Sunday, December 16, 2007

They ought to be ashamed of themselves

Congress has just passed two bills that illustrate everything that’s wrong with Congress. If you want examples of how politics trumps sound economic policy, producing outcomes that benefit the few with political clout at the expense of the many without, take a look at the recently passed energy bill and farm bill.

The energy bill throws money at ethanol companies by mandating that 7.5 billion gallons of ethanol and biodiesel be used every year. What’s wrong with that? Only the fact that Brazilian sugar-cane-based ethanol can be produced much more cheaply and efficiently than U.S. corn-based ethanol. Ecologically and economically, we’re better off buying ethanol from Brazil. But Brazilian ethanol is kept out of the U.S. market by a tariff. The sole purpose of this tariff is to protect inefficient U.S. ethanol companies who have friends in Congress.

Sometimes it seems that the only purpose Congress serves is to protect favored businesses. Consider our system of farm subsidies, which has just been renewed by the passage of the farm bill after a complete cave-in of efforts to reform it.

Government payments to farmers come in many varieties and have two principal effects: Some of them raise prices that ought to be lower, and others depress prices that ought to be higher. The so-called Conservation Reserve Program pays farmers to convert cropland to “vegetative cover” in the name of conservation. That’s right, farmers get dough from Uncle Sam for not growing any crops. At the same time, quotas and tariff barriers keep out cheaper crops from foreign countries. The effect is to restrict the supply of agricultural products and keep prices high. For example, it’s been estimated that sugar quotas double the price of sugar for consumers in the U.S.

But the worst subsidies are those that guarantee minimum prices for certain crops, encouraging U.S. farmers to grow things that otherwise would be money-losers for them because of their high production costs. We’re growing cotton in the Arizona desert, with expensive (and subsidized) irrigation systems, which is then sold on the world market for less than it costs to produce. Yep, you heard that right—American farmers, growing things which can be grown far more cheaply and efficiently elsewhere, can dump their high-cost crops on the world market (don’t Congressmen howl about other countries dumping things on the market below cost?) thanks to payments from the federal government that keep them in business.

The result, of course, is that world prices are depressed and farmers in, say, poor African countries who are not lucky enough to be subsidized by their governments, struggle to compete. They get screwed, big-time. Our farm subsidies are the greatest enemy of developing-world farmers, the single greatest legitimate grievance of the poor world against the rich (the Europeans are also major villains in the farm subsidy game).

But isn’t all this necessary to save the endangered family farm? Well, most farmers don’t get any subsidies at all. If you’re not growing one of the anointed crops, you’re on your own; you have to grow something people are willing to pay for and figure out how to market it. Meanwhile, in 2003 the top 10 percent of subsidy recipients collected 72 percent of all subsidies and the top 5 percent collected 55 percent of payments. (These figures are from a good discussion of the problem put out by Citizens Against Government Waste) The great majority of subsidy payments go to the biggest, best-off farming operations, i.e. the type of farmers who can afford to hire lobbyists.

The best way to reform the subsidy system would be to blow it up. Just get rid of all the subsidies and let farmers figure out what crops there is a demand for and set about providing them economically. But this is unlikely to happen as long as a Congressman’s real constituency is the people who pay for his campaign instead of the people who cast the votes.

Our farm subsidy system is a scandal and an outrage, as are the ethanol subsidies in the new energy bill. Both bills show Congress at its worst, stacking the deck for their friends and contributors while insulting our intelligence with their rhetoric. Senator Tom Harkin, supposedly a progressive, called the farm bill “a solid, forward-looking, fiscally responsible bill,” with a straight face. Most of his colleagues appeared to agree.

They ought to be ashamed of themselves.

Sam Reaves

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Cut 'em off

An all-star conglomeration of diplomats, heads of state and miscellaneous power brokers is descending on Annapolis, Maryland for a Mideast peace conference sponsored by the Bush administration. In addition to the the headliners, the Israelis and the Palestinians, a supporting cast including the Syrians, the Saudis and the Egyptians will be there. Just about everyone with a stake in the region will have a representative in Annapolis, all hoping to bash out some kind of agreement that will put an end to the festering conflict at the heart of the turmoil in the Middle East.

What are the chances? Hard to say. The problems in the Middle East go beyond Israel and the Palestinians. But it’s a starting point, so let’s look at it: the implantation of what is arguably a European state in the Arab territory of Palestine following the Second World War was, from the Arab point of view, a colonial invasion at a time when most Arab countries were freeing themselves from imperial masters. Whether the ethnic cleansing of Palestine in the wake of the establishment of Israel was a cold-blooded crime or an unintended consequence of a war provoked by Arab intransigence, it’s asking a lot of a Palestinian in a Lebanese refugee camp to embrace the state of Israel as a benign neighbor.

The trouble is, there’s a lot to like about Israel. In a region whose political culture is characterized by autocracy, obscurantism, hysteria and brutality, Israel is a functioning democracy with a free press, a lively opposition and a strong strain of the kind of masochistic internal dissent that is found only in the truly open society. Granted, its forty-year occupation and partial colonization of territory taken in war has placed that democracy under intense stress and led to abuses that no nation can be proud of. But for a country like Syria, whose unelected ruler in 1982 largely obliterated one of his own cities when provoked by rebellion, to criticize Israel for its treatment of Palestinians in the occupied territories is, to say the least, a touch hypocritical.

The truth is that much Israeli brutality has been a direct response to outrageous provocation. The slaughter of schoolchildren and the suicide bombing of Passover dinners is not best calculated to win the high moral ground. The Palestinians could have been the poster child for persecuted minorities, and instead they turned themselves into the bogeyman of the 20th century. They needed a Gandhi and they got Arafat.

The state of Israel was midwifed by the United Nations, and insofar as nations recognize the legitimacy of the U.N., it is incumbent on them to recognize the existence of Israel. The United States has no need to apologize for its support of Israel, and it should be noted that the greatest gains achieved by Arab polities, the Camp David accord which returned the Sinai to Egypt in 1977 and the Oslo accords of 1993 which created the Palestinian Authority, were achieved under American sponsorship. Is defending Israel a legitimate American interest? Only insofar as defending a democracy is a legitimate interest of other democracies. It should be regarded as an international interest.

None of which, of course, means that the Palestinian grievance is illegitimate. There is little dispute that there ought to be a functioning Palestinian state alongside the state of Israel. The question is how to get there.

A viable Palestinian state will require Israel to relinquish much of the territory it has colonized in the past forty years, which will entail a searing internal conflict in Israel, including possible civil strife. The sooner this conflict gets underway and is resolved, the better for the long-term health of Israel. The occupation is simply unsustainable. It has corroded and corrupted Israel. Details of borders and territorial swaps are trivial compared with the fundamental conflict between those who favor territorial concession and those who think that Israel can hold onto the West Bank forever. I believe the latter position is folly, and the greatest long-term threat to Israel, but it is the Israelis who must decide.

Relinquishing territory, however, will undoubtedly bring a whole new set of security problems, as demonstrated by the chaos in Gaza since Israel withdrew from the strip in 2005. It is sadly predictable that sizable Palestinian factions will insist on exploiting any Israeli withdrawal to step up attacks on Israel. Extremism is endemic in Arab political culture, and Palestinian irredentism will not disappear with the establishment of a functioning Palestinian state. And on past form, the Palestinian government, whoever ends up constituting it, will be unable to restrain it, even if willing. (If not willing, they should not be allowed to form a government.)

That’s why any solution will require a sizable presence of foreign troops in the new Palestine to guarantee Israel’s security. It would be best if these troops did not come from the United States. However, they must come from some country that is willing to devote blood and treasure to policing the peace, whose military is willing to pull the trigger. Israel will not accept a token force that winks at rocket attacks and cross-border incursions. Serious military repression of insurgent Palestinians unreconciled to the peace will be essential. Just as Israel must deal with its internal conflicts, so must Palestine. And should serious Israeli irredentism lead to violence, that also will need to be suppressed, by international forces if necessary. What nobody wants to say aloud at the conference table is that peace is going to mean pain, on both sides. But somebody has to say it.

No solution is possible without a security guarantee that the Israelis will accept. This guarantee should be international, not American. Perhaps the countries of the European Union, traditionally better viewed by the Palestinians, could muster enough firepower and resolve to shoulder the burden of policing the peace. It would be an indication that Europe is serious about being a world power.

Peace between Israelis and Palestinians, of course, would not magically make problems in the wider Mideast go away. The region is a briar patch of oppressed minorities, suppressed dissent, unmet needs, unbalanced economies and sheer reactionary bloody-mindedness. And the situation has been enormously complicated by our clumsy destruction of Iraq. Even before the invasion, however, the fundamental problem in the region was social and political stagnation, as indicated in the U.N.’s 2002 Arab Human Development Report, which pointed out the fundamentally closed and illiberal nature of most Arab societies.

There is little the West can do to change this except to exert leverage where it exists. We could start by refusing to send any more money to autocracies like Saudi Arabia and Egypt until they consent to significant reform and liberalization. We could take the next step by refusing to send any more money to anybody in the region. Declare a five-year phaseout of all military aid to all countries in the region and see how minds get concentrated. This does not mean abandoning Israel. It means internationalizing the security of Israel. We should not foot the bill alone.

There are, of course, no guarantees that anybody can bring peace to the Middle East. But if we can’t solve all the problems, we can at least refuse to pay for the wars.

Sam Reaves

Sunday, November 18, 2007

The Pesky Amendment

The never-ending debate about gun control in the U.S. has been moved along, or at least stirred up a little, by the publication of a book called Out of Range, by Mark V. Tushnet, which is the subject of a lengthy review and discussion by Cass Sunstein in the current New Republic. Tushnet takes on the vexing question of what the Second Amendment to the Constitution really means. Yeah, that one. The only one the ACLU isn’t too crazy about. The one about guns.

The controversy over guns will never die, because it’s about a lot more than the Second Amendment. Whether or not you think the government should restrict or even abolish individual ownership of firearms goes to the heart of what you think about society, government, and human nature in general. But in this country a large part of the debate centers on that troublesome Amendment, which states, in case you’ve forgotten: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms shall not be infringed.”

The question, of course, is whether this establishes an individual right to own guns or only a collective right for the states to field their own militias. Partisans of gun control point to the introductory phrase and say, “What could be clearer? They’re talking about state militias.” Gun rights proponents retort, “Whatever that phrase says, the main clause is crystal clear. What’s to argue about?”

Unfortunately, as Tushnet discusses at length, when you look at the legal history, not much about the Second Amendment is crystal clear. Gun rights supporters may be dismayed to learn that the Supreme Court has repeatedly appealed to the collective-right interpretation to uphold federal firearms laws like the 1934 National Firearms Act. (That’s why the sawed-off shotgun you have under your car seat is illegal.) However, the legal ground may be shifting, as the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruled in March that D.C.’s gun ban was unconstitutional. The fight isn’t over.

Tushnet concludes that the amendment itself is too ambiguous for either side to claim victory on the basis of the text alone. His attempt at a plausible interpretation comes down to this: “We each have the right to keep and bear arms so that we can participate in the militia—the body of the people—and thereby keep governments from becoming tyrants.”

Which, I have a feeling, isn’t going to put an end to the debate. What does all this mean?

Maybe it just means that the world has changed since the Constitution was written, and that the Second Amendment isn’t a very good guide to firearms policy in the modern world. It wouldn’t be the first time that parts of the Constitution looked outdated. (I don’t recall a problem with quartering of troops any time recently.) I think Tushnet’s formulation is about right: the framers of the Constitution wanted citizens to have weapons, and the reason they wanted that was so that each state could raise a militia. That’s the way things were done back then, and the militias were seen as an important counterweight to federal power. The two parts of the Amendment are both there for a reason, but the burning political question that motivated it isn’t so burning any more. The Second Amendment is about the distribution of power, not the extent to which firearms should be regulated.

Now, before you gun prohibitionists pop the champagne corks, think about the fact that the Amendment takes for granted widespread private ownership of guns. The fundamental assumption is that most people are going to have guns around, certainly enough to raise a militia. If the Second Amendment has anything at all to say to us today, I don’t really see any way around that main clause. It assumes that people have guns and affirms that this is a desirable thing. I can’t see any interpretation that would support outright prohibition of private gun ownership.

However, that’s a far cry from saying that the government shall impose no regulations whatever on the private ownership of weapons. That leaves a whole lot of room for debate. And I don’t think the Second Amendment can take us very far in thinking through issues like licensing, registration or assault weapons bans.

Let’s start with first principles: I believe that self-defense is a fundamental right. Furthermore, I think that effective self-defense is a fundamental right. (Talk to the woman being stalked by an abusive ex-lover.) Unfortunately some people don’t agree, and they have made it illegal to own firearms in the city where I live and in numerous other places around the U.S. I think those laws are unjust and should be repealed. That woman should be able legally to own a gun for her protection.

But that doesn’t mean that no restrictions at all are admissible. I believe everyone has the right to drive a car as well, but I damn sure want to know that the person behind the wheel has undergone some kind of training and licensing procedure, because you can do a hell of a lot of damage with a car.

Rights come with responsibilities, and I’d like to see a comprehensive program of training and licensing of anyone who wants to own a firearm. Treat guns like cars, in other words; I’m not the first to say it. But that means recognizing an unequivocal right to own the things. There’s no significant movement to outlaw cars in this country. If there were, car owners would be reluctant to register their cars. There is a persistent and serious drive to outlaw firearms. Gun owners will not support licensing and registration schemes until they’re sure such schemes are not a prelude to confiscation.

Here’s a modest proposal: Let’s eliminate that pesky introductory phrase to the Second Amendment so that it reads unambiguously, “The right of the people to keep and bear Arms shall not be infringed.” Let’s repeal all the local laws that outlaw private ownership of firearms. And in exchange, let’s implement effective rules on training and licensing of gun owners and put in place registration regimes comparable to those for cars.

It’s going to require concessions from both sides.

Sam Reaves

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Lula sí, Chávez no

On November 2, Venezuela’s National Assembly approved a number of changes to the country’s constitution, proposed by President Hugo Chávez. The amended constitution will be submitted to the voters in a referendum on December 2. The changes would, among other things, abolish presidential term limits, allow the President to suspend some civil liberties by declaring a state of emergency, and allow expropriation of property without a court ruling. The stated intention of the reforms is “the construction of socialism.” Where have we heard this before?

Socialism continues to be a fatal temptation for a large segment of Latin American opinion, in part no doubt by reaction to U.S. meddling in the region through the years. There’s no question that the United States supported corrupt oligarchies in Latin America for decades. There’s also no question that socialism is a fool’s game. Reaction is a poor basis for policy, whether you’re a right-wing reactionary or a left-wing one.

If ever an ideology has been discredited by real-world experience, it’s socialism. No better system for institutionalizing penury and oppression has ever been devised. By 1989 it was clear that the most ferocious opponents of socialism were the people that had to live under it. Migration patterns are an infallible guide to quality of life, and it’s no accident that the migrant flow runs overwhelmingly out of socialist countries.

But capitalism by itself can’t provide the good life. All it does is ease the provision of material goods. You need a lot of other things along with capitalism, like the rule of law, sound institutions and social mobility lubricated by widespread education. In their absence, capitalism just gives you corrupt oligarchs and spectacular inequality. So people equate these things with capitalism and want to go back. The siren call of socialism is irresistible.

The problem is that you can’t have socialism without authoritarianism, because real thoroughgoing socialism requires the criminalization of independent economic activity, the very type of activity that provides the abundance that we take for granted. And that’s why Chávez knows he is going to need dictatorial powers in order to institute socialism.

It’s a bad bargain for Venezuela. What should we do? Nothing. Chávez is only going to hurt Venezuela, unless he gets serious about his alliances with people like Iran’s Ahmedinejad. Until Chávez makes some move that overtly harms our strategic interests, he is best left alone to get on with the business of impoverishing Venezuela. If he goes far enough down that road, the Venezuelans themselves will take care of him.

The worst thing we could do would be to make another Latin left-wing martyr out of Hugo Chávez. Because the C.I.A. aided Pinochet’s coup in Chile in 1973, you can’t get anybody on the left to admit that Salvador Allende was anything but a saint, even though Allende had trashed the rule of law by ignoring court decisions, creating parallel state organizations to rival any he failed to load with his supporters, decreeing expropriation of foreign property without compensation and allowing the creation of revolutionary militias under no lawful control. Martydom confers blissful oblivion.

So let’s not make a martyr of Hugo Chávez. Instead let’s watch him self-destruct, while meanwhile directing the attention of Latin Americans who want social and economic progress to the real success story in Latin America: Brazil.

Brazil is currently ruled by Luiz Inácio da Silva, nicknamed Lula, a trade union leader who was elected president in 2002. It was feared that the rabble-rousing Lula would give in to populist urges and socialist dreams and give away the store.

Instead, he chose a market-oriented finance minister and central bank chief, respected agreements with the IMF, maintained budgetary discipline and in short acted like a responsible head of government who understood how the world worked. At the same time, he instituted practical, intelligently designed programs to alleviate poverty, like tying welfare aid to education, consolidating hunger programs and strengthening infrastructure for small-scale farming.

The result? Economic growth, low inflation and the accompanying availability of credit are aiding the creation of a new middle class. Incomes for the poor are growing faster than those of the rich. Significant poverty reduction is occurring. This is happening because Lula is allowing capitalism to work.

Lula understands that socialism is candy and capitalism is vegetables. Candy’s more appealing, but it gives you a stomachache. It’s the vegetables that give you what you need. In Brazil, Mexico and yes, in Chile, where another nominally socialist president is also showing good judgment in not reversing free-market reforms, smart leaders are letting capitalism slowly bring people out of poverty. They know that there are no short cuts except to strengthen the institutional bases (like schools and fair court systems) that allow the poor to benefit from economic growth.

Meanwhile, Chávez and his protegés in Ecuador and Bolivia are offering poor Latin Americans the candy of socialism, financed by the oil boom. It will be interesting to see who’s better off in ten years or so.

Sam Reaves

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Enola's Boy

Paul Tibbets is dead. The man who piloted the Enola Gay (named after his mother) on its bombing run over Hiroshima died on November 1st at age 92. Reaction around the world was mixed and muted, reflecting the uncomfortable ambiguity of his place in public awareness and, now, history.

Some people said Paul Tibbets was a hero; others that he was a war criminal. Which is it? How should we remember Paul Tibbets?

The bomb he dropped killed more than a hundred thousand people, almost all of them civilians, in a single horrific, world-changing conflagration. Together with a second bomb dropped on Nagasaki a few days later, it forced the military regime that had led Japan into a disastrous war to contemplate surrender.

The man himself was unapologetic to the end about what he had done, insisting that his action had saved lives by shortening the war. His uncompromising stance made him an easy figure for some people to hate, and a harder one to defend than if he had expressed sensitive, conciliatory second thoughts.

What you think about Paul Tibbets, of course, depends on what you think of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. So what about that? Was our use of atomic weapons on two Japanese cities one of history’s great crimes?

Look it in the face, and a plausible first reaction is: how could it not be? How could the incineration of a hundred thousand men, women and children not be a crime? Sketch for me a philosophical position that excuses the purposeful killing of an entire civilian population, even in retaliation. Even given the Rape of Nanking and the Holocaust, even considering that the Axis powers had obliterated standards of civilized behavior, that six years of war had coarsened and brutalized the best of democracies, how can we not condemn slaughter on a scale like that?

And yet. An elderly gentleman of my acquaintance, a life-long liberal and an educated, humane man, who was sitting on Okinawa with the remains of his battered division contemplating the invasion of Japan when the bomb was dropped, told me, “Well, we were sure glad they dropped it.” And he said it with a smile. I doubt he took any pleasure in thinking of the hundred thousand dead Japanese civilians. But I doubt he loses any sleep over them, either.

Any argument justifying the dropping of the atomic bomb on Japan must be a purely utilitarian argument. Utilitarian arguments take no account of rights. They are based on mere calculus: this number of lives versus that number, this bottom line versus that one. The notion of individual rights says that some things are wrong no matter what the reason. Rights are “side constraints”, in Robert Nozick’s term; they are supposed to trump utilitarian calculations. We are rightfully suspicious of utilitarian arguments precisely because they override rights.

Most of us, however, would concede that in an emergency we sometimes have to choose the lesser of two evils, and it is here that utilitarian arguments come into play. In an emergency, rights can be seen as a luxury.

So what it comes down to is asking whether we were in an emergency situation when President Truman made the decision to use nuclear weapons on Japan. Were the circumstances so dire that there was no alternative to dropping the bomb?

The consensus that has allowed most of us to live with the way the Second World War ended is that they were. The war was a fundamental threat to civilized society, and we were close to the end of our tether. It was an emergency.

This consensus is not universally accepted, of course. There is a rival school of thought that holds that Hiroshima and Nagasaki were indeed crimes, great enough to undermine the legitimacy of the United States as a law-abiding power. Maybe. But nations are not at their best under extreme stress. There are better things on our record than Hiroshima, like the post-war reconstruction of Japan. And all nations should be judged by the same standards. We were not the only ones to systematically attack civilian populations in the great moral collapse of the Second World War. We weren’t even the most ruthless. We were just, in the end, the best at it.

Paul Tibbets didn’t invent the atomic bomb. He didn’t make the decision to drop it, either. So I’m not inclined to regard Paul Tibbets as the great villain of the piece. But his passing ought to make us think hard about nuclear war and how we can avoid getting to a place where the cold hard calculus of numbers trumps our right not to be incinerated. There’s no magic formula—neither simple-minded pacifism nor reckless belligerence is going to insure our safety. All I ask is that whoever has the nuclear football should never lose sight of the stakes.

Sam Reaves

Thursday, November 1, 2007

So crazy it just might work...

Some things you get tired of writing about because after a while it’s like pounding your head against a wall.

The War on Drugs is one of them. But I can’t help it. I have to keep saying it. The War on Drugs is folly, a stupendous waste of resources.

The U.S. has just agreed to send Mexico $1.4 billion dollars to help fight drug trafficking. This comes in the wake of a serious escalation in drug-gang violence in Mexico that has taken a toll on journalists, politicians and law enforcement officers, not to mention innocent bystanders. The aid will go for aircraft, scanning equipment, communications systems, technical assistance, training, the whole panoply of material and know-how that has been deployed in the fight against the drug trade in the U.S. My guess is that all that equipment and training will have approximately the same effect it’s had here at home. Meaning, not much. Last time I looked, we still had a “drug problem”.

I put it in quotes because what it really is is a drug prohibition problem. That is, the violence and corruption are effects not of the drugs themselves, but of their illegal status.

It’s an old argument. It seems self-evident to some of us, but others are horrified that anyone could even think of legalizing cocaine, heroin and other harmful drugs. There’s a deep, deep conceptual divide between those who favor legalization and those who favor ever more intense prosecution of the drug war.

I’m not sure how to bridge that divide. It must go to the heart of our most basic assumptions. I’m one of the ones that thinks it’s foolish to try to police what people ingest in their pursuit of pleasure. I look at the historical example of Prohibition, which made Al Capone a millionaire, and see an irresistible analogy with the modern prohibition of cocaine, which turned a handful of Colombian street toughs into world-class tycoons. The violence and the corruption and the staggering enrichment of scoundrels which are the most flagrant evils associated with drugs have nothing to do with what happens to your brain when you snort cocaine or inject heroin. They are, exclusively, effects of the fact that to do so is illegal. And that’s easy to fix.

None of which is to deny that drugs can have disastrous effects on individuals. At this point the usual response of the drug warriors is to start cataloguing the horrific consequences of drug use—the addiction and psychosis and subversion of personality and all the rest. As if that settled things.

My shift in thinking about drugs started when I asked a friend who worked in drug rehab at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago what the most dangerous drug out there was, expecting her to say heroin or PCP or something similar. Without batting an eye she replied, “Alcohol.”

When I was in college, I could not help but notice that the most spectacular incidents of vandalism, aggression, impaired driving, sexual misconduct and general recklessness, not to mention serial vomiting, all involved alcohol. I have a brother who is a police officer; he estimates that ninety percent of his calls involve alcohol abuse. I have friends whose lives have been severely impaired by alcoholism, to the point of job loss, long stints in rehab, financial ruin, health collapse and family breakdown. Why isn’t alcohol illegal?

Because we tried that, and all we got was Al Capone. We came to our senses and realized that criminalizing a substance merely puts the traffic in that substance securely in the hands of the most ruthless elements of society. It transforms a public health problem into a public safety problem. It empowers thugs. It creates vast criminal fortunes. It creates failed states by requiring that a country’s most valuable crops be guarded by private armies.

None of these things is inevitable. They are direct consequences of our refusal to treat the harmful effects of cocaine, heroin and other drugs the same way that we treat the harmful effects of alcohol, namely, as health problems or problems of private conduct.

I don’t know why this isn’t obvious to everyone. Some people whose judgment I respect are strongly for the continued prohibition of drugs. I don’t understand their reasoning. But given the utter failure of our ever-escalating efforts in the extraordinarily expensive Drug War to erase or even significantly diminish the use of these drugs, what do we have to lose by giving legalization a try? We might have more addicts, but we’d certainly have less violence.

How much worse off could we be?

Sam Reaves

Monday, October 22, 2007

The Bell Curve Again

It keeps coming back: every few years somebody revives the argument about whether there are significant differences in intelligence across races. This time it’s James Watson, the Nobel Prize-winning co-discoverer of DNA, who has ignited the usual firestorm by saying that Africans are less intelligent than the rest of us.
Or something like that. Here’s the crux of what he actually said in an interview with the Sunday Times Magazine:
“...all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours - whereas all the testing says not really.”

...and then:
“There is no firm reason to anticipate that the intellectual capacities of peoples geographically separated in their evolution should prove to have evolved identically. Our wanting to reserve equal powers of reason as some universal heritage of humanity will not be enough to make it so.”
The reaction was fast: Watson was fired from his administrative position at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory a couple of days after the interview, and a spokesman for a British human rights group said: “[Watson’s statement] amounts to fueling bigotry and we would like it to be looked at for grounds of legal complaint.”
At the same time, other people were accusing Watson’s critics of political correctness, suppression of free discussion, and a refusal to consider evidence which goes against orthodox notions. Do they have a point? Watson’s statement was an empirical claim, which presumably can be tested for its truth value. Should he lose his job, or even be prosecuted, because it makes a claim most of us are reluctant to admit could be true?
Not many of us are conversant with the relevant science, and it often seems to boil down to conflicting claims. “...geneticists, psychologists, neuroscientists and educationalists have rebutted [the claims of scientific racism] many times over,” said biologist Steven Rose in The New Statesman. Meanwhile, a respondent using the name Caledonia in a discussion on the Pharyngula science blog confidently states: “People who are actually familiar with the basics of psychometric testing also know that various ethnic subpopulations score differently on the scale of large groups. And yes, attempts have been made to account for these differences, and obvious things like SES and nutrition can't account for all of them.”
Who’s right? How are we to make sense of all this? Most of us find racist views repellent. We’d love to think that there’s no scientific basis for racist views. But is that just wishful thinking? What about that nagging voice that says that if we are really open-minded we have at least to consider evidence that things might not be as we’d wish? Well, a few random thoughts come to mind right away: No, people shouldn’t be prosecuted for offering unpopular opinions. They shouldn’t lose their jobs merely for making claims about matters of fact, even if those facts are unpalatable (and still in question). There is a whiff of censorship in the reaction to Watson’s statement. The reaction lends credence to those who claim that liberals enforce an orthodoxy of thought in the media and society at large.
But other random thoughts occur as well: Why do people keep bringing this up? What is the utility of a claim like this in the first place? If Watson (or Charles Murray of Bell Curve fame) is correct, the statistical distribution of intelligence (the infamous “bell curve”) for people of African descent is shifted to the left of the bell curve for people of European descent. In other words, the average intelligence of the first group is lower than that of the second. Well, my first observation is that the shift is fairly slight, no matter how you plot it: a whole lot of black people are still smarter than a whole lot of white people. But more importantly, the amount of information about any given individual conveyed by the bell curve is exactly zero. There is no way of telling where any given individual lies on that curve except to test that person individually. In other words, if we are treating people as individuals, which is what we should be doing as a matter of profound and unshakable principle in this country, the curve is useless. It is a curiosity at best.
So why are some people still doing research on this? There seems to be a fairly broad consensus in biology that the notion of race is not biologically significant. (See a good discussion of this at And the notion of intelligence is pretty fuzzy, too. The Mensa quiz doesn’t quite nail it, I’m afraid. There are different types of intelligence, and intelligence isn’t graven in stone even within one person’s lifetime. It seems to me that the idea of racial differences in intelligence presumes a firmer idea of both race and intelligence than is actually warranted.
But just for the sake of argument, let’s concede that the categories and the differences are real: my response is still, “So what?” Plain old waspy Americans like me are supposedly on average less intelligent than Asians or Ashkenazi Jews. Am I worried? No, as long as I’m hired, fired, stroked, chewed out, rewarded, punished, prosecuted, acquitted, scorned, respected, hated or loved on the basis of my behavior as an individual, and not on the basis of my membership in a group, whatever the statistics about that group. That, the insurance of equality before the law and institutional fairness to individuals, is the central problem, the central struggle of American society or any other society. The question of which group is more intelligent on average is simply and utterly irrelevant.
So while it’s wrong to try to censor science, there’s nothing wrong with questioning a research program. I’m just wondering why this particular research program still appeals to people.
An abashed James Watson apologized for his remarks a few days after the controversy broke, saying he was “mortified”. Here’s an interesting question: Why didn't he stick to his guns?

Sam Reaves

Monday, October 15, 2007

Talking Turkey

Congress is threatening to pass a resolution proclaiming that the slaughter of a million Armenians by the Ottoman Turks was genocide. Offended, the modern Turks are up in arms, saying they may retaliate by refusing to allow the U.S. to funnel supplies through Turkey to Iraq. In addition, the Turks are peeved with us because PKK rebels based in our Kurdish protectorate in Iraq keep coming over the border to kill people and blow things up. The Turks are threatening to go into Iraq to do something about it. Turkish-American relations are a trifle on the tense side these days.
The Turks don’t have a good press in this country; when we think of the Turks most of us think of Jose Ferrer’s creepy Turkish colonel in Lawrence of Arabia or the nightmare jail in Midnight Express. And there are lots of Armenian-Americans who know the history because they heard it from elderly relatives who survived the horror. But bad press or not, I have to say the Turks have a couple of legitimate beefs here.
First of all, what is Congress doing wasting its time with resolutions like this? Which Congressional committee was it that produced this? The House Committee in Charge of Lecturing Other Countries About Their Past Crimes, was it? I guess we should be grateful Congress has solved all our problems so they can move on to Monday-morning quarterbacking other countries’ histories.
But wasn’t the death of a million Armenians genocide? Well, I wasn’t there. All I have to go on are the various historical sources. Some of them call it genocide, some of them don’t. Who cares what they call it? It seems fairly clear that it was a horrific slaughter of a defenseless population by a backward despotism. If you want to call it genocide, call it genocide. If the Turks don’t like that, they’ll argue with you. But it’s a historical argument, or maybe just a semantic argument. There’s no reason to turn it into a political argument. The debate is similar to the one about what happened to the Native Americans. Call that genocide, and a lot of patriotic Americans will get hot under the collar. The point is that the debate is best left to the historians, not the politicians. Imagine what would happen if the French parliament passed a resolution declaring what happened to the Cherokees genocide. You might well agree with them—but a lot of people wouldn’t, and the ensuing political dust-up would be pointless. You’d wonder whether the French parliament didn’t have anything better to do.
The House resolution is essentially a piece of mischief. If it’s not an underhanded way of undermining our campaign in Iraq (that’s the cynical view, and I’d hate to think it’s true), it’s certainly grandstanding to oblige some influential constituents of Nancy Pelosi. The proper purpose of a legislature is to pass the laws required for the functioning of our institutions and exercise oversight of the other branches of government. Somebody please explain to me how this resolution furthers any of that.
As for the PKK, they’re on our list of terrorist organizations, as well as the EU’s. They have carried out assassinations and bombings across Turkey, and if I were Turkish, I’d be peeved, too, by their ability to find safe haven in Iraq. We should make clear to the Iraqi Kurds that in exchange for our gift of their country to them, they are to exercise some responsibility and rein in the PKK.
None of the above is to take Turkey off the hook for any of its sins. Turkey has stupidly and stubbornly repressed Kurdish language and culture, and the Turkish army’s counter-insurgency campaign in southeast Turkey has been at times criminally brutal. Turkey is an imperfect democracy living under the constant threat of military intervention and nationalist extremism. But it is a working democracy which has shown signs of reform and liberalization, much more so than any other Muslim country, and as the best hope of demonstrating that Islam and democracy can co-exist, its legitimate interests deserve our support. The House resolution, whatever its truth value, is empty symbolism and thus a piece of irrelevant foolishness, and Turkey deserves what influence we can exert to prevent murderous attacks coming across its border from our Kurdish client state.

Sam Reaves

Sunday, October 7, 2007

Torture? Not us...

President Bush says we don’t torture people. Nobody believes him. Well, I suppose some people do. But they have adopted a definition of torture (no organ failure, no torture) so restrictive as to be meaningless. And handing prisoners over to other countries that practice torture without restraint makes the whole denial thing a joke.
So what’s the problem with torture, anyway? This is the security of our country we’re talking about, isn’t it? Doesn’t the end justify the means here? We’re talking about harsh treatment of a few murderous fanatics in order to prevent a mass slaughter of innocents. What wouldn’t be justified?
I’m willing to take a hard look at the question. I don’t want another September 11th any more than you do. And those who say that torture never works are simply wrong. The French army used torture quite effectively to break up the FLN networks responsible for the bombing campaign in Algiers in 1957. Was it justified there? Can it ever be justified?
There are some hard issues here. Let’s think first about the ends and means thing. The best discussion of ends and means I know of is in a footnote to Chapter 9 of Karl Popper’s The Open Society and Its Enemies. Popper raises three questions to ask about any claim that a good end justifies a bad means: (1) Will the means in fact lead to the end? (2) Can we realistically assess which is the lesser of two evils? (3) Will the means itself create new ongoing problems?
Our response to the first question is a matter of intellectual humility. Millennia of experience with unintended consequences ought to make us skeptical of easy claims here. The seemingly clear cases like the French campaign in Algiers are very limited in scope: Massu’s paratroops crushed that particular network, but the larger war was lost anyway, and along with it the prestige of the French army. How many lives were saved? Impossible to answer. Some, almost certainly, in the short run. But how many French lives were lost subsequently to increased Algerian bitterness and opposition? The calculus gets pretty tough. Torture does not win friends, even if it can accomplish immediate tactical goals.
As for the second question, the non-fatal suffering, however intense, of a handful of al-Qaeda operatives set against the lives of large numbers of Americans in a hypothetical rerun of 9/11 is fairly easy, as assessments go. But it gets harder if we think about an ongoing policy of torture or physical pressure or whatever you choose to call it over a period of years. This leads to the third question. What are the long-term effects? Moral authority is a real asset in a world where the great majority of governments are distinguished by ruthless cynicism. It is an intangible asset, which may appear insignificant when set against the very real danger of mass murder. But in the long run the attitudes of people around the world, their desire to do business with us and listen to our entreaties and respect our interests and safeguard the travelers we send out around the world, is materially affected by our moral standing. And the longer we maintain a policy that allows torture, especially if we continue to be dishonest about it, the more that standing suffers.
The only possible justification for torture is on a strictly utilitarian calculus in which the act of torture would prevent a significantly greater evil in a direct and unambiguous way. But utilitarian arguments, overruling what Robert Nozick called “side constraints”, are valid only in emergency situations. The ticking-bomb scenario favored by torture’s apologists might qualify, but those scenarios are mercifully rare. In a true ticking-bomb scenario, all bets are off, and I would hope that any U.S. personnel in a position to defuse the bomb would do what is necessary. But that’s a far cry from institutionalizing torture in the long-term fight against Islamic fascism. We shouldn’t go there. It creates more problems than it solves. It de-legitimizes our power and manufactures enemies. It throws the moral authority we like to claim out the window. President Bush should take the steps necessary to insure that when he says we don’t torture people, he’s telling the truth.
Sam Reaves

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Lose the War Metaphor

The War on Terror is heading into its seventh year this fall. Six years and counting. That makes it longer than either World War, longer than the Civil War, and closing fast on Vietnam. The good news is that so far the casualty count is a lot lower than those other wars, even counting the people who died on September 11, 2001. It’s a low-intensity war, unless you’re unlucky enough to live in Baghdad or Helmand province. Once again, Americans for the most part get to watch it on TV.
Are we winning? You tell me. There hasn’t been another 9/11, and that’s good, but on the other hand, Iraq, where five years ago there were no suicide bombings, YouTube decapitations or Shiite death squads, is now a vast exercise ground for thugs of all stripes, most of them hostile to us. Whether or not going into Iraq has made us less safe, it has certainly made most Iraqis less safe, and given the ghastliness of the Hussein regime, that’s a real feat. Even if you concede that Saddam was a direct threat to us, it’s hard to argue that our invasion has had a successful outcome.
Afghanistan is different: pretty much everyone, even the nervous Europeans, agrees we had to go into Afghanistan, and if we’d left it at that we’d probably still have most of the world on our side. But even in Afghanistan the jihadists are far from beaten.
So it’s the shooting-war part of the War on Terror that seems to be giving us, the world’s undisputed military top dog, the most trouble. Why?
Maybe it’s a conceptual thing. I’m starting to think that ‘war’ is the wrong way to think about this. After all, the 9/11 attack was largely planned by a handful of guys in an apartment in Hamburg, and all the carrier groups and armored brigades in the world are useless against a roomful of guys muttering in Arabic.
George Soros raised howls of protest from conservatives a while back when he said that maybe we should have treated 9/11 as a crime against humanity instead of an act of war. The proper response to a crime, of course, is intelligent police work rather than war. That didn’t sit well with the hawks. I think the hawks should take a second and think again.
We love to declare wars in this country. We also have a War on Drugs, and there used to be a War on Poverty. I guess we must have won that one, because you don’t hear much about it anymore. Every once in a while some politician identifies a serious problem and decides he has to declare war on it. That’s supposed to get everyone mobilized for a big national effort, I guess. It’s supposed to justify extraordinary measures, and, usually, great expenditures. It signals that the politicians are serious.
The problem is that the war metaphor can mislead us, and I think it’s misled the Bush administration in a serious way in the current crisis. I think in the shock after 9/11 they looked at our first-rate military machine and saw that nothing could stand against it and therefore decided it would solve all our problems with Islamic thuggery. So they declared the War on Terror.
Here’s the problem with that: in a real war, the kind our military was designed to fight, there is an enemy government with a seat of power and a chain of command. It has at its disposal a military machine that can be located and engaged and, if you’re better, destroyed. And then the enemy government can be compelled to do whatever you want it to do, including coming out with their hands up.
But where’s Bin Laden’s capital? Where are his carrier groups and armored brigades? The September 11th attack was carried out by half a dozen guys with box cutters. Yes, there were the camps in Afghanistan, where those guys learned their tricks. And our military took them out in short order. Insofar as there was a locatable enemy, the shooting war worked just fine. But then it got harder. There are a whole lot of guys in a whole lot of apartments, muttering in a whole lot of languages. And you can’t send the B-52’s to bomb Hamburg.
George Soros was right: what we need to defeat Al-Qaeda is principally good intelligence and patient police work that doesn’t alienate the populations that shelter our enemies. We need people who can speak the languages and people who know how to cultivate informants, and flexible and adaptable security agencies that don’t squabble over turf. We need a lot of good smart tough cops, and we will need a lot of time.
That’s not satisfying to a lot of people. They want the bang. They want to turn sand into glass. They want to make somebody hurt. 9/11 was an act of war, they insist, so let’s give the bastards a war. Wasn’t 9/11 an act of war? OK, sure. How about Timothy McVeigh’s blowing up the Murragh Building? Was that an act of war? And who do you declare war on there? You don’t. You put the cops to work, and they track the bastards down.
Here’s another problem with calling this a war: in many people’s eyes, it grants legitimacy to the criminals. In a real war, it’s understood that the other guy is fighting for his country, just like you are. His government may be at fault, but you don’t hold that against him. Diplomats can argue about the merits of the case. Calling what we’re in now a war says to millions of people around the world that Bin Laden has a case, that the suicide bombers are more than deranged killers, that Musab Al-Zarqawi qualifies as a patriot. It grants the killers a status they don’t deserve. Sure, being a criminal suspect may grant you some procedural rights that being an enemy combatant doesn’t, but it’s a loss in the propaganda war. Calling the Al-Qaeda thugs enemy combatants grants them a dignity they don’t deserve. It undermines our case.
Please don’t misunderstand me. I am not pleading for appeasement or soft treatment. When the enemy is locatable and armed and hostile, I’m fine with sending in the Marines. The problem is that this enemy is so often not locatable, and when he is, he is hunkered down in a house full of women and children who don’t deserve to die with him. Or he is embedded in a university in Europe, or lying low in an office job in the U.S.
If we want to find him and stop him, we have to get smart. We have to stop thinking about invading countries and start thinking about intelligence and investigation and infiltration and patient assembling of data. We have the best military in the world, and they have done everything we’ve asked of them. But not everything is a military problem, and military action can alienate a population and turn it against us in the wink of an eye. I think the war metaphor led us into disaster in Iraq, and it’s time to retire it.

Sam Reaves

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Enough already...

OK, let’s see. We have, what, another year and change before we can vote on this? To look at the paper you’d think the presidential election was next month. Every other day there’s a debate, every other day somebody else throws his hat in the ring. Thompson’s in, Gilmore’s out (raise your hand if you ever knew he was in), Hilary’s not woman enough and Barack isn’t black enough, Mitt’s for the surge and Rudy’s for guns. Snore.
Other countries manage to pull off elections for the top spot in a matter of weeks. In a parliamentary system it’s a brisk, well-choreographed procedure. Here it’s a two-year death march. Maybe three.
I don’t know what can be done about it. You can’t forbid people to campaign; that would be a restriction of free speech. You can try and police how and from whom and how much money they raise, and you can get indignant about states moving their primaries farther and farther from the general election in a fatuous race to be first, but when it gets right down to it you can’t stop the ambitious and the wealthy and the deluded from launching what are nowadays essentially permanent campaigns.
Does this agonizing baby-kissing marathon make our democracy better? Does it produce stronger candidates, promote more thorough discussion of issues? Don't make me laugh. There’s a ruthless process of elimination, for sure. It weeds out the inadequately funded quite effectively. That means we’re left with candidates who know they have I.O.U.’s coming due, because not even Mitt Romney’s rich enough to fund a whole presidential campaign all by himself. The Darwinian process of a U.S. presidential campaign reliably produces candidates who are masters of horse-trading, back-stabbing and lip-zipping. The political process produces superb politicians.
The trouble is, they don’t always bring policy-making skills and insights along with them, and that’s what good government requires.
My standards for a U.S. president are actually fairly low. I have realistic expectations. I don’t need a genius. Reagan showed us that you can be an intellectual mediocrity and change the direction of the country, if you know how to delegate and nap. Clinton showed us you can preside over prosperity and positive social changes with dubious levels of personal integrity. (My expectations are a little higher than the current occupant of the White House, but I’m not going to pile on. There are enough people on the Bush beat already.)
What do you need to be a good U.S. president? First, I think you need firm principles that you can articulate clearly and keep sight of through the fog of war, even if it’s only political war. Oh, and they should be the right principles, too, did I mention that? Good means more than just effective. What are the right principles? Here’s where we might quibble a bit, but I think most of us will agree that the reason our country has always had more people trying to get in than trying to get out has something to do with high levels of economic, political and social freedom.
Second, a president has to be a competent administrator. This cannot be over-emphasized. It’s an administrative job. It’s delegating, hiring and firing, prioritizing, information-gathering and decision-making under pressure. Not everybody has these skills. Not even everybody who wants to be president has these skills. We should take a hard look at the field with an eye to who has high-level executive experience and who doesn’t.
Third, a good president has to be a salesman. He or she has the world’s biggest bully pulpit, and a president can shape the debate like nobody else. A good president can make us think about the world differently.
Sadly, most of the candidates are best at the third requirement. They wouldn’t be in politics if they weren’t great salesmen. But that’s not enough.
What are the chances we’ll get a good president out of this depressing cattle call? Slim, I’d say, going on past form. But you never know. Every once in a while somebody survives the process who actually fills the bill. We can always hope.
In the meantime, I’m already tired of these mopes. Wake me up next November.

Sam Reaves

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

The end of the Outfit?

In the end it was a little anticlimactic. There were headlines, but they were overshadowed by remembrance of much bigger events on the same date, six years before. When it came, the decapitation of the Outfit came quietly. On Monday five top Chicago organized crime figures were found guilty of a smorgasbord of federal charges, racketeering conspiracy at the head of the list. Seventeen citizens in an uncomfortably warm room in the Dirksen Federal Building in downtown Chicago decided that a handful of old men were guilty of the crimes the U.S. government had charged them with. They made a fairly short job of it—after ten weeks of testimony and arguments, with mounds of evidence to wade through, they took only a few days to agree on the verdict. In the course of deliberations they asked the judge for a fan and a dictionary. The word was, they wanted to make sure they understood what usorious meant.
The federal government is about to put the top leadership of the Chicago Outfit in jail, for a long time. If you know anything about the history of Chicago, this is a big deal. For fifty years the Outfit acted more or less with impunity in this city. Prohibition had undermined the rule of law so thoroughly that the city’s political structure, court system and police were all deeply compromised by ties to the gangsters. Prohibition made the Capone gang rich and entrenched it in the city’s power structure. A nexus of crooked politicians, crooked cops, crooked judges and just plain crooks of all stripes insured that the hoods got their cut of just about every significant economic activity in the city. Reformers came and went, but nothing seemed to change. Mob hits went unpunished, payoffs went up the line.
Meanwhile, books and movies glamorized organized crime. We followed the Corleones and the Sopranos and cared about them. They became part of our historical narrative, immigrants scrapping for their share of the pie. Top Outfit guys in Chicago had celebrity status. They gave to the community; their neighborhoods were safe. Too often we forgot that gangsters are bullies, cheats, thugs, killers. They wouldn’t be gangsters if they weren’t.
It took the power of the federal government in the form of the R.I.C.O. statue and the Greylord investigation to start chipping away at Outfit power. Outfit guys saw the handwriting on the wall. They started keeping their sons out of the business. They sent them to college and watched them become lawyers, bankers, doctors. In the meantime, the world changed. The Next Big Thing in crime passed the Outfit by as the money shifted to drugs. The blacks and Latins assumed the role the Italians had played in the 1920’s: outsiders on the make. In a sense the decline of the Chicago Outfit reflects the rise of the Italian-American community as a whole and the changing demographics of the country. In the twenties it was the Italians who were poor, alien, excluded. Their criminals exploited Prohibition to gain wealth and power. Today it’s somebody else, but the story is the same. Smart thugs exploit opportunities.
Is the Outfit dead? Organized crime experts say we’d be fools to think so. As long as there’s vice, we’ll have organized crime. The Outfit isn’t going away. Somebody else will step up to take James Marcello’s place as boss, because there’s just too much money to be made off vice. But we can hope he'll inherit a lesser organization. We can hope that the days when the Outfit was a shadowy but real pillar of the Chicago power structure are over. We can hope it will never again have significant veto power in the courts, the police department, the state legislature. We can hope that the Outfit is just another gang now, and an aging one. And we can hope as we struggle with new gangs and new rackets and the eternal temptation to corruption that we won’t be fooled again.

Sam Reaves

Monday, September 10, 2007

Churchill didn't say it...

One of my favorite quotes is, it turns out, mistakenly attributed to Winston Churchill. I’ve been using this line for several years and confidently telling people that Churchill said it. You’ve probably heard it: “A man who is not a liberal at age twenty has no heart; a man who is not a conservative at age forty has no brain.”
There are variations; in some versions it’s “socialist” instead of “liberal”; sometimes the age is thirty instead of twenty.
Doesn’t matter. Churchill, it turns out, didn’t say it, or at least didn’t say it first. Apparently the existence of different versions reflects the fact that it has been said by different people at different times. The most reliable attributions appear to be to a couple of nineteenth-century French politicians, François Guizot and Aristide Briand, with Guizot saying it first. Maybe Churchill cribbed it from them in turn.
It’s a good line, which accounts for its popularity. But it bugs the hell out of liberals, which is understandable. Chicago Tribune columnist Eric Zorn even ran a couple of columns about the line a while ago, inviting reader responses. I don't know if it bugged him; I’d call Zorn a liberal, but whatever he is, he’s a thoughtful writer who’s never afraid to consider the other side.
I didn’t get involved then, maybe because I wasn’t sure what I thought. But for what it’s worth, here’s what I think now: Guizot and Briand and Churchill had hold of a truth, and even if you didn’t wind up a conservative, there’s wisdom in it that you ought to be able to concede.
Full disclosure: I don’t know how much it had to do with my internal anatomy, but I’ve moved to the right in my political views over the past couple of decades. I’d still call myself a liberal rather than a conservative (how can a man who believes that both sodomy and cocaine should be legal be called a conservative?) but I’m a liberal in the way Gladstone or the young Churchill was a liberal. I’m a small government guy. I’m an economic conservative and a social liberal, to give you the usual oversimplification. (I'll break that down a little more some other time.) If you have to slap a label on me, you can call me a libertarian, though I’m not especially anxious to be identified with the black helicopter crowd. If this helps, I am the only person I know who has actually voted for Ron Paul.
We can argue about libertarianism some other time. For now let’s look at that quote: what does it mean, and is there a formulation we can all agree on?
When I think of the quote, I remember my own political trajectory: I grew up in a devoutly religious but intellectually stimulating household (no, it’s not impossible); one parent was a Democrat and the other a Republican who usually voted Democratic; I was a fairly standard peace and love and rock and roll liberal through college, flirted with Marxism, hung out with radicals in Chicago and outright Communists in France; voted for Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale, rued the election of Ronald Reagan, and all the time kept reading, thinking, talking with people. I lived in countries where things didn't work as well, and wondered why. In the middle eighties I finally got around to reading The Open Society and Its Enemies, by the man whom the title of this blog honors. That pretty much took care of the Marxist thing, which had always smelled a little fishy to me. I started to educate myself about economics. I read more Popper. I heard some people say that Reagan was ruining the economy and I heard other people say that Reagan was saving the economy and I had an epiphany: they couldn’t both be right. There had to be some empirical grounds for deciding the question. I looked into it and decided that the conservatives were mostly right about economics. The trouble was, they were still wrong about other things. I had kids and rediscovered the meaning of original sin. If I didn’t start believing in God again, I at least started to appreciate the ethical content of religious tradition. I became more intellectually humble. I learned that very few people are wrong about everything (OK, there are a few out there that are truly hopeless). I realized that political views are just hypotheses about how the world works, and that there shouldn't be any reason we can’t discuss those hypotheses as calmly as any others.
Look, here’s all that happened: life experience tempered the incandescent idealism of youth. And that’s all Churchill, or whoever said it first, was talking about. Even if you’re still out there on the left, I imagine you’ve undergone the same process: you see what works and what doesn’t. You learn that human life is a messy, chaotic process that doesn’t always cooperate with Utopian plans. Maybe you’re still a socialist, but you learned something from 1989. Maybe you’re still a passionate critic of our criminal justice system, but the time you got mugged cured you of your sentimental attitude towards street criminals. That’s all we’re talking about. That’s what the quote means, and because the men quoted above all wound up as conservatives, they put it in terms that favor that point of view. But there’s a core of truth in it for everyone. You’ve got to learn from the things life throws at you, temper theory with practical experience.
If your views didn’t get tempered by experience, if you’re still throwing Molotov cocktails at police cars or looking for excuses for Pol Pot, then you’re the guy Churchill was talking about who has no brain. I'm not sure what we can do for you.

Sam Reaves

Monday, September 3, 2007

These divided states...

I'm getting tired of hearing about the things that divide us in this country. Red states, blue states, black and white, haves and have nots... To hear some people talk, the United States is a balkanized patchwork of warring clans. On a sunny Labor Day with the usual ethnic and socio-economic grab bag jostling for grill space out by the lake, it's a good time to take a skeptical look at that notion.
All these divisions exist, of course, but they're greatly overrated. Start with the red and blue state thing: this is a media-created artifact of the electoral college system which greatly oversimplifies the political and social map. You can run a red and blue analysis county-by-county or township-by-township in any given state and come up with a more accurate map, but even that is going to steamroller complexity: heck, I grew up with "red" and "blue" factions in my family. In the reddest of red states you will find wine-sipping, sandal-wearing Kucinich enthusiasts, and in the bluest of blue states you will find Limbaugh-loving, gun-rack-in-the-pickup meat eaters. And everything in between. So give the color thing a rest. The truth is that we all live in purple states.
As for black and white, far be it from me to proclaim an end to racial divisions, but I can't be as pessimistic as the Faces at the Bottom of the Well crowd. Control for social factors that are not inherently linked to the amount of melanin in a person's skin, and racial disparities start to flatten out. That is, if you get an education, delay childbearing until you're in a stable marriage with a decent income, and don't blow all your income on intoxicating substances, the odds are you are going to have a successful life, whatever color you are. If you can't do those things, you will probably be poor and miserable, and this goes for black, white or any other color. I have a brother who is a prosecutor in a mainly rural Indiana county, and his description of the local white underclass sounds just like what we hear about the urban black underclass: absent fathers, substance abuse, disdain for education. In other words, even our underclass culture crosses racial lines. That's good news, because all these things are correctable problems, and there's nothing inherently black or white about them.
Even the real divisions of language and culture tend to disappear over time, as children of immigrants assimilate. This is happening even with Hispanics, who have found more accomodation for their language and culture than any other group in U.S. history. Our culture is powerfully assimilative, and if we let it work it will embrace all comers.
None of the foregoing is to deny that there are real conflicts of interest to be worked out in our messy society. But that's what the political process is for, on all levels from your local PTA to the Congress of the United States. We have a strong civil society and a panoply of institutions to work out the conflicts, and if we don't panic about our divisions, they will get worked out.
The things that unite us are stronger and deeper than the things that divide us. So don't panic. Human life is inherently messy, but American society is as good as any on earth at dealing with that messiness. And personally, I think that unruliness is part of the fun.
Sam Reaves
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Sunday, August 26, 2007

Hearts and minds

Winning hearts and minds in the war against Muslim extremism ought to be a slam dunk. After all, few people, even in the Muslim world, can possibly find that kind of puritan totalitarianism very attractive. I’ve lived in the Arab world—and give or take the usual cultural gaps, people there are pretty much like we are. Nobody likes being bossed around by fanatics. Mainstream Muslim culture is more socially conservative than ours, to be sure—but it’s not insane, and it’s prey to the same secularizing, modernizing pressures that Christian culture has undergone. It shouldn’t be too much of a stretch to keep several hundred million Muslims at the very least neutral toward the West, if not actively sympathizing with us in opposition to the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. Muslims aren’t stupid, and they can see as well as we can who’s perpetrating the bulk of the atrocities in Iraq and Afghanistan and who wants to outlaw music, cinema and fun in general.
So why aren’t they rallying to us wholeheartedly? Well, for one thing, we keep killing a lot of them in airstrikes. Afghanistan’s president Karzai has been complaining about the high rate of civilian casualties in coalition airstrikes for some time. Now that three British soldiers have been killed by American bombs, maybe someone over here will listen.
Now, every war has friendly fire incidents, and I understand as well as you do the difference between collateral damage in a strike on a legitimate military target and the deliberate targeting of non-combatants. But from the point of view of the victim, lying in the hospital with bandaged stumps where his legs used to be, the effects are indistinguishable. When your house is taken out by a laser-guided bomb from an A-10 Warthog, your loved ones obliterated or crushed under the rubble, it’s not much of a consolation to be told that the pilots were trying for the mujahideen next door. The horror is the same for you as it is for the victim of a Hamas suicide bombing in Israel. When mistakes like that are repeated time and time again, the apologies start to wear thin. You start to wonder at what point carelessness becomes callousness, and the line between callousness and hostility can be hard to trace.
Now, I understand that if you’re a U.S. Army or Marine squad leader taking fire from a house across the valley, what’s foremost on your mind is going to be how to take out that hostile fire with the least risk to your men. The lives of your men are a lot more important to you than the lives of whoever is in that house, and if you can call in an airstrike on that building, you’re going to do it. And I’m going to try hard not to second-guess you. I want your men to make it home as much as you do. But here’s what our military leaders have to understand: in a conflict like the ones in Iraq and Afghanistan, if you’re killing a lot of civilians, you’re losing the war. Period. You are not going to win the populace over, no matter how much reason and enlightenment you have on your side, if you keep blowing them up, especially if at the same time you are asking them to condemn their cousins for blowing up their hereditary enemies. That’s asking a lot of intellectual sophistication and emotional detachment.
I don’t know what the acceptable ratio of civilian to combatant casualties is supposed to be. And I sure as hell don’t have a good suggestion for that squad leader out there taking fire. But somebody in Kabul or Baghdad or Washington has to look at things and figure out how to kill the bad guys without taking out the whole neighborhood. Otherwise, we’re going to lose. Period.

Sam Reaves

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Let 'em come

OK, let’s solve the immigration problem. Let’s crack down, let’s get tough. Here’s what we do: First, we fence off the border with Mexico. It’s only 1,500 miles or so. That would be--hang on, have to go price fencing at Home Depot... Hmmm. That’s a lot of fencing. But hey, it’s a serious problem, so let’s spend the billions. We’ll run the fence right through Big Bend National Park, ignore the environmentalists’ protests. At the rate of a hundred yards a day, pretty good going for a competent crew, we’ll have the sucker walled off in... Wait a second. Fencing off the border might not be as easy as it sounds. But if we could put a man on the moon...
All right then, tackle the other end of the problem. Go after the employers who knowingly hire illegal aliens. Threaten them with fines or even jail if they don’t double-check to make sure all their employees are legal. Put the burden of checking the papers on the guy who needs to get his apples in before they rot, or the contractor who has two weeks to get the concrete poured. Round up the illegals, all twelve million of them, and bus them back to the border. (OK, that’s a lot of buses, but if we could put a man on the moon...) The resulting job vacancies will be filled by our domestic unemployed. People will stream eagerly out of Oakland into the Sacramento Valley to pick the vegetables...
Let’s get serious. Massive illegal immigration does pose certain problems for the United States, but they are not existential, nation-threatening problems. (The existential threat to the nations of America started in 1492, and it’s over. The Americans lost, and the Europeans won.) Furthermore, the various draconian solutions proposed would be absurdly costly and futile, like, well, building levees around New Orleans.
To think seriously about immigration we have to think seriously about scale. The illusion of “taking control of our borders” rests on an inability to conceive of the distances and spaces and numbers involved. If a few thousand people per day want to sneak across a line fifteen hundred miles long, you’re just not going to stop them all. You will catch a few, maybe enough to create deterrence locally, but then they’ll just go look for another crossing point. When you’ve sealed off all the easy ones they’ll start trashing Big Bend National Park. Large voluntary population movements cannot be easily controlled. They just can’t. Only incentives will do it.
It makes more sense to police things at the other end, where the stepped-up enforcement measures just announced in Washington could create enough fear in employers to make them pickier about whom they hire. But there are costs as well as benefits here. How much additional paperwork can a small business take on without cracking under the strain? How easy is it going to be for employers to find legal workers all of a sudden? It’s easy to demonize employers who hire illegal aliens (and no doubt some of them do it knowingly and just don’t care). But it’s harder to come up with alternatives for them. When there’s work to be done, you hire who’s there.
Furthermore, how much are you willing to pay for groceries? Maybe you’re willing to pay a lot more to insure that your vegetables were picked by Americans. But maybe not everyone has as much money as you. Poor people benefit from low prices, or had that never occurred to you in your outrage over companies using cheap labor to hold down their costs? Tell you what, you explain to the people living from one Social Security check to the next that grocery prices just doubled because we kicked out the Mexicans.
From a purely economic point of view, the case for open borders is strong. If the rich can shift their capital anywhere in the world at the touch of a button, why shouldn’t the poor be able to take their labor where it is most valued? Mexicans are doing exactly what blacks did when they came north in the Great Migration, and a lot of white people didn’t like that, either. But somehow the economy survived. Competition, in labor just as in everything else, is what holds down costs and makes the economy efficient. So if you’re only interested in economic efficiency, you ought to throw the gates wide open.
The trouble is, economics isn’t the only thing involved. There are two genuine problems posed by massive illegal immigration. The first is the rule-of-law issue. If you have laws on the books but fail, year after year, to enforce them, it undermines the rule of law on which any decent society has to be based. It tells people that the law is no longer supreme, that instead expediency is supreme. And that’s a really bad message to send. It makes people who have taken pains to observe the law (like those who jumped through all the hoops and waited all the years to gain legal residence in the U.S.) wonder why they bothered. Whatever the merits of our immigration laws, the fact that their enforcement has been completely ineffectual is a serious failing.
Now, some essential laws are hard to enforce, and no law is perfectly enforceable. Difficulty of enforcement alone is not a reason to ditch a law. But if enforcement is so difficult or costly that we just can’t be bothered to enforce it, it’s time to ask whether we ought to have the law. If the prohibited activity is not in and of itself harmful, maybe we don’t need that law. That’s the case for some kind of amnesty on immigration, some recognition that our immigration policy has simply been overtaken by events and it’s time to reconsider it.
However, there are problems with amnesty as well (such as the bird it flips to the aforementioned people who jumped through all the hoops). If all an amnesty does is let everyone off the hook, it just tells people that we’re not serious about our laws. So there has to be some kind of process for legalization. You have to make people jump through some hoops. You have to say to them: we’re willing to let you become legal, but you have to prove that it means something to you by taking these steps. Then the debate is over how many hoops we make them jump through.
The second problem with mass immigration is cultural. Any country needs a certain amount of cultural unity. We need a common language, we need common allegiance and a common culture. That does not mean a bland cultural uniformity: there is plenty of room in this country for preservation of diverse traditions. But we need a common core of values.
Now, U.S. culture is very powerful and appealing. People tend to want to assimilate to it. Even if the first generation sticks to the old-country ways, their children usually don’t. Left to themselves, people assimilate automatically. Unless, that is, they are actively encouraged not to assimilate. And that is the effect of some policies that may be well-intended but have the effect of encouraging ghettoization and separatism. It is folly to try to provide education and official documents in every language under the sun. There is no need to pass legislation to make English our official language; all we need to do is to refrain from caving in to demands to conduct official business in anything else. People are very good at learning the languages they need to function. All we need to do is let them get on with it.
Our immigration “problem” will sort itself out if we focus on essentials: maintaining a legal framework that allows migration but encourages integration. I say let them come, but expect them to assimilate.

Sam Reaves

Friday, July 27, 2007

Is George Bush a conservative?

Well, he calls himself one. He calls himself a compassionate conservative, which is a fine thing to be and not at all impossible, whatever our left-of-center friends would have us believe. I just question whether George Bush really is a conservative. (I’m going to suspend judgment about the compassion thing.) I used to wonder that about Richard Nixon as well—how a man who imposed wage and price controls and presided over unprecedented growth in the welfare state qualified as a conservative was a little baffling. (Maybe all you have to do to qualify as a conservative is to wave the flag a lot, which is disappointing for several reasons, since the flag is supposed to represent us all.) As for Bush, I’m not just talking about the Medicare Drug Benefit and No Child Left Behind and the spiraling budgets. I’m talking about his response to 9/11, and I’m talking about Iraq.
Now first let me say that September 11, 2001 would have dealt a tough hand to anyone who happened to be president on that day. President Al Gore would have faced the same hideous choices George Bush faced, and maybe he would have handled them better, and maybe he wouldn’t have. 9/11 was a supreme crisis for American government policy, a test by fire and a reputation maker or breaker. And some of the things Bush did were good and had to be done, and some of them I have my doubts about.
The first thing that made me wonder was his creation of a huge new government bureaucracy charged with what was called homeland security. (I’m not sure what was wrong with the word “defense”.) I don’t think that was a conservative response. A conservative response would have been to look at the institutional failures that led to 9/11 and fix the institutions and the dysfunctional relations between them that led to the problem. Creating a whole new institution, and an expensive one at that, is not a conservative response.
Then there’s Iraq, and I’m not talking about the invasion. What really made me wonder how George W. Bush could be called a conservative was the decision to disband the Iraqi army, dismantle the civil service and start all over from scratch. That’s not how conservatives operate.
The best book I know of about why some people are conservatives and some people are whatever the opposite is (I’m not going to use the word liberal because of its ambiguity) is Thomas Sowell’s A Conflict of Visions. Sowell traces the origins of our political views to what he calls the constrained and the unconstrained visions of human potential. The unconstrained vision holds that reason is supreme and humanity is amenable to the Big Makeover. Its proponents admire intellectuals and love big plans. Proponents of this vision are drawn to the various manifestations of utopianism, from mild socialism to communism and fascism. That generally corresponds with the political left (fascism is placed on the right because of its ethnic/nationalistic component, but remember that Mussolini was an admirer of Lenin and Hitler’s party was the National Socialists.)
On the other hand, the constrained vision sees humans as too messy and intractable to be malleable and prefers merely to get the incentive structure right so that productive activity will be encouraged and damage will be limited. Its proponents believe that knowledge is too widely disseminated to permit planning of something so complex as an economy, no matter how smart the people at the top may be. People who hold the constrained vision tend to be drawn to free enterprise and the evolved wisdom of long-standing institutions. They are conservatives. As Sowell puts it, “To those with the constrained vision, it is axiomatic that no individual or council can master [the complexity of social processes], so that systemic processes—market economies, social traditions, constitutional law—are relied on instead.”
Now, if there ever was a utopian project that ignored systemic processes and aimed at the Big Makeover, it was the attempt to raze all Iraqi social institutions and rebuild them from scratch. I’m not going to get into whether this project could have been accomplished if only it had been undertaken more competently. My point is that it was not a conservative project, that Rumsfeld and Bremer and Bush up there at the top undertook something in Iraq which should have made any true conservative’s hair stand on end.
Maybe they didn’t go into Iraq intending to do that—maybe they were overtaken by events and went lurching from crisis to crisis, improvising wildly. I’m more inclined to believe that than I am to think that the destruction of Iraqi society was cynically planned. But I don’t think a true conservative would have gotten himself into that position. A true conservative might have undertaken the invasion, if he believed Iraq posed an imminent threat (he might equally have looked at Iraq and decided that conservative principles ruled out such a high-stakes gamble.) But a conservative would have made damn sure to maintain order after the invasion. He would have defeated the Iraqi army but kept it intact with generous surrender terms, purged the officer corps and set up a reliable strong man. He would have tossed the top Ba’athists in jail but kept the Ba’ath-dominated civil service functioning. He would not have tried to re-make Iraqi society from the ground up. That is the very last thing a conservative would try.
So if George Bush isn’t a conservative, what is he? Who knows? I don’t think he does. He is a product of our political system, which rewards money and inertia rather than philosophical depth. He wound up as president because with his connections and his name he was a safe compromise choice for a messy and not entirely coherent coalition, which is what both our major parties are. Our party system doesn’t promote independent thinking or ideological focus. It promotes salesmanship, mediagenicity and political acumen (as opposed to policy acumen). And that goes for both sides of the aisle.
Most people’s views are too complex to be reduced to a label like “conservative” or “liberal”, and arguing about the meanings of words is usually a waste of time. But when you try to use a word as a claim to legitimacy, you’d better make sure you have a legitimate claim to it. Conversely, if you try to use a word as a bludgeon to destroy someone’s legitimacy, you’d better make sure you’re using it accurately.
So the next time someone tells you George Bush is a conservative, ask what the evidence for that is.

Sam Reaves

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Taking Stock of Bonds

So what about Barry Bonds? What are we supposed to make of this if we care about baseball? Does he deserve our respect, if not our adulation? Or should we boycott the celebrations, hold our noses, turn our backs?
There are lots of ways of looking at it. Imagine this: imagine that Barry Bonds, instead of being famously surly, conceited and arrogant, had the sunny disposition of a Mays or a Sosa. Would we care about the steroids?
Not nearly as much, is my guess. If Barry Bonds were not so personally repellent, we’d be finding ways of excusing the drugs. If he were media-friendly, congenial to fans and popular with his teammates, we’d be rooting for him. We’d be pointing out that baseball had no policy on steroids at the time he was allegedly taking them and that the pitchers were furiously bulking up at the same time. We’d be sheepishly groping for reasons to overlook the cheating because we love heroes. But heroes can’t be jerks, at least not in public. Bonds’s toxic personality has hurt his case immensely.
Here’s another way to look at it: no matter how strong you are, you still have to hit the ball. Baseball history is full of muscled-up sluggers who could hit the ball a mile but couldn’t hit it often enough. If sheer strength were the only factor in hitting home runs, Frank Howard or Dave Kingman would be the home run king. The fact is that Barry Bonds was, even before the steroids and the hormones, one of the best there ever was at making contact with a pitched baseball. Throughout his career he has displayed all the virtues you try to teach: pitch selection, patience, taking what the pitcher gives you. He is a smart and disciplined hitter and should be remembered for that even if his late-career power totals are discounted as the product of cheating.
What produced that extraordinary run of power hitting in the latter half of his career was not just the steroids, either: it was a confluence of factors including diluted expansion-era pitching and smaller retro-style ballparks. Bonds benefited from these along with everyone else. Homer totals for everyone went up in the nineties, and I don’t think they were all doing steroids.
Factors other than innate skill have always affected baseball numbers. How many homers did Willie Mays lose to the treacherous Candlestick winds? How many of Hank Greenberg’s homers were due to stolen signals flashed from the coach in the stands? Because any individual event in baseball is hostage to so many factors, we require large sample sizes to make judgments. And even those judgments have to be taken with a grain of salt. All of them.
So how much difference did the steroids make? Some, for sure. That conclusion is unavoidable. If you’re already a good hitter, extra strength is going to turn warning-track outs into extra homers. It’s impossible to deny that Bonds (and the others who have been caught cheating) saw their homer totals inflated by the drugs they took to add muscle that wouldn’t have been there otherwise.
Enough to disqualify him from the record books? That way madness lies. Records are just an accounting of what happened on the field. And monkeying with the accounting doesn’t change what went down. Everyone saw it. You can’t go back and change the records and make home runs vanish. If you don’t want Barry Bonds to show 756 homers in the record book because you don’t think he deserves it, you have to find a way to keep him off the field. You have to suspend him for cheating. If you’re that concerned about it, you have to ban him for life. If you don’t have the courage to do that, you have to record what he does between the lines along with what everyone else does. If you couldn’t muster the authority to put in place a policy on steroids, you have to accept what happened on the field.
So we have to give Bonds his place in the record book. Do we have to applaud him? That’s a matter of taste. We’re not obliged to like everyone who breaks a record. Ty Cobb was another famous jerk. Pete Rose wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea. We don’t have to like them, but we have to recognize what they did.
Barry Bonds may be a scoundrel, but all those home runs really went out of the ball park. People saw them. If you really can’t stand the idea of Barry Bonds as home run king, the only thing to do is wait until Rodriguez or Griffey or somebody more to your liking comes along and eclipses him. And it will happen—that we can be sure of. Like everything else, time will take care of Barry Bonds.

Sam Reaves

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

My Vote

The war in Iraq is a very polarizing topic. It’s hard to stake out a nuanced position. For some people, if you concede any merit at all to the idea of the invasion, you are a hopeless warmonger, and for others, if you have any doubts at all about the way the war is being conducted, you are a spineless defeatist.
So sue me. Here’s what I think:
Every Iraqi I knew in 2003 supported the invasion. They sure as hell have their regrets now, however. This means something.
The fact that you can make a list of specific errors we’ve made in Iraq (failure to keep order, disbanding the army, etc.) means, logically, that it is possible to envisage a scenario in which we did not make those mistakes. Would things be better if we hadn’t? Almost certainly. Crucially though, what was the likelihood of our not making those mistakes? If you’re going to say, “Not great, with this bunch of cowboys in power,” I’m going to be hard pressed to come up with a response.
To me, all this means that while the invasion in and of itself wasn’t necessarily a mistake, it was a high-risk play. And you don’t bet immense stakes on a high-risk play unless you really have to. In March 2003 a friend asked me if I thought the invasion was a good idea. I said, “Ask me in five years.” So I’ve still got until next March, but I have to say, it’s starting to look as if the invasion of Iraq was a grave strategic mistake.
However, we’re there. What are our options now? Somebody said that in Vietnam we should have declared victory and withdrawn early on. That has a certain amount of appeal in Iraq. We did win— we toppled Saddam. We can bring the troops home and have a parade. Or can we? I don’t think anybody really knows what will happen if we just withdraw. Those who can’t imagine that things could get worse than they are now are merely deficient in imagination. On the other hand, a U.S. withdrawal might concentrate minds wonderfully. And at this point, American troops may be simply drawing fire that wouldn’t exist if we weren’t there. Nobody knows. The situation is complex and rapidly evolving.
I have some sympathy with those that say the surge should be given a chance to succeed, but what happens if it doesn’t? How many more surges do we commit to? How long are we willing to stay in Iraq? Benchmarks are a great idea until the Iraqis fail to meet them. Then what?
I don’t think our commitment to Iraq can be open-ended. We can’t afford it. Vietnam showed us what a protracted unpopular war does to the military and to society at large. I think we need to set our own benchmarks and leave when we meet them. Number of Iraqi troops trained, for example. Get the battalions up and running, wish them luck and start pulling out. We will have botched the occupation but made an effort to repair the damage. We cannot assume responsibility ad infinitem for Iraqi civil strife. We can declare a tie at the end of overtime and withdraw.
The situation in the Middle East will continue to be volatile whether or not we have troops in Iraq. They can have a war with or without us. I vote for without.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Two cheers for democracy

It’s too early to call for a post-mortem on Iraq; while the country may be in intensive care, it’s not dead yet. There is still a chance that a stable and independent Iraq might someday emerge. But one thing that ought to be declared dead as of today is the idea that anybody, sole superpower or not, can simply install, proclaim, ship in prefabricated or impose democracy.

I’d go further and say maybe we should take a hard look at whether democracy ought to be our priority in the first place.

Heresy, I know. But Fareed Zakaria, in his book The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad, claims that the world may actually have suffered from the spread of democracy in the last decade. Making a crucial distinction between democracy and freedom, he points to countries such as Russia as examples of places where premature democratization has failed to produce a free society. So in the light of our experience in Iraq, let’s ask: should the installation of political democracy in countries in crisis be our principal aim?

It’s facile to assume that democracy, in the sense of holding free and fair elections, ought to be the supreme political value. A simple commitment to majority rule cannot be made the highest value. If fifty-one percent of the electorate votes to send the Jews to the ovens, must we simply shrug and say, “Hey, that’s democracy for you”? If you bang the drum too loudly for democracy, you may be embarrassed when the Palestinians vote Hamas into power.

I’d say the highest political value is good government. That means government that polices abuses, maintains conditions that promote reasonable prosperity, and otherwise lets people go about their business. Democracy is not irrelevant to good government, but the two are most certainly not equivalent.

So what’s the relationship between democracy and good government? It’s mainly negative. Democracy certainly doesn’t guarantee prosperity. The backlash against democracy which has appeared in Russia and Latin America is due in large measure to bitter disappointment that it has not brought more material benefits. But democracy promises material benefits only indirectly; it promises at best a restraint on destructive governments. The best democracy can do is to remove a government that destroys prosperity. Democracy is a brake, not an accelerator.

In a functioning democracy, politicians are limited in their folly by one prime consideration: sooner or later, they have to stand for election. Presuming the elections are reasonably fair, the need to take it to the voters means that a politician has at least to pretend concern for the public good. He may, of course, cater dishonestly, disingenuously or manipulatively to public opinion. Ultimately, however, if he commits too great a blunder or crime, he will be punished by being dis-elected. That’s democracy’s hole card: you screw up too badly, you go home. It is a blunt but effective weapon.

If we’re looking for a principle to guide us in our dealings with failed states (or those we have destroyed by invasion) I’d suggest that the highest value has to be security. A reasonable assumption that you will live till sundown is the prerequisite for just about any human activity. If you have to invade a country, make sure you get the security situation under control and provide a semblance of good government (by benevolent military despotism if nothing else) first. Then you can worry about creating the conditions for democracy.

But what are those conditions? A well-considered constitution is generally considered to be important, but even that is not determinate: Egypt has a written constitution; Britain does not. Take your pick. The truth is that democracy is more than just a set of electoral arrangements; it’s a culture. The set of institutional arrangements we call political democracy must rest on a solid cultural foundation that promotes rational discussion, protects free expression of ideas, and tolerates dissent. These are characteristics that cannot be legislated, and they are not universal. In too many countries, the ad hominem argument and the conspiracy theory are the primary forms of political debate. Meanwhile, personality cults exalt the ruler above the institutions of the nation. These may appear grotesque to the Western observer, but in some places they rest on a long tradition of deference to power. The rule of law cannot prevail unless there is a cultural consensus in its favor.

The good news is that cultures can change, and sometimes rapidly. Examples are plentiful of rapid cultural change, for better or worse. And this is where anyone hoping to promote democracy where it has never existed must begin. Positive cultural changes cannot be imposed, but they can be encouraged. Simply removing constraints is a good first step: dismantling the machinery of censorship, removing barriers to the importation of ideas. The next step is to nurture free discussion, to establish the principle that refutation is a better response to pernicious ideas than repression. And sometimes you do have to exercise power: those voicing unpopular opinions may need to be protected from others intent on silencing them by violence.

Finally, of course, all human institutions are fallible and require maintenance. Installing a democracy is only the beginning. Good institutions require constant supervision, vigilance, tinkering, criticism and adjustment.

That’s the real battle in Iraq, and everywhere else.