Archive for the ‘Libertarianism’ Category

AT&T Is Asking Us To Trust Them

Saturday, April 23rd, 2011

Earlier this week, I noticed a bit of traffic hitting an old post of mine about AT&T’s unlikely sponsorship of libertarian ideologues as they attempt to stop net neutrality. (Unlikely given their history of constantly pleading for government intervention in their favor.) I followed the source to the AT&T’s forum but could find no link leading back to my rather critical post about AT&T.

So, today, I decided to check on what had happened. I didn’t see any easy way to contact the people posting or the moderators, so I posted myself asking if anyone knew what had happened. Tifa_Shines “answered” my question by censoring my link as “spam.”

Her message to me justifying her censorship said:

Links to material that contains political discussion and/or promotion of third party websites are violating the guidelines and will be removed.

And further that it is “inappropriate” and “unacceptable” to:

discuss[...] participant bans or other Moderator actions

I replied thanking her for “answering” my question — and that post was subsequently deleted. In my 5 minutes as a member of AT&T’s Community Forum, I discovered at least 2 rules:

  • Thou shalt not discuss the political activities AT&T engages in rather than providing decent service.
  • Thou shalt not discuss when AT&T censors you so as better to maintain the fiction of a ‘Community’ Forum.

Knowing that links AT&T, for whatever their reason, did not approve of were labeled “not relevant” and “spam,” I went back to the original page that was the source of traffic and found the offending, censored post — attempting to put AT&T’s bandwidth caps in the context of it’s efforts to fight net neutrality and their history of attacking every innovation from the Hush-A-Phone to the internet in their quest to create “the perfect system” without being distracted by that terrible thing called competition, and coincidentally, extracting the maximum profit from their customers.

In the scheme of things, the injustice of this censorship is rather small. AT&T is a private company and they can do whatever they want in a private forum that they run. Even the Westboro Baptist Church has rights.

But AT&T, by opposing net neutrality, is asking that we as a people trust them to not censor the internet.

They are asking for permission to change the structure of the internet by violating one of it’s foundational principles — net neutrality. (A principle that AT&T coincidentally opposed when government scientists were attempting to create the internet in the 1950s.)

They are asking that we trust them to not make websites that disagree with them slower and making those they approve of faster.

They are asking that we trust them as an ISP to provide access to content that criticizes them.

They are asking that we trust them not to quash the next disruptive technology that will use the internet in ways we haven’t yet thought of or that will be even better than the internet.

Their sordid history of pleading for special favors from the government to destroy any opponent or innovator (as detailed in many places, but most memorably and recently, in Tim Wu’s The Master Switch) – and their attempts to strangle the internet before it even existed — gives us little reason to trust them.

Their bankrolling of former libertarian economists and thinkers such as Adam D. Thierer (who before they sold out were vicious critics of AT&T) to lie about net neutrality gives us little reason to trust them.

AT&T’s attempts to game the political system with a “slush fund” sponsoring what former VP and Director of Communications, Dick Martin, called “so-called ‘grassroots’ organizations all over the place, astroturfing the countryside” give us little reason to trust them.

That various people AT&T has sponsored (including Grover Norquist) have now joined up with right wing religious fanatics to oppose net neutrality on the grounds that it will prevent the censorship of “obscenity and other objectionable content,” is yet another reason not to trust AT&T.

To summarize, AT&T is making the argument that they should be trusted as a steward of the internet and that the government should not allowed to protect one of the foundational principles of the internet that has made it a libertarian utopia of competition and free markets in the name of…libertarianism. Yet it’s history and current incarnation betray a culture of censorship and anti-competitive behavior that extends down to an Orwellian policing of it’s ‘Community’ Forum — labeling links it disagrees with as “Spam” and forbidding any discussion of it’s own censorship.

If it succeeds in overturning net neutrality, how much longer will it be before any website criticizing them is labeled as spam — just as a link to my blogpost criticizing them was? And how long before any attempt to discuss such labeling will be forbidden as against the user agreement you accept by getting your internet through AT&T?

Mad? Want to do something? Take a moment and email your Congressperson today to tell them how important net neutrality is to you.

Capitalism in Practice

Tuesday, April 19th, 2011

I’ve started Tim Wu’s The Master Switch, a history of information industries in America; and having read Ayn Rand’s fictional Atlas Shrugged earlier this year — I wonder what Rand would make of this history of industrial warfare.

One of the motifs of Wu’s history is a theme of Rand’s novel — the extreme lengths the rich and powerful will go to in order to quash a disruptive technology. In the novel, it was Rearden steel — a metal stronger, cheaper, and better in every way than ordinary steel; in Wu’s history, it is every technological innovation from the phone to FM radio to television to the internet. In both history and the novel, the established industry used corrupt scientific experts, intimidation of suppliers, government regulation, and the blocking of financing to prevent the disruptive technology from taking off.

Rand’s novel though divides the everyone into two categories: the productive who are proud, competitive, inventive individuals who make everything of worth; and the looters who are unproductive and seek to leach off of the productive using the government, religion, and pity.

Wu’s history reveals a rather different story. There is no figure in history to match the strong, creative, independent, self-made industrial magnate Dagny Taggart. There are few who resemble her brother, the weak, dependent, self-loathing James Taggart who adds nothing of worth to the business except to plead with the government to stop his competitors because their superiority is unfair,

Only rarely do the inventors become rich. More often, they are outmaneuvered by corporate titans who use every means at their disposal to win. When Edwin Armstrong invented FM radio in 1934, he had pioneered a technology that allowed for better sound quality and that could fit more stations in the same radio spectrum with less interference. David Sarnoff, a major figure in the AM radio industry, was able to prevent FM radio from gaining wide acceptance until the 1970s through a combination of public propaganda, lobbying to change obscure rules relating to radio spectrum usage, and control over the manufacturing of radio players. David Sarnoff managed a vast business empire; he was at the cutting edge of innovations in radio and television. He won not because he was weak and unproductive (as Rand’s villains are) — but because he was ruthless.

Rand’s many fans aren’t typically the creative inventors. They are the very businessmen who see moral justification for their wealth in her philosophy. But they, like the businessmen in Wu’s history, are distinguished not for their purity of motive or love of competition, but their willingness to use any means at their disposal to achieve the corporate empire they seek. Unlike the fictional heroes of Rand’s novel, they do not seek competition. They seek a final victory and end to the competition.

In the theories of Rand and many of her acolytes, capitalism is about competition. In practice, capitalism has about brute strength and force used in restraint of competition.

[Image by Ron Schott licensed under Creative Commons.]

The Sheeple of r/libertarian

Tuesday, March 15th, 2011

The rantings of a self-proclaimed “Libertarian Asshole” who is so incredibly deluded as to think that the America is approaching something worse than a despotic government — an “Absolute Despotism!” — aren’t generally worth responding to. But I like reddit — and I like libertarians. Which is why I’ve been consistently frustrated with the regressive turn that the /r/libertarian has taken since Obama’s election.

How else to explain the popularity of the Libertarian Asshole’s factually-challenged post blaming “Liberals” for the Bush administration’s regulation being enforced in his story?

As a liberal, let me tell you that stories of government corruption and government idiocy, of victimless crimes prosecuted and overreach make me mad. I believe in good government — and not government and regulation for it’s own sake. I believe a law should not be unjustly applied. Liberals have made a strong showing in opposing regulatory capture – when organized lobbies of special interests (such as optometrists) are able to get a regulatory agency to act against the interests of the public and in favor of the lobby. That’s why liberals have fought against the FCC to allow for more competition on the radio waves and that’s why liberals pointed to the corruption in the Minerals Management Service. That’s why Matt Yglesias — one of the web’s most prominent liberals — focuses so much on opposing rent-seeking and unnecessary regulation. As a liberal, I believe the government is capable of acting in the public interest — but that citizens must always provide a check against the inevitable abuses.

I only state this because in the world of the Libertarian Asshole, the phantom “Liberals” are those who say the “Law’s the Law” as they turned in runaway slaves because they…are like “cheap whores” with no self esteem.

With that brilliant insight into the Liberal mind, this Asshole struck r/libertarian gold — as 268 redditors and counting demonstrate.

——–

One more thing: The Libertarian Asshole apparently wasn’t satisfied with a rather sympathetic story of a businesswoman who was busted for selling decorative contact lenses without prescriptions and made to sell her car.

He had to embellish. And by embellish, I mean, apparently, to lie. A few minutes on Google reveals the following:

  1. Lie: The Libertarian Asshole claims that Da Young Kim, who ran an internet store selling contact lenses, was “arrested” for doing so.
    Fact: The Court records and the FTC’s records both show that this was a “civil complaint” — not a criminal one. No where does the news or any other source support the out-of-the-blue claim that Kim was arrested.
  2. Lie: The Libertarian Asshole claims that the FTC spent “your tax dollars on an undercover sting operation.”
    Fact: There’s nothing in the news or in the record or elsewhere on the web to back this up. None of the evidence presented against Kim was from any sting operation.
  3. Lie: The FTC acted because they believed the internet store run by Da Young Kim “might not be checking every customer’s prescription.”
    Fact: According to the FTC complaint, Kim kept no records of prescriptions at all. This wasn’t a few contact lenses sold without prescription — this was a business plan.

Some brief thoughts on Rand Paul

Thursday, May 20th, 2010

All those people who brand Rand Paul a racist and use this clip to prove it aren’t worthy of serious consideration. It is either ignorance of libertarian philosophy or partisan hackery to claim so. It isn’t racism to claim that the government has no right to intervene in private businesses to stop discrimination.

As Ezra Klein explains though, it is relevant:

Paul’s defense of himself is that his take on the Civil Rights Act has nothing to do with race and so he is not a racist. But by the same token, the fact that Paul’s view on the Civil Rights Act is so dominated by his libertarian ideology that he cannot even admit race and segregation into the calculus is exactly why this is relevant to Paul’s candidacy, why it’s an issue and why it’s among the best evidence we have in understanding how he’ll vote on legislation that comes before him. If this isn’t about race, then it is about all questions relating to federal regulation of private enterprise. As a senator, Paul will be faced with that question frequently. And his views on it are clearly very, very far from the mainstream.

These libertarian views do reflect accurately an ideology whose language is gaining prominence in the GOP in the form of the Tea Party movement. This movement in its different incarnations has been around for some time, and emerged as a populist right-wing backlash to John F. Kennedy, to Bill Clinton, and now to Barack Obama. In each instance, the movement died as soon as it gained a toehold on power as it had no real agreed-upon agenda other than opposition to “liberalism=socialism=communism.”  Andrew Sullivan puts his finger on an important aspect of this:

[T]he tea-party movement [is] un-conservative. It is dealing with the world as it would like it to be, not as it is. It has an almost adolescent ideal it cannot compromise. I think that makes the movement, in its more serious incarnation (like Paul), a useful addition to the public debate, especially in reminding the GOP of some core principles it threw away under Bush and Cheney… Its bright, fixed glare also helps us illuminate what we believe in – merely by revealing what we no longer believe in.

I agree with Connor Friedsdorf and Andrew Sullivan and Daniel Larison that Rand Paul’s nomination is a good thing. Even if he wins the Senate seat, I see this as a good thing. To have his voice, his ideological clarity, as 1 of 100 would improve the Senate. The fact that his extremism could lead him to side with the Democrats on some issues (if he was able to resist the partisan pressures in Washington, which is a big if) and that his extremism could simultaneously help discredit and marginalize the GOP are both bonuses. Even without these, I would see his election as a net positive as it would give some measure of power to those people whose inchoate anger has helped form the Tea Party movement and force its members to make hard decisions about what they actually want.

Rand Paul is the rare right-wing politician who doesn’t just bad-mouth government but wants to get rid of the Federal Reserve, who opposes the government encroachment represented by the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as well as the PATRIOT Act and the Affordable Care Act, who opposes Social Security and Medicare as well as any new additions from Obama. He would never campaign in favor of Medicare while calling Obamacare socialism — he would deride them both as such.

This is why I see Rand Paul as a clarifying figure who can help move our national debate forward — if he remains honest.

[Image by Gage Skidmore licensed under Creative Commons.]

Wall Street’s enormous profits are evidence of a poorly functioning market.

Wednesday, April 21st, 2010

Matt Yglesias and Ezra Klein had 2 complementary points in posts yesterday. (Damn you, JournoList!) Yglesias:

…[L]ooking at this chart I think it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Wal-Mart is the last thing we should be worried about. The worrying trend is the domination of the corporate landscape by super-profitable firms in the heavily regulated energy, banking, and telecom sectors.

Yglesias is making a point most commonly associated with libertarians that large firms often use the government — through favorable regulation, tax breaks and incentives, etc. — to increase their profits. For example, increasing the barriers for new firms in the industry and restraining their indirect competitors from direct competition. This follows the well-known principle that any government policy whose costs are diffused and whose benefits are concentrated will be adopted more often than not. Thus highly regulated industries tend to be dominated by a small number of large firms that make very large profits — because thanks to government regulation, there isn’t much competition. However, Ezra Klein observed:

In a competitive market, there’s really no place to make 27 cents on the dollar. Some other firm will come in and offer the same services for 24 cents, and then someone will undercut them at 19 cents, and so it will go until the profit margin narrows. Wal-Mart, for instance, has a profit margin of around 3.5 percent. Ah, capitalism.

Not so in the financial sector, though, which ever since deregulation has been posting higher and higher profit margins.

So, the exception to this trend is Wall Street — where deregulation has lead to higher profits. All of this seems quite intuitively true — both from a libertarian and from a liberal perspective — and even from a liberaltarian one.

The enormous profits taken out of every dollar (as seen in much of the the financial industry) is a demonstration of a lack of competition and thus a poorly functioning market. Of course, Goldman Sachs didn’t manage to make it on the list above — but it had more than double the amount of profit out of every dollar it took in as compared to each of the companies here. Goldman managed to take $0.26 of every dollar they made as profit to their shareholders. (And that includes the massive bonuses given to employees as expenses.) I think I need to see more data though to draw the conclusion that Klein is hinting at — that the deregulation of Wall Street increased it’s profits as a percentage of revenues — while deregulation generally has the opposite effect (as in the case of Wal-Mart).

Annie Lowery drives the point home in analyzing the 1Q results from Wall Street:

This is not quite a picture of a healthy industry. In a competitive marketplace, prices and fees at Wall Street firms should fall and margins should become thinner. On the one hand, Wall Street firms like J.P. Morgan and Goldman Sachs have seen a number of their competitors die in the past two years, and have absorbed business from the failed Lehmans and Bear Sterns of the world. But on the other hand, Wall Street profit margins have remained sky high except for a short blip during the worst of the credit crunch. And, an economist would tell you, such sustained levels of high profitability point to anti-competitive behavior…

[T]he profits point to a lack of competition. That is one thing the Dodd bill — via derivatives regulation — attempts to fix. Right now, Wall Street firms do not bid for big derivatives contracts — they simply quote a price and work over-the-counter. For that reason, derivatives are wildly profitable for the companies. The Dodd bill will force derivatives pricing to become public to the market, driving down margins as companies compete.

There’s a whole lot to unpack within these points about the nature of American capitalism and the government’s role in it.

But one key takeaway seems to be a repudiation of the most ideological take of either the left or right — and an acknowledgment that free markets are not merely what happens when the government is out of the way — but are created and maintained by a complex balancing act in which government regulates and participates. What you end up with is something less than socialism or libertarianism and more like liberalism:

Contemporary liberals reject the doctrinaire distinction between the “market” and the government that animated so much of the conflict in the 20th century. The free market should not be treated as some theoretical utopian ideal or as a perpetually lost state of innocence. And the government is not some evil force which must be reduced until it is of a size that it “could be drowned in a bathtub.” Rather the government and the free market exist together – and in a capitalist republic such as ours, each is dependent on the other. The free market does not exist in a state of nature but must be created by and maintained by the society and the state which provide the values and the rules and other conditions without which a market cannot be free. In other words, a free market is a product of a just government.

Follow-up post here.

[Image by f-l-e-x licensed under Creative Commons.]

Government Is Good!

Wednesday, April 7th, 2010

Reagan’s deepest and most profound legacy to the right wing today, to the Tea Party, to the populist right is a selection of wry quips about the inefficacy and incompetence of government told with a grandfatherly charm. “In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem!” he said. “Government is the problem!” the placards at populist right wing gatherings now read.

This grotesque anti-government view regularly embraced and advocated by the populist right is incoherent, ignorant, and idiotic. It is the intellectual equivalent of blaming “The Man” or “Them” for all problems. While a (sometimes even paranoid) distrust of centralized power has always been part of American politics, the populist right today has elevated this sentiment to their core principle. It’s great efficiency as a rallying cry is that it papers over differences between the few but influential libertarian-minded who oppose government power on principle and the more numerous right wingers who see liberal government as an attack on their culture. What they both agree on (while a Democrat is in charge at least) is that the government is the problem.

This political coalition is animated primarily by anti-government rhetoric. While on some level it is a mere ideological trope, fervently believed only by the ignorant, used to rally the base to a revolutionary fervor and to create party unity, it has taken on the patina of truth in the eyes of so many it must be challenged.

Government is not inherently bad, inefficient, incompetent, destructive of liberty, or even liberal. Instead government is probably the single most influential force for good in our daily lives, acting in ways barely noticed even as its absence and failures would be and are noticed.

Friedrich Hayek, that great right wing theorist, said in his speech accepting the Nobel prize for economics, that the government had erred in attempting to engineer society. The proper role of government, Hayek believed, was that of a gardener tending her garden rather than of an engineer creating a machine. The populist right has bastardized this critique of Hayek’s and taken to demonizing the gardener while praising the garden as the greatest great thing since great things began to get greater (as Sean Hannity often says.)

What is lost in the populist right wing view is that our society, our economy, our nation, this greatest great thing ever, would not exist without the government tending it. I have been challenged – with apparent seriousness – to name anything the government ever did that was worthwhile.

In fact, the greatest product of the government is America itself – which, though like a garden has many individual parts, is given coherence by the gardener. The government has 4 main roles in shaping our nation:

1. Government acts as a check on corporations. Corporations exist to make profits – and as such externalize as many costs as they can; history has demonstrated that given the choice between doing the moral thing and doing the profitable thing, corporations will do the profitable one. This isn’t to say they are evil – it is merely to acknowledge their nature. Thus, given a choice between polluting the communal air and taking expensive steps to reduce that pollution, corporations have chosen to pollute. The costs of their actions are diffused while the benefits and profits are concentrated. Given the vibrancy of America’s market economy and the growing power of corporations, this is perhaps government’s most important role: to ensure that corporations have the incentive to make the moral choice. Most often this is accomplished with regulation, which though demonized by the populist right, is essential to America’s vibrant society and free market. Regulation is what allows us to open a can of beans without finding a human finger, to buy a standard mortgage and know our rights are still protected to some basic degree, to eat poultry without worrying too much over food poisoning, to buy a car and know it has met certain safety requirements, to breathe fresh air and to drink clean water. We can do all of this because of government regulation acting as a check on corporate greed.

2. Government underwrites social order. While the government is not present at every moment in our lives, it underwrites a certain type of order and undertakes to ensure that certain elements of a partially unspoken social bargain are upheld. For example, the government provides courts of law to resolve disputes and employs people to prosecute crimes. It has undertaken various steps to prevent terrorist attacks. It maintains regulations as above. When there is a crisis, the government assumes greater powers and responsibilities to protect the status quo and restore order.

3. Government makes long-term investments in the nation. While corporations and individuals control most investments, the government has, since its inception, funded various long-term projects from investments in infrastructure to space travel to education to medicine to military technology. These investments have led to everything from sending men to the moon to creating the internet.

4. Government provides certain services. From subsidies for the elderly (Social Security) to disability and unemployment benefits to disaster relief to cheap postage, to – soon – a transparent and standardized marketplace for health insurance – the government provides a selection of valuable services that are important yet under-served by the marketplace dominated by corporations looking for large, quick profits and non-profits that are often underfunded.

The internet itself is a great example of the role government plays in our lives. It was based on technology created by government scientists. It was enabled by government regulators who prevented AT&T from blocking access to their infrastructure which would have choked off the internet before it began. Access to the internet making it more widespread has been enabled by government programs as well as individual and corporate decisions. (For a neat list of how the government affects everyone on a daily basis, take a look at this article by Douglas J. Amy.)

This view of government is inherently liberal, even as the goods provided can be more broadly appreciated. Without government, there would be no rule of law, no free market, no corporations (which are government-created entities), no property, no freedom of speech or religion or assembly. Individuals without the protection of government have the freedom their power allows them to seize. With the careful use of government though, restrained and judicious, individuals can be empowered.

Liberalism, like the conservatism of William F. Buckley, Friedrich Hayek, Edmund Burke, Dwight Eisenhower, and even Ronald Reagan, is not about extending the role of government everywhere. It is the path between seizing the commanding heights of the economy and the anti-government hysteria of the populist right in which the government is used to empower individuals:

Liberalism in a market-state must exhibit a preference for the individual over the corporation and government and must empower individuals against bullying and coercive measures of these large institutions.

Sometimes that means the government must be constrained; and sometimes that means it must use its power to balance against other forces such as large corporations.

Government, used wisely, is good and the creator of free markets and the guardian of individual freedoms. This isn’t just a liberal idea or a conservative one. It is an American idea – indeed, the base of our American system.

[Image by Pittsford Patriot licensed under Creative Commons.]

*I have only been using the term, “government” here – but I mean, the federal government. I have used the terminology this way so it may better function as a response to the populist right which generally speaks of “the government” when they mean only the federal government.

Net Neutrality Is What Made the Internet a Libertarian Utopia

Friday, October 30th, 2009

[Forgive me, because this morning I am feeling expansive, and as such, I am omitting the usual qualifiers that constrain my opinions.]

The internet is the nearest thing to a libertarian utopia in the history of the world. It creates the closest thing we have seen to a frictionless market, a perfectly free market – and it is, for the most part, tax free. It allows the closest thing we have to maximum free speech and freedom from censorship. It allows every individual a platform to be themselves, or whatever else they choose to be. It circumvents and undermines governments that attempt to control it. It was created to allow for the maximum of freedom with a minimum of cost. It is resistant to centralized control – and makes it more and more possible to decentralize power. It has unleashed the forces of innovation and creativity that libertarian theory has always posited would come with freedom. It is perhaps the greatest force for expanding liberty in the world since the American revolution (or the fall of Communism.)

How did the internet develop this way? How did this profoundly destabilizing and decentralized network develop? Was it some Galtian genius who set up servers on cargo ships in international waters? Was it some giant corporation which decided it could profit from it? Not quite. And perhaps the story of how the internet developed helps explain why is it that liberals and not libertarians are the ones defending the internet.

Government engineers designed the internet as a network that was decentralized and thus “network neutral,” so as to be resistant to a nuclear assault on the United States. It was designed to be adaptable. Many academics worked on the project on behalf of the government – and were among the first to gain access to it. The large corporations of the time that controlled America’s communications grid – primarily AT&T – were resistant and attempted to strangle this competitor in its infancy, as they tried to discriminate against the data being sent over their lines. Corporations, attempting to derive maximum profit from their assets, also attempted to exert maximum control. AT&T only allowed “authorized” objects to connect to its network – and in fact people did not own their own phones. They licensed them from AT&T. Thus, it was only forceful intervention by the FCC that allowed the internet to develop, that opened up the communications network of the United States to innovation.

AT&T and other corporations, attempting to add to their profits, now seek to find another stream of revenue by undermining net neutrality, one of the foundational principles of the internet itself. They seek to introduce new frictions into this nearly frictionless market and to prevent it from becoming so easily a platform for individuals. Opponents of net neutrality claim that the several attempts by corporations to create policies that were contrary to net neutrality should be ignored because they did not succeed. (They did not succeed because the FCC shut them down.) They claim that there is no need to articulate clear principles about what net neutrality is because so far, the attempts to undermine it have failed. They claim government regulation regarding this would retard “innovation” – when it was government intervention that in fact created the possibility for such innovation.

This libertarian utopia was created by government engineers and protected from powerful corporations by forceful regulation.

Many corporate libertarians (such as Adam Thierer) have embraced the fallacy that the government is the only threat to individual liberties, or at least that the government is always a greater threat to liberty than any other force. They also often count corporations as “individuals” as they are considered such by the law. Thus they have a knee jerk opposition to regulation of any sort – even regulation meant to allow their own values to flourish. They favor freedom for corporations from government over freedom of individuals from corporations because they see the government as the primary evil in the world.

The are many different varieties of liberals, but the group of which I count myself believes that large corporations as well as government both are major threats to individual liberties. We favor smart regulation that does not restrict individuals, but instead restricts corporations who often use their power and clout to deprive individuals of rights. We agree with many libertarian attempts to constrain the government in the area of national security and attempts to make the government more transparent and accountable – but believe that government intervention in some form or another is often needed to restrain corporations from taking away the rights of individuals. We realize that the free markets exist not in spite of the government but because of it, because of a balance between governmental intervention and the rights of individuals and the rights of corporations.

[Image by sea legs snapshots licensed under Creative Commons.]

That Annoying “Pox on Both Their Houses” Mentality of the “Independent-Minded” Press

Tuesday, September 22nd, 2009

Jacob Weisberg of Slate has written one of those typical, independent-minded, liberal attacks on the nanny state that crop up when the Democrats are perceived to have a monopoly on power. This type of piece always bothers me even as I agree with most of it on substance – in part because it is only written when Democrats are in power, and in part it has a hidden thesis: a moral equivalence between the liberal and right wing positions. Here’s Weisberg:

The underlying left-right divide is not about whether government has the right to promote private virtue but, rather, about what kind of virtue it should promote. Republicans demand paternalistic policies that uphold morality or social order. In Indiana, where I recently spent my vacation, you can pick up fireworks or a handgun anywhere, but good luck buying a six-pack on Sunday. Democrats, by contrast, deploy paternalism for health and safety reasons, yielding a different set of absurdities. In California, pot is on the verge of becoming more permissible than cigarettes. Both left and right take pleasure in mildly persecuting those who fail to meet their civic ideals.

There’s certainly an insight here – but it does not get to the heart of the liberal-right wing divide. It doesn’t attempt to deal with the civil libertarian strain in the Democratic Party which contrasts with the support for a national security apparatus above the law supported by the Republican Party. It doesn’t address the various mild strains of populist economic and social libertarianism in the Republican Party which are at war both with the economic royal-ism in the party and with the Democratic Party’s focus on regulation and government involvement in ensuring a fair process and/or preventing unfair ends.

In other words, Weisberg takes on this loaded topic but only discusses the “mild persecutions” that we can see changing rather than the structural positions that affect us far more deeply. The caricatures of the left and the right that Weisberg draws then aren’t very persuasive because they ignore the base of these competing political views.

Weisberg is actually conflating two different points in his attempt to even-handedly criticize the left and right. Liberals – especially urban liberals – tend to focus on policies which improve the collective status of most of their constituents. At best, they are – as Weisberg says, quoting Cass Sunstein – “nudges” towards healthier, safer activities. At worst, they are annoying and unnecessary constrictions on minor everyday freedoms like where you can smoke, what you can buy at a restaurant. Suburban, exurban, and rural areas tend to have less of this – whether they are dominated by liberals or conservatives.

On the other hand, the right wing claims it is against government encroachment and in favor of a more libertarian society; but this is a falsehood, as the bulk of the right supports right wing government encroachment and opposes liberal government vehemently. This is what is driving the Tea Partiers – not a fear of all government, but a fear of liberals in charge of the government.

If Weisberg had picked apart these two conceptions – of a right wing that claims to be against government, but instead is only against liberals in the government – and of the differences in the role of government in urban versus non-urban areas, he might have had two pieces rather than one – though neither would have fit as easily into the “pox on both their houses” mentality that independent-minded observers in both observers tend to adopt.

[Image by hegarty_david licensed under Creative Commons.]

Protests Against Liberals Running the Gov’t (cont.)

Tuesday, September 15th, 2009

I should have made a bit more clear in my post yesterday that Andrew Sullivan was well aware of the contradictions within the right wing response to Obama – and had articulated a coherent response to them from his conservative, Oakshottian perspective earlier yesterday in a post I had printed out to read. He did reach a bit too far in seeing that particular silver lining to this movement though.

The main problem is that this right wing movement is still somewhat amorphous. Lydia DePillis of The New Republic had this dispatch from the D.C. protest this past weekend explaining the core complaint of the movement:

Their complaint? Hard to say, really. Some, like the contingent of coal miners in hard hats with anti-cap-and-trade signs, had a concrete beef with the administration. But for most, there was both an incredible specificity to their protestations–all those czars, and ACORN, and Obama’s missing birth certificate–and a fuzzy vagueness.

“We’re losing America,” said Kris, from Maryland. “Government is trying to take over everything.”

It’s one thing I have noticed as well – both the specificity of what they are outraged over and the sense that the tawdry specifics don’t explain the rising crescendo of outrage.

Matt Welch – editor in chief of Reason magazine – tried to defend the protestors against liberals attempts to write them off – and to defend them against charges of racism. He does so by misrepresenting two liberal responses to the protests and then knocking down the strawmen he creates – which is about par for the course in terms of New York Post op-eds, but I expect more of Welch whose work I often enjoy. Welch would have done better to explain what he found most of the protestors stood for, but I suspect he would have had the same difficulty DePillis did.

So, instead, he writes that “popular left blogger Josh Marshall reported from his armchair” that this was a “Small protest.” Welch declines to link to Marshall’s post saying such – probably because if he had, readers might have found that this was one in a series of posts by Marshall and others at the TalkingPointsMemo covering the size of the crowd, and that Marshall had concluded his post with the D.C. Fire Department’s estimate of 60,000 to 70,000 saying the protest was “smallish by big DC protest/event standards but definitely respectable.”

Welch then goes on to say that the Center for American Progress claimed that the protest was marred by “racist, radical portrayals of Obama.” Welch has this to say about the evidence presented by Think Progress:

Among the dozen or so pieces of evidence? A placard claiming, “Ayn Rand is right,” and one of President Obama with the caption, “When his lips move . . . he’s lying.”

Once again – an extremely misleading selection by Welch given the main signs focused on by the piece, including this one:

Welch could have made the argument that focusing on these people was misrepresenting the crowd – but instead he choose to made a much less defensible point.

Nothing Welch says challenges the point I made yesterday – that right wingers are fans of big government run by christianist right wingers, but wary of any type of government run by liberals, such that even pragmatic, incremental, modest Obamaism is seem as a radical assault on their children:

The protests aren’t about the size of government or its role; they are a viceral response to the fact that a liberal now runs the government. That frustration is rooted in cultural and social issues, rather than economic ones.

There are libertarians who legitimately object to big governmen (Ron Paul and Matt Welch himself come to mind), and I can respect their views even if I disagree – but they don’t seem to be well-represented in the Tea Party movement, in the Republican Party, in the bulk of the emotional resistance to Obama.

Are You A Libertarian If…

Tuesday, September 1st, 2009

DarkSyde at the Daily Kos lists the “Top 10 Signs You Might Not Be A Libertarian.” It captures the silliness of the claims some people make – especially those who only fled the label “Republican” as George W. Bush became less popular:

[I]f you think government should stay the hell out of people’s private business — except when kidnapping citizens and rendering them to secret overseas torture prisons, snooping around the bedrooms of consenting adults, policing a woman’s uterus, or conducting warrantless wire taps, you are no Libertarian.

Check it out. Funny, yet true – the best combination.