Sunday, September 25, 2011

Collective punishment

Film director Michael Moore has called for a boycott of the state of Georgia following the execution there of a man many claimed was innocent. With his usual temperate rhetorical style, Moore pledged to donate a portion of his royalties from his current book to “help defeat the racists and killers who run that state.”

The execution of Troy Davis ought to make the most ardent death-penalty booster stop and think for a second; I don’t know of anybody who claims that the criminal justice system is infallible, so maybe it’s not a good idea to insist on irreversible measures to enforce its outcomes. But I’m not going to pile on; plenty of commentators are all over the death penalty.

Instead I’m trying to think through what it is about indignant calls for boycotts that bothers me so much. It’s not just Moore’s politics; I don’t share them but I’m generally in favor of muckrakers and gadflies because, whatever their politics, they occasionally turn up things that need to be brought to our attention.

It’s the blunt instrument that bothers me, Moore’s dismissal of “the murderous state of Georgia” and his apparent belief that hurting economic activity in that state will make matters better for the people who live there.

It brings to mind the disinvestment and boycott campaign against Israel, which has led a number of universities, churches and government bodies in Europe and the U.S. to withdraw investment from companies linked to Israel, cut academic links and even take measures that have a whiff of the bonfire about them, as when a municipal council in Scotland prohibited its libraries from acquiring books published in Israel.

You don’t have to support capital punishment and cheer Israeli bombing runs on Gaza to be bothered by these campaigns. It’s ironic that they are usually run by people who call themselves “liberals”, because I can’t think of too many things more illiberal than prohibiting academic exchange, banning the circulation of books, and trying to throw poor people out of work. (Who does Moore think will suffer first from a successful boycott of Georgia?)

A call for blanket sanctions is a call for collective punishment, and that’s what makes it wrong. Collective punishment ought to have been discredited by its extensive use by the Nazis, Soviets and other models of political virtue. (When the partisans hit your patrol, you wipe out the nearest village. That’ll teach ’em.) Unfortunately the Michael Moores of the world missed that lesson. When a small group of decision makers in a bureaucracy makes the wrong call, hit the whole state. If you disapprove of a nation’s policies (or its very existence), try to build a ghetto wall around it.

Collective thinking is a hallmark of totalitarianism, and too many on the political left still fall prey to the totalitarian temptation. (I’ll get to the right’s pathologies some other time). Collective thinking is easy, reflexive and emotionally satisfying. And it’s stupid.

When the U.N. imposed harsh and far-reaching sanctions on Iraq in the wake of the first Gulf War, leading to economic and infrastructure collapse and widespread destitution, liberals were properly outraged. Sanctions have gotten smarter since then; now they selectively target elites from outlaw regimes in attempt to hit them where it hurts while sparing the populace at large.

Michael Moore and the anti-Israel zealots need to get smart, too. There are identifiable people who made the decisions in the Troy Davis case. Work to get them removed from office and take it easy on the many Georgians who joined the campaign to save Troy Davis. There is a vibrant peace movement in Israel; try reaching out to it instead of demonizing an entire population.

Collective punishment is the reflex of small-minded zealots, an attempt to over-simplify the world. Don’t let them tempt you into helping them.

Sam Reaves

Friday, June 17, 2011

Plug 'em

In the tussle between Tom Coburn and Grover Norquist, I think you have to come down on Coburn’s side. The Oklahoma senator says closing tax loopholes is a step on the road to fiscal sanity; the viscerally anti-tax Norquist says closing a loophole is a tax increase and he’s against it on principle.

Both men are conservatives; the question is a current bone of contention within the Republican party. Let’s take a look at the principles. Norquist is consistent in his opposition to big government and the taxes that fuel it. He favors the starve-the-beast approach, in which you cut off revenue and force the government to downsize.

Fine, except it doesn’t work that way. The spending machine keeps running and you just get deeper into debt. You have to expend political capital on attacking the roots of the spending culture. That’s where the real debates and the tough, principled choices have to be made, in defining the legitimate functions of government and eliminating the illegitimate ones. Cutting taxes and calling it a day isn’t enough: that’s the lazy man’s way of trying to limit government.

No doubt Norquist also favors attacking the spending. But he’d win more converts if he didn’t appear to be defending even the most egregious tax breaks. Politics is all about compromise, and closing loopholes is something that appeals to both sides of the aisle. It’s a fiscal fix that is politically relatively easy, and that’s nothing to sneeze at in a fiscal emergency. The short-term boost to revenue will help stem the momentum of the deficit, and once everyone’s paying what they owe and the true tax burden is apparent, we can set to work bringing our high corporate tax rates down to appropriate levels as the fiscal crisis eases. Close the loopholes and lower the rates is a formula that will fly, politically. Coburn’s right on this issue.

Thoroughgoing reform of the tax system is good sound policy just for its own sake: our federal tax system is a resource-wasting, enterprise-killing, demoralizing disgrace, a fetid sump of corruption. Radical tax simplification ought to be an urgent issue for both parties; if it’s not, we need to ask our representatives why not.

Sam Reaves

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Badgering the Governor

The rhetoric is getting heated in Wisconsin as the Tea Party groups are starting to show up to shout back at the protesters who have been besieging the state capitol in Madison. At issue is governor Scott Walker’s bill curtailing public-sector unions’ collective bargaining rights and requiring higher pension contributions. Meanwhile, the state’s Democratic senators are in hiding, refusing to report for work and thus provide a quorum enabling a vote they know they will lose.

I’m not going to get into a discussion of the issue itself; if you’re interested you can check out the opposing arguments, among other places, on the Huffington Post and the National Review. What I'm concerned about today is the rule of law issue; if you've read many of my posts, you know that's an important one for me.

Civilized nations with functioning democracies find ways to solve political conflicts without violence. This is what makes them different, and better, than places like Zimbabwe and Russia. These solutions rest on the idea that everybody has to follow the rules; nobody is above the law. An important corollary is that rules have to be established by public discussion and majority vote. If new rules need to be made or old ones changed, a process that is itself rule-governed exists to do that. And as long as that process exists, people have to respect the rules. When this idea is deeply rooted, societies can make even major adjustments in distributions of money and power without violence.

So the rule of law is important. And whatever you think about what rights Wisconsin public-sector unions should have, you have to be dismayed that an angry crowd, along with the mass desertion of minority party legislators, has succeeded in shutting down the Wisconsin state legislature. That's not the rule of law in operation. That's some other kind of rule.

If you sympathize with the unions, fair enough. But ask yourself this: if a crowd of Tea Partiers had invaded a state capitol, and Republican legislators had fled the state, preventing the passage of, say, a health care law, what would your attitude be?

I know what I'd say: if you don't have the votes in the legislature, tough luck. You have to wait till the next election and hope you gain the seats you need. Taking to the hills to prevent a vote is not democracy. Shouting down the speaker from the gallery is not democracy.

Opinion on the left seems to be that the cause of the beleaguered unions is a moral rather than a political issue, and thus the spanner in the democratic works is justified. But this is an issue of what to do with taxpayers' money. These are public sector unions, and it is legitimate for the state government to set the rules governing the disbursement of public money, including the rules governing collective bargaining. And just for the record, under Walker's bill the unions will retain collective bargaining rights for wages, losing them for benefits and working conditions.

Another objection to Walker's initiative is that the bill is being "ramrodded" through the legislature without consultation. But there was no debate on the bill because there were no Democratic senators there to debate it—they had all fled the state. Now, the outcome of the debate may have been a foregone conclusion because of the numbers. But are we to conclude that it is always unfair to introduce legislation when you have the numbers to pass it?

If Governor Walker violated procedural rules in any way by introducing this legislation, then he should be censured and the violation corrected. But I haven't come across any allegations in that regard. That's not what he's being accused of. What he's being accused of is introducing legislation that a whole lot of people don't like, with assurance of getting it passed. And that's not a crime or a procedural violation. It's pulling the levers of political power. People do that in a democracy all the time.

The uproar in Madison isn't going to die down any time soon. I fervently hope it's not going to escalate to serious disorder. But if it does, it will be the Democrats and their supporters who opened Pandora's box.

The protesters should go home, and the Democratic senators should come home. They should report for duty, make a principled stand in debate, cast their losing votes, and act like the loyal opposition until the next election.

That's how it's done in a democracy. We shouldn't have to be explaining this to people in Wisconsin, a state with an honorable democratic tradition.

Sam Reaves

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Riots in the Arab Street

It started in Tunisia and caught everyone by surprise: pushed beyond endurance by corrupt and incompetent government, people took to the streets and ousted a long-entrenched dictator. The collapse of the Ben Ali regime in Tunisia seems to have given people in other countries ideas: protests erupted in Yemen, Jordan and now, momentously, Egypt. Revolution is in the air and there is talk of a 1989-style collapse of dictatorship and springtime of democracy. What are the prospects?

It’s too early to tell, but there’s hope for the type of genuine popular upheaval that leads to real change. Democracy emerging from domestic aspirations and efforts rather than foreign military invasion would be an enormous positive development for Arab societies long subject to authoritarian rule. It’s something the U.S. should welcome, despite the risks of less compliant regimes emerging in the short run. In the long run our interests lie with the extension of genuine popular rule.

Egypt is a much bigger story than Tunisia, a much bigger country and much more strategically important. Regime change in Egypt means hair-raising instability in the short run. The Mubarak regime presides over a cold peace with Israel that is unpopular with the Egyptian people, cooperating with Israel to manage Gaza. A genuinely popular regime in Egypt will complicate or most likely freeze what is left of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process (not that it’s exactly thriving now). The peace may get colder, but it doesn’t have to slide toward war. Early international engagement with a legitimate popular government will be crucial.

But a genuinely popular regime in Egypt is not a lock. The army will be the deciding factor, and I don't pretend to know how they are going to tip. There are probably many factions. A best case scenario is probably something like what's happening in Tunisia now, with continued street protests keeping pressure on the new government to get rid of all the holdovers from the old regime, liberalization of civic life and stumbling progress toward elections. A worst case scenario is civil war. We know how that goes from Iraq. The realist in me says Egypt will probably get some form of military dictatorship with some progressive elements and cosmetics insisted on by the West.

Could we see a hostile Islamist regime emerge? Anything is possible, but the protests in Iran after the fraudulent elections of 2009 show that people don’t like authoritarian Islamic regimes any more than they like authoritarian West-endorsed ones. There are no guarantees, but backing popular demands for civil and political freedoms can’t steer us too far wrong.

I don't think there's much the U.S. can do to influence things. Strong support for any faction will label it irredeemably as an American puppet. We need to issue lots of forceful but vague proclamations about supporting democracy and human rights while pulling what strings we can behind the scenes to prevent worst case outcomes. Baradei is probably not a bad horse to back in Egypt. But we can't do it too openly.

The U.S. takes a lot of criticism for backing evil regimes, but it's hard to say what a better policy would be. We turned on an evil regime in Iraq and precipitated a bloodbath. The Saudi regime is medieval and oppressive, less democratic than our declared enemy Iran. So what do we do? Turn on it? Cut off military aid, maybe, but then the Saudis are a firm ally against Iranian expansionism, which is a real threat with Iraq tipping to the Shiites. The Saudis are like the Mafia guys that keep the Italian neighborhoods safe: you know they're thugs but you like being able to go out at night. A revolution in Iran would help, but then there's not much we can do to promote that. Obama was criticized by the right for not supporting the protests in 2009 more forcefully, but then again, what was he supposed to do? Overt American support would taint any party accepting it, particularly in Iran. There's no magic bullet, no easy way to manage all this.

The country that scares me most is Pakistan, which has working, deliverable nukes and deep penetration of the security forces by jihadists, along with increasing intimidation of moderate voices like the governor who was assassinated by one of his own bodyguards this month for speaking out against the draconian and arbitrary blasphemy law. My three-AM cold sweat thought is that Pakistan is Somalia circa 1990, times fifty. In the cold light of day I hope that there’s still a chance of the Pakistani political center coalescing around a figure untainted by corruption and willing to face down the extremists.

The best thing to do is to try to pick out the most genuinely liberal (in the broadest, least political sense of the word) elements in each country and find ways to promote their survival and development. Survival first, of course. The worst case doesn't have to happen. There are enough people in all these countries who are opposed to extremism and just want a functioning state with a modicum of accountability that it should be possible to identify and support a critical mass that could serve as a basis for a workable, coherent polity with continuing liberalization and a shot at eventual democracy.

The external forms of electoral democracy on the western model are not what we should be prioritizing. Real democracy can exist only on the basis of a wide range of things that need to be nurtured first: basic security, the rule of law, a functioning free press, a judicial system with some integrity, etc. Those are the things we need to be promoting, however we can, while reserving the black arts for defensive purposes, i.e. keeping the worst elements out of power. Where the worst elements are already in power, that's where deterrence comes in. Qaddafi gave up his WMD after we went into Iraq. It's a tragedy that Iraqis had to pay the price, but draw your own conclusions. When the State Department fails, it's nice to have the Marines.

Perilous times, but we know whom to root for: the men and women out in the streets in Tunis and Cairo, facing down the riot police and telling the dictators it’s time to let Arab and Muslim populations enjoy the freedoms we take for granted in the West.

Sam Reaves