its sanctimonious irresponsibility; shrewd worrying about the power of the mob and the death of authority; an analysis of totalitarianism. It reinforces my "Guelfs and Ghibellines" hypothesis:

The medieval age was tyrannized by a demand for spiritual perfectionism, making it hard to accomplish anything practical. Truth, Erasmus cautioned, had to be concealed under a cloak of piety...

To the extent that the left is still vibrant, I am suggesting that it has mutated into something else. If what used to be known as the Communist International has any rough contemporary equivalent, it is the global media. The global media’s demand for peace and justice, which flows subliminally like an intravenous solution through its reporting, is — much like the Communist International’s rousing demand for workers’ rights — moralistic rather than moral. Peace and justice are such general and self-evident principles that it is enough merely to invoke them. Any and all toxic substances can flourish within them, or manipulate them, provided that the proper rhetoric is adopted. For moralizers these principles are a question of manners, not of substance. To wit, Kofi Annan can never be wrong...

As with medieval churchmen, the media class of the well-worried has a tendency to confuse morality with sanctimony: Those with the loudest megaphones and no bureaucratic accountability have a tendency to embrace moral absolutes. After all, transcending politics is easier done than engaging in them, with the unsatisfactory moral compromises that are entailed.

It is also a tribute to the US military and a lament that media coverage does not do them justice:

When not portraying them as criminals in prisoner abuse scandals, the media appear most at ease depicting American troops as victims themselves — victims of a failed Iraq policy, of a bad reserve system, and of a society that has made them into killers.

Yet the soldiers and Marines with whom I spent months as an embed in ground fighting units found such coverage deeply insulting. At a time when there are acts of battlefield courage in places like Fallujah and Najaf that, according to military expert John Hillen, “would make Black Hawk Down look like Gosford Park,” media coverage of individual soldiers and Marines as warrior-heroes is essentially absent...

Celebrating military heroism is not glorifying killing. War is a sad fact of existence, but a fact nevertheless. To be heroic can be an indication of character rather than of bloodthirstiness. Moreover, the American military — active in dozens of countries each week, fighting terrorism away from the headlines — is providing the security armature for an emerging global civilization whose own institutions are still in their infancy...

During World War II... news coverage... made heroes of American troops when the facts so demanded, which was often. American troops have changed less than American journalists have. The crowd-pack to which the latter now belong is that of the global media — an upper-income, transnational human herd...

The American media have lavished praise on those who cover life exclusively from the viewpoint of oppressed minorities, as John Howard Griffin did in Black Like Me (1961), or the working poor, as Barbara Ehrenreich did in Nickel and Dimed (2001): Yet to do the same with America’s own working-class troops is to risk censure.

Once upon a time, poets were inspired by the heroic deeds of warriors, paid tribute to them in verse and song, and created great literature. The Greeks' pre-eminent classic, the Iliad was a poem about warriors in this tradition. That both our scribal class and our artist class fail to fill this role has created a niche that the blogosphere has helped somewhat to fill. We need more of it. Young men in Iraq are learning deep truths of courage, sacrifice, and heroism with which America's ultra-bourgeois civilization has lost touch.

As for the mainstream media, I've tended to want to keep them around for traditionalist reasons. Reading Kaplan, I feel the beginnings of a different sentiment: Escracez l'infame.


Matt Yglesias remarks:

If you'd said before the war that over a year (and 1,000 U.S. fatalities) after the fall of Baghdad, U.S. forces would still be taking large numbers of casualties in an effort to create a government dominated by Shiite fundamentalists that has little capacity to exercise control over broad swathes of Iraqi territory you would have been labled a major-league pessimist about the venture.

So Sistani is a "fundamentalist?" Interesting.

Let me add that "major-league pessimists about the venture" predicted Saddam using his WMDs on US troops and on Israel; predicted that the conflict would turn into a regional war; predicted hundreds of thousands of Iraqis killed and refugees; mocked not only the democratic transition but even that they would greet the coalition forces as liberators. Instead, most Iraqis did greet the coalition of liberators. The vast majority were glad to see the end of Saddam. The highest estimate of Iraqi dead is 100,000 (most estimates are much lower) and that includes all "excess deaths," including those caused by the insurgents, killed in battle, etc. Power has been transferred to a pro-American government that enjoys widespread of legitimacy. There may be large swaths of the country it does not control, but there are much larger swaths that it does control. Most Iraqis support elections. The Shiites are cooperating with the Americans. Elections are likely to happen in January. Iraqis are already much freer than under Saddam or in other Arab countries, and they like it that way. They are hopeful about the future.

And yet the "anti-war" camp (the conventional label, although it's unduly flattering for people who supported a regime that consisted of war against its own people) hasn't made many apologies yet. Because they're not in power. They're not accountable for getting it wrong. Well, unless you count losing elections as a form of accountability.

Justin Logan ("Proud Member of the Reality-[De]Based Coalition") performs his usual trick of taking negative spin over the line into self-parody:

I'm hearing whispers that the evildoers from the State Department on the ground in Iraq are working to prop up a less-tyrannous-than-Saddam strongman, much to the chagrin of their boss, Ambassador Negroponte, and the neocon ideologues. The strongman idea, of course, serves U.S. interests, if they are defined as "something other than total anarchy in a country of 25 million Muslims who now really hate America" or the alternative, "indefinite occupation."

You might think, from this post, that Iraqis have a more negative attitude towards America as a result of our liberating them. Does Justin have any evidence for this? Some Iraqis, after all, are enthusiastically and eloquently grateful for our liberating them. To give one of what are probably thousands available on the web by now, here's a comment an Iraqi posted on the BBC Arabic website (via Iraq the Model):

“America offers freedom for free. It’s true that I’ve never been there and I don’t have friends living there either but I keep America in my mind and sole. Hatred was brought to us by the extremists; the enemies of mankind.

I and every true Iraqi love America because to us she represents freedom and liberation. America untied us from Saddam’s chains and also liberated Yugoslavia from her dictator and liberated Germany before that. History is full of events that support my feelings”

Hazim Al Shammari-Bafgdad/Iraq.

Justin's views are based on obeisance to his ideology; reality can do its thing somewhere else. It will be a great day when these people take their cynical glasses off and wake up to a better world.

[UPDATE: TheJew provides links to two anti-American Iraqi bloggers. One link I couldn't open but I suspect it's Riverbend; the other, Dear Raed, I didn't know about, because when I started exploring Iraqi bloggers he wasn't posting much. Meanwhile, Iraq the Model (three brothers) and The Mesopotamian. Zeyad is somewhere in the middle: he is often critical of American abuses but ardently supported the war. (Zeyad seems to be an atheist, and as a result is sometimes, I think, the best journalist of them all; atheists can sometimes have a certain intensity of interest in the actual world, I've noticed, that people who believe in transcendental things like God lack; as a result they write about it better.) I'm not saying that no Iraqis are angry at the US. Opinion is obviously polarized. I'm saying that if some are angry, some are very grateful, and the evidence suggests to me that the balance is towards support for American operations, plans and ideals. Before the war, I wouldn't have ventured to predict democracy in Iraq. It seemed too ambitious, even if the only past American ventures comparable to this one-- the reconstructions of post-war Germany and Japan-- were brilliant successful in transforming those societies. I would have thought that the US would be unpopular at first but that in long historical hindsight the venture would seems like a big success. What took me by surprise is that there was a lot of very ardent support for the US immediately. From the beginning and throughout the US has excelled Saddam's regime in terms of consent of the governed. Sometimes Iraqis have expressed little confidence in us, but there has never been hatred against the US on anything like the scale there was against Saddam. People who cite polls saying that a lot of Iraqis would like US troops to leave miss the point. We want US troops to leave too, it's just a question of when. The bottom line is that Iraqis want elections and democracy, not Saddam Hussein and not Hosni Mubarak. And that's where we're headed. Fareed Zakaria agrees.]

A persuasive, and richly-literarily-allusive, case that al-Qaeda has lost the War on Terror without us noticing it. I think the War on Terror will be an obsolete concept by the end of 2006.


Bush thinks the voters gave him a mandate to reform Social Security. The New Republic calls this claim "patently absurd," and Ruy Teixeira agrees.

Who's right? How can we know? It seemed to me that Bush made it very clear that he wanted Social Security reform. The turning-point in the campaign, the point where Bush gained a lead that he never again lost, except possibly for a brief moment after the first debate, was Bush's RNC speech, where he said:

We'll always keep the promise of Social Security for our older workers.

With the huge baby boom generation approaching retirement, many of our children and grandchildren understandably worry whether Social Security will be there when they need it.

We must strengthen Social Security by allowing younger workers to save some of their taxes in a personal account, a nest egg you can call your own and government can never take away.

People knew where he stood on foreign policy before the Convention. What was unveiled there was his domestic/economic policy agenda. And it abruptly gave him a 10-15 point lead in the polls. That seems like a mandate to me. Of course voters are ambivalent about Social Security reform: it's a huge policy change, it's very complex and they don't fully understand it, and lots of stuff could go wrong. But they decided to go for it anyway.

And yet it's also plausible to say that voters only supported Bush's strong foreign policy, or his "moral values," or that they just didn't trust Kerry. Who knows?

When the states of ancient Greece-- monarchs, oligarchs and democrats alike!-- confronted policy conundra, they went to the oracle at Delphi and asked for advice. It would give them cryptic answers, which politicians had to learn to interpret manipulatively. For example, Themistocles, leader of Athens, got a cryptic answer about "wooden walls;" he used it to argue for the creation of an Athenian navy. (Sorry, no time to look for Greek history links just now, there's moer...)

Anyway, it occurs to me that elections are a bit like consulting the oracle at Delphi: we anticipate them, our leaders go to great lengths to conduct them, and treat them with great respect, yet the messages they send are cryptic. "Bush, and the GOP," said the electorate, but we don't really know what they meant. Instead we have the punditocracy self-interestedly deciphering it.

Friday, December 10, 2004


This Dick Morris column is gratifying to read if you're a Republican. "Elites lost to people power."

I think class is interpreted all wrong in this country. Money doesn't have much to do with it. The real aristocrats are those who get to do what other people admire and would like to do. If you spend your whole life toiling to become a Wall Street partner or the executive of a company, you're just a workingman, really, and your money is just fair compensation for giving the best years of your life and most of your time to something miserable and boring. It's the writers, the professors and the students, the musicians, rock stars, movie stars, Big Media columnists, models, who are the real aristocrats; those who get to do what they love.

In this sense, 2004 was the Republican workingmen against the Democrat aristocracy.

Wednesday, December 08, 2004


(For those coming here from "Borders" at my web page:)
Please attach comments to this post...

When Andrew Sullivan is reporting the good news from Iraq, you know things are looking up.

Tuesday, December 07, 2004

Max Borders announced he's leaving the blogosphere. It's quite a loss! "Jujitsui-Generis: Taking Bad Ideas to the Mat." Cool blog. Go post a comment. Maybe this is like a concert, where if the audience applauds long enough the performer comes back out and gives an encore.

That said, I think we may see more exit in the near future. My sense is that there may be too many blogs already. Does it make sense to have so many? I've noticed that I can probably get more readers by posting a comment on Belmont Club than by putting a post here. Comments even show up in Google searches! I'll certainly take a break after Dec. 17th, first for Christmas with the family, then my wedding-and-honeymoon. After that, I'll be married, which will no doubt create a lot of claims on my time. Posting every day is a bit exhausting. And potentially job-jeopardizing, as I suspect a lot of people have discovered. I haven't decided yet. But the ease of leaving comments on other people's blogs diminishes the incentive to have your own.

Blogger burnout. Someone should blog about it...


Dan Griswold, over at Reason: "Beyond the Barbed Wire: Bush Won a Mandate For Immigration Reform." Amen to that!

I just posted a long article, or series of articles, called "Borders" on my website. I wrote most of it more than a year ago, and planned to make it part of a book, but I don't foresee getting a chance to write the book, so there it is. I split it up into eight parts:

Introduction: Strange Entities
History: The Changing Meaning of Borders
Rome, China and the Tenacious Dream of World Empire
Nation-States and the Globalization of the Westphalian System
Whither Borders in an Age of Globalization and "Empire?"
A New Function: Borders as Membranes to Regulate Population Flows
The Political Economy of Immigration
Tocqueville's Democratic Wave: How Borders Aborted the Egalitarian Revolution

In personal news, my mother-in-law-to-be was just denied a visa to the US. My fiancee and I are getting married on December 29th. Nadia is her mother's only daughter (she also has a son), whom she loves very much. (Sometimes too much, it feels like.)

Think about that. A woman out there is sad tonight, because her daughter, whom she raised for 22 years, is going to America to marry, and she cannot even be there. Those joyous occasions, meeting the parents, watching the altar, hearing the music and the words, seeing your daughter dressed in white, those occasions that fill a parent's head with images which reassure them of their child's happiness; she will get none of those. And not because of a shortage of money; they sold an apartment they own recently and have enough money to come. (They would have bought a couple of thousand dollars, at a time when the dollar needs buying!) Why?
Because a bureaucrat in the US State Department decided that she might want to stay in America and work.

It's easy to argue against immigration restrictions from abstract justice or economic advantage. But we must never forget, and we need as many reminders as possible, that this is not just an abstract question, it is real violence being enacted every day, tearing apart families, shattering dreams.

My fiancee absolved me of what my country did. "You don't have to say you're sorry you live in America. I already know." And I didn't object. Even though I'm listed on the blogroll at Hamilton's Pamphlets under "Alexander's Great Patriots," even though I am a fervent believer in the American creed, I admire the military and regret that I didn't join the Reserves in time for the Iraq War, even though in other respects I have never been prouder of my country, I didn't object. To be patriotic at a moment like that, when your country has inflicted such a cruel and gratuitous grief on a loving mother, is impossible. I was ashamed to be an American, and every day I'm a bit ashamed that the land I walk upon is partitioned off from the rest of humanity by unjust laws. The land is tainted by this ongoing crime.

"Why do they hate us?" It was a fashionable question for a while, a silly one in a way, but of course it's a fact that America has a bad reputation out there. Some say it's our foreign policy, some say it's leftist propaganda, some say they hate our freedom. I believe immigration restrictions are the most important reason. People resent being locked out, and they feel it makes our lofty claims that "all men are created equal" into hypocrisy. And they are right.

I'm glad we share a land border with Mexico so that at least some people manage to come in with relative freedom! I offer a welcome and my deepest gratitude to those who have not let these unAmerican laws stop them, who come to this country to work in our restaurants and our homes and to become America's living, breathing conscience, a reminder of our nation's calling, expressed on the Statue of Liberty: "Give us your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free..." You are the true patriots.

Monday, December 06, 2004


The Economist warns its readers at the beginning of an article on the future of the dollar not to believe the article:

FORECASTING exchange rates is an inexact business. As Alan Greenspan, the chairman of America's Federal Reserve, once said, the activity “has a success rate no better than that of forecasting the outcome of a coin toss.” Recent years have borne this out: most currency forecasters would actually have done better if they had simply tossed a coin—at least they would have been half right. Yet over the next few years it seems an excellent bet that there will be a large drop in the dollar.

I think readers would be well-advised to take the writers' advice and disbelieve most of what is written in the column. I was skeptical about this too:

The dollar has been the dominant reserve currency for more than 60 years, delivering big economic benefits for America, which can pay for imports and borrow in domestic currency and at low interest costs.

Of course, we are paying for lots of imports and borrowing a lot, and The Economist thinks it's a bad idea. It is odd to call something a benefit and then warn that using it will harm us. Americans don't ordinarily rejoice in our large trade deficit and low savings rate. We see these as problems. If having the world's reserve currency enables us to do these things, shouldn't we see it as a burden? A very poor argument.

This point was also a bit appalling:

Li Ruogu, the deputy governor of the People's Bank of China, said last week that America should put its own house in order—ie, save more—and stop blaming others for its problems. He was right.

What? It's one thing for the boss of what is still to some extent a centrally planned economy to say that "America [i.e. presumably the government] should put its own house in order"-- he doesn't understand economic freedom. But The Economist should know that the savings rate is not a variable the government commands, but the result of hundreds of millions of free private decisions.

I guess you can't expect very intelligent comments from a publication that endorsed John Kerry.

Cafe Hayek's clever, and funny, post on the "blonde current account deficit," is a good antidote to The Economist.


MaxedOutMama, who is doing a great job covering European news, had an interesting post about Turks and Muslims in Germany last week. She was worried that Germans were becoming intolerant of Turks and Muslims, and that this might undermine Germany's good relationship with Turkey (a customer for its arms sales). This Tech Central column suggests that she was onto something:

Some 60 percent of Germans see their country as being überfremdet - an increase of 5 percent over the number two years ago who believe that the six million foreigners out of 80 million inhabitants are infiltrating Germany. The main target of German xenophobia is the community of three million Muslims, mostly Turks. Some 70 percent of Germans believe Muslims are not suited to Western societies, the German one in particular. Two years ago the number was 55 percent.

German Jews are confronted with rising anti-Semitism. Amazingly, according to the study, two-thirds of Germans consider the conduct of Israel towards the Palestinians the same as the conduct of the Nazis towards the Jews. Paul Spiegel, chairman of the Central Council of German Jews, is not surprised. For quite a while he has noticed that within German society "there is no distinction anymore between Jews, foreigners and Muslims".

It's interesting how things are tied together: rising xenophobia is linked to economic stagnation:

[T]he major increase of xenophobia can be traced to persons who consider themselves as politically moderate. He links this trend with a growing feeling of economic uncertainty of Germans. The country, governed since 1998 by Gerhard Schröder and his Social-Democrats in a coalition with Greens, has been suffering for three years from no economic growth. The study shows that 40 percent of Germans expect a worsening of their economic situation.

Leftists like to think that economic illiberalism and social and political liberalism are compatible. Here's more evidence against that notion.


There's one point from the Borders-Logan debate (now ended) I still want to quibble with. Logan describes the case for war in Iraq as "a misleading case for pre-emptive war or a utopian case for preventive war." The "utopian" charge is a canard. The Bush administration hopes for a transition to democratic capitalism in Iraq. Not utopia. Democratic capitalism is not utopia. I live in a capitalist democracy. I'm fairly happy with it. But it's not utopia. There are also sorts of problems, like biased journalists and long commutes and crime and student loans and the fear of getting fired, politicians always pushing big-spending programs and being unprincipled, voters who are paranoid or chauvinist supporting bad policies, and so on.

If Winston Smith woke up in contemporary America he might find it utopian, for a little while, just as Iraq the Model described the fall of Saddam as a "beautiful dream." But that's just a passing infatuation, like someone led out of the dark into the light and being momentarily blinded. For Americans, democratic capitalism is just the daily grind. How do you account for people calling it "utopia" when it is offered as a prospect for Iraq?

How economic geography relates to families relates to politics: "The Baby Gap." Very smart article. The best answer I've read yet to Pat Cox's question about why population density is correlated with party affiliations. He answers the question mainly in sociological terms: how to protect children. (Urban white liberals want to disarm urban white minorities; rural voters want censorship and cultural politics.)

But the article depressed me somewhat, because it made me feel like since I'm getting married soon, I'll be exiled to dreary "insulated" suburbia. I disagree with the standard line that suburbia is good for kids: it seems to me it sucks to be a kid where there's no public transportation, like being marooned on a desert island. It makes social control easier. Ugh...

Another explanation of the red-blue/rural-urban divide: land values. If you live in the city, you either pay high rents or you have huge capital assets whose value consists mostly in the underlying land, which, in turn, is valuable because of its urban location. Value is socially created. In rural areas land is cheap, and structures on land are worth what it cost to build them. Value is privately created. This affects people's political philosophies.

Friday, December 03, 2004


This article about James Glassman, editor-in-chief of TechCentralStation is a revelation. He invented "journo-lobbying." This is a bad thing in the Washington Monthly's book, but I think it's a great idea. It's a solution to a key problem in information economics, which is that information is so cheap and easy to duplicate that it's 1) logistically difficult and 2) socially inefficient to get people to pay for it. The internet undermines the system of patents and other intellectual property restrictions that make it difficult for writers and other information-producers to collect money for their work. (For example, you're reading my work right now and not paying me anything.)

Journo-lobbying is a nice fix. Let Corporate America fund online magazines that have a lot of good content but are slanted towards their point of view. (Big business could educate society in a whole lot of ways; they basically have the know-how that makes our society tick, in contrast to journalists.) But of course, the interests of big business do not always coincide with the interests of the society (though they do much more often than the left realizes.) That's where citizen-bloggers come in. Journo-lobbyists will give them something to link to; they'll link to it but also critique it. Most citizen-bloggers will work for free, but some will do it professionally.

The journo-lobbyists and the citizen-bloggers. A new information economy.

The Borders-Logan debate is winding down, but Borders adds in this eloquently-titled post:

"Damn, Lancelot Finn is Smart"

Max Borders is now on my blogroll.

He also remarks that it's hard to comment on my site if you don't subscribe to Blogger. I didn't know that. I think you can post anonymously, though, and then just identify yourself in the post. You can comment with html. Sorry, I didn't know there was this restriction, or maybe I would have started blogging with a different service.

[UPDATE: Borders is not on the blogroll just for that remark, by the way. He's good at parsing ideas. And he's feisty. Funny in short posts. Rigorous in long posts. Worth getting your head around his words. I approve. Even though I suspect he's some kind of an ethical nihilist.]

ObeyBigBrother. Funny blog

MaxedOutMama comments on my last post:

As for immigration, in part I think you're right. Certainly the current situation, under which we have large numbers of people without official legal rights, people who are commonly victimized in various ways, is bad. In a way, we are repeating the tragedy of slavery in this country. Once again, we have an ethnic minority working under a different set of rules and conditions than the rest of us.

The last thing we want to do is perpetuate the situation. But the only way to change it is to first enforce strongly the law against hiring illegal immigrants, whether as casual household labor or as farm or factory hands, and second, give those who are here working legal status and a place in society.

All right, I'll be up front about this, at the risk of alienating some people: I am in favor of legal immigration and in favor of illegal immigration. I oppose enforcement of the law against hiring illegal immigrants, not only because it would require a highly intrusive use of government coercion and create a Prohibition-type phenomenon with an increase of organized crime while forcing millions of people out of their jobs into destitution to do who-knows-what, but also because I think that it is morally wrong to molest people who come to the United States peacefully to work and earn a living, harming no one (in the sense of direct or violent harm). MaxedOutMama emphasizes the civil rights of those already here, but to me, that's the tip of the iceberg. The iceberg being the vast ranks of impoverished mankind doomed by place of birth to a life far poorer in opportunity than what the American-born enjoy.

MaxedOutMama adds that:

When you have a large number of immigrants coming in, wages are pushed down.

Yes, wages will fall, at any rate for some categories of workers; and they already have been falling for twenty years. I've thought up a way to fix this... but it's too long for a blog post. I'll write it up sometime and put it on the website.

But I'd like to say that the original civil rights movement also caused, or at any rate was immediately followed by and may have had a causal relationship to, a lot of social problems: rising crime rates, illegitimacy, urban poverty, race riots, the hollowing out of the inner cities, and so on. And yet it was still the right thing to do, because the Jim Crow system was unjust and wrong. With immigration, I think we should do the right thing and take the consequences. And the right thing is to grant the right to migrate.

Thursday, December 02, 2004



Social Security used to be considered the untouchable "third rail" of American politics, but immigration soon may replace it.

Both candidates bobbed and weaved around the subject during the presidential campaign, and neither party has offered credible ideas for reform, fearing the political implications of being the first to propose unpopular solutions to long-ignored problems. A report released last week by the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington-based group that favors tighter immigration controls, underscores the nation's need to confront the issue head-on.

The organization's analysis of census numbers found that more than 34 million immigrants now live in the United States — about 10 million of them illegally — and that the flow of foreigners into the country came at a steady pace despite recession and recent attempts to tighten border controls. The evidence suggests that bad economic conditions in the United States are still better than in immigrants' native countries, and that changes put in place after 9/11 have done little to curb migration, especially across the nation's southern border.

A market model would suggest that immigration to the US would depend on the labor market: if the labor market is strong, as in a boom, lots of immigrants would come here to fill the jobs, whereas if the labor market is weak, as in a recession, fewer immigrants would come. But that's in a free market. Immigration is tightly regulated, so it cannot operate in this benign manner (except illegal immigration of course).

A friend of mine sent me a link to Huntington's article "The Hispanic Challenge" from earlier this year. You can't get much wronger than this article. This, for example:

In this new era, the single most immediate and most serious challenge to America's traditional identity comes from the immense and continuing immigration from Latin America, especially from Mexico, and the fertility rates of these immigrants compared to black and white American natives. Americans like to boast of their past success in assimilating millions of immigrants into their society, culture, and politics. But Americans have tended to generalize about immigrants without distinguishing among them and have focused on the economic costs and benefits of immigration, ignoring its social and cultural consequences. As a result, they have overlooked the unique characteristics and problems posed by contemporary Hispanic immigration. The extent and nature of this immigration differ fundamentally from those of previous immigration, and the assimilation successes of the past are unlikely to be duplicated with the contemporary flood of immigrants from Latin America. This reality poses a fundamental question: Will the United States remain a country with a single national language and a core Anglo-Protestant culture? By ignoring this question, Americans acquiesce to their eventual transformation into two peoples with two cultures (Anglo and Hispanic) and two languages (English and Spanish).

English has become the predominant world language; to think it's threatened as the dominant language in the US is delusional. And hard-working, devoutly Catholic Mexicans are closer, culturally, to the Anglo-Protestants that settled the American coast in the 18th century, than are the post-Christian liberal elites that inhabit a city like Boston now. It took past waves of immigrants a couple of generations to assimilate, and anyway, assimilation was always a two-way street. America is a country based on an idea, not an ethnicity.

But if there is any substance to Huntington's paper at all, it is that the predominantly Mexican and Hispanic character of the present wave of immigration contrasts with the diverse character of immigration in the late 19th century. The solution: let in more immigrants from around the world! If there are cultural forces pulling in all directions, rather than just in a Hispanic directions, the center can hold.

Also: if we declare that people have the right to live and work in the United States regardless of birthplace, those who decide to make the US home (as opposed to earning money for a few years and going back, and serving as a super-charged and perfectly free-market form of foreign aid) will be more inclined to assimilate. If a country treats you as an illegal and a second-class citizen, of course you're likely to feel a bit alienated, and rightly so. If we want to make immigrants imitate our culture, let's win their admiration by doing the right thing. If we continue unjust policies, we deserve whatever is coming to us.

With their left credentials the Dems should be on the right side of this issue, but Mickey Kaus has some blood-curdling news that political opportunism may trump conscience:

End immigration as we know it! Alert kf reader M emails to note that
there is one national Democrat making a move to take advantage of the
obvious, yawning opportunity to get to Bush's right on immigration the way
Bill Clinton got to Bush's father's right on welfare. Coincidentally, her
name is Clinton too
! ... Here are some recent Hillary quotes collected by NewsMax:

"I am, you know, adamantly against illegal
immigrants." ...

"Clearly, we have to make some tough decisions as a
country, and one of them ought to be coming up with a much better entry and
exit system so that if we're going to let people in for the work that
otherwise would not be done, let's have a system that keeps track of

[Sen. Clinton said she favored] "at least a visa ID, some kind of
an entry and exit ID. And, you know, perhaps, although I'm not a big fan of
it, we might have to move towards an ID system even for citizens."

"People have to stop employing illegal immigrants. ... I mean,
come up to Westchester, go to Suffolk and Nassau counties, stand on the
street corners in Brooklyn or the Bronx; you're going to see loads of people
waiting to get picked up to go do yard work and construction work and
domestic work."

Note that this goes well beyond hack Dem grumbling about funding for "first responders" at the border. ... P.S.: If Hillary's attacked by Hispanic groups for these sentiments so much the better for her! Her husband had an unformed, fuzzy image when he ran--he could show his heartening anti-liberal streak by dissing an
out-of-line rap singer. Hillary, in contrast, has a hard, fixed liberal image--and probably needs to crack it with a high profile, revelatory fight against someone or something on the left more powerful than Sister Souljah. How about LULAC? ... 10:04 P.M.

Ugh. A sinister variation of the Dem Re-Invention. Pray that the Marc Rich's involvement in the oil-for-food scandal drags the Clintons' name through the mud and makes them unelectable forever.


"The Urban Archipelago" is an interesting essay for two reasons. First, it's a specimen of the Democrat-as-jerk genre that has become fashionable since the Dean insurgency:

Citizens of the Urban Archipelago reject heartland "values" like xenophobia, sexism, racism, and homophobia, as well as the more intolerant strains of Christianity that have taken root in this country.

Neither the heartland nor Bush embraces any of those values, of course.

If Democrats and urban residents want to combat the rising tide of red that threatens to swamp and ruin this country

The rising tide of red has staved off the creeping socialism and foreign-policy defeatism that sunk us into the misery of the 1970s, and paved the way for economic growth that has made us the richest and fastest-growing country in the industrialized world and spread freedom to hundreds of millions worldwide. Duh.

the prickly, hateful "heartland,"

Whom does the heartland hate? It's the Dems who are doing the hating. (Bush-hating, Christian-"fundamentalist"-hating, and so on...) Get a grip.

There are many more examples, no need to cite them all but the essay also has an interesting idea:

Liberals, progressives, and Democrats do not live in a country that stretches from the Atlantic to the Pacific, from Canada to Mexico. We live on a chain of islands. We are citizens of the Urban Archipelago, the United Cities of America... We can focus on our issues, our urban issues, and promote our shared urban values. We can create a new identity politics, one that transcends class, race, sexual orientation, and religion, one that unites people living in cities with each other and with other urbanites in other cities.

This entails 1) an embrace of federalism by the Dems, 2) an abandonment of the defense of the welfare state at the national level, 3) an embrace of free-market capitalism, and an effort to understand what makes it work. An archipelago of Hong Kongs? Of course, urbanites are an elite, who can afford the sky-high property values of metropolitan downtowns, so this amounts to the Dems' abandoning the claim to be the party of the people. (Elitism makes an unusual revolting appearance in this essay, of course.) Plus, if the "Urban Vision" means that the Dems will try to attract more people to the cities, that means they'll have to abandon the anti-growth restrictions that shut people out of the cities and help make them elitist-- yet more good news! So, while the author of this article is obviously a disgusting human being, I wish his project success! (Hat tip: Nato.)


The debate between Justin Logan (here and here) and Max Borders (here) continues. A much earlier post from Tom Palmer is also referenced, which discusses just war.

Natural rights are a key issue. I thought it might be worth quoting the passage from Alasdair MacIntyre's After Virtue that convinced me natural rights are untenable.

"It is first of all clear that the claim that I have a right to do or have something is a quite different type of claim from the claim that I need or want or will be benefited by something. From the first -- if it is the only relevant consideration -- it follows that others ought not to interfere with my attempts to do or have whatever it is, whether it is for my own good or not. From the second it does not. And it makes no difference what kind of good or benefit is at issue... if I claim a right in virtue of my possession of certain characteristics, then I am logically committed to holding that anyone else with the same characteristics also possesses this right. But it is just this property of necessary universalizability that does not belong to claims about either the possession of or the need or desire for a good, even a universally necessary good...

"[T]hose forms of human behavior which presuppose notions of some grounds to entitlement, such as the notion of a right, always have a highly specific and socially local character, and that the existence of particular types of social institution or practice is a necessary condition for the notion of a claim to the possession of a right being an intelligible type of human performance. (As a matter of historical fact such types of social institution or practice have not existed universally in human societies.) Lacking any such social form, the making of a claim to a right would be like presenting a check for payment in a social order that lacked the institution of money...

"By 'rights' I do not mean those rights conferred by positive law or custom on specified classes of person; I mean those rights which are alleged to belong to human beings as such and which are cited as a reason for holding that people ought not to be interfered with in their pursuit of life, liberty and happiness. They are rights which were spoken of in the eighteenth century as natural rights or as the rights of man. Characteristically in that century they were defined negatively, precisely as rights not to be interfered with. But sometimes in that century and much more often in our own positive rights -- rights to due process, to education or to employment are examples -- are added to the list. The expression 'human rights' is now commoner than either of the eighteenth-century expressions. But whether negative or positive and however named they are supposed to attach equally to all individuals, whatever their sex, race, religion, talents or deserts, and to provide a ground for a variety of particular moral stances.

"It would of course be a little odd that there should be such rights attaching to human beings qua human beings in light of the fact... that there is no expression in any ancient or medieval language correctly translated by our expression 'a right' until near the close of the middle ages: the concept lacks any means of expression in Hebrew, Greek, Latin or Arabic, classical or medieval, before about 1400, let alone Old English, or in Japanese even as late as the mid-nineteenth century. From this it does not follow that there are no natural or human rights; it only follows that no one could have known that there were. And this at least raises certain questions. But we do not need to be distracted into answering them, for the truth is plain: there are no such rights, and belief in them is one with belief in witches and unicorns." (After Virtue, Notre Dame University Press 1981, Alasdair MacIntyre.)

To sum up (and to bring those who prefer to scroll past long blockquotes back on board), MacIntyre explains the notion of universal "human rights" and then points out that since rights are a recent and Western concept, the claim that they are inherent in humans is implausible. If you're not convinced, bear in mind that this is only a fragment of a larger argument. I found it so decisive in part because it answered a riddle I had been thinking about ever since I noticed (a few years before) that the claim:

"People in China do not have [or "enjoy"] the right to free speech."


"The Chinese government violates people's right to free speech."

have the same meaning in casual speech (or in journalism), even though the first statement implies that a right exists only when the government recognizes (or perhaps creates) it, whereas the latter implies that rights exist (albeit unrespected) regardless of government action. This observation left me with cognitive dissonance on the subject of rights until MacIntyre relieved me of it, in favor of a definition of rights as legal constructs.

This is Borders' position (more or less). But he thinks people will create these legal constructs because of rational self-interest:

1) People are rationally self-interested and prefer peace to conflict (predation and defense are expensive - non-optimal – postures for all parties involved). The state of nature is not a fun place.

2) They will (or “ought to” where ought is rational) agree on reciprocal rules of non-harm - "rights". (Think of a variation on the Prisoner’s Dilemma.)

Interesting but does it work? If I am the strongest, or my family or clan, why should I/we agree not to harm other people in ways that benefit me/us? The other problem is that he seems to be introducing Mill's harm principle, which is a slippery-slope towards well-meaning totalitarianism, because the "harm" criterion offers no non-arbitrary way of drawing the line between "harming" someone by shooting them in the head and "harming" them by saying "mankind" instead of "humankind," or by "bourgeois exploitation," or by offensive behavior in the privacy of their own home (which someone overhears and can't stop thinking about) or whatever.

I think I have intimations of a different approach.

First, let's define a "right" loosely as (the flip side of) a line the government ought not to cross. We'll define it more carefully later.

Why should there be any such lines? Why shouldn't the government do whatever will cause (in its estimation) the great happiness for the greatest number?

In the case of individuals, it is a fairly ordinary claim that the end does not justify the means, and there are some things you shouldn't do even if you think it will make people generally happier-- for example, no murders, even of bad people. If this applies to the state, though, it seems not to apply in quite the same way, since we routinely recognize the power of the state to do all sorts of actions not permitted to individuals. This is recognized in language: "kidnapping" vs. "arrest"; "murder" vs. "execution"; "extortion" vs. "taxation." Each pair of verbs describe the same action; but a different agent; and while the first in each word-pair describes a recognized crime, the second describes what is recognized as a legitimate action of a government. If the axiom "the end does not justify the means" applies to governments, it must apply a bit differently.

While the social contract is a myth in the sense that none of us ever signed it, let us treat the myth as fact and ask: under what conditions would people be justified, or even compelled, to withdraw their signatures from the contract?

Let us classify human actions as good, bad and indifferent. (Some kind of moral realism is assumed here.) A moral person coerced to a good action would have no reason to object since she would have done it anyway (this point will need revising but bear with me for the moment) nor would she object to being compelled to do an indifferent action, since this is permitted by conscience. But if a moral person is coerced by government to do a bad action, conscience forces her to withdraw her consent from the social contract.

Now introduce the problem of moral uncertainty. We don't know with certainty, and we disagree greatly, on what is right and wrong. Some feel it is right to say one thing, some another; some feel it is right to attend one church, some another church, some a mosque, some no religious service at all; some feel they should be dirty, some clean; some feel they should make as much money as possible, some consider poverty to be holy; and so on. Some feel they must proselytize their faith, and not to do so is wrong. Some feel it is wrong to use violence under any circumstances.

When the government forces people to fight when they oppose violence or disbelieve in the cause; when the government prohibits people to worship as they see fit or to proselytize their faith; or when the government forces people to express belief in doctrines they believe are false; its coercion runs up against people's consciences. They either betray themselves or become martyrs. These are the lines the government should not cross, and in the space they create are rights, the rights to freedom of speech, freedom of worship, and freedom of conscience. Freedom of conscience, in particular, lies at the heart of it. A rights-respecting state does not make martyrs.

One of the trickiest tasks of libertarians is to draw the links between freedom of conscience (which almost everyone nowadays agrees on in the abstract at least) and a strong doctrine of property rights, which is far more controversial. If you don't mind a long and heavy read that is only obliquely relevant, this essay is my best effort on the moral foundations of capitalism.