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Domestic issues Election 2008 Liberalism Obama Politics

Conversations on a train

[digg-reddit-me]To Tara from the train tonight:

You said something that I often hear – that Ms. Clinton knows how she is going to change things, while Mr. Obama is light on the details.   Yet each candidate has laid out detailed and similar plans.  They each have taken advantage of the growing liberal think tanks and combined the best of the various approaches.  Neither candidate can take credit for these ideas – as they are the product of a liberal consensus, and specifically, the consensus of many in think tanks and similar institutions in Washington, D.C.

There are minor differences in the goals each candidate is proposing – but I’ll leave those for another day – because what you said, and what I have heard many other people say, is not that Mr. Obama has different goals than Ms. Clinton, but that he has not thought out how to accomplish his goals.

This simply isn’t the case.  You can compare the level of detail in the plans on and Mr. Obama’s and Ms. Clinton’s website.

But Mr. Obama clearly talks less about policy specifics than Ms. Clinton.  The Senator from New York often will list a few dozen policies and rattle off some specific ways her plans will function.  It’s an impressive show.  But the show is also deceptive and ineffective.

Although Ms. Clinton explains how her plans will work, she does not explain how she will put them in place.  She cannot – because if she begins to, it ruins the illusion that is a great part of her appeal.  Ms. Clinton may have all the details planned out now, but her carefully wrought and nuanced proposals will not survive the legislative process.  When the time comes to make these policy plans into laws and programs, legislators, business interests, bureaucrats, and anyone else remotely affected by the policy will get their say – and the details will quickly change.  A major reason why her health care initiative during her husband’s administration failed was that she failed to change the details – and threatened to “demonize” anyone who got in her way, including the friendly liberal Senator from New Jersey, Bill Bradley.

Given Ms. Clinton’s history, she realizes that detailed policy plans don’t survive attempts to enact them.  Yet she still insists on presenting them as if they were what she would do, rather than what she would attempt to do.  There’s nothing wrong with this – but it is deceptive.  I don’t blame Ms. Clinton for this.  This is standard politics – and it is also a major reason why so many Americans are fed up with politics, and those candidates who “say they will do one thing” but don’t.  Part of the problem is that candidates promise things that they do not control – and enacting Ms. Clinton’s policy proposals will not be entirely up to the President.

Which brings us to Mr. Obama.  He also has detailed policy proposals – but he does not present them as one of the basic pillars of his campaign.  Rather he focuses on creating a movement, an active citizenry, that will demand change; on changing the processes by introducing elements such as transparency and direct accountability.  Mr. Obama explains his approach and his thought process – two elements Ms. Clinton guards as a tactical secrets – because he acknowledges that he cannot promise specific items.

Not only is Mr. Obama’s approach more honest – it is also more effective.  Think of the last presidential candidates who spouted policies versus those who campaigned on broad themes.  Senator Kerry campaigned on policy; President Bush on themes.  Vice President Gore campaigned on policy; Governor Bush campaigned on themes.  President Clinton campaigned on some amalgamation of policy and theme – in a way I have only seen Mr. Clinton fuse them – and Senator Dole campaigned … you know, I don’t know what Mr. Dole’s campaign was about.  But going back further over the past half-century – most winning presidential candidates have focused less on policy, and more on character, themes, and narratives.

Drew Westen wrote a book about the matter last year – explaining why Democrats were losing.  His diagnosis of the problem was simple: Democrats focused on policies; Republicans focused on character and narrative.  Republicans did this because it was effective.  Now, we have Mr. Obama who can compete – indeed, dominate – the Republicans in rhetoric, in character, in creating election narratives, in weaving political themes into his moving speeches.

President Ronald Reagan was able to create a major realignment of the electorate in a conservative direction because, infused with a proud conservatism, he was able to explain to the American people why they needed Republican values.  He told the story of America and his punch line was: that is why you need someone who believes what I do in the White House. So, in 1981, it was Morning in America.

Mr. Obama is the only candidate today who could create a similar shift – who could reinterpret the American story and reshape the electorate to create a lasting liberal majority.

Categories
Election 2008 History Liberalism Obama Political Philosophy Politics

A Dream Deeply Rooted in the American Dream

Commentators and candidates have drawn many parallels from today’s Democratic candidates to historical figures and elections.

[via reddit]

[digg-reddit-me]Hillary Clinton has been described as Nixon and LBJ, including the latter by herself. John Edwards has been described as a FDR (mainly by himself), William Jennings Bryan and a Bobby Kennedy. Barack Obama’s historical analogues have been far-ranging. Ken Burns has compared Obama to Lincoln. David Horsey of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer has as well, as seen above. JFK’s top speechwriter has compared Obama to President Kennedy. Before his Iowa win, intelligent pundits saw parallels to failed liberal candidates: Adlai Stevenson, Bill Bradley, and Gene McCarthy.

But it wasn’t until Hillary took a swipe at Obama that the parallels to Barack to Martin Luther King, Jr. became evident. The main theme of the 2008 is, and will be, change. Americans know that we need to tackle many long-term issues:

  • global climate change;
  • radical islamism;
  • the erosion of civil liberties;
  • executive overreach;
  • the instability of the American economy;
  • globalization, the entitlement crises;
  • health care reform;
  • the inequality of opportunity and the rising gap between the rich and the poor.

Our current politics – based on tears and smears, on the Bushes and the Clintons, on money and more money – is unable to produce meaningful or lasting change.To vote for Clinton or Giuliani or Romney or Thompson or Huckabee (and to a lesser extent McCain1 ) – is to vote to continue the politics of the past decades, producing gridlock and negligible progress, even as Cassandras continually point out our impending doom.

There are three candidates who embody three very different approaches to change: Ron Paul, Barack Obama, and John Edwards.

Ron Paul is quite clearly a reactionary – and in this case, I do not mean it to be derogatory. He wants to trim government to a radical extent – back to the period before the Civil War. I doubt the change he desires is possible – and, although I agree with his positions on many contemporary issues, I believe he goes too far in rejecting the American tradition after 1860. I believe there is much to criticize in the American tradition after the Civil War – but also great progress. Ron Paul’s opinions are a valued addition to the public debate.

It is easier to compare Barack Obama and John Edwards to each other, rather than to Paul. They agree on many policies and in their general themes. Their differences are about how they would lead us to the future – how they would accomplish change. When Hillary said that Barack was not Martin Luther King – it occurred to me that the movement he represents, and the figure he projects, recalls the relationship of Martin Luther King to John Edwards’s Malcolm X.

In many ways, the success of Obama is due to Edwards’s harassment of Clinton.

  • Obama is trying to bring together people of varying political persuasions and to reach consensus on the major issues America faces. Edwards believes we must fight for them – by extreme measures if necessary.
  • Obama calls on Americans to look past their race, gender, class, religion, and other social groupings to the values we share – to build on this consensus to achieve lasting change. Edwards calls on middle and lower class Americans to look to their self-interest, and to their children’s self-interest, and to be forceful in taking what they believe is their birthright.
  • Obama focuses on community organizing, bringing new people into the process and the party, and convincing skeptics; Edwards focuses on rallying the base.

Anyone can see the relationship between Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X can see the parallels. (Which makes Clinton, unfortunately for her, LBJ again.)

Martin Luther King and Malcolm X’s disagreements about how to accomplish change were more fundamental than the current divide between Obama and Edwards; but both King and Malcolm X recognized in the other the same desire for change, and respected each other as individuals and as leaders. When I saw John Edwards defend Barack Obama against Clinton – this is what I thought of – not that the boys were ganging up on her as she suggested.

Martin Luther King succeeded where Malcolm X did not because King bet that he could bring achieve more by appealing to all Americans, rather than a select group. Barack has made a similar bet. While in King’s day, the Jim Crow laws divided Americans into blacks and whites, our politics today has divided America into Red States and Blue States, liberals and conservatives, Republicans and Democrats. We have been divided into two teams – we on our respective team, often without a clear rationale, adopt positions and defend our teams against all opposition. Many others are turned off from politics by the partisanship entirely. Yet polls show that agreement exists among working majorities on how to tackle some of our major long-term problems; and even larger portions of Americans agree that something must be done to attempt to deal with the major problems we will soon face.

Obama’s bet, like Martin Luther King, Jr.’s, is that with a respectful and intelligent dialogue, he can change our politics; and by changing politics, we can change America’s path together.

It is supremely unlikely that he, or we, can accomplish this. But we owe it to ourselves to try.

  1. The McCain of 1999 to 2002 could have changed politics. The McCain of today is still an honorable man – but despite his commendable honesty, I am not sure how much he would be able to, or willing to try to, get done. []
Categories
Domestic issues Election 2008 History Obama Political Philosophy Politics

To be partisan

Karl Rove & George Bush

[digg-me]

par·ti·san

noun, [Origin: 1545–55; < MF < Upper It parteźan (Tuscan partigiano), equiv. to part(e) faction, part + -eźan (< VL *-és- -ese + L -iānus -ian)]

1. an adherent or supporter of a person, group, party, or cause, esp. a person who shows a biased, emotional allegiance; a firm adherent to a party, faction, cause, or person; especially : one exhibiting blind, prejudiced, and unreasoning allegiance;

2 a: a member of a body of detached light troops making forays and harassing an enemy b: a member of a guerrilla band operating within enemy lines

In the past two weeks, a fight has broken out in the Democratic primaries between John Edwards and Barack Obama (with Paul Krugman and Hillary Clinton playing supporting roles for Edwards) over the best way to effect change. Edwards insists that in order to effect change, we must fight for it and demand it. He argues that those in power, who are benefiting from the current system, will not give up their powers or benefits easily. We, as the people, as the government, need to wrest the power from the powerful and end the corrupt system that does not benefit the majority of Americans. We need to force change upon those in power. As Krugman has put it, seconded by many Edwards supporters, and echoed in her way by Hillary Clinton: we need to be partisan, because partisan force is the only way to effect change. Obama has a different view on how to effect change. He says that lasting change comes from consensus – and that partisanship is one of the biggest obstacles we face in effecting lasting and significant change.

The conversation around the web

This back and forth has prompted one of the better public discussions in recent years – both substantial and interesting. Paul Krugman has attacked Obama as the anti-change candidate, for opposing health care mandates, for attacking John Edwards, and for talking about the problems with Social Security. Others have weighed in: the Street Corner Society, Michael Schwartz, Greg Sargent, Richard Baehr, John McCormick, Frank Rich (here, here, and here), David Brooks (here, here, and here) and Sam Sedaei.

The value of partisanship

Paul Krugman illustrates as well as anyone the value of partisanship. For a political minority, partisanship is the key to survival, and the only means of blocking change. Partisanship is, in essence, a defense. The problem with the Democrats from 1994 to 2005, and even with some Democrats today, is that they were trying to be non-partisan in an environment that demands steadfast opposition – that demands partisanship.

There is little doubt that from 1994 until the impeachment of Bill Clinton that the political environment was moving rightward; and after September 11, the country swung rightward again. During this time, Democrats continued to act on the assumptions that had served them well for the past few decades. Confident that the nation was behind them, they attempted to make reasonable compromises. In this, they made two errors: first, they assuming that the nation was still behind them, when on several important issues, it was not; second, they assumed that the people they were dealing with were reasonable. But the Republicans from the class of 1994 were ideologues. Bill Clinton saw this, and saw his presidency imperiled, he started triangulating – trying undercut the conservative agenda by adopting it. It was a brilliant strategy – but it failed in one key area. It left liberal Democrats to fend for themselves and undercut the partisanship that would be needed to effectively oppose and reverse the gains Republicans had made.

To this day, the Democrats have only made minor gains in their effectiveness to oppose Republicans. But, thankfully, the country has turned, and we are now faced with (another) historic moment.

Although as long as President Bush is in power, the Democrats must take a partisan strategy in Washington, those candidates running for President themselves should focus on the future, and on growing the Democratic party.

The flaw of partisanship

If partisanship is the best strategy for a minority party, because, by it’s nature it is biased and divides the population; it is not the best strategy for a majority party. To me, this is one of the key lessons of the past seven years of Rove-Bush. Despite tremendous advantages, Rove failed to turn September 11 into the defining conservative moment he sought because he never ceased to be partisan. By forcing the change they sought through again and again, by marginalizing moderates, by alienating liberals, Rove and Bush set a timer on how long any of the changes they sought would last and destroyed the possibility of a conservative realignment.

Barack Obama makes clear what he wants to do – and what it seems only he can do, based on polling data – to unite the country, to bring in liberals, libertarians, conservatives, and independents in order to face the serious challenges America faces. He wants to forge real change – which requires consensus and the judgment about when to stand firm and when to compromise.

After September 11, America united. George W. Bush, with his relentless partisanship, re-polarized the nation in the aftermath. In 2008, we need a president with the judgment to know when to fight and when to compromise. We need a president who can bring the country together to forge lasting change – not the short-term fixes that fall apart with every change of office. In 2008 we need a president who can bring the country together to face the issues of global climate change, terrorism, runaway executive power, extremism in the Middle East, a declining dollar, tremendous deficits, and escalating entitlement spending.

Partisanship can only take us so far. In 2008, we need Barack Obama.

Categories
Election 2008 History Libertarianism Politics

It Can’t Happen Here

[digg-reddit-me]Following the Ron Paul quote (quoting Sinclair Lewis), which I had heard before but never looked into, I came across Sinclair Lewis’s 1935 novel, It Can’t Happen Here. (The quote doesn’t appear to be in the book which is part of Project Gutenberg. But it clearly is related to the book which illustrates the concept.)

The title comes from a character in the novel who, upon being told that one of the Senators running for president would impose a “real Fascist dictatorship”, exclaims:

“Nonsense! Nonsense!” snorted Tasbrough. “That couldn’t happen here in America, not possibly! We’re a country of freemen.”

Lewis’s novel tells the story of anti-intellectual, populist Southern politician (loosely based on Huey Long, who also inspired the Governor in Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men) called Berzelius Noel Weinacht Windrip, or Buzz Windrip. Windrip rides to power on Christian values and patriotic fervor. One character observes of the charismatic politician:

“I don’t know whether he’s more of a crook or an hysterical religious fanatic.”

Lewis observes that the candidate speaks with soaring rhetoric, but few specifics:

He slid into a rhapsody of general ideas – a mishmash of polite regards to Justice, Freedom, Equality, Order, Prosperity, Patriotism, and any number of other noble but slippery abstractions.

In a review, the Boston Globe noted that Buzz Windrip wins because of:

his easy-going personality…massive cash donations from Big Business; disorganization in the liberal opposition; a stuffy, aloof opponent; and support from religious fanatics who feel they’ve been unfairly marginalized

After being elected, President Windrip opens large detention centers – Guantanamo on a larger scale1 – for enemies of the state, which is his label for supporters of the Constitution and traditional liberal democracy. He also creates a system of military tribunals to try these enemies of the state.

In another passage in the book, Lewis channeled today’s radicals – and John Edwards – in assailing the corporate political parties:

[T]he President, with something of his former good-humor [said]: “There are two [political] parties, the Corporate and those who don’t belong to any party at all, and so, to use a common phrase, are just out of luck!” The idea of the Corporate or Corporative State, Secretary [of State] Sarason had more or less taken from Italy.

I’m sure there are quite a few gems in this eerily prophetic work, but this is my favorite as the President Windrip explains why civil liberties, democracy, and the rest should be put aside for a time while the current Crisis is dealt with:

President Windrip’s first extended proclamation to the country was a pretty piece of literature and of tenderness. He explained that powerful and secret enemies of American principles – one rather gathered that they were a combination of Wall Street and Soviet Russia–upon discovering, to their fury, that he, Berzelius, was going to be President, had planned their last charge. Everything would be tranquil in a few months, but meantime there was a Crisis, during which the country must “bear with him.”

He recalled the military dictatorship of Lincoln and Stanton during the Civil War, when civilian suspects were arrested without warrant. He hinted how delightful everything was going to be – right away now – just a moment – just a moment’s patience – when he had things in hand; and he wound up with a comparison of the Crisis to the urgency of a fireman rescuing a pretty girl from a “conflagration,” and carrying her down a ladder, for her own sake, whether she liked it or not, and no matter how appealingly she might kick her pretty ankles.

The whole country laughed.

Looking at the book both through today’s Crisis, and the Crisis of 1935 – Great Depression and the opening rumblings of World War II – and comparing what this fictional Christianist Fascist did to what happened during both crises, one senses how easily republics can fail, and how fragile democracy is.

  1. or if we were to stay closer to the period, like the Japanese internment camps []
Categories
Election 2008 Obama Political Philosophy Politics

Why I cannot support Ron Paul

Ron Paul

[digg-reddit-me]John Derbyshire of the National Review came out in support of Ron Paul today – and he makes a persuasive case. The core of his argument is that a typical candidate will not be able to fix what is wrong:

Yet, more and more, I think we are heading for (or perhaps are in) some kind of systemic crisis, one that not even the meanest s.o.b. could do much about. A systemic crisis needs a systemic solution, and only Paul offers that, with his return to constitutional fundamentals…

If, however, you think that much of the underbrush that has grown up around our national institutions this past 40 years needs to by pulled up by the roots and burned, before it chokes the life out of our Republic, then Paul’s your man.

This is the only argument that could persuade me to support a Ron Paul, or even a Dennis Kucinich. 1 I too believe, along with Derbyshire, we are in the midst of a systematic crisis that has been developing since the presidency of Harry Truman at latest. I also believe that George W. Bush has accelerated this crisis immeasurably – to Bush’s credit. If it were not for the boundless arrogance and incompetence Bush has displayed repeatedly throughout his term, we wouldn’t have the same opportunity for reform that we have now. The many presidents who have made relatively responsible use of their power distracted the majority of Americans from the inherent systematic problems, and from the extra-constitutionality of the executive’s growing power. George W. Bush put these issues back on the agenda.

And it is the reality of George W. Bush, more than anything, that is fueling the candidacy of Ron Paul.

Ron Paul and Dennis Kucinich are idealists rather than pragmatists. They have big ideas that inspire and they are uncompromising in their goals. Their dreams for America are pristine – and untouched by either politics or reality.2 But there is a simple reason that I cannot support a Ron Paul or a Dennis Kucinich – even if I believed that either one perfectly expressed where we need to end up as a nation, and even if I believed either Paul or Kucinich would be able to accomplish their goals and overcome the tremendous obstacles in their way. The simple reason is that radical3 change is rarely permanent and rarely good.

We are still dealing with the backlash from our first ideologically radical president, George W. Bush. By changing so much so fast Bush has created a backlash against everything he has done. This backlash looks a lot like Ron Paul – the opposite of Bush on many, many issues. If someone was able to merge the persons of Dennis Kucinich and Ron Paul, they would be able to create an almost perfect anti-Bush who opposed the current president on every issue and whose every inclination tended the opposite way of the current cowboy in chief. But this is not enough – in fact, this politics of negation is precisely the opposite of what will solve America’s problems.

What America needs today is a president who will focus on restoring the processes and institutions that make America safe and that preserve liberty and the American way of life. We need a president who will be pragmatic and gradually win the support of the people for the long-term process that it will be to restore the Constitution and the system of checks and balances. Ron Paul and Dennis Kucinich do not seem to have a long-term strategy for their goals, even if their principles are correct – rather they claim they are just going to accomplish their objectives. ((I know Kucinich has detailed plans, and I’m sure that Ron Paul has thought about these issues as well; but they both seem to believe that the major impediment to radical change is their own election. Governing is not so easy of a proposition, especially with entrenched interests defending each and every aspect of the system.) I don’t think the world works this way. More, I believe, if either of these men were faced with having to implement their agendas, they would begin hedging so fast and so furiously, they would make Mitt Romney and Hillary Clinton look principled. I don’t mean this as a slight to either man. I believe both are intelligent enough to realize how difficult it would be to dismantle the IRS or create a single-payer health care system; and when faced with the prospect of having to accomplish these goals, they would naturally hedge their promises if not their principles. Politics is the art of compromise – and a practice where ideals are hard to reconcile with power.

As I have said before: this is why I support Barack Obama. Because I believe he is principled, yet pragmatic. I see in him both the arrogance and ambition needed to run for president, and the humility to see that the tasks before him are far greater than he can accomplish by himself. He is a political figure who transcends traditional political boundaries. Most important, he believes that process is paramount and is willing to base his campaign on bringing people together to fix the many broken processes that form the bedrock of a robust democracy.

Ron Paul and Dennis Kucinich are likely good men with admirable goals; and it is their unflinching idealism which attracts so many. But it is precisely this which would cause them to fail and to create a backlash of the same sort that Bush has created with his policies.

Perhaps this isn’t the most inspiring campaign slogan, but I think it’s appropriate:

Barack Obama: All the change we can handle, and judgment we can trust.

Political courage is not only measured by the worthiness of one’s ideals, but by the sum of one’s actions.

  1. I don’t think anything could persuade me to support Mike Gravel who strikes me as a loon. []
  2. I know I exaggerate, and Kucinich certainly has made compromises. But they still leave his agenda far from possible. []
  3. Meaning extreme. []
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Election 2008 Law Liberalism Libertarianism Morality Political Philosophy Politics The Web and Technology

The libertarian liberal

Liberty Bell

[digg-reddit-me]My post of a few weeks ago got a bit of attention. I was called a Communist by one person. Someone else suggested I was a secret member of the long-defunct FBI program COINTELPRO. Markos Moulitsas of the Daily Kos approvingly linked to it from the main page of The Daily Kos. The Freedom Democrats had a small discussion, including the notation that they could tell that “the person who wrote it is not really a libertarian.” Enough people on reddit believed the post would cause damage to the candidacy of Ron Paul and down-modded it.

I have written this article in response to a few comments:

Libertas questioned:

Umm.. how exactly does ‘Kos Libertarian’ differ from the standard Democrat, other than opposing the various lobbies?
…What you are describing is not Libertarianism; it is the noble, but slippery slope to government expansion and to the loss of freedom.

A “Jay” opined:

It appears then that ‘Libertarian Democrats’ need to go look up the definition of ‘corporation’. If you would have done that first you might not have made an ass out of yourself and completely discredited yourself with such an absurd quote.

symphonyofdissent argued that:

… there is a real distinction between a progressive and a left-libertarian…Progressivism does not view the individual as the critical unit, but instead views society as a whole. The sacrifice of individual liberty is justified if it benefits society on the whole Libertarianism views individuals as the primary unit of interest.

erw wrote:

i think checking corporate power is seen as a non-issue for libertarians, since they believe:

1) the place to check corporate power is in the courts, if and when they harm you or your property.
2) corporate lobbies and special treatment are all by-products of a large federal government…

i think it just shows how much influence ron paul has. he is pulling democrats into his camp with fearless stances.

Fred Fnord had a thoughtful comment, which you should read in full.

This post is responding to a number of these points. As always, feel free to comment. 1


The essence of libertarianism
I cannot do justice to the philosophy of libertarianism in a single post, and I will not try. But I think we can all agree that there are two main ideas at the base of a libertarian politics:

  1. I exist as an individual and I own myself; and
  2. “Where the State begins, individual liberty ceases, and vice versa.”2

In a pragmatic sense, the goal, or the teleological end, of libertarianism is the promotion of individual liberty.

Coming to the libertarian liberal philosophy

To summarize the point both I and Markos Moulitsas were making:

Kos Libertarians3 believe we do not need a government small enough to drown in a bathtub as Grover Norquist famously said. Rather, we need a government that is as small as possible, while still allowing it to act as a check against corporate power. In other words, Kos Libertarians believe we need a government that not only butts out of our life, but that guards our rights against others.4

History has proven time and again that individuals and liberties will be trampled upon by the powerful without preemptive action by the government. Corporations take advantage of their special status5 in order to circumvent legal responsibility for their actions. The kind of libertarianism favored by many towards the right-wing of the political spectrum involves going back to the 1890s, when corporations were first granted the rights of individuals and had few regulations imposed on them; and also when the government had fewer powers and intruded less on the life of the ordinary person.

But the changes that occurred after that point happened for a reason. The traditional libertarian remedy of requiring individuals to bring suit against companies for any harm done to them failed. Corporations exerted enormous power and subverted the courts to their will. They forced workers to toil in unsafe conditions; they made faulty products; they exploited natural resources without giving anything back to the community; they polluted the air, water, and soil. If the government had not stepped in in the early 1900s under Teddy Roosevelt and in the 1930s under Franklin Roosevelt, the capitalist system of free markets guided by “an invisible hand” would have perished. Government began to assume more power in a large part to act as a check against the corporate abuses of their growing power.

Yet by the 1980s, it was obvious to many Americans that the government could do great harm, even when it was trying to act beneficently. The welfare program helped entrench people in ghettos; the Vietnam War, fought to save the Vietnamese from Communism, had accomplished nothing; the national security system created to respond to the domestic and international threat of the Cold War had turned against dissenters and political opponents; the growing domestic spending led to huge deficits and inflation. The government was clearly a problem.

The libertarian liberal philosophy is a response to this moment in history – synthesizing the critique of capitalism inherent in the New Deal and the critique of government inherent in the Reagan Revolution.

What does a libertarian liberal believe

At the heart of American liberalism, there has always been a contradiction. American liberals have long fought for individual rights against the state – especially in matter relating to criminal law, civil rights, minority rights, and free speech.6 At the same time, American liberals fought for greater state intervention in the economy and daily life of the nation. The American liberal tradition had not acknowledged that by giving the state greater power, we were in effect conceding individual freedoms. Even if that power was required to be used to help individuals, it would inevitably have negative side effects, making these individuals dependent on the state and giving the government more power and ability to manipulate individuals.

Today, many liberals have come to see this reality. While we still believe that government can be used for good, we are much more cautious about what government can and should do.

The libertarian liberal approach is pragmatic rather than ideological. It is about maximizing individual liberty with one caveat: the moral duty to empower the impoverished and the disadvantaged. Maximizing individual liberty means using the government as a check against corporations; it means setting up checks and balances within the government itself; it means a strong media, willing to challenge the government and corporations; it means strong individual rights to keep the government and corporations in check; it means elections that are meaningful. To maximize individual liberties, we need to constantly balance the many competing forces in such a way as to give each person the rights that are their birthright.

The difference between a liberal and a libertarian liberal

The goals of liberals and libertarian liberals are similar if not the same. The difference is in the approach. For example, let’s look at health care. As a traditional liberal, Dennis Kucinich does not see value in a libertarian view of the problem. Government, for him, cannot be the problem; it must be the entire solution. He wants to eliminate the system as it is and impose a government-run health care plan on everyone, whether they want it or not. To take another example of a more pragmatic traditional liberal, Hillary Clinton, does not want to eliminate the system, but wants to work within it. She wants to take a number of steps to make it easier for the average person to buy health insurance, including opening up the plan used by members of Congress to the population at large. But she also plans to mandate that every person get and maintain health insurance.

Barak Obama’s plan is similar to Hillary’s but with one crucial difference. He too plans on taking a number of steps to make health insurance more affordable, and to open up Congress’s plan to the rest of the country, to invest more in health care infrastructure, and take a number of steps to reduce costs. But he will not force anyone adult to get health insurance. 7 This is the difference between a traditional liberal and a libertarian liberal. 8 Both see a problem – a problem that the free market is making worse – and both believe that the government must act. Neither believes that a complete overhaul of the system can happen – for pragmatic reasons, if nothing else. Both lay out similar steps that need to be taken – to reduce prices, to enable individuals to afford health care, and to make it more available. But Hillary believes the government needs to force independent and competent9 people to get health care; Obama does not.

There are arguments to be made as to why the government should force people to get health care – Paul Krugman has been harping on these for some time – but if one believes that the government should only use force when it is absolutely necessary, as a libertarian does, then Obama’s program is better because it respects individual rights. The best use of government in a libertarian liberal view is when it is able to empower individuals and act as a check against corporate abuse of individual liberty. Obama’s plan does this; with Hillary’s plan individuals are empowered to act against corporations, and corporate power is checked – but the government is given yet more leverage over every individual, creating another regulation for individuals to comply with, and another reason for the government to penalize the exercise of freedom.

  1. As some people have noticed, your comment will not appear until I have approved it. This is only an anti-spam measure. I approve every comment that is not clearly spam; and I try to check as often as possible. []
  2. By Mikhail Bakunin. I don’t mean to cite Bakunin as a typical libertarian, but only to take this quote and use it to express in a simple form one of the main precepts agreed to by all libertarians. I thought of using Ronald Reagan’s “Government is not the solution, it is the problem,” but that seemed a bit too specific. It was a conclusion, rather than a base. []
  3. I think the term “Kos libertarian” best describes the current movement of libertarian-minded Democrats, but that the term “libertarian liberal” best describes the pragmatic politics and philosophy. []
  4. As a commenter pointed out, the original phrasing (“that protects our rights against others”) can be read as an unfair interpretation of traditional libertarianism. Traditional libertarians would see the courts as the appropriate place for the government to mediate between parties and protect basic rights. What I should have said was that “Kos libertarians believe we need a government that not only butts out of our individuals lives, but guards our rights against others.” Libertarians liberals believe that the government must take an active role in pro-actively guarding individual rights. []
  5. Specifically limited liability provisions. And in response to “Jay”, although corporations are legally considered individuals, this is something commonly called a “legal fiction.” Philosophically, morally, pragmatically, physiologically, psychologically, and in every other way they are not. They are collectives. []
  6. The American liberal’s record on free speech in the past twenty years though is significantly more checked. []
  7. There is a rather large debate going on now between Paul Krugman, Barack Obama, Robert Reich, and Hillary Clinton about this. Hillary is saying Obama’s plan won’t cover everyone because it won’t have a mandate; but Hillary’s plan actually won’t either – it will just require that everyone get insurance. Krugman has stepped in to attack Obama mercilessly again and again and again as the Clinton shill he has become; and Reich stepped in to look at both sides, and come down on the side of Obama. Jaydiatribe has a good overall view of the conflict. []
  8. I wouldn’t necessarily say Obama is a libertarian liberal, but on this issue, it fits. He also seems closest to the position of all the current crop of candidates. And certainly, as a member of a different generation, he has learned the lessons of the 1980s better than Hillary. []
  9. Added “independent and competent”. I, for the life of me, cannot think of the correct term to use here. There is a philosophical term on the tip of my tongue used to describe people who are able to make independent, self-conscious decisions. []
Categories
Election 2008 Foreign Policy Giuliani Law Libertarianism Obama Politics Post 9/11 Generation The War on Terrorism

Why I write this blog

It’s been about two months since I’ve started this blog. I started it knowing only that I wanted to write, and that I already had a dozen ideas for posts or articles. There were many times as well when I would read this or that article and be frustrated at the inaccuracies, and I wanted to correct them, or add to them, and I thought could advance the collective conversation.

This blog has in many ways been more successful than I anticipated – with over 125,000 pageviews and over 80,000 absolute unique visitors in this short time. I’ve been writing only in my free time here and there – a few minutes before lunch at work, after I get home at night, and on weekends.

Recently, I have been trying to determine what exactly it is that I have to offer, and therefore what this blog should be about. My most popular link so far was this funny cat video I came across on a Saturday night and embedded; next was this bit of electoral analysis which has proved remarkably prescient, especially in its title “The Beginning of the End of Hillary 2008”; then comes this uneven piece on the rhetoric used in the debate on what to do about terrorists and terrorism. As you go further down the list, there is one piece of pop-political-philosophy discussing the differences between two libertarian-minded political trends; a mention of Chris Rock’s comments introducing Obama with related video; the contrasting stories of the interrogation of two Al Qaeda related prisoners in the aftermath of September 11; and a video of a cheerleader getting trampled by a football team. The posts cover a wide range – from clear fluff to horse-race analysis of the presidential campaigns to more serious discussions of issues.

What is it that I have to offer?

Given my position – having a full-time job and blogging on the side – I cannot do what I would most want to do, in-depth first person research on every topic.1 But I think there are other things I have to offer. I am a voracious consumer of media – especially about news and politics. I listen to many unedited candidate and policy-maker speeches.2 I care deeply about a number of issues and follow them closely in the news including the issue of liberty in America today, the fate of Pakistan, the attempt to create a practical and moral foreign policy, and the construction of a strategy to wage a smart and effective War on Terror. I read opinions from a broad political spectrum, and take them seriously. Or at least most of them. I have read books by Ann Coulter, Sean Hannity, and Barry Goldwater, as well as books by Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn, and I regularly read both conservative and liberal blogs and magazines, as well as some radicals that are not so easily classified. 3 I believe I have generally sound judgment and a sense of the political winds, as well as a unique and insightful views on current events.

So what I have to offer is this: a funny video every Saturday; analysis of where the politics is headed in the near and slightly-less-near future; and serious policy discussion (leavened with some humor).

What this blog is about

There is one issue which above all shapes my thoughts today and is the impetus behind this blog: the precariousness of the American experiment. I am convinced that America’s status as a liberal4 democratic republic is in existential danger. This danger is not only from terrorism, but from our government’s response to terrorism. I have come to believe that the Bush administration has undermined and subverted many of the institutions and ideas that have kept executive power in check since our founding: the media, the Supreme Court, the independence of executive agencies, the military, the Congress, and the rule of law. At the same time, the Bush administration has posited monarchical powers for the presidency, they have been relatively reticent in using them. 5 For example, while Bush has asserted the authority to declare any person a terrorist and enemy combatant and hold them secretly and indefinitely without trial or charge and torture them for information, and given such a broad definition of terrorism as to include anyone who even criticizes him, he does not seem to have used this power to the extent he has asserted he can. This has led many people to see the rhetoric of those raising the alarm about these issues as unhinged from the reality of their lives. But because Bush has asserted such powers and undermined every check on his power, we are closer than ever to a police state.

Let me be clear – I think in every practical sense, America today is far from a police state. But with the theoretical foundations laid down by this administration, and the subversion of any check on executive power, we seem to be only one 9/11 away from a fall from authentic liberal democracy. It is this concern that is the prism which affects how I see every issue: it is why I became a Barack Obama supporter; why I am afraid of Rudy Giuliani; why I am so opposed to torture; why I am so concerned about our strategy in the War on Terrorism; why I started this blog; and why I will continue to write and seek other ways to affect America’s fate.

  1. I am trying to do this though, and to do it more – sending emails, letters, and in other ways trying to contact the subjects of my pieces; and also trying to get more information in this way. []
  2. Through C-Span, the Constitution Center, and the Council of Foreign Relations primarily. []
  3. I believe there is a third way in politics – but that neither Bill Clinton nor his wife have found it, relying instead on cynical triangulation and the papering over of large differences with clever rhetoric. []
  4. In the classical sense. []
  5. Only relative to what they have asserted is their power. For example, the Bush administration has asserted that it does not need Congressional approval to go to war, but it still asked for it. []
Categories
Domestic issues Election 2008 Political Philosophy

lib•er•tar•ian: Two roads diverged in a wood…

Alaska
© kruggg6 @ flickr

lib•er•tar•ian

n. 1. a person who believes in the doctrine of the freedom of the will;
2. a person who believes in full individual freedom of thought, expression and action;[digg-reddit-me]
3. a freewheeling rebel who hates wiretaps, loves Ron Paul and is redirecting politics.

From the Washington Post, an ideologically-muddled piece by Nick Gillespie and Matt Welch (of Reason magazine) about Ron Paul and the libertarian phenomenon. I would guess the “muddle” is because Gillespie and Welch are still somewhat wedded to the idea of a conservative-libertarian political axis. The idea behind the piece was to explore the growing support for the libertarian philosophy in American politics – especially as demonstrated in the strength of Ron Paul’s campaign. Unfortunately, the idea wasn’t fully explored – and it ended up distorting Ron Paul’s positions significantly and mainly ignoring the left-libertarian movement. But the article did bring up an important topic – and one that I haven’t seen covered by the mainstream press.

Even as consensus on base libertarian ideas is growing, the movement is diverging into two camps. Or, more apt, libertarian ideas are taking root in two different political movements. In broad terms, I’m going to call them Ron Paul Libertarians and Kos Libertarians.

Ron Paul Libertarians

Favorite films
Enemy of the State
, V for Vendetta, The Firm, The Conversation

Favorite websites
Reason.com, reddit.com, digg.com, mises.org, lewrockwell.com (see footnote 1)

Favorite TV show
The X-Files, Family Guy

Favorite Conspiracy Theory
“9/11 was an inside job!” (See footnote 2); Honorable mentions: “Global warming is a hoax!” and “The Fed is evil.” (See footnote 3)

Geographic center
The Internet

Top proponents
Ron Paul, phenomenon

Number 1 boogeymen

Hillary Clinton, George W. Bush, CIA, The Media, The Federal Reserve (See footnote 3)

Signature issues

  • opposition to Iraq war and most of American foreign policy since 1990;
  • opposition to wiretapping and increased national security measures;
  • support of marijuana decriminalization and ending the War on Drugs;
  • reducing taxes;
  • support of gun rights;
  • eliminating the social support network of Social Security, Medicaid, Medicare, etcetera.

Ron Paul supporters tend to fall into two categories: the old guard – the Barry Goldwater wing of the Republican party – and a large contingent of newer members – who are suspicious of government, especially the military-intelligence-industrial complex that seems to be gaining more and more power. To speak in broad strokes: the older members are pretty old – and the main reason to include them is that Ron Paul himself is one of them. They have strong feelings about economic and social issues; and on these, they tend to be reactionary. The older guard want to reverse the New Deal and go back to simpler times.

The newer members care less about restoring the social and economic structures of pre-World War II America, and more about restoring – in their words – the Constitution. They want a new America where the government leaves them alone – with their guns, their hacking, their anarchist beliefs, their marijuana, their prostitution – whatever. (See footnote 2.) They are scared about the growing power of the government and feel we are approaching a police state, if we are not there already.

Ron Paul supporters, both old and new, tend to be contrarians, which makes them a cantakerous lot. But in a society, in a political debate, their views need airing.

Kos Libertarians

Favorite films
The Insider, An Inconvenient Truth, Fahrenheit 9/11, Thank You For Smoking

Favorite website
DailyKos.com

Favorite TV shows
The Wire, The Daily Show

Favorite Conspiracy Theory
“The Iraq war is part of an intricate plot to help Bush, Cheney, and the rich get hold of key resource before the coming near-apocalyptic events brought on by global warming.” Honorable mention: “9/11 was an inside job!”

Geographic center
The Mountain West/The Internet

Top proponents
Jon Tester, Markos Moulitsas

Number 1 boogeymen

George W. Bush, Oil companies, Wal-Mart, Halliburton, Blackwater, Hillary Clinton

Signature issues

  • opposition to Iraq war;
  • opposition to illegal wiretapping and the aggressive pursuit of unchecked executive power;
  • support openness and transparency in every portion of the government;
  • support of marijuana decriminalization and ending the War on Drugs;
  • support of net neutrality;
  • support of gun rights;
  • support of using government as a check against corporate power;
  • support of a strong barrier between religion and the state;
  • support of social security programs such as Social Security, aid to the poor, and health care programs.

The era of Libertarian Democrats was inaugurated with a post on the Daily Kos by its founder, Markos Moulitsas. From Markos’s piece:

Traditional “libertarianism” holds that government is evil and thus must be minimized. Any and all government intrusion is bad….

The problem with this form of libertarianism is that it assumes that only two forces can infringe on liberty – the government and other individuals.

The Libertarian Democrat understands that there is a third danger to personal liberty – the corporation. The Libertarian Dem understands that corporations, left unchecked, can be huge dangers to our personal liberties.

Libertarian Dems are not hostile to government like traditional libertarians. But unlike the liberal Democrats of old times (now all but extinct), the Libertarian Dem doesn’t believe government is the solution for everything. But it sure as heck is effective in checking the power of corporations.

Markos cites Jon Tester, Paul Hackett, and Jim Webb as models for this type of liberal libertarian politician, but the movement has yet to “take off”, even though 2006 proved a banner year. What is clear though is that this movement is growing in power and influence, and is likely to grow more. As the Republican party has become more authoritarian and the executive branch has become more powerful under Democratic and Republican stewardship, and as corporations have come to infringe more and more upon the rights of employees and customers, support for this point of view is growing.

Kos Libertarians believe do not need a government small enough to drown in a bathtub as Grover Norquist famously said. Rather, we need a government that is as small as possible, while still allowing it to act as a check against corporate power. In other words, Kos Libertarians believe we need a government that not only butts out of our life, but that protects our rights against others.

Categories
Domestic issues History Law Political Philosophy Politics The War on Terrorism

A Defense of Compromise and the American Experiment

In response to a blog post by lynx on natural rights, as well as comments made on my post[digg-reddit-me] about whether or not terrorists have rights, and another post of mine that discussed torture, comments made by Andrew K at essembly.com, and in various reddit discussions:

A few definitions

freedom – the ability to act without restraint; referring to politics: the right of self-determination as an expression of the individual will. (see footnote 1)

society – a collection of individual beings who together form a community with a shared culture and a shared set of rules or laws.

a rule or law – a restriction on the freedom of an individual or institution.

radical – someone who rejects the way things are in favor of revolutionary change.

Absolute freedom

Based on these definitions, it is clear that any society is, by it’s nature, the result of the compromise of individual freedom. Absolute freedom is a state enjoyed only by tyrants. In a society of equals or near-equals, the freedom that is enjoyed is the result the compromise of each individual’s absolute freedom. These compromises are memorialized in laws, constitutions, rules, mores, ethical principles, and customs among other means. They are enforced through various methods – from social pressure to the courts of law.

As with every human endeavor, the system of compromises that allows society to exist is deeply flawed. Rules are unequally applied; mores are arbitrary; laws are broken. But even in the purest theoretical state, absolute individual freedom is impossible in a free society.

The American experiment

What we are left with then is disarmingly simple: we must try to figure out what is the best compromise of individual freedoms that will allow us to live together in a society. The dream of greater freedom, of a more free society, has motivated people throughout history: from Gandhi to Plato, from Che Guevera to Simon Bolivar, from Alexander Hamilton to James Madison, from Robespierre to Abraham Lincoln.

As often as these experiments have been tried, they have failed. In the name of freedom, Robespierre instituted a Reign of Terror; Plato banished poetry and democracy; James Madison protected slavery; Abraham Lincoln waged a bloody civil war; Che Guevera fought for a dictatorship. This is what men have done in the name of freedom.

Despite these flawed individuals and their flawed conceptions of a free society, advances have been made in the past few centuries. (See footnote 2.) The American Revolution established the principle that the consent of the governed is required in a free society, and that certain rights are inherent, such as life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The subsequent Constitution and Bill or Rights established a government that for the first time, attempted to balance power sufficient to maintain a stable society with numerous checks and restrictions to limit abuses of this power. The 14th Amendment committed the federal government to guarding and preserving the rights inherent in the founding documents. Finally, the New Deal and subsequent programs made the state responsible for providing basic economic opportunities to its citizens and for protecting them from the excesses of capitalism.

The most important liberties in any free society are those which are essential to allow for the effective consent of the governed in creating and maintaining the policies and laws of the government. There has been much debate about what is needed, but on the whole, most agree that this list encompasses the basics:

  • an independent judiciary;
  • fair and transparent elections;
  • a free press;
  • a military subordinate to civilian authority;
  • habeas corpus;
  • freedom of speech;
  • freedom of assembly.

Without these, a government is not able to gain the free consent of it’s people.

At the time of the American revolution, individual liberty and the right to pursue one’s happiness beyond these basic rights were acknowledged in theory, but violated in practice – especially at the state level. Since then, as the government has become more powerful, regulations have been created to restrain the government more. But government power has outstripped regulation and especially since the New Deal, these non-basic liberties have been eroding. (See footnote 3.)

Our society is still substantially free – even today. There are growing defects apparent in our institutions of government; there are many attempts – some successful – to undermine the freedom of the press, habeas corpus, the independent judiciary, and the civilian authority over the military. Yet despite these attacks on basic liberties, and the glaring exceptions that are generally gathered together under the heading of consensual crimes, individuals in contemporary American society still have substantial freedom to pursue their happiness as long as their desires do not conflict with the rights of others.

Compromise

There is the rub. In a society, the rights of one individual is often pitted against the rights of another. Does the absolute freedom of speech mean I can lie about a product I am selling; or endanger others by inciting violence; or slander the reputation of my neighbor? How does the absolute freedom of religion deal with religions that seek to impose their views of ethics on all others? Does the freedom to assemble mean that I can gather together with 500 of my closest friends in your backyard?

Compromise is the basis of our system of government, and the basis of our society. A significant part of the effectiveness of terrorism is that it exploits the liberties inherent in a free society. Terrorism is the price we pay for freedom. But upon due consideration, and with the goal of preserving our way of life and with the consent of the people, compromises may be made in order to reduce the dangers of terrorism. Our compromises should be in proportion to the problem: suspending habeas corpus during an insurrection is one thing; suspending it indefinitely as a result of possible future plots is quite another.

We must zealously guard the aforementioned pillars of a free society: freedom of speech, freedom of the press, etcetera. But we must guard them not because they are ideals which are perfect; but because they are the pillars of a free society. If we begin to focus on the absolute ideals and lose focus on the society in which we live, we risk going down the path of Robespierre, who in the name of liberty, fraternity, and equality became a tyrant.

Every society is the result of a particular set of compromises and is delicately balanced between anarchy and tyranny. The problem with radicalism is that it has no patience for balance – instead, seeking to create society anew. The desire to start again, to erase all the evils of the world with a new social compact, is a compelling idea that has seduced many. Inevitably, it has led to tyranny as the delicate balance holding society together is disturbed.

Perhaps more than anything this was the miracle of the American Revolution – the fact that is was a non-radical revolution that never sought to remake its society.

Why I’m angry

It is because I believe our society is not entirely corrupt and because I believe it allows genuine freedom for most of its citizens that I am so angry at the current administration. As I have written previously and will again: I believe that the Bush administration has been fighting a war against our theoretical rights and liberties, against the system of checks and balances, and against the Constitution in the name of expanding executive power. They refer to it as allowing greater freedom for the president to execute policy and protect national security.

A challenge to those who disagree

  • define freedom (if you disagree with the definition given)
  • define society (same as above)
  • explain why compromise is not necessary (if you believe so)