Saturday, November 21, 2009

Book 'em

President Barack Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder have come out in favor of show trials with pre-ordained verdicts for the men accused of planning the September 11 terror attacks.

At least that’s what it sounded like when Holder assured the Senate Judiciary Committee last Wednesday that he had told federal prosecutors that “failure is not an option” in the proposed trials, and Obama spoke as if the outcome were a fait accompli, saying that doubters would be reassured “when [Khalid Sheikh Muhammad] is convicted and when the death penalty is applied to him.”

In other words, we wouldn’t be holding a trial if we weren’t sure what the verdict is going to be. What kind of justice is that? Inherent in the idea of putting someone on trial is the possibility, even if remote, that the defendant may be acquitted.

Now, a variety of arguments can be made against bringing the September 11 plotters to trial, including the tainted nature of the evidence and the need to protect intelligence sources, but what Holder and Obama seem to be saying is this: the possibility of their acquittal is simply politically unacceptable. And that’s a scary thing to hear from the people at the top of our judicial system.

The question of what to do with the prisoners taken in the fight against jihadism is tying the U.S. government in knots and forcing us to think about justice and the sometimes fuzzy line between war and crime. Driving the debate is the Obama administration’s desire to close the U.S. prison at Guantánamo, Cuba, which means figuring out what to do with the people we’ve been holding there for years without trial.

How can a country based on the rule of law justify holding prisoners indefinitely without trial? Well, you have to define them as enemy combatants, which means you can hold them the way we did enemy POW’s in World War Two. None of them got a trial, and nobody said they should have. They just got caught in the course of fighting for the other side, and we had to do something with them. Similarly, we scooped up a lot of people in Afghanistan in the fighting that followed our invasion there, and we didn’t have any crimes to charge them with; they were just on the other side. We couldn’t let them go or they would have gone back into the hills and gone on fighting us, so we took them to Guantánamo.

So far, so good. But in World War Two there was a definable end to hostilities. When Germany and Japan surrendered, we returned their prisoners. When will the War on Terror be over? Nobody knows. Nobody even knows what the criteria are. With asymmetrical warfare and long-running insurgencies we’re in uncharted legal territory. So we have people sitting in Guantánamo who have never been charged with a crime but whom we don’t want to let go.

We’re not sure how to distinguish between the truly dangerous ones and the ones who just didn't like foreigners marching up the valley, and we don’t know what to do with the latter. But after eight years, it’s getting harder and harder to defend continued detention without trial. A country that proclaims its respect for the rule of law cannot simply go on holding prisoners forever without any possibility of appeal or resolution. And Obama’s determination to resolve the situation has opened up a Pandora’s Box of thorny legal questions.

Some say that military tribunals are more appropriate than our criminal court system for dealing with terror suspects. Others say that these tribunals don’t offer adequate legal safeguards. Of course, that’s precisely the point. If you can’t face the idea of the defendant going free, you’re not going to accept legal safeguards.

To achieve justice in the treatment of the prisoners at Guantánamo, we have to make some distinctions. We have to decide if there is any element of legitimate warfare at all on the jihadist side, and if so, we have to come up with criteria for the eventual release of those prisoners who were engaged in legitimate warfare. If not, they’re all criminals. And if they’re criminals, we have to be willing to prosecute, with all that that implies.

Of course there are, in theory, laws of war, and people can be prosecuted for contravening them. That’s why we put the Nazis on trial at Nuremberg and hanged Tojo. But if we try the September 11 plotters as war criminals in military tribunals, isn’t that tantamount to conceding some element of legitimacy to their campaign against the United States? We didn’t try Tojo for making war, but for commiting crimes in the course of that war. Is global jihad a legitimate military enterprise, with the September 11 attacks an aberrant departure from it?

Not in my book. But it could be argued that resisting the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan was legitimate warfare rather than terrorism, and if so, then some of the people at Guantánamo are prisoners of war in the classic sense. In that case, maybe the best course of action with regard to them is to send them back to Afghanistan and put them in Bagram prison with the other people captured in the current campaign there. We need to recognize that not everybody in Guantánamo has the same status and start sorting the guys who were just defending their turf from the ones who were devising ways of killing large numbers of American or European civilians.

For them, I don’t see any alternative to prosecution. Criminal prosecution of Khalid Sheikh Muhammad says to the world that we deny the legitimacy of attacks specifically targeting civilians. That’s not war, that’s murder. And if you’re going to bring criminal charges, that means you have to have due process, including the risk of acquittal. You’d better make damn sure you have a good case, but in the long run the legitimacy of our system will only be undermined by rigging the trials or refusing to provide them. And in the long run, American men and women are not going to go on fighting and dying in faraway countries for a system of dubious legitimacy.

So I think Obama and Holder have to stand up in front of the American people and say, “These are the people who planned the greatest mass murder in American history, and we are going to prosecute them, and if a fair trial leads to acquittal, then that’s just one of the risks of having a working judicial system. And if they are convicted we are going to put them in prison here on American soil, because they committed their crimes against Americans, and if that makes us the target of further attacks we will defend against those as we have defended against others in the past. And those are the risks of having an open society.”

That would take guts. We’ll see if Obama and Holder have them.

Sam Reaves

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Dial 911 for health care?

The House of Representatives has passed its version of a health care reform bill, and it’s starting to look as if before too long we’ll get some kind of legislation that will transform the U.S. health care system.

I wish I had more confidence in the ability of the Congress to produce good policy, but I don’t. Given the way the legislative process operates, we are guaranteed to come up with something that, while it may increase the number of people insured, will almost certainly make the system more cumbersome and expensive. That may be better than the status quo, but then again it might not be.

The legislation will be cumbersome and expensive for two reasons: the Democrats’ preference for bureaucratic micro-management over sensible calibration of incentives, and the way legislation is produced, in which horse-trading and marker-calling play a larger role than sober policy analysis. Whatever comes out of Congress, it’s going to be ugly.

Will it solve the problem? That depends on what problem you’re talking about. We’ll probably wind up with more people covered by insurance. But I see nothing in the summaries I’ve read (not even our Congressional leaders have read the whole 2,000-page monstrosity) that will reduce the burdensome administrative costs of the system, which are the main reason we spend 16% of GDP on health care. We’ll continue to have a complex, jury-rigged mixed health-care system, and it will only get more expensive.

Maybe in a few years, when the staggering costs begin to focus minds, we’ll be ready for a new attempt at reform. Let’s hope at that point we’ll also be ready for some fresh thinking and a new approach.

The best discussion I’ve seen recently of the health care crisis was in
David Goldhill’s article
on health care in the September issue of the Atlantic, together with readers’ reactions and Goldhill’s responses to them published in the November issue. Goldhill’s article analyzes the underlying reasons for the health care crisis, and suggests meaningful reforms.

The crux of his argument is that when patients do not directly bear the costs of medical care (because even routine care is covered by insurance), moral hazard is created, providers are insensitive to patient (i.e. consumer) concerns, and cost containment becomes impossible. Goldhill compares the current situation in health care to “paying for gas with our auto-insurance policy, or for our electric bills with our homeowners insurance” and details the distortions that follow from that. I don’t know of a better analysis of the real problems with the current system, which the currently debated legislation in Congress would do nothing to fix.

Of course, not everybody buys Goldhill’s argument. Among those who wrote responses to his article was Mike Mahoney of Sandpoint, Idaho, who said, “Throughout history, when societies have found that a service was needed for the common good, that service was created, and people chose to tax themselves to provide it. Armies, fire departments, water systems, police departments—all were created and paid for as the need arose. It makes no more sense to expect only those who can afford health care to have it than it would to make sure you have a valid credit card before dialing the fire department.”

That’s a pretty good statement of the case for state-provided health care. And proponents of a system like Britain’s National Health Service are right in saying that such a system would be administratively much simpler, reducing the amount of resources wasted on paperwork. Of course, there are other problems with government-provided health care, such as waiting lists and constant budget pressures. Any system has to ration care somehow, and in a single-provider or single-payer system it’s politicians and bureaucrats who decide how much gets spent on health care. And that brings a whole new set of problems.

But Mahoney’s letter got me to thinking: why do we accept without question government provision of police and fire services, while the thought of government-provided health care sends half the electorate into a Don’t Tread On Me frenzy?

Maybe it’s because the term health care covers a highly disparate variety of things, some of which are more suited to government provision than others. The reason why it makes no sense to make sure you have a valid credit card before dialing the fire department is because when your house is on fire, it’s an emergency: you need help right now, and your ability to pay is, or ought to be, irrelevant. The same goes for police protection and any other emergency service. We have recognized in our society that in an emergency it’s appropriate to help now and ask questions later.

Maybe it’s appropriate to make the same distinction in health care as we grope toward the right balance of public and private financing. Some medical needs are emergencies: you get hit by a bus, shot by a gang-banger or ambushed by your failing heart, and it’s inhuman to pester you with questions about payment as you bleed out on the gurney. Maybe in this realm government-provided (or paid-for) medical care makes sense, and Mahoney is right in saying that we ought to join other advanced nations in just providing it, no questions asked.

But other medical needs are more predictable and more subject to things under your control, such as diet and lifestyle, and are probably not best handled by third-party payment, for the reasons Goldhill discusses. Maybe you ought to pay for routine checkups the way you pay for an oil change on your car or maintenance on your furnace. Maybe even antibiotics for your fever ought to come out of your pocket, (or your privately financed insurance policy) the way body work after the fender bender does. Maybe the proper approach for most health care needs is to budget and save and carry private insurance for unexpected expenses. And for people who can’t afford that, there can always be a government-provided safety net.

In short, maybe there’s not a single best answer for all our health care problems, and a government role is appropriate for some medical needs and not for others. It’s worth considering as we wait for the latest spasm of tinkering from Congress to complicate the system, because the next round of reform is going to require some outside-the-box thinking.

Sam Reaves

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Don't just stand there...

Attorney General Eric Holder and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan were in Chicago yesterday, doing what politicians do best: making earnest promises to solve a problem they can’t do anything about.

The visit was prompted by something that wasn’t really unusual except that it happened to be caught on video and seen around the world: a Chicago teenager being killed by other Chicago teenagers.

That happens all the time. Last school year, thirty-six students in the Chicago school system were murdered; this year so far three have been killed. The overwhelming majority were African-American or Hispanic, and were killed by kids just like them. This has been going on for years, of course, but the toll has finally gotten so high that it has caught a level of attention that makes politicians uncomfortable.

So President Obama dispatched two cabinet members to make promises. To prove they were serious, they brought cash: they promised a grant of half a million bucks to the local school system to be used to combat violence.

This is pure theater, of course; nobody really thinks half a million bucks or some new Federal laws or a spate of committees and initiatives will stop poor kids from killing each other. But Obama has to do it, because most people’s first response in any social crisis is to scream for the government to not just stand there but do something.

Most people are reluctant to say out loud what they must know at some level: the government can’t solve this problem. It’s a social and cultural problem, and only social and cultural change can ameliorate it. This may come as a shock, but the government is mostly irrelevant to problems like this.

There are many elements involved in a crisis like endemic child homicide, and of course poverty plays a role, as does easy access to firearms. (As if embarrassed that the victim in this latest case was beaten to death, an op-ed writer in the Chicago Tribune hastened today to remind us that most of these killings use guns.) But if poverty was the main cause of this, Calcutta and Cairo would have astronomical homicide rates, and they don’t. And if firearms were the main cause, farm kids in Iowa would be capping each other as much as kids on the South Side of Chicago, and they’re not.

What it’s hard to come out and say is that poor black and Hispanic kids in American cities kill each other because too many of them are not being raised with the scruples, inhibitions and self-imposed restraints that keep people from resorting to violence as a first reflex.

Where do those restraints come from? They come from parents. And the great unmentionable factor in the moral collapse of the urban poor is the disintegration of the two-parent family. Around seventy percent of black children are now born out of wedlock, as are an increasing percentage of Hispanic children, now around forty-five. Most of them are being raised by their mothers, more or less alone. While fathers are present in the lives of many of these children to some degree, in most cases they are not there on a day-to-day basis.

I don’t want to single out the mothers: let’s call this the Absent Father problem. But let’s stop pretending it’s not a problem. The correlation between single parenthood and all manner of social, educational and economic disadvantages is well established. Now, correlation is not causation, but correlation is certainly information. And when you look at the demands children make on two parents, let alone one, it’s easy to see how a poor woman trying to make a living while raising children is going to struggle to be successful at either. Don’t take my word for it; ask them.

There are many reasons why a woman might wind up raising a child on her own: widowhood, divorce and abandonment are the classics. But increasingly, women are explicitly choosing to have children outside of a stable relationship. Some of them do a heroic job of it and raise happy, successful children. (It helps to be a well-off middle-class single mother with lots of family support and professional child care.) I don't want to demonize single mothers. But when that choice becomes the default option, you have to ask if that’s a good thing for the community.

It will be pointed out that out-of-wedlock birth rates are going up in a lot of countries, including prosperous European ones, without a corresponding spike in the types of problems poor black kids in the U.S. have. But we need to consider that a phenomenon like family disintegration hits vulnerable, economically weak communities harder than it hits stable, prosperous ones. If your community’s hold on economic success is precarious to begin with, adverse social phenomena pose a greater threat to it.

Of course there are lots of two-parent households that neglect, abuse and otherwise harm their children. And I’m sure you can give me any number of examples of successful single parents. I can give you some. But at some point you have to pay attention to the sociological evidence and admit that for a fragile community, single parenthood might not be the best model.

It’s easy to say that the government should just make it easier for that struggling single mother to make a living, but we’ve been down that road before: Bill Clinton even got a lot of liberals on board for welfare reform when it became evident that subsidizing single motherhood tended to produce more of it, with all the attendant problems. At some point we’ve got to revive the stable two-parent home. It has to become the norm again.

Eric Holder can’t fix this. Barack Obama can’t fix it. Only the people in the community can fix it. How can we get people to start valuing marriage, or at least permanent in-home fathering, once again? The conservatives have an answer: re-stigmatize single motherhood. Sometimes they’re quite explicit about that, as in Ross Douthat’s New York Times op-ed. Predictably, he took a lot of flak for that piece. (One measured response ended with a simple “F*** you.”) But that’s what moral codes have always done: they’ve tried to make people ashamed of behavior that hurts the community.

If that seems harsh and mean-spirited to you, then it’s up to you to come up with a better way. Be as positive as you want. But you have to find a way to make girls determined to delay child bearing until they are in a stable and economically viable situation, and, more importantly, you have to get boys to invest in codes of conduct that exalt restraint and responsibility.

This is one the government can't fix. It’s up to you.

Sam Reaves

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Why Bill James is Like Karl Popper

I’ve been a Bill James fan since some time in the early eighties. Actually I’m a fan of two guys named Bill James, but this is not about the British crime writer. I’ll write about him some other time. This is about the American baseball analyst, or as he prefers to call himself, “sabermetrician”. (The term is derived from an organization devoted to statistical analysis of baseball, the SABR or Society for American Baseball Research.) I’ve been an admirer of James ever since I first ran across his Baseball Abstract twenty-five years or so ago.

If you’re not especially interested in baseball, you might think Bill James is beneath your notice, but then my wife is not especially interested in baseball, and she thinks what James does is very interesting. That’s because she works in data analysis; she’s interested in what collected numerical data can tell us about the world. And anyone who has an interest in that topic can admire James’s work.

As anyone even slightly familiar with baseball knows, numbers have always been a big part of baseball: what’s he hitting, what’s his won-lost record, how many runs has he driven in? What Bill James did, starting back in the seventies, was to think seriously about what baseball numbers really mean with regard to winning and losing ball games. He brought a trained statistician’s mind to the endeavor, along with a predilection to think outside the box, to look at what was actually happening instead of what the conventional wisdom said must be happening.

This coincided with the computerization of statistical data, which greatly facilitated the compilation and analysis of the numbers. SABR promoted the careful gathering of data by armies of amateur statisticians, and it all went into the computer, providing a vastly expanded pool of baseball data.

From looking at the data Bill James decided that a lot of what we were told about baseball was wrong. In particular, our evaluations of players and teams were faulty because we were looking at the wrong things. Batting average was not really the best measure of what a hitter was contributing to the offense; a pitcher’s won-lost record was practically useless in evaluating his actual effectiveness, a team’s home ball park distorted its overall statistics, misleading observers as to its true strengths and weaknesses.

James asked the question: what individual actions on a baseball field actually contribute to a team’s winning or losing games? His answers led him to buck conventional wisdom, claiming for example that bunting and stealing bases were high-risk strategies that often hurt the team because they squandered outs, which he called a team’s most precious commodity. He claimed that walks were an underrated offensive weapon and that on-base percentage and slugging percentage were better indicators of offensive performance than batting average.

James’s insights were not accepted by everyone. Michael Lewis’s 2003 book Moneyball tells how Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane struggled against conventional wisdom and baseball old-timers in applying James’s insights to his running of the team. But Beane made believers of a lot of people by using those insights to build a small-market, low-payroll team into a perennial contender by acquiring players who were undervalued by other teams but had the skills James insisted were crucial to baseball success.

It took a couple of decades, but Bill James changed the way people understand baseball. Today newspaper sports sections publish players’ OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging percentage) alongside their batting averages, and other James-originated concepts like range factor are routinely used in evaluating players. And James himself has now been hired as a consultant by the Boston Red Sox (who have won two World Series since adopting a Jamesian approach to player evalution), a supreme concession of respect.

So what does Bill James have to do with Karl Popper, or anything serious, for that matter? Listen to James in his essay “Intro to Sabermetrics” in The Bill James Gold Mine 2009: “[The entire difference between sabermetrics and traditional sportswriting] is merely the habit of beginning with a question, rather than beginning with an answer... The person who begins with the question itself naturally focuses not on what he does know, but on what he does not know.”

Now listen to Karl Popper: “...we do not start from observations but always from problems—either from practical problems or from a theory which has run into difficulties.”

James goes on: “Forced to confront his ignorance, [the researcher] is forced to find ways to figure out the information that he is missing... Through this process, he winds up contributing things that were not known before... We are never certain... We are just doing the best we can. Our methods are always flawed, and our answers are usually tentative and muddled... But the difference between knowledge and BS is that knowledge moves forward, whereas BS moves in circles... We wind up with methods that get better over time.”

Sound familiar? Here’s how Popper put it: “Scientific theories, if they are not falsified, for ever remain hypotheses or conjectures... The growth of knowledge proceeds from old problems to new problems, by means of conjectures and refutations.”

I don’t know if Bill James has ever read Karl Popper, but he’s a textbook example of the Popperian thinker at work, and his success in increasing our understanding of baseball is testimony to the power of Popper’s supremely rational approach to the accumulation of knowledge. He's only a baseball writer, but Bill James has a lot to teach any number of supposedly serious social scientists.

So give Bill James the Karl Popper Award for the Advancement of Knowledge, and take one last Bill James quote to heart: “... there will never be a shortage of ignorance... The things that we do not know are inexhaustible.”

Which echoes, of course, my favorite Karl Popper quote: “Our knowledge can only be finite, while our ignorance must necessarily be infinite.”

Sam Reaves

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Capturing the low ground

In my last post I defended Whole Foods CEO John Mackey from the less temperate responses to his Wall Street Journal editorial on health care and suggested that a call to boycott is not exactly a constructive contribution to the health care debate.

Of course, there are intemperate reactions on both sides of the political divide. Over on the right there are people who are carrying out their own campaign to stifle rational debate by resorting to invective, distortion and intimidation.

First there’s the fellow who showed up at the health care rally with the gun on his hip and the sign quoting Jefferson’s remark about the tree of liberty and the blood of patriots. This made a lot of people’s hair stand on end, and for good reason.

It’s not the gun per se I have a problem with; in New Hampshire he wasn’t violating any law. It’s the implication that a federal role in health care poses a threat to our liberty so urgent and so draconian as to justify violent revolution that makes me wonder what this gentleman has been ingesting besides that good mountain spring water. Taken together with the gun, I think we have to say that this disqualifies this particular citizen from a seat at the roundtable. Intimidation has no role in the discussion of public policy problems.

Then there are all the Obama-Hitler comparisons popping up in various venues, from the fringes of rally crowds to Rush Limbaugh’s radio show. If there’s one thing guaranteed to transform a debate instantly from a rational discussion to a shouting match, it’s an implication of fascism. As tokens, Hitler and his Nazis remain the polemical equivalent of tossing a match into a pool of gasoline.

Liberals, of course have been blithely comparing conservatives to Nazis for a long time, so perhaps a backlash was inevitable. The comparison of Democrats to Nazis is currently fashionable in some conservative circles partly because of a book by Jonah Goldberg called Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left, From Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning, which reminds readers of the ‘Socialist’ part of National Socialism and points out similar elements in the history of the American left. But the point of Goldberg’s book is to attack careless use of the term ‘fascist’ by the left, and Goldberg himself says, in the current issue of the National Review, “...I don’t think it is remotely right or fair to call Obama a crypto-Nazi.”

Doing so may be merely hysterical, or it may be a dishonest attempt to preempt debate. That was true when the left was comparing Bush to Hitler, and it’s true now. It’s an attempt to make people’s minds snap shut instead of remaining open for the long slog of evaluating evidence and arguments. It’s an attempt to avoid doing your homework on the issues.

I don’t know who’s ahead in the dishonesty sweepstakes; at this point there are lots of people on both the left and the right who would rather caricature and demonize their opponents than tackle the hard work of calm, rational analysis and persuasion. So when people start trading accusations about whether the right or the left is more dishonest, I lose interest.

I’ll listen to anyone who is genuinely interested in the truth. But if you’re more interested in scoring points than in advancing the debate, don’t pester me. I’m too busy doing my homework.

Sam Reaves

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Is Health Care a Right?

John Mackey, founder of the upscale Whole Foods supermarket chain, has raised howls of protest by saying, in a guest editorial in the Wall Street Journal, that “a careful reading of both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution will not reveal any intrinsic right to health care, food or shelter... because there isn't any.”

Outraged, an array of left-leaning pundits and organizations is calling for a boycott of Whole Foods. Mackey has become a hate figure for daring to publish a reasoned, temperate opinion on the health care debate that challenges a basic assumption of the left.

It should be noted that a call to boycott is not an argument. It is an attempt to punish dissent. If the left wants to advance the health care debate, it should attempt to refute Mackey’s argument, not simply demonize him. Sadly, a quick scan of responses to Mackey’s article shows a heavy preponderance of invective over argument.

The unexamined assumption that people have a right to health care needs to be debated because so many people share it so unquestioningly. And if you start with that as an assumption, much of the opposition to government-provided health care will seem malicious and obtuse. This is a systemic problem: the left, working on assumptions the right does not share, proposes something; the right, not bothering to elucidate the difference in assumptions, opposes it and is accused of mean-spiritedness and other moral failings. This lack of philosophical curiosity poisons the debate.

I’ve said before that calling health care a right is problematic; maybe it’s time to discuss it a little further. Saying that health care (or decent housing, or any other goods or services) is a fundamental right is problematic because it is tantamount to declaring that you have a claim on somebody else’s labor or time or possessions. The amount of philosophical justification accompanying this declaration is usually approximately zero.

The best discussion of the philosophical grounding of rights that I know of is a book called Persons, Rights and the Moral Community by Loren Lomasky. In this book Lomasky tries to get at the heart of what rights are and why they are generally held to be “untrumpable”—that is, how they are different from mere preferences, which can be thwarted without the perception that a violation has occurred.

The entire argument is beyond the scope of a blog post, but Lomasky does take on the question of positive versus negative rights. Negative rights are those which boil down to saying that you have the right not to be messed with. Positive rights are those which express a claim to something concrete—goods or services. Classical liberalism, roughly speaking the philosophical tradition of our Founding Fathers, held negative rights to be very important but did not recognize positive rights. (Take a look at the Bill of Rights for examples of negative rights.) The line of thinking that goes from Marx through European social democracy to modern American liberalism tends to stress positive rights (while being a touch more selective about negative rights).

Lomasky points out that the fact that something is needed does not imply that one has a right to it. Our list of potential needs includes things which cannot be provided by others, like intelligence. There is no logical correspondence between needs and rights.

Any attempt to define a list of things crucial enough to be regarded as positive rights is necessarily arbitrary. (Just a house? Why not a car, if you live far from where the jobs are?) Philosophical clarity gets lost pretty quickly.

But more importantly, need on your part does not imply a duty of sacrifice on mine—if I have two good corneas and you have none, does your pressing need create a right to one of my (or anyone else’s) corneas? It may be praiseworthy of me to provide you with a good by my sacrifice, but that does not make it your right.

Asserting a right to housing asserts a claim on the labor of carpenters, masons, etc. What gives rise to this claim? A right, remember, is something that cannot be trumped. When a right to a good is legitimately asserted, it must provided. Do those whose labor provides the good deserve compensation? If so, how are they to be compensated? Questions of payment are inescapable, and a positive right is economically indistinguishable from any other good.

Health care goods and services obey the laws of economics even if you don’t think they should. Ask the British National Health Service. An asserted right proves to be inextricable from the grubby reality of overworked doctors and long waiting lists. When doctors in a public health service go on strike, are they violating the rights of the patients who are not served? Philosophical clarity gets lost here, too.

And philosophical clarity is at a premium. As Lomasky points out, an escalation in claims of rights makes public problems more intractable, since when perceived rights come into conflict, a judgment against one party leaves the loser with a sense of grievance. It is an advantage to have a clear criterion for rights and make sure that our legal system guarantees them.

As Lomasky says, an important aspect of the classical liberal position on rights is its modesty: since the costs to others of conceding these negative rights is lower, they are less likely to opt out of the system. A regime of rights will not be respected if it is too costly.

So I think John Mackey is right. Now, none of this means that we should not place a high priority on the provision of health care, education and any number of other socially useful goods to all members of the population. That’s just good government. Urgency in providing desirable social goods ought to be way up there on our scale of public policy values.

But calling real-world goods “rights” complicates their provision by obscuring the very real costs of providing them. Call a good or a service a right, and you still have to figure out how to pay for it. It doesn’t appear out of thin air.

If you’re outraged by this position, so be it. But the burden of proof is on you to show how you’re going to pay for all the good things you think we are entitled to. John Mackey presented a list of reasonable proposals for doing that in his widely vilified op-ed. Before you join the boycott, you might just want to run an eye over them.

Sam Reaves

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Dangerous Ideas, Part 2

Continuing to delve into What is Your Dangerous Idea?, edited by John Brockman (see my last post), I’ve been finding more things that challenge my thinking, which is of course what we should all be doing all the time but don’t—it’s a lot more comfortable to read only things we know in advance we’re going to agree with.

With my libertarian inclinations, I had to take a look at Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s piece entitled "The Free Market". Coming just after Matt Ridley’s "Government Is the Problem, Not the Solution", which was of course right in my comfort zone, this essay takes the opposite tack, challenging the value of the free market.

Csikszentmihalyi is bothered by what he sees as the triumph of free-market ideology, to the point where "it is embraced as a final solution to the ills of humankind". He claims that this overreach "risks destroying both the material resources and the cultural achievements our species has so painstakingly developed" and says that things like health, education, infrastructure, environment, human rights, and public safety "need to become part of our social and political agenda".

Well. I had somehow received a vague impression that health, education, infrastructure, environment, human rights, and public safety were on the social and political agenda, but I could be wrong. Let’s take a look at Csikszentmihalyi’s charges and see if they hold up. To begin with, we should ask whether his claim that the free market reins supreme is accurate. A key tactic in political polemics is to exaggerate the gains of one’s opponents, as when the Dittohead right fumes that President Obama is dragging us down the road to socialism. Get people alarmed about the apocalypse and they’ll be ripe for your pitch.

Csikszentmihalyi’s claims seem a little fevered: who exactly is embracing the free market "as a final solution to the ills of humankind?" (Note the use of the inflammatory phrase "the final solution".) Certainly not the Republican Party, which is enthusiastically behind any number of market-thwarting measures, from agricultural subsidies to windfall taxes on oil companies any time the price rises. If Csikszentmihalyi is aiming at genuine free-market ideologues like, say, Milton Friedman, he should be aware that Friedman’s prescriptions have never been more than imperfectly implemented anywhere. (Even in Chile, where free-market ideology was adopted with reasonable enthusiasm, there were always exceptions, such as limitations on capital flows.) And Csikszentmihalyi should actually go and read Friedman, whose temperate (and genuinely liberal) views were a very long way from considering anything to be a "final solution" to our problems.

Such caricatures, of course, are a favorite tool of the polemicist. Csikszentmihalyi’s statement of the free-market position is that it "must take precedence over any other value." Any other value? Who believes this? Who opposes efforts to disrupt human trafficking networks on the grounds that the market must be allowed to operate? Not me, at any rate, or any free-market advocate that I know of. Basic human rights take precedence over the pimp’s right to buy and sell Romanian orphan girls. And it is the proper role of political powers to ensure this. I don’t know of any responsible figure, not even in the darkest heart of the Republican Party, who really thinks that the free market ought to be "the ultimate arbiter of political decisions".

The whole point about the free market is that economic decisions and political decisions are two different animals. Economics is about the distribution of wealth, while politics is about the distribution of power. When politicians try to make economic decisions, they often get them wrong. That’s why people stood in line for toilet paper in the Soviet Union. The proper role of politics is to take care of the things that are more important than economics, such as the legal and institutional framework of society and collective defense against force and fraud. Those things really are important, and they ought to be enough to keep the politicians busy. But they keep losing sight of the distinction.

Adam Smith’s insight was that an economy, like an ecology, is too complicated for politicians to try to micro-manage it. Smith’s "invisible hand" refers to the self-adjusting mechanism of supply and demand. This mechanism is, at this point, time-tested and widely recognized. Even Csikszentmihalyi admits that it is "based on reasonable empirical foundations." Free market ideology simply means the claim that for the most part, as far as any generalization holds water in the real world, in the long run the supply/demand mechanism will do a better job of providing for people’s material needs than any number of government planning commissions. Of course, we have other needs besides the material ones. Those are what politicians, religious leaders and your mom and dad are properly in charge of.

I don’t think Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is entirely clear on the distinction between politics and economics, as shown by his list of desirable social goods above. Some of them, like human rights and public safety, are not goods that lend themselves to an economic market. They’re things that require the exertion or the threat of force to safeguard. They’re political goods. But other things on that list, like health, education and infrastructure, involve goods and services that obey the laws of economics even if Csikszentmihalyi doesn’t think they should. The free market may help to provide them, and inept political interventions may impede their provision. To make that claim is very far from claiming that the free market is the ultimate value.

So I think, on one hand, that Csikszentmihalyi is more alarmed about the triumph of the free market than he needs to be. We’re a long way from seeing the free market hold sway everywhere. And on the other hand I think that Csikszentmihalyi ought to consider that the free market is not inimical to the things he values. The proper mix of public and private provision of things like health care and education will always be a legitimate topic of debate. And rigid absolutism about the free market is no more justifiable than rigid absolutism about the state. But I think it’s equally rare. Hysteria about the dire effects of free-market ideology only muddies the waters.

Sam Reaves

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Dangerous Ideas

Ask most people what philosophy is and they won’t be able to tell you. I was a little unclear on the concept myself as an undergraduate philosophy major. It took me a few years of adult vicissitudes and political peregrinations to begin to understand how ideas shape the society we live in.

If you need a jump-start to your philosophical program you might take a look at a book called What is Your Dangerous Idea?, edited by John Brockman, the publisher and editor of Edge, a website dedicated to pushing the intellectual envelope. At the suggestion of psychologist Steven Pinker, who provides an introduction, Brockman asked a range of thinkers in a variety of disciplines to discuss ideas they felt were dangerous in the sense that they threatened current conventional wisdom or, in Pinker’s phrase, “corrode the prevailing moral order”.

In his introduction, Pinker gives a long list of provocative questions: Did the crime rate go down in the nineties because of the advent of widespread abortion in the seventies? Does allowing security services to use torture make us safer? Do black men have higher levels of testosterone? Are Ashkenazi Jews smarter? Has religion precipitated more genocide than Nazism? Would functioning markets, i.e. auctions, in organs and adoption rights improve outcomes for transplant recipients and unwanted babies? Do women and men have different aptitudes?

Whatever your ideological orientation, you’re likely to find some of these questions unsettling. Pinker discusses the argument for limiting discussion of dangerous ideas but comes down on the side of rational discussion of even the most provocative notions. And then the fun starts, with contributors throwing out ideas like, “We Have No Souls”, “Everything Is Pointless”, “Groups of People May Differ Genetically in Their Average Talents and Temperaments”, “Science Must Destroy Religion” and “Science Will Never Silence God”. You may have noted that there is no particular partisan slant, which is a refreshing feature. Pinker adduces the lynch-mob response to Lawrence Summers’s suggestion that discrimination is not the only reason for women’s underrepresentation in science as an example of how even academia, supposedly the citadel of rational discussion, behaves like the Spanish Inquisition when received ideas are threatened. The book’s agenda is to open minds.

I’ve just started dipping into the book, but already I’ve found ideas I endorse whole-heartedly and others that challenge me. One essay that caught my eye was “The Evolution of Evil” by psychologist David Buss. Buss suggests that killing can be a perfectly rational response to any number of circumstances and that we have an evolutionarily hard-wired predilection to violence, particularly with regard to “outgroups”, members of another tribe. My reaction was, “Well, of course.” Why anyone should find this surprising is beyond me. But apparently there are still people who, as Buss says, “refuse to recognize that there are dark sides of human nature that cannot be wished away by attributing them to the modern ills of culture, poverty, pathology or exposure to media violence.”

I’ve never had a problem with Buss’s dangerous idea: the religion I was raised with calls hard-wired evil Original Sin. But you don’t have to be a Christian to recognize it. What’s important is to recognize that we need moral codes to set limits to our violent predilections. And if you toss religion out the window, you’d better come up with some other way of encouraging people to set limits on their own behavior, and fast.

But other ideas here do unsettle me, particularly Eric R. Kandel’s “Free Will Is Exercised Unconsciously” and Clay Shirky’s “Free Will Is Going Away”, both of which call into question our traditional notion that people are capable of making choices and bear the responsibility for those choices. I’m a big fan of the idea of responsibility: if you fail to hold people responsible for their behavior you find pretty quickly that there are few limits on their behavior. I think the idea of free will has crucial social utility even if the neural scientists can’t quite pin it down. But truth is important, so we have to consider the possibility that free will is an illusion.

I’m not ready to write it off. I’d throw out the hypothesis that free will is in a sense optional: if you believe you have it you probably do exercise it at least occasionally, while if you don’t believe in it you really are allowing yourself to be buffeted by the deterministic winds. Does that mean you have an excuse for misbehavior?

That’s a philosophical question, and there are lots of them we need to be thinking about, because they determine how we arrange our institutions to handle the messiness of human life. Philosophy needs to be more than just an academic refuge for the inarticulate, and this provocative book puts it back where it belongs, smack in the middle of our public debate.

Sam Reaves

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

The U.N. on Drugs

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has gone down to Mexico and conceded the obvious, that Mexico’s hideous problems with gang violence are intimately linked to the enormous U.S. demand for illegal drugs. Unfortunately, she neglected to concede something which ought to be equally obvious, namely that making those drugs illegal in the first place causes more problems than it solves.

The debate rages on between those who think that just a little more repression will allow us to lick this thing and those, like me, who think it’s futile to treat a public health problem as a criminal problem. The current issue of The Economist carries responses in its Letters section to the call it issued a week ago for some form of legalization, and one of the responses provides a good illustration of the old lame arguments wielded by the Prohibitionists.

A spokesman for the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime writes, “Drugs are controlled because they are harmful, they are not harmful because they are controlled.” Well, er, yes. Thanks for clarifying that. Nobody’s claiming that drugs are harmless. The case for legalization does not rest on the idea that drugs don’t hurt people. It rests on the idea that apocalyptic levels of violence, astronomical enrichment of thugs and relentless subversion of legitimate states hurt more people, more seriously, than the struggles with addiction of a minority of users. These evils are the direct effect of the illegal status of drugs and have nothing to do with the effects on the user of the drugs themselves. Criminalizing trade in sought-after goods only insures that the trade will be controlled by the most ruthless criminals, and that they will grow rich. That is the crux of the argument.

The constant harping on the harmfulness of drug use is a massive and dishonest distraction on the part of the drug warriors. The real issue is the catastrophic legal, social and economic effects of prohibition, and there is no greater illustration of willful, stubborn, narrow-minded obtuseness than the refusal of the drug warriors to confront or even acknowledge the issue. The standard reply to arguments for legalization is the disgraceful smear that its advocates are either drug users themselves or are in denial about the harmfulness of drugs.

I’m neither. I’ve seen the effects of drug addiction at first hand. I know that cocaine or heroin or meth can ruin a life. But here’s the thing—so can alcohol. I’ve seen that, too. And we gave up on criminalization of alcohol because we saw that it created more problems than it solved. What is it going to take for our decision-makers to confront the similar but much larger problems spawned by the Drug War? Prohibition made Chicago a cesspool of corruption. Its modern version threatens to take out Colombia, Mexico, Afghanistan...

The esteemed spokesman for the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime continues: “The fact that certain transactions are hard to control does not mean that they should be made legal. I doubt that The Economist would support the legalisation of paedophilia, human-trafficking or arms smuggling as ‘the least bad solution’.” No, probably not. But pedophilia and sexual slavery are wrong because they have victims. People’s rights are infringed. A child is raped, a woman held in bondage. That’s why they are crimes. (For that matter, the laws against murder are imperfectly enforceable. But we try, because murder is the ultimate infringement of rights.)

But when a junkie sticks that needle into his vein, it’s hard to say whose rights are being infringed, even if addiction is involved. The junkie may have surrendered his autonomy to an extent (though never completely, or else nobody would overcome addiction), but that does not constitute one person’s infringement of another’s rights. And properly considered, our criminal code should be set up to protect against the violation of rights, not the consequences of bad decisions.

The usual reply is to sneer at the notion of ‘victimless crimes’ and point out that drug use has ripple effects on people beyond the user. These, it is alleged, are the victims, and they justify the ferocious repression unleashed in an attempt to control the drug trade. But guess what? The list of behaviors that have ripple effects is endless. Alcohol use certainly does. And where those effects lead identifiably to infringements of others’ rights, as in drunk driving, we properly police them. And we would continue to police the identifiable external effects of drug use were they to be legalized.

What we wouldn’t continue to do if we were to abandon the futile and oppressive War on Drugs is to imprison people who have never used violence or fraud against another, subsidize the enrichment of criminal gangs, provide powerful incentives for law enforcement corruption, and discredit the rule of law by insisting that what you choose to put into your system is the government’s business.

Nobody’s claiming that legalization would be a panacea—it would bring a host of new problems that would have to be managed, from increased addiction to the creation of a sensible regulation regime. And we’ll be dealing with the newly enriched drug thugs and their heirs for generations, just as we’re still contending with Capone’s successors in Chicago. But these problems couldn’t possibly be worse than what we have now. Ask the people in Juarez or Tijuana or Freetown or Kabul.

And do me a favor and don’t insult my intelligence or my good faith by bringing up the same old discredited arguments and smears. If you’re against legalization, it's time to raise your game.

Sam Reaves

Monday, March 16, 2009

Mentally taxing

Expecting sound public policy to come out of Congress is like expecting prime rib to come out of a sausage machine, but sometimes our legislators surpass themselves. The latest turkey to make the rounds of the Capitol building is the proposed mileage tax which would replace the current tax on gasoline consumption. This is an idea so bad as to confirm everything Mark Twain said about our representatives in D.C. (“Suppose you were an idiot and suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself.”)

The alleged problem with the gas tax is that as motorists drive more fuel-efficient cars, the gas tax yields less money. And nothing appalls a public servant more than sinking tax revenues. So now they want to tax you on the miles you drive, not the gasoline you buy.

To enforce this, mileage tax proponents want to make everybody install GPS devices in their cars so the government can track where your car has been and how far you’ve driven. Yes, you heard that correctly.

Man, where do you start in taking on this stinker? To begin with, isn’t it a good thing if people are switching to more fuel-efficient cars? Isn’t that what we want, at a time when carbon emissions and dependence on foreign oil are critical concerns? Replacing the gas tax with a mileage tax removes an incentive to watch your fuel consumption. It means if you have to drive 500 miles, you might as well do it in a gas-sucking Hummer rather than an economical Civic. What it amounts to is a subsidy for gas guzzlers. How smart do you have to be to figure that one out?

Smarter than Senator Barbara Boxer, apparently; she calls the mileage tax a “brilliant idea”. But even she balks at the GPS idea, calling it “a Big Brother system”. Well, hello, Senator. Her idea to enforce the law? An honor system in which drivers report their own mileage. This haphazard approach to public policy indicates the fog of cognitive dissonance in which too many of our legislators move.

It’s not too late to deep-six this thing; call or e-mail your representatives in Congress and tell them to start giving the same amount of basic common-sense consideration to the legislative proposals before them that they give to their personal finances. And hope that's not asking too much.

Sam Reaves

Monday, March 2, 2009


Attorney General Eric Holder said the other day that we are a nation of cowards when it comes to talking about race. I’m not sure who he was talking about. Was he talking about Ward Connerly? Bill Cosby? They’ve taken a lot of heat for suggesting that not all of black Americans’ problems are caused by white racism, but they keep on saying it. I think that’s fairly courageous.

What people usually mean when they say that we need a frank talk about race is that they want you to sit still and shut up while they lecture you. Oddly, the people most likely to call for a frank talk about race are usually the most strident in shouting down a Ward Connerly or a Bill Cosby.

The idea that white Americans are all secret racists and that they must be outed before black people can progress further is an appealing narrative for a lot of people. Now, some white people are racists, of course, some of them quite openly. And no doubt others are secret racists. But a lot of us aren’t racists at all. How can we prove it? We can’t. All we can do is go on living in integrated neighborhoods, sending our kids to integrated schools, treating our black neighbors with courtesy and respect, and being honest and even-handed in our discussions of the profound links between race and social status in this country. And sooner or later we’re likely to be accused of racism anyway.

This is one of those non-falsifiable propositions that Karl Popper warned us about. Just as the Spanish Inquisition never let an absence of evidence spoil a good accusation of secret Jewishness, the idea of secret racism is irrefutable. There are people who will never be convinced that a white person can simply and honestly regard black people as peers (which of course includes the possibility of disagreeing with them from time to time). The myth of universal, ineradicable racism, unadmitted or suppressed, is just too appealing.

I’m tired of being a coward, so in response to Attorney General Holder’s exhortation, I’m going to toss out a few ideas here.

First, racism is a human universal and will always be with us. It exists everywhere on the globe and has existed at all times in history. People have always lived in tribes, and modern industrial society, while it has undermined tribalism along with a lot of other traditions, has not eliminated the fundamental human inclination to cluster with similar people and mistrust different people. People don’t even have to be of different races to hate each other. Ask the Bosnians and the Serbs or the Tutsis and the Hutus.

Second, a decline in racism is desirable and, furthermore, quite possible. Racism decreases when there is a perception that people are equal before the law and that nobody is getting special breaks. It decreases when disadvantaged minorities make significant social progress. It decreases in a dynamic, socially mobile society like ours. But it never disappears. Some people are always going to be happier blaming the other tribe for their problems. This is a pathology, but we’re probably stuck with it.

Third, racism can decrease to a level at which, while it is ugly and hurtful, it is intermittent, localized and no longer the primary determinant of a person’s chances of success in life. When this point is reached, that’s about as good as it gets in human society.

Now, I’m not about to declare that we have reached that point in American society. A consensus on that will emerge when it happens. But I imagine we’re closer than, say, Al Sharpton thinks. And I believe it’s a mistake to hold out for the end of racism when you could be getting on with the business of social and economic progress even though some people don’t like the way you look or talk.

The local YWCA where I live sports a sign out front that proclaims that they are “Empowering women, eliminating racism”. I’m fairly confident they’re accomplishing the first part of that proposition, but I wonder about the second part. I don’t think it’s possible. And I think it’s a waste of time to set our sights that high. We should be aiming for something much less abstract and much more attainable—a society in which the color of your skin is not the main thing that determines your chances in life, even if some people insist on being rude about it.

And that’s just a matter of taking care of all the obvious but labor-intensive things we need to worry about in a working democracy—institutional reform, the rule of law, and of course, free discussion. The kind of discussion where a Ward Connerly or a Bill Cosby can be heard as well as an Al Sharpton.

I wonder if that’s what Eric Holder meant.

Sam Reaves

Tuesday, January 6, 2009


“We’re on the wrong side,” a friend of mine said recently, referring to American support for Israel against the Palestinians. “I’m sorry, but we’re just on the wrong side.”

At a time when shocking images of civilian casualties in smoking Gaza streets dominate the airwaves, that statement is going to find a lot of sympathetic ears. It’s tough to root for the side that’s leading in the body count by a factor of more than a hundred. Every time Israel goes over a border and starts killing Arabs, you know in advance they are going to lose the war for public opinion, hands down.

Of course, the Israelis don’t care. For them the only war that counts is the real one, the one that determines whether Israel survives. Israeli minds are fairly focused at this point. And with the death camps still within living memory, they’re a little touchy about calls to eliminate the Jewish state.

Which does not, of course, excuse war crimes, ethnic cleansing and the other sins of which Israel stands accused. Victimhood is not sainthood, and it’s hard to sell the Palestinians on the idea that the Jews should get their land because of a European quarrel. There is an irreconcilable difference of perception at the heart of this conflict.

For the West, the primary fact about Israel is that it exists in compensation for the hideous crime of the Holocaust. For the Palestinians, and the Arabs in general, the primary fact is that Israel is the last colonial implantation in their world. At a time when Syria, Iraq, and even the backward Saudis were gaining their independence from British and French colonial hegemony, the area of the Levant known as Palestine was being settled by an influx of Europeans, culminating in the proclamation of the State of Israel in 1948 and a war which resulted, whether intentionally or not, in what can only be called ethnic cleansing.

“Israel needs no reasons to attack Gaza or anywhere else because it is a state that was founded in the beginning on aggression and murder and destruction and expulsion”, wrote Abdel Sattar Qasem on Al-Jazeera Net the other day. That’s certainly not the way most Americans see it, but that’s the way the Arabs see it, and anyone who does not grasp that does not grasp the first thing about the conflict. There is an abyss between Western and Arab perception of the conflict which may simply be unbridgeable.

Israel is an essentially Western nation. It looks and sounds familiar to us, and it has our sympathy because of what Hitler did. But the Holocaust buys no sympathy from the Arabs, who plead, “We had nothing to do with it.” For Palestinian farmers who lost their land, by processes with varying degrees of legitimacy, Israel is nothing but the foreigners who came and took their land. This dovetailed, of course, with religious animosities, and an unsavory element of anti-Semitism has always been prominent in resistance to Israel, further complicating questions of right and wrong. But the Palestinians would resist Israel even if it had been founded by Methodists or Scientologists. In fact, they weren’t too keen on the Turks, who were fellow Muslims. At heart it’s about conflicting claims to the land and sovereignty.

Why are we involved in a mess like this? We are Israel’s primary patron. We give them lots of money and sell them lots of weapons. Those cluster bombs lying in the Lebanon weeds and those laser-guided bombs taking out Hamas big shots and their families in Gaza came from us. It’s not hard to understand why the protesters are massing outside our embassies around the world.

But it’s also not hard to understand why we have supported Israel. It is the closest thing to an open society in that part of the world. It has effective political opposition and spirited debate resting on thoroughgoing freedom of expression and independent courts and congenial social mores. In comparison to the grim dictatorships and stagnant, repressed societies around it, Israel looks pretty good.

But all of those fine qualities have been stressed and have sometimes cracked under the strain of occupying the territories Israel won in the 1967 Six-Day War. Occupation of hostile territory never brings out the best in a society, and it doesn’t take many terrorist outrages to weaken scruples against ruthless security policies, as we in the United States have found out since September 11, 2001.

So what about it? Are we on the wrong side? That’s a tougher one to answer than my friends on either side would concede. I speak Arabic, have traveled extensively in the Arab world, and have many Arab friends. I think the Palestinian grievance is legitimate. I know people who have suffered, directly and severely, from the establishment of the Israeli state and from its occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. I don’t excuse Israeli excesses or discount Arab lives. I’ve made a good-faith effort to sift through the history and the legalities and the arguments on both sides. And it’s still a tough call, whatever my friend says.

To begin with, there’s more than one way to define what the sides are. Viewed solely as a territorial dispute, we may well be on the wrong side. The case for a genuinely independent, contiguous Palestinian state is sound, and Israel’s decades-long efforts to settle the West Bank and hold on to it while undermining Palestinian authority over the territory can be fairly described as duplicitous.

But there’s another way to interpret what the sides are in this conflict. If you believe in the open society and the values that sustain it, in free expression and the rule of law and transparency and accountability, there’s not a lot to like about the Arab world and no reason to expect that a Palestinian state would be any different from any other Arab dictatorship. When the principal warring parties on the Palestinian side are the corrupt successors of the egregious Yasser Arafat and the suicidal extremists of Hamas, the prospects for an enlightened beacon of Arab progress in Palestine are not good.

One plausible way of deciding which side to support in a conflict is to ask, about each side, the question: What kind of world do they want? I was asked once what the difference was between the Iraqi insurgents attacking U.S. troops and the French Resistance attacking Nazi troops. I said it depended entirely on what the insurgents wanted: that if all they wanted was a country free of foreign invaders, then they deserved our respect, but that if what they wanted was a new caliphate and worldwide jihad, to hell with them; I had to root for the Marines.

In the same way, we can ask what kind of world each side in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict wants. Spend a week in Tel Aviv and a week in Damascus and tell me which place looks more like a progressive, forward-looking society. We have a model for what kind of world the Israelis want, and several for what kind of world the Palestinians want, and these models complicate the reckoning of which side is the right side.

None of which grants Israel license to do anything it pleases. Israel must be held to the same standards to which we hold other countries that claim to be advanced nations. But it should be remembered that Israel lives under active hostile threat to an extent that is unimaginable in the comfortable nations where protesters burn the Israeli flag, and hostility does not bring out the best in people or states.

The Palestinians opted for spectacular, provocative violence against civilians as their principal tactic in the wake of the 1967 defeat, and whatever the justifications for that tactic may be, it ought to be clear by now that its principal effect is to harden Israeli hearts. No nation has ever mismanaged its case before the world as badly as the Palestinians.

A lot of energy is expended asserting and denying moral equivalencies in this struggle— each act of violence is justified as retaliation for a previous one, outrage is directed with assiduous selectivity to the other side’s provocations exclusively. At this point, a tit-for-tat accounting is senseless. Analyzing whose provocations are more outrageous gets us nowhere. The only thing to do is determine the fundamental conditions for a solution that will stabilize the situation. And this solution is going to have to be imposed by third parties in accordance with principles rather than interests.

As paymaster, we have considerable influence. And we ought to be able to articulate the required principles. But we keep fumbling. When Hamas gained legitimacy through an election in Gaza sponsored by us, we then refused to recognize the Hamas government on the grounds that it was a terrorist organization, in effect abrogating the election. This confirmed Arab perception of double standards. Hamas is indeed a terrorist organization, but it is more than that: it is also a significant provider of social services in Gaza, and if we deny that an electoral result confers any legitimacy at all, we dismiss the concept of democracy we are supposedly trying to peddle.

Of course, in the wake of the unilateral Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, Hamas booted its chance to rule with the bloody-mindedness that characterizes Arab political culture. All Hamas had to do was administer the territory competently in order to make great gains both in legitimacy and quality of life for its subjects, and instead it encouraged homicidal hobbyists to lob rockets into Israeli towns. It is hard to resist the judgment that the current Israeli invasion of Gaza was intentionally provoked. Extremism and suicidal gestures gain greater glory in Arab political culture than the actual hard work of running a government.

So who do we root for and what do we do? I think we root for anybody who offers to live by the principles that have created such a clear difference between the quality of life in, say, Toronto and that in, say, Aden. In many cases this means rooting for the Israelis, though there are heroic individuals and organizations on the Arab side that are committed to advancing the rule of law, political liberalism (in the general sense) and tolerant civil society.

As for what we do, we go back to the elements of a solution that are already in place and await negotiation of final details. There is widespread consensus that a two-state solution is attainable. Even the Saudis and the Syrians are on board. But there are troublesome details yet to be worked out, and significant resistance on both sides. It’s going to take significant investment of U.S. political capital.

The heart of the problem is that Israel is going to have to make painful territorial concessions, and no Israeli government is ever going to make them without rock-solid security guarantees to compensate for the loss of strategic depth. The experience of Gaza, where Hamas confirmed every Israeli fear by exploiting the withdrawal to increase its attacks, has set back the peace process immeasurably. There is going to have to be a reckoning on the Palestinian side, and we can only hope that Hamas loses the Palestinian civil war.

But there will also have to be a reckoning on the Israeli side. Any lasting solution will be bitterly opposed by the Israeli right, and civil conflict along the lines of that experienced by the French in their withdrawal from Algeria cannot be ruled out. It’s going to hurt.

But I believe that Israel’s long-term survival requires an end to the occupation and the establishment of a viable and genuinely independent Palestinian state. The current situation is not sustainable in the long term; the stresses on Israeli society are too great. Making peace will be a great risk for Israel, and the role of outsiders will be crucial. We should use our power as paymaster and, if necessary, as preeminent military power, to police a two-state solution. The Israelis will not settle for anything less than genuinely secure borders. And the elements on the Palestinian side that will never settle for any accommodation with Israel will need to be suppressed.

It’s a mess, and our role is not a comfortable one. The real question is: should we guarantee Israel’s survival? If the creation of a Palestinian state proves to be a fatal undermining of Israeli security, should the United States step into the breach? (Don’t kid yourself; it will fall on us alone, as the Europeans are terminally conflicted on this question and militarily impotent.)

My answer would be that it depends on the direction Israeli society takes. Not all indicators in the stressed Israeli polity are positive. A genuinely open Israeli society would deserve to be defended. But then, we can hope that the Arabs would recognize the value of a genuinely open Israeli society as a neighbor. And it’s not impossible that Arab society will itself evolve toward the open society as described by Karl Popper, in which power is under control and rational critical discussion determines policy. The open society is always the right side.

The trick, as always, will be to support the most principled elements on both sides, a thing much more easily said than done.

Sam Reaves