Category Archive 'Liberalism'
21 Feb 2013

The Next Big Leftist Book

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Sarah O. Conly kayaks when she isn’t busy planning to run your life.

Sarah Conly recently had a full-year sabbatical, which she spent vacationing at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland and in Oaxaca, Mexico. When not engaged in tourism or dining out, Ms. Conly busied herself with writing the next big leftist book.

Her opus, titled Against Autonomy: Justifying Coercive Paternalism is intended to reject explicitly the famous thesis of John Stewart Mills’ On Liberty:

That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant . . . Over himself, over his body and mind, the individual is sovereign.

Sarah Conly went to Princeton, did her graduate work at Cornell, and teaches Philosophy at Bowdoin. Professor Conly consequently believes that she knows better than you do. She believes that your personal freedom, your right to make your own decisions in areas affecting only yourself is “overrated.” The notion that you are entitled to liberty and autonomy, you see, is based, according to Ms. Conly on grossly exaggerated estimates of your personal competence and rationality.

Ms. Conly can prove that you are an idiot using evidence from psychology and behavioral economics which she concludes demonstrates that most of you out there –the people who don’t get fellowships to St. Andrews or write books while vacationing in Oaxaca– are clueless dolts afflicted with “present bias” and unrealistic optimism. There you have it. Social science proves that you are unworthy and unfit, and that you need the guidance of superior and more enlightened beings, like Sarah O. Conly, to keep you from playing with matches or cutting yourself with sharp objects.

In the Conlyian state, application of coercive force by government is not only desirable, but obligatory, anytime it can be established by the sophistry, calculations, or economic analysis of people like herself that the benefits justify the costs.

How is coercive paternalistic intervention justified? Conly offers four supposed tests: (1) the personal liberty being banned must be genuinely destructive of people’s self-defined long-term ends. (2) The coercive measures must be successful. (3) Their benefits must exceed their costs. (4) The coercive measures under contemplation must be more effective than non-coercive alternatives.

I’m working from Cass Sunstein’s New York Review of Books review, and I do not have Professor Conly’s actual text on-hand. (I’m certainly not going to pay $95 for it either.) But, even without her complete argument in view, it seems obvious to me that her criteria are intrinsically open-ended.

In the case of Number 1, the proposed coercer will always have to usurp the privilege of reading the coercees’ minds and defining those long-term ends. In reality, long-term ends vary, some people would perversely reject long-term ends in favor of short-term ends, and long-term ends may, sometimes, conflict. I think I know that Professor Conly would be disposed, for example, to ban private gun ownership… for all our own good. But owning lots of guns is, in my view, very decidedly part of my long-term ends, and I would reject Professor Conly’s perspective that private ownership of guns is so dangerous that it must inevitably be inimical to my long-term goals of personal survival and public safety. She and I are bound to disagree on item one.

In the case of 2, libertarians like myself would argue that most forms of paternalistic coercion will inevitably prove unsuccessful. Look at Alcohol Prohibition. Look at Drug Prohibition. Look at Immigration Prohibition.

With regard to Number 3, we are bound again to disagree on costs, because it is perfectly obvious that some of us consider the violation of personal autonomy, the elimination of liberties, and coercion generally to represent prohibitive costs per se.

In the case of Number 4, coercion is inevitably always going to be more effective than persuasion. If the Gestapo practices a firm policy of taking anyone caught smoking out, standing him up against a wall, and shooting him, it will definitely do a more effective job of discouraging smoking than any number of public service advertisements about health hazards.

Frankly, philosophically speaking, I think Profesor Conly’s four criteria deserve to fall directly into the departmental waste container labeled: “meaningless, trivial, or simply false.”

I have an equally negative view of her use of “social science” studies, aka bullsh*t, to refute John Stuart Mill. Anybody can prove anything with social science studies.

Professor Conly’s philosophy features also the notable defect that behavioral economics and psychology apply to you and me, the intended victims of her paternalist regime, but not to her and the other Platonic Guardians drafting the regulations.

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? If man in general is too incompetent and irrational to manage his own life, he is certainly also too incompentent and irrational, too biased and selfish in perspective, too vainglorious and self-important to dictate to others how to live.

23 Apr 2012

Liberalism: Only a Christian Heresy

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One major modern heresiarch

Ross Douthat, in an argument with William Saletan, makes the point that Liberalism, aka Leftism, is merely the same Christianity we are all familiar with, modified into a materialist heresy with the scientific state at the center of the cosmos instead of Jehovah, no afterlife, and all the traditional teachings regarding celibacy and sex reversed.

[W]hen I look at your secular liberalism, I see a system of thought that looks rather like a Christian heresy, and not necessarily a particularly coherent one at that. In [his recent book] Bad Religion, I describe heresy as a form of belief that tends to emphasize certain elements of the Christian synthesis while downgrading or dismissing other aspects of that whole. And it isn’t surprising that liberalism, which after all developed in a Christian civilization, does exactly that, drawing implicitly on the Christian intellectual inheritance to ground its liberty-equality-fraternity ideals.

Indeed, it’s completely obvious that absent the Christian faith, there would be no liberalism at all. No ideal of universal human rights without Jesus’ radical upending of social hierarchies (including his death alongside common criminals on the cross). No separation of church and state without the gospels’ “render unto Caesar” and St. Augustine’s two cities. No liberal confidence about the march of historical progress without the Judeo-Christian interpretation of history as an unfolding story rather than an endlessly repeating wheel.

And what’s more, to me, contemporary liberals’ obsession with the supposed backwardness of Christian sexual ethics—an obsession that far outstrips sex’s actual role in the preaching and practice of Christian faith—reflects a subconscious liberal knowledge that Christianity is their theological mother, and they’re its half-rebellious child. You can see in it the child’s characteristic desire to finally overthrow the last bastion of parental authority, joined to a continued desire for the parent’s approval for their choices and beliefs. …

[T]he more purely secular liberalism has become, the more it has spent down its Christian inheritance—the more its ideals seem to hang from what Christopher Hitchens’ Calvinist sparring partner Douglas Wilson has called intellectual “skyhooks,” suspended halfway between our earth and the heaven on which many liberals have long since given up. Say what you will about the prosperity gospel and the cult of the God Within and the other theologies I criticize in Bad Religion, but at least they have a metaphysically coherent picture of the universe to justify their claims. Whereas much of today’s liberalism expects me to respect its moral fervor even as it denies the revelation that once justified that fervor in the first place. It insists that it is a purely secular and scientific enterprise even as it grounds its politics in metaphysical claims. (You will not find the principle of absolute human equality in evolutionary theory, or universal human rights anywhere in physics.) It complains that Christian teachings on homosexuality do violence to gay people’s equal dignity—but if the world is just matter in motion, whence comes this dignity? What justifies and sustains it? Why should I grant it such intense, almost supernatural respect?

He’s perfectly right. What is modern environmentalism, after all, other than a particularly infuriating recrudescence of Dualism?

29 Nov 2011

Constitutional Conservatism Versus Utopian Liberalism

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Yuval Levin, in National Review, explains why the American left seems to be contradicting itself so frequently these days, as it rhetorically swings back and forth between appeals to Populism and demands for conceding ever more power to unelected elite experts.

The difference[s] between.. two kinds of liberalism — constitutionalism grounded in humility about human nature and progressivism grounded in utopian expectations — is a crucial fault line of our politics, and has divided the friends of liberty since at least the French Revolution. It speaks to two kinds of views about just what liberal politics is.

One view, which has always been the less common one, holds that liberal institutions were the product of countless generations of political and cultural evolution in the West, which by the time of the Enlightenment, and especially in Britain, had begun to arrive at political forms that pointed toward some timeless principles in which our common life must be grounded, that accounted for the complexities of society, and that allowed for a workable balance between freedom and effective government given the constraints of human nature. Liberalism, in this view, involves the preservation and gradual improvement of those forms because they allow us both to grasp the proper principles of politics and to govern ourselves well.

The other, and more common, view argues that liberal institutions were the result of a discovery of new political principles in the Enlightenment — principles that pointed toward new ideals and institutions, and toward an ideal society. Liberalism, in this view, is the pursuit of that ideal society. Thus one view understands liberalism as an accomplishment to be preserved and enhanced, while another sees it as a discovery that points beyond the existing arrangements of society. One holds that the prudent forms of liberal institutions are what matter most, while the other holds that the utopian goals of liberal politics are paramount. One is conservative while the other is progressive.

The principles that the progressive form of liberalism thought it had discovered were much like those that more conservative liberals believed society had arrived at through long experience: principles of natural rights that define the proper ends and bounds of government. Thus for a time, progressive and conservative liberals in America — such as Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine on one hand and James Madison and Alexander Hamilton on the other — seemed to be advancing roughly the same general vision of government. But when those principles failed to yield the ideal society (and when industrialism seemed to put that ideal farther off than ever), the more progressive or radical liberals abandoned these principles in favor of their utopian ambitions. At that point, progressive and conservative American liberals parted ways — the former drawn to post-liberal philosophies of utopian ends (often translated from German) while the latter continued to defend the restraining mechanisms of classical-liberal institutions and the skeptical worldview that underlies them.

That division is evident in many of our most profound debates today, and especially in the debate between the Left and the Right about the Constitution. This debate, and not a choice between technocracy and populism, defines the present moment in our politics. Thus the Left’s simultaneous support for government by expert panel and for the unkempt carpers occupying Wall Street is not a contradiction — it is a coherent error. And the Right’s response should be coherent too. It should be, as for the most part it has been, an unabashed defense of our constitutional system, gridlock and all.

Read the whole thing.

02 Sep 2011

Anti-Scientific, Reationary Liberals

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We’ve recently heard a lot of condescending accusations that Republican candidates who refuse to accept Warmism are anti-scientific, just as we heard an awful lot during the battle over Obamacare how backward anyone was who did not understand that universal government-provided healthcare was an essential feature of any modern advanced society.

Dan Greenfield explored the issue of just who the reactionaries harboring hostility toward science and Modernity really are in an excellent essay written early last year.

The narrative that liberal pundits have constructed and continually replayed over the last year is one in which progress minded and enlightened liberals are working to reform America into a modern society, while being stymied by a bunch of knuckle dragging reactionary conservatives who are anti-Science and want to drag America back into the dark ages. There’s only one problem with this narrative, it’s actually a mirror image of reality.

When it comes to holding on to reactionary ideas or maintaining an ideological worldview built on a reflexive hostility to modernity; nobody can top the modern leftist or his tamer liberal cousin. If you took away leader worship, fear of technology, the state as the solution to all problems, the supremacy of the group over the individual and the belief that the “enlightened” should rule over the common masses for their own good and control every aspect of their lives– there would be nothing left of the modern liberal. Literally nothing at all.

The modern liberal is wedded to a thoroughly reactionary worldview in which he worships the institutions he control and is full of paranoia and suspicion of those he does not. He disdains the common man and longs for enlightened leaders to uplift him and to transform his country into a messianic vision of a kingdom of heaven in which no one ever goes hungry and everyone is perfectly equalized– a pseudo-religious vision of government as religion that is wholly primitive in its conflation of theology and civics.

Every time a liberal pundit self-righteously trots out the stereotype of the ignorant science bashing conservative who just won’t accept the science of the environmentalist movement, he needs to be reminded that the entire environmentalist movement is founded on a fear of the products of science, namely technology and modern civilization. …

When its flashy clothes are stripped away, liberalism stands revealed as a fear of modernity. There is nothing progressive about liberalism, it is the ideology of a political, cultural and economic elite that reviles everything modern, that longs for a mystical right of kings and well ordered oligarchies, denounces technology as the tool of the pollution devil, distrusts all science that is not in the service of its ideology and is threatened by any sort of debate or opposition.

Today liberalism is the second most backward, most paranoid, most reactionary and totalitarian ideology in the West after Islamism. Both are based on the fear of the modern, the fear of the liberated individual, technology and the nation state. Their great dream is the same, a vast mystical world-state ruled over by the enlightened and providing an inhumanly perfect justice for all. Both believe that the only solution for mankind is to go backward, to crawl instead of walk, to fear instead of know and to obey rather than think. That is Liberalism and Islamism in a nutshell, two reactionary ideologies walking together into the dark ages.

Read the whole thing.

Hat tip to Vanderleun.

13 Jun 2011

Progressivism Jumping the Shark

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Walter Russell Mead
mixes his Animal kingdom metaphors, but nonetheless delivers another important essay, arguing (from a position sympathetic to Progressivism) that the Progressive political movement has passed through a natural life cycle into the final stage in which it has become sclerotic and destructive.

..Fannie Mae represents a special problem for the Democratic Party and Democratic ideas. It is not just a vitally important institution led by prominent Democratic figures and part of a broader Democratic patronage network; Fannie Mae is one of the original New Deal institutions and the vision it was intended to serve stands at the heart of the concerns of the Democratic Party of the 20th century.

The fall of Fannie Mae is bigger than just another politicos run wild scandal. It stands as one of several signs that our current way of life is reaching its limits and that big changes are on the horizon. The Fanniegate debacle tells us that the progressive ideal is in the process of jumping the shark.

Jumping the shark, as many readers know, is an expression from the wonderful world of TV. When the original premise of a show has gone stale, producers try to recapture audience interest by putting familiar characters in outlandish settings where strange things happen to them — notoriously, when Fonzie literally jumped over a shark as Happy Days moved into its sunset years. When something jumps the shark, the death spiral has become irretrievable; the show has nowhere to go but down.

The progressive ideal of the last 100 years is reaching that point. In its day the progressive ideal was a revolutionary and even a noble one. A bureaucratic and professional elite would mediate social conflict between rich and poor, improving the lives of the poor while engineering the best possible administrative solutions to pressing social problems. Keynesian macroeconomic management would ensure lasting prosperity; progressive taxation would spread the benefits of prosperity as widely as possible. Levels of education would rise as more and more Americans spent more and more years in school.

Progressivism held out the hope that capitalism, democracy and history itself could all be tamed by competent professional management. Victorian capitalism had been brutal, disruptive, competitive. Society became more unequal even as living standards gradually rose. Democracy was irresistible, but the masses were uneducated. The modern progressive era was born at times of great violence and upheaval. World War One, the Russian Revolution, the Great Depression, the rise of fascism, World War Two, the invention of nuclear weapons and the start of the Cold War: it was against this background that progressives sought to turn modern life into something safe and tame.

I cannot blame four generations of progressive intellectuals for trying to make life a little less brutal and unpredictable, nor should we overlook the successes they had. Nevertheless, the Fonz has left the building; the progressive paradigm today can no longer serve as the basis for sound national policy. …

The problem today is that we are looking not just at one or two government programs that have succumbed to elephantiasis or turned into sharks; the progressive complex of social and economic policy as a whole has reached this point. Today many of our New Deal and Great Society programs are either elephants or sharks. They either lead us to misallocate scarce resources in ineffective ways or they threaten us with ruin by becoming politically untouchable budget busters.

Progressivism itself, and not simply the individual government programs it spawns, is moving through the same cycle of life. The most urgent social problems that progressivism set out to solve have been dealt with. Child labor and lynch mobs are no longer common in the United States. The greatest natural and scenic treasures of the country are protected by the National Park system. Food is much less dangerous, buildings are better built, cars are safer, the air and water is in better shape and the charismatic megafauna (big interesting animals) have been saved from extinction. Many more people have much more access to education today than was true 100 years ago; ditto for lifesaving medical treatment.

The progressive vision morphed from Great White Hope and Great White Father into Great White Elephant over the years. Early progressives picked the low-hanging fruit; they addressed the most important problems that were most susceptible to progressive interventions. Increasingly they are left with more expensive, less effective approaches to big problems (like Obamacare) or the agenda moves from issues of great moral and political significance like equal rights for African-Americans to less consequential issues like wider social acceptance of the transgendered. To raise the percentage of young Americans attending college from 2 percent to 20 percent is a significant achievement; to extend it from 40 percent to 60 percent will likely cost much more and accomplish much less in terms of raising social productivity.

We now see the progressive agenda dealing with issues like high speed rail, where the gains are so small and the rationale are so weak from the beginning that the program is a white elephant before it is fully set up.

The fierce commitment of progressive lobbies today to dysfunctional institutions and programs has brought matters to a crisis stage; the progressive legacy is morphing from white elephant to shark. Fierce attacks on anyone seeking to reform dysfunctional institutions combine with unreasoning devotion to unsustainable entitlements. “Progressives” today are too often grimly determined to achieve two incompatible ends: an indefinite expansion of entitlements and benefits on the one hand — and the preservation and even the extension of inefficient organizations and methods on the other.

Read the whole thing.

15 May 2011

New Bombshell of a Book by David Mamet

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In the Weekly Standard, Andrew Ferguson takes the occasion of the imminent release of The Secret Knowledge, a collection of essays representing a combination of anti-liberal rant with conversion memoir by David Mamet to talk with the playwright about his new book and why he has changed sides politically.

Mamet’s parents were divorced when he was young, and he spent most of his childhood after the breakup with his father, a highly successful labor lawyer. The faith in unions that his father instilled in him didn’t survive the screenwriters’ strike of 2007-08—one of the most heavily publicized events in Hollywood history and the most quickly forgotten, so abject was the ineptitude and ultimate failure of the writers’ union. For Mamet it was another turn of the ratchet away from the left.

“They were risking not only their own jobs but the jobs of everyone who had nothing to gain from the strike—the drivers and scene painters and people who are on set 14 hours a day working their asses off. These working people were driven out of work by the writers—10,000 people losing their jobs at Christmastime. It was the goddamnedest thing I ever saw in my life. And for what? They didn’t know what they were striking for—just another inchoate liberal dream.

“The question occurs to me quite a lot: What do liberals do when their plans have failed? What did the writers do when their plans led to unemployment, their own and other people’s? One thing they can’t do is admit they failed. Why? To admit failure would endanger their position in the herd.”

One of Mamet’s favorite books has been Instincts of the Herd in Peace and War, published during the First World War by the British social psychologist Wilfred Trotter, inventor of the term “herd instinct.”

“Trotter says the herd instinct in an animal is stronger even than the preservation of life,” Mamet said. “So I was watching the [2008] debates. My liberal friends would spit at the mention of Sarah Palin’s name. Or they would literally mime the act of vomiting. We’re watching the debates and one of my friends pretends to vomit and says, ‘I have to leave the room.’ I thought, oh my god, this is Trotter! This is the reaction of the herd instinct. When a sheep discovers a wolf in the fold, it vomits to ward off the attacker. It’s a sign that their position in the herd is threatened.”

Mamet runs into the herd instinct every day.

“I’ve given galleys of The Secret Knowledge to some friends. They say, ‘I’m scared to read it.’ I say, ‘Why should you be afraid to read something?’

“What are they afraid of? They’re afraid of losing their ability to stay in the herd. That’s what I found in myself. It can be wrenching when you start to think away from the herd.” …

After lunch we walked back to his office, and on the way he told me of new projects. I wondered how Mamet’s about-to-be-exposed rightwingery will affect his work—and, among critics and colleagues, the reaction to his work. Show business, like all of popular culture these days, is ostentatiously politicized. Actors, directors, producers, and the writers who write about them—all behave as though they received a packet of approved political views with their guild card. They’ll be alert for signs of ideological deviationism in Mamet’s stuff from now on. They may not have to look too far.

Mamet mentioned a screenplay that he hopes will soon be produced involving a young rich girl who applies to Harvard. When she’s rejected she suddenly declares herself an Aztec to qualify for affirmative action. Presumably high jinks ensue. A new two-character play opening in London this fall, The Anarchist, is a “verbal sword-fight” between two women of a certain age, one a veteran of 1960s radicalism, jailed for life on a bombing charge, and the other a reactionary prison governor from whom the aging radical hopes to receive parole. Regardless of the play’s true merits, we can expect the word didactic to get a workout from critics.

After reading The Secret Knowledge in galleys, the Fox News host and writer Greg Gutfeld invented the David Mamet Attack Countdown Clock, which “monitors the days until a once-glorified liberal artist is dismissed as an untalented buffoon.” Tick tock.

Read the whole thing.

20 Mar 2011

Questions For Liberals

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Oleg Atbashian, the Ukrainian emigrée who operates The People’s Cube, has a series of questions for liberals intended to highlight the contradictions of their positions.


If all cultures are equal, why doesn’t UNESCO organize International Cannibalism Week festivals? …

If all beliefs are equally valid, how come my belief in the absurdity of this maxim gets rejected by its proponents?

Ever noticed that for the past thirty years, we’ve been hearing we have less than ten years to save the planet? …

If a politician gets elected by the poor on a promise to eliminate poverty, wouldn’t fulfilling his promise destroy his voting base? Wouldn’t he rather benefit from the growing numbers of poor people? Isn’t this an obvious conflict of interests? …

If cutting out the middleman lowers the price, why are we paying the government to stand between us and the markets?

If racial profiling is an abomination, what do you make of the last presidential election?

Why is a huge poisonous cloud over a volcano considered magnificent — but a smokestack over an American factory is ugly and harmful?

How many Kyoto Protocols are rendered pointless by one medium-sized volcanic eruption? …

Why do those who object to tampering with the environment approve of tampering with the economy? Isn’t the economy also a fragile ecosystem where a sudden change can trigger a devastating chain reaction?

Read the whole thing.

Hat tip to Karen L. Myers.

20 Nov 2010

Why Liberalism Failed

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Joel Kotkin argues that old-style New Deal liberalism aspired to improve general prosperity and new Obama-style liberalism proposes to facilitate the ability of the New Class intelligentsia to tell everybody else what to do. The New Deal erected massive federal dams and contemporary liberalism bans Happy Meals. The appeal of the petty dictatorship of the self righteous is inevitably restricted to the urban enclaves where the elites themselves live and to college communities full of brainwashed undergraduates.

Liberalism once embraced the mission of fostering upward mobility and a stronger economy. But liberalism’s appeal has diminished, particularly among middle-class voters, as it has become increasingly control-oriented and economically cumbersome.

Today, according to most recent polling, no more than one in five voters call themselves liberal. …

Modern-day liberalism… is often ambivalent about expanding the economy — preferring a mix of redistribution with redirection along green lines. Its base of political shock troops, public-employee unions, appears only tangentially interested in the health of the overall economy.

In the short run, the diminishment of middle-of-the-road Democrats at the state and national level will probably only worsen these tendencies, leaving a rump party tied to the coastal regions, big cities and college towns. There, many voters are dependents of government, subsidized students or public employees, or wealthy creative people, college professors and business service providers. …

The failure of Obama-style liberalism has less to do with government activism than with how the administration defined its activism. Rather than deal with basic concerns, it appeared to endorse the notion of bringing the federal government into aspects of life — from health care to zoning — traditionally controlled at the local level.

This approach is unpopular even among “millennials,” who, with minorities, represent the best hope for the Democratic left. As the generational chroniclers Morley Winograd and Michael Hais point out, millennials favor government action — but generally at the local level, which is seen as more effective and collaborative. Top-down solutions from “experts,” Winograd and Hais write in a forthcoming book, are as offensive to millennials as the right’s penchant for dictating lifestyles.

Often eager to micromanage people’s lives, contemporary liberalism tends to obsess on the ephemeral while missing the substantial. Measures such as San Francisco’s recent ban on Happy Meals follow efforts to control the minutiae of daily life. This approach trivializes the serious things government should do to boost economic growth and opportunity.

Perhaps worst of all, the new liberals suffer from what British author Austin Williams has labeled a “poverty of ambition.” FDR offered a New Deal for the middle class, President Harry S. Truman offered a Fair Deal and President John F. Kennedy pushed us to reach the moon.

In contrast, contemporary liberals seem more concerned about controlling soda consumption and choo-chooing back to 19th-century urbanism. This poverty of ambition hurts Democrats outside the urban centers. For example, when I met with mayors from small, traditionally Democratic cities in Kentucky and asked what the stimulus had done for them, almost uniformly they said it accomplished little or nothing. …

Of course, green, public-sector-dominated politics can work — as it has in fiscally challenged blue havens such as California and New York. But then, a net 3 million more people — many from the middle class — have left these two states in the past 10 years.

If this defines success, you have to wonder what constitutes failure.

Read the whole thing.

Hat tip to Bird Dog.

11 Jul 2010

Living Liberally

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Matt Labash, at the Weekly Standard, has a go at following the definitive guide to living like a liberal, as prescribed in a new book offering no less than 538 ways to incorporate liberal ideology in everyday life.

[M]y lesser living was a lifetime ago. Actually, just a few weeks ago, but it feels like the distant past. It was before my road to Damascus encounter, before the illuminative flame touched my torch of enlightenment. It was B.J.K.—Before Justin Krebs.

Who is Justin Krebs, you ask? Only my sensei. My guru. The man who made plain that I had politics all wrong. I used to think along the lines of the British writer and publisher Ernest Benn that politics was “the art of looking for trouble, finding it whether it exists or not, diagnosing it incorrectly, and applying the wrong remedy.” Thus, I had put my politics in my political box, and my life in my living box. When I should’ve placed all the contents in the same box—a much bigger, biodegradable one. (You can get them at

Krebs showed me that my politics shouldn’t be just my politics, but also my religion, my sun and moon, my inhalation and exhalation. Since politics, particularly liberal politics, bring people so much joy, wouldn’t I be better off politicizing everything—the way I live and work and play? That’s a rhetorical question, by the way. The answer is a resounding “yes,” as evidenced right there in the title of Krebs’s new book: 538 Ways to Live Work and Play Like a Liberal.

The 32-year-old Krebs didn’t just write this book, which comes complete with a 538-item checklist. He’s lived it. He sharpened his liberal-living iron on the mean conservative streets of Highland Park, New Jersey; Cambridge, Massachusetts; and, finally, that repository of red state madness, the island of Manhattan. …

It’s hard work, politicizing your whole life. And looking at Krebs’s checklist, I still have a lot in front of me: I have to remind my elected officials about the importance of open space, to speak up for progressive taxation, to ask friends to identify every news channel’s bias, to look at how movie posters treat women, to watch Battlestar Galactica, which “got people debating torture and occupation,” and to “reconsider the liberal message of the moon landing.” That’s just for starters. As one of my favorite liberals H.L. Mencken said: “Liberals have many tails, and chase them all.”

09 May 2010

Education, Ideology, and Economics

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Zeljka Buturovic and Daniel B. Klein just published a study of the correlation between an elementary understanding of economics and people’s levels of education and political ideologies.

The 8 simple questions used as measuring sticks of “economic enlightenment” were:

1. Restrictions on housing development make housing less affordable.
• Unenlightened: Disagree
2. Mandatory licensing of professional services increases the prices of those services.
• Unenlightened: Disagree
3. Overall, the standard of living is higher today than it was 30 years ago.
• Unenlightened: Disagree
4. Rent control leads to housing shortages.
• Unenlightened: Disagree
5. A company with the largest market share is a monopoly.
• Unenlightened: Agree
6. Third-world workers working for American companies overseas are being exploited.
• Unenlightened: Agree
7. Free trade leads to unemployment.
• Unenlightened: Agree
8. Minimum wage laws raise unemployment.
• Unenlightened: Disagree

They found that education produced only a slight difference in economic enlightenment, but that political ideology produced far more significant differences.

(Although the authors note that none of the questions actually challenge conventional conservative positions, they) think that the measurement as-is captures something real. At least since the days of Frédéric Bastiat, many have said that people of the left often trail behind in incorporating basic economic insight into their aesthetics, morals, and politics. We put much stock in Hayek’s theory (Hayek 1978, 1979, 1988) that the social-democratic ethos is an atavistic reassertion of the ethos and mentality of the primordial paleolithic band, a mentality resistant to ideas of spontaneous order and disjointed knowledge. Our findings support such a claim, all the caveats notwithstanding. Several of the questions would seem to be fairly neutral with respect to partisan politics, particularly the questions on licensing, the standard of living, monopoly, and free trade. None of those questions challenge policies that are particularly leftwing or rationalized on the basis of equity. Yet even on such neutral questions the “progressives” and “liberals” do much worse than the “conservatives” and “libertarians.”

23 Mar 2010

The Regime of Sarastro

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Christopher Demuth explains that, in endeavoring to establish European-style national health care in America, the left is acting upon a core belief: its faith in the calculative power of human reason to perfect the world.

[M]any liberals today are also progressives. They believe that the natural course of history is the emergence of secular rationality as the true way to think about problems and of state power as the effective way to organize society along rational lines. If that is your worldview, then such things as revealed religion, cultural tradition, and the marketplace (whose outcomes are spontaneous, not rationalized) are vestiges of our primitive past, sure to be displaced by the spreading application of human reason. When liberal politicians describe themselves as “progressives,” that is not just because “liberal” has acquired unpopular connotations but because progressive is the more accurate word for their core beliefs. President Obama, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and Senator Majority Leader Harry Reid are progressives in this sense; many recent Democratic presidential candidates were as well—John Kerry, Al Gore, and Michael Dukakis.

The grip of progressivism is probably the best explanation for the Democratic Party’s astonishing campaign to nationalize the U.S. healthcare sector by all means necessary. To attempt to enact a radical and unpopular program in a bill that includes many corrupt provisions, on a party-line vote and through a procedural trick (if the “Slaughter solution” is employed) that seems clearly unconstitutional, appears quite mad and self-defeating to the outsider. But it is not mad at all to those who think it natural and obvious and historically inevitable that the government must administer medical care. In this view, the political actor is simply holding history’s coat while it does its work. Political untidiness, even the loss of an election, are transitory considerations. The progressive mindset also explains, as more than populist demagoguery, the contempt that the proponents of ObamaCare exhibit for doctors and pharmaceutical and medical-insurance companies—for they are the practitioners of a benighted form of healthcare that is about to be swept away by a new and higher form.

The best artistic expression of leftist faith is a new world ruled by secular experts is Mozart’s Masonic opera The Magic Flute (K. 620, 1791).

Liberalism/leftism is a secular religion, and the liberal impulse toward federalizing charity stems from a number of consistently present liberal impulses. Liberalism is a cult with the state at its center in which the credentialed intelligentsia is its priesthood. Anything expanding the power and responsibility of the state inevitably also aggrandizes and affirms the importance of its priesthood, so all state enlargement is good. Socializing, regulating, and nationalizing everything is seen as the fulfillment of the promise that the entire universe can be subdued and rationalized by the calculative powers of human reason wielded by the super-enlightened, educated class of experts. Mankind’s destiny and the fulfillment of the telos of History consists in the continual reduction of the natural, free, and disordered condition of mankind, the market and the world into an ordered, regulated, and managed sphere administered by the intelligentsia under the aegis of the state.

“Es lebe Sarastro! Sarastro soll leben! Er ist es, dem wir uns mit Freuden ergeben. Stets mög’ er des Lebens als Weiser sich freun, Er ist unser Abgott, dem alle sich weihn.”

9:28 video

The poor are invaluable to the priesthood of Leviathan, since it is their neediness which allows the most spoiled and privileged element of society to complain bitterly on their behalf and to demand indignantly that ordinary people surrender to them ever-increasing portions of their liberty and wealth. The poor must be assisted and cared for, you see.

The theoretical elimination of poverty by coercive wealth transfer and social engineering is a key goal of the left’s statist agenda. The replacement of the untidy state of Nature with a manicured and properly managed society is expected to demonstrate irrefutably the superiority of human reason over the former. The leveling of social and biological differences, the abolition of tragedy, and the replacement of charity with entitlement will also firmly establish the leftwing ideal of Égalité, it is supposed, as reality.

The implementation of this costly and coercive agenda is, of course, wholly agreeable to the left because each step in the process only enlarges the power, privilege, and importance of mankind’s enlightened new masters, and the entire process was always intended to be funded at the expense of the ordinary citizen, the general population.

07 Mar 2010

A Liberal Proposes a Limit to Government Growth

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Talk about man bites dog news items.

Jacob Weisberg, Slate’s editor in chief, is a liberal, but he seems to have miraculously suddenly developed a healthy concern about the growth of government. I don’t believe there is the slightest possibility of Barack Obama or Nancy Pelosi listening to any of this, but Weisberg’s Make It Stop editorial features both a refreshing dash of libertarianism and the kind of common sense which recognizes both consequences and limits and it is just not the kind of thing one normally ever finds being written by a commentator on his side of the debate.

At this point, Obama and the Democrats may be destined to learn the old lesson once again. But if they hope to avoid a repeat of Clinton’s 1994 fate in 2010, the president and his party might think about fixing a long-term upper limit on the size of government. Because of the bank bailouts and stimulus, federal spending will exceed 25 percent of GDP this year, and public spending at all levels will exceed 44 percent. But if liberals were clear that, in normal times, federal spending shouldn’t be more than 22 percent and that the public sector as a whole shouldn’t exceed a third of GDP—the level during Clinton’s second term—the fear of Democrats covertly foisting a social-democratic model on America would begin to melt away. This kind of ceiling would mean that government couldn’t grow at the expense of the economy, because it couldn’t grow faster than the economy as a whole. To substantiate his commitment, Obama should unilaterally propose large, specific cuts in programs and subsidies to be phased in as the need for stimulus spending recedes. Raising the retirement age, privatizing space exploration, and eliminating agriculture subsidies would make a decent start.

Beyond actually endorsing smaller government, Obama could identify himself with wiser government by developing the responsibility theme he sounded in his inaugural address but has returned to infrequently in the period since. Health care reform based on an individual mandate is a good example of government linking a private duty to a public benefit, but Obama hasn’t emphasized this “values” aspect of the plan. Another example might be to require public service work in exchange for extended unemployment benefits, on the principle of welfare reform. A nicotine-addicted president should also steer clear of paternalistic, class-tinged policies like taxing soft drinks. Letting personal behavior that doesn’t harm others slide means recognizing another kind of limit on government.

There’s a risk of harming the country by failing to address fundamental threats and problems—which is where current Republican policies would leave us. There’s also a risk of Democrats responding in a way that leaves behind more government than we want or need. Obama could help himself by letting people know he’s worried about that danger too.

I think most Republicans really would be fairly content, if an adequate portion of the federal budget remained reliably devoted to defense expenditures, to let the liberals have the equivalent of a spousal allowance, all the rest of the federal budget beyond defense to spend on the charitable, artistic, or environmental good works of their choice, as long as overall federal spending was not consuming so large a portion of the national economy as to curtail growth. But, would a liberal upper limit to government growth and spending ever be conceded by the American left? I have a lot of trouble picturing that.

The left would have to abandon its imperialistic drive toward limitless expansion of the state. It would have to relinquish its favorite tactic of demonizing its political opponents as selfish and greedy and its habit of identifying this year’s chosen socialist scheme as an absolute moral imperative. It would have to, at some point, stop demanding more and try to decide on reallocating what it already has, which seems far, far too difficult to ever happen.

Still, reading Weisberg today brings to mind a pleasant fantasy of a less divisive American political culture, one missing our own’s customary shrieks of hysterical accusation, one featuring occasional bipartisanship and overall rationality. That isn’t the world we live in, but it would be nice.

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