Like the very evenhanded Jamelle Bouie here, I think Sen. Rand Paul’s heart was in the right place when he remarked on the irony of a black president presiding over a domestic security apparatus that, decades ago, had targeted civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. “You don’t have to support Rand Paul or his policy agenda to see that he was right to call out the president on the tension between his position and his actions,” Bouie writes.
Yet Paul’s invocation of race and civil liberties still gave me the heebie-jeebies.
Perhaps uncharitably, I see in it the same kind of ideological switcheroo that conservatives have, in the past, employed to distance themselves from other abuses involving race. Like segregation: over the years, the right has sought to evade guilt for this legacy by sowing confusion over party ID: Segregationists were Democrats! True, but only trivially so. (It was possible, back then, to be rightwing and belong to the party of Jefferson and Jackson.) The more sophisticated version of this defense says that segregation was economically wasteful and inefficient; it violated free-market principles. Also true, and also trivial.
A similar rhetorical trick was brought to bear on South Africa in the 1980s. The Jack Abramoff-fronted International Freedom Foundation held up the apartheid government as a bulwark against expansionist communism. After apartheid ended—presto!—it was apartheid itself that was socialist: a “pervasive system of government regulation, regimentation and control.”
This kind of sleight of hand ignores the lived reality of libertarian ideas in America. As historian David Hackett Fischer has written, the ordered liberty of 18th-century New England was altogether different than that of Virginia in the same period, with its conflation of liberty and the “hegemonic condition of dominion over others.”
The unfortunate fact is that, when it came to segregation, apartheid, or domestic spying before Obama, the oppositionist energy issued from the left.
Too often, my conservative friends sound like post-WWII Frenchmen: we all joined the resistance! During the years between the September 11 terrorist attacks and the inauguration of Barack Obama, for example, the line was that Sen. Frank Church and the left had eviscerated our intelligence-gathering capabilities. Now you can find a positive gloss on Church at Breitbart.com!
Rand Paul’s criticism of Obama from this flank amounts, in my opinion, to an inadvisable sort of concern-trolling.
By all means, slam the brakes on the NSA.
But save the convenient harrumphing about MLK.
Of Kristol’s evocation of the “original Constitution”—and, by implication, modern liberalism’s trashing of it—Chait writes, “The ‘original Constitution’? The one that permitted slavery? Does Kristol want to do away away with the 11th through 27th amendments to the Constitution? I’m sure he does not. But if Kristol obviously does not mean what he actually wrote, what does he mean?”
We all know the drill by now: the “original,” pre-Progressive era Constitution was not designed for the expansive power to regulate interstate commerce that Congress now enjoys; for “transfer payments” or the redistribution of wealth; or, generally speaking, for any interference between the consensual acts of individuals in the marketplace.
I return to it from time to time, because it’s such a perfect distillation of the kind of jurisprudence that infuses the tea party and liberty movements, and Kristol’s musing furnishes me another excuse: Ken Cuccinelli’s legal brief against Obamacare’s individual mandate in the Texas Review of Law & Politics.
In it, Cuccinelli answers Oliver Wendell Holmes’s famous Lochner dissent that “a constitution is not intended to embody a particular economic theory … The Fourteenth Amendment does not enact Mr. Herbert Spencer’s social statics.” (Hence Chait, lazily switching between upper- and lower-case “c”: “The Constitution is not a vague set of ideals; it’s a clear set of rules. That’s the whole point of a Constitution.”)
Cuccinelli says Holmes was arguing with a straw man. Of course it’s nonsense to claim the Constitution or the 14th Amendment embody Social Statics. But could Holmes plausibly deny that it embodies John Locke? “This would have been regarded as puzzling at best and at worst demonstrably false.” So there, fine: Forget Herbert Spencer. We can appeal to Locke (and Blackstone, and Hooker) and basically arrive at the same libertarian defense of economic rights. Sic utere tuo ut alienum non laedas: so use your own as not to injure another’s property.
For now, let’s table this aspect of the debate. Readers know I’d rather live under Chait’s Constitution than Cuccinelli’s. My point here is this: Bill Kristol is a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad ambassador for the Tea Party Constitution!
A constitution whose notion of executive power is expansive enough to satisfy the likes of Bill Kristol and John Yoo should have no trouble accommodating social insurance programs or public assistance for the needy.
I’m sorry: you don’t get to have your kickass policy suite of torture, democratism, intergalactic swamp-draining, World War XXIV, and “We’re all Everybody-ians now,” and also complain about food stamps or federal insurance exchanges.
Tea Party and liberty movement conservatives have every right to argue for an originalist interpretation of individual economic rights.
Bill Kristol does not.
Last summer I tried to tease out the complications of adopting libertarian-populist standards. The self-dealing of, say, an aluminum company lobbying for and benefiting from fuel-efficiency regulations seems, on its face, sleazy and reprehensible. But what, I asked, can be done to avoid such conflicts of interest when there is a public good being pursued?
[D]id Obamacare’s architects desire to turn insurance companies into public utilities as a policy end in itself—or was it a means of broadening access to medical insurance (a goal the public generally favors)? …
After September 11, the Bush administration and a bipartisan majority of lawmakers concluded it was in the national interest to invade two countries. A giant new security apparatus slowly spread its tentacles across American life. Defense contractors and security consultants dine out on this policy sea change to this day. One can argue until one is blue on the face about the wisdom of these policies—but at the end of the day, one is forced to mount an argument about an overarching public good (or ill).
Simply asking “who, whom?”, as libertarian populism would have it, will only you take you so far.
Timothy Carney grapples with this question in a lengthy and thoughtful piece at Reason magazine. After having run through a series of real-life examples of wheeler-dealing, he delineates a set of best practices for industry lobbyists:
There’s nothing inherently wrong with profiting off big government. If the government creates a surplus of deer, someone has to thin that surplus. If government forces factories to clean up their emissions, someone has to make the smokestack scrubbers. If government requires drivers to use ethanol, someone has to make the stuff.
Nor is it inherently wrong to lobby for policies that increase your profits. “Petitioning the government for the redress of grievances” is protected by the First Amendment, and the regulatory environment often chips away at the profits companies would otherwise make. What is wrong is to lobby for policies that enrich your business by taking away other people’s property or liberty.
In a nutshell, the Carney Standard—unassailably reasonable, I’d say—is this: Do not lobby in favor of unjust laws.
Read the whole piece, however. It’s well worth your time.
One of the truer sayings that comes down to us is that “politics makes strange bedfellows.” Coalitions form and dissolve according to changing political winds and tides, and at times temporary partnerships are forged that are at best amusing, at worst, incoherent. The home-schooling movement has brought together anarchist hippies and conservative Christians; libertarians and social conservatives have spent some time shacked up together in their common animus against the activist liberal State; today, Catholics and evangelicals often find themselves manning the barricades against the HHS mandate. The list is long and sometimes amusing if not jarring.
One of the more remarkable partnerships that is least remarked upon today is the coalition that has formed around the effort to advance gay marriage—namely, left-leaning gay activists and corporations. If any political antipathy seemed to be permanent and unchangeable, one would have believed that it would be the Left’s hatred of the Corporation. Corporations, by the Left’s telling, represent almost everything that is wrong in contemporary America—crony capitalism, structural inequality, environmental degradation, worker indignity—in short, legalized immorality. Occupy Wall Street designated the corporation as Enemy #1, and the Left generally begins foaming at the mouth at the mere mention of Citizens United as, effectively, a coup by corporate America against democracy.
Yet, generally unremarked upon has been the deep friendliness between the Left and corporations in the most burning issue of the day (according to the Grammy Awards at least)—gay marriage. It has been particularly noticeable to me as a recently transplanted Hoosier, given recent efforts to defeat the proposed amendment banning gay-marriage in Indiana by a combination of Left gay-activists and corporations. To the extent that the amendment has run into trouble, it has been arguably because of the concerted resistance not by the activist Left—who were always going to have limited traction with an overwhelmingly Republican state legislature—but corporations.
Here is what those corporations are saying: “A ban would tell talented workers to stay out of Indiana.” According to Marya Rose, chief administrative officer for Indiana-based company Cummins, “If we have a climate in our state that makes people feel unwelcome in any way, we think that’s bad for Cummins, and we think that’s bad for business.” Similar arguments have been made by Nike in Oregon and General Mills in Minnesota. In New York, the push for legal recognition of gay marriage received major financial backing from some of the oft-denounced “wolves” of Wall Street—many of them prominent in conservative circles, especially Paul E. Singer, chairman of the conservative think-tank the Manhattan Institute. In Indiana, a coalition combining gay activists and corporations has been formed under the banner, “Freedom Indiana.”
In a period when the Left takes up the banner decrying “income inequality,” it should at least give pause to see them cozy up to corporate elites in support of their most darling issue of the day. Indeed, what is most striking is the not-so-subtle threat that is made by opponents of the Indiana gay-marriage amendment: if you pass this ban, talented people will leave, and even corporations will find it difficult to remain. The same threat that is often used by corporations to compel localities into watering down collective-bargaining powers, diluting environmental restrictions, crafting significant tax breaks and “sweetheart deals” is now being used by proponents of gay marriage to threaten the legislators of Indiana. A state struggling with high unemployment and a rust-belt economy can ill-afford to upset the Masters of the Universe.
Perhaps this is merely a marriage (no pun intended) of convenience, an instance of “strange bedfellows.” However, a deeper connection is discernible. Long before the current debate over gay marriage, modern capitalism required the redefinition of the family and marriage. Gay marriage is only the logical conclusion of a long process of the redefinition of marriage into a largely private, interpersonal bond whose main purpose is the self-actualization and personal fulfillment of the contracting individuals, to be made and remade at the convenience of both or even one of the contracting parties. Read More…
Raise your hand if you’re a conservative who has cited Edmund Burke without actually having read him closely.
Really—you’re all scholars of the Irish-born MP and oft-celebrated “father of modern conservatism”?
Okay, what did Burke mean by the phrase “the little platoon”?
Yuval Levin explains in his wonderful new book The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Right and Left:
The division of citizens into distinct groups and classes, Burke writes, “composes a strong barrier against the excesses of despotism,” by establishing habits and obligations of restraint in ruler and ruled alike grounded in the relations of groups or classes in society. To remove these traditional restraints, which hold in check both the individual and the state, would mean empowering only the state to restrain the individual, and in turn restraining the state with only principles and rules, or parchment barriers. Neither, Burke thought, could be stronger or more effective than the restraints of habit and custom that grow out of group identity and loyalty. Burke’s famous reference to the little platoon—“To be attached to the subdivision, to love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle (the germ as it were) of public affections”—is often cited as an example of a case for local government or allegiance to place, but in its context in the Reflections, the passage is very clearly a reference to social class.
Still feeling Burkean? Ready to go the pipe-and-slippers, Brideshead cultist route and declare yourself a loyal subject of the queen?
Levin reminds us that the context in which Burke wrote those words was a long-running intellectual dispute with a European-born radical, a man who was cheering on the secular revolution in France—and, oh, by the way, also one of the forefathers of our own revolution, favored by none other than Ronald Reagan himself—the Common Sense and The Crisis pamphleteer Thomas Paine.
That the rivalry between Burke and Paine cuts both ways through our hearts—this is precisely the kind of dialectic, if you will, that Levin hopes to provoke in the reader.
Make no mistake, though; Levin is a Burkean. In fact, the most eloquent exponent of Burkean conservatism, properly understood, since George Will circa 1983’s Statecraft as Soulcraft.
While scholarly and measured in tone, The Great Debate is a readable intellectual history that fairly crackles with contemporary relevance.
Indeed, The Great Debate is the must-read book of the year for conservatives—especially those conservatives who are profoundly and genuinely baffled by the declining popularity of the GOP as a national party. How can America, these conservatives ask, the land of the rugged individual, the conquerors of the frontier, choose statism and collectivism over freedom and liberty?!
Levin’s book provides the answer: You’re looking at the Democratic Party all wrong. It’s just as individualist as you are—maybe more so.
And that is the problem!
All signs point to Gov. Chris Christie cruising to reelection in New Jersey tonight.
This is one of those times when personal bias is well nigh overwhelming: Christie—an authentic, half-Italian, New Jerseyan Bruce Springsteen uberfanatic, and a strong conservative by any reasonable standard—is about to rocket to the top tier of 2016 presidential contenders.
Judging by a spate of recent posts and on-the-ground reports, Business Insider’s Josh Barro is an unabashed fan of Christie as well. He even brushes aside the one serious reservation I have about the governor: his proclivity for in-your-face confrontations—in a word, “bullying”:
Christie’s confrontational personality can appeal to all sorts of electorates so long as he trains his anger in the right places.
When Christie yelled at that teacher yesterday about how education spending levels will “never be enough” for New Jersey’s teachers’ unions, he was doing so in a state that spent $19,291 per pupil on K-12 education last year — more than any state except New York and Vermont and 74% more than the national average. … So long as Christie keeps training his anger in the right place, Christie will be O.K. What national liberal reporters don’t get is that “towards teachers” can be the right place, politically and substantively, to train that anger.
This is true as far as it goes.
Which I fear is not actually very far.
Back in 2010, I wrote this at U.S. News:
In the short term, the example of New Jersey’s Gov. Chris Christie is instructive. He has maintained popularity while aggressively pushing an agenda of fiscal austerity. How does he do it? Simple: In teachers unions and state-government employees, Christie has found a juicy, isolatable adversary. This works on the state level, where things like pensions and teacher benefits are significant sources of budget shortfalls—unlike on the national level, where middle-class entitlements are the big driver.
The lesson is this: To the extent that “government” is a sectional entity—an interest group consisting of people who have not had to “sacrifice like the rest of us”—Republicans will find that cutting it is politically popular. To that extent that “government” is Grandma and Grandpa in Boca Raton, Republicans will need to tread carefully and—it’s possible to do both—honestly.
Zoom in on “juicy, isolatable adversary.”
At the presidential level, teachers aren’t going to cut it. Neither are employees of the federal government, whose salaries account for about 5 percent of total federal spending.
Is Chris Christie going to yell at senior citizens about Medicare?
Is he going to yell at beneficiaries of food stamps?
Is he going to yell at families on Medicaid or CHIP?
Is he going to yell at farmers about agribusiness subsidies?
If Christie is a wise and disciplined campaigner, I find it hard to believe he’d do any of those things. And given his recent disparagement of the GOP’s “libertarian strain” in the context of the debate over the national security state, I can’t see Christie getting up in the grill of a Pentagon contractor, either.
Teachers and public-sector employees who don’t want to pay as much for their healthcare as most of the rest of us do are the “right targets” when you’re arguing about state budgets. In fact, they are ridiculously easy targets. They are to Chris Christie what southern reactionaries are to Sacha Baron Cohen.
But I ask Josh: who are the analogously easy marks when you’re talking about the federal budget, and do you honestly think it will do Chris Christie any good to get in their faces?
Commentators short on descriptive idioms often deploy the phrase “strange bedfellows” whenever cross-ideological coalitions arise out of mutual concern for civil liberties. Saturday’s “Stop Watching Us” rally in Washington, D.C., endorsed as it was by organizations both left and right, represented the latest such occasion.
Fresh off a leading role in forcing the partial government shutdown, “Tea Party” group FreedomWorks shared billing with (among many others) the ACLU, the Council on American Islamic Relations, and the “Anonymous” hacktivist collective. One MSNBC reporter deemed rally-goers a “strange political hodgepodge,” portraying their heterogeneity as a bizarre phenomenon that never would have materialized but for the uniquely broad-based outrage spurred by Edward Snowden’s disclosures of the National Security Agency’s mass unchecked surveillance on American citizens.
The rally’s marquee speaker was Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.), and though a tad tentative in presentation, he detailed with vigor the quickening movement in Congress to restore Americans’ civil liberties. This summer, an amendment Amash co-authored with Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) to defund the massive NSA phone record collection program nearly passed the House, much to the shock of the intelligence community and conventional wisdom. “When the vote came down, it was close. It scared people,” he said. “It scared the establishment in both parties.” The crowd exulted. Amash later told me he regarded anti-surveillance activism as an “important” step toward lasting transpartisan cooperation, and reported that the USA FREEDOM Act—legislation to curtail the NSA’s powers—would pass today if brought to the House floor. These developments were buoyed by grassroots activism, Amash emphasized.
Perhaps the burgeoning coalition of technologists, traditional conservatives, stalwart liberals, and myriad others receives scorn precisely because it is starting to get results.
In the run-up to the rally, journalist Tom Watson wrote a widely-circulated essay at Salon positing that the operational involvement of the Libertarian Party and kindred organizations “infected” the event irreparably, and the left should therefore withdraw its support. Progressives and libertarians might occasionally find common cause on narrow issues, this argument went, but establishing anything like a formal alliance is indefensible given the standard libertarian positions against abortion rights, social welfare programs, and so forth.
No office-holding Democrat addressed the crowd, but Dennis Kucinich, the former representative from Ohio and eager forger of counter-intuitive alliances, preceded Amash with a rousing speech. Afterwards, I confronted him with Watson’s challenge: ought the robust presence of libertarian groups, some expressly affiliated with the GOP, taint the rally and its message in the eyes of progressives? Kucinich was unmoved. “The Constitution belongs to everyone, whatever their political party, whatever their ideology,” he said. “Everyone deserves the protection of the first and fourth amendments. I said it today—we’re not here as partisans. We’re here as Americans.”
The modern Democratic Party itself is a diffuse coalition of interest groups and factions bound together by little beyond raw political expediency. Why is it defensible for “progressives” of Watson’s ilk to work within a party structure dominated by pro-military intervention corporatists—yet working with libertarians is considered a nonstarter?
Throughout U.S. history, nascent populist-oriented coalitions have always been cobbled together messily, and the left-libertarian anti-surveillance lobby is of course no exception. “Part of what we’re trying to do is set out a new model,” said rally organizer JJ Emru when asked to react to Waston’s line of thinking. “To say, if we overcome some of our differences, we can definitely achieve this.”
If nothing else, efforts like Stop Watching Us have the effect of scrambling party allegiances and creating room for unorthodox coalition-building that can challenge the status quo. In the world of Washington commentary, bipartisan cooperation is lauded as healthy and serious, if it involves “compromises” to expand the national security state or cut spending on entitlements. An alliance featuring the likes of Amash and Kucinich is little more than a fleeting convergence of “strange bedfellows.”
With today’s formal introduction of the USA FREEDOM Act by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Patriot Act author Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wisc.), the convergence appears to be more than fleeting. Beyond just reining in the NSA, these “strange bedfellows” are redefining what it means to work across the aisle.
Care to give the IRS a lift?
Or at least, your local state revenue service. The Los Angeles Times reported over the weekend that many states are starting to turn to tracking technologies in an effort to more efficiently tax drivers for the upkeep of roads and highways:
The push comes as the country’s Highway Trust Fund, financed with taxes Americans pay at the gas pump, is broke. Americans don’t buy as much gas as they used to. Cars get many more miles to the gallon. The federal tax itself, 18.4 cents per gallon, hasn’t gone up in 20 years. Politicians are loath to raise the tax even one penny when gas prices are high.
Clearly, roads need to be maintained, and that will usually cost coin. For while Rousseau may have said that the true citizen would, out of love for and investment in his republic, prefer to labor on the roads himself than merely shell out some cash, I suspect that very few of us would take to the highways today, high-visibility jacket in tow.
That tax has often come from the sale of gasoline, since the cars using the roads have run on liquefied and refined dead dinosaurs. As the high cost of gasoline and increases in car efficiency have depressed the growth of gas sales, and as the future may see more electric cars that use no gas whatsoever hit the highways, transportation departments are rightfully considering alternative options.
A mileage tax is among the proposed alternatives, where cars are fitted with a device that monitors how many miles have been driven, and you are taxed on that number. It is an extension of the gas tax principle that taxes should be tailored so as to have the people using a service pay for it. For that reason, the monitoring option has attracted the support of libertarians, including Reason Foundation’s vice president of policy, Adrian Moore, who the LAT quotes as explaining, ”This is not just a tax going into a black hole … People are paying more directly into what they are getting.”
Urban planners and city officials also see great potential in the devices. New York City “transportation officials are seeking to develop a taxing device that would also be equipped to pay parking meter fees, provide “pay-as-you-drive” insurance, and create a pool of real-time speed data from other drivers that motorists could use to avoid traffic,” by including both location and speed tracking.
In the post-Snowden world, though, with more attention than ever being given to just how much data—and metadata—on us is out there, even seemingly innocuous governmental collection systems like these mileage counters immediately raise eyebrows. The CEO of True Mileage, which produces a barebones mileage counter, says “People will be more willing to do this if you do not track their speed and you do not track their location…There have been some big mistakes in some of these state pilot programs. There are a lot less expensive and less intrusive ways to do this.” With the ACLU and other privacy groups, not to mention consumers being asked to participate in pilot programs, voicing concerns about the tracking, states may just go with the dumb counters.
Yet forgoing that additional information interferes with the principle driving the entire process—connecting taxation more directly to use. Should a state fit their citizen’s cars with monitors that lack a location tracking mechanism, any interstate road trip would be taxed at the same rate as intrastate travel, despite not using the roads those tax dollars are intended to fund. Should those monitors become prevalent one could hope that it would all average out, but high-travel states would collect disproportionately high taxes at the expense of their citizen’s driving destinations.
This small case study, regarding something as mundane as highway funding, may pull the curtain back on a certain inherent tension within libertarian thought. Libertarians favor a very individualistic taxation system where as much of the burden as possible is concentrated on the users. To impose an additional slight hike in the state income tax to pay for roads would be unjust, as it would require the metro rider to subsidize the driver’s travel preferences.
Yet the desire to individualize taxation effectively would seem to necessitate more and more intrusive monitoring systems, so that the state can assess who it should tax, for what. That monitoring raises substantial privacy concerns and exposes information about private habits to governmental access where it could easily be subject to abuse.
By seeking to dissolve the idea of collective responsibility for infrastructure, the obscuring anonymity of the crowd likewise dissolves and hollows out, exposing the individual, personally and in all their particularity, directly to the state.
I’m beginning to notice a pattern among the anti-crony-capitalist set.
They’ve adopted a view of the interaction between government and business that is manichean at best, New Leftism in conservative drag at worst.
National Review’s Jonathan Strong passed on this thought from Rep. Raul Labrador:
Great pt from Labrador that media has derided tea party for not being under Wall St’s thumb while normally they fret about $ in politics
— Jonathan Strong (@j_strong) October 16, 2013
Now there’s no middle ground between being in the pocket of big business and not blowing up the global financial system.
And yesterday, Forbes’s James Poulos mused that Sen. Ted Cruz was waging a quixotic battle against both Big Finance and Big Government:
Orderly non-default would go a long way to prove to Americans that our complex financial-political system does not need to run things. Who needs the Fed? We don’t even need to raise the debt limit! You can imagine the fallout. It seems impossible to me that Wall Street and the world’s key money elites would ever even consider throwing in the towel on this level. If the financial elite loses the popular perception that they and their ways are essential to basic economic order, the jig is up. And if you can bet on one thing, it’s that the financial elite isn’t going to opt for the jig to be up.
That’s why I rate it extraordinarily likely Cruz and Company will be whipped and the debt limit raised. They thought they could take on big government and big business without any radical-left allies. My expectation is that, come the end of this non-crisis, that was their only miscalculation that mattered.
Again, this notion that preventing a default on our national debt is some kind of sop to Wall Street. By all means, let’s have a debate about the financialization of the American economy. But let’s do so without bringing the system to ruin and hurting millions of ordinary participants of the real economy, shall we?
The Washington Examiner’s Tim Carney, bless his conflicted heart, wrote a column recently lamenting that a repeal of Obamacare’s medical device tax was the only concession Republicans would win in the shutdown/debt ceiling standoff. He acknowledges that the tax is “bad,” and that “Congress is correct to repeal it”—but then spends the rest of the column making a nearly airtight case for why the tax should remain in effect. (Read the piece from the sixth paragraph on, and tell me I’m exaggerating.)
The libertarian-populist take on the medical device tax was shared by enough Republicans that language to repeal it was actually stripped out of the House leadership’s final attempt at a bill to reopen the government and raise the debt ceiling.
Finally, this morning I made it about a fourth of the way through Kevin D. Williamson’s piece on the tempest-in-a-teapot controversy over the closing of national monuments during the shutdown. He writes, jauntily, “Every American has a little sedition in his soul, and this is a very good time to give it free rein.” To be charitable, Williamson has in mind Thoreauvian civil disobedience here, not outright sedition, but all the same, I find the whole tone utterly disturbing.
RedState’s Erick Erickson actually wrote the following sentence with a straight face: “Mitch McConnell is the single obstacle we have this week to taking our country back from the death spiral instigated by Obama and his merry band of community organizers.”
This talk of death spirals, storming barricades, of cleaning the Augean Stables of K Street, of exposing the naked emperors of Wall Street, of constitutional conventions—it seems painfully apparent to me that many folks on the right are suffering from radicalism envy. They are drama queens of the apocalypse.
Movement conservatism has always been half-crazy.
Lately it’s more like three-quarters crazy.
First of all, I’m jealous that Reason’s Nick Gillespie and Matt Welch got to confront, personally and at considerable length, George Will about his evolution from strong-government Tory conservative to the more libertarian-inclined one we’ve become accustomed to of late. This topic has been a hobbyhorse of mine; earlier this year I proffered a few of my own theories as to why Will had shifted, gradually but markedly, over the course of the last 20 years. The hourlong conversation, embedded above, is fascinating, revealing, and well worth your time.
Will’s explanation is at once reassuring and underwhelming. He either hasn’t changed as much as you or I might think—or he’s just terribly, terribly conflicted.
Almost immediately, Gillespie broaches the startling-sounding claim of Will’s that government can’t help but be in the “soulcraft” business; even a self-styled libertarian government that constitutionally limits itself so as to interfere as little as possible with the voluntary transactions and interactions between its citizens, he asserts, is going to end up cultivating and reinforcing certain norms and patterns of behavior. Will insists he still believes this to be the case—and bluntly tells Gillespie that “I think you do too.”
So, even after all this “libertarian evolution” business, Will hasn’t retreated from the central thesis of Statecraft as Soulcraft—the 1983 evisceration of Manchester liberalism that got Will tagged as a big-government conservative in the first place.
Later, Will sounds not a little like David Brooks, Michael Lind, Jim Pinkerton and others from the Hamiltonian wing of the right. He laments the decrepit state of our public infrastructure. He wants more funding for basic science and research. He says he’d like to double the budget of the National Institutes of Health. He misses the old days of Americans’ can-do optimism, of the rigorous pursuit of the public good, as opposed to today’s “sagging” spirit and collective malaise. He rejects the idea of a “severe” nightwatchman state and says, anyway, we’re “never going back” to small government. During this riff, and not for the last time, Will quotes his old pal, the late Sen. Pat Moynihan, the neoconservative turned conventional liberal Democrat.
If this is “libertarian evolution,” well, I guess I’m evolving into a libertarian too.
Speaking of state interference into consensual transactions between citizens, Will proposes a commonsense standard to measure whether it’s advisable: is there a “defensible reason” for doing so, or is it being done at the behest of a persistent faction at the expense of the general good of the public?
This sounds like a conservative pragmatist talking—and quite unlike the George Will who, later in the interview, defends conservative judicial activism in striking down laws that go beyond the enumerated powers of the federal government. Which is it, then: do lawmakers need merely a “defensible reason” to interfere (say, to curb pollution or some other externality)—or do those defensible reasons melt under the exacting heat of the constitutional text?
Will also appears to suffer from the very malady he often attributes to the public: cognitive dissonance. On one hand, Americans are rhetorical Jeffersonians and operational Hamiltonians; they adore abstract talk of balanced budgets and limited government, but in reality they jealously guard our low-tax/high-service big-government-on-the-cheap regime. At one point, Will says, “Everyone is on the take.” (These are assertions I happen to agree with in full.)
But then he lapses into the vulgar libertarian populism of the moment: big government is the handmaiden of the strong; ordinary people feel like the system is stacked against them—and they’re right!
Nope, sorry; the system can’t be stacked against the little guy if “everyone is on the take” and transfer payments, as Will notes despairingly, comprise such an outsize portion of the federal budget.
What clearly bugs Will is a gut-level disdain for the officious pointy-headed technocrats, bureaucrats, and academics who desire to micromanage our lives and, in their social broadmindedness and studied virtues of tolerance, feel good about themselves while doing so. Barack Obama, squire of the other Hyde Park, is Woodrow Wilson, former president of Princeton University, where Will earned his Ph.D., reborn. This is the most deeply felt sentiment of late Will. He was reared in academia and, if not for a chance job opportunity in the U.S. Senate, probably would have continued working in it himself.
Will is a pointy head who loathes pointy heads.
If you substitute “pointy heads” for big government, Will’s intellectual evolution begins to make perfect sense. His newfound libertarianism isn’t theoretical so much as it’s personal. He’s basically the same George Will—just older and crankier.