Thursday, December 16, 2010

What's in a Label (part 2)

You know, [liberal] is a word that originally meant that you were for freedom, that you were for the freedom to achieve, that you were willing to stand against big power and on behalf of the individual. Unfortunately, in the last 30, 40 years, it has been turned up on its head and it's been made to seem as though it is a word that describes big government, totally contrary to what its meaning was in the 19th and early 20th century. I prefer the word "progressive," which has a real American meaning, going back to the progressive era at the beginning of the 20th century. -- Hillary Clinton (CNN/YouTube Debate July 23, 2007)
I've seen, on numerous occasions, people on the left complaining that the right is so much better at creating labels than the left. This is nonsense. The vast majority of terms used in current politics come from the French Revolution, which wasn't exactly a hotbed of Burkean conservatism. Even the terms "left" and "right" address where people sat in the French National Assembly of 1789.

One term that doesn't come from the French Revolution is "liberal". Clinton is correct that "liberal" originally referred (derogatorily) to those in favor of individual liberty. It was somewhat similar to how we would use "libertine" referring to, principally French, criminality and lawlessness. It came to refer to most Enlightenment thinkers (both Scottish and French) and was then taken up in the mid-nineteenth century by those who wished to be free from attachment to current policies and institutions (the opposite of conservative). I will note that in the United States this necessarily means a desire to be free from the constraints the Constitution places on government.

Clinton's preferred label, "progressive", has always meant this final meaning of "liberal". Specifically the origin of the term is with those who wish to free the government in order to lead "progress" towards a more perfect humanity. Contrary to Clinton, however, this has always meant delegating more power to the government in order to allow it to force the people forward. As early as Teddy Roosevelt (and certainly as early as Wilson) Progressives have known that they know how to move forward and if only they could escape the dated bounds of the Constitution they could enact laws forcing us forward.

On to the labels that NoLabels decries, we have Socialist and Capitalist, both coined by Socialists. With the rise of Socialism the socialist wished to distinguish their policies, which looked out for social good and the good of the populace, with those which looked out only for Capital assets and those who held them. You might claim that Socialist whatever Socialism was originally intended to denote, it has come to mean something vile and unpopular and its origin should have no bearing on whether or not it's polite to use it. That might be fair, but it does have meaning. I would assert that most people understand it to mean something pretty close to how Merriam-Websters defines it:
any of various economic and political theories advocating collective or governmental ownership and administration of the means of production and distribution of goods
If that's the case then the question is not, as NoLabels would have it, suppressing the label of Socialist but determining if somebody who nationalizes the auto industry, parts of the financial industry (with the hope of regulations allowing the further nationalization as it becomes needed), regulates the health care industry to the point that providers are still ostensibly private but must do exactly as the government tells them, and rides roughshod over the capital rights of bondholders in bankruptcy holdings is actually a socialist. I think it's pretty obvious where I stand on this, but I wouldn't want to upset David Frum by labelling anyone so I'll stick with just describing policies.

The other label I've seen which No Labels thinks we shouldn't use is "racist". Racist was created as part of Nazi race theory to describe the fact that we should look out for the master race. Like Socialist, I think its meaning in popular culture is largely unchanged and reflects about what modern dictionaries describe it as (again from Merriam-Webster):
a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race
Again I think the question we should ask is not if the label "racist" should be banned from public discussion, but whether those labelled racist actually are. For this I have two questions to ask:
  1. Is someone who thinks people from all races should be judged in all ways without regard to their race, and who disagrees with the policies of the current (black) president just as they disagree with similar policies undertaken by Carter, Wilson, or FDR a racist?
  2. What about someone who believes that certain minorities can't make it without government handouts and therefore need preferential treatment from the government in farming, business, college admission and various other endeavors?

What's in a Label (Part 1)

I haven't jumped on the anti-NoLabels bandwagon mainly because I don't think NoLabels is actually attracting enough followers to be worth anyone's attention. But, because everybody else is doing it, I guess I'll chime in.

I pretty much ignore their Statement of Purpose and Declaration because they're statements that all Americans want certain things that are obvious. Yes, all Americans want a government that works and is driven by "common sense and shared purpose". And as soon as Bernie Sanders agrees with me that the way to do that is by paring back the size of the central government to the limits outlined in the text of the Constitution I'll be happy to support him. Until then, his theory on what works is radically different than mine. They appear to have removed most of the actual discussion about labels from their website, but at one time they were saying that we should stop using terms like "racist" and "socialist" in conversation about politics and politicians. Before we stop using them, can we figure out what they mean, where they came from, and why someone would want to stop using them?

In the late 1990s First Union bank was getting rather famous for nickle-and-diming their customers. They actually had a fee for talking to a teller instead of using the ATM. As someone with an IQ above room temperature should be able to quickly figure out, this was causing their customers to flee to other banks. Their management decided to change their policies to be more customer friendly, but they were worried that they had done so much damage to the brand that people would never come back to a bank named "First Union" so they bought a regional bank named "Wachovia" and adopted the "Wachovia" name for all of their branches.

On the other hand we could go to any reference on racial slurs and find a host of not-fit-to-put-in-my-blog labels with pejorative meanings that paint a group of people with a broad brush in an offensive manner.

I can see why those labelled with either of these types of terms would want to stop seeing labels, but First Union poisoned their own brand and they well deserved the disdain they got. So which type is "socialist" or "racist"?

Thursday, December 9, 2010

State Debt

I recently read a post by Yuval Levin about the dilemma that's about to face Congress on what to do about our bankrupt state governments. As a federalist, pretty much nothing is more offensive to me than forcing the taxpayers of Georgia or Alaska to fund the bad spending decisions of California and Massachusetts or the bad investment decisions of those who funded their bankruptcy. Yuval is correct that it would be extremely costly not to bail states out, but from my perspective it's even more costly to bail them out. The most recent "stimulus" contained billions in funding to perpetuate the failed policies of bankrupt states and prevent them from having to make the difficult decisions about which of their unaffordable services to cancel. What this means is that if California decides that everybody needs a car and starts handing them out with welfare then when they don't have the money to pay back bondholders who financed their boneheaded moves the citizens of Ohio (who don't have a free car) can pay the loans. Worse, there currently isn't any reason to believe the fed will force California to stop handing out cars. And if Greece is any model for how a US state might behave, telling California we'll bail them out only if they stop handing out cars won't work out either.

So this raises the question, if (as I argue) it's completely unfair and unsustainable to bail states out and (as Yuval argues, and I agree) it's going to destroy the bond market to not bail states out, what do you do? I don't know, but it's a discussion we better start having soon.

Monday, August 23, 2010


I haven't read much (maybe any) Heinlein, so I hadn't come across this until just now (and I still haven't read the source material). Evidently Heinlein, in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, suggests that a Congress should require a two-thirds majority to pass legislation (our own requires nearly that in the Senate, except for Obamacare) but only a one-third minority to repeal legislation. That fascinates me.

Our current system of government places the same strictures on any change to government, but it seems obvious to me that not all changes are the same. Requiring two houses, selected differently, to independently authorize (one by supermajority) and an executive to approve a new incursion on the freedom of the populace seems like an eminently reasonable, and maybe even insufficient, policy. But requiring the same to increase the freedom of the populace, even in a way that might be injurious to society, does seem a bit excessive. And luckily we're provided with a fantastic proxy for what infringes freedom and what increases it. The only lever available to government is the restriction of freedom, so all laws must necessarily impinge on it.

I'll note I'm not arguing that all restrictions on freedom are bad. I'm, rather, arguing that while prohibiting me from stealing things from my neighbor's house is a good idea, it does restrict my freedom to steal things from my neighbor's house. But surely a super-majority of people would agree that the protection of property is worth that restriction and by extension a significant minority would never wish to repeal it.

On the whole I can't think of a good reason why I wouldn't want to see bills repealable by a significant minority. I do question, though, whether parts of bills should also be repealable. On the one hand much legislation going back to the founding has been based on compromises that would fall apart if some of the parties believed that the compromise could be repealed later by a significant minority. On the other hand, maybe not being able to pass a bill that Joe Senator would have voted against if it hadn't been for the promise to build a bridge in his hometown wouldn't be such a bad thing.

Thursday, August 5, 2010


I came across something today I had never noticed before. In the closing of Federalist 81 (about abuse of judicial power), Hamilton says

And the inference is greatly fortified by the consideration of the important constitutional check which the power of instituting impeachments in one part of the legislative body, and of determining upon them in the other, would give to that body upon the members of the judicial department. This is alone a complete security. There never can be danger that the judges, by a series of deliberate usurpations on the authority of the legislature, would hazard the united resentment of the body intrusted with it, while this body was possessed of the means of punishing their presumption, by degrading them from their stations. While this ought to remove all apprehensions on the subject, it affords, at the same time, a cogent argument for constituting the Senate a court for the trial of impeachments.

I had two thoughts upon reading this. The first was that modern justices clearly do not live in fear that Congress should punish them for usurpation by degradation from their station, since no justice has ever been impeached. The second is that I don't recall anything in the Constitution assigning such a power to Congress. I checked and I was correct. There are three sections on impeachment in the Constitution (excepting the sections excluding powers during impeachment proceedings from the courts and the executive):

Article I, Section 2:
The House of Representatives shall chuse their Speaker and other Officers; and shall have the sole Power of Impeachment.

Article I, Section 3:
The Senate shall have the sole Power to try all Impeachments. When sitting for that Purpose, they shall be on Oath or Affirmation. When the President of the United States is tried, the Chief Justice shall preside: And no Person shall be convicted without the Concurrence of two thirds of the Members present.

Judgment in Cases of Impeachment shall not extend further than to removal from Office, and disqualification to hold and enjoy any Office of honor, Trust or Profit under the United States: but the Party convicted shall nevertheless be liable and subject to Indictment, Trial, Judgment and Punishment, according to Law.

And Article II, Section 4:

The President, Vice President and all civil Officers of the United States, shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors

Plus one section on the terms of a Justice staying in office, Article III, Section 1

The Judges, both of the supreme and inferior Courts, shall hold their Offices during good Behavior, and shall, at stated Times, receive for their Services a Compensation which shall not be diminished during their Continuance in Office.

Now one might reasonably argue that the arrogation of power not mentioned in the Constitution violates "good Behavior", but I think this clearly falls short of terms that would lead the Justices to fear Congressional rebuke for their actions. I find it rather difficult, then, to square the text of the document with Hamilton's (now I think clearly shown to be false) assurance that the judiciary would never exceed their bounds because of fear of impeachment.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

A Tale of two Louisianas

Though it isn't really what I mean to write about, I feel like I need to start this with a defense of why so much of the right is correct to place blame on Obama for the cleanup of the BP oil spill. It is correct that BP, and not Obama, caused the spill. Last I checked only Al Gore believed Bush caused Katrina, but the cleanup efforts to it were still viewed by the media as his fault.

Lets engage in a little thought experiment. Lets say you live in a neighborhood with a bunch of houses very close together. Bob is a chain smoker and he smokes in bed and causes his house to catch fire. You call the fire department and are told "Don't worry, Bob will have to pay for any recovery costs." So the fire department never responds and 12 houses end up burning to the ground. A subsequent inspection finds that even if the fire department had come out and assessed the situation, the prevailing winds made it highly unlikely they actually would have stopped the fire. Is the fire department negligent? Of course they are. Even if it ends up they couldn't have done anything, they should have assessed the situation before rather than after, as it is they put the other houses at risk that the fire could have been stopped and they never bothered to find out. I'll note, I'm giving Obama the benefit of the doubt and accepting that if he had responded more quickly the Fed couldn't have done anything to fix the spill.

But the situation is actually ever more interesting than that, and that's what caught my attention. In the case of a natural disaster hitting a state the state bears primary responsibility for the mitigation and cleanup. The evacuation plan for the city of New Orleans was not used, Kathleen Blanco did a terrible job mobilizing her National Guard and refused to allow the federal government to take control of them at least as late as 15 days after landfall (which I actually believe was the correct decision, but you can hardly blame the President for actions taken by a National Guard whose control he was not given) and disallowed at least the Red Cross from entering the city of New Orleans. In spite of all this, though, the poor response in Louisiana (note I don't mention Mississippi, they somehow managed in spite of Bush) was Bush's fault.

In the case of an oil spill on the coastal shelf the State has no authority to act. This cleanup and prevention is entirely within Federal Jurisdiction, but the new Governor of Louisiana, Bobby Jindal, is itching to take over mitigation for his state anyway. He has requested on May 11th permission to dredge part of the coastline to build an artificial reef and block oil from hitting the coast. I'll note I'm not sure it's a good idea, but it ought to be a state matter and Obama has had 15 days and hasn't given a response at all. This, though, is entirely BP's fault.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Right to Privacy

As another Supreme Court appointment comes up, I was thinking about the left's signature judicial issue: the right to privacy and its effects upon abortion law. I find it ironic that the supposed legal justification for the central tenet of liberal jurisprudence is a "right to privacy." The left would like to make cigarettes illegal in your own home, to pass laws about what kinds of firearms you can use, to control where your child goes to school and even how you discipline them, and what health coverage you carry. Limitations on a commercial transaction involving a doctor, a few nurses, a medical billing practice, and a patient, though, are off limits because of the egregious invasion of privacy. Not all such transactions, of course, a fair share of the left actually want the government more involved in health care which would necessarily require a government office to be familiar with your medical records and to determine what treatments are efficacious for your present condition. Also not all aspects of abortion transactions, off the top of my head an abortion must be regulated by at least OSHA, the FDA, the OMH, the MHRA, the DOL, and the EEOC, and probably the CDC and the CPSC. And if, as many Democrats want, Abortion came under a universal government healthcare program then every aspect of it would be subject to government oversight, regulation and control, but it's still too private to be regulated by the government.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Overruling the Supreme Court

Andy McCarthy made a post on the Corner today indicating, in part, that he would like to see the Constitution amended so that a supermajority of Congress can overrule the Supreme Court. I frequently see proposals for changes to the Constitution, but usually they're something to allow a faster slide into a progressivist state. This is different. I like McCarthy, but I can't assert that he wants this change for reasons other than to attempt to overturn decisions with which he disagrees, but I think it's a good position in the abstract.

There actually isn't anything in the Constitutional that allows the Courts to overrule Congress at all, but it seems to have been generally agreed, even at the time of the framing, that that was a natural power of the appellate judiciary (at least from what I've read on it). They didn't give Congress the power to overturn the Supreme Court ruling that something they did was unconstitutional because that would allow a supermajority of Congress to de facto amend the Constitution. Unfortunately the judiciary at some point (I think not before Dred Scott and not after Lochner) decided that they have the right to imagine requirements of the Constitution stemming from emanations from penumbras of the text that just happened to support policies they agreed with.

I'll note, I actually think it highly unlikely that this change would ever be used. The fact of the matter is that if the Supreme Court makes a boneheaded departure from the text of the Constitution they almost always do it on grounds popular enough that you couldn't get two thirds of the Congress to overturn them (I, in fact, can't think of an instance where they couldn't get a third of Congress). I'll also note that historically the Congress was the first branch to abandon the Constitution (We know that they had abandoned it to the popular temptation by 1854 when Pierce vetoed a very popular bill for a national program for the mentally ill). In spite of these negatives, and even though I fundamentally think Democracy can't avoid the servile temptation, I think reserving for the people's representatives some way to overturn the acts of an unelected oligarchy in the form of the Courts is better than giving the country over to them. I would love to see the act state that Congress can only do it if a super majority thinks the court's decision unconstitutional, but I don't flatter myself that they couldn't find some emanations from penumbras that suggest whatever they disagree with is unconstitutional.

Monday, February 8, 2010

The Tebow Ad

Spurgeon in his exposition on the second Psalm wrote "O that men were half as careful in God's service to serve him wisely, as his enemies are to attack his kingdom craftily. Sinners have their wits about them, and yet saints are dull." I'm happy to say Focus on the Family didn't deserve that this week. My hat's off to their outstanding effort with the Super Bowl ad. The ad itself was almost content free, but FotF managed to enlist practically every pro-abortion group in the country in making it about abortion. Good job.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Pro Abortion

Most Pro-choice activists are at pains to clarify that they aren't pro-abortion, just pro-choice. I think the current posturing by various "women's" groups to stonewall an advertisement scheduled to run during the Super Bowl in which Tebow and his mother talk about the negative consequences of abortion put the lie to this. I haven't seen the ad (and neither have any of the activists complaining about it, as far as I know) but my impression is part of the current "Choose Life" campaign to discourage abortion rather than an attempt to outlaw abortion. Given that only a Supreme Court Justice could return the right to the states to outlaw abortion, it seems like a massive waste of money to run an ad to people who have virtually no input on such a decision.

Assuming this is right, and I've heard no evidence to the contrary, then it's extremely difficult for me to see how those who wish to silence advocates of one of the choices they wish to leave open are actually "pro-choice". I can see how someone could be both pro-life and pro-choice (you wish the choice to be legal, but believe that abortion is never a preferable alternative. Similarly I think smoking cigarettes is stupid, but I'm not for restricting your right to do it.) similarly I can see how someone could be both pro-abortion and pro-choice (you think that abortion is often a better choice but don't want the government making such decisions. It's easy to see how either a eugenicist or a population growth type could believe this). I have no idea what the motivation of women's groups is, but a dedication to restricting advocacy for choosing life demonstrates to me a preference for abortion, not just choice.

On a related note, if CBS declines to run the ad (and I'd say odds are on them declining) then I can't help but conclude that CBS either refuses to run advocacy ads during sporting events (and I suspect a quick perusal of past ads will show this to be false) or they are themselves a willing advocate for abortion.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Misreading the country

The narrative I keep seeing in conservative (and some progressive) circles is that the reason the Democrats lost Massachusetts is because they misread (and continue to misread) Obama's election as a sign that the country had moved significantly left when in fact the voters wanted something more centrist and non-partisan.

I don't buy it. Not that the country didn't really move left; that seems reasonable. Obama ran a campaign about how there were "no more red or blue states, just red, white, and blue states" and how he was going to start a new era of bipartisanship and openness in Washington. Then he got into office and immediately started a behind-closed-doors grab-bag of political favors thinly disguised as a stimulus package followed by a "health care plan" that taxes high end private insurance (except for Union members and citizens of Nebraska) in order to extend government healthcare to a bunch of people (who can keep their current healthcare, unless their employer decides to drop it, which Obama can't help, just because the CBO says it will happen if this passes).

Obama doesn't seem like an idiot, and I just can't accept that someone who grew up in the Chicago machine is "misreading" the results of his election on a platform of bipartisanship and openness as really indicating the public wanted machine politics and backroom deals for favored liberal constituents. It seems much more likely that Obama is well aware of what the public wants (which is, after all, why he campaigned on it), but is governing the Chicago Way because it's what he grew up with and he hopes to cultivate enough special interests to get himself re-elected.